Simina Neagu, Valentina Bin & Dr. Andrea Phillips
‘On and around AfterHours’
A Blue Skies Conversation
Simina Neagu & Valentina Bin are London-based writers and cultural workers who spoke with Dr. Andrea Phillips, BALTIC Professor and Director of BxNU Research Institute in Northumbria, about methodologies and practices for self-organisation in the UK arts sector, the future of art education, devaluation, de-professionalisation and rethinking art institutions as community centres.
… after changing platforms, struggling with signal and giving up on video-calling from the garden, the conversation moved indoors and started…
Andrea: So who’s at Gothenburg?
Simina: Me, I signed up to a course at HDK-Valand Academy, and then two weeks ago I started CuratorLab in Stockholm with Joanna Warsza and Maria Lind. It’s a really good course and also, it’s free for EU nationals.
Andrea: I was teaching at Gothenburg when we set up PARSE. I then left to go to Northumbria University to take up the BALTIC Professorship. I think it’s great that the Swedish system enables not only free university tuition but also free public adult education; it’s one of the very few places where that’s still enabled by the government. This is utopia in comparison with the capitalized Anglo-Saxon HEI situation (although I know it’s not without its problems). There used to be free university and adult education in Britain. It’s now been financialised. I’d been fighting at Northumbria to try and bring some of that back, but it’s very difficult in the UK, where all of the universities are now completely marketized and budgets come before ideological commitments. We fight via the unions but we have very little impact.
Simina: Also in lots of post-socialist countries, free education is still quite common. I didn’t have to pay for my education.
Valentina: We didn’t have to pay much in Italy compared to the UK either. You can save up for your university fee by working in the summer.
Andrea: It’s much more feasible. I know, I despair at the UK. The Anglo Saxon model sees universities as businesses. But to begin a less depressing conversation, (!) I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about yourselves: I did a bit of searching and found out that we have many interests and people in common, but I wondered when did you start working as a kind of curatorial partnership? Do you see yourselves as such?
Valentina: When people ask us how we met we always say collecting rubbish in a car-park in Peckham, after a private view. We had recently arrived in London and were volunteering for Bold Tendencies at the time. We just organically started commiserating about our experiences, the internships in which we weren’t learning that much and the difficulties ‘fitting in’. We were both interested in the arts, really keen on getting a job in the field and struggling to find our way in, and we became friends out of that. And then we just got involved in different things, while moving in together and keeping our collaboration going, which often is informed by our shared experiences and the resulting critical reflections.
Andrea: Can you tell me a little bit about your backgrounds?
Valentina: I studied something that resembles history of art in Venice, which wasn’t history of art as is intended in the UK, it was a very broad course, and no contemporary art apart from the topic of my dissertation. Then I moved to the UK with the idea of learning English once and for all, and I got a scholarship to a Museum Studies course while I was working as an au pair and doing some internships. My first proper job in the arts was as a studio assistant for the artist group Troika, and then I went on to manage Gallery S O, which focuses on contemporary crafts at the intersection with fine art. I did curate some projects there with Simina as well. In the last year or so I’ve been freelancing. I’m currently working as an Italian sub-editor, and keeping my projects in the arts open.
Andrea: I learned how to sub-edit on an internship at the ICA in London for the publications department. I became very integrated into what was an incredibly brilliant set of people and discussions at the time. I learned a lot. It’s interesting that subediting was both our ways in…
Valentina: Well, for me it’s the way out. [laughter]
Andrea: Back in that day, because we’re talking about around ’92, it was a paid internship.
Valentina: There was no such thing for us.
Andrea: I think this relates to Simina, because I know that you’re working for Iniva. One of the first books I sub-edited was the catalogue and the reader that we published at the ICA for a show called ‘Mirage: Enigmas of Race Difference and Desire’ which was the first exhibition that Iniva mounted when they set up. I had this amazing opportunity, I really didn’t realise how amazing it was at the time. I was working with Kobena Mercer and David A. Bailey because they were curating the show. They are both still a kind of heroes. It was also the first time Steve McQueen had been shown, and Sonia Boyce has become a friend. Also in the reader, I was sub-editing Homi K.Bhabha, Françoise Vergès, Paul Gilroy… the greats of the political Black arts community at the time, so I was just learning and learning and learning, while I was saying: “I’m sorry Paul you spelt that word wrong.” All that activity – including the formation of Iniva – came out of the BLK Arts Group. There was lots of dissent about the setting up on Iniva at the time amongst the Black arts community. So Simina, what’s your story? How did you end up in London?
