‘To See and Be Seen’: Ethnographic Notes on Cultural Work in Contemporary Art

A key term in discussions on the nature of cultural work is the concept of ‘autonomy’, or ‘relative autonomy’, according to which cultural workers are capable of realizing themselves in the processes of work. This article wishes to problematize this

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    http://ecs.sagepub.com/  StudiesEuropean Journal of Cultural  http://ecs.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/01/09/1367549413515255The online version of this article can be found at: DOI: 10.1177/1367549413515255 published online 12 January 2014 European Journal of Cultural Studies  Panos Kompatsiaris art in Greece'To see and be seen': Ethnographic notes on cultural work in contemporary  Published by:  http://www.sagepublications.com  can be found at: European Journal of Cultural Studies  Additional services and information for http://ecs.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts:  http://ecs.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions:  http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints:  http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions: What is This? - Jan 12, 2014OnlineFirst Version of Record >> at Edinburgh University on January 15, 2014ecs.sagepub.comDownloaded from at Edinburgh University on January 15, 2014ecs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   European Journal of Cultural Studies 201X, Vol. XX(X) 1 –18© The Author(s) 2014Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.navDOI: 10.1177/1367549413515255ecs.sagepub.com EUROPEAN    JOURNAL   OF ‘To see and be seen’: Ethnographic notes on cultural work in contemporary art in Greece Panos Kompatsiaris The University of Edinburgh, UK Abstract A key term in discussions on the nature of cultural work is the concept of ‘autonomy’, or ‘relative autonomy’, according to which cultural workers are capable of realizing themselves in the processes of work. This article wishes to problematize this idea by examining the quotidian reality of cultural workers in the field of contemporary art in Greece during the current economic crisis. The analysis is based on ethnographic fieldwork, focusing on how the positive characteristics of cultural work are inscribed in workers’ experiences through their participation in ReMap, a contemporary art event that takes places biannually in Athens and is tightly interwoven with processes of gentrification. I argue that relative autonomy is neither a given nor a state where the cultural worker linearly progresses. Within the context of the larger cultural and economic implications of neoliberalism and its crisis, it is rather an ideal they are striving for, often through highly alienating conditions, in a field dominated by competition, voluntarism, low salaries, precarity and absence of collective bargaining. Keywords Autonomy, contemporary art, crisis, cultural industries, cultural labor, gentrification, Greece Introduction Roaming around the neighborhood of Kerameikos–Metaxourgeio (KM) in central Athens in October 2011, one could not help but notice a striking contradiction. On the Corresponding author: Panos Kompatsiaris, School of Art, The University of Edinburgh, 71 South Clerk Street 3F3, Edinburgh EH8 9PP, UK. Email: P.Kompatsiaris@sms.ed.ac.uk; panoskompa@gmail.com ECS 0010.1177/1367549413515255European Journal of Cultural Studies Kompatsiaris research-article 2014  Article  at Edinburgh University on January 15, 2014ecs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   2  European Journal of Cultural Studies XX(X) one hand, the palpable presence of impoverished immigrants, drug addicts and prosti-tutes, the ‘outcasts of modernity’ as Zygmount Bauman (2004) would put it, and on the other, ‘creative crowds’ tracing the routes of contemporary art in semi-wrecked residen-tial or industrial blocks. The reason and occasion for this encounter is  ReMap , a biannual contemporary art event initiated by an investment company that owns and employs as venues a large amount of buildings in the district. This entrepreneurial initiative attracts numerous artists and cultural workers, whose desires for creativity and professional development in the field inadvertently interweave with processes of urban regeneration and global flows of capital and migration.This article is based on ethnographic research conducted in October 2011 in  ReMap , examining the quotidian reality of cultural workers in the field of contemporary art in Greece in relation to the larger cultural, economic and social implications of neoliberal-ism and its manifested crisis. My main focus is on the ways that participants interpret and  perform their involvement in an art project closely related to real estate speculation and urban development, and on the ways their desires for self-realization through work are  played out in the field of contemporary art, a value regime loaded with an ‘anti- neoliberal structure of feeling’ (Day et al., 2010: 148). The social interactions rehearsed in this field, what