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09.03.2020

Is A Commons Possible Under Neoliberalism?

Facing the systematic precarization of Mexico City’s art field, the researcher and artist Tamara Ibarra, the publisher Nicolás Pradilla y Diego del Valle Ríos, editor of Terremoto, question the possibility of an organized resistance as an art union.

Diego del Valle Ríos: I would like to begin this conversation by thinking about the idea of sharing as a basic form of economy. As members of artistic communities, we must question ourselves about the resources we share in as much as their flow and rhythm help us to understand the organizing principle that conditions our collective artistic and intellectual work.
In the last 20 years, the contemporary art system in Mexico has expanded rapidly. This abundance has made new meetings and systems of support possible through exchange. However, I agree with Nicolás [Pradilla], who in a recent talk at Biquini Wax called attention to the transfer of roles through a generational relay of sorts, in which newly formed communities reduce themselves to replicating those models and structures already defined before them by their predecessors without altering them. In other words, the micropolitics of our cultural work are not disruptive. So I wonder, in what ways does the economy in which we come together condition and neuter the possibility of self-organization?
Tamara Ibarra: I will start from a recent project that helped me to develop some reflections. Talleres Fresno 301—an independent, communal space located in the public high school “Mártires de Tlatelolco” (Martyrs of Tlatelolco) in the Colonia Atlampa in Mexico City. In 2015, Francisco Villa, the proprietor of the building invited the artist Marcos González “Foreman” to be a tenant with his workshop. In 2019, the opportunity arose for “Foreman” to share the top floor with colleagues’ projects. Eleven rooms are currently occupied: eleven are production studios (used by 14 artists)[1] and four are devoted to independent projects.[2] The current tenants came there propelled by the speculative real estate market that has transformed the center of the city.                     
During my visit, I was shown around by the artist Ling Sepúlveda, who manages Almendro,[3] an artist residency in Culiacán, Sinaloa. In the north of Mexico, it is located on a ranch, which allows them to take advantage of the earth and the sowing season to offer different opportunities for artistic production. Drawing from her experience, Ling expressed the importance of placing value on the socio-spatial resources that the school building offers—its expansive size, the field, the school furniture, even the students and teachers whom one encounters there. Ling’s point of view allows us to take a critical distance from the narrative of independent spaces as they relate to precarity and privilege in order to valorize the resources that we depend on and transform them into a socio-political tool. 
Because most of the independent spaces in Mexico City are primarily dedicated to exhibitions, there was a stage in which our relationships to government institutions—in this case, museums—were strengthened. By legitimizing us, these institutions collaborated in the opening up of financial pathways through grants and philanthropy. This legitimacy collaterally aided in the consolidation of the market. The current stage that we find ourselves in with government institutions—here, I am referring to Mexico City’s Secretary of Culture—is one in which they are attempting to legalize independent spaces, a process through which they hope to be able to regulate us.[4] This will ignite a conflict over the economic status of independent spaces with regards to tax collection.
Thus, it seems to me that Talleres Fresno 301 could offer a critical and practical example of distancing from the forms that delineate the abuse of the impending regulatory laws: organized in a private space and shared among several different collectives and entities, it is less vulnerable than other independent spaces where a single collective rents a house to people who disavow the political, social, and artistic value of such spaces.

Nicolás Pradilla: There are two things that have been mentioned that I think are red flags. The first is the assumption of a notion of time that is homogenous and linear, through which we move in stages. This idea ignores a complex matrix of organizing and contextualizing particularities and its problems. The two examples that were mentioned, Talleres Fresno 301 and Almendro, are responding to particularities that one cannot interpret solely through the lens of privilege and access. The second is the assumption that there is a community, an assumption that is made without asking ourselves what we are referring to when we use that term.
On another note, we tend to overemphasize the importance of the field of art and, in many cases, to assume that it is a totality defined by opposites. Historically, we establish relationships that make it difficult to think in an isolated field, in a separation defined by the binary of “institution” or “independence.” Our political education is marked by intersections that blur such notions embedded in relations of mutual usufruct in a network of agents and interests that involve diverse government and private institutions, as well as individuals—all of us relating as instruments in the quest for budgets, infrastructure, legitimacy, and visibility.
Thinking about these relationships based around obtaining benefits, it is important to question the idea of community, a word we have overused to the point that it no longer has any real meaning; I doubt that the relationships we have established up until now actually allow for the creation of a commons. In the face of the cuts in funding to cultural projects, public and private institutions are competing for the same funds. At the risk of generalizing, it seems to me that that “artistic community” which proclaims itself to be “independent” is an economic branch of precarious entrepreneurism in the hunt for privileges. Yet this does not preclude the possibility of the existence of disinterested relationships of solidarity.