Simina: Well, I got my first proper job at an art centre called Pavilion Unicredit while I was studying in Bucharest, which also organises Bucharest Biennale, and after two years I was given the chance to curate something, which was huge. Out of conversations with the artists’ community I noticed there were a lot of tensions around public and private funding. So I thought, naively, stupidly, I mean, I was 21-22, to do a show about it, and about the infrastructure. I thought “let’s be critical”, and that basically blew up in my face. There were some really interesting works that came out of that, but the opening ended up with me crying under my desk… it was a whole mess. And I lost my job, obviously. And I thought, okay, I need to do a masters degree. But if I’m going into this field, if I’m trying to be critical, I need some more training, because I studied art history in Romania, which stopped at the beginning of 20th century, and also there was very little mention of the regional and historical context. Talking to artists, they were mentioning artists unions, organising, but this history didn’t exist in the university and I thought, again naively, “Oh, I’m going to London to the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, cause Radical Philosophy sounds cool and I’m going to find all the answers to my questions, I’m going to acquire a critical apparatus, get all my theory sorted, be able to fill the gaps in my education.” I got a scholarship to study there and obviously the system was far from perfect. And even though there’s a lot of great work being done, I think it’s very much rooted in a kind of Western Marxist tradition, quite male dominated. I think things have changed since my masters, maybe. Then again, I still wanted to work in this field. Also because my parents think it’s not a real thing. So I had to prove to them that, hey, you can have a job and pay your bills with this. I think it’s similar for you, Vale. In Romania doing art history used to be kind of reserved for children of high party officials, the people who could travel. So it was a weird thing to study for me.
Andrea: That’s very interesting. I know very little about the artistic infrastructure of Romania, but I was involved in the 2019 Timisoara Biennial, writing for the publication and doing a talk at the opening. I have to say, to start with, I thought Timisoara was a very beautiful city and it was very lovely to spend time there, but the other side of my experience – and I’ve worked with Maria Lind a great deal many times and know that she has a very specific set of demands and values – is that Maria asked my partner Justin O’Shaughnessy to come in and produce the Biennial because she was having trouble, partly translational. Not verbal translation, I mean cultural translation issues. Biennial curators often come to places without really understanding the kind of cultural intricacies of different methodologies and different ways of doing things. Justin’s role was to get really underneath the structures of power and wishes of artists and work out how to produce stuff. Justin was travelling between London and Timisoara, and coming back so frustrated. He was meeting really interesting and extraordinary people and artists, of course, but unable to translate between these two zones. There was the kind of professional biennial – it must look perfect, it must open on time, I want you to completely transform that beautiful old building into a white cube gallery in order to show Forensic Architecture – and Justin’s going: “but… Forensic Architecture wouldn’t mind if we didn’t”!
Valentina: [Laughter] They would probably prefer it.
Andrea: I have this double experience of Timisoara, but it was interesting. Most of my learning came through Justin’s experience. And it was at that point that I wrote the essay that I sent you, “Critical Production or the Intelligence of Collective Technicity”, which was trying to move towards a different way of thinking about training, exhibiting, co-producing, equalising the voices and the experiences, and the pay of the cleaners, the technicians, the artists, the curators. Changing the model completely. This is something that Justin and I are working on together, actually, and I think we’re going to try and produce an alternative kind of pedagogical format for it. With his experience in production, and my experience in curating, writing and supposedly knowing all about the European tradition of philosophy that you got from my colleagues in Kingston. I agree with you when you say that it’s male dominated, because even though on that course there are amazing women philosophers now, it is dominated by a very masculine history.
Simina: Yeah, Valentina and I had a party playlist called ‘Marxist boys’. And since then it’s become a tag-line.
Andrea: But it’s very interesting that your perspective from Romania is different. I’m talking out of my field of knowledge now but from my understanding, there’s a history of Marxism in Romania [Laughter]. It’s interesting that this identification between your knowledge of the history of Romania, and all those things like artists unions – which is a really interesting history, even though it’s kind of falling apart, as far as I know – and that the guys are not really weaving different histories together and understanding them as a kind of transversal Communism (more like C-Punk), a much broader understanding of the application of Marxism in this sense.
Simina: It would be unfair to say that it’s a particular case. Maybe it’s a broader lack in Western Marxist circles, that fail to acknowledge the fact that there are plenty of people with lived experience of “really-existing socialism” and these mental divides, somehow, are still there. Lived experience is a catalyst for what we do as well. What I really liked, when you mention Justin’s experience in formulating this concept of critical production, was this idea of recognition of intelligences. We were trying to deal with something similar in AfterHours, which also came out of an experience of ours.
