INTERVIEW WITH ALINA LUPU “WE NEED TO RECOGNISE WE’RE MOVING TOWARDS A TRANSNATIONAL NARRATIVE WITH MANY LOCAL TWISTS.”
Alina Lupu is an artist and writer based in Amsterdam whose work is at the intersection between labour precarity, institutional critique, and performative practices. We talked about her praxis, transnationalism, contemporary divisions of labour, migration, and municipal elections.
- You belong to a thriving contingent of young people from the region who decided to “try their luck abroad.” Considering your working experience across scenes, we are interested in how your transition came about: first of all, from an academic/educational perspective; second of all, from an artistic/practice-based one?
Seven years into my experience as a migrant in the Netherlands, I present myself as a post-conceptual artist and writer, a food delivery courier, and a restaurant worker, but this definition is still quite fluid. What was I seven years back? Most likely an account manager for an IT company and an aspiring photographer. Thinking about it is a bit of a stretch.
I left Romania for the Netherlands in 2012 without a clear plan, with a few savings and with knowing that I wouldn’t be alone where I end up. I had a few friends who were already here at the time. What I knew for a fact was that I was bound to start a foundation year in one of the better known Dutch art academies, the Rietveld, in Amsterdam. My primary motivation at the time—after having been through the Romanian educational system and gotten a high-school diploma in food industry, what can amount to an attempt at a Bachelor in Psychology and a disappointing year at the National University of Arts studying Photography—was simply to try out one year abroad within an entirely different educational system. It was a reset. And my departure was a gamble. My motivation also had a lot to do with having already been within the working field by that time for more than seven years, in parallel with my initial studies, as an account manager, as a multiplex movie ticket seller, as an assistant manager, and not quite finding an appropriate level of satisfaction.
Let’s just say, I was 27, I had tried my way around, I had a stable job, a rounded off education and an attempt at a second one, but I could find no genuine meaning, nor a confirmation that I was contributing to the flow of life with anything of relevance. Or, in even shorter terms, there came a time in my young adulthood, when I realised that my life wasn’t particularly going anywhere and the country I was born in didn’t know what to do with me, so I decided to leave. It would have been either that or jumping in front of a metro if I had to take one more trip to an office where people were amazingly supportive, the meals were the same every day, and I found myself increasingly alienated from helping clients I’d never met move the home button yet again 2 centimetres to the right.
I didn’t know I would be leaving for such an extended amount of time, by the way. My decision to stay in the Netherlands came about as I better got to know my new country and myself in relation to my new profession as an artist. I also didn’t realise that my transition would, in fact, be from a stable professional position to one of increased precarity. So me “trying my luck abroad” had nothing to do with financial prosperity. Which is something that is worth noting and I will note it, because there tend to be quite some misconceptions as to why young Romanian nationals choose to relocate. My decision at the time had everything to do with self-actualisation and trying to find a new place where I could better fit. None of my initial expectations, since one can have those even when they don’t have a plan, could have ever revealed to me the conditions under which I would be living and working a few years after my decision to leave Romania.
I really had no clue what it meant to study and become a professional artist. But I did have the luck of being able to find out.
- Knowing that the working conditions in the art field are the primary focus of your interest, how do you position your own work within a wider geopolitical field? (Or, alternatively, do you even think of it in such a broad sense?) In other words, can we talk about a community of struggle across borders? (For instance, contexts such as Who Does What with Drugo More or Do or Delegate with Onomatopee, both curated by Silvio Lorusