labour, Aida Sánchez de Serdio Martín

narrator Aida Sánchez de Serdio Martín
term labour
published 5 May 2016, Madrid, Spain
affiliated institution Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

A term for a glossary can never be a neutral or abstract definition. It is a situated tool with a specific use-value and at the same time a performative act of meta-language. Therefore, I think it is important that we operate a reflective turn on l'Internationale and the institutions that are part of it and refer to concrete experience (or instances of reality) when we discuss theoretical issues. It is also important that we situate our discourse making explicit our position within this framework. I am writing this from the awkward position of a half-insider in my institution and a newcomer to l'Internationale. Moreover, I work with two departments (Education and Publics) that traditionally have a subordinate role in museums – the ones that are not expected to produce any theoretical critical thought, but to provide a service. We do maintenance work. We do the cleaning and we do the listening. We deal with the multitude and with the mass, sometimes even with the mob. We do unglamorous tasks, as Nora Sternfeld (2010) would call it: we deal with the tedious, the disagreeable, the compromised, the unsound and the un-presentable on daily basis. This is the place from where I speak.


In this exploration of the term labour, I will be moving gradually from a notion of constituency in the sense of the collectives we engage with, and from there I will move on to imagine how that engagement implies a challenge that exceeds dialogue, but actually should lead to an overturn of the ways in which the institution works. There is a risk of identifying constituency just with a particular target group audience or group of interest, but although I think that constituencies are definitely not an audience or a fraction of the public, I also think it is important to keep the term related to specific configurations of relations among specific people in specific conditions. I hope I can walk successfully on this thin tight rope.


The notion of constituencies implies a particular relationship with the art institution. The introduction to the concept in the L’Internationale website argues that constituencies provide the public institutions with the building blocks to re-imagine their role in the production of new forms of citizenship, and also that alter-institutionality is based on a shift away from hierarchical, top-down and ‘broadcast’ based models of knowledge dissemination (constituencies). We must accept that within this paradigm, constituencies are expected to perform many tasks and produce many effects – namely, made productive in many dimensions (cognitive, emotional, corporeal, theoretical, symbolic).


At the same time, this productivity is more specific and more intense than that of mere audiences or users. In contemporary forms of cultural consumption audiences become more and more involved in the reproduction and dissemination of value through their active participation (for example in TV shows, the Internet, the theatre, cultural institutions). As a post-industrial figure, users have become prosumers: professional consumers that can determine a niche of specialised consumption or even of production (especially in technology). In both cases, consumption and production become two inextricable dimensions (Duarte & Bernat 2009).


When cultural institutions decide to shift towards the paradigm of constituencies, they go beyond this synergistic dependency of production and consumption. Constituencies are fluid and mutable, never instituted. They are contingently and transitorily becoming such through specific configurations of relations, and therefore are not defined by an essential quality, but neither are they defined nor produced by the institution – rather they have a relative autonomy and agency independent from it. Constituencies imply a different notion of involvement, agency, accountability and co-responsibility. They do not just participate in and enhance the circulation of value determined by an institution, but have a role of interpellation and of critical dialogue with it. Finally, the relation between the institution and the constituencies is not one of mutual use, but one of mutual challenge in the production of the above-mentioned non-hierarchical models of knowledge dissemination and new forms of citizenship.


However, whenever we discuss constituencies, we have to consider their contribution as labour too, both within and outside the institution. This widens the debate beyond theoretical discussions that have their origin and rationale in the agendas of the art institutions themselves, and opens it to the conflictual dialogue with the debates of some of the collectives identified by the museums of l’Internationale as ‘their’ ‘constituencies’. By introducing the notion of labour, new terms and tensions enter the discussion about constituencies such as recognition, autonomy, negotiation, collaboration, retribution, distribution, gift, commodity, money, precariousness, exploitation, (mis)use, etc. (Note that these concepts can work both ways but almost never are symmetrical).


Independently of their nature, the work of constituencies in relation to cultural institutions has to be discussed in the light of the analyses of cultural work in contemporary post-Fordism. Within this context, constituencies are positioned as cultural workers and therefore share the same paradoxes and complexities. They perform immaterial labour (Lazzarato 1997) in which cognitive and affective dimensions are fundamental, setting subjectivity at the centre of production. These conditions relate to feminists analysis of cultural work (Ruido 2004, McRobbie 2010) and of domestic and care work (Federici 2013). Very often they are highly skilled, educated creative subjects, although that does not translate into a privileged position but rather they are precarious workers that face low or irregular wages and unstable employment (Ruido & Rowan 2007). They feel the pressure of the ideology of entrepreneurship, self-mangement and human capital on the one hand, and the struggle for social rights as an essential element of culture on the other (Lazzarato 2008). They can even be in extreme conditions of non-citizenship or endangered citizenship, as in the cases when migrants and refugees are somehow and paradoxically turned into cultural workers through their involvement in cultural institutions.


To a certain extent, the notion that cultural and artistic activities are not work has its origin in the dominant narratives about art as a romantic self-expressive impulse, but also in the resistance of many artists against the reduction of their creation to a material or economic exchange (Lorey 2008, Von Osten 2008). Moreover, cultural work is mainly built on and sustained by the motivation, enthusiasm and even pleasure that cultural workers experience while doing it. For a contemporary cultural worker it is not easy to tell friends from colleagues, desire from demands, socialising from networking. Therefore, cultural labour is not always paid, or it is paid insufficiently –sometimes other values are at play such as recognition, prestige and even self-realisation- creating situations that border exploitation.


Cultural institutions establish more or less engaged relationships with constituency groups, often in the form of collaboration. To collaborate seems to imply a situation in which the agents involved enter freely or consciously into a shared and co-defined process that levels to a certain degree their unequal power positions. Even if it is so (and we can argue that all these assumptions should be interrogated rather than taken for granted), the Latin root labor is nonetheless present in the word collaboration, indicating that we cannot ignore that work is at stake here too (Yudice 2002). Even when we work together, we do not do it under the same conditions. Therefore, issues of recognition, distribution and retribution must be considered carefully.


Certainly not everything can -or even should- be reduced to a monetary equivalent (a movement that is responsible for the abstraction of work into an exchangeable amount of time/value). We also run the risk of turning constituencies into just subcontracted workers for the institution. Money is important, but other values are at play, such as transparency and a democratic distribution of roles and resources. Here I quote the minutes of the l'Internationale constituencies groups meeting here in Liverpool in 2014:


[It is important] To avoid a situation that unconsciously replicates power structures i.e. institutional framing/ community participating; some gendered bodies doing more admin and others doing more speaking; discourses formed within particular educational contexts; etc. These formations are at the heart of vertical cultural organisations that folks want to change so it will be important to find ways to unsettle routines of speaking and listening and for people to try on other, less comfortable, roles that allow everyone to reflect on power within the groups. This will be important on the local level, on the level of the management group and also at the next network encounter, all of which risk settling into institutionally dominant paradigms.


Even with this negotiation or dialogical tone, the discussion is pushing the term constituency towards a disruption of institutional structures, as I hinted at the beginning of this presentation. Specific but non-targetable groups of people can challenge institutional structures. This disruption can happen through a storming of the institution, through an accepted taking over of the institution, or through long-term collaborations. Of course, how radical or reformist these transformations are is an issue here.


We don't know constitutive power can be related to the institution because as it's already been said they are opposed to each other, but I will end by just listing a series of aspects that would certainly be destabilised in the institution when it enters this questioning by constituencies:


  • The number and kinds of subjects (regarding body ability, race, sexuality, age, class, cultural capital, nationality, etc.) legitimated to interpellate the institution.
  • The forms knowledge and of knowledge production that are considered to be valid in this dialogue.
  • The established distinctions between rational-irrational, intellectual-affective, mind-body.
  • The disposition and regulation of times and spaces
  • The criteria about what should be inside and outside the museum
  • The criteria about what aspects of the institution should be visibilised or invisibilised
  • The decision making processes and the agents involved in those
  • The financing and economic management of the institution
  • The accountability processes regarding what, how and to whom to be accountable
  • The contents and activities.


Now the question is how cultural institutions can respond to the challenge.

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