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In Spirit of Solidarities

An Interview with AWI: Art Workers Italy

  • Jun 05 2020
  • Dalia Maini
    is a writer, editor and urban mermaid.

It is clearer than ever that amid the COVID-19 outbreak those with no social security find themselves in big troubles. Among them are the cultural and art workers. If someone (for example me), acknowledged this position of liminality between cultural and survivalist production and took the winy approach of crying and worshipping an equal goddess, others moved in the action-driven direction. 

When I recognized that many brave people from the Italian art circles were starting the process of unionization, I felt heartfully surprised and empowered. The Virus has infected people with anger, and this is a feeling familiar with hope and critical thinking.

AWI - Art Workers Italy become public in the spirit of solidarity for all the workers on the symbolic May Day, releasing a programmatic Manifesto as a coalescence of many diverse problematics, and claiming rights for the Italian cultural sector. Since then they have been opening inclusive spaces for confrontation and debates, learning how to be better organized and politically recognized.

I got the chance to ask them a couple of encouraging and sassy questions to which they have answered with honesty and with desire to accelerate the process of unionization.

This is for the many voices of AWI.

AWI is the first contemporary Italian art movement specific to Italian realities, why did you choose to name it in English? 

As we write in our Manifesto, the name Art Workers Italia underlines the convergence between the transnational and local perspective in which we operate: the analysis of our professional condition takes place in dialogue with the international community of contemporary art workers, while the definition of instances and interlocutors is rooted in the national historical and political context, in trans-categorial coordination with other initiatives of precarious cultural work in Italy.

The name was chosen through a process of collective elaboration and selection, after evaluating various options. The reference to the historical experience of the Art Workers Coalition (1969) did not motivate the choice of the name in the first place, but it is certainly part of the cultural references shared by the group.

As for the primacy that is attributed to AWI, in the question, it is not correct.

In the past there have been several initiatives, mobilizations and movements focused on problems and struggles similar to the ones we propose to face: in AWI Focus on Italy table we are studying these experiences, in which several AWI members have actively participated.

Self-training is one of our main aims: in this perspective, we believe it is necessary to analyze the struggles and claims of workers or groups of art workers, who have operated and still operate in Italy, at the same time or before AWI itself, cooperating with the protagonists of the movements and scholars, in order to facilitate access to knowledge of the available sources and the exploitation of these experiences.

World-wide movements fighting for cultural workers rights flourish and face daily survival problems. What has prevented the Italian cultural institutional and informal system from unionizing before covid-19 outbreak?

While respecting the phase of collective subjectification that we are going through, we are not able to answer this question as a group. This is an extremely complex issue, which we are addressing mainly through the research conducted by the Focus on Italy table.

We think we intercept a shared sentiment in the hypothesis that, in Italy, contemporary culture does not constitute a strategic asset, neither economical nor valuable. This problem extends well beyond contemporary art, just think of the conditions in which university research, including scientific research, finds itself. We realize that these considerations do not represent a valid answer to your question, but rather a statement of the perspective from which we are questioning ourselves.



"We must be aware of the pre-existing privileges within the group: anyone who pretends to do politics without starting from an analysis of his or her own privileges can only be the victim of his or her own false conscience."



Do you think cultural workers internationally suffer the same struggles? In what way does AWI differ from the other existent realities and why?

Do you think the cultural system in Italy carries some responsibilities for the general lack of alternative models of society and organizations?

Apart from the obvious differences between the many national realities, we are receiving great solidarity from different situations active in other countries. This leads us to think that, even if the problems are not exactly the same, surely reflection on the condition of contemporary art workers is a shared desire at different latitudes, with multiple declinations.

We are very much interested in working on the common points between the different struggles, on the transnational aspects of our commitment, trying to collaborate with other subjects, in the direction of a mapping of AWI-like groups in the world. The main function of this mapping should be to trigger an initiative of coordination and communication between the mapped subjects, allowing common reflections and above all the organization of international solidarity actions - in the frame of a sector whose logic is actually global and whose workers are often "nomadic.".

With respect to the responsibility of the Italian cultural system, we believe it is impossible to synthesize a collective answer to this question. Probably every AWI participant has his or her own personal opinion about it. Within AWI, the Foreign Models Table is working on a comparative analysis of good practices related to governance in the cultural sector already experimented in other EU and non-EU countries, in order to assess their applicability in Italy.

For what concerns the lack of alternative examples of societies and organisations in Italy we feel we have to disagree.


What are the main organizational models where AWI is rooted?

AWI has no particular models, but we look with great interest at different initiatives, inside and outside the contemporary art world. Think for example of WAGE - Working Artists in the Greater Economy, an activist organization founded in NY in 2008, whose mission is to build a relationship between artists and institutions based on respect for working conditions and a fairer distribution of resources in the economy of the sector. 

AWI is an extremely large and articulated group, recently born, a collective subject still under construction. Each of us has its own models, sometimes very different references. We share them, we submit them to a multiple look, we discuss them together. But to propose univocal models in relation to the articulation of our practices, would mean to depower the possibilities of new, unforeseen developments, actually ours.