Valentina: The whole thing started because we’ve been insecure all of our lives and London didn’t help. In my first couple of years I was struggling with the language. People would ask me, can you pick up the tape, and I didn’t know what the tape was and didn’t have a smartphone to google it, so that was a problem, continually pretending to know what the tape was, and often coming up with the wrong item and doing the wrong thing. I think we kept that insecurity with us, and at a certain point we felt that, which is problematic as well, maybe if we had more skills in this or that, or knew more people, it would be easier. We were looking at these alternative courses, not maybe even alternative, but kind of adjacent to the institution, like the one at Grand Union for curators. They looked interesting but we realised that we could read essays, and we could discuss within our own group of peers, we already have these people around us. And the skills we needed were quite practical, because most of what we learned we learned by doing, and kind of desperately googling it last-minute. Realistic vocational training is lacking in universities as it is in the workplace, and without this training you end up feeling very anxious about being a fraud. So we wondered, why don’t we do something that is not just for curators, in the sense it’s not just for theory, but it’s about workers. And we basically involved some friends and some people we know that have different skills in the industry. For example a friend who’s a fundraiser at Chisenhale and…
Andrea: Ioanna Nitsou? I love Ioanna.
Valentina: Yeah, everyone loves Ioanna… and then we involved a friend who worked in accessibility within the arts for a long time, and a Senior Technician at Tate and so on… basically we involved people in our network to organise a workshop, and attendees paid a fee which went to the workshop leaders. It was a simple thing. And we didn’t need money for that, because we got out all that knowledge that we would otherwise have had to pay 500 quid for, in a course where someone gives you a reading list. This was the beginning of AfterHours, kind of tailored to our needs. Raven Row gave us a space, it was a brief pilot project. Like with most of these idealistic pilot projects, we realised it was in fact quite demanding in terms of our time. You would think you would get a lot of people interested in very, very cheap workshops when there are universities charging all of this money. But of course, the marketing side of things always requires a lot of time and a lot of Valentina emailing hundreds of people personally saying “you’ve got to come and you’ve got to bring your people and your students” and stuff. But it was a great experience. And we ended up with all of these fantastic, very generous materials that the workshop leaders put together, and we asked ourselves what we were going to do with them. Shall we maybe make a publication? So that’s how we got a little bit of funding for a publication proposal, so we can share these tools with other people, because I was thinking that I would have really valued, as a 23-year old coming to London, having a real handbook made by people working in the arts, not made by people who think about what it means to work, but made by real fundraisers, by people working with logistics in a gallery – which is really esoteric… like, how does a shipment work?
Andrea: How do you do condition reporting?
Valentina: What even is a condition report? How do customs work? It’s difficult to land your first job if nobody ever explained that to you. But then the reason also for this conversation is that, of course, things kind of changed. I like to dabble in the arts, but my main income doesn’t come from it anymore, and then the pandemic started, and all these redundancies… it was hard before and now it feels kind of weird to be encouraging people to even get involved in it, especially when we have all of this institutional talk about equality and inclusiveness. And it’s just ridiculous considering the requirements of job applications in the field, person specifications are often completely unrealistic and the pay unbalanced. We got in a bit of an existential crisis with the whole project. So we reached an impasse, like, we should talk with someone, and then Simina remembered your talk at the Biennial.
Andrea: Sounds fantastic. I think we’re basically on the same page here. The inside of institutions, both private and public, that constitute what we know as the art world, which would also include the biennial as an institution, they’re all predicated on a 20th century understanding and division of labour, and it’s essentially a Fordist conceptualization. So it’s already privatised, it’s already exploitative. It’s those conditions that need to change, but not at the level of virtue-signaling. The current scramble to ‘decolonise’ institutions that are built directly and indirectly on the profits of slavery and ecological exploitation is meaningless until those institutions reformulate the ways in which equality is distributed within them. I guess that’s exactly what you’re saying, AfterHours is a brilliant project, it seems to me that what you were trying to do and did do is redistribute knowledge and place people on a level of equality. So your head technician and your theorist and your artists are all valued in the same way, and paid in the same way. That’s a start. So the question is, how does that expand into something that is a viable at scale? That could be operationalised? I think you’ve raised so many interesting things. Although I’ve written quite critically about the alternative art school, whether it be Syllabus or Open School East.
Simina: Just to give you a little bit of background, maybe touching on these points of distributing knowledge and also thinking about how you spoke about this concept of critical production, coming out of discussions with Justin and his experience. Another important backstory into AfterHours was the bookclub we and a group of friends started four years ago. This is a private activity, not public. We make a point of it not being part of our practice but rather informing it. The bookclub was intended as a space for women and non-binary people which, of course, it’s a separatist idea, but we felt it was necessary. I think we learned a lot about collective learning, or building a collective voice through that space. We understood that there’s no difference between you as a fundraiser, that person as having a bar job, that person as a curator, that person as an academic, that person working at the climbing wall. It was very important in understanding that we should have a different system of valuing labour.
Valentina: And even in education, we only talk about art school as where you learn how to become an artist, and you have the curating school where you learn how to become a curator, and then nobody becomes an artist and nobody becomes a curator. It was just really nice to have these kind of great debates in our living rooms, in a very convivial space. And we wanted to take the atmosphere and bring that convivial element also to AfterHours, and that really horizontal structure to learning and having the opportunity to ask a question without the feeling of being inferior. And that worked really well. I have to say that there were quite a lot of people that joined from different backgrounds. We didn’t have that many students, funnily enough, I think they were too busy being students to get involved with this.
Andrea: Trying to find bar jobs to support their income or far too privileged to push?
Valentina: I don’t know. Maybe we didn’t get to them, even if we did everything we could to… I pestered everyone I could pester, we had connections at Goldsmiths but didn’t see that many students, which was surprising.
Andrea: When I was running the MFA at Goldsmiths in curating there were several things that were really weird. I co-ran it with Andrew Renton, who was an art advisor. He was much more ingrained in the commercial art world. The one good thing that came out of that partnership for me was that through him I learned how the commercial art world worked, and that’s been essential for my knowledge. He was the mainstream guy and I was the critical woman on the side, it was quite an interesting dialectic, but then it began to break. And so I went on to create the PhD programme, which was equally problematic. One thing I remember when we ran that was that Andrew found an opportunity for the students to curate a privately sponsored painting show that was taking place in the Truman’s brewery at the top of Brick Lane. And I remember going along to the install, partly because, like you, I was going: “Oh, God, I’ve got to learn about how to install”. There were four professional installers and the students were just asking for their business cards, instead of asking if they could teach them, and I just realised that actually, even in so-called radical Goldsmiths, this was a very mainstream uncritical approach, despite the rhetoric. Goldsmiths’ art department has lots of really interesting people teaching in it; there are some brilliant people teaching part time on the curating programme – I’m thinking about Helena Reckitt and that amazing reading group that she runs, The Feminist Duration Reading Group, which I’m a huge admirer of. But even though there are all these people that have got amazing ideas that are trying to move things away, to bring in more concepts that have come from Black studies (for example), the main condition of the department is to function as a place where you go to become individually unique, whether you’re a curator or whether you’re an artist. There are many little departures – and I was one of those little departures, Helena is another – and you either try to participate and get frustrated or end up leaving or getting sacked, which, of course, is happening at the moment, or you just become sucked into the empire, and you carry on, and you swallow the pill, and start doing studio crits where you say: “Oh, yeah, I think you should talk to this gallerist about your work, because I think they might be really interested”.
Simina: With that example that you gave of the curators hanging around, I remember having conversations with people who either were on a curating programme or had just graduated, and they would be like “So now I need to get a job, do you have any tips on that?” and I was like, “Well, I heard that there are these artists who need an assistant,” and the reaction would be “Well, but I studied curating, I’m gonna apply for that curatorial assistant job.” There are 20 positions in the whole country and 400 people applying for one job.
Valentina: 20? More like 10.
Simina: And let’s say there’re 50 institutional curator jobs in the whole country. Of course, some people get it. But also, if you want to be a curator, don’t you want to see how artists actually work? It became clear that what the system was feeding was exactly as you’re saying, this story of a singular, unique curator. You were sold this absolute fiction, that didn’t make a lot of sense with the profession, as you would probably learn a lot more by being in an artist studio, packing artworks and doing consignments, than being an intern somewhere where you might make coffee for six months.
