As part of the project “Political Dimensions of Cultural Praxis and Knowledge Production”, we are publishing a conversation between Johanna Gonschorek and Clara Laila Abid Alsstar, in which they exchange their experiences of working within the creative industry and art eduction.
Clara Laila Abid Alsstar is an artist, art mediator and historian based in Munich and Hamburg, who currently works in a museum.
Johanna Gonschorek is an artist, art mediator, and researcher based in Munich.
Read more about the series — https://syg.ma/@sygma/political-dimensions-of-cultural-praxis-and-knowledge-production
Текст на русском можно прочитать по ссылке — https://syg.ma/@sygma/poisk-miesta-v-etom-mirie
J.G.: What would you like to talk about?
C.L.A.A.: So mostly, it would be about work stuff and structural racism… It’s every day in my life, every day and every night, in my dreams and…. (laughs)… So this is basically my subject. But in the last few weeks, it has been about boundaries too. To stay within them, and to develop strategies how to work at the same workplace everyday…
C.L.A.A.: And… Actually It feels very personal to speak about it because the last few days or weeks at work were not easy. I felt cornered, and I behaved very defensive. It’s so fucked up. I mean oppressors perform everywhere regardless of age, gender, class, or race. Through meditation, I tried to find a different approach towards my work and self-esteem in order to not quit the job. How far do you identify yourself with your workplace? It is a tricky thing to do discrimination critical, political work in an environment that forms through a kind of patronising and violating relationship. In the last few months, I worked with a colleague and we found a way to work with each other more as equals than as competitors. It was a good experience, one of my first institutional work experiences. I learned how you can work with each other even in difficult times — we met as equals regardless of my status as a rookie. And now I get to know a different one… (laughs uneasily)
I know that my colleagues were in the same position. It’s established: hard work gets things done. Is this the way in which things must be done? Who do I want to convince that this is the way work has to be done or this is what a workplace has to feel like? Who invented how work and work-relationships have to function?
Yeah… So what is yours?
J.G.: I am thinking about different kinds of power structures — the other day we talked about police violence and how power structures invade your private life through a certain structure. We also talked about the work ethics in Germany and what is considered a valuable life here, which is most of the time — working as much and as hard as you can and developing strategies to overcome your physical boundaries, that withhold you from reaching a higher outcome in your productivity.
J.G.: Which is totally questionable. I experienced this abuse of power in the theatre and gallery context. There was a clear work division between assistants and directors or bosses. When something did not work out, it was always your — the assistants' — fault. As an assistant, you get less than minimum wage and sometimes work without a contract. I needed these jobs to make ends meet so I stayed some time. The justification for letting anger out on the employees was the good old: “I went through the same thing.” Which was often not true, because in certain age groups and in less neoliberal times careers started differently… Or they were just born in wealthy families.
C.L.A.A.: Yeah, that’s most of the time an excuse.
J.G.: In the case of people who actually experience that, this perpetuation or mimicry of dominance is also a structural violent behaviour needed to justify a certain way of accumulation. Because as an assistant for example you make this traumatic experience and then have no alternative, or you feel you have no alternative, than going through it, and when you are finally out of it you think: “It is unfair I had to go through this traumatic experience so the other person who is now younger than me or even not so much younger, but who is at the point I was, will be treated the same way in order for me to get what I want quicker.” Even if one does not do it consciously. That way, this behaviour is a justification of violence and it is fruitful for capitalist thinking… Or otherwise, it means consciously using people to extract their value — thoughts, looks, abilities — anything that might be useful for your business or your project in order to claim it as all your genius in the end. Because you just can.
C.L.A.A.: Yes, I agree.
J.G.: By justifying this violence you can justify further violence. You know what is funny? You think about quitting but I do not even know where to go. I do not even know what to quit from. (laughing)
I think the solution is what you said before, about creating your own spaces. Where you can be self-determined and make your own rules, invent new working and living environments that are more congruent to your values. But finances are a big problem, money or the lack of it can mess with these sensitive issues, through dependencies or pressure. It is difficult. Did you know that the Frankfurt school just happened because there was this really rich guy who was giving them a lot of money?
