Migrating Our Skills as Cultural Workers

Joon Lynn Goh: As a cultural worker, I’m interested in how you have sustained a practice that connects cultural work and political organizing from different perspectives. For example, your interventions into cultural labour conditions via the research and action group Precarious Workers Brigade; your insider-outsider role as a curator for the Serpentine Gallery’s Centre for Possible Studies; your writing, which continues to tease out a language at the intersection of art and politics; your work as part of the sound and political art collective Ultra-red; and now your work as a lecturer at Goldsmiths.

Ultra-red’s mission statement includes an intention to pursue a “fragile and dynamic exchange between art and political organizing.” As you have been part of this collective for nearly twenty years, first in Canada, and now in the UK, how has the meaning of this exchange shifted over time for you?

Janna Graham: Ultra-red is a collective of twelve people in four cities. I haven’t been a part of it since the beginning but joined in the early 2000s. Prior to that, Ultra-red was largely understood in the techno and experimental music scene. Members recorded and composed sounds within the context of social movements, including ACT UP, a direct-action advocacy group working to support people with AIDS, the Hollywood Needle Exchange, and the social housing struggles in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.

Producing sound was a way of expressing, amplifying, and proliferating some of the effects of these struggles within the wider anti-globalization movement. This is what attracted me to Ultra-red and why I invited the Los Angeles members of the group to Toronto, where I was living, to inform groups working on intersecting struggles between the arts, gender, and anti-racism struggles—at the time I was working predominantly with youth organizations around issues of racial profiling and policing.

Shortly after I joined the group, we started to think more about the role of listening. We had discovered most members had, as part of their political formation, encounters with popular education—education processes born of the struggles from communities in Latin America, which draw from participants own experiences of oppression—where practices of listening play a significant role. This was somewhat at odds with our current experiences in many social movements, where individual voices—rising stars giving long speeches—were the dominant sounds. Thinking about listening allowed us to consider the acoustics of political organizing differently.

At the same time, we were being invited more frequently into contemporary art spaces. We saw these opportunities less as moments to present our work and more of a place in which to stage processes of collective listening, reflection, and analyzing. And, very practically, to bring people from different geographies and movements to listen together.

a group sitting around a short table

Asia Art Activism, Making Time workshop: exploring Asian art and activist histories in the UK, 2019.

Janna: With communities in struggle (in the UK this involved work with anti-racism groups like the monitoring groups), we developed strategies and techniques around listening, asking: “What did you hear?” For a period of time, during the height of the so-called “educational turn,” when arts organizations were very interested in radical and alliterative educational practices, we were invited into arts institutions. We used them as spaces to work through different approaches to these listening practices.

The “fragile dynamic” you quoted above relates to this. While arts spaces provided resources for us to be together and learn from each other in the collective and with communities we were involved with as activists, over time these invitations sometimes seemed like more of a distraction. They took more of our time than the communities with whom we were committed to developing the ongoing political organizing work in anti-racism (UK), and in the needle exchange and anti-gentrification struggles in Boyle Heights (LA). We realized that the accountability of Ultra-red members is predominantly with these communities, and this did not always align us with the priorities of the arts organizations that had invited us in.

An example of this in the UK was a project based in the Southwest, where one of Ultra-red’s members, Elliot, was working with a grassroots anti-racism organization. There, through an invitation from the Plymouth Arts Centre, we set up listening sessions with people who’d experienced racist violence in four communities. This process made use of the resources of the gallery to galvanize and mobilize communities around anti-racism, offer support for violent incidents, and get some of the local institutions on board as solidarity structures for migrants. We were able to bring newer organizers in the Southwest together with more experienced organizers from across the UK through an event at the Tate’s triennial.

While we did not share the priorities of the triennial, and ultimately found it to be a difficult working relationship, we nonetheless were able to realize an important meeting. The fragility in the balance between art and community organizing is precisely this: arts organizations, if not directly implicated in the process we are working against—for example, in the case of the ongoing organizing work Ultra-red has done with residents in Boyle Heights for the last twenty years—often emphasize aspects of the work that are less important to the communities we are working with.