Andrea: I think working as an artist assistant on the floor is really important. I’m quite interested in concepts of degrowth. I’ve talked about devaluation in various publications. I’ve actually found the architectural fraternity more open to my ideas than the art community. Even more than architecture, urban planning. My PhD crossed over into that field anyway, so I’m a bit familiar with it. I was inspired by a book by Athena Athanasiou and Judith Butler, it’s a discussion between them, called Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. (1) In the book they have a conversation about two ways of understanding dispossession. The first way is as a real hard loss, having your house dispossessed, having your values, material goods dispossessed, not being able to feed your children because of the devaluation of the euro, etc. This is a western conceptualisation of value and is seen as – and is – very negative. Then they also turn dispossession in another way, which is about dispossession of the subject and the autonomous idea of the subject. They pitch these two ideas of dispossession together and they’re trying to posit an alternative idea. I’m summarising a bit schematically here, but, if we all learn to be a bit more dispossessive, then the world might swing on a slightly more equal angle. It came very much out of the politics of Syriza, and the ways in which it was trying to propose an alternative. Varoufakīs has come out of this as the economist who’s now famous, but there were a lot of other people working there as well. iLiana Fokianaki, who runs State (of) Concept in Athens is very interesting, as is her partner, Jonas Staal, who I work with quite a lot, in relation to the way he produces large projects about parliamentary alternatives. I took this idea of dispossession as it was swung on this axis by Athanasiou and Butler and I tried to apply it to the concept of value in the arts. I talked a lot about devaluation as a positive thing and, of course, this is highly conceptual and very utopian, but…
Valentina: It is really in line with the fact that now, like it or not, we need to take degrowth seriously, as a survival thing.
Andrea: I did this talk at The Showroom in London, somebody who’s now very involved in Extinction Rebellion immediately said, “Oh, what you’re talking about is parallel to degrowth”. Exactly. We usually associate degrowth with environmental ecological crises, that actually we can…
Valentina: …apply that, yeah, because these systems of labour are not sustainable long term.
Simina: And also, this idea of the autonomous creative subject, this is an Enlightenment concept, which is completely connected to ecological disaster. They’re interdependent. This is not a parallel phenomenon. This is what we’re living in.
Andrea: That’s exactly the case. Creative Time have taken the kind of TED Talk model and they used to run these summits, where they would invite people to do 10 minute slots. I hate with a hatred that is so big, I can hardly express how much I hate TED Talks, all the bile in my body rises to the top, but as soon as Nato Thompson from Creative Time asked me to participate I tried this concept out. [laughter] It was a summit in Stockholm. There were 1000 people in the audience and it was being live-streamed. Tania Bruguera was the star, and I was below Tania in the pecking order, of course. I remember trying to talk about devaluation and asked how much every institution in the room paid their cleaners. You only have 10 minutes, you have to be quite direct and provocative. Afterwards we had a big dinner, and everyone kept coming up to me and say: “Oh, Andrea, it’s so wonderful. You’re so intelligent. Lalalalala.” And I would say to them, “But how much do you pay your cleaners?” And they would say: “Yes, yes, we’ll find out.”
Valentina: They don’t know because it’s all outsourced.
Andrea: For a long time I’ve really admired Susan Kelly’s work in the Precarious Workers Brigade (2) and that’s been going on for a long time, and then the cleaners unions that have emerged have been really interesting, and actually, The Showroom support of them. I think the person there was Louise Shelley, who moved from The Showroom to Cubitt. And was involved in that educational project at Grand Union. But yeah, I think she’s got her head screwed on right.
Valentina: Now, I think what I find interesting about this degrowth, devaluation, is the fact that we’ve been thinking a lot about de-professionalisation. You are not defined by what you do. You do not have to be in the art world to be involved in the arts or to be creative. This kind of hyper-professionalisation sometimes doesn’t really belong with the actual making of art, and all these ideals that we have. And also in terms of how to articulate that within the book we’re making. There is a problematic element there, because we started the whole project with a reading group on the Precarious Workers Brigade publication, which is critical of the kind of stuff we do, this sort of placing the pressure of learning, of upskilling yourself on the worker, rather than to the employer. We should be lobbying for galleries to offer paid and useful internships, to offer paid work opportunities to people from unprivileged backgrounds, rather than putting ourselves in a room with biscuits and coffee and try to improve ourselves. But of course, whatever you do is never going to be wholly unproblematic. And the moment you kind of get your hands dirty a little bit, these questions are going to come up. How can we be honest about the conditions of work and the fact that the book will be very focused on skills, and finding and sharing this knowledge. Because the question you were asking, which we both really liked: “How do we make curating and pedagogy not just about meritocracy and privilege, but about cultural and political access?” That was the question that we were asking ourselves in different terms, and how do we integrate that with these really exciting ideas that you’re exploring about degrowth, devaluation, and de-professionalization in a way that is not simply cynical. Because sometimes the way I speak about this project with Simina is just me complaining. How can these ideas actually be positive and future oriented?
