This interview with Prof. Elke Krasny was conducted by Natalia Yeromenko during the symposium In the First Person: Memory in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in connection with her lecture on curatorial materialism and feminism. Krasny, curator, cultural theorist, urban researcher and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, framed her discussion on the materialist discourse through the term 'labour of love'. The phrase provides an entry point to ongoing issues, such as economic and employment precarity and its geographical localisation, as well as the potentialities for communitarian responses to such conditions.

NATALIA YEROMENKO: I would like to start with the issue you touched upon yesterday which is the “labour of love”, and particularly the kind of work we call precarious. Could you elaborate more on this issue. What do you mean by “labour of love”?

ELKE KRASNY: Labour of love is an idiomatic expression. I use this expression in theoretical terms just as much as an analytical tool, as a lens. Labour of love refers to the kind of work you do because you love to do it. But the idiom expresses much more than that. This is a kind of work you do because you want to do it, and you enjoy doing it, but it is also unpaid labour. There is no other reward except the joy and the pleasure you find in doing it. There is desire in labour of love, an economy of desire, you could say. And this has a very dark side to it. It seems to operate outside of the capitalist economic norms. You don’t have to do this kind of work, you simply enjoy doing it, and why would anyone stop doing what they enjoy. Yet, labour of love is very easily normalised and incorporated into the conditions of the existing economy. So there is a certain paradoxical ambiguity: we certainly cannot live on labour of love—but, one could argue, we should not have to live without it, since it might be the only non-alienated work we actually do find pleasure or joy in.

I think that what has been discussed in terms of precarisation, precarity and precariousness is in part, but only to a certain degree, also a reflection of this. People perform labour of love and this makes them vulnerable to structural processes of precarisation. Maurizio Lazzarato has worked a lot on precarisation. Isabell Lorey has written an important book on this, the title of which is “State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious”.

The important thing, though, is that there are not only a lot of intellectuals, thinkers, scholars out there working on the issues of precarity. Much rather, they themselves are also in it. Many intellectuals, people in the cultural field, artists, and art workers perform more and more labour of love at this point in time. This is not only studied by them as a subject matter—they are also the subjects performing labour of love.

Paradoxically, the more critical work is done, the more of it also falls under the category of labour of love. Therefore, we have to find new ways and new strategies of taking back labour of love, of taking it back from being harnessed to the neoliberal machine.

NATALIA YEROMENKO: It is interesting that the rhetoric that facilitates this situation was born exactly out of Marxist ideology against alienated work. But it diverged into the narrative that success in life means finding your real passion or your real calling in life and once you’ve found this calling it will bring you pleasure, happiness and success.

ELKE KRASNY: We can, by no means, let go of all the things that have been corrupted by accelerated neoliberal capitalism. We have to insist on overcoming a deadening dichotomy of passion that has been corrupted, therefore no more passion. Success has been corrupted, therefore no more success. We continue to seriously deprive ourselves if we think in the always already corrupted terms. Much rather, it is about redefining, it is about taking back passion, it is about taking back success, and so on and so forth. It is as complex as it is complicated to make this argument, but I think it is important to make it. We also need to make a claim that it is not only about The Queer Art of Failure—which is the title of a book by Jack Halberstam—but that it could also be about a queer art of success.

Thinking longitudinally, we come to understand how the paradigmatic invention of the individual success story links back to the early Modern Age. Then, success is your own responsibility. Not a question of shared success or success in solidarity, but individual success or, put differently, success effectively grounded in individuality. So, the uncanny mechanism is that the system easily absorbs you as your success story, but puts all the blame on you—and not on the system—in case of a failure.

I think a big step would be to define what we actually understand by success. Is success to be evaluated using all the neoliberal management tools? Or do we have to make a claim to a queer feminist definition that is always under construction? I want to quote the title of Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 article “Why there have been no great women artists” in which she analysed the structural conditions and institutional barriers met by women in the art context that prevented the making of great women artists. And I want to turn this quote around by asking “Why do there have to be great women artists?”. “Great” then is no longer the category through which success is measured, by which a success story is told. Still, that doesn’t mean that “great” can't be interesting.

