POSTED 09.03.2023

Text and photo: Miina Hujala

Is it worth it?

A new winter coat and shoes for the wife

And a bicycle on the boy's birthday

Song ‘Shipbuilding’ by Elvis Costello (lyrics), Clive Langer (music), best performed by Robert Wyatt.

The necessity for the need for 'deeper changes' in relation to climate crisis touches upon profoundly the questions of labour and work, especially the unbalanced distribution of possibilities to renounce from working. This affects the abilities to enable change and build new solidarities that would constitute a new cultural climate that recognizes our ontological dependency of what we mistakenly somewhat label the “environment” – as if it would be something we find ourselves amidst of or that surrounds us, not taking in the consideration that we are enabled through, with and by it.

The song by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer ‘Shipbuilding’ in the words of Cynthia Cruz (in the book ‘The Melancholia of Class’, 2021): “tells the story of the sons of the working class sent to fight in the Falklands War while, at the same time, shipbuilding communities became more prosperous due to the sinking of ships during that war and the need to build new ones.” 

The contradiction of being able to provide for oneself (and one’s nearest) whilst enabling the ongoing war (and destruction that it is built upon) is something that places the question of ‘what can we choose not to do’ in the drastic scale – where it should be placed at. The linkage of war and working class is a linkage akin to extracative-consumer-capitalist culture and regenerative-enabling life. As made to sell the labour power defines working class, as made to part-take in the cumulative growth driven madness of accumulation is depriving and destroying (literally killing) of livelihoods, environments, species, and possibilities in itself and in-between things (us).

Artists going on strike to hinder the effects of the climate crisis are unlikely to affect the situation. As this act of renouncement is done from relatively the weak position of resistance. And in another vein, boycott is only an option for those that are allowed to enter to the places of power in the first place. In the case of an artist this could mean a museum or a biennial. (More about the dynamics and questions on this: 'I Can't work like this' a reader on recent boycotts and contemporary art, 2017, edited by Joanna Warsza and the participants of the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts.)

Also one trait of the ‘art scene operation’ is that we have become accustomed to “the critique from within”. Andreas Petrossiants for example writes in his text ‘Inside and Out: The egged to critique’ (on e-flux journal issue #110, 2020) that determining where to place the critique – or activate it from – is a constant issue. He mentions that just like unions might become the tools of control of workers, also institutions hollow-out critique because of their permissiveness of it: “cultural institution itself which carefully curates performances of critique in its own halls in the spirit of dialogue.”

Currently when performance scores become sellable artworks with ease (with no trace to the resistance element that it might have been the intention of artists working under the title ‘institutional critique’ to escape all sorts of commodification), and also as creating attention is not just enough but aspired first and foremost, acts of resistance become too comfortably the testaments of value production.

Gestures becoming commodities of attention is also related to an expectation that artistic work is embedded with – that of enabling things rather than of renouncing/de-activating. How to then renounce from doing something – like contributing to the exploitation of “others” and the planet – when the act of ‘not doing’ is seen as a profitable performance in itself?

As here we should not only look at boycotting, or striking as a way to enhance (reform) the conditions of work, but the possibility of renouncing from it.Transition to environmentally aware practices and consciousness of the effects of everything we do (postcolonial and post-fossil) will require the enhancing of the ability to renounce from work that contributes very directly to climate crisis. And not only giving into symbolic aspects, this could mean creating solidarity funds for all workers that want to stop working in a carbon-based industry for instance. ILO (UN-based International Labour Organization) for instance does not tackle this issue in their ‘decent work agenda’. Vague mention of the determination that “If people are to thrive in a carbon-neutral digital age, the broader dimensions of development and progress in living standards need to be considered, including the rights and enabling environment that widen people’s opportunities and improve their well-being.” Of course the production/consumption model that western economic activity is based on has long been very deliberately blind to the very concrete effects this has caused to our planetary conditions, as they have fallen under necessity to see work as seminal material extraction and formulation of human capacities in relation to that. Artistic work is also additionally attention extraction, and the material circulation related to that. 

In the core, the idea is still valid that: wellbeing involves the being able 'to work well', and to affect one's possibilities of contributing to what work should be done in the first place should be the first step. This includes (I think necessarily) the possibility to renounce from doing work. Wondering why labor movement and battle against climate crisis haven't been more aligned is something that for instance Bruno Latour brought up a bit briefly in 'Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime' (2018). Latour presses that the social and ecological aims shouldn’t be seen as contradicting each other and free formed quotation of the way he expresses it is that one doesn’t have to choose “between birds and paychecks”. That it is always a question of associations and combinations including both. 

It is quite curious that for so long the necessity to work has encumbered the possibility to forefront sustainability of the planetary conditions of life. The sawing of the branch we sit in, this self-inflicted danger we are in, just keeps us alive somehow as the eventual dropping down is titillating. This is the culture of venture capitalism.

For too long have ’we’ waited that it (the capital) will make the right choices and invest in the “green agenda”– a situation that became all too clear when wealthy European countries ”realized” how dependent they actually are on Russian energy sources. (There shouldn’t be any wonder about this situation as it has been a very deliberate choice that many countries, like Finland where I am writing this from, have sought in aiming to enable ‘good’ investments.) 

But to track back to art field activity and the question of renouncing from work. Battling inequality as a form of labor solidarity means opening of the terrain, the ways we work, to structural scrutiny. Yet again, anew and as always. So keep doing differently. Situating oneself with solidarity would be from my perspective making it possible for others to renounce from working if they so wish. Not expect it, but respect this will if it is so, provide food and medicine and not let one’s effort be encumbered by those that say that it’s stupid “to carry water on the well.” I’d say that in the climate crisis we are in, it seems to be the only thing left to do, to try to salvage and balance the situation for those that suffer from the warming planet. 

Maybe there isn’t much left to be said that hasn’t already been voiced, but let’s repeat and quote Arundhati Roy (addressing the World Social Forum in 2002, quote from the book by Jesper Nordahl that is a transcript of an interview of Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Anticapitalist Feminist Struggle and Transnational Solidarity: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 2019). Arundhati Roy:

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it, To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness–and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”