Update: As of the end of January, 2020, the Unseen Festival (comprising of Unseen International, Unseen Media and Unseen Amsterdam) has filed for bankrupcy and is looking forward to a take-over and new partners.
"Despite successful previous editions and financially powerful donors, the organizer of the renowned Amsterdam photo festival Unseen is bankrupt. Curator Angelina Bakker confirms this to RTL Z.
Unseen is an international art and photography festival that has been held annually in Amsterdam since 2012. The event features financially strong sponsors such as ING and KPMG Meijburg and receives subsidy from the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts."
It all started innocently enough. I signed up to work for Unseen as a cashier and in parallel to that I got invited to hold a talk today, September 22nd, the last day of the festival.
Then, on the afternoon of September 16th, I received an automatic invitation by email.
"Dear Guest of The sponge, the clay, the brick and the bridge,
Unseen Amsterdam is back for its eighth edition from 20 - 22 September 2019 at Amsterdam’s Westergas. Join us to discover the latest and most cutting-edge ideas, exhibitions and projects in the world of contemporary photography.
Please find below a link to your complimentary ticket(s).
Please note that:
"Your ticket will be scanned at the entrance in exchange for a wristband”
Well, yes, I would be doing the scanning!
I wondered whether they knew. They must have known, right?! Did they? That I was already bound to work 3 days worth of shifts in the confusing position of paid volunteer. I printed out the ticket at home alongside 20 pages of instructions as a general briefing wondering in full honesty if any of this prep work shouldn’t also be paid, alongside the logged hours, since we aren’t really doing the Lord´s work here and this prep is so Unseen specific as to require heavy intellectual lifting and specialised knowledge that can only be applied to the construction that is this particular festival. I also printed a contract and 7 additional pages of instructions that relate to my actual job at Unseen, that of worker behind a kassa. And 8 pages of kassa specific instructions that relate only to the opening night. Along with the program booklet, the city program flyer and an open gallery night booklet.
In the grand scheme of things, if Adam Smith is anything to go by, the division of labour should ease the way in which work is done by dividing one task per worker or workers, which makes it easier for a worker to specialise in one thing, not worry about the bigger picture, and speed up production. But here I was, more than 100 years from the release of “The Wealth of Nations”, being handed out instructions to allow me to understand an entire festival structure as a worker, while being paid 12 euros + tax per hour, for a total of 3 days.
One might think that what Adam Smith describes is alienating. Not understanding where you fit in a larger structure means you’re just a cog in a machine. You do the same thing over and over and you’re also highly replaceable. Then again, while I appreciated the generosity of information that I was given, allowing me to gain a deeper understanding and have a bird’s eye view, the rate at which I was about to be paid, didn’t really speak of my liberation.
But I had ways to trace this back to 50 years ago, closer to the present, the very height of liberation, when the generation prior to mine started demanding they be involved in all areas of production. How was that achieved? I´d say as a reaction to Adam Smith.
According to Marshall McLuhan in The Medium is the Massage:
“The young today reject goals. They want roles - R-O-L-E-S. That is, total involvement. They do not want fragmented specialised goals or jobs.”
So I get my fucking role. But my own position as an artist had always been one of embodied curiosity. So instead of simply reading my instructions, I tried, in advance and during my work, to better understand my position as a worker and what sort of structures the festival I was about to embark in reproduced.
Going towards Hito Steyerl´s statements in Politics of the Contemporary, Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy:
“A standard way of relating politics to art assumes that art represents political issues in one way or another. But there is a much more interesting perspective: the politics of art as a place of work. Simply look at what it does - not what it shows.”
So I read through my Contract as a cashier:
“Party A is engaged on a freelance basis for Unseen Amsterdam 2019.”
Party A. That is me!
“The parties expressly agree and acknowledge that the relationship created by this Agreement is one of Independent Contractor. The Company is not the employer of Party A, and Party A is not, and will not be treated as, an employee of The Company for tax and insurance purposes or otherwise.”
Here are though "seven warning signs your contractor might actually be an employee under the law:
1. You define the work hours: Generally, independent contractors do the job as they see fit. They set their own hours and work how and when they want. And they should be paid by the project -- never on an hourly basis.” Contract extract: Compensation: The Company agrees to pay Party A an hourly fee of 12 Euros (excl. VAT) for the services. The agreed hours and working days are: as follows.”
2. "You provide equipment or supplies: A hallmark of independent contractors is the fact they supply their own tools, equipment and supplies. After all, contractors are, by definition, independent professionals. It makes sense they would have their own ladder, laptop or lawn mower.” Contract extract: "Dress code: We kindly ask you to wear black trousers and black or dark shoes.”