Pablo Helguera (2012) refers to as ‘social scripts’ (p. 7), include certain codes of communication whose closer examination demonstrates that the desire for self-fulfilling and autonomous work needs to be apprehended in relation to certain materiali-ties and their symbolic understandings in different ethnic, cultural and economic contexts. The conditions and effects of the severe economic crisis in Greece are capable of refram-ing ‘essential’ qualities of cultural work, such as the promise of autonomy and self-real-ization in the workplace which are challenged and even suspended.I critically employ Mark Banks’ (2010) concept of ‘negotiated autonomy’ to describe the everyday struggles and micro-decisions in which precarious cultural workers engage in a field dominated with high demands for individual visibility and recognition. For Banks (2010), negotiated autonomy refers to the ‘more routine condi-tions of cultural production where workers find themselves engaged in a quotidian “struggle within” to try to mediate, manage or reconcile the varied opportunities and constraints of the art–commerce relation’ (p. 262). As I argue, autonomy for workers in the transient and expanding field of contemporary art appears neither as a given nor as a state where they linearly progress. Instead of being de facto ‘autonomous’ or ‘rela-tively autonomous’, cultural work seems to be contingent upon capacities to effec-tively perform ‘social scripts’ in a field where, according to Pablo Helguera (2012), the ‘predominant idea is to ‘see and be seen’, an environment where there are admired objects, but the main objective is tied to social relations’ (p. 24). In this regard, auton-omy is performative, a process of ‘doing’ grounded on social interactions between workers’ desires, their articulations in larger systems of meaning and spheres of action, institutional and financial limitations, labor conditions as well as the micro- and macro-economic and social relations present in various contexts. For instance, as we will see, the commonly accepted fact in the field that art has to be independent of economic rationalization was one of the discursive arenas around which conflicts, negotiations and subjective restructurings occurred. In an event so closely connected to processes of real estate speculation, the art–commerce relation becomes a contested terrain where at Edinburgh University on January 15, 2014ecs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Kompatsiaris 3 certain identities and identifications are performed, carrying or giving birth to other, emergent structures of feeling. Method and scope To date, there is no scholarship on the conditions in which cultural workers in the Greek cultural industries perform their labor and, similarly, there are few scholarly accounts examining contemporary art from an anthropological perspective. This article aims to initiate a debate by paying attention to the concrete materialities and discourses in which workers are daily implicated. The empirical material comes from participatory observa-tion involving personal visits to venues and events; informal discussions with visitors, critics and residents of the area; collection of written and visual material related to the event as well as hour-long qualitative interviews with seven of the event’s participants. The participants I spoke with, both men and women in their 20s from middle- and upper middle–class backgrounds, received university education in the fine arts and were work-ing as exhibition assistants, invigilators, tour guides and guards for free or for a small compensation. No one had a stable job, and their employment status can be considered rather precarious. Hardly maintaining themselves from cultural work, they had to rely either on family income or on other jobs. The goal of their participation in  ReMap 3  was to pursue a career in the art sector and thus to be able to make a living from it, something extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the current bleak economic environment. In short, what all the informants shared was their young age, skills, university education, aspirations for recognition and an uncertain future employment combined with expecta-tions for downward social mobility. In this sense, this social group gathers the character-istics of a relatively privileged section of the social category that Guy Standing (2011), among others, terms as the ‘precariat’, currently a ‘class in the making’ (p. 1).After a brief theoretical discussion focusing on recent sociological discourse on auton-omy in cultural industries where I introduce the macro-theoretical concepts that inform this article, I describe the context in which this event took place, the state of the Greek crisis, its effects on the field of contemporary art in Greece as well as the particularities and the dis-course generated so far around  ReMap . Subsequently, I present excerpts from the discus-sions with the participants focusing on their experiences from  ReMap  and cultural work in general. In the next section, I analyze the interviews in