 Do you think a reconsideration of communitarian meaning is possible if we reduce individual working hours in order to accelerate collective organization with the goal of opening micropolitical spaces of assembly?

TI: Speaking about stages allows us to identify certain organizing structures that affect independent spaces in Mexico City, structures through which the symbolic value of the shared form is generated. The regulation of independent spaces by the government—if it does happen—will (re)configure the value of symbolic-cognitive resources in a specific way. Recognizing this situation as an impending structural (legislative) stage will help us to understand the transformations—which will certainly be difficult—so that we can coexist with commercial galleries and public and private nonprofit institutions.    
Comparing and examining projects like Taller Fresno 301 and Almendro—recognizing their unique features—helps us to rethink what we understand by the word “resources” and how we can use them in a shared way. In contrast to projects like Escuela de La Paz,[5] for example, whose occupants partake in the spatial resources of the building on the condition of an uncertain realty contract, it seems to me that Talleres Fresno 301 and Almendro are the type of projects that we must observe and follow in order to re-understand the importance of radicalizing collective practice through the independent space as socio-cultural laboratory.
NP: The space is definitely significant for thinking about what it is that we call “community.” Speaking of class confinement and displacement as a result of real estate speculation, I wonder what problems we can foresee in relation to the fact that a space like Talleres Fresno 301—one example of many—is housed in a public school that was smothered and thrown out to subsist as a private school following its disincorporation from UNAM in 1997[6] and, moreover, that is located in Atlampa, an old industrial zone targeted by real estate developers. How can we anticipate the risks and help avoid the web of instrumentalization and exploitation if it is what we assume it to be, a commons—which in this case implies the school, its students, and the artists who use the space, among others?             
I insist that we be careful about assuming the field to be a totality. If we call people who gather together around a physical workspace “independent cultural workers,” we must think about acknowledging a wider network of subjects beyond the cultural field, those who are not enrolled in union networks but with whom we share legal and economic disadvantage,[7] subjects beyond those who are affected by cultural policies and organizational methods centered around cultural spaces. What community are we talking about?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

TI: “Independent cultural workers” don’t exclusively define themselves by coming together in a physical workspace; their principle defining characteristic is their collaboration over content that invites collective investigation of, thinking about, and sharing a theme that is considered pressing for the artistic community that frequents the space. On the other hand, comparing our economic disadvantage to that of other precarious workers obscures the privileges members of the cultural field enjoy: What other economically precarious people travel the world? But also, a cultural worker (whether they be freelance, independent, or institutional) has a lower economic income than an informal worker since the latter offers a product that is in greater demand in a wider and more accessible market. Finally, “community” doesn’t exist, communities exist and they are constantly reconfiguring themselves in a changing context that moves the compass over  the commons. Observing and building community is a permanent job.
DDVR: So, is the construction of self-consciousness as workers possible? Appealing to the word workers as a possibility for thinking about ourselves as a political counterweight beyond individual figures of the contemporary art system who undermine any possibility of union solidarity. Absent in light of, for example, the complaints of the INBAL workers who were contracted under Chapter 3000;[8] the call to participate in the committees with FONCA;[9] or the demands to increase the 2020 culture budget.[10]

It is difficult for us to abandon the privileges of visibility and mobility that we enjoy even in our condition of instability and uncertainty.

TI: That awareness exists, the problem is that we don’t have that legal status in the eyes of the state in as much as we don’t pay taxes like the majority of people. If we don’t pay taxes, they don’t recognize us as workers: there is no affiliation to any business or any type of entity. This predicament is the same as that of domestic workers, who had to unionize in order to be considered workers. Without a legal status that includes us we are just citizens exercising our right to culture. We exist within the legal term designated as “autonomous.”
My experience analyzing independent spaces with Boomerang[11] and YEI[12] as part of a collective attempt to establish pathways for communal work has allowed me to observe how few people are ready to bring their individual political opinions to a collective organization as part of an effort at union consolidation. The lack of faith in group action sabotages efforts towards possible community. People are willing to take political responsibility in discursive terms, but very rarely will they publicly involve their body and voice. We don’t know how to take political action.
DDVR: If a legal status in front of the state were possible, paying taxes could give us agency in the eyes of the state by using its own mechanisms as a civic pathway to create a relationship with its institutions beyond our instrumentalization in the fulfillment of their cultural policies. In light of the private sector’s aggressive incursions into what remains of our democratic institutions and public social services, do you think that paying taxes in order to access rights—the most urgent being social security for healthcare and a dignified retirement—can be a path of solidarity with other social battles?      
 Do you think a reconsideration of communitarian meaning is possible if we reduce individual working hours in order to accelerate collective organization with the goal of opening micropolitical spaces of assembly? A communication strategy that would overwhelm the current system of emancipatory political imagination and, at the same time, move to action and maintain public opinion through the exacerbation of the absurd to reveal specific conditions of vulnerability experienced by art workers.[13] The purpose would be to create a cadence of resonances between those who, inside and outside of the system of art, share the experience of economic violence that Nico mentioned.             

