Affective labour and the exhaustion of cultural work
Burnout. Anxiety. Exhaustion. Extended processes of care for the self and others. The labour that comes with repetitive educating. How to sustain the work we do. This was one of the most visceral topics to emerge most immediately across the room, with some participants battling illness to be here – simply because of how broken the body has become from the wear and tear of being a patient and passionate intermediary or advocate.
Lyse Ishimwe Nsengiyumva: “How can I basically keep on having the energy to do what I’m doing? I have a full-time job, and I’m doing this on the side. Being a black woman who wants to do everything – how do I take care of myself on top of all this?”
Promona Sengupta: “I’m interested in, and the moment of crisis for me, is this question of the ‘safe space’. This question of when we have often put ourselves in or been pushed into spaces that are not meant for us and don’t welcome us. We need to put a lot of effort into caring for ourselves. These spaces can also become spaces of betrayal and breakdown. I’m trying to figure out the logistics, ethics, challenges of the safety of the safe space itself.”
Rafika Chawishe: “I personally feel very weak, incapable and hopeless – because of all the logistics and systems around us – to do anything else and to give visibility. Can that be then abusive also? It comes with a lot of frustration and also a huge need to change our vocabulary and the way we think about words. Words matter. It’s important what we say, how we say it, and the consequences behind what we’re saying. I’m questioning whether I should open a coffee shop right now...” [laughter from the room]
Olivia Hyunsin Kim: “I’ve been trying to mobilise within different communities, trying to tackle different things. But I’m exhausted. I’m physically and mentally very exhausted. It’s great and I feel a lot of support from other people too, but I feel that I as a woman of colour I often become the over-working one who explains, navigates and solves these problems, and it’s affecting my body. [...] How can we make [our work] sustainable, so we’re not just overworked and exhausted and then everyone drops out. How can solidarity be sustained and how we can support each other?”
Vladimir Bjeličić: “My crisis is related to the question of precarity: the way of all of us, regardless of the context, are self-exploiting and being exploited by others. I would like to open a debate regarding labour: how to maintain labour in the field of culture, and how we’re able to have a precise ideological positioning within the same. That’s my main task, to tackle class and ideology because I find those things the most important ones.”
Aya Rebai: “Most of you talked about finding a balance between your work and other jobs. I think that worked for me, but I had to have almost a burnout and deal with anxiety for years – I’m still dealing with it – but the solution I’ve found is to make less compromises. Even if it’s difficult at the beginning. For one year now, I’ve refused to work with toxic environments just for money. It’s difficult, but the fact that I’m not making compromises has pushed people who want me to work with them to adapt. I don’t have to adapt any more. How can we push all these limits? How can we make less compromises in our projects and our lives?”
Donna Miranda: “I want to echo this idea of an activist, not who are you against - you are at war, this is important, you need to know who enemies and friends are and use diff ways of relating to them. For whom and from where? THis is very old school: “From the people, for the people”. Burnout will always face me. You’ll never sleep for the rest of your life. Professional activists and professional revolutionaries. More practically as an organiser, the question I always ask myself: how do we translate our aspirations into concrete actions, into real things that we can hold and sustain us beyond our children and grandchildren."
The deliberately “unproductive” body
One of the strategies that came up to counter the weight of burnout and overwork is the possibility of becoming a wilfully unproductive or “unproductable” body as resistance to the machinery of capitalism.
Nhung Dinh: “I think ‘professional amateur’ is the best way to define myself. [...] Money is never a problem. Yes, of course we have money problems – but I consider myself semi-retired, and I’m 40. I refuse to work, I do very little and do whatever I want at home. My home can be a space for people doing whatever they want to do. I don’t want to be ‘highly productive’. Why try to gain security when you don’t even know what will happen next year? I don’t worry about whether I will get a terrible disease etc. It’s given me a lot of freedom to work, because I don’t need to work to present something. How can we create something that where we become a professional learner?”
Martha Luisa Hernández Cadenas: “I am thinking about the “unproductable”. I don’t have a financial account, credit card, etc., because in my country [Cuba] we don’t have that possibility. For me, the archive of affection and desire is the only way to produce a change. Thinking in spoken word is my space, but I want to put my body with others.”