Thinking about listening allowed us to consider the acoustics of political organizing differently.

Joon Lynn: It’s reassuring to hear you speak about the consistency of Ultra-red’s practice over the last twenty years. I was expecting you to have very different opinions about how you organized in the past and are organizing now, but it feels as though all the members have continued to find value in a tactical practice of listening.

Janna: Yes, there have been some consistent commitments, but this venture into contemporary art spaces also highlighted the importance of being accountable to the people in struggle we have heard from. This point about accountability is crucial given that, in the arts, while listening sessions are more frequent, organizations often move onto the newest theme, newest artist, newest issue or community group, which can curtail the process of acting upon what has been heard.

But how do you really become accountable to what you’ve heard and the people you’ve listened with? That’s quite tricky. When we listen accountably, we start to lose focus on the art or the art world. It gets harder and harder to define what Ultra-red is or what we do as an arts collective that is legible to the contemporary art world because we are more embedded in movements and we’re prioritizing that work. We can spend our limited amount of time either experimenting with listening practices in art spaces or working with listening to build capacities in social justice movements: housing, anti-racism, queer politics—all of which need all of our attention now.

Joon Lynn: Given your commitment to listening and acting with accountability, do you feel as though you can position yourself within the arts? 

Janna: I don’t know. For the first time in two decades, I have the fortune of not relying on the arts or cultural spaces for my income but I don’t really see myself as an academic either, even though that is how I currently support myself. I would rather define my position through social justice commitments. Where I’m drawing my income from changes the inflection of and the time I have available to pursue social movement commitments, but fundamentally the question is how to work on the issues and with the communities I feel committed to and how to be supported to do so. In the case of working in the university, I am also thinking about how new generations of arts workers might approach their work differently, might reinvent their approaches in relation to their social and political commitments.

That said, due to the challenges of making a living in the arts—poor working conditions, the encroachment of neoliberal tendencies that can make certain kinds of work ethically untenable—and the fact that I spent twenty years working in arts organizations, I have had to make a number of shifts that have disabled my capacity to stay in one place and follow through on one set of problematics in a specific geographical context for two decades, like other Ultra-red comrades. This is something I regret, but it has meant that I have worked with a wide range of social movement groups and have also been able to draw resources from cultural institutions to support social movements.

Moving through different social movement spaces has also allowed me to test and try different kinds of organizing practices—bridging, translating, or migrating practices from one struggle to another. I’ve learned a lot about tactics of redistribution and the possibilities and impossibilities within various circumstances.

Joon Lynn: I’m interested in this idea of migrating practices. It was only when I was working with the community-organizing coalition Citizens UK  on setting up a refugee resettlement program in Bristol that I understood the value of my skills as a festival producer. Creating situations in collaboration with people, dealing with multiple stakeholders and egos, juggling the liveness of time-sensitive events and things going astray—all of these skills I underrated until they were utilized in a context completely divorced from the arts.

It was there where I realized I was able to deal with conditions that are actually very stressful or even perplexing to others. It made me ask: If my skills as a festival producer are useful in the context of delivering a refugee resettlement program, how does being a cultural worker and thinker impact the way I approach organizing? Or how can the migration of cultural skills into political struggles expand and create new ways of organizing?

In the arts, while listening sessions are more frequent, organizations often move onto the newest theme, newest artist, newest issue or community group.

Janna: From the perspective of my current job at Goldsmiths, where I am a lecturer and work with students who aspire to be cultural workers, this is a really interesting question. On campus last year, when we were on strike for fourteen days in a pension dispute, we began to see what it would be like if the skills in radical analysis, art-making, design, etc., were reoriented towards common struggle over the expectations and pressures of artists to express their individual genius.