"Our goal is to try to undermine the system as a whole, starting from our sector, from the dynamics we know and on which we believe we can act, without ever forgetting that this sector is not a bubble and that, within it, any form of marginalization is a reflection of much wider logics."



Under the light of the dramatic social division within the nation of Italy, how do you envision egalitarian future(s) and on which ground level would you start to operate in order to achieve them? 

In our manifesto, where we speak of "the aim of an egalitarian horizon", we expressly mention all the marginalized subjectivities. We would like to resume our speech, made on the occasion of the invitation by the Institute of Radical Imagination and Pietro Gaglianò to take part in their working table in the context of the Forum dell’Arte Contemporanea, dedicated to the question of income. In the speech, we state that AWI's work necessarily involves the analysis and questioning of the dominant paradigm according to which employment - that is, the ability to produce an income - and subsistence - the ability to survive in society - are interdependent. We see that, as never before in this time of crisis, the structural injustice underlying this paradigm is evident. The challenge is, precisely, to focus on how structural injustice, which determines our existence, also innervates the dynamics of the contemporary art sector. We would not want to be misunderstood in this sense: our goal is to try to undermine the system as a whole, starting from our sector, from the dynamics we know and on which we believe we can act, without ever forgetting that this sector is not a bubble and that, within it, any form of marginalization is a reflection of much wider logics.

For this reason, we continue to reflect and confront ourselves on parameters related to social class, gender, sexual identity, racialized identities: so that all this does not remain relegated to the sphere of communication (which we consider fundamental), so that we do not stop at a sort of statement motivated by excellent intentions but factually powerless, it will be necessary to articulate tactics, practices, systems of inclusion and management of priorities. All this must come from the awareness of the privileges enjoyed by a Caucasian, middle-class and cisgender white person (it seems useless to hide that these parameters frame a statistically significant percentage of "insiders", even within AWI) compared to other identities, which in the Italian context do not enjoy the same ease of access to the labour market and even to citizenship rights. We want to develop channels of dialogue with those who carry out specific struggles - linked, for example, to identity politics. Believing that this kind of inclusive processes can be triggered spontaneously, especially in a context like the Italian one, would be a sin of naivety. And this should be specified not only in reference to those who carry with them the history of the countless non-European diasporas more or less recent, but also in reference to the substantial differences that still exist between the different Italian regions.


In an elitist (I would even call it monarchist) art system, such as the Italian one, where institutions are the first to withdraw in times of crisis, how do you work towards the inclusion of marginalized identities?

This is a crucial point, which could potentially undermine our work. It is necessary to invent tactics of resistance and contrast to the elitist and exclusive aspects of the spaces and language of contemporary art, aspects that must be observed and understood as an integral part of a strongly hierarchical social structure. We will have to find concrete ways to translate our principles of inclusiveness and sustainability into practice. It will be necessary to analyse the precariousness and lack of regulation that characterise our work, without ever losing sight of the relationship with the regimes of precariousness and deregulation to whose serious consequences are structurally subject the identities relegated to the margins, which are denied not only work recognition but also social recognition. We must be aware of the pre-existing privileges within the group: anyone who pretends to do politics without starting from an analysis of his or her own privileges can only be the victim of his or her own false conscience.


Can you define your conception of “solidarity”?

We believe that we can speak of a twofold concretization of the notion of solidarity. This is manifested first of all internally, in the form of sharing ideas, intentions and responsibilities that connect the individual members of the group. Outside the group (simplifying this division inside/outside, while being aware of how the border between inside and outside is extremely porous), as already pointed out, it is our programmatic intention to share needs and problems with other precarious workers. We also talk, of course, about those who do not work in the field of culture.

The difference between a supportive posture and feeling sympathy for someone or a specific struggle should be noted. If you really want to promote change, to push it by any means necessary, then you have to start talking about solidarity actions. For example, it is not enough to say you are not racist, you have to be actively anti-racist, you have to respond with targeted actions of resistance to the norms of an inherently racist hegemonic culture. Can we ignore the difficulty to access to certain social contexts, a difficulty with which an Afro-descendant art worker in Italy can clash? Or also the amount of prejudices, difficulties and obstacles a woman finds when she wants to pursue an artistic career?

We know that there is still a lot of work to be done in this sense and we do not claim to tell all of this as an easily pursuable goal. To educate ourselves, as a group, to practices of emancipation from internalized thought patterns over the years, will be a slow and stratified process, which will put us in front of errors and contrasts.


How do you organize? How do you achieve the decentralization of decisions?

Participation in AWI is not submitted to any admission criteria, but it is important that those who want to join the group can guarantee a certain degree of operativeness, reliability and collaboration and interest in collective self-training practices. We believe it is important to be able to include in the decision-making processes also those who are very committed but whose contribution could be valuable.

