Art Workers’ Movement in Tallinn: The Politics of Disidentification

This text aims to revisit a cycle of struggle that politicised a spectrum of art practitioners in Tallinn and Estonia during 2010–2011. The struggle played out as a collective process of self-organisation, addressing issues related to unpaid labour and lack of social guarantees in the contemporary art sphere. Looking back at this period from the perspective of an activist who was involved in that initiative, I have two objectives when writing this article. First of all, I believe that this short-lived episode of mobilisation represents a significant event in the contemporary art history of Estonia. However, in the heat of self-organisation, very few written documents were produced about the political aims, strategies and activities of the movement. When discussing some key issues that held a central place in our struggle, I wish to fill that gap by contextualising its development. On the other hand, I am also interested in revisiting the process from a critical perspective, reflecting on the challenges that we faced when trying to find political agency in collective action. As I am writing this report from the position of an activist who took part in the collective process, I am aware that my account is a subjective one. Nonetheless, it is important for me to reflect on that experience from the political perspective that I am most affiliated with – even if it is for the sake of setting a frame that can be contested and challenged in the future.

The art workers’ movement and its forms of organising

The self-organisation process among art practitioners in Tallinn was triggered by an exhibition that was held in Tallinn Art Hall in winter 2009/2010. The exhibition Blue-Collar Blues, curated by Anders Härm, was coined as a critical reaction against the new labour legislation in Estonia which had been set in force earlier that year in order to flexibilise the labour market. Within the informal circles of the art field, the exhibition was accompanied by a critical debate, focusing predominantly on the fact that many artists didn’t get paid for producing their work. Whilst critically scrutinising the neoliberal changes in the world of labour, the exhibition failed to address the economic conditions of its own production. This obvious contradiction became a catalyst for a wider polemic that problematised precarious working conditions in the contemporary art field.

The event that ultimately sparked off the mobilisation process was a seminar held in the frame of the Blue-Collar Blues exhibition in January 2010. After the end of the seminar, a spontaneous gathering took place in the cellar bar of the Art Hall, in order to discuss issues for which the seminar had offered little space, i.e. the particular position of art workers in relation to precarious labour relations. Approximately 20 art practitioners took part in the first meeting where it was decided to form an alternative artistic association that adopted the name Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit (Union of Contemporary Art). In the following months, the group started meeting regularly in bi- or three- weekly rhythm, and more people gradually joined the initiative. However, the alternative artistic association was never formally established.

In reality, Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit operated as an informal network that was essentially doing militant research – we were primarily mapping and collectivising knowledge about working conditions in the art field, while at the same time politicising ourselves in the course of discussing and analysing these conditions. Occasionally, the network also carried out public interventions, such as writing public letters. Further activities of the network included the seminar Art Workers Unite! in November 2010, the newspaper Art Workers’ Voice, which was published as a special insert in the Estonian cultural weekly Sirp in February 2011, as well as several meetings with the representatives of trade unions, artistic associations and cultural policy makers. In support of those activities, a series of related panel discussions were organised in the frame of EKKM Theory Club in winter 2011, some- what utilising the fact that it happened to be pre-election time in Estonia.

When placing this informal network within the power dynamics of the local art field, it must be noted that, from some perspectives, it may have been perceived as an advocacy group initiated by a small group of like-minded friends and colleagues. Indeed, the main mobilisation ground for Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit was a very particular discursive community, primarily involving younger generation art practitioners who take interest in political art practices. However, as the initiative gained more visibility, it slowly attracted a more diverse spectrum of accomplices. This process was exhilarated especially after the foundation of a Google Groups mailing list in May 2010. Starting out with 20–30 members, the number of subscribers eventually grew to 103, also including art practitioners from other cities than Tallinn. The creation of the mailing list also stimulated a significant shift in the modalities of communication and organising – after an intense cycle of gathering in assemblies in the winter and spring 2010, online debates became more central in the following year. The mailing list, as well as the initiative itself, has been virtually inactive since the second half of 2011. Nonetheless, the mailing list has occasionally still been used for initiating petitions or open letters, mostly addressing issues that are not directly related to the problem of precarious labour any more.