NP: I think that we’re wrong when we talk about neoliberalism and collective organization as if they were opposites, in light of the fact that there are (in the majority of cases) organizational links that operate in the pluralization of a market economy that is in constant negotiation and within which informal networks have gained increasing weight. I think that the strategic power of these links should be thought of as a reorganization of the notions of work, exploitation, integration, and progress[14] that are articulated in networks of collaboration, with the knowledge that the logic of individual effort in the context of microentrepreneurship will not facilitate it. Likewise, we must think about these connections in relation to structural fonts of inequality.
I am not sure that emancipatory politics can occur within the limits of the (artistic) field if they are not thought about in conjunction with everyday life. The artistic field could be a space conducive to imagination, yes, but I think that is only possible if it is approached from organizing practices, from action, and not from the confines of narratives that feed its thematic classification according to programmed templates that are difficult to question. It is difficult for us to abandon the privileges of visibility and mobility that we enjoy even in our condition of instability and uncertainty.
TI: Independent spaces make possible precisely the imagining of new forms of action far from the hegemonic model of production, circulation, organization, and consumption of art—now more than ever that the perpetual crisis has worsened over the course of 2019. However, in order to propose scenarios of profit in the legislative field, it is necessary to have representation and in order to have representation we must organize ourselves. In the meetings for the aforementioned law, it was very clear that the visual arts, in contrast to other artistic disciplines with unions, lacked organization in all senses—a result of the prevalent fear of creating a new powerful group. It will be necessary to imagine and propose together other forms of organization.
DDVR: I think that one of the limitations on imagination is the debt that has accrued as a result of our dependence on state subsidies (Fonca or PECDA) and on support from private initiatives by way of the market and trusted patrons as well as from foundations (Jumex, PAC, BBVA, and FEMSA). We are part of a paternalistic model that has us compete individually to be a good example of sponsored culture, which brings with it a rhetoric of debt by way of recognition. Our apparatus of economic stimulus for artistic production causes us to embody the neoliberal ethos: liberty through work.
NP: Related to this idea of financial debt is our constant compliance to a compulsive demand that we generate products and programs that distract us from asking ourselves how we can establish relations with others and with adequate material conditions of existence. We are forever pursued by the anxiety of maintaining our circulation and visibility in the face of a machine that uses and throws out its subjects, a dynamic which we normalize and reproduce. We should consider slowing down in order to think about the rhythm, the scale, and the forms that we have adopted before continuing to subordinate ourselves to the mandate of symbolic production and circulation. However, we need to survive. “Precarity” is determined as much by economic insecurity as by submission to such violence. It seems to me that the present inertia is defined in large part by the global art market that distracts much of the surrounding world. It would be worth thinking about how conventions of value are configured here, in how we want to configure them with regards to context, and, above all, beyond the perimeters of the field.
TI: The understanding of one’s own function and that of others in the art ecosystem helps us to envision our contribution to society. Knowing how to differentiate what it is that an independent space has to offer versus what a museum or gallery has is not to create antagonisms, but rather to create knowledge about how to collaborate and with whom, or how to enter into dialogue in order to cover all necessities in the best way possible. Understanding the different contributions of each model means that there is no debt! Each provides and receives a complete mechanism of benefits. For me, if we want the dialogue to advance with those implicated in our practices, the alternative is to stop thinking in capitalist terms of power and submission.

DDVR: From my point of view, confronting together the perpetual crisis from the legal place of autonomy that we inhabit implies identifying— I’m referring here to what Tamara just mentioned about knowing how to differentiate—the common wealth that we already count on but which has not been defined nor put into use as such. Likewise, camaraderie would entail distancing ourselves from whiteness as an ethos of the art system. Materially related to colonial exploitation, whiteness is a spirit of work, an ethic that maintains the necro-cis-hetero-patriarchal-racist hierarchical order: a relationship to object materiality through the Western construct of the body; the visual regime that the latter entails linked to the language we articulate, as well as the reductiveness with which we think about the white cube conditioned by all the aforementioned. Following Tamara, I locate the power of thinking about art beyond its materiality to recognize the critical-pedagogical possibilities of artistic thought from a social consciousness. Artistic thought as an articulator of encounters and exchanges, as “autonomous spaces of political subjectivization [for] sharing open tools for the articulation of [one’s] own narratives […] a form of coproduction of meaning,” to borrow words from Nico’s latest book.[15]
NP: If we point ourselves in that direction, then maybe we aren’t using the appropriate spaces or forms for such a purpose.