It is not because I am a capitalist and I think that you can solve everything with money, but especially if you want to start something new you need some kind of start capital, it is not easy without it.
C.L.A.A.: It definitely is something soothing and fundamental to have a fixed income. On the one hand, a good feeling — not worrying so much anymore about your income is a big relief. On the other hand, you have to commit a little more to the structures as they are. But we always have to.
I mean, I did a lot of jobs. And this kind of suppressing way to work, where your boss is like a bully is actually most common and not just in institutions. It’s actually a challenge for me to accept authorities or hierarchical structures over me. But no one in my family can. I always fantasise about building something with people together where we meet at a very horizontal level. I don’t know… Just trying to figure something out (laughs). Indeed, I could argue: “You have to get stronger and find a way to accept things as they are". There is a part of me that also knows how privileged that is — even to think that I have an actual choice in these matters. We have to find a way to live in it and with it. So, I think I am standing at the same point as you, where you have to find a place in this world.
It is not easy to find a place. Maybe it is changing every second. Maybe there is no fixed way to do it, I don’t know. Do you know what I mean?
C.L.A.A.: Maybe we have this kind of idea because we were socialised that way. With this idea that we have to find a fixed job and a fixed family and so on…
J.G: Yeah. That is true.
C.L.A.A.: But maybe that is not the way life goes for everyone.
J.G: Yeah. I had to change my direction a lot over the last years. It was because of health. Some things just happen, and you have to deal with them, but I must say that my illness was also the result of being overworked and physically and mentally exhausted. In the past, I saw work as an essential part of identity, and finding myself was connected to finding work and in that, the right kind of work. But what I experienced was exploitation within the field of fine arts and outside of it too. Exploitation through capitalistic structures mixes well with a certain very German way to think about work, which is — to work all the time, and to work until you break.
C.L.A.A.: Before that, you have not done any work.
J.G.: And it is also not about working well, it is about working until you break.
J.G.: When you do well, it’s a given, it’s the normal thing. So you work well all the time and when you are sick, or make mistakes — please come to work anyway and take responsibility for the mistakes you did and you alone are responsible for.
And it is also about you being a resource. I mean there is a reason why it is called human resources, because capitalism uses your body as a resource. And thus, if you let the system exploit your body too much and you get sick, you will have to change your personality to deal with it. That’s why people are the way they are.
C.L.A.A.: Yeah, totally.
J.G.: So, if you are not willing to let this system of accumulation change your body or your personality you are kind of stuck. Sometimes you don’t even have a choice. If I as an ill person don’t force myself to change my view on things or don’t do things differently I won’t survive. Thus, I cannot even play the game anymore. Sometimes I think like — fuck (laughs). But it is also a relief.
J.G.: And to no-one it appears that it might also be important to be happy in this whole context. There is a lack of joy that I am sensing.
C.L.A.A.: But right now, it is not just about feeling joy. First, it is about a mode of survival.
I think we have to recognise this and acknowledge it. It is about surviving in this society with all its pretty, shiny and “perfectly” ordered things. It is about surviving the social and political system like it is. So sometimes I feel blocked or uneasy about the thought that I have to be happy as well. Right now, I am just thinking about surviving, although I know at the same time that life could be worse…
J.G.: But it is funny, when we talked about Sara Ahmed’s model of the feminist killjoy, the person that interrupts a pleasing atmosphere for certain individuals by reminding them of their violent behaviour (e.g. racism or sexism), you said that you do not want to be unhappy all the time.
C.L.A.A.: The ambivalence between complaining on a high, privileged level and the actual struggle with the structure and the feeling of being isolated in this fight is capitalistic and supremacy shit. It strengthens the behaviour that keeps people quiet in an epistemic system.