In my view, Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit was neither a failed attempt to establish a new institution nor an isolated advocacy group. I find it much more operative to conceptualise this initiative through the vocabulary of social movements, interpreting it as a collective process of politicisation. Therefore, I prefer to think about Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit as an art workers’ movement that was constituted in a particular cycle of struggle which sought to achieve social change in the realm of precarious labour. Whereas it can be debated whether the movement managed to achieve concrete changes in the economic and social situation of art workers, I do believe that its impact was quite far-reaching in terms of changing the discourse how artistic labour is discussed in Estonia.

Mobilisation against unpaid labour within exhibition practice

The initial context, from which the art workers’ movement emerged, also set the major tone for its agenda. When collectively mapping material conditions in contemporary art practice, a special attention was turned towards exhibition making. In Estonia, there are only a few art institutions that regularly commission work from artists. As a result of that situation, the task of maintaining the continuity of exhibition practice is largely delegated to artists who take initiative by proposing exhibitions to the programme of non-profit galleries and searching finances to realise those projects. In many cases, the public funding allocated for such exhibition projects only covers the material costs. In virtually all cases, public project funding is not sufficient for covering the labour costs of artists who produce these exhibitions. Ironically, artists occur to be the only players in the exhibition economy who systematically receive no payment for their work. Considering the central role that exhibition making holds in the operating modus of the contemporary art field, this seems to suggest that it is precisely the exhibition practice that should be conceptualised as the key battleground where labour struggles of artists should be anchored and localised.

Many initiatives that have recently emerged in order to struggle against precarious working conditions in the art field, have adopted strategies that are rooted in the working reality of artists. For example, the Reko collective in Stockholm and the W.A.G.E. collective in New York are both largely occupied with monitoring art institutions, in order to advocate for the payment of artist fees. This is a strategy that exercises pressure on the very grassroots level, aiming to trigger a domino effect by forcing art institutions to adopt a different attitude towards contracting artistic labour. In its essence, it is an approach that is largely oriented towards wage negotiations from the position of artists. However, artistic income originates from other sources than exhibition making as well. When placing all cards on wage negotiations within exhibition practice, there is a risk of neglecting other dimensions of the art economy that are also relevant for artists, such as issues related to grant models and social security, or cultural funding and its distribution mechanisms in general. Moreover, in contexts where artists themselves are the dominant agents who initiate, organise and produce exhibitions, the strategy of wage negotiations implodes. Precarious Workers Brigade has succinctly formulated this paradox in their Bust Your Boss Card, which is also printed in this publication, stressing that the “boss” of a precarious cultural worker can often be the cultural worker itself. This situation seems to set some limits on the strategy of confronting exhibition houses, suggesting that the politics of wage conflict must allow confrontations with funding institutions as well.

That is what essentially happened within the art workers’ organising process in Tallinn, even if the mobilisation process sparked off from a situation that could have potentially resulted in a direct confrontation with art institutions that maintain the practice of exploiting unpaid labour. In retrospect, it can be speculated whether such conflict was avoided because some institutional curators joined the organising process from the very beginning, arguing that exhibition budgets depend on funding institutions that regularly refuse to allocate money for expenses that are related to the labour costs of artists. This is certainly true, along with the fact that some art institutions and curators do not even budget artist fees in their funding applications, already assuming that these expenses will not be covered by project funding.

All in all, the newly formed initiative in Tallinn overleaped the division of labour that is somewhat more implicit in the working logic of initiatives such as Reko or W.A.G.E. where artists pressure curators and institutions, so that these would pressure cultural policy makers and funders in order to change the material conditions of art production. As an alternative to that, artists and curators in Tallinn tried to identify conceptual locations of struggle from which they could articulate a wage conflict together.

