What might cultural institutions look like without police or a profit motive attached to them? This is one of the central questions raised by Art Workers’ Inquiry (AWI), a New York collective of artists, writers, and trade laborers currently in residency at Wendy’s Subway in Bushwick. Since 2019, AWI has been developing methods for everyday art workers to speak openly on capitalism and colonialism in the art world, touching on subjects from elite corruption and racialized violence to precarious labor and housing insecurity.
Originally an art industry working group of communist collective Red Bloom, AWI was one of many inquiries formed to revive Karl Marx’s 1880 survey for the French working class. Their first inquiry resonated so much within New York that the core organizers formed an autonomous collective after the dissolution of Red Bloom last year. As of 2022, eight to ten members are theorizing on the future of artistic labor as the industry experiences an ongoing wave of protests and unionizations.
Commissioned by La Revue Socialiste, the original 100-question workers’ inquiry included open-ended prompts regarding daily life at work, such as duties of the job, divisions of labor, wages paid, names of capitalist owners, safety measures taken, and the presence of “resistance associations” in the workplace. Marx lamented that, at the time, no such investigation had been done on working life in France despite the many investigations into Europe’s economic and social crises.
Merely asking these questions to the vast majority of ordinary people introduced a mechanism of accountability that inspired revolutionary theorists and organizers such as C. L. R. James and Grace Lee Boggs. Much like the original inquiry, the AWI argues that revolutionary thought emerges from the testimonies of working people, who are the only ones capable of remedying the social maladies of capitalism. Within this framework, AWI positions art workers as the creative sector of a broader internationalist movement.
“In terms of our conditions and what we’re up against, we have far more in common with workers in other industries than we have differences,” AWI told Hyperallergic by email. “Our organizing takes this as a starting point; we’re interested in building solidarity with workers across sectors who are struggling against racial capitalism.”
In their proposal to Wendy’s Subway, AWI detailed how respondents have long avoided articulating concrete alternatives to existing institutions and systems. The purpose of this residency, therefore, is to foster discussions around the material changes necessary to empower creative instincts in each person, and then to build a coherent theoretical structure out of the results.
“The challenge then is to encourage bold and creative collective thinking towards another world,” the proposal states. “As art workers, we can start to envision those models — we have a particular set of skills that flow from inventive and creative thinking.”
To be sure, a significant number of polemical essays that call for abolishing museums and overthrowing capitalism often neglect supplemental discussions of what could actually replace them. As such, anonymous responses allow art workers — many of whom are very much engaged in these discussions but have no outlet for them — to speak candidly without fear of reprisal, particularly on the stressors of working life that are by no means exclusive to the art industry.
In March 2021, AWI arranged a questionnaire on the interconnection of pandemic displacement and abolitionist organizing. They posted it online and, after taking an index of most used words from the responses, found that “abolition” was among the most frequent. Their subsequent zine, Art Work During a Pandemic, interweaves clippings of art-worker testimonials with collage and photography works by New York-based artists. Much like Marx’s, AWI’s line of inquiry became increasingly ideological with each question, progressing from reasons to make art and participate in the culture sector to unemployment and workplace changes.
“This swelling of the reserve army of labor put pressure on those of us still employed to take on numerous additional tasks, from hastily developing online classes from scratch to participating in elaborate cleaning protocols that allowed museums and other institutions to justify reopening,” AWI’s introduction explains.
An overwhelming number of respondents noted that they wanted guaranteed work, a union, healthcare, paid sick leave, wage transparency, free housing, and accountability for institutional violence. The last few questions address organizing efforts and protests attended since the outbreak of COVID-19, while the final question asks about desired changes after the pandemic. AWI arranged a tree collage of clipped answers, which include “Universal Health Care,” “3-4 Day Work Week,” “More articulate forms of love,” and “Communism!”
Since beginning the residency, AWI held “Cops Out of the Art World,” an event that brought together workers across creative industries to discuss the extent to which policing affects their workday. Attendees raised questions about the physical presence of police officers, institutional funding, and surveillance tendencies among leadership. A table at the center of Wendy’s Subway was overflowing with printouts made by AWI members on subjects including police terror, museum trustees profiting from private prisons, and Palestinian solidarity.
On April 23, AWI held their second and final event, “All Jails Are Cages.” The group posited alternatives to the city’s new jailing plan, with questions addressing material versus symbolic interventions and art-world language that makes the prison-industrial complex more palatable. Printed literature included research on imminent prison developments, such as a women’s jail in Kew Gardens, Queens, and a replacement for the Manhattan Detention Center (commonly known as “the tombs”) with information on their developers, funders, and profiteers. On a table-wide map of the five boroughs, attendees placed sticky notes indicating the locations of these prisons as well as homeless shelters, correctional centers, and army recruitment stations. In the coming weeks, AWI plans to print this collaborative work into a new zine based on the residency.
Marx passed away before receiving any answers to his inquiry, yet its impact across generations speaks to its singularity during the rise of global capitalism. Today, with cultural institutions evading money-laundering regulations, the resurgent art workers movement is building power from the ground up, rather than looking to elite leaders and influencers. Above all, AWI’s work proves that radical change begins with those impacted the most.
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