Pirates of the Precariat: the Effects of Transition on Cultural Workers in Serbia

[the following essay has been published by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rijeka (Croatia) in the context of The Smuggling Anthologies Reader, 2014-15.]

The person is nothing but a residue – therefore precarious – of the process of valorization. (Berardi 2011:130) [1]

Creative industries are a contested zone in the making. While policy draws on a set of presuppositions around the borderless nature of cultural and economic flows, situated creativity is anything but global. Concepts are always contextual. (Lovink: 2007:6) [2]

Context and value: two key determiners used to appraise art. Outside the sphere of personal artistic expression, these flexible qualifiers chart the path of a successful artwork. The process of changing hands in the art market implies silent consent to the changes of interpretative meaning in an increasingly less regulated, more uneven playing field. Regardless of the established criteria (of an auction space, art fair, exhibition, critical publication, public award or similar incentive) this tightly controlled process doesn’t always benefit the deserving. Thus ‘smuggling’ becomes a byword for survival and, within creative industries, a way of systematic resistance to the violence of the market.

Over the last twenty years capitalism has picked up pace under various guises, imposing deregulated markets and enforcing more and more repressive legislations, transforming an ever larger extent of the population into borderline criminal classes. The grey economy in Serbia, which was allowed to run in parallel with the official economy during the sanction-riddled 90s, has also provided a grey umbrella for culture: whereas the funding was never overflowing, it always seemed possible to survive by slightly dodging the law, funding criteria or taxes. ‘Unofficial channels’ were somewhat acceptable for the sale of works or import or materials. The ‘smugglers’ were not people trafficking weapons, drugs, luxury goods or resources, but rather their minds, experience and creative potential, in an expression of intelligent activity deprived of the means of survival. These cultural workers were not exactly gangsters or thugs, but this specific survivalist slant in the ‘underground’, alternative art scene meant smuggling yourself while finding increasingly subterfuge ways to survive.

This, they tell us, is now over. At the end of the ideological project that is ‘transition’, culture is gradually legislated in accordance with European law and the requirements of the International Monetary Fund, and these legislative measures leave very little room for maneuvering. The proposed changes are, however, not led by the desire for a healthy state but by the private companies and for-profit ventures keen to influence and interpret the law in their best interest in accordance with the guidelines of disaster capitalism. This leaves culture open to cynical ‘reconstruction’ and privatization. The irregularities and regular borderline lawlessness (closed sessions, acceleration of the legislative process, full media blackout) of this speedy neoliberal shock package taking place in the emergent countries of the former Yugoslavia demand that the cultural precariat self-organize in order to avoid falling prey to the changing circumstances which, besides altering their modes of survival, also threaten to forever alter the way art is envisaged, learnt, created and passed on.

The radicalization of cultural workers in the private sector (which is currently undergoing a seismic change) has led to an emergent class of activists, groups, unions and independent organizations with a shared interest in defending their working life and basic welfare. This new left, the pirates of the precariat, represent both a promise and a threat to the culture industry. Unlike their predecessors who are wallowing in acute apathy, these voices are equipped for democratic discourse but are also potentially more profitable and marketable.

Unlike the proletariat before them, which self-organized via class struggle, trade unions and an ideology of socio-economic belonging, the precariat is an exploited, fractionalized group without visible and progressive goals, and struggles for its survival on the market. A growing segment of the group consists of artists, culture workers and educators. Defined as the bottom of the class ladder in the UK according to the Great British Class Survey from 2011, the precariat are mostly low-skilled workers (drivers, cleaners, manual laborers); yet they share the income bracket with a considerable sector of culture workers with high education and social and cultural aspirations. [3] As a class, the cultural precariat are defined by the rapid system of devaluation of permanent jobs and casualization of labor in culture. This process is not new, but it is more intensified, widespread and normal than ever before. At the end of the twentieth century, while the Balkans were preoccupied with the war, sociologists observed the crisis of labor in Japan and the emergence of ‘freeters’, a growing class of freelancers in insecure casual employment who live as parasite singles in their parents’ homes. Today, multigenerational cohabitation is almost a stereotype among culture workers. Add to this flexible working hours (enabled by technology but normalized by pushy businesses) and uncertain socio-economic status, the resultant future of the cultural precariat becomes increasingly dictated by the principal investors on the market.