To argue that the avoidance of direct confrontation with art institutions in Estonia was only connected to the objections expressed by institutional curators, however, wouldn’t be quite accurate. In the occasional meetings where the strategies of withdrawal, boycott or strike against art institutions were discussed, it was commonly agreed that these strategies would appear powerless in the local situation. The strike scenario was dismissed primarily because the perspective of organising a massive withdrawal from exhibition practice seemed unimaginable due to lack of solidarity among artists themselves. Moreover, when speculating about this scenario in a hypothetical manner, some further challenges arose – for example in connection with the temporality of strike actions that are usually staged within a limited time-frame.

In the context of exhibition making, this would mean that in a specific moment of time, only artists who happen to be scheduled in the exhibition programmes at that particular moment can withdraw or refuse to exhibit, whereas others can support the strike action by doing exactly the opposite – by gathering in assemblies and protest in order to demonstrate their solidarity. The idea of initiating a strike action in the context of exhibition practice thus interestingly seemed to conflate with the strategies of occupying and demonstrating (in fact, some plans for direct action or demonstration were debated indeed, but eventually not realised).

Another concern was related to the legal and financial dimensions of going on strike – whereas an artists’ strike against the exploitative working conditions within exhibition practice would be directed against institutions such as exhibition houses or galleries, the act of withdrawing from an exhibition project would usually imply legal ramifications originating from the side of funding institutions such as the Cultural Endowment of Estonia. This discrepancy results from the fact that even if galleries or art institutions are commonly seen as the employers of artistic labour, there are rarely any formal wage-labour relations, or even written agreements, between the exhibition houses and artists. The cultural funding allocated for exhibition practice is heavily channelled through artists, thus also delegating the responsibility for cancelling a funded exhibition precisely to the artists who have signed the contract with the funding institution.

However, the relationship between funding institutions and artists is not conceived in terms of wage-labour relations. In addition to that, the legislative frameworks regulating the right to strike are closely associated to the modalities of full-time labour and membership in trade unions. As artists have no strike fund from which to compensate the penalties that the funding institutions would potentially require for committing a breach of contract, the idea of strike seemed not only powerless but also very risky. The alternative possibility of boycotting institutions that don’t pay artist fees by refusing to exhibit there in the first place, without going into the process of fund-raising or contract signing, was dismissed with the argument that this would mean a speedy end to one’s career as an artist. It was assumed that saying no to unpaid labour would result in the out- come of being disinvited from exhibitions rather than getting paid for one’s work.

Poster for the Art Workers Unite! seminar which was organised in the context of art workers’ movement in Tallinn. Graphic design by Indrek Sirkel, 2010.
Poster for the Art Workers Unite! seminar which was organised in the context of art workers’ movement in Tallinn. Graphic design by Indrek Sirkel, 2010.

The organising process among art practitioners in Tallinn was largely kicked off by scandalising unpaid labour within the context of exhibition practice. However, the economy of exhibition practice was not the only issue that was debated in the emerging movement. In the course of collectively mapping the material conditions in the contemporary art field, the income structure of freelance art practitioners was analysed more broadly. This process required a close inspection of legislative frameworks relating to cultural funding, labour rights, tax and social security systems in Estonia.

When familiarising ourselves with existing policy and legislative documents, examining the principles of the tax system or scrutinising the differences between various types of work contracts, it caught our attention that free- lance cultural practitioners in Estonia are subjected to income modalities which seem to administer them into a social category that is incompatible with the notion of the working population. A central demand that emerged from this mapping process was thus formulated in the punchline that artistic labour needs to be recognised as such. While increasingly identifying ourselves as workers, we were hoping to find forms of collective agency in the strategic arsenal of workers’ struggles.

