What began as a conversation about failure and the art world has turned into multiple conversations. In these conversations, circuitous in nature, we keep folding back on the same themes: labour precarity and the material realities of failure; the affects of failure (i.e. the emotional/psychological affects of precarity); our experiences of the the Canadian granting system; access, inclusivity, and participation; competition; generosity, or the lack thereof; and the constant imperative to be productive. The more we’ve talked, the less concrete an argument we seem to be able to formulate—which is its own type of failure. Embracing this as a methodology our conversation resists a cogent structure (as conversations generally do), and as scholars invested in contemporary feminist practices, this kind of structural resistance strikes us as a productive mode worth exploring.
This conversation was recorded at The Common on Bloor and Dovercourt in Toronto, Canada on June 7th, 2017
Barbora Maybe we should start by outlining what we mean by precarity—as this is going to keep coming up in our conversation.
Alize Ugh. Yeah we should.
B ...I think precarity is really about instability—financial instability, labour insecurity, and the neoliberal constraints of the current labour market...
A I’d love to talk about this without getting into an argument about the specifics of how the market is structured and operates. For the majority of folks who work in cultural production, we know the narrative of precarity, we know the facts around it, because we are all experiencing it. What interests me here is what it feels like to experience it. What is the embodied experience of living in current conditions of precarity? How does it impact our capacity to act and our ability to continue producing when our experience is one of continuous roadblocks?
B It seems less about the structures of precarity and more about felt effects…
B In trying to get this clear grasp on failure, I was reading Jack Halberstam’s chapter “The Queer Art of Failure” in their book by the same name. In it, Halberstam outlines Western structures of failure and why a conversation about failure is relevant to queer politics. Specifically, Halberstam articulates how capitalism structures what constitutes “failure” and “success.” Working within this framing, you and I are here today to talk about the particular ways in which failure and precarity manifest in our daily lived experience as cultural workers in Canada.
A And about the structures in place that perpetuate this state of living in precarity.
B Exactly. There is a paradox in living in a system that demands production, but which also forces us into a place of precarity— and then our decision to nevertheless keep trying to find ways to produce. Do we keep doing the work? How do we keep doing the work?
A Yes, how do we persevere? How do we keep doing the work that a capitalist system values? This is a system in which you must be continually productive, either accumulating capital or social capital—where if for a minute you need some respite, or you need to work for capital, for survival, then you’re failing at the work of being an artist or a critic.
B  Absolutely. I’ve been thinking a lot about how it’s very hard to “partially” do things. For me, this comes from the fact that, for the greater part of the year, I’ve been living in what I’ve started calling “a state of emergency” because of a sudden death and a serious illness in my family. Everything in terms of my “career” got put on hold because of this other thing which required my full attention. When I stopped actively caring for myself and my family–both psychically and physically– on a full-time basis, I felt the immediate pressure or the expectation to do the thing, to get my career as a cultural worker “back on track”. I’m not sure from whom or where this came from--the feeling that I needed to be working 150% in order to catch up. I was constantly aware of this ubiquitous question: now that I’m not doing something else—the full-time labour of caring—why aren’t I just buckling down and working fully to move “forward” in my career?
B How do you validate that? I don’t know where the space to articulate that is.
A I know, because when you do articulate your own exhaustion, it can sound like you're whining or ranting.
A I want to flag something here before we continue, which is the fact that we both occupy relatively privileged subject positions. I think it’s important to acknowledge that many people with less privileged positions than us struggle with precarity in much more acute ways. I guess I’m just so impressed by people who are able to persevere and continue to work and push themselves and their peers in light of their own precarity. Even in a privileged position, the challenges of life often feel insurmountable.
B That’s the difficult part. There is this giant caveat in the conversation in terms of who we are. In the grand scheme of things, as a cis-hetero white woman in her mid-twenties, the types of hurdles I experience are relatively minimal, and this is an important piece of the conversation around failure and precarity that needs to be consciously held.