Multi-locality, dis/placement and dis/location
Many of the participants would preface their introductions by bringing us on a whirlwind journey through the various contexts they have found themselves moving through or embedded within, with an emphasis on personal mobility – whether this is by choice, like student visas or the luck of family heritages; or forced migration and/or deportation. These are just a tiny selection of those journeys, with even more summarized briefly or left unsaid:
Rafika Chawishe: “My father is from Syria, my mother is from Greece. I feel that I’m from a non-place. Displacement in time, geography and language are key aspects of what I’m interested in.”
Promona Sengupta: “To get here today I came from a place 20 minutes away from here in Berlin, but I also come from Delhi, and before that I came from Calcutta. Technically I’m Indian, but I’m here on a student visa. As you can tell, I have to say a lot in order to say where I’m from – the inordinate amount of emotional labour we have to do in order to explain the places where we are, who we are, what we do, and why we are here.”
Helia Hamedani: “I’m an art historian, I’m Iranian but have lived in Italy for more than 11 years. I’m privileged to have a visa, but I still can’t go to places like the US, for example.”
Mona Benyamin: “I’m Palestinian, but technically I live inside the borders of the state of Israel. I’m an Israeli citizen and I belong to the Palestinian community, and there’s a very big gap between the two. My last name [Benyamin] also causes a lot of confusion, because people assume I’m Jewish.”
Thao Ho: “I’m from Berlin, my parents are Vietnamese and came here as refugees at the end of the 1970s.”
Riksa Afiaty: “I have a student visa so I live in the Dutch empire. I work as a curator and live in Yogyakarta in Central Java.”
Yuan Fuca: “I’m from a very provincial capital in China, then I moved to Beijing, studied in New York and went back to Beijing. I followed the path of the ‘good Chinese student’.”
Arkadi Zaides: “I’m joining a lot of comments about self exhaustion, and the impossibility of originating yourself. I was born in the Soviet Union to a Jewish family who then migrated to Israel, my passport is Israeli, but I left Israel five years ago, and now live in Belgium [through a Schengen visa].”
(De)colonisation and the empire
What happens when we find ourselves moving within the contexts of the empires and colonisers that have subject the regions and communities we have come from to great violence? How can we resist these hegemonies – but also act as intermediaries that bring these spaces into conversation? Almost all of us come from contexts wracked by the aftermath of coloniality.
Aziz Sohail: “I’m obsessed with empire and how to work within empire. The US [where he lives and studies on a student visa] is empire. What does it mean to be produced as a subject of empire – and also resist it? This is a curatorial practice I’m very interested in. A lot of us come from the Global South – how do we untangle ourselves from empire?”
Fatou Kiné Diouf: “I’m living in Senegal at the moment, but I’ve just come back from Paris where I studied for six years. When it comes to France, I have a sense of belonging and I have an identity there, but at the same time I can’t be there all the time because I don’t have the French nationality. How do we belong to different places in different ways? I belong in Senegal, but at the same time I represent, because of my education and background, something that might be violent to other people. It always comes back to Africanness and Westernness. Although I’m not ‘western’, I represent what westernness is for other people. How can my body can move between all those places? How to build up an art practice that may be entrenched in both contexts? [...] How to build something that can move between both and that can be understood and lived by both sides without this feeling of violence, strangeness, of being ‘too much’, but also not being trauma porn or poverty porn?”
Chepkemboi J. Mang’ira: “I’m from Nairobi, Kenya. How do I convince Kenyans to accept what we create and design? We can’t even speak Kenyan languages in schools, we’re made to speak English. We look at our art and fashion as something that is ‘less than’. How can we come to accept what has been created in the past and the present? What we have is an online platform called #OwnYourCulture to inspire the public to accept African creations and designs from the precolonial period. We’ve done a few festivals, but outside of the city there was less positive receptivity for taking pride in precolonial fashion.”
Riksa Afiaty: “My work as a curator revolves around the ideas of modernity and the colonial. My question is how to contest the ideas of decolonial aesthesis formulated by Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vazquez – how decolonial aesthesis goes beyond art-making, its sphere of control, and shies away from western history-making.”