Trade unions and the challenge of organising

One of the first action plans that emerged in the process of art workers’ mobilisation in Tallinn was the idea to form a new artists’ union. This ambition was somewhat indicated in the name that the initiative adopted at the very first assembly – Eesti Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit (Estonian Union of Contemporary Art). However, the mailing list founded a few months later carried the name KKL (Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit, or Union of Contemporary Art), evicting the nationalist adjective. In order to elaborate the context from which this name emerged, it is important to explain the “inside joke” that the initial proposal was transporting. An organisation called Eesti Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit would have carried the acronym EKKL, representing another instance in the process of hijacking the names of existing art institutions by adding an extra K for kaasaegne (contemporary). In 2006, for example, EKKM, Eesti Kaasaegse Kunsti Muuseum (Contemporary Art Museum Estonia), had been established as a counter-institution defining itself against EKM, Eesti Kunstimuuseum (Art Museum of Estonia).

Following the same logic, EKKL would have been formed as a counter-organisation to EKL, Eesti Kunstnike Liit (Estonian Artists’ Association) which is an umbrella organisation uniting several associations of artists and art historians. Established in 1943, the organisation initially functioned as a trade union. Acting in the largely symbolic manner, that was characteristic for trade unions in the Soviet Union, the Estonian Artists’ Association provided health care, studios, flats, vacation vouchers, pension and, not least importantly, status insignia for its members during Soviet time. After the collapse of the Soviet system, it has been rather helpless in terms of re-orienting its practice and political significance. Similar organisations also exist in other cultural sectors and their legal definition is stated in the Creative Persons and Artistic Associations Act in Estonia. Whereas the function of these artistic associations does include trade unionist elements, their legal status is a different one and their operating principles are designed exclusively for the cultural realm.

The organising process in Tallinn never took the shape of formally establishing a trade union or a new artistic association. This was largely due to the fact that the Estonian Artists’ Association already existed, even if its passivity in defending the social and economic rights of art practitioners caused a great deal of frustration among the younger generation of art workers mobilising under the umbrella of Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit. Nonetheless, in addition to the pragmatic considerations on the futility of doubling the work of an already existing organisation, it is important to stress that there were other, and more structural, reasons why the organising process in Tallinn couldn’t result with the establishment of a trade union. For example, in May 2010, the small group of art workers met with the head of the Estonian Trade Union Federation and learned an important lesson in civil education – in order to find political agency in the trade unionist approach of practising collective wage negotiations, one needs an employer.

A peculiar hide-and-seek game started when art workers set off to locate their employers. First of all, it was clear that the issue of trade unionising within the art field is complicated due to the fragmentation of work relations in space and time. In the specific constellation of freelance artists, curators and art critics that came together in order to constitute a new artists’ union in Tallinn, some major employers were in fact identified. For example, many of us had experiences with short-term teaching jobs at the Estonian Academy of Arts, or with producing artistic, discursive and curatorial work for the major exhibition institutions, or with publishing texts and images in the state-funded cultural media. When thinking back at those work experiences, there was much criticism to articulate.

However, similarly to the discussions around the strategy of strike action, several challenges emerged when trade unionist strategies were being considered. In temporal terms, it occurred to us that we are rarely employed by those institutions simultaneously. Therefore, it seemed hopeless to initiate a collective conflict at the very moment when the wage-labour relationship takes place. From that perspective, the strategies of lobbying and advocacy work seemed more effective, such as exercising public pressure to the most significant art institutions by searching dialogue with directors, curators and decision makers. Another, and supporting strategy, could have been the formation of a guild-like organisation that unites art workers who have agreed on minimum tariffs below which they refuse to work. The idea of minimum tariffs was discussed on the example of the theatre field where such agreements exist among actors and seem to be quite effective.

However, in the context of the art workers’ movement, the suggestion for establishing minimum tariffs was put aside due to hesitations whether there would be enough solidarity in the visual art sphere, where people often feel that they cannot afford to refuse badly paid jobs. A related complexity was discussed in relation to the temporalities of cognitive labour which cannot be easily quantified in universal tariffs and rates.