Within that, I believe that it is still important to try and articulate different types of [in]capacity, because there are people who are able to persevere in different ways despite the structural challenges they face. I don’t talk about my feelings of consistent insufficiency and precarity with my colleagues, but I believe they share my sense of vulnerability. So I guess for me the question is: how do you have a public conversation about issues of precarity and failure and take up space for these conversations, without infringing on other peoples' capacity to articulate their own divergent realities? Different experiences might not be commensurable, but they can be adjacent.
A Totally! How can we conscientiously engage in a conversation about precarity that accounts for our locations in a matrix of privileges and oppressions, without speaking for others?
A I also find myself thinking about the idea of gratitude—this idea that we should feel grateful for any of the opportunities that we get to participate in. I think about being employed at a major academic institution where I may or may not be employed in the coming semester, as is the nature of sessional contract work, and where I am one of the few of my peers in my cohort who are teaching at this level. And I’m sure that my identity is not 100% why I was hired, but I still feel like I should be extremely grateful for the privilege and opportunity of getting to teach. Meanwhile, though I am grateful for the opportunity and I love what I do, the work is so fucking precarious!
B Are you supposed to feel gratitude for being employed at a job for which you are more than qualified and underpaid?
A I mean, I do. I feel very grateful to do what I do. As a thirty-five year-old woman, I have fulfilled the dream of my early twenties. It is happening for me, and that’s pretty amazing. At the same time, when I imagined this life as a woman in my early twenties, I had no idea how broke and how stressed with the realities of daily survival I would be, regardless of those achievements.
Recently a friend of mine who is a painter and professional installer for many galleries around the city was asking me whether she should get an MFA and try and teach. She wants to get out of a precarious sector and into something more stable and engaging. I was really honest with her. I said, in terms of the likelihood of getting hired with an MFA, okay sure, your chances will be better-- but then there’s the issue of wage. When I asked her if the wage she would be making was enough for her to support herself and her child—she’s a single mom—she said: “fuck no,” and laughed. She makes much more money installing than she would teaching, at least at the institution I work. But, you know, with installing it’s all contract work, there are no benefits, and she’s fairly certain that she’ll get injured on the job at some point. And yet, there are no benefits with teaching either, or security for that matter. Most of my cohort who are teaching at a post-secondary level work at multiple institutions, are juggling complex schedules, and have very little prep time. In the end, what I could send my friend away with was that I’m not sure it’s much better to have an MFA and be teaching.
B I work as a teaching assistant. The work is draining and not financially rewarding in comparison to the amount of energy you put into it if you care about pedagogy and not just about presenting basic material.
A Here’s the thing, sorry to interrupt, but we’re supposed to be grateful for what teaching gives back to us, because it does give back to us, right? You get to watch the minds of students transform and expand, you get to impact students’ perceptions of the world, you get to invest in the future, and so on. All of this feeds into a particular narrative about the value of education and ideas, and the personal satisfaction involved in imparting knowledge as its own kind of reward. But is that enough? Can that sustain you?
B I struggle with different conceptualizations of work on a daily basis. I currently work at a university and at a café, and I need to complete the concrete tasks associated with each job. Outside of the time this requires, I work on my “professional practice,” which consists of coming up with curatorial projects, among other things. The first two types of work differ from this third job: working as a teaching assistant and serving at a café have clear time parameters and a set financial value. (With this aside, serving and teaching have very different values, socially speaking: they are in no ways equally valid in terms of social and cultural capital). And then my “professional practice”, because it has no delineated financial value or timeframe, and because it is inflected with a deeply personal value, somehow becomes a different type of activity altogether. I’m constantly reasserting that all three are work--that all three are labor. And this constant reasserting is itself work!
A People outside the cultural field don’t necessarily understand that.
B I wonder if even from inside some people don’t necessarily understand that. I really feel like for some people inside the cultural sphere (like outside) it’s a lot easier to just always do work, however meandering or uncertain it may be. But for others it’s not easy, and when it’s not, there’s something wrong. You’re supposed to be fully enthralled with the whole process of cultural work.
