I once made a portrait of my union representative Björn Söderberg. As a strong power acting on my behalf in the shape of a human being, he was like an avatar from Hindu mythology. My intention was to display my union avatar as an artwork at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, as a comment on the decline in union membership during the dotcom era. But tragically, the portraits I took of Björn instead came to be used in his obituary. He was killed as revenge for confronting a union representative about his ties to a Nazi organization.

Portrait of an Avatar, Karin Hansson 1998

For me, being part of the union has been an identity, a belonging to a collective fight for certain human values that have deep roots in Western labor history developed in opposition to fascist and oppressive regimes. Therefore, it was a shock for me when I was told one day by the union that I was no longer welcome as a member.  I wasn’t a worker anymore. I had too many employers and thus acted as an independent contractor with too much control over my work. I was perplexed, I didn’t really feel I had much control over anything, working different short-term part-time jobs, doing art exhibitions and lecturing on a temporary basis at a few art colleges, never knowing if I had an income or not the coming month. I really could have used some help to navigate this job market. However, I had to admit that the type of work I did wasn’t really what I did as a waitress when I first joined the union. Still, my insecurity was just the same, if not bigger; even though I worked hard I couldn’t afford to say no to overtime, as I never knew if there would be enough work next month.  

Today, Unionen, the largest union on the private market in Sweden with over 600,000 members, is developing a novel attempt to unionize the sharing economy, and is thus extending collective bargaining rights to its self-employed members. For Sweden, this is the continuation of a century-long tradition of self-regulation on the labor market via centralized collective agreements between employers’ associations and the trade unions, but to outsiders it may seem radical. Similarly, in Germany, IG Metall, Europe’s largest industrial union, has hired Six Silberman, co-founder of Turkopticon, to launch Faircrowdwork.org, supporting union work in a crowd work setting. In the US, Uber and Lyft drivers are fighting for their right to be treated as employees. New communication technologies, a more flexible globally distributed workforce, and changes in the western welfare systems are transforming the way we work on a very fundamental level. For example, online work in crowdsourcing settings enables a division of labor on an unprecedented scale, which often drastically reduces the individual’s ability to monitor and control the results of her own work. However, the technologies also enable stronger communities and direct relations between consumer and worker, and between workers. Parts of today’s network-based creative economy are characterized by the humanistic values that scholars claim Marx was looking for when he formulated the theory of alienation. For instance, Hardt and Negri (2000) argue that the new economy of affective labor and networked relations amounted to ‘a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.’

Artists can be seen as both avoiding traditional work relations and at the same time acting like the perfect worker, as they both are inventing an original product and creating the market for this product where there was no demand before. According to Chris Mathieu (2012), the editor of an anthology of research on creative industries, particular features of the art field make for distinct conditions for artistic production. First, there are no real permanent jobs, but a life-long competition in which the rules are constantly changing. Moreover, it is not a competition on an open market; instead, participation is determined by the relationships you have, and how close or far there are work opportunities in the production network of relationships. The judges of the competition are colleagues, not some faceless market. A great deal of time is spent not only on making artistic things, but on behaving as an artist and being in places artists are, to be present when there is a new market opportunity.

To follow the ideas of Walter Benjamin (1936), due to the change of how art is produced, reproduced and distributed, the artist has become the icon. It is now no longer the work of art which mainly has cult status but the artist (Thomson 2008 Thornton 2009). Due to technology transformation the artwork’s aura no longer comes from its unique materiality, but from its connection to a human icon that gives cult value. Today, this process of making the artist’s identity is a work that takes place and is monitored online. Boris Groys (2013) suggests that the role of today’s artists is that of the blogger, as well as all other actors in the arts such as gallery owners, museums and academia, producing the information that confirms that the art is art. These systems that previously provided the artist’s work are transformed, focusing more on producing a persona, as well as the creation of new standards for how artistic work can be carried and sold.

Interestingly, the work relations in the art world are becoming more and more common also in other fields, not only among creative workers. For the so called precariat, work is something temporary, flexible, contingent, and unpredictable, and it is important to uphold a credible, easily identified persona in order not to get lost in an ever changing market. This precariat is also an expanding class; for example, in Western Europe and the US, a growing number of the labor force now works under temporary and/or part-time contracts (Europe 2020 indicators – employment – Statistics Explained, 2014; Roenker, 2014).