In addition to that, things turned even more complicated when the fragmented nature of our work realities was considered in spatial terms – not only that the perspective of starting simultaneous wage negotiations with the broad variety of art institutions that irregularly employ our work seemed energy-consuming and challenging, but we also identified a certain discrepancy between the institutions that employ our work and the ones that pay for precisely that work. This doesn’t only apply to exhibition practice, as outlined above, but also in many other cases – for example when an art history journal or publisher commissions a text and the payment comes directly from the Cultural Endowment in the form of a grant. On the other hand, a close inspection of the distribution of financial resources in the art field revealed that even if art practitioners’ work relations to particular employers are intermittent, fluid and fragmented, the relationship to public funding remains constant.

Drawing a logical conclusion from this evidence, it was tempting to argue that the art workers had already been hired by the society, and paid from the resources that the society puts on public disposal through the tax collection system administrated by the state. However, such a conclusion imposes certain ramifications on the issue of art workers’ organising in political terms, suggesting that the strategy of initiating collective wage conflicts in the trade unionist manner would miss the core problem. If art practitioners are workers of society, wouldn’t it mean that their precarious working reality can only be changed by transforming the very social relations that define the political and economic conditions in the “social factory,” rather than targeting singular employers in trade unionist manner?

In the ongoing debate about modes of organising which formed a dominant issue in the beginning phase of the art workers’ mobilisation in Tallinn, the majority of art workers preferred the model of artistic association, even if there was no consensus on the two competing strategies of forming a new association or joining the Estonian Artists’ Association, in order to change it from inside. When juxtaposed with the alternative scenarios of forming a trade union or experimenting with new and perhaps counter-institutional forms of organising, this preference indicated a pragmatic desire to step into the existing legislative frameworks that grant political representation for freelance art workers.

However, what seemed to escape our critical scrutiny at that time, was the fact that the model of artistic association, as it is defined in the Creative Persons and Artistic Associations Act in Estonia, is an institution which is modelled to maintain the ambiguous position of art practitioners vis-à-vis their social status as workers. Accordingly, our demand that artistic work needs to be recognised as such, remained closely associated with the specific interests of “professional art practitioners,” defining artistic work as a particular type of social labour and art economy as an exceptional economy which demands exceptional regulations from the state.

Becoming art workers – a process of disidentification

Looking back at the art workers’ movement in Tallinn from the distance of three years, there are only a few practical achievements to declare. For example, the Creative Persons and Artistic Associations Act was revised in order to facilitate cultural workers’ access to the state subsidies distributed by artistic associations, and the tax collection regulations in Estonia are about to change in order to make the health insurance system more accessible for freelance workers (for a more elaborated analysis on these issues, see my article Unwaged Labour and Social Security: A Feminist Perspective). Also the situation, where artists are required to pay rent when exhibiting in non-profit galleries, is gradually changing in Estonia, as discussed by Minna Henriksson and Marge Monko in their contributions to this publication.

However, even if these changes were introduced in direct response to the demands articulated by the art workers’ movement, they are too microscopic in order to have a far-reaching impact on the precarious working realities in the art sector. Therefore, I would argue that the impact of the art workers’ movement was actually much deeper on discursive level, shifting the framework how art, labour and economy are discussed in public sphere. In many ways, the self-organisation process in Tallinn was centred on awareness raising and collectivisation of knowledge about the economic structures and problems within the art field. These problems were then addressed in public contexts, initiating discussions with art practitioners, art institutions, cultural administration and policy makers. In the following paragraphs, I would like to reflect on the significance that the term “art workers” held in that process.

I will discuss the self-identification as art workers by referring to the concept of “disidentification” which is defined by queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz as a political position located between identification and counter-identification, as a strategy that works both “on and against the dominant ideology.” 1

At the time of 2010, the term “art worker,” or kunstitöötaja, was a neologism in Estonian language. Derived from English, its origins are often traced back to United States, where this term formed an essential dimension in the formation of Art Workers’ Coalition which is one of the most well- known examples of art workers’ mobilisation in the history of contemporary art. However, as Julia Bryan-Wilson notes in her book dedicated to the his- tory of Art Workers’ Coalition, the term was not completely new in the late 1960s – it had also been in use by Arts and Crafts movement in England in the late 19th century, as well as by the Mexican muralists in the 1920s. 2

In recent years, the notion of art workers has witnessed a certain revival in the Western art world where self-organised initiatives struggling against precarious working conditions have actively taken it in use again as a battle-cry. The self-identification as art workers in Estonia thus indicated a certain intellectual and political affinity with this current cycle of struggles.