A It goes back to that adage: "Love what you do, do what you love." We’ve been sold this idea that doing what you love should be its own fulfillment; therefore, because you’re doing what you love, it shouldn’t feel like work. Or somehow it’s in a different category than work. But it’s labour all the same.
A The longer I am an artist, the more it feels like work. And the more work there is, the less pleasure I take in it. Honestly. Because, at times, the process of making art is actually such a small portion of my practice. There are periods, let’s say during the summer when I am “unemployed," when I have more time and spaciousness to work and to create. But often that time in the summer is eaten up by all the logistical and administrative labour of being an artist: applying for grants, writing proposals, pitching proposals to curators, correspondence, etc.
B That’s the problem. Yeah we can sit down and do the work. We can take the time. But if we’re not in sync affectively, if intellectually the capacity to engage is not there, if we’re not sharp and attuned in our practice, it becomes very difficult to make things happen. What if, during the time you have for your artistic practice—like the summer season, which you were saying is your window to make art work--what if you don’t have anything? What if you’re empty?
A Exactly! What if you don’t feel inspired, or are just like, fuck, I need to rest because I’m so exhausted from the labour that I do to pay my rent. I’m so exhausted by the demands of teaching that I need a whole month to recuperate. Or, I‘m occupied with hustling together something to support myself for the four months of “unemployment" that I don't have it in me to make work. Or, I don’t have the inspiration.
B For me it’s not just a question of how to start working again. Instead, I ask: how can periods of non-work be accepted as they are, rather than felt to be a boundary to push through? Persevering emerges here in another sense, as the acceptance of incapacity.
I have a problem with the need to translate failure into a productive mode. While failure has been recuperated in a queer sense, it also gets deployed in design contexts as a step in the production process. Failure as an agent of production.
A Absolutely. I talk to my students a lot about failure. Our culture trains us to avoid failure as young people: we are told that there are consequences for failing. But as an artist, enlisting and incorporating failure is a crucial part of the creative process. You have to take risks, which means that sometimes, you will fail, and hopefully you will learn from it. I’m no Halberstam aficionado, but I want to take up this piece around recuperating failure from a queer perspective: there is a freeing aspect to embracing the ways in which we fail to perform heteronormative expectations correctly. It can be liberating to view failure as a really productive mode, not just for queers but as a radical gesture of rejecting the status quo for people more broadly. There is this conceptualization of failure which I think is sexy and alluring for radicals, myself included.
B Yeah but by the same token, because it’s sexy and alluring it gets co-opted by capitalism very quickly.
A So quickly. There is the radical liberatory conceptualization of failure, and then there is the reality of what failure means in terms of real material consequences: in terms of survival.
This is also wrapped up with middle class values. When trying to look at it from a class-based perspective, failure looks and feels different for people of different subject positions. For the middle class, failure is quantified by the accrual of recognition, accumulation of assets etc. However, if you’ve always lived outside that heteronormative expectation or structure, then failure looks and feels different to you; and the intellectual recuperation of failure is perhaps made even less relevant because of that.
B You kept coming back to embodiment and I’m thinking about how this precarity feels to me in my body.
I come back to the work that I do in my job as a barista: the work of convincing myself that this work is “fine." I know it is fine because I need the work and I really enjoy this socially active type of work. But then there’s the bit where I’m not supposed to get complacent in this work and think that doing only this is fine. I’m constantly juggling: don’t think that you’re above it and are supposed to be doing something else, but still keep doing your other work—as a curator, as a critic—when you’re not serving. Negotiating the contractions in these positions and trying to find balance and peace in the situation is very exhausting. It drains me. It’s another impediment to my ability to do the cultural work.
A I really like how you identify that tension in the duality: that there’s this constant internal negotiation to accept your position and to be grateful for what you've got, while simultaneously pushing to move beyond that.
B While being patient.
A While exercising all of your feminine characteristics.
B Yes, doing feminized labour—baking hourly at the café, working in a support role at a university—while holding your feminist labour politics, or while temporarily putting them aside. That’s a big part of the affective precarity as well.