 

Notes

  1. Marcos González “Foreman” (coordinator), Adriana Cañedo, Taka Fernández, Morelos León Celis, Antonio Monroy, Balám Bartolomé, Alejandro Palomino, Alejandra España, Paola de Anda, Isaac Olvera, Bernardita Betelsen, Luis Hampshire, Anais Vasconcelos, Fernanda Brunette, Gonzalo García, and Macarena.

  2. Frontera (sculpture space and workshop), Aztlán (itinerant silkscreen workshop), LAB Program (artist residency), and a print workshop.

  3. This initiative is approached in the article What do we defend those who were born here?, by Tonatiuh López, also included in this issue.

  4. On November 20, 2019, the social initiatives Community Art and Trade Workshop 2019 and Community Cultural Collectives of Mexico City 2019 published their Rules of Operation as a preamble to a proposal for the Independent Cultural Spaces of Mexico City Law that projected the legal regulation of the activities of collective, self-managed, and community art and culture spaces. Said regulation sought to accomplish two objectives: 1) Promote and strengthen citizen participation through community cultural projects, and 2) Strengthen organizational processes in community cultural collectives. More information is available at: <http://www.sideso.cdmx.gob.mx/documentos/2019/secretarias/cultura/secretariadecultura_
    notaaclaratoriarops2_colectivosculturalescom.pdf>. [Accessed, December 10, 2019].

  5. Located in Colonia Escandón in Mexico City, in what was an abandoned school run by Salesian nuns, Escuela de la Paz is a project developed by the architecture firm Estudio Tacubaya in collaboration with several groups from the artist community. It now houses Obrera Central, La Herrateca, La Hervidera, RRD, and artist studios.

  6. Claudia Herrera Beltrán, “Se incorporó a la SEP la Prepa Popular Fresno” in La Jornada, August 16, 1997, <https://www.jornada.com.mx/1997/08/16/prepa.html>. [Accessed, January 7, 2020].

  7. According to the Encuesta Nacional de Ocupación y Empleo [The National Survey on Occupation and Employment] (first trimester of 2019), 56.6 percent of the population of Mexico is informally employed. More information at: <inegi.org.mx/contenidos/saladeprensa/boletines/2019/enoe_ie/enoe_ie2019_08.pdf>. [Accessed, December 4, 2019].

  8. Chapter 3000 was a fee contract system for workers of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura [The National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature]. During 2018 and 2019, workers who were contracted under this system were subjected to the violence of late payments and the uncertainty that they bring with them. This was the origin of a series of manifestations and protests demanding that the government fulfill its responsibility to its workers.

  9. After the government changed in December 2018, the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes [The National Fund for Culture and the Arts] convened work committees in different states in the Mexican Republic with the aim of opening a dialogue about the gaps, deficiencies, and limits of the regulatory framework that conditions participation, reception, and production through this public subsidy.

  10. During the first year of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new government, different culture and art organizations protested demanding that the LXIV Legislature increase the culture budget for 2020 through the Presupuesto de Egresos de la Nación, as was recommended by United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organization (UNESCO), set at 1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

  11. Boomerang is an initiative made up of various Mexico City collectives (Cráter Invertido, Luz y Fuerza, R.A.T., Neter, Cine Expandido, and YEI) that convened meetings at the beginning of 2014 to bring together independent spaces and share doubts, problems, tools, and experiences.

  12. A platform and archive run by Tamara Ibarra that analyzes, promotes, and evaluates the present moment of independent spaces in Mexico City.

  13. The term “art workers” permits a horizontal recognition of the labor force sustained by the system: artists, curators, museographers and art handlers, archivists, administrative personnel, security and janitorial personnel, directors, critics, and writers, etc.

  14. Verónica Gago, La razón neoliberal. Economías barrocas y pragmática popular, Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2014, p. 17.

  15. Nicolás Pradilla, Un modelo de organización colectiva para la subjetivación política. El manual del editor con huaraches y los seminarios de labor editorial en escuelas normales rurales en México, Ciudad de México: Taller de Ediciones Económicas, 2019.

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