The precariat is however nothing new, rather something signifying urban life since industrial capitalism and described in literature: the observations of precarious urban life in Baudelaire to the idea of “throwness” in Heidegger’s philosophy – signifying the lack of control over one’s own situation, the sufferings, and demands that one does not choose –  to the bureaucratic elusiveness explored by Kafka, or in the description of the human condition by Arendt. However, the vulnerability of the precariat can also be seen as a potential for resistance, not as weakness or victimhood but as a space for engagement emerging from a sense of fundamental openness, interdependence, and solidarity.

Artists’ work has also counteracted traditional work relations since modernism, often questioning traditional production relations or predicting new ones, as artists always have been interested in, and problematized, the concept of  “work”. Take for example John Cage´s famous silence work, where keeping silence is the work, or On Kawara’s Date Painting that he began in 1966, a monochrome field on which is written the date the painting was executed in the language and according to the calendar of the country where On Kawara was at the time. A more contemporary example is the British artist Tracy Emin who sold options on her future work for £10 in the early 1990s (Barber 2001). A similar comment on the artist as worker is Marina Abramović performance The Artist Is Present (2010), a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the exhibition while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Francis Alÿ’s work When Faith Moves Mountains, Lima, Peru 2002 (in collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega) is yet another example, where Alÿs had five hundred volunteers with shovels gathered at a huge sand dune on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, and over the course of a day moved it by several inches (Medina, C. 2007).

I have (together with Åsa Andersson Broms, Nils Claesson et al) in previous art projects looked at the role of the artist and new technology and how this transforms the roles in the arts. Our latest large project was Performing the Common, an artistic research project about information structures that was shown as an art exhibition at Husby Gård and Moderna Museet 2012 (Hansson, 2015). Here, 15 artists worked with a common theme for two years. The focus was the intersection between the “public” and the “common” and how the privatization of public space has changed the common room, and how we look at life and work.

Other collaborative and thematic projects that members of the group of participants have developed are e.g.:

  • SEKT, a scen for performance art in Stockholm. George Kentros m. fl.
  • Konsthall C, art space in Hökarängen Stockholm. Per Hasselberg.
  • RAR-Rapid Art Response, artist and activists in collaboration. Shiva Anoushirvani.
  • The Bystander Project – Touring exhibition, Forum for Living History. 2007-2016. By Åsa Andersson Broms.
  • Contemporary images (Samtidsbild) 2013 for Stockholm County Museum. Åsa Andersson Broms, m. fl.
  • The Body in The Net, ID:I Gallery 2007, about sexualization and  media. Nils Claesson and Karin Hansson
  • Do Something About The Weather! The Culture Center of Stockholm 2006, about climate change. Karin Hansson & Åsa Andersson Broms
  • Re.production, Internet 2004-2006 about the conflict between production and reproduction. Karin Hansson & Åsa Andersson Broms m. fl.
  • 10 out of 9 are Normal, for the Swedish Traveling Exhibition (Riksutställningar). A touring exhibition between 2003 – 2005 about statistics and ways of visual perception.  
  • Public opinion, The Culture Center of Stockholm 2002, about media and production of opinions. Karin Hansson, Åsa Andersson Broms, Nils Claesson.
  • Money, The Culture Center of Stockholm 2001, about the new economy, with participants from the former Soviet Union. Karin Hansson, Nils Claesson.
  • The Art of Organising, Gallery Enkehuset in Stockholm 2002, about the new collectivity in the fine arts, where different artists groups came together to explore alternative forms of organizing art. Karin Hansson, Nils Claesson.
  • Best Before, Tensta Konsthall 1999, about the information society. Karin Hansson, Åsa Andersson Broms, m. fl.

What these projects have in common is that they all use collaborative interdisciplinary artistic work to develop new knowledge. In this research project I have invited a group of artist that have worked with similar processes and themes: Åsa Andersson Broms, Shiva Anoushirvani, Per Hasselberg, George Kentros, and Nils Claesson. The aim is to develop artworks about work in order to develop a deeper understanding of the ongoing transformation of what we know as “work”, and thereby contribute to a critical investigation of the ongoing development of new laws, technologies, and cultural practices in this area.


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