A I want to pick up this thread around productivity again, and the ways in which we can engage with “productive labour.” Really, I’m thinking here about particular kinds of participation--for example, public participation-- in certain contexts and the ways in which different abilities and capacities impact it. Our various capacities and aptitudes shape the ways in which we can participate in (a) community building, (b) radical politics, and (c) physical production.
This affects me personally, as my chronic pain and fluctuating mental health effect my capacity to engage in particular types of labour and community-building in ways that do not align with a normative expectation of a streamlined workflow. My physical capacities and limitations also affect the work I produce; for example, I would love to make more sculpture, but (a) I can’t afford to have a studio to make sculpture in, and (b) my physical capacities limit my ability to do certain kinds of labour independently. And I have a lot of privilege in terms of my ability in comparison to other folks in my life who have more acute limitations.
A If we can talk a little bit about funding structure: we are pretty privileged in Canada in terms of the granting system, but it isn’t a consistent source of funding. You could, let’s say, apply to have an assistant to help you in your studio, but you’re not going to get that grant every year or every time you apply. So you have these windows in which you might be able to meet the expectations of being a productive cultural worker: but the inconsistency of that funding source means that it is really challenging to maintain that level of productivity.
B Yes, it comes back to ability. It comes back to the fact that you have to have the capacity to apply for that grant in the window of time that’s outlined by the granting bodies. These parameters don’t take away from the privilege of having those structures available in the abstract, but they also create severe limitations around who gets to participate--and who is successful.
A Yes! And we need to move beyond a conception of participation as necessarily being a publicly visible act. This reminds me of the work I created for MICE Magazine, a video entitled labour for the horizon (2016). I made a video from my bed that was really a kind of document of the week where Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) was occupying the courtyard outside of the police headquarters in downtown Toronto; this was also the week Jian Ghomeshi got acquitted of all charges of sexual assault against him. I made a document of that week and my own inability to leave my bed, and this became labour for the horizon.
B I remember that week. You were cooking for folks, so I brought you potatoes.
A Yeah, right. Thank you. That was a way that I could participate in movement building. I was one of the many people who fed people. But at the time I was experiencing a lot of physical pain and I couldn’t show up publicly. There are many reasons why people could not participate in an ongoing way there, and for me, it was chronic pain.
B At that time I remember people very clearly articulating the different limitations or constraints for their participation and action.
A And I mean, a lot of black people did not have the capacity to be there for many different reasons, including racism and the risks of arrest and racially-motivated violence that standing outside of police headquarters posed. Those are very real risks, and for people who are experiencing anti-black racism every day, all the fucking time, to not have the capacity to be there totally makes sense to me. It strikes me that BLMTO seem to do a good job at addressing accessibility in their movement. In general, I don’t think the art world does a very good job at that at all.
B There are two diverging art worlds: the art world as “community” and then the art world for what it actually is—an elitist, academic, institutionalized context which has little space for limitation, whether it be intellectual or physical or otherwise. It is patriarchal and inflexible.
A And it’s really competitive.
B Competition is another one of those unresolvable sites for me. I am in competition with all of my colleagues and friends. The competition in and of itself is alright; it can be engaging and productive. But the ways in which we seek to succeed, at an individual level, to be able to sustain ourselves through writing and submitting proposals and accumulating projects, make our desire to be in community really fraught. Everyone is dealing with different personalities and approaches to competition; when money and sustenance is involved, relationships can get very messy. Relationships require a lot of patience, and patience requires energy; and energy is in short supply in these spaces.
A In the context of this labour economy that we’re a part of, this type of competition can be really damaging to how we build community. I’m thinking of this particular instance where a friend of mine who does not identify primarily as an artist was applying for an exhibition assistance grant and asked for my opinion and advice. She asked me to give her an estimate regarding a specific aspect of her exhibition: she was asking for my professional opinion, knowing that I have been successful with grants in the past. I remember feeling very protective of the labour she was asking me to do. I didn’t feel generous. I have been applying for grants for years, and I’ve failed a lot! It was going through these experiences of failure that I learned how you succeed in the process. And I just didn’t feel generous. I didn’t want to give her knowledge that I had accrued through years of labour, so that she could be awarded a grant that I was in fact simultaneously applying for. She didn’t realize the time it would take to address the details she was asking me to consider—or that these details are things I’ve been thinking and working through for several years now, and that’s how I have the knowledge I do. We had a debrief a couple of weeks later where I explained to her why I felt protective or possessive around my labour, that as an artist this is how I survive and exhibit and produce on a regular basis. I had to explain why I didn’t feel generous. I kept thinking: what are you doing getting into this pool?