Andrea: The thing about de-professionalization, de-valorization, de-valuation and de-growth is that the overarching question is, how much privilege do you have to have to be able to understand the drop? Yeah, it presumes you’re somewhere to give something up. The real overarching problem with the cultural world is that it doesn’t include people that have got nowhere else to go. I began as a teenager getting involved in community theatre, and theatre and education. Just as a participant, not as an organiser. And then I went to Dartington College of Arts to study art in a social context with a particular focus on theatre. I worked with all these amazing theatre companies that were just, wild and uncontrolled. I was really lucky because it was a four-year BA. And the third year was a placement. And it was all free at this time, because I’m old. [laughter]
I was like the last generation who got free education. That’s really sad, actually. So the third year was in Rotherhithe, which, at the time, was being transformed by the London Dockland Development Corporation. The docks, which at the time were working class communities, were transformed into the kind of gentrified flats and loft living that they are now. There was a huge local protest against this gentrification process, because lots and lots of working class communities were moved out. Their Victorian terrace houses were being compulsorily purchased. A community artist called Lorraine Leeson was doing a big project with a group of women who were the wives of the ex-dock workers, and the community was pretty heteronormatively organised. And I have to say, also fairly racist, in my experience. But Lorraine, who now runs an MA Art and Social Practice at Middlesex University, was doing a project with the local women, basically an anti-gentrification poster project. And I was learning, I was pasting them up, and through the pasting of it, learning about the law, why you’re not allowed, why you might get arrested if you do that kind of thing. You know, a nice middle class girl from Leamington Spa. So this was an amazing experience for me. And then through that, I kind of became very attached to community art and community practice, which used to be funded by the Arts Council. Now it’s been re-franchised as a social engagement by art institutions. The reason I’m telling you the history of this project is that I’m working on at the moment trying to raise funding to do a massive project, focused in the North-East, around community practice.
Valentina: One of the few things I remember from my own master’s degree was this quote from Griselda Pollock, where she says something along the lines of “the whole education department and the curatorial have to work together.” (3) If they don’t do that, it’s just meaningless. You see that at Tate Exchange. What happens at Tate Exchange is not Tate.
Andrea: Tate Exchange is a poisonous political fiction in terms of the way it suggests to the majority of the audience that are not necessarily involved in thinking through the detailed politics of institutions that they are doing some good for the community. But it’s a fictional community. And the curators at Tate deny the Tate Exchange.
Valentina: But although one might want to resist this dichotomy, there’s something about having the word curator on your CV that makes it more valuable. Because I tried applying for these jobs. And the problem with access to jobs in the arts is that if you don’t have a linear path it’s very hard. And I see friends and other people who have a wealth of incredible experience, from commercial, institutional experience to community experience to music, dance management and so on, but if you don’t have that clear, linear path, if you don’t have the fancy university, the fancy internship, the fancy curatorial assistant job in an institution… And there’s no crossover between private and commercial, unless you’re at senior level, then you can do whatever you want. But at our level, you need to have that progression, you become an assistant curator, and then become a curator, and if you don’t have that, that’s it. If you don’t have that curator word you’re going to earn the same amount of money forever. And then at a certain point you’re going to get tired of your salary and get a job outside of the art world. The profession in itself is always the same, we know what it is about, it’s about emails and spreadsheets, this is what we do.
Andrea: Have you read David Graber’s Bullshit Jobs? I understand there might be moments where, psychologically, it might not be appropriate to read it. But I guarantee that everybody who reads it might identify with it. I read it, I have professor friends that have read it. I have an artistic director friend who read it. We all identify.
Valentina & Simina: Okay, well, that’s what we need.
Andrea: I mean, maybe Maria Balshaw doesn’t identify as having a bullshit job? I don’t know. But tell me a bit more about the book that you’re working on?
Valentina: The problem is that we got stuck. The material we got from the workshop facilitators is amazing, really practical. But in terms of the framework around it, and the politics of it, we are a bit stuck. It should be a sort of real handbook from workers to workers and people who aspire to become workers in the arts. But it’s also an ecosystem that is not sustainable, and it’s kind of collapsing, and people are losing their jobs. And I myself got out of the arts as my main source of income in the meantime. I think this is why we started thinking about de-professionalization. How do we articulate this in a book that is also about professionalizing yourself?
Simina: Or how to bring this tension together? Because it can’t be a guide of enthusiastically staying in the art world, nor a guide of exiting the art world, but maybe both. Or leaving the reader with that choice. Also staying kind of close to this tension. Valentina being more like we are exiting this toxic world, me being a bit more utopian, let’s pretend it’s the ’60s sort of thing.
Valentina: That’s why we’re very excited about your upcoming essay on devaluation.