Language politics and finding a language of our own
This feels like an extension and development from the notion of the colony and the empire – it’s made very clear that English, this narrow, awful, unforgiving, colonial language (but also a language that is native to me and I take pleasure in), has become the language through which we engage with each other in the YCA. How can we create new vocabularies – or develop theory and terminology from where we’re from? Often the politics of language reflect a larger political contestation between colonised and coloniser.
Helia Hamedani: “I have studied western art history until the PhD level, narrating the history of photography in my country. I’m frustrated with the lack of terminology. I can’t even find the words. It’s linguistic – all the work that I’m doing is about translating and what happens in this crisis of translation. What can’t you translate? What is the moment we cannot translate? I need to use the words and hegemony of a western voice to translate what I’m saying. I resonate with what Rafika said: ‘words are important’. I’m analysing key words, talking about words and translating them in different contexts. If we can really pretend to narrate other histories and make it official, as official as “western historiography” is, shall we make another language? If that language will be fragmented, schizophrenic – what will happen to this invented language?”
Mona Benyamin: “The critique of nationalism is something people are becoming more and more aware of. But how do we criticise nationalism without losing a sense of belonging? When studying in an Israeli arts academy, you are more and more dependent on art dictionary for words, and your mother tongue fails to fill this gap. It’s a complicated problem about these two identities that are at war with each other.”
Connecting with a multitude of communities
The YCA participants have often found themselves needing to move between a diverse array of communities, and moulding or adapting themselves to the priorities or needs of these communities. How can we reach out to a broader, wider public beyond arts-goers and the kind of cosmopolitan elite that is already “in the know”, particularly in communities rife with division and distrust.
Thao Ho: “I run an activist group for people of Asian descent in Germany, so I’m doing a lot of community work. Because I’m moving through many different communities: leftist, Asian diaspora, German Asian – I realise that sometimes I feel alienated depending on where I am. I’m expected to prioritise a certain role in different communities. It’s also a question of solidarity - how do we find a way to cover every need?”
Phoo Myat Thwe: “I’m a curator from Myanmar. One of the biggest questions I have is how do we build solidarity: Who do we align ourselves with, when we are enemies? Who do you make friends with? Especially in a place where people like to fight each other and thrive on it, and there is a lot of fear and distrust in the way they relate to each other. My work has a lot to do with feminism. How do you present something that’s unusual and scary to our society as something that isn’t working against them? I run Yaw Ni Cafe, which translates to Vagina Cafe. It’s quite difficult to navigate – how do you present this context to your country, in a conservative country where no one wants to talk about vaginas at all?”
Zhazgul Madazimova: “In my country [Kyrgyzstan], things like feminism, activism are things considered coming from outside, from the ‘west’ – even when you relate yourself to those things, you’re already someone who’s ‘from there’. As a young artist, my mentors have been men with very, very patriarchal views. I’ve discovered that when I don’t use terms like ‘feminism’ and ‘activism’, which become so politicised, the people who were against me start to collaborate with me. We talk about real human stories. Then people really start paying attention to what is going on. We care about the same things: life, death, money, everyday struggles. This is collaboration on the level of human to human, story to story, context to context, and it allows us to make sense of other things.”
Adela Demetja: “There’s a struggle between the way we live as cultural workers, the work that we do and the projects that actually go out there. We are at the mid-point between the individual and the public, and society and the personal. How can this combine in our work. What kind of approaches and methodologies and ways of working can we find in order to still operate between the social and the individual, and still find a way to progress individually and collectively with the group of people that we are working with and how to produce better working conditions for all of us?”
Soukaina Aboulaoula: “In institutions in Morocco, the notion of the gap is very strong. A need to ‘bridge the gap’, to bring more kids to museums... we need to think of the ‘gap’ while communicating, but it’s never been understood. For us it was so absurd, because it was hiding so many realities and mechanisms of the way these institutions are functioning. I’m part of a curatorial duo where instead of complaining about the gap and violently erasing the break, we play with it and embrace it. [...] How can we be together without losing yourself while embracing the other?”
read Corrie´s third part berliner-herbstsalon.de/vierter-berliner-herbstsalon/blog/corrie-tan-day-1-part-iii