Art students were making collective performances on the picket line. Lecturers, instead of thinking about their next publication, were staging discussions and workshops with students and communities. Designers were running poster-making sessions. We started to see the critical resources of a university as they might be applied to common struggle.

We asked the question, “What are the things about the cultural sector that are useful and completely not useful to social movements?” While there are important skills in the arts that are terribly useful to the kinds of organizing we need to do, there are also some very problematic attributes. For example, the mechanism of authorship (and the encapsulation of group work into the frame of the individual), the demand for the ever-new over long-term commitments, the attachments to bourgeois conventions and spaces, the role of contemporary art galleries and aesthetics in ushering in development—these are all attributes from which social movements need protection.

There’s a lot to be said about how we develop the analytic skills, collective accountability, and consciousness to be able to discern, where and how, to use cultural resources. When is it something that’s diverting energies from social movements and when is it extending or building them up? This is rarely if ever taught in art schools and is one of the things we can do as educators, whether in the university or as people organizing: develop a kind of conversation and analysis of this.

This was one of the most valuable things that happened in Precarious Workers Brigade—to be able to make an ethical code to guide decisions about what to do and what not to do in cultural work, and indeed in life.

Joon Lynn: The work of Precarious Workers Brigade did a lot to name the normalization of precarity in the cultural sector. Having access to a language that enables us to connect overlapping experiences of precarity feels very important so that we can better position a common agenda between predominantly white freelancers, largely Black or brown subcontracted cleaning or security staff, short-term-stay international students, and migrant and non-white cultural workers navigating the Hostile Environment, the British government’s policy that turns employers, teachers, landlords, and healthcare workers into proxy border guards, liable for checking the immigration status their employees, students, renters, and patients.

A colleague of mine, Zrinka Bralo from Migrants Organise, always says to me, “You work in culture, build me a new culture!” I love the simplicity of the request but struggle with how complicated a genuine response can be. Given the landscape, how do we make culture in a sector that isolates our talents and makes us compete with one another? How can we make culture if we can’t even organize ourselves?

I know culture is constantly being made and re-made, because that is its history: ground-up, unpredictable, viral, marginalized until mainstream, powerful. I’ve taken solace and inspiration in histories where communities have organized themselves, and as someone who didn’t grow up in this country, it’s been important to learn, explore, and claim a lineage between past struggles and what I am involved in now.

I’m part of a network, Asia Art Activism, and one project I have begun with other artists, thinkers, and organizers is a collective mapping of South/East/Asian diasporic art and activism in the UK. We’re at the beginning of this but I’m excited about placing a macro lens on the histories and solidarities between South Asians, South East Asians, and Afro-Caribbeans, which are being too easily erased from our archives and memories. More than ever, we need these histories to imagine what has been done and can be done again.

While there are important skills in the arts that are terribly useful to the kinds of organizing we need to do, there are also some very problematic attributes.

Janna: This archival and historical bridging work really informs where you place your body, where you place your desire, how you understand what work means and what’s valuable. I love the question, though it has two sides. One, which your friend is likely posing, is one we can really embrace: “Can you make me a new culture?” as in, “What is the culture that will be strong enough to overthrow the right? That will get rid of property speculators and patriarchs?”

On the other side, I feel like that’s often what property developers ask of artists in local communities, “Can you make me a new culture?” One that rids itself of poor, working-class, and radicalized communities. Who is asking the question is also a crucial aspect.

At the moment, I spend my time with very socially committed young people, and I am thinking a lot more about whether we actually need cultural institutions in their current forms. Should we not be advocating for public divestment from some of them and from the model of production they represent? Should we not be pushing for the diversion of all cultural resources into this question of developing a culture that can support groups of people who are actually engaged in direct action around the issues we’re facing in our lives in the widest, most transversal, and diverse notions of creativity we can support?

These are the cultural shifts that need to be made. I’m not talking about all cultural workers on the barricades (though I do fantasize about it), but about cultural work as enmeshed with communal invention—care processes that allow people to survive, militant practices that throw off the yokes of capitalist culture and existence, educational practices that teach us to live and value earth and difference.

