Collective Arrangements

The following essay by Mimi Thi Nguyen is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

In 1993, I began volunteering at the Epicenter Zone on Valencia Street in San Francisco, long before the area’s tech-fueled transformation into a boutique-lined neighborhood. Epicenter was a nonprofit punk record store and community center, hosting a zine library and a resource switchboard as well as meetings and the occasional show, for which all labor was donated. Except for a store discount and free admission to already cheap shows (and for me, as one of two workers who commuted from the East Bay, a BART ticket), no one received compensation. I worked there for two years on and off, depending on volunteer drama—of which there was quite a lot—spending my weekends (and sometimes those weekend nights) listening to music, reading zines, and repainting the ever-funky bathroom again and again. Epicenter closed in 1999, at the start of the first tech bubble, when the landlord raised the rent above what selling records could cover. Other punk institutions, however, such as Maximumrocknroll, the forty-plus-year-old print magazine also based in San Francisco covering punk and politics (which seeded the Epicenter Zone, along with a number of other spaces including Gilman, the still-open, all-ages nonprofit punk club in West Berkeley), endure on the same principles—against the corporatization of the underground, and for control over at least some part of our lives under capitalism.

The punk ethos of do-it-yourself or DIY was and is still a refusal of the alienation and divisions of activities or skills (through institutionalized conferrals of expertise, for instance), as well a sliding under state and corporate overpresence. But where state underpresence has resulted in neoliberalism’s dismantling of what minimal programs and mechanisms we once had for economic redistribution and social support, what were once punk forms of organization—including dispersed networks, mobility, short-term projects, and flexible labor—have been insidiously repackaged as “entrepreneurial spirit” in the gig economy.

In Your Everyday Art World, Lane Relyea describes how today’s network paradigm for artmaking lends itself to a neo-entrepreneurial mythology about volunteerism and DIY agency. He writes, “DIY serves as the honorific term for the kind of subject required by the constant just-in-time turmoil of our networked world. It has come to stand for a potent mix of entrepreneurial agency and networked sociality, proclaiming itself heir to both punk autonomy, the notion of living by your wits and as an outsider, and to a subcultural basis for authentic artistic production, the assumption that truly creative individuals exist in spontaneously formed social undergrounds.”

We know that the new economy of the last decade or more claimed to prize the so-called creative classes whose commodities included information, services, experiences, and other forms of cultural capital. Promising that individual autonomy, personal initiative, creative spontaneity, and self-realization in creative and intellectual labor would become the lingua franca of the new economy (see Richard Florida), these promises provided ideological cover for the shift in labor conditions to more chronically intermittent and contingent employment without benefits or security, and in some cases without wages or compensation. Relyea connects the dual emphasis on DIY agency and networked connectivity through the short-term contract or informal work agreement, writing that this “allows for both engagement in specific productive situations and quick disengagement so that productive units will return constantly to the circulatory movement of the worldwide market.” As Andrea Fraser has observed, artists “have become the poster children for the joys of insecurity, flexibility, deferred economic rewards, social alienation, cultural uprooting and geographical displacement.” (These warnings also remind me of some of the institutional constraints of the nonprofit or nongovernmental organization, including grant-dependency for socially and contextually embedded projects, the requirement to measure outcomes, and the template of the timetable, that just as quickly disembeds from these social and contextual ties.) What are called improvisational or mobile projects (such as pop-ups), relying on makeshift and creative adaptation, too often actually increase, or at least disguise, vulnerability and debt.

It seems to me more important than ever to understand that punk forms must be accompanied with radical politics, lest such forms just become neoliberalism’s innovation for exploitable labor. It would be too easy to argue, for instance, that publishing a punk magazine in an economy that might hail such creative work as part of a revolt against former modes of capitalist production (as rationalization, standardization, systematization, or bureaucracy) accepts as a matter of course the dangers of modes of flexible, disorganized, short-term, more varied and autonomous labor, unless we are vigilant in elaborating such labor and the conditions under which we take it up—or refuse it. It is more important than ever to me to believe in collectivized projects that imagine other arrangements, other possibilities for organizing our world, built on labors of love (that much-heralded but deservedly criticized slogan for the neoliberal economy)—just as long as the fruits of such labors go to those of us who are here, making art and doing the work, and to those with whom we imagine and organize together.

Mimi Thi Nguyen is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The next response in the Beyond Neoliberalism chapter is “Museums and Privatization: Beyond the Survival Paradigm” by Nizan Shaked.