The group is structured in different tables, divided by areas of investigation and objectives;

all AWI decisions pass through the group's internal general assembly, a weekly moment of sharing between the various tables and a tool for comparison and debate on the direction and ethical principles of AWI, the structure and organization of the group, the objectives in the short and long term. Here all decisions are debated and taken collectively, recorded in various reports and made operational only later through the work within the tables. In special cases, the tables propose to the general assembly to express a preference (by voting, a method we try to avoid wherever possible) on specific issues.


How do you combine the creative spirits which animate AWI with a more programmatic strategy?

The group is not born with the intent to be an artistic or curatorial project and is characterized by a collective and non-authorial vocation. Nevertheless, we could bring as a concrete example the way AWI's visual identity has been articulated. Our visual identity is based on standard tools present in all the programs of writing and has been designed to give to each member of the group the possibility to produce graphic and textual content independently but at the same time uniform among them.


How does AWI’s “independent voice” approach and demands the change of institutional powers?

This answer is going to be extremely synthetical, because we think we have widely spoken about out methodology of work. Maybe it is necessary to specify that, in relation to institutional realities, it will be important to keep the distance to certain corporative modalities: we are not interested in a game of muscle power, least of all in barging. 

When we speak of "independent voice", we mean the assumption of a dialogue posture that is open to discussion with everyone, but also able to position in an amphibious way with respect to the system: inside as far as the contents are concerned, the themes to be debated and the solutions to be articulated in concert with other subjects, outside in relation to certain long-standing problems that infest our working environments: reputational economy, visibility as a currency of exchange, normalization of cynical careerism, pacified acceptance of the elitist, classist and unequal aspects of the logic of access and permanence in the sector. This should be understood as direction, process in progress, goal to pursue. We do not pretend to speak from above of a sort of unassailable moral position, but we are committed to collectively build a code of ethics based on shared principles as workers.


"We are not exactly looking for approval, but for real political recognition as contemporary art workers."


How do you pay your labor inside AWI? Would you consider collaborating with other expertises in order to achieve a new system of value creation and exchange?

At present, participation in AWI is on an exclusively voluntary basis and does not involve any kind of remuneration. We are fully aware that this may generate self-exploitation logic that may not be sustainable or not entirely healthy. It must be recognised that, in the long run, even the most genuine voluntary commitment can only be accessible to those in privileged positions. However, we are forced to postpone the elaboration of forms of economic compensation to a later stage: our process of subjectification includes the study of the different ways in which we could give ourselves a legally recognized configuration, which will greatly simplify workflows and the possibility of finding and redistributing resources, also from an economic point of view.

Currently, our economic resources are based on donations almost exclusively internal to the group, in addition to the fees that are recognized to us during online talks. We decided to deposit these fees into our common fund in order not to create unfairness between those who are using their time to tell the work of AWI and those who work behind the scenes, writing and editing texts, conducting researches, creating graphics, dealing with communication, translations, organizational aspects and so on. When we will be able to produce economic value and redistribute it, we will do it consistently with the belief that there are no hierarchically dominant tasks compared to others, normally relegated to cognitive labour. As far as forms of mutual aid based on the sharing of skills are concerned, we can say that this is a process already underway in AWI (indeed, we could go so far to say that this process is at the basis of everything) and the inclusion of external reality in this good practice is entirely desirable.  


Why would you search for institutional and political approval instead of creating your own model? Would you consider becoming a system within the system, fully autonomous, becoming the change you want to represent?

We are not exactly looking for approval, but for real political recognition as contemporary art workers. Through AWI we collectively elaborate requests and proposals addressed to institutional (or political) interlocutors, but also to the group itself: one of our projects is, for example, the drafting of a code of ethics for the sector to be adopted, first of all within the group.

It is important to underline that the self-organized system, the complex body that has emerged from the meeting of the group's participants in recent months, is already a change in itself: AWI aims to constitute a concrete safe space, which is taken care by people who are clear about the problems of the system, people who share a common desire for change and structural rethinking. Although we admit imperfections and errors, we believe that within the group there is an ongoing process of subversion of many paradigms in the contemporary art system. Since, of course, the system does not end in AWI, every operational, ethical and methodological proposal will also have to be addressed outside the group. 


What are the effective actions you are programming for the future? (I.e. concrete examples)

Until now we have written a programmatic Manifesto, collected the principal issues and possible relative solutions contextual to the crisis and we have sent the list through a letter to the Minister Franceschini, on April 24th; moreover, we are coordinating a table at the Forum dell’Arte Contemporanea in order to define ethical principles and operative tools that can become the ground to imagine an alternative horizon, founded on work sustainability and dignity.

For what concerns future goals, the group is committed on two different fronts: identification of a juridical form in which AWI can be constituted; elaboration of a questionnaire that can outline the figure of the contemporary art professional; study and analysis of the fiscal and contractual classification where nowadays the contemporary art professional is framed; definition of some minimum pay standards for the professional performance of artists and operators of the contemporary art sector; elaboration of a serie on instances intent to stress a process of recognition of the profession on a cultural, political, economical level, in order to define specific rights and duties of the category of workers; drafting, as we mentioned earlier, an ethical code for the sector.

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