NATALIA YEROMENKO: For me these issues you are talking about mean that your method as an artist is to ask questions. Do you think that maybe for some people it is hard to understand contemporary art exactly because it raises a lot of questions but doesn’t offer specific answers?

ELKE KRASNY: Contemporary art is such a diversified field. There are so many varied and different practices ranging from the highly spectacular and monumental to the research driven and theory-inspired. There is a segment of contemporary art that is just offered for conspicuous pleasure, visual consumption, and value accumulation via collecting. And, then, there are other segments of contemporary art, like socially involved art, politically conscious art, critical and questioning art. And, much of contemporary art requires a lot of dedication and expertise on the part of the audience. It is not so easily understood.

Raising a lot of questions—this has probably a lot to do with a certain intellectual formation in my life during the 1980s-1990s. Raising questions and leaving these question open, even strategically, without definitive answer, was part of this intellectual orientation. I think, what was met with too much anxiety are actually the answers. Raising questions has been privileged over giving answers. Answers were always put in question. Seen from today’s perspective, it seems easier, maybe too easy, to just go on raising questions. One has to risk answers. I deliberately use this word—“to risk”. To give an answer knowing that it won’t be the answer in a general sense, or a lasting answer, or an answer forever. But to not shy away from giving an answer to the questions, that is a very important thing, and, at that, a very political thing to do.

NATALIA YEROMENKO: Coming back to precarity, I wonder if the society you’re coming from, the Austrian society, is conscious of this problem, especially the community that lives under precarious conditions, how do they deal with this topic?

ELKE KRASNY: There are many communities in plural that are precarious, and there are a lot of discussions. There are critical intellectuals, cultural producers, artists, theorists, acutely aware of the conditions of precarisation which they seek to actively resist. They are aware of their own precarisation just as much as they are aware of the precarisation of others.

We witness, looked at on a more global scale, a global division of labour. There is a new global cognitariat—Franco “Bifo” Berardi has worked on this topic, but also a lot of other scholars and activists. The question becomes: how do you connect people who do a lot of thinking about the processes of precarisation and the cognitive precariat, as well as the precariat of the working class that has to do with outsourced labour, domestic labour, labour that forces people to become immigrants, to become mobile. But, once, they have arrived at their new place of work, they are very immobile, forced to work in private homes, forced to work in low-pay jobs. And we have another gap here—between a lot of knowledge on precarisation and very little change of the precarised conditions, including one’s own conditions. A lot of artists would probably claim that their art can make a meaningful contribution to effectuating change. On my optimistic days, I try to convince myself that I still believe in this, but on my dystopian days I believe less in that I can convince myself of this.

NATALIA YEROMENKO: Do you think that problematising precarity through art can actually impact, so to say, realpolitik, and stimulate communities to organise into unions and turn to protest and protect their rights or is this process purely introspective?

ELKE KRASNY: It is, indeed, worrisome if it is purely introspective. Though, we have to concede that there is nothing wrong with introspection, one desperately needs these safe spaces to think. The global rise of xenophobic politics, of racist politics, of anti-women politics, of anti-feminist politics, of anti-LGBTQ politics: there are a lot of anti-politics at the moment that promise a specific set of liberation. We see something here that resembles older forms of nationalism, fascism, totalitarianism, but they also differ from these older types. What we need to understand is that the left also needs to invent new types of more resistant practices of liberation. I am coming to the micropolitical part. For the last few days, I have been part of this exchange here in Kharkiv and I find what you do here very interesting. One could say you are testing new formats of co-working and you’re trying to create a kind of resistant networked structure where you rely on people, on bringing them together in the moment, and you trust that they take this energy or this feeling that you are not isolated—this is very important—and you take that with you and your work. So, this is very hope-inspiring. On another level, we have to be aware that all these things that we perform here are very much wanted from a neoliberal cultural worker—we are to network, we are to smile, we are to show our affection and emotions toward each other, we are to harness other people’s trust in ourselves. So, this is not outside the neoliberal paradigm.