3. "The relationship is indefinite: This is another red flag. The more permanent — or even long-term — the relationship, the more likely the worker is an employee. Remember, contractors work on a temporary basis.” This is not the case with Unseen.
4. “You don't receive invoices: The contractor should be treated as a vendor under accounts payable. You should receive invoices, and payment checks should be written to the business name — never the individual.” This is not the case with Unseen.
5. "The worker only works for you: Independent contractors typically work with multiple clients. Contractor status is more apparent if the worker is servicing other customers at the same time he or she is handling your project.” Contract: Non-compete: Party A agrees via signature below that whilst submitting proposals for The Company they will not work for The Company’s competitor(s) without prior formal consent of The Company unless agreed otherwise.
6. "There isn’t a contract: To protect your business, you should always have a signed agreement." This is not the case with Unseen.
7. "The worker performs core business services: Contractors should provide supplemental services but shouldn’t be an integral part of your business. For example, if you use a contractor to build a website for your construction company, that’s not a core business service. But if your business is designing websites — and your web designers are independent contractors — that could be a problem.” Volunteer briefing extract: Please take ownership: we rely on you and our on-site staff to provide our visitors with the best experience possible. You are the face of Unseen Amsterdam, so please smile and be accommodating to all visitors.
I count 4 out of 7. But I’m stretching it.
At the same time while reading through my contract I get reminded of the rest of my existence. Earlier this year I released a book. It talked about precarious living and working conditions for artists, but not only. I placed that book with a renowned Berlin based distribution service. On the same September 16th, a month after issuing an invoice for 17 copies sold I get the following email back from my distributor:
There s no cash right now
We re doing fairs and cash will come back to us end of month
You should just ship more books already.
Too bad I can t take some to chicago... but there will be other occasions.”
The invoice in question is in the amount of little over 100 Euros. The distributor´s commission is 60%.
I decide to get back to reading my Unseen festival instructions before I have to leave for my food delivery courier shift later in the evening. Both of these jobs, in the span of a couple of days, rather than months, make up for the invoice that my book distributor refuses to pay. Both jobs though contain no element of glamour, but simply one of service.
I take tram 19 and switch to the 5 in order to get from home to the bike depot. I read on through the instructions that I printed for myself:
The catering crew and runners will take care of the garbage bags. However, if you see garbage littering the ground, please remove it, and put it in a bin.
Please read the program booklet (emailed to you) carefully and try to learn as much as you can about the different programme elements. Try to understand what is happening at each exhibition and where they are on the terrain so you can direct visitors. It is important that you also know which leading artists are being featured in what section.
Wish the visitor an amazing day!
By the end of 5 hours biking, I´m almost 50 Euros “richer”.
Coincidentally, or rather not, I have a good friend that started working for the build-up of Unseen a few months back. She was contracted as a freelancer as well. She is a graduate of a renowned Dutch art academy.
She told me the following:
"I have asked at my job what exactly we worked on. Still not completely sure, but again, none of us was.
The company I work for had to build a tiny artist residency house on wheels. It is meant for an artist resident. There is an extra part of the house which slides off from the top of the house so ‘the artist’ can make an exhibition. The entire thing is made out of three layer plastic, it is terribly hot or cold there, depending where the camper with the house is around. We suggested to our superiors to put in Air conditioning since being inside is unbearable after only a few minutes.
Me, and three other ‘fresh’ graduates served the purpose of helping hands and were paid 15 euros per hour + tax. We are unskilled workers. Transport is not paid. We don’t have gloves to protect our hands during the work. Since I am not into this business so much I would not know what the necessary safety requirement are.
I get small injuries and backpain, but this is also a bit my fault because I should be more careful and know my boundaries.
Nevertheless I am happy with this work first because I do not work in service which is for me utterly tiring and frustrating and I really had enough, second for the pay which is for my current conditions decent and I think therefore I feel much more appreciated on contrary to my other jobs.”
I´d like to get back to the concept of Independent contractor. And I´d like to lead with the idea which Simone Zeefuik, a writer, activist and decolonizer brought to the fore recently. The fact that: "You can’t blame someone for being the product of something. But you can hold someone responsible for reproducing something."
And in that sense I want to put the onus on Unseen for not making itself fully transparent to its audience, which just happens to be largely also artists and future artists, young men and women within artistic education. What happens is that there’s the visible side of things, much of which we aspire to, and there’s that which is less obvious to the ones that are participating in one role or another. There’s also a way of reproducing what’s questionable in the world of work, the precarious conditions which we shy away from usually talking about because we think of ourselves as being above them. The institutions which perpetuate our precarity. The way we always take this like champs, the glamorous-proletariat.
Our educational institutions though operate on the same level of promoting precariousness.