“Precarity” is a word that denotes an insecure, uncertain position. This condition of being neither here nor there, hovering on the edge, describes the global class defined by temporary and mediated work, zero-hour contracts, a precarious living standard and greatly reduced social welfare. This is the generation that, in many ways, returns to the uncertainty of pre-industrial employment that, ironically, is advocated as ‘more personal freedom’. The majority of this class does not belong to any professional association or union, and has no ‘social memory’ or consciousness that would unite them with a mutual goal. It is a fragmented class with outdated rhetoric, no control over their time, and lacking any progressive vision.

The art industry is a dirty industry. Its foot soldiers are often undervalued, overeducated, respected in their own closely incestuous circles but irrelevant in the sectors of real power. This cultural precariat reflects the trend of casual or volunteer work offered to highly skilled and educated professionals, without much hope that they’ll succeed in hanging on to these jobs; instead, they enrich the projects with their knowledge, culture capital, personal connections and free time, gaining very little institutional knowledge in return.

In her exhaustively researched book Seven Days in The Art World, Sarah Thornton confirms the known belief that ‘art is not a smooth-functioning machine but a cluster of subcultures – each of which embrace different definitions of art’. [4] This interpretation is shared by artists in Serbia. When asked to describe the present Serbian art scene, artist and educator Žolt Kovač offers that it is ‘many incoherent scenes [ranging from] inflexible institutions, enthusiastic individuals, and an independent culture scene’. [5] This cluster of subcultures or scenes have their own laws of survival, each with their own definition of art. The highly intellectualized dialogue between the groups often obscures the dystopic climate in which the majority of art practitioners make and support art.

The life of artists and culture workers is in itself an art form – not in terms of participatory art that uses ‘people-as-medium’, but as role models and agents that perpetuate the canon of valorizing culture which, in turn, fires the PR machine for the lifestyle, belief and class industries where art imagines new status symbols, enhances the experience of cultural, business and political manifestations and lubricates the rhetoric of social activisms and myths. Artistic practices that incorporate and reflect diverse (or merely fragmented) social roles which, like in a classic drama, represent various voices of the society, often function as intellectual platforms for the toxic processes of diffusing and de-clawing those very same social segments through cannibalistic processes of auto-consumption. By giving a prescriptive ‘voice to a minority’ art de-radicalizes by proxy, leaving many less desirable voices of those same groups unheard. [6]

Art production as such requires money to project itself out of the heads of artists and into some mode of communication, even if it’s just a sheet of paper. It also requires some form of goodwill that something or someone stirs and feeds in the artist. It is this goodwill – which the authentic blue-collar precariat are exempt from – that makes the artists and cultural workers so suitable for exploitation and self-exploitation.

The question is, how will the current economic and social shifts effect art – how will they redefine freedom, value, desire, representation and creativity in the region? Will all freedom be bravely reimagined as ‘freedom to sell?’ How does art produced within a newly-forged liberal society differ from art produced in the so-called invisible economy and on the adaptation or pirating of ideas and methodologies? If artistic value is no longer produced as a by-product of the grey markets (alongside various mechanisms of money laundering, cross-border smuggling, gambling, procurement, embezzlement, blackmail, forgery, and other unauthorized, unofficial, illegal and semi-legal actions) how will it be determined, and who will ultimately determine it? Who will the art be for?

Following the footsteps of Croatia, major changes for Serbian art practitioners and cultural workers came with the Law on Culture (2009) and Law on Labor and Pensions (2014), which jointly redefined the policies and legislation that regulate cultural production, effectively marginalizing and criminalizing many of its players. The reforms of the Law on Labor and Pensions, which were hastily pushed through parliament in January 2014 ahead of the loan talks with the International Monetary Fund expected later in the year, have been adopted with every attempt to avoid public debate, through silence of the media and exclusion of the unions and workers. These reforms effectively legitimize precarious work by increasing flexible work hours, cutting down basic welfare and raising the retirement age of women to 65. Coupled with the lowest minimum wage in the world, Serbian liberalization of the market will likely attract foreign investors and further impoverish its citizens and art producers.

