Amelia Wallin: Instituting Care in Times of Radical Uncertainty

Amelia Wallin: Instituting Care in Times of Radical Uncertainty

  • 18 May 2020
  • Amelia Wallin has held curatorial and administrative positions at Performa in New York and the Biennale of Sydney, Performance Space, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Vivid Ideas and Performing Lines in Sydney.

    She has played an active role in arts development in Sydney through directorial and curatorial positions at Firstdraft, Tiny Stadiums Festival, and as co-founder of the residency and exhibition program Sydney Guild. Amelia has curated programs at The Kitchen, The Hessel Museum of Art, Performa15, and Firstdraft, and has contributed writing to Running Dog, Runway, un Magazine, Artlink, and others. She holds an MA in Curatorial Studies from the Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and a BA in Theatre & Performance Studies and Art History & Theory from the University of New South Wales.

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Amelia Wallin is an Australian curator, writer and the Director of West Space in Melbourne. Wallin’s work centres on commissioning and facilitating cross-disciplinary artistic exploration, as well as interrogating alternative models for institution building. Her recent research and writing examines reproductive labour in the space of the contemporary art institution, in relation to care, feminisms, and practices of instituting.


I’m Amelia Wallin and I'm speaking to you today from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Before beginning my presentation, I would like to pay my respects to their elder’s past, present and emerging and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.

My presentation is called Instituting Care in Times of Radical Uncertainty.

Curatorial discourse from the last decade, regularly science curating, etymological entanglement with care. For curators working in the contemporary, with contemporary interdisciplinary artists, care is used to elucidate the working relationship between artist and curator, as a means of capturing the often intangible or opaque work that's bracketed under the curatorial. The realignment of curating with care, can function as a theoretical or methodological remedy to the alienated experience of the art worker. This can be evidenced by the number of ways in which care has been transmuted, both as content and method into a number of current art exhibitions, writing and publishing projects. As the director of a small art institution in Melbourne and as a white benefactor of colonial settler privilege, the question of institutional care is at the forefront of my mind.

Can institutions practice care within this context, on stolen land, in such a way that is healing and reparative, rather than extractive or exploitative?

In identifying cares acquiescence to exploitation, specifically the racial and gender division of labour performed under care work, this presentation considers how the exploitation of care may be counted rather than perpetuated by practices of artists led alternative instituting.

In response to the radical uncertainty of our current moment, which I define as post 2016, this presentation will look at how alternative art institutions are working with artists to enact strategies of care. I’ll look at examples of three institutions from North America and Europe, who have inserted artists into their organisational structure, in long term positions of power and critique.

How is care exploitative?

A focus of Western political thought and action, the unwaged element of care work, is the work that we all do and receive to varying degrees for ourselves and others in order to keep on working. We labour under the illusion that work is contained within a shift and that, that shift equates to a wage, when such equivalences of value are never fully commensurable. The wage, with its promise of equal and adequate renumeration, obfuscates society's reliance on care work and other forms of unpaid labour.

As Karl Marx argued, unpaid labour is a structural necessity of capitalism, on which all forms of value and profit depend. Feminist scholars call this ‘care work’ or ‘social reproduction’, and they have observed how the gendering and racial division of this work reproduces inequitable social relations under capitalism. Exceeding any possible wage, care is relational, what has come to be known as affective or emotional labour. As invisible affect, care resists easy quantification and therefore renumeration. It is in this way, that care maintains a double character, its ineffable qualities masked transitions between nurturing practices and exploitative measures.

Theorist Cristina Morini has observed how industries with high degrees of cognitive or cultural labour, there exists a tendency to transfer the modalities and logistics of care work, particularly in the context of the mother-child relationship, which practically does not have limits of time or dedication. The cultural labourers, the purported love of their work exploits them to work longer hours. In the unregulated art world, as in global relations more broadly, the feminization of labour goes hand in hand with its exploitation.

In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, which brought about the collapse of so many big institutions, contemporary art looked to self-organising models, rooted in the 1990s which sought to challenge institutional hegemony. 2008 was the same year that Working Artists and the Greater Economy, or W.A.G.E., was formed. W.A.G.E. aims to counter the inherent exploitation of cultural labour in the arts. In 2010, when invited to participate in an exhibition at the New Museum, W.A.G.E. instead negotiated for fair artists fees for all artists involved and this led to the development of one of their key tactics, the self-regulatory process of certification, by which institutions can hold themselves accountable for paying artists fees. The amounts of fees are calculable based on the operating budget of the host organisation.

In the years that have followed the financial crisis, we have seen the pervasive expansion of neoliberalism and right-wing populism, which has resulted in the increased privatization of the arts. Small to medium institutions are under growing pressure to privatize and professionalize in order to survive in increasingly competitive neoliberal contexts. Organisations are often in direct competition with their peers for dwindling public funds. There's constant pressure for growth and expansion to justify and maintain government support.

Small to medium arts organisations are most vulnerable to drastic cuts from arts councils. In 2014, the funding cuts in the United Kingdom led to the closure of many spaces, and in 2015, Australia experienced major cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts budget from the then Arts Minister, George Brandis. Neoliberalism's instrumentalization of public funding pressures small or alternative institutions to develop entrepreneurial approaches to private funding and governments in general. Institutions are encouraged to find new sources of sponsorship and patronage and to earn their own income.

