Art world activism within the attention economy
Labour dynamics on social media
Detail from Art Monthly cover no. 451, with the artwork, ‘Poses’ (2021), by Peggy Ahwesh.
My first feature with Art Monthly has recently been published in their November 2021. I am over the moon about this :)
The piece is only available in print, but I wanted to share some general thoughts to provide an overview (I really love their commitment to not just publishing everything online, and think it’s a major reason why they’ve been able to remain such a critical and discursive publication).
I write about the recent Barbican Stories campaign, alongside a number of art world instagram accounts such as A Better Guggenheim, Cancel Art Galleries, Art Review Power 100, Freeze Magazine, and Jerry Gogosian. In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of similar accounts:
Part of what fascinates me about the art-world’s use of Instagram is exactly this tension: how fluidly a vernacular of call-outs and accountability, calls to defund and abolish are adopted and performed on platforms that are easily dismissed and rarely carry any stakes. The pervasive sense of urgency, the polemical style and bold claims exist as a shared vernacular amongst an often younger and digitally native demographic. People are wrestling with aspects of the art world – as defined through its systems and institutions, how power is constituted formally – and their place within it through a medium which seemingly comes naturally, a medium where they also express their identity and test the limits of their own selfhood, tastes and interests. The peculiar ways in which the internet collapses the private into the public treads an ambiguous line between individual self-discovery and community participation, demanding a renewed sensitivity to identity and action. These tensions serve as a reminder that the adoption of Instagram by galleries and institutions has snowballed in recent years, not only to showcase their programmes but also to source new talent, engage audiences, stalk collectors, self-promote and sell work.
What motivated me to pitch in the first place was how remarkably impactful Barbican Stories had proved to be, representing a curious inversion of clicktivism. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that their digital-savvy campaign was organised by a group of workers, targeting their campaign towards a specific institution, akin to traditional union tactics. The contradictions of wider labour dynamics made this explosive:
The neoliberalisation of society, which has weakened labour power (both through targeted legislation and a more diffuse culture of individualism and nebulous concepts of entrepreneurialism), is the same economic process which drives institutions to increasingly rely on corporate patronage, blockbuster exhibitions and other commercial practices. Yet these commercial practices are underwritten by the institution’s accumulated cultural capital, which makes the institutions tremendously vulnerable to negative press attention. The same confluence of forces that weakens unions also heightens institutional reputational risk, precisely what the Barbican workers are leveraging in their favour as they weaponise their own precarity. The tension between the anonymity of those involved and the hypervisibility of the strategy reflects shifting dynamics around labour and activism.
I also ask a number of difficult questions about what is emerging, and am quite critical of a number of key figures and recent trends. If you’d like to read more, you can grab a copy of Art Monthly at most museums and galleries or on their website, but I’d strongly recommend getting a print subscription. I’ve had one for a while now, and it’s one of the best things I’ve done – seriously, do it!
I plan to share more writing I’ve published elsewhere, as well as original essays, reviews etc. If you enjoyed this, subscribe! Share with a friend! Upload your brain to the metaverse and never look back!