B Do you feel like your lack of generosity came from the fact that this person was dipping into the wrong pool? Is the lack of generosity maybe okay because you’ve done that work and people need to do it on their own?
A Yeah, yeah. I think it’s dual. On the one hand, I think I’ve earned the right to say “this is my labour and I’m not just giving it away for free," or to say, "this is my field. This is what I do and get your nose out." It doesn’t feel great to admit this, but the competitive nature of the granting system pits us against each other.
B What if this was a younger artist?
A Yeah, that would be different. I generally feel a generosity around mentoring, as others have mentored me over the years.
B Right, and even if it was a colleague: what is your responsibility to support your peers?
A I want an acknowledgment that this is labour that I am doing for them. I feel like this is something that we need to work on as a community: acknowledging unpaid labour and allowing time for that labour to unfold at the pace of the person that you’re asking the labour of.
B Yes, there is the need to acknowledge the work of the community and the types of unpaid labour that we all consistently do for one another. In my experience, this misapprehension comes from a deep divergence in politics. Some people will never acknowledge that certain types of work are labour, but you’re still stuck working with them. These dynamics breed deep resentments, and we slowly become less generous and guarded because…
A ...because you’re so tired. You’re working for every little penny. It makes it hard to feel generous. Going back to that example again: at the time, I was applying for a grant so I could get to Vancouver to do a performance that I’d been commissioned to create. The commission payment was $300. Fine. But that wasn’t going to get me there. I needed to get there, just so I could make the work. It’s not as if I was going to make any money. It was just so I could produce. To consistently produce and to show that I am engaged.
B What happens when all of this causes you to feel like you’ve failed before you’ve even done anything? What do you do when you feel like you’ve failed before you’ve even conceived of the endpoint for whatever the work is that you’re doing? That’s the type of failure that these conditions of precarity engender. Most of the time, we go and do some version of the work anyways.
A We always find a way. But that means that we sacrifice other parts of our lives. I don’t have certain kinds of assets like savings or property; this is the result of the precarity of my employment but also my prioritizing opportunities that present themselves in my career and that require me to put forward capital.
B Yeah, what are all of the things that get compromised because of these structures? The work itself gets compromised, and other aspects of your life get compromised.
B The work slowly becomes less about the actual commission than about the ways in which to make the work despite…
A …despite the constraints that mitigate its unfolding.
Zorlutuna, Alize, Raceviciute, Barbora, Conversation, June 7, 2017
Zorlutuna, Alize, Untitled, July 2017 (fingers rubbing together)
Zorlutuna, Alize, labour for the horizon, Mice Magazine Issue # 2: Healing Justice, 2016
is an multidisciplinary artist who works with installation, video, performance, and material culture, to investigate themes concerning identity, queer sexuality, settler colonial relationships to land, culture and history, as well as labour, intimacy, and technology. Her work aims to activate interstices where seemingly incommensurate elements intersect. Drawing on archival as well as practice-based research, the body and its sensorial capacities are central to her work. Alize lives and works in Toronto.
is a cultural worker and writer currently based in Toronto. Her recent work focuses on the topic of immigration in contemporary Canadian art, post-internet art as understood through the lens of object-oriented philosophies, and the imperatives and strategies for ethical contemporary curatorial practices. In 2015, Barbora was the recipient of a SSHRC scholarship. She graduated from the Criticism and Curatorial Practice program at OCAD University in 2016 receiving the University Medal for her exhibition Ways of Being Here. She is currently part of the 8eleven Gallery collective.