When analysed from the perspective of power dynamics within the organising process in Tallinn, the identification as art workers functioned as an inclusive strategy that helped to overcome some symbolic and economic hierarchies that are characteristic to the art field. For example, a reoccurring conflict line within the movement was connected to occupational identifications as artists or curators which were sometimes set in opposition to each other, for instance when the question of unpaid labour within exhibition practice was discussed. However, as the movement brought together a variety of art practitioners, the self-identification as art workers was quite operative in terms of transgressing such divisions – after all, it was agreed that there are many problems that freelance art practitioners have in common. Nevertheless, the movement was initiated and dominated by artists, curators and art critics. These are occupational groups within the professional field of art production, belonging to the upper ranks of the symbolic hierarchy. They are the authors whose names appear in exhibition and publication titles, art history or cultural media representation. Therefore, even if the self-identification as art workers indicated towards the possibility of creating new political affinities also with the “backstage” workers of the art sector, such as technical assistants, editors, pedagogues, archivists, janitors or exhibition guards, this potential was not lived out to its full extent.

In the context of public discourse, the self-identification as art workers represented a dissociation from two assumptions dominating the common- place conceptions about the economy of art – the belief that art making is a hobby that serves the purpose of self-expression and is not supposed to be a source of stable income, and the somewhat contrasting idea that art practitioners are entrepreneurs who are selling their products in the market. The latter idea had recently gained considerable momentum on cultural policy making level. A few years prior to the emergence of the art workers’ movement, the Estonian Ministry of Culture, governed by the neoliberal Reform Party, had actively started to promote and support creative industries, thus encouraging the commercialisation of cultural practices. Resisting this pressure of becoming entrepreneurs in the newly invented economic sector of creative industries, the counter-identification as art workers emphasised the art practitioners’ subjectivity as workers.

In order to contest the widespread assumption that art is a non-utilitarian activity practised by a group of “bohemians” whose desire for self-expression neglects economic security, the art workers in Tallinn were inspired by post-operaist notion of “immaterial labour.” Most famously conceptualised by Maurizio Lazzarato, immaterial labour is defined as a type of work that does not produce physical commodities but informational and cultural contents of the commodity. 3

Thus, immaterial work describes activities that are normally not recognised as work, highlighting specifically the affective and communicative modalities of post-fordist labour. In the art workers’ movement, the notion of immaterial labour was recognised as a useful tool for conceptualising the modalities of creative and cognitive labour. In the light of this concept, it was possible to demonstrate how the activities of reading books, visiting exhibitions and exchanging ideas at conferences or exhibition openings are not leisure-time activities, as they are perhaps intuitively perceived in conventional conceptions of work. Instead, the concept of immaterial labour allowed to re-signify such activities as central features of creative working process which is essentially a cognitive and communicative type of labour, founded on the activities of assembling, re- arranging and mediating knowledge.

Keeping in mind that the notion of immaterial labour is first and foremost a critical concept, its meaning is evidently not limited to offering a positive definition for activities that are commonly seen as the opposite of work. The art workers in Tallinn also appropriated this concept in order to scrutinise the precarious dimensions of cognitive work, such as the indistinct borderline between formal and informal work relations, the excessive commitment and personal investment, the spatial and temporal limitlessness of workplace and work hours. Reconceptualising these blurry boundaries between work and non-work as corner pillars of immaterial labour constituted another element in art workers’ strategy of counter-identification, aimed at challenging the dominant ideology that denies to art workers their status as workers.