I’ve been reading a lot of these two feminist economists who have published under the pen name J. K. Gibson-Graham. They have written a practice-oriented handbook called “Take Back the Economy. An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities”. They advise to look at how we spend, or rather invest, our time—your paid work, your family work, work of friendship, all things that you value—and how you build different kinds of economies within this larger dystopian neoliberal system. And, this is where labour of love can come in in a positive sense again.

There is something extremely relevant about this community-oriented approach and there are very helpful things that come out of DIY-community strategies. So, we should not let go of these things just because neoliberalism likes them. Quite on the contrary, one has to use them in a very intelligent way in order to take them back—such as taking back success, taking back feminism, taking back labour of love. And, also, to understand that maybe it’s not the union, maybe the model of organising politically has to be reinvented. There are people who would say we need new parties, or we need unions, or we need new structures entirely. But we cannot wait. We are running out of time—that’s what I feel. And, therefore, answers are very much needed.

NATALIA YEROMENKO: Let’s try to introduce a gender perspective to this topic of precarious work. In the Ukrainian context, the most sustainable form of any cultural activities, even connected with feminists, is a very conventional and hierarchical model. Otherwise, if you experiment and try to search for other forms, you experience burnout and the collective falls apart. This is true even for feminist collectives who often have to sacrifice their ideals in order to perform some real actions. What does this mean for you?

ELKE KRASNY: Can you explain a little more about why the most sustainable form of action is hierarchical?

NATALIA YEROMENKO: For example, an NGO model—when registering it, you have to state the name of a person who will be the head of the organisation. So, women have to surrender to this system in order to have real activities that obviously have very real impact. This is a compromise between the ideas you would like to distribute and the situation that the system offers to you. And this is very true for women in the third sector that they either have to fit into this male managing model or search for new models that are yet not sustainable and not understandable for the rest of society.

ELKE KRASNY: This question is very interesting because it raises questions like—how does a feminist institution work or how would a queer feminist government work? One can work hard in order to create conditions of heterarchy and of transversality. One can definitely work in a different way in institutions, with such positions without giving up any of the responsibility that comes with such positions.

Power is not necessarily a bad thing. Power can be enabling. Feminist institution building can potentially redefine power relations even though they still have to register as an NGO. This is a kind of work that can offer new precedents and models—not as normative models, but as models emulated via practice, adapted models that remain open to further adaptation.

Can you also explain to me why the NGO is a male model?

NATALIA YEROMENKO: Mostly because it presumes a certain model of vertical decision-making and representationality where there is one person that represents an NGO and wins most of the social capital, since s/he is the most visible and most associated with this certain NGO.

ELKE KRASNY: But, what if the leadership remains strategically anonymous, or what if there are 10 directors? What if the responsibility is collectively shared, just as much as the symbolic capital is, to use Bourdieu’s terminology? How to spread responsibility and social capital over many? How to spread the invisible labour, the volunteer labour, the labour of love equally over many?

I would call sharing responsibility plus sharing invisibilised labour plus spreading the symbolic capital, and not only the symbolic capital, but also the material and economic resources over a number of people a feminist practice. This is where more work is needed. This is where more models of practice are urgently needed.

Natalia Yeromenko is a Ukrainian journalist, essayist, and culture practitioner. 

Elke Krasny is is a curator, cultural theorist, urban researcher, and writer. She is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Austria. Her theoretical and curatorial work is firmly rooted in socially engaged art and spatial practices, urban epistemology, post-colonial theory, and feminist historiography.

Featured photo: Raumfinden – Werkzeuge des Entwerfens – Elke Krasny, Kuratorin Raumfinden – © HDA