Alizé emails me on the 17th of September, and among other things she mentions:
"About budget. It has been a bit too chaotic to share any of the (unrealistic, or shall I say "ambitious") proposals. Academies provided basic material support but little close to nothing money wise. Only in Rietveld you can make your way bent and bending, so I might have found some money somewhere, still to be confirmed.”
I’ve been nurturing a restaurant job for more than a year now. I have a shift there. 8 hours. 30 minutes break. Minimum wage.
I see, from the window of my restaurant job the poster for the Unseen festival.
Right then and there I'm reminded of a Marx quote: "For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
A few hours before I end up chatting about what an artists uniform might be. What does an artist wear when they work? I personally conclude that in order to decide that one has to first define when and where the work of an artist begins and ends. What are the coordinates of what one could define as “their work”? In my particular case there is an element of respect for the social games which are played. My aim, as an artist at work, is to perfectly blend into the structure where my work takes place. It just happens that this structure is an institutional one: a restaurant, a delivery company, tonight I’m doing a festival and there’s a VIP opening coming up, so I swing by the nearby second hand store and I clothe myself in all black, aiming for relaxed, yet determined, and slip my feet into a loose pair of Prada sneakers which just happen to be sold for 10 Euros a pop, a bit under my hourly festival rate. I head out to get my festival welcome package, rouge my lips, fish for coffee and navigate the festival grounds trying to figure it out. I see, as I go, familiar faces, schoolmates, peers, all in one position of work or another, coordinating, volunteering, getting paid or not, as we´re part of a tiered system, a living and breathing hierarchy, some affording to ask for raises, since they’ve been attached to the festival for a few years now, others just beginning, and the very bottom layer of wide eyed folks who didn’t even know that one can get paid.
There are hangers on, and emotional labour workers, coordinators, and psychobiologists, book makers, TV stars, women that buy and walk away with photographs under glass and in bubble wrap, VIP bracelet holders matching their golden bracelets to their gold wrist watches, quirky men in suits. So around here its not out of the ordinary to parade around in Prada sneakers after all. There are 14 hour shifters and no pension planners, and women who are still figuring out what to do with their lives, men who came in and will only spend 40 Euros on travel round trip Berlin - Amsterdam, they’ll sleep with friends and eat hummus, Gouda cheese, and take allergy pills for their cats, while paying 400 Euros for a table in the bookmarket although they´re just printing their art books on home printers. There are the ones taking taxies at 3 in the morning towards their homes in the outskirts of the city, to that one place they can still afford. The taxi will be their little luxury after a week of double shifts.
And then there’s me.
I get drawn into the whirlwind of dressing all black, chatting and moving seamlessly between backstage and front. One can open any door at will, and then I get ideas. How can you enter a festival if you don’t have a ticket. In the case of Unseen: just damn walk in. Security doesn’t give that much of a care, and if you’re confident enough you can simply pretend to roll your sleeves to show your wristband ticket while you’re passing the cashiers, since they’ll be too busy working to keep an eye on you. Otherwise: I’ve heard hi-visibility jackets work. Nobody questions a person in a hi-vis jacket walking on festival grounds. A fake press pass is also a thing. Or, if all else fails, try holding a ladder with another friend and going through the volunteers entrance. That or become a local celebrity, build up your career for a few decades and end up being courted by festivals to be on their VIP list. Or volunteer, of course.
But the issue of how to get in is only mildly as interesting as WHY you’d want to get in in the first place.
After the first night I cannot sleep.
My feet are frozen. I forget to eat. I’m turned into an artist by the power invested in Beatrice Lontani who hands me a pink bracelet motivated by her commitment to my ongoing performance or maybe just in need of subverting the usual way things are done.
The true achievement is managing to blend the two realities in which my life has been swimming for the past years. To understand that I am multiple, that we all in fact are that, which becomes transparent with every chat I have during my work shift, but in order to achieve the confirmation of it one has to cross the boundaries of different performative fields. I am a worker and an artist, not one after the other, not one taking precedent over the other, but simultaneously.
Party A hasn’t slept well in days.
In the morning she juggles breakfast, tosses her recycled cardboard, then grabs two large wall clocks that she needs to drop on her way to her restaurant job, she pick up the guest that is staying at her place, an exhibitor in the book market of Unseen, and jumps on the first of the two trams towards the festival grounds. After one tram she passes by her restaurant and puts up one clock. Waits for a large produce delivery, then drops the other. The place is overwhelming in the morning. With two sets of hands and another one following, boxes get moved from truck, down the stairs, through to storage, fridges, hallway, at a fast pace. She pack up and goes, but then realises she cannot find her backpack. The backpack just happened to hold her MacBook, her passport, but never mind her passport, her MacBook holds this text. She feels faint. She spends the next 20 minutes looking for it all over the restaurant kitchen, but has no luck. Maybe she forgot it on the tram. Maybe the delivery guy took it? Fuck!