There are just so many more interesting questions about culture that emerge when you start working from grassroots communities. What are the cultural resources we need and want in them in order to fight against speculative capital or the police, and to produce a different reality that isn’t only about fighting but moves towards collective production of a commons, whether this be on health, housing, or ecological fronts.

On one hand I have given up on cultural institutions, and on the other hand I haven’t. I’m still very involved with people who are trying to use anti-racism, decolonizing research frameworks to think about how can we shift cultural policies within institutions, and how we can take the resources assigned to culture and actually enable them to support other activities—but not without changing the habitually re-inscribed behaviors that reproduce culture as a colonial construct. How do we wrench those resources into other kinds of work? I care about changing institutions, but actually the force of that caring doesn’t come from them. It comes from the social movements and the communities I’m involved in, and that’s the only way it’s ever going to work.

handwritten flowchart

Migrants in Culture: The Hostile Environment Flowchart workshop, as part of Anti University 2019.

Joon Lynn: When I was thinking about “giving up” on art, I realized I was already so implicated in a sector that had skilled me up, paid my rent, and nourished me with lifelong friends and peers. My thinking process went from: “It’s a mess!” to “Yes it’s a mess, but its my own backyard” to “Why am I not organizing my own backyard?”

It’s one of the reasons why Migrants in Culture, a network of migrant cultural workers organizing against the Hostile Environment, was formed. In part, it is about exploring how cultural workers can organize together to change how our sector works—and if its going to take a violent racist governmental policy to get us to recognize the spectrum of people working in the cultural sector and the accountability we have towards one other, then super. Migrants in Culture can play a role not just in terms of migrant rights but worker rights, and not just in terms of cultural work but all work.

There are so many ways to approach change. Depending on where and how you are placed, are you best utilized in a task of destroying or creating new organizations and models? Can you work from the inside or outside, or a bit of both? And to whom does your accountability and care lie with? On my positive days, I think, We can do this. But on other days I question, How are we communicating to each other? Are we really understanding one another?

Janna: I think we’re not communicating. There’s not a large enough coordinated effort being made from an alternative position in cultural production right now. There are a lot of groups working separately and trying things out, maybe enough to build a movement, but maybe not quite there yet either. In some ways, I’m like, Okay, there are some people over here working on the question of decolonization, some people over there working on the question of cooperative structures, and some people over there working against gentrification. There are some groups working on all three. But everyone is exhausted and maybe it needs a little more time before we’re ready to put together a charter of what we want and demand.

I’m not sure it’s 100 percent there yet, or whether we are capable yet of overturning the culture of capital, but we might be able to build off from our various starting points into a broader movement. Starting from resistance to capital, and colonialism as the production of culture, we have the beginnings of a common agenda and that’s more than we had five years ago. There’s something happening here. 

Joon Lynn: Finding ways of coordinating and communicating between different groups is a necessary thing. Contact time so that we can listen to each other regularly, so that we can continue to diversify and evolve our skills and perspectives, so that we can negotiate our common agenda. I don’t think that’s being utopian at all. 

Janna: It is radically pragmatic. We need, as Isabelle Stengers suggests, an ecology of practices that come to bear on these questions, that allow us each to work on the areas we need to but in a coordinated way. So when, then, is the next meeting? 

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Thoughts from the curator

We are living through a time where the late Toni Morrison's call for a writer's movement that is "assertive, militant, pugnacious'" and, above all, heroic feels more urgent than ever. The contributions to this series focus on how artists build community with the generations that came before them and after them by exchanging experiences and perspectives, and how this exchange can enrich the spiritual, political, and creative aspects of our work. It is my hope that they will inspire and galvanize in times where we feel low and lost. The conversations in this series connect people across identity, practice, political leaning, and time, but are largely rooted in the Live Art and Theatre sectors of the United Kingdom.

Conversations Across Generations

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