In the flurry of this post-legislative shock, in July 2014 I have wrote Marko Miletić from the Kontekst Collective (‘Collective for Autonomous Space’, previously a gallery of the same name which was closed in 2010) what he thinks of these legislation changes and what consequences will they have on culture. “I think that the opportunity for the cultural workers to understand the economic relationships they’re entering is long past,” he wrote back. “This has likely never happened because in the period between 2000-2005, a) there was still some money left over in the state budget (from the privatization of state-run firms and sale of credits) which had a trickle down effect on the culture budget; b) foreign interest in the Balkans was still present to some extent, which offered some independent funding and opportunities, and c) members of the former opposition from the 1990s took some key positions and pushed for reforms. The control over spending was less exact [before the legislations], so it was possible to pay fees from the general budget; contracts were not so heavily taken into account. The increased pressure to work within a legal frame meant an increase in author contracts, and to increase taxable fees and taxes for the hiring of the ‘unemployed’ (which is how we are listed under the authors contracts). This meant that people working under these contracts had negligible social and pension insurance, but it also forced higher production costs, which in turn reduced the content, i.e. the number of projects we could fund from obtained grants”. [7]

The Law on Culture introduced in Serbia in 2009 had already placed cultural workers in a precarious position, which the new Law on Labor and Pensions in Croatia further escalates. Miletić thinks that the 2014 legislations are more likely to put workers from other areas into a position similar to that already occupied by the culture workers and artists; however the artists that support themselves through a second job in another sector will now be in a more difficult position. Miletić gives an example from his own experience: “I worked for six months at the National Museum on a purely technical job, selling publications, but because it is in the cultural sector I had to renew my contract every six months. The salary for the full time job was minimum wage – 22,000 din per month (188.68 EUR), but as it was an author’s contract it did not include any pension or health insurance contributions. Due to the employment freeze in the public sector there was no chance for me to get permanent job”. [8]

These instances of government ‘piracy’ against the private sector are forcing a change in the way culture is supported on a major, irreversible, scale. Lethal austerity measures in the public sector combined with business favoritism leave little time for a nuanced cultural discourse. And while some argue whether this is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than before, what is clear is that these parameters will change the way art is produced, viewed, taught and enmeshed in life. The shift potentially will qualitatively re-evaluate one of the most historically pertinent questions of art – that of artistic and human freedom – by positioning freedom as individually negotiated on the grey side of governance (as was often the case in socialism and post-socialism) versus freedom determined by the market and situated within a liberal capitalist production chain.

I was interested to hear what the artists and curators, aside from their personal and professional disappointment, predict for Serbia. Most of them were happy to speak informally, but asked for anonymity when I asked permission to quote them in print. The following are the transcribed answers from a number of key participants on the art scene; some work for independent sector, some are freelance, and some work for state-run institutions. They mostly all know each other and have frequently worked together in various panels, committees, group projects, etc. To my first question ‘what is culture for you?’ their answers were concise, positive and idealistic:

‘Looking deeply into things. Sets of relations. Public discourse. Education. Emancipation.’ (Ž.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘An important, integral part of every society, the cornerstone of its development.'(M.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Asking a question in a different way. Refuge and sanctuary.'(M.Ć. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘A way of life.'(D.R. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

The answers to the question ‘what is culture in Serbia’ became more complex, in depth, contradictory or even tinged with bureaucratic jargon:

‘On one hand, my first association is, unfortunately, an insufficiently cared for sphere: the absence of a clear cultural policy, endless reconstructions of the museums, insufficient financial and media support, the general lack of interest of citizens for culture … and on the other, despite all these problems, culture remains a very active and vital space, continuing our relationship with the world … ‘(M.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Culture is perhaps the only place where some fundamental change in this society can happen, because the political and economic spheres have failed. (…) At the same time, culture is the field of public action on important social issues, perhaps the only space where you can address some important issues without delving into politics.'(Ž.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘It exists in various forms. For me it is culture that follows local intellectual history and practice, and all the projects that were realized as a direct result of critical thinking, opening new horizons by using established and new methods’. (M.Ć. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Same as the culture in general, but its significance [in our society] is on the last rung’.(S.S. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

The attempts to discuss issues of the flexibilization of labor were met with ambivalence and frustration. The cultural workers were keen to compromise and eager not to be seen as less than willing, but couldn’t really see the way out of the noose once it had been legally positioned around their necks:

Flexibilization is adapting to the systemic problem, so that we can maintain some activity against all odds and despite the long-term consequences’. (D.T. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘I feel ambivalent about it. It’s difficult to live without the market, and yet the market can completely destroy the authenticity of our practice to date’. (M.Ć. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘It is a process whose problems, I’m afraid, we are not yet fully aware of’. (M.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

When asked if it’s currently common or normal to expect to do voluntary, overtime and free work, the answer was a resounding yes. I was interested to hear what changes they would like to see in the cultural sector. What was interesting is that the language perceptibly straddles both sides of the ideological divide: strong social safety nets and workers’ protections, and greater privatization – thus reflecting the contradictions that are also present within workers unions: [9]

‘Evaluating quality, ignoring reactions to daily politics’. (D. R. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Change of values in the education system, a more communicative approach to the audience, the involvement of private capital, more government support for culture.’
(Ž.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘More concern for institutions and heritage. Given the current state of museums and other institutions, the alternative scene has become the carrier and the only active participant of the culture scene, which greatly limits the visibility and accessibility of “culture”.’ (S.S. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Certainly the changes of status of artists and cultural workers, the measures that would bring the best way to regulate or enable the functioning of the cultural scene.’ (M.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Safe pensions, workspace, nurseries, tax exemptions for art materials, legal protection, better copyright law.’ (M.Ć. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

And finally, which segment of society can lead to these changes? The typical answers:

‘The experts. (S.S. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Culture professionals.'(M.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘Networking with other localities, regions, the world.'(M.Ć. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

‘It would probably have to be networking between multiple segments of the society, and that is probably the most difficult job in this country because it’s hard to achieve any kind of common interest, the culture of communication and work ethic is at a very low level. Everybody wants to maximize their interests with minimum labor and communication. If we were to connect multiple segments on the same task, perhaps something would be accomplished.'(Ž.K. in discussion with the author, April 2014.)

While it was unclear who the referred to ‘experts’ are who should guide the reforms, there was a strong willingness to network (something they already experience in peer-to-peer work) and to lead. The hybrid expectations and predictions were surprising. The cultural workers expected quality (associated with being given more time to conduct work) but also greater turnaround speed; they wished for government incentives and stable, sustainable long-term planning but also the greater privatization of culture (which leads to short-term profit-oriented planning); greater regulation of the status of local artists, and greater communication and networking with the outside world. What seems like a schizophrenic blend of old and new, simultaneously weakening and strengthening the public sector and welfare, is characteristic of a speedily atomized system which reevaluates and re-combines its aims in a compromise between the memory of the past social system and current market requests. Many mention networking, but do not specify if these networks should bear any resemblance to unions in the traditional sense, or if professional networks might commercially compete against individual peers.

In response to the question from the beginning of the essay, “who will the future art be for?” I expect that privately sponsored art will benefit the loud, spectacularised, PR-savvy projects that will reflect their sponsors’ next Big Idea. This could certainly boost the quality of production but also influence the tone, scope, aims and agendas of the work. A new era of happy, bland, fast and forgettable amusement park artworks will likely outnumber the less showy, slow-emerging, or critical works. It is likely that the sponsors will demand legible allegiance to their business ethos, or that the art consultants will find it difficult to resist the productions that would mirror the successful trends in art world centers. The parochial tendency of aligning with specific aspects of the art canon never truly left this region, in spite of the insistence from curators, critics and artists on the opposite.

‘Relational Aesthetics’, the theory symptomatic of postmodernism that is, in a word, the theory of art commerce: an art market whose participants (artists, curators, gallerists, collectors, educators and critics) promote the idea of representation, of ‘giving voice’ to ever-smaller groups of society (thus a leveling of values through the celebration of a multi-faceted normal), projects what appears to be non-competitive hierarchies on a palatable roster of affinities and discourses. This feigned abundance has deeply affected art production of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, and will certainly be one of the definitions of ‘freedom’ for the Serbian art market.

Cultural workers, activists and art practitioners in Serbia are aware of their precarious position, but it is hard to maintain momentum and involvement. The difference between activism (effectively unpaid social or political work) and volunteerism (unpaid work that benefits the corporation and hopefully one’s career) is not always what it seems.