Andrea: I’ll send it to you. And I’ll also send you an essay that’s just about to be published on community art centres, as I think there is a solution. I think it’s about reorganising institutions along the lines of the ’60s, coming out of that hippie tradition, but maybe there were some interesting ideas there, actually. This community arts project I’m doing with a colleague of mine, who’s a brilliant artist called Jason E. Bowman, who will work with me on the project if we get the money. Rethinking the art institution as a community centre. I’m actually quite interested in the physicality of the institution. So for instance, if one takes Tate Modern, and thinks about, the crisis that we’ve just been through or, more importantly, I think, the crisis of homelessness, and the lack of affordable housing in London. Actually Tate is a very good facility for developing both housing and community. It has technical equipment, it has technicians that know how to work it. In my imagination, the technicians suddenly become very useful in a political sense as well, rather than the kind of nobodies that they are usually treated as. It has a bunch of kitchens, it has hot water, it has heating, it has lighting, all the basics of a really brilliant community centre. We just need to throw out the curators. [laughter] And re-purpose the learning teams into something else, or if they don’t want to do it, because they actually really want to be curators, they can go as well. So actually, that’s the vision that I’ve spent quite a lot of time fantasising over the past couple of years, looking at the history of community centres in the UK. Although actually they’re very much like the Romanian culture house movement. I have a PhD student, Irina Botea Bucan, who’s researching that history. There was a really interesting network of community art centres in the UK, and some of them still exist. I’ve written quite a lot about the Albany Empire, which is in Deptford, a fully functioning community centre. The community centres were really interesting, because they were completely functional, mixed-use organisations, pretty ragged. Not much money, play schemes in the summer for the kids whose mums had to go to work, reggae sound systems in the evenings. They’re also interesting, architecturally, and this is something that I’ve always wanted to do, but I’ve never quite got round to, is to find an architect to work with to do a comparative study. Because a lot of those community centres were made in the 1990s when the Heritage Lottery Fund was developed, before the global, fighting-for-survival, arts organisations that we now have. So Camden Art Centre used to be a bog standard community centre. Arnolfini was a standard community centre.
Valentina: So it’s back to the roots basically.
Andrea: Exactly. And of course, all of that stuff that happened in the ’00s, which was maybe before your time in the UK, when famous architects suddenly all got commissioned to either build new or extend old arts organisations. Often Herzog & de Meuron or Terry Farrell would come along and repurpose an old community centre into a shiny new arts organisation that had a new raft of curators because of course, in community centres, you don’t have curators. Currently I’m really excited about a recent Third Text issue on Amateurism. (4) So I’m moving towards amateurism, but not as an ethnographic fetishisation, but as a realistic kind of understanding of culture. To come back to your book, it seems to me that the dialectic you are proposing is that, on the one hand, you’ve got the material for a viable handbook for cultural workers, but on the other hand, you’re concerned about encouraging cultural work at this particular time, is that right?
Simina: Kind of, yes. And how to capture a framework, I guess, that was also present in the beginning of the project, with the reading group, and this idea of creating convivial, friendly spaces of sharing and also politicising, and how to capture that without being corny. But staying true to the conditions that we are living in, that are extremely difficult.
Valentina: We want to talk about various aspects of working in the arts. For example, we had an amazing workshop (led by Lulu Nunn) about accessibility in the arts. Everyone is interested in this subject on Facebook but in real life few people showed up. And for them it was amazing, it was great. Also, one of the chapters is going to probably be about fundraising, focusing on individual giving, the most popular workshop we had, which I haven’t had to do any marketing for. And so we are also going to talk about all these things in the book. Because even if you make the community centre, where is the money coming from? But at the same time, we still have to be critical because it kind of hit us in our personal and work life.
Andrea: I can see that it’s a problem. And it goes really to the heart of fundamental questions that we’re all asking or trying to get to, which is whether we should abandon these ideas? Suhail Malik is writing a book about exiting art at the moment, On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art (forthcoming). And also Suzanne Lacy wrote this book, Leaving Art. (5) But of course, she didn’t leave art, she became even more famous. I mean, the ethics of leaving art in terms of her early engagement as a community practitioner makes sense. But of course, she’s been fetishised and adopted and put in the Tate Tanks. I think we have to examine really, all of us individually, and I include myself in this because I haven’t really ever done it, why are we really interested in this stuff? What is it? Do I really believe that encountering an artwork can be a transformative experience? And I think my response to that is, I don’t really believe that.
However, I do believe that making art and being involved in a creative process of doing something is a transformative experience. I’m even slightly lying to myself about that, because I think about certain artworks I’ve seen in the past that have been, fuck, that’s amazing. But I can’t work out how much of that is my conditioning?
