Mercenary for hire? The freelance cultural worker in Europe

June 26, 2023, 3:27 pm

by Yasen Vasilev

In the following text, commissioned by CAE and adapted from my keynote in Barcelona, I speak about and from my position as a cultural worker in Europe, in order to raise some questions that I do not have the answers for but that can serve as conversation-openers among experts and policy makers on the topic of working conditions in the cultural field in Europe. Ever since “Circulating artists, defunded infrastructures” was published on Springback magazine and widely read and shared, I have been thinking and writing on the topic of working conditions in the frame of different initiatives, most recently the Flander Arts Institute’s “A Fair New Idea”, where I worked in a team of cultural workers on a Letter to address inequality in international collaborations.

I use the word “worker” rather than freelancer to connect with Hito Steyerl’s 2013 essay Freedom from everything: Freelancers and mercenaries”, in which she describes how contemporary corporate capitalism is bringing us back to feudal forms of governance. Stateless and masterless like medieval mercenaries. “The word “freelance” derives from the medieval term for a mercenary soldier, a “free lance,” that is, a soldier who is not attached to any particular master or government and can be hired for a specific task. The term was first used by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) in Ivanhoe to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior” or “free-lance,” indicating that the lance is not sworn to any lord’s services. It changed to a figurative noun around the 1860s and was recognized as a verb in 1903 by authorities in etymology such as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Freelancers live in negative freedom – free from paid healthcare, pension, social security, vacation, paid sick leave, unemployment benefits, maternity leave, property, stability and political positions. In another lecture-essay “Art as occupation”, Hito Steyerl talks about the replacement of the word “labour” with the word “occupation” in official policy documents: labour is paid, fixed in time and results in a product; occupation is a voluntary, flexible, never-ending form of self-improvement whose value lies in itself (work for self-improvement and exposure). In the IETM’s 2022 publication “Which side are you on?”, Katja Praznik makes a historical analysis of the reasons why art is not considered work and therefore can be paid with exposure (going back to the difference between artisan and artist and the result that art is not seen as labour but as creation, the manifestation of one’s talent). She calls for transnational unionisation as a way to improve working conditions.

The freelance field is currently operating on precarity, self-exploitation, enforced nomadism, exhaustion and burnout. Much as I criticise these neoliberal conditions, I have to admit that I myself have become their perfect subject: cosmopolitan, rootless, detached, constantly on the move, ghosting places and people, comfortable in different contexts, fast, efficient and flexible enough to make it all work. I do this both from necessity – because I did not want to give up my dream to work in the cultural sector, as many of my peers more or less did – and from privilege: others may simply not have the choice.

What we learnt in Bulgaria, my home country, in the three years since the pandemic is that the radical (and temporary) increase of public budgets in emergency measures does not in itself lead to better working conditions. Low pay largely persisted, the money went towards overproduction, infrastructure remained as bad, and there were not enough audiences for so many cultural “products” (another term we need to question). Organisations still compete rather than cooperate with each other, and instead of fighting to expand stable employment, many in the independent scene advocate for the dissolution of the old State ensembles system so that funding for salaries can be redirected to project funding for freelancers in a flexible, short-term and precarious labour market.

I wonder if we can have both stability and independence. Can we improve conditions across the board? Can we reach some sort of collective agreement on basic red lines that should not be crossed? Below, in no particular order, are some preliminary questions that I think can open the complex discussion about the status of the cultural worker in Europe.

Who counts as a cultural worker on a European level? Should the criteria be based on the number of contracted days per year, the income earned in the field for a particular time, the CV, or something else? How do we deal with the multiple roles artists often work in? How do we make sure we include the unpaid administration and production that artists do to sustain their practice in the calculated hours of work?

Can we establish systems of care and safety nets that buy time for rest and slowing down and that are specific to one’s practice, position and experience? Cultural workers need to have unemployment benefits (the Belgian model of “statut d’artiste”), sick leave and paid holidays to counter the exhaustion and burnout endemic in the field. Dancers, for example, also need specific and sometimes expensive physical procedures. Artist-parents need additional support to be able to continue their work in the field. The list can go on.

Can we shift the funding focus from production to practice and research? Might one, three or five-year grants allow workers to focus full time on their practice without demanding a new production? Currently, measures of impact and evaluation endemic to the cultural field incentivise constant overproduction, encouraging surplus output that is neither needed, nor indicative of work that requires more time for introspection.

Can there be EU-wide guidelines about structural funding that promote stable employment, and not only for administrative staff? Structural funding is more than a one-year project grant. It is three or five-year funding that includes administrative staff, allows stability and long-term planning, and guarantees the foreseeable future of an organisation. Beyond the people needed to run an organisation, can employment be extended to the people creating the “product” – the artists?

Can we establish EU-wide social security for artists in temporary work? In France and Belgium, artists are compensated for periods of unemployment. In Norway, a union contracts freelancers and then pays them for the days they’re not in projects. The provision of social security status for artists is vital for their professional security.

Can we put pressure on organisations who are known for unethical practices? Can we agree that in 2023 work for exposure is no longer an option? That unpaid internships are no longer an option? That percentage of the box office is not a valid form of payment? That artists coming from poorer countries cannot be paid less because they have a different “standard of living”?

Can we guarantee access to public infrastructure? Many contexts across the continent are still struggling with insufficient workspaces and limited access to public infrastructure. If we require output productivity, we need to ensure the bare minimum for cultural production – a (rehearsal) room of one’s own.

Can we establish common, regulated, transnational and union-negotiated pay scales and guidelines for fees? This avoids uneven negotiation on the free market. Belgium and The Netherlands already have some systems in place, with fees based on years of experience, type of work, number of hours, and so on. We often hear that standard fees can’t apply internationally because of economic differences between nations. I think common standards are necessary and possible as an incentive to increase fees, especially in places where cultural workers are systematically underpaid, and I don’t think that this is a particularly radical idea.

How can cultural workers strike? I wonder by what means cultural workers can take collective action – and what differences withholding our labour would make – and to whom? In the words of Katja Praznik: “I believe we need a mass union of organised solidary art workers who with the sheer mass of their bodies and voices are able to make your theatre stages empty, your museum and gallery walls and rooms void, your radios and speakers silent, your cinemas dark, your book shelves empty and your streets boring and uneventful.”

The COVID-19 crisis revealed structural vulnerabilities and opened up the conversation around the conditions of cultural workers. There were numerous texts, workshops, conferences, roundtables and discussions, there are studies, data, figures and projections. The momentum should not be missed to advocate for political support that can make all these good ideas out there a reality and improve the working conditions and lives of the cultural workers in Europe.


Further reading:

A Letter For Transnational Fair Practice

Which side are you on? Idea for Reaching Fair Working Conditions in the Arts

How to (make) dance in Berlin – A Toolbox for a Better Work Culture in the Independent Dance Scene

Juist is juist

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