It is not always clear how to address these changes within the ‘liberal turmoil’ in the Balkans, or to determine where many of its players will be in several years’ time when the reforms are in the full swing. The new liberalism in Serbia has united many art collectives and workers that seek to address the imbalance and serve as a platform (perhaps only temporary) for better political articulation and cooperation. The Association Independent Culture Scene of Serbia (NKSS) united over 60 organizations, initiatives and individuals from 15 towns in Serbia with an aim to ‘promote development of critical art practices, impact cultural policy and other related public policies, contribute to decentralization of culture in Serbia and establish regional cooperation in Southeast Europe’. Founded in 2011 after two national conferences in 2010, the NKSS was already floundering by 2014, their members too demoralized by everyday economic precariousness. They were however still active at the time of this writing, as were the theoretical groups Oktobar and Kriticka Masina, who attempt to strategically educate the new left and to organize an activist response to what they see as the antisocial and antidemocratic processes in work and culture. On the other hand, there are the emerging liberal organizations such as the Society for Academic Development (and many other groups and organizations with the word ‘freedom’ in their titles) that fully embrace the free market. Their campaigns such as ‘Culture as a Gift’ or ‘Be Available’, (from the Society for Academic Development) stimulate citizens’ volunteerism, content-making, and peer-to-peer support; such frothy babble fronts a group of young entrepreneurs ready to engage with the market. [10]

It bears remembering that the emancipatory activism of Oktober, Kritička Mašina and others may be home-grown but is funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – the intellectual and educational powerhouse of German democratic socialism – inevitably posing the question how would the scene look if there was no systemic built-in vent in the ideological pressure cooker. Or indeed, how would it look if they evolved beyond the educational format and strengthened their roots with the precariat. While activism on the present scale is seen as socialist romanticism, metro-radicalism, a practical field for emerging nonprofits or simply a kind of data mining, the pirates of the cultural precariat are still relatively safe in a bubble – joining the eco-activists, media-activists etc. the world over. Should they stir some deeper social unrest away from the think-tanks, workshops and debate forums, I have no doubt that they’ll find themselves branded as terrorists, a sphere considerably less tolerated than smuggling.

1 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, After the Future. AK Press, Edinburgh, Oakland, Baltimore: 2011, 130.
2 Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, My Creativity Reader: a Critique of Creative Industries. 2007, 6.
3 http://ssl.bbc.co.uk/labuk/experiments/class/””Britain’s Real Class System: Great British Class Survey”. BBC Lab UK. https://ssl.bbc.co.uk/labuk/experiments/class/. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
4 Sarah Thornton, “Introduction” in Seven Days in The Art World. London: Granta, 2008.
5 From an interview with Žolt Kovač in April 2014. For more about the culture scene in Serbia vs that of England, see the author’s article ‘Spektar opsene: jedno poredjenje prekarijata Srbije i Hrvatske’ for Supervizuelna from June 2014, http://www.supervizuelna.com/blog-spektar-opsene-1-deo/
6 Provided there is such a thing as a ‘minority’: an increasingly marketplace model of society demands that art focuses on the differences rather than on the whole in order to remain ‘cutting edge’. ‘Good’ art (that is to say, art governed and approved by the art market) is often expected to transcend to that which is mutual by exemplifying that which is individual, rather than coming to that which is individual via deeper attention to the mutual.
7 Marko Miletić, email message to author, July 24, 2014.
8 Marko Miletić, email message to author, July 25, 2014.
9 In his analysis for criticatac.ro Aleksandar Matković reports that ‘it is not uncommon to see state unions support privatizations and denounce cooperation with private sector workers’. Matković quotes the NIN interview with Milenko Srećković, ‘the unions were complicit that any form of privatization was better than the public sector, thus enabling mass closures of job places’. http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/struggling-against-serbias-new-labour-law-part-2/ , and http://www.nin.co.rs/pages/article.php?id=88046
10 “Association NKS”, accessed July 20, 2014, http://www.nezavisnakultura.net/index.php/en/
Drustvo za Akademski Razvoj”, accessed July 20, 2014, http://dar.org.rs/o-nama/clanstvo-dar-a/

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