When conceptualising the process of disidentification, José Esteban Muñoz stresses that it is a reworking of subject positions which does not annul the contradictory elements of any identity. 4 Thus, disidentification is not only to be discussed in terms of counter-identification, but as a strategy of working both “on and against.” Hence, the identification as art workers in Tallinn was a dialectical process that also involved affirmative dimensions. For example, in many ways, the identification as art workers was complementary to the existing occupational identities as artists, curators or critics which were sometimes also perceived as antagonistic to each other. Furthermore, it was occasionally debated whether the self-definition as “professional art practitioners” should be preferred in public discourse, in order to underline the particular class position of artists which, in my interpretation, is discursively situated within the modern concept of artistic autonomy that originates from the 19th century.

If the adoption of the term art workers would have been founded on active non-identification against the dominant modes of conceptualising artists’ role in society, one of its potential consequences could have been identification as workers. In the process of organising against precarious working conditions, such identification would then have required that collective agency is searched by forming alliances with other precarious workers in society, and practised by targeting general social policies and labour rights. This didn’t happen.

The discourse developed within the art workers’ movement in Tallinn remained strongly anchored in the modern conception of art which reserves a specific social status to art and cultural workers. Rather than addressing the conflicts in neoliberal labour market economy at large, the art workers in Tallinn preferred to demand improvements in the particular sector of cultural work. For example, instead of demanding health insurance as a universal right, this issue was addressed solely from the perspective of cultural workers, even though it is not specific to the cultural sector. In doing this, the art workers in Tallinn conformed to the dominant conception of artists’ unique status in society, mobilising their efforts towards strengthening the privileges that had already been established in existing policy documents, rather than resisting the subjectivation mechanisms implied in the political discourse that frames freelance art practitioners as a social group that does not quite fit into the category of working population.

Kaasaegse Kunsti Liit in Tallinn was apparently not among the most radical ones in the kaleidoscope of self-organised art workers’ initiatives struggling against precarious conditions in the cultural sector. However, I believe that the notion of disidentification offers a useful tool for conceptualising a fundamental political problem that demands critical reflection in the context of art workers’ organising more generally – as much as it seems urgent to organise within the particular labour sector of art and culture, there is also a crucial necessity to form transversal alliances with “other” precarious workers in society. In fact, the recent wave of art workers’ struggles, emerging transnationally throughout the last decade, should be placed into the wider context of contemporary social movements mobilising against precarious labour. From that perspective, recent art workers’ movements can be framed as a line of conflict within the broader spectrum of anti-capitalist struggles, linked with examples such as the transnational EuroMayDay movement which gained considerable momentum in the beginning of 2000s, or the more recent movements of Occupy, M15 and Blockupy which have constituted themselves in the context of the current financial crisis.

In the context of Estonia, the continuities between art workers’ struggles and anti-capitalist struggles are perhaps not that self-evident: in the situation where radical social movements do not have much presence locally, it is easy to perceive the art workers’ movement in Tallinn as an isolated one. Nonetheless, this is certainly not the case in other local contexts where art workers do align themselves with fellow precarious workers in a more radical and transversal manner. The Precarious Workers Brigade in London, which is also interviewed in this publication, can be named as one of such examples. In my view, the most exciting dimension in the current cycle of transnational art workers’ struggles is precisely the aspiration toward transversal forms of organising, suggesting that there exists a radical desire to re-imagine social relations and resistive practices in the cultural sector as well.

This article was first published in: Minna Henriksson, Erik Krikortz, Airi Triisberg (eds.) Art Workers. Material Conditions and Labour Struggle in Contemporary Art Practice, Berlin/Helsinki/Stockholm/Tallinn, 2015.


  1.  José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications. Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p.11.
  2.  Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), p. 14 & 27.
  3.  Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor” (1996), (accessed 17 August 2014). [Originally published in: Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt (eds.), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis, London: University
  4.  José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications. Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, p.12. 151