Valentina: For me it’s slightly different. On a personal level, coming from a background where art wasn’t a thing, I didn’t know what that was at all. But going to an exhibition once, by chance, when I was 14, and being in a white cube and seeing an artwork and getting glimpses of that intellectual discourse around it, it was a transformative experience. It did change my life, and I think for Simina it was probably the same. And that’s probably why we are into living artists, rather than dead ones, there’s that element of excitement. But I’m always in two minds about everything.
Andrea: We can form the two minds club? I think I sent you the essay on Santiniketan. But I have to say, I’ve been to Santiniketan three times now and the longest I’ve spent there is a month, and I don’t speak Hindi. I’m constantly at the behest of a very good friend of mine who teaches there, who is my translator. But I was really impressed by Santiniketan as an art school that was really embedded in the local production, as well as classical studies looking at the importance of the mural tradition in Bengal as a radical tradition. This is a very living institution. The idea of the ‘tapovan’, of learning under the trees, which is not romantic, is just the way that you do it. That was a kind of very transformative experience for me actually. So I think there is something interesting there about the future of education, of what Gayatri Spivak would call “aesthetic education”, which isn’t just the arts but as a kind of mind experience, living experience, ethical experience, as well as an aesthetic experience. Obviously, it comes from a tradition and a culture and a geography that enables that in a way. It’s also now part of a state university system and its chancellor is Modi. So how long is it going to survive? I’ve been very, very lucky to encounter some extraordinary things. And actually, it was The Otolith Group that introduced me to Santiniketan and Grant Watson when he was at Iniva back in the day.
Anyway, let’s have a socially distanced irl meeting when I’m going to be in London next and carry on the conversation.
Valentina: We’ll bring loads of cake and make it convivial, thank you!
- Athena Athanasiou, Judith Butler. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, Polity Press: Cambridge, 2013.
- Precarious Workers Brigade. Training for Exploitation? Politicising Employability and Reclaiming Education, Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press: London Leipzig, Los Angeles, 2017. 96 pages.
- Griselda Pollock. Encounters in the virtual feminist museum: time, space and the archive. Routledge: London, 2007.
- Volume 34, Issue 1, Number 162: January 2020.
- Suzanne Lacy. Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics,1974–2007. Duke University Press, 2010.
Simina Neagu and Valentina Bin have been collaborating since 2012. Their practice stems from critical observations on the ways art is shown, written about and taught, and encompasses experimenting with exhibition formats, art writing and alternative art education. Their goal is to provide imaginative, convivial and accessible experiences. Previous projects include: AfterHours, Raven Row, London (2019) / East Ends, Art Night 2017 Associate Programme, London / Philomène Hoël: Keep It Longer, Gallery S O, London (2017) / Unstill Objects & Lost Materials, Gallery S O, London (2016) / Slow Glass by John Smith, VITRARIA museum, Venice (2015).
Simina Neagu is currently Programme & Operations Coordinator at Iniva and has previously worked with various arts organisations, including Chisenhale Gallery, Bucharest Biennale, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Gothenburg Museum of Art, Project Biennial of Contemporary Art D-0 ARK Underground, as well as an assistant for artists such as Céline Condorelli, Aleksandra Mir and Rana Begum. Her writing was published in springerin, Revista ARTA, and Kajet Journal, amongst others. She holds an MA in Aesthetics and Art Theory from Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University London and is part of the CuratorLab 2020/2021 programme at Konstfack University, Stockholm.
Valentina Bin studied Art History in Venice and graduated with an MA in Museum Studies at UCL (distinction). After managing Gallery S O’s artistic programme in London, she is currently working as a freelance writer, translator and sub-editor, and running Pelican Gravitas, an art and writing newsletter. Previously, she has been working closely with the artists group Troika and organisations such as The Art Newspaper, Made in China UK and Parasol Unit. Her writing has been published on ArtReview, Current Obsessions and the Museum and Curating Studies Review, among others.
Dr Andrea Phillips is BALTIC Professor and Director of BxNU Research Institute, Northumbria University & BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Andrea lectures and writes about the economic and social construction of public value within contemporary art, the manipulation of forms of participation and the potential of forms of political, architectural and social reorganization within artistic and curatorial culture. Her current research project, conducted with artist Jason E Bowman, involves a social and aesthetic re-reading of the British community arts movement from the mid-1970s to the present.
Phillips’ publications can be seen here. Her forthcoming book Contemporary Art and the Production of Inequality will bring together discussions on the politics of public administration and management with recent analyses of arts institutions, alongside debates on value (public and private) informed by research into the political functions of the art market and personal experience of organizing, lobbying, and governing contemporary arts institutions, arts education institutions, and working directly with artists.