Fears and Anxieties: Reflections on Job Precarity and the Future in Art History and Academia
[Note: The conversations have been edited for clarity, length, and grammatical mistakes. They have also been edited thematically, however the dates of these utterances are noted above each section.]
9 April 2020
Sanaz: The other thing that I am concerned about is the future of job prospects. I was already pessimistic about getting into a post-PhD market. What is going to happen with institutions that were already in the midst of a crisis of neo-liberalized academia? And now what will happen to students involved with them? I know for instance some universities have actually halted their admission for this year. It’s important for us to also share this information about career/life consequences for other artists or cultural workers to have a prospect of what may happen and what is at stake in the next couple of months.
Mikhel: And in fact the next couple of years! In the Canadian context, since I work with artist-run centers a lot, we are going to see a crunch happen sooner than later. And for those of us that rely on that for some amount of income, it's a scary prospect . And like you Sanaz, I have had a couple of projects that have been wiped off the slate for this season. And ... yeah, I have no expectation to be able to do that - to make up that work!
Varda: But when you say that MOMA is putting everything online, then shouldn't we really be thinking of the function of things in the first place? How do we understand the function of institutions and these objects from the onset? And how do we re-contextualize it? Despite a critique that is present in all of our work on institutions, we obviously rely on them, for obvious reasons. But maybe, this is a good time for thinking about possible alternative spaces? Are there alternatives out there that we can look for, so we can start discussing them and bringing them into our talks?
Nima: I think this is a fundamental question. Not only “function” in terms of “functionary” that we have for other fields, but also how the knowledge system works. I had this question in the past too, and I keep having the same question. I am not questioning the whole art system, how it functions but, as Sanaz was mentioning, how we can think about political, social, cultural layers ... and at some point, a common concealment that institutions work with. It’s important to how we think about cultural institutions because they have this image from the outside to the general public that they are working with values, working with communities. But when it comes to their own communities, and those who made these communities possible in terms of the labour and knowledge they contributed, they usually fail to do the right thing in terms of the basics, such as providing or supporting their staff, you know, even when it was happening. I remember in January, I met a group of friends who were art handlers and educators, working for MOMA and they were discussing how MOMA is failing to recognize their unionization. So it's not something a pandemic brought to the front. It has been there all along but it’s becoming more and more visible in terms of how cultural institutions were responsive, and how these responses are now accessible to the public to learn about these institutions. This increased attention to responsibility is something that is shaking the foundations of these institutions.
Mikhel: We are talking about the kind of practical needs we have now, writing our dissertation or whatever we are doing. So I just want us to be aware of these two different brackets... to talk about our process and our day-to-day challenges that we are each having. And that while this may be as an interlude, there is of course overlap. Whether or not people are questioning their own research projects right now because of these institutional changes is a question I have.
Kanwal: I wrote my first paper when I was doing my MA. which was in the context of 121212, the apocalypse that was supposed to happen in 2012. So I thought that the reason why people are coming up with these apocalypses and these imagined constructs of mass extinction is that it somehow seems easier for people to have this mass extinction rather than just going alone. So it's kind of a coping mechanism. Why I say this is [because] you know I have done everything by the book. When I am doing my PhD, I try to do everything on time because if I work really hard, I could finish my PhD on time. I will probably not get a job after I am done with it but the thing is, right now people are in much worse condition than I am. The whole world is suffering with us. Whether that’s a consolation,or more depressing, or less depressing - I don't know. But it’s...it’s a way to look at it. I mean, I seriously feel that the whole world is going on right now and ... how COVID has affected people and how people have lost their loved ones. I think if we can just survive and not think about what we are going to do afterwards, we'll be winners, really.
Alice: I was thinking this morning that there was and there is and there always will be some joy in doing the work that we want to do.
For example, if you were to ask me: “what brought you joy in your work this week?” I’d say I was really happy to get a text message through Facebook, from one of the artists whose work I had written about for my MA thesis. My thesis was about the first exhibition in Canada in 1989 devoted to and curated by Black Canadian women artists some of whom I have remained in contact with over the last twenty years. I revisited the 1989 exhibition, “Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter” (which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary 2019-2020) in January 2020 this year as an article for Canadian Art magazine. I was happy because the artist (Khadejha McCall) said she read my article and that it was a good essay. This means the world to me! Joy!
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The Graduate Teach-in Group, 2020