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Or what happens to Solidarity in the Arts?

  • Essay
  • Jan 16 2024
  • Aiwen YIN
    is a practicing designer, researcher, theorist, strategist, and project developer, who advocates relationship-focused design as a strategy to redesign, re-engineer, and reimagine the relationship between technology and society. Although the text is written by YIN, Solidarity Trinity is part of the bigger gamification-as-research project, Alchemy of Commons, developed by YIN and educator and community practitioner Yiren ZHAO, hence authorship belongs to both of them.

In recent years we’ve talked a lot about solidarity in collective actions in the art world, communal living, alternative economies, and more synonyms in the ethos. But what exactly is solidarity? And why does solidarity expression in the arts often feel inadequate? The following text gives an insight to the research done with my collaborator, Yiren Zhao, and her work in relation to the Dinghaiqiauo Mutual-Aid Society (hereafter DMaS), a process-based collective in Shanghai. This text specifically looks at the relationship between groups of people and organizations such as art institutions, and at relationships inside the collective. These considerations on the state of solidarity are directed towards offering concepts to overcome frustrating experiences in collectivity.

What is the role of labor in solidarity making?

The Solidarity Trinity theory emerged from a conversation between Josien Pieterse, co-director of Framer Framed, and myself. Framer Framed is an institution in Amsterdam that supports collective-driven artivist [1] initiatives and is concerned about the sustainability of these initiatives and their ability to self-govern after institutional support ends. The initial question was how to ensure these initiatives can sustain themselves beyond the launch of a great idea or show, as, often, the groups have a hard time to continue to work together after the show if they weren’t already.

I suspect one key missing aspect was labor. My previous research indicated that maintenance labor, which facilitates understanding and immediate togetherness in a spatial-bodily context, played a crucial role. However, institutions often take on tasks of maintenance labor, such as providing organizational support for day-to-day communal life, alongside financial and material support such as artist fees, production budgets, workspace, and accommodation. The intention is to remove everyday hassles from the community and give space for them to focus on the “real work”. 

Despite the good intent, this particular type of offer faces two problems: firstly, maintenance labor; financial support and material support are not the only possible ways to support artists and collectives. Instead, they are just the most obvious and the easiest ones to give, in the false assumption that collectives are nothing more than an artist with multiple bodies. Secondly, it removes the most fundamental experience of a community, applying the conventional division between artistic production and the everyday work of a lonesome genius artist’s life to that of an artivist collective. Removing the everyday maintenance tasks means stripping a group from the opportunity to experience each other as full human beings. Observing others in how they pay attention to peoples’ needs goes beyond professional facades. Setting up a table together, cleaning the space and cooking allows us to connect to other humans. Human relationships are built on these everyday care moments and the observance of them. For example, DMaS member David explicitly stated that he has utmost respect for people who clean the dishes perfectly, and he feels most connected to them. Being in a collective that is not immediately profitable, a relational understanding of each other’s integrity through maintenance is a wise entry to trust.

The problem is that a collective is made from multi-layered relationships and an intricate web of desires and pursuits of values. These relationships exist as a whole, but also each relationship within the collective can be regarded as being like a stomach. A relationship can contain much and diverse food if trained properly over time, but it can hardly take in a large dose of an unfamiliar subsistence in a short time. 

Collectives that are incubated by institutions that offer maintenance labor often “throw up” once the support is gone, as the collectives must learn how to maintain their everyday existence in a dramatically short time. Instead of connecting to each other in performing care labor for themselves, they instead shared the experience of care labor being delivered to them. This institutional service delivers a collective into a precarious stage, yet it is not a financial precarity that they are affected by, but the lack of knowledge of how to take care of each other. That usually turns out ugly.

Solidarity Trinity: Labor, Relationship and Space

We developed the concept of the Solidarity Trinity as part of our research in order to de-complexify the relationships between the coordinates of labor, relationship, and space, while body and time exist throughout and across the three. We propose that labor and relationships are inseparable. Furthermore, given that labor is intrinsic to the space in which it takes place and relationships are influenced by spatial conditions, space is the third coordinate. This concept asserts that labor, relationship, and space comprise an interdependent unified whole, as one coordinate cannot be changed without affecting the other two. The resilience of solidarity relies on all three aspects and their successful interplay. Yet there’s not a master’s recipe, but different forms of solidarity based on the different forms of relationships, spaces and maintenance labor. For instance, solidarity looks different in digital spaces, where relationships are long-distance instead of in person, and where maintenance labor means setting up meetings and writing minutes, and the spaces used are platforms designed for productivity and entertainment. The change of one coordinate will require a different quality of collective effort, and that’s often when their solidarity faces challenges to sustain.