Post 2016 we have experienced an acceleration of these conditions, the radical uncertainty about contemporary existence can be categorised by Trump, Brexit, the catastrophic changes in weather and the current global health emergency. There's an urgency to this moment and institutions are being asked, “what else can they do besides house art”? Currently, particular attention is also being paid to the internal operations of organisations. Unions are forming to protect vulnerable workers, artists are collectivizing the support throughout the global health pandemic, and internationally the wage model is being embraced as a provocation, and a prospective tool for measuring and accounting for care in different countries. The ways in which an institution works to reproduce itself through staffing, funding, programming, community building, organizing, marketing, design and architecture, and communications can become a methodological exercise in care. In the small to medium sector a number of institutions have responded to our tumultuous political moment, by questioning their role as sites of art, culture and community through experimenting with institutional structures and playing close attention to their methods of social reproduction.

The following examples consider institutional practices that exceed the bracketed time of the exhibition period, to share structures of support and redistribute resources, through inviting artists and collectives into institutions, to disrupt the usual methods of social reproduction from anti-capitalist or anti-racist positions.

Firstly, Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons, refers to itself as an anti-capitalist institution and as such, it maintains a political commitment to acknowledging social reproduction in its institutional structure and labour relations. The organisation's relocation to a new building in the centre of Utrecht museum district in the Netherlands in 2014, led to an anticipated increase in public attendance and this gave rise to a new project titled New Habits. A self-reflexive, multi-year artwork, New Habits was produced with long term Casco collaborator Annette Krauss, as part of her ongoing research project Site for Unlearning. New Habits began with the question of “what working conditions do we want to unlearn in light of the Commons”?

For the staff, the most common answer was busyness. One strategy of unlearning busyness that the staff continued to employ, is a collective planning of the officers every Monday morning, a practice that they have continued for two year. Somewhat counter-intuitively, making time for reproductive labour alleviated the pressure of productive labour felt by the staff as perpetual busyness. The New Habits programme acknowledges care as an institutional accountability, rather than a personal responsibility, and as such, structured time for reflection and assessment is incorporated into Casco staffs ongoing labour practices. As the director of Casco, Binna Choi states “to put institution only as a background support structure for art, we may only perpetuate our habit of operating in a representational realm”. Instituting can enable radical change in relation to the intersecting issues that stem from the work of social reproduction. By assessing the conditions under which they operate, and for grounding the reproductive labour that sustains them, institutions can reproduce themselves against the dominant labour market.

Another example I want to turn to is the Wood Land School, and particularly their program Drawing Lines from January to December, which was a 12-month program presented in 2017. Indigenous Canadian collective, the Wood Land School, presented this year-long evolving exhibition which operated from a position of indigenous self-determination and it took over the SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art in Montreal. The collective presented an iterant programme of events and exhibitions that unfolded over 12 months. In their initiating letter signed by co-creators and organisers Duane Linklater, Tanya Lukin Linklater, cheyanne turions and Walter Scott, they wrote “contemporary civic institutions and social structures are built upon system set of silence, ignored and destructively classified indigenous people, ideas and objects. In response to this history Wood Land School calls upon institutions to give labour, space, time and funds to support indigenous ideas, objects, discursivity and performance”. The SBC Gallery was erased, and it was renamed to the Wood Land School, including on the website and the gallery's original signage. Reflecting on practices of instituting in Canada, the curator and previous director of SBC Gallery Kip Day, calls for a situated approach to the practice of instituting, one which acknowledges the institution as partial and influenced by broader political forces.

But to turn to a third example, at Performance Space in New York. The program, 02020, has brought together artists and collectives into the institution. The artists and collectives have been given the mandate to run the organisation together with performance based New Yorkers, staff, board and leadership. Participants include the individual artists and members of collectives, Brujas, as well as members of the New Red Order. Together the participants have full transparency into the organisation's inner workings, as well as full artistic control of the programming, including other side of the website. The annual production budget has also been given over to artists to pay wages, to fund their programmatic platforms. Since Covid-19, the mission 02020 has become even more urgent asking “how can institutions engage radical care, the elevation of all people equitably, and by prioritizing access”. With the current health risk of public events, much of the activity and programs of 02020 has moved online. The collective has prioritized in sharing resources for mental health and well-being, as well as funding opportunities and live-streaming work and conversation.

These three examples lead us to the question of what role may institutions hold as potential agents of change.

As a first port of call, institutions must acknowledge their ongoing benefit from the displacement of indigenous people, migrants and refugees, non-human animals and material resources. As we grapple with the radical uncertainty of our current moment, institutions such as Performance Space New York and SGB, have artists to lead their organisations for 12 months, and Casco enacted a long-term collaboration which is endured and changed work habits.

Beyond the thematic exhibition these examples question “how might we practice care at a level that considers the institution, its material, infrastructures, its laborers and its position as a holistic and sustainable entity?” The initiatives of New Habits, the Wood Land School and 02020, propose alternative structures of instituting, whilst also asking “what can institutions learn from artists?” Surpassing care as thematic or discursive, this line of investigation is intended to radically change the operations of these organisations.

By inviting artists as external agents into the operation, these institutions wear their vulnerabilities, their neoliberal business plans and their settler colonial position open for critique. The sharing or handing over of resources and power, will hopefully leave these organisations fully changed. But what remains to be seen is whether asking artists to do this kind of work shifts responsibilities away from the institution, or does it succeed in the redistribution of power and the disruption of normative social reproduction.

Thanks so much for listening. I'm including my email here. I welcome any questions, or if you'd like any references, or a copy of my presentation I'd be more than happy to share with you. Thank you so much.