Spike’s current editorial intern is angry. The art world doesn't pay its assistants and interns, so in her other life Chloe Stead serves burgers. She has found allies in artists and activists who oppose the culture of unpaid work and calls on us all to do the same.
In one of the talks Spike organised at Paris Internationale in October, Claire Fontaine’s Fulvia Carnevale and researcher Rory Rowan found a lot to criticise about the current state of the art world. What especially resonated with me, however, was a particularly depressing moment Rowan recalled from freelancing life: “You’re sending people emails saying, ‘I can’t eat, can you please pay me,’ and having to borrow money off the eighteenth friend, and you start to think, Is it worth it? Maybe I should just flip burgers.”
Claire Fontaine is represented by Air de Paris and Reena Spaulings, and Rory Rowan’s postdoctoral research is supported by the University of Zurich: neither of them seem to be doing too badly. As for me, well: I’ve actually been serving burgers now for the last five years, first to pay for my studies and then to fund a string of unpaid or low-paid internships. While it’s not the most glamorous of jobs – I more often than not come home with BBQ sauce on my reeboks – including tips I make in a week what I would do in a month at most art-related internships.
The exploitative nature of internships was the subject of Joshua Schwebel’s recent residency exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. The Canadian artist installed a desk, mail slots and an intern who he paid out of his own exhibition budget. The letter accompanying the installation, titled Subsidy, made Schwebel’s intentions quite clear: “The KB institution and artists, myself included, are benefiting from the availability and necessity of passionate self-exploitation at the entry level of culture work.” This was no abstract statement: at the time of writing there are three unpaid interns working at Künstlerhaus Bethanien.
For an international artist the chance to stay in the cultural capital of Berlin rent-free, with a monthly allowance, must look like a golden ticket. That a young, ambitious artist might risk that in any way to protest about something he believes in is immensely cheering. But that he had the chance to make the exhibition at all was dependent on the unique situation of Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Although they offer the residency all the costs are funded by international bursaries, meaning that it would have been very difficult for the institution to censor Schwebel’s exhibition without breaking their contact with his funders in Québec. It remains to be seen whether Schwebel’s updating of the tradition of institutional critique to address intern labour will do anything to change Bethanien’s policies. But it most definitely can shame an institution whose good reputation depends, at least in part, on not being seen as exploiting its workers.
Two activist groups in the UK who have been very successful in protesting unfair working practices are Future Interns and the Precarious Workers Brigade. One of their biggest successes was in 2013 when they teamed up to draw attention to the Serpentine Galleries’ attempt to abuse a loophole in the British minimum wage system eventually forcing them to apologize and take down an advertisement for a “volunteer” Research Assistant who was required to commit to five days a week for three months. This feat was achieved by the relatively simple method of writing a complaint letter to the Serpentine Galleries and posting it, and the subsequent replies, on social media along with organising a small but attention-grabbing protest at the gallery. That a loosely organized group of twenty-year-olds can force the Serpentine to do anything should be an inspiration to us all.
A big problem is that many people don’t know their rights. This is especially a problem in Berlin, where the bureaucratic regulations of workplace rights are often poorly understood even by Germans. For a non german speaking graduate the chance to be employed as a volontariat (a trainee position on a one or two year contract that often leads to full-time employment) is out of the question, which forces them into short-term internships in the hope of gaining an edge over other job applicants. In the city even badly paid internships are often highly competitive: I once saw a respected Berlin institution advertise a full-time position where they asked that the applicant speak fluent German, French and English – that’s 100€ a month per language.
One would have thought that the introduction of the minimum wage this year would have put a stop to this practice but a look on the website Portal Kunstgeschichte still reveals a number of galleries looking for unpaid interns. While one could, at a push, forgive an underfunded institution for not paying their interns, the same can’t be said to apply to a thriving commercial gallery:
if you can afford a booth at Frieze Art Fair you can afford to pay your assistants.
That’s not to say that it's only the galleries: I had a friend who was once in charge of ordering ice for a Kunstverein's party that cost more than she was getting paid for her internship.
Many large institutions such as Hamburger Bahnhof also use the website to advertise for Pflichtpraktikanten (students who complete internships as part of their studies). The rational is that students (whether through their parents or the state) are funded for their studies and do not need to be paid in order to live. Although this puts these institutions morally and legally in a better position it still causes the problem that the unpaid intern effectively takes away an entry-level job such as “Curatoral Assistant” from a recent arts-related graduate like myself.
So what’s the solution? I personally found a lot of inspiration from a blog entry by writer and activist Yasmin Nair: “Scabs: Academics and Others who Write for Free”. By using the slur “Scabs” Nair explicitly compares people who write without remuneration to those workers that ignored the picket line during the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s England. And if that seems extreme it’s only because we haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that for most of us now “work” is more likely to be checking emails at 10pm than it is producing a material object.
But the real reason Nair’s post is so important to me is that rather than just complaining about not getting paid, whether it’s around a dinner table with friends or at a panel discussion, she advocates direct action. Her advice is simple. Stop working for free – if we all do it those responsible would be forced to start paying.
The only way I can see out of this situation is to employ the kind of solidarity that Yasmin Nair advocates but with one fundamental difference. I couldn’t blame anyone who is desperate enough to get a leg up for working for free – I’ve done it. Let’s reserve the naming and shaming for the people in positions of power because contrary to what most non-for-profit curators would have you believe, their institutions do not run on “love”, they run on hard cash and it’s time we started getting some of it.
Chloe Stead is an art and fiction writer based in Berlin. She has worked as a paid intern at Spike since October. Her short story Summer, about a shoplifting intern, is available to download from Montez Press.