C.L.A.A.: It’s actually fundamental for my practice to rebel against these structures. There is a part in me that really believes in a radical change to which I also have to commit myself by using all the resources I have. If I don’t work on giving up the privilege I have at this moment, I won’t be radical at all — but I think it is like you described your situation, we are also people who are actually forced to handle the situation and to work out strategies to survive in it. Maybe other people can ignore these dynamics, because they are more capable to live in the existing structures, or because they feel like benefitting rather than to losing through them. Maybe they are better at integrating themselves. I mean, maybe they are grateful and enjoy life like it is offered, I am not sure. Do you know happy people?
J.G.: Hm, I think it is a difficult question. I think we have a special education through art school because it is so violent. It opens many things that are not open in other fields, but it is not very protective of humans. So people get lost.
C.L.A.A.: It is not a “safe” place.
J.G: It is the opposite of a safe place. It is also the portal to mental (sometimes even physical) abuse. When I was starting art school there were almost only old, white, male professors and they would yell at me and judge me or my art after one second. That was very violent. So, today I would not dare to recommend to anyone to go to an art school. First, I would say: “Do not go to an art school. And if you really, really still want to do it, be very careful. Take people with you, when you go to the interview. Also, these ideas who should be artists, how they should be, are constructs that are forced upon you and are constructed by a male white art history and the neoliberal logic of the market.” And because we went through that, maybe we are now, in another way, very protective of our souls and bodies. You have scars and I think maybe for some people who do not have that extreme experience, things are more in the dark. Although they might have a certain feeling, they do not really know what they are feeling. If you are not specialised in experiencing violence and then working with that to develop strategies by yourself — making these experiences your own, it is maybe more complicated to detect things. But at the same time, we are in bubbles and sometimes do not know people from other professions.
C.L.A.A.: Because you do not have contact.
J.G: Because we are divided through capital, the idea of nations and a certain “common sense.” This is something that perpetuates. Meanwhile, I have a lot of contact with a friend from high school, because we now live in the same neighbourhood. And after 10 years we started bonding again, and she sees a lot of things the way I see them. She does not want to work so much anymore, so for a year she fought for the agency she works in to introduce a four day week. She said: “No, I want three free days a week.” She fought for it, and she managed to get through with it. So I think that maybe filed-specific divisions are artificial. People really just have to cope all the time. That is also the reason for example why people who study really difficult majors, like medicine or pharmacy are the heaviest alcohol consumers during their studying time. They have to get drunk on the weekend to cope with the stress.
J.G: It makes no sense — you’re studying the body but at the same time you are destroying your body…
C.L.A.A.: Because the actual workplace is destroying the body.
J.G: Yes, and it already starts with studying medicine. It is highly prestigious but at the same time you are treated like shit. It is very authoritarian. When you start working in a hospital although the profession is so prestigious you have to go through that shit, work 80 hour shifts with bad payments. And it is even worse for people who do not become doctors but nurses.
C.L.A.A.: It is very extreme, and at the same time we’re depending on these people. We do not depend on curators. We don’t. But we depend on people who know how to help, to clean up, who take away the trash, the maintenance work.
J.G: Another thing is that work is very much classified in an old fashioned idea of “rational logic.” Like how able you are to adapt to a certain way of rational thinking with your brain, and within that willing to pursue and to bear the hierarchies it brings with it.
C.L.A.A.: But this is actually very interesting. When I went to a workshop on social justice on Monday concerning class, it came up that one of the suppressed and marginalised groups are also intellectuals while academic knowledge also counts as social.
J.G: Ah, that is true.
C.L.A.A.: Sometimes people don’t grasp right away what I’m trying to express. This creates some kind of opacity during a conversation — like mist in a contact-zone. So most of the people have their individual expression. But in which mist are we willing to step? I feel the selection or decision in which opacity to step in or not is already coded from society — there is some kind of normality I don’t get and where I might not fit in. It triggers frustration and confirms my uneasy feeling of belonging nowhere. In my teenage years, my biggest motivator was to end up somewhere else than where I came from — wherever that might be.
In my case, I think it’s connected to poverty. Nowadays I hope that I’ll never forget where I’m coming from and what my story is. When I feel like I’m getting “whitewashed“ I listen to some old german hip-hop music. I try to cope with things but I don’t want to identify myself with everything because they give me the impression of never becoming a part of them.