relation to the above discussion  putting emphasis on how workers’ desires, hopes and subjective aspirations for autono-mous work interweave with larger systemic processes and contemporary techniques of capital accumulation. I do so ‘reflexively’ in the sense that I often find myself implicated in similar ‘political’ dilemmas and crossroads regarding the distribution of my own work as a researcher and cultural producer. In this sense, this research does not make claims to the ‘ethnographic authority’ (Clifford, 1988) of a disengaged observer who examines the field from an external or even privileged standpoint. The process of collecting and analyzing the material then is in a constant dialogue both with my own experiences as a cultural worker and the theoretical frameworks presented here (Marcus, 1995: 96).Moreover, the ‘field of contemporary art’ is not perceived as a restricted ‘system’ or a ‘structure’ with crystallized and self-contained internal laws, rules and regulations, but as a moving, fluid, dynamic and transnational network of cultural practices informed by certain at Edinburgh University on January 15, 2014ecs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   4  European Journal of Cultural Studies XX(X) theoretical traditions, performances and discourses. Following James Clifford (1988) who observed long ago that it becomes increasingly ‘hard to conceive of human diversity as inscribed in bounded, independent cultures’ (p. 22), I avoid seeking how the field contains or manifests certain social attitudes, rather looking at the ways that discourses and practices that emerge in the fieldwork can be read vis-a-vis discourses and practices played out in the social field at large. In this sense, the discussion that follows the presentation of the research material is also speculative exploring the limits and possibilities of what the field ‘does’ or can potentially ‘do’ in our social landscapes.Recently, Pablo Helguera in his book  Art Scenes  (2012) speaks about the need for a social anthropology of contemporary art that will focus on the ways that the ‘collectively constructed values’ (p. 2) of the field produce new worlds. Despite the fact that in the  past decade art and anthropology initiated a strong scholarly relationship, on the one hand, through the popularization of anthropological theories of art and material culture studies in Anglophone art departments that prioritize object-centered and relational approaches, like for example Alfred Gell’s  Art and Agency  (1998) and, on the other, through the incorporation of ethnographic approaches as integral components of artistic  practice (Foster, 1996), there are very few studies attempting to see contemporary art as a sphere of action through  anthropological lenses. Sarah Thornton’s popular book Seven  Days in the Artworld   (2012) and Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art   (2009) have recently made such an attempt, but they are neither – strictly speaking – scholarly works nor do they see the field in relation to larger systemic processes. Some other recent attempts to examine contemporary art and labor include the work of Pascal Gielen (2010), who mainly employs sociological approaches as well as the edited volume  Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism,  Precarity, and the Labor of Art   (Aranda et al., 2011) bringing together a collection of texts that position artistic labor in the framework of Post-Fordist production.By focusing on cultural work in contemporary art sector in the present time in Greece, I wish to contribute to a growing body of empirically based scholarship on the qualities of cultural work in the past 10 years (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010; McRobbie, 2002, 2004; Ross, 2003). These studies examine the social and economic power relations that  produce culture, an approach associated with the political economy of culture and com-munication (Hesmondhalgh, 2007; Mosco, 1996; Wittel, 2004), combined with an anthropological understanding of culture that sees structures as generated by and genera-tive of the workers’ agencies, desires and performances (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010; Mahon, 2000). While the political economy approach often suffers from a ‘prob-lematic reduction of labour to an abstract category’ (Wittel, 2004: 19), anthropological approaches are more attentive to the processes through which workers’ agencies and subjectivities affirm, reject, shape or suspend existing social structures and institutions, emphasizing the perspective of the participants and to the ways they make sense of the social world around them (Bryman, 2008; Mahon, 2000: 474). Autonomy in cultural industries Cultural work refers to the practice of individuals who are involved in professional or semi-professional activities that aim to ‘produce social meaning’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: at Edinburgh University on January 15, 2014ecs.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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