Joshua Schwebel: Subsidy

Joshua Schwebel: Subsidity
Exhibition catalogue, with essays by: Amber Landgraff, Isabell Lorey, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, Catarina Pires, Joshua Schwebel, Livia Tarsia, Marina Vishmidt
Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2016
15,00 € EUR

The man gives away not only his time, but everything that he has that might be of value. And the doorkeeper ‘takes it all’ but, as he does so, says “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” –Shoshana Schwebel

In a recent Canada Council survey on granting priorities for young creative workers, the under-35 set resoundingly demanded increased access to funding, while older workers called for mentorship (a gentle euphemism for internships). This is telling: established workers would sooner monopolize funding for their own programs than allow young workers autonomous access to their closed world. We’re led to believe that getting what we need means undercutting our peers. This lack of solidarity is one symptom of trickle-down precarity in the arts; unpaid internships are another.

Discussions about arts internships tend to fall along one of two lines—an emphatic insistence that interns be paid (but how?), or a wincing shrug that insists that while internships are distasteful, bringing them up is more so, and distracts us from our important work.
This “do more with less” culture, paired with an attitude of artistic exceptionalism and austerity-bred risk-aversion, has blotted out the idea that intergenerational solidarity might be possible in the arts. Solidarity is for other fields with more resources.

This being the case, demonstrations of solidarity are met with a comical degree of collar-tugging, as was the case when Joshua Schwebel, a Canadian artist-in-residence at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in 2015, floated his idea for SUBSIDY, a wry but radical gesture of doing less with less.

With Künstlerhaus Bethanien’s hesitant permission, Schwebel divided his exhibition budget equally among the institution’s seven interns as a stipend for their otherwise-unpaid work. For the duration of the exhibition, two of these interns would perform their usual duties inside a makeshift office in the gallery space, hung only with the project’s paper trail of letters and bank transfers, and constructed using funds Schwebel siphoned from his otherwise-unused publicity budget.

In this single deft gesture of reallocating existing funds and workers, Schwebel inserted a pebble of discomfort into the shoe of the institution. The transaction rendered the interns’ invisible labour visible, while at the same time making their absence felt by the salaried staff, gently confronting them with an inequity they had, until then, unthinkingly benefited from. The interns were shown to be both real individuals as well as temporary embodiments of the lopsided labour practices upon which so many cultural institutions depend. Writes political theorist Isabell Lorey of the project, “Money is a flash that lights up the circuits of power in the institution, hence Subsidy takes money as its means of material realization. An institution is forced to recognize the labour of its unpaid staff by means of money, which means it is at the same time forced to recognize this time as labour time, and itself as an exploiter.”

The year-long residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien also included an allowance for a glossy exhibition catalogue, something Schwebel saw as a vanity. He instead used this budget to pay eight essayists, two of whom were the very interns present during the exhibition, to share their thoughts on precarity. Unembellished documentation of Schwebel’s intervention is nestled among these pieces. The writings reflect the diverse creative backgrounds of Schwebel’s chosen essayists and trace connections between the themes of visible/invisible labour, access, the speculative nature of creative work, how debt shapes our relationship with risk, and the neoliberal influence on the way we frame our advantages and disadvantages. Over the course of SUBSIDY, these themes come together to chart the ley lines of precarity’s stranglehold on our creative practices and working lives, in a stylistic gradation from weighty academic precision to impressionistic musings.

In the opening essay, Amber Landgraff takes a matter-of-fact look at the toxic labour issues resulting from the “do more with less” climate, examining the psychological cost of getting your foot in the door as an emerging practitioner and outlining the organizational capacity issues that arise from a dependence on unpaid work. The essay is an accessible and eye-opening primer on the climate that expects us to give freely of our time, with passion, without expectation of recompense, and without complaint when our participation puts us in debt. As a longtime curator, arts organizer and labour advocate, Landgraff pragmatically suggests that this climate stems from a neoliberal tendency to meet failures stemming from systemic disadvantage with quiet self-blame, cheery pluckiness, and “passionate self-exploitation”, to defend and distract ourselves from a phenomenon we’re too small to change.

Walking out of this essay, the reader is left with a sort of sick dread—the perfect mental state for Shoshana Schwebel’s “No Entry: On Kafka and the Space of the Corridor,” which explores the emotional life of a precarious worker through the lens of Franz Kafka’s Imperial Message. She describes the anxiety of waiting, of stripping oneself bare of protection to plead our way past gatekeepers, of not knowing how many further corridors follow the one we’re trapped in. Easily the emotive highlight of the book, the text perfectly evokes the restless desperation of giving away labour for the dubious value of being associated with an organization that barely notices you’re there.

Alongside these writings are more theoretical texts by Isabell Lorey and critic Marina Vishmidt, who widen the view to an examination of how precarity and debt subtly shape human interaction, create personal and political risk-aversion, and leave us with a deficit of empathy for other people in similarly precarious situations. Although somewhat impassive, Lorey and Vishmidt’s texts are ultimately rewarding, observantly pinpointing the mechanisms underlying both Schwebel’s work and the larger social necessity of it.

In two short texts on the Künstlerhaus Bethanien experience, Catarina Pires and Livia Tarsia in Curia observe with measured neutrality the forces at play within the exhibition itself. Ambitious MFA students tasked with sorting mail and shredding papers, the interns write with the resigned neutrality of those who feel no particular inclusion in the institution, but are determined to pull learning from an otherwise fruitless experience. Their voices of cool detachment are a foil both to the incensing texts that precede them and the sweet vulnerable hand-written projects that conclude the book—several introspective diagrammatic pages in tight self-effacing scribble by Birte Endrejat on visible and invisible work in her artistic practice, and a beguiling and somewhat romantic letter from Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay to Schwebel, sent before the exhibition opened. The letter especially is a much-needed reprieve after the sobering reflection on our oft-thankless field. It describes, in looping diagonal scrawl, a dream Ramsay had in which he was invited to a collector’s house as part of an art performance. Asked to perform menial labour for the benefit of the collector, Nemerofsky Ramsay instead feels compelled to hide “Ross” candies amongst the collector’s possessions in a roundabout, conciliatory show of affection.

The letter is interspersed with small colourful drawings and two pages that appear to be torn from a book, but are in fact still Nemerofsky Ramsay’s own writing: a counterfeit novel about a quietly ambiguous protagonist performing small acts of benign mischief that upset the power dynamics around him—most certainly an allegory for Schwebel’s work. In this final, very personal contribution, Nemerofsky Ramsay reminds us of the power of soft solidarity. Showing our vulnerabilities to our peers, reserving our time and attention for them, and earnestly admiring each other’s accomplishments in a climate of smiling self-sacrifice is a refreshingly radical act.