Through this lens, we can gain a deeper understanding of certain uncomfortable moments within the art world. For instance, institutions that seek to commission collaborative work from a group of individuals who don’t necessarily have prior relationships as a demonstration of collectivity, often fail to consider the importance of relationships within the Solidarity Trinity, and do not calculate the required time that would be necessary to build these kinds of relationships. Likewise, an exhibition that displaces local community practices into a white cube or a foreign country actively neglects the spatial coordinate of the trinity. Generally, the spectacle driven art world undermines relationships through spectatorship. While maintenance labor is necessary to sustain space and relationships, under observation it might become a labor of spectacle-making, and this will counteract solidarity. Maintenance labor needs its own, un-spectacularized space.

Another aspect to consider within the framework of the Solidarity Trinity is the role of money. Specifically, the use of time-based payment systems that fragment the trinity into discrete units of time can hinder the free flow and interconnection between labor, space, and relationships. While a detailed understanding of how monetary resources precisely impact collectivity and solidarity is still needed, there is already substantial evidence supporting this hypothesis.


fig. 1


Plurality of Solidarity

The solidarity within the community is made from each member’s contribution: the contribution through working together, maintaining the space together, hanging out with each other, and putting resources together to make things happen; all these moments foster a sense of belonging. Next to the sense of belonging, a nurturing community is often able to make individuals feel a sense of personal growth through communal life and informal peer coaching. Meanwhile, many individuals who join a community with a mission also hope to achieve something good for society, to fulfill the purposes of their life. In other words, community members invest their own time, efforts, and money in the community, in the hope of obtaining a Sense of Personal Growth, a Sense of Achievement and a Sense of Belonging. [2] Here we have the basic condition of the Solidarity Trinity: individual nurturing.

Having said this, each individual perceives these aspects differently and co-creates their own understanding of how the community influences their being in the world. In real-life instances, we can observe a plurality of solidarity within the community. This is because individuals may have different mappings of safe spaces within themselves, and varying levels of acceptance towards different community members. Some individuals may consider a smaller group within the community as their “true community”, while others may extend their idea of true community beyond the official boundary to include a broader support network of people. This diversity of senses of belonging within the community confirms the existence of different psychological realities and highlights the various ways individuals perceive the presence of the community. Even within the same collective, there are multiple interpretations of the community's significance and the multi-dimensional combinations of relationships within it. It is important to acknowledge and respect these differences, as they shape how individuals view the social organization and their role within it.

Consequently, the heterogeneity of interpersonal relationships within a community can create challenges in meeting the community's expectations, as in the case of interpersonal conflicts. When a critical conflict arises, it becomes a political challenge for the community to address. The way individuals perceive and feel about the conflict may vary depending on their personal relationships with those involved. For instance, in cases of interpersonal conflicts, individuals within the community may have different reactions toward the individuals in conflict. This variation in response arises from the everyday relationships individuals have with those involved in the conflict. This discrepancy between the collective responsibility to address the conflict and individuals’ personal feelings can create a significant gap. In situations where victimhood is evident and there is a need for justice, individuals may struggle to reconcile their interpersonal dynamics with the collective responsibility to support the victim. 

For example, these discrepancies and tensions within the community can lead to a vacuum, or suppression, impacting overall community relationships. They contribute to a minefield of unresolved and unaddressed sentiments that may manifest in future conflicts and gradually wear down the collective’s overall resilience. 

In our research, only collectives that have the heart to embrace different projections towards the collective and different proximities between its members can build long-lasting solidarity. However, in a world that is increasingly reactionary, polarizing, and fixating on representational values, solidarity is ever more difficult to make. Instead of destroying relationships by putting them on display, the art world needs a complete rethink of its attention-driven economy and institutional practices to cultivate genuine solidarity. 




    [1] Artivist, or artist-activist, refers to art practitioners who work on socially-engaged art or projects of an activist nature, or activists that use art as a means of their activism.

    [2] This conclusion leads to the overall game structure of the Alchemy of Commons (, each individual invests their Personal Resources (Available Time, Personal Wellbeing and Disposable Income) to improve the overall status of the collective for gaining Sense of Personal Growth, Sense of Achievement and Sense of Belonging.



    Cover: Schematic visualiztion of the Solidarity Trinity.

    fig. 1: Diagram showing an example of the variations of the members' Sense of Personal Growth, Sense of Achievement, and Sense of Belonging over time in comparison to what the collective's status about theses senses is. ˝ Aiwen Yin.



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