After five minutes more she decides there’s not much she can do so she heads out to the festival ground crying.
She overhears a passenger talking on the phone and uttering the magic words:
"Consider yourself lucky to have been removed from the burden of possessions.” She feels like ripping her head off. She´s tired. She´s overwhelmed. She spends the next 6 hours tying wristbands, selling tickets, scanning QR codes, while at the same time organising a rescue mission. She ask a friend to drop by her place, pick up a spare key, log into her iPad and get me the login to find her Mac. Unfortunately this brings her nothing. She can see the iPad on the map, yet the MacBook shows as off.
She packs lunch. She forgets to eat it.
She checks the restaurant again when her shift is over.
She checks lost and found. But it's Saturday and its closed. She thinks of looking on security cameras. She think of contacting the tram service.
She thinks, she thinks, she thinks.
According to Jan Verwoert:
"Complete exhaustion is a state we both fear and seek to reach. To one day run out of ideas and things to say is what creative people dread more than anything else. Yet, at the same time one of the strongest driving forces behind creative work continues to be the desire to push an idea to its limits, to go to extremes and only stop when all possibilities have been exhausted and, looking at the result of your efforts, you realise with pleasurable horror: this is it, this is how it must be, it could have been different, but now that the hour is late, the deadline has passed, the opening of the show or premiere of the performance is about to start, there is no way you could still change anything. Time is up and you are finally relieved from the pressure to perform. This build-up of conflicting emotions around the end of work— the completion of a particular work as well as the depletion of all possibilities to make further work— is at the heart of the drama by which artists and intellectuals in modernity have learned to experience the climax and crisis of their work as a radical form of exhaustion. It is also through this drama that avant-gardes asserted their power to bring art (as it was) to an end by terminating tradition, either to liberate following generations or to leave them with nothing more to do.
This drama is far from over. On the contrary, it has become a general social condition. As the post-industrial societies of the global north are increasingly organised around flexible, immaterial and creative labour, complete personal exhaustion in the form of the much-feared burn-out syndrome has become a collective experience of professionals in all sectors of the service society and new creative industries who feel pressed to perform to the best of their talent and abilities on their job every day. Bizarrely then, the heartfelt belief that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” that used to set the rebellious devotees of countercultural creativity apart from obedient employees, now seems to have become the first commandment of the high performance culture endorsed by advanced capitalism.”
On her way home after 17:00PM she walks slowly, knowing each step will bring her just a tiny bit closer to having lost a chunk of her life. She slids the key in the lock of her front door and turns it. She lets herself in. And there it is! Right on the floor. She feels like an idiot. In the rush of it all, exhausted, she had simply forgotten to take the bag with her. She carried it half the trip, like a phantom limb. Yet the bag, and the MacBook on that day, never left her house.
Adriane is a yoga teacher. She feeds her newsletter subscribers with daily newsletters. On Sunday, September 22nd, an email slides into Party A´s inbox.
Yet another email. This time, from Adriene.
It goes like this:
Title: Slow DOWN. Get PAID.
Subtitle: “By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond winning.” Lao Tzu
Hello Alina Lupu,
I hope this love letter finds you feeling good. If not, I hope it shifts soon, dear one.
I write to you from my home in Austin. Cozy clothes, messy hair, soft heart, kind of tired, piano playing in the background.
Last week we hosted our monthly Community Yoga event and I swear I have not stopped moving since.
So, for me, you can bet -
This weekend is all about slowing down.
We need it.
With the pace of modern day living and the downright chaos of screens, it’s so vital that we create space for downtime.
When we create space for downtime, we provide ourselves with opportunity to engage with our life in a way that feels good.
Studies have also shown that when we carve out space for downtime we create opportunity for more focused productivity and creativity.
As someone who juggles a lot of projects at once, and as someone who runs a business - it’s clear… I have to pencil in time just for me, body and soul.
And, it’s clear…
When I do, I am able to hold so much space for others. Ideas and the ability to focus comes easier to me. It’s good. I am good. There is joy.
Could you benefit from creating more space in your life to rest, relax, be still, go for a walk without your phone, or commit to a daily practice on the mat?
If you circled yes…
This week’s free Self Love Meditation is a great place to start.
You can practice this one seated or lying down.
It’s 13 minutes, take it, baby.
Even if it’s just a stop drop and Savasana, offering yourself ample downtime will calm the nervous system and invite equanimity into your life.
Take time to quiet down daily and you will no doubt feel a shift in your physical and mental health.
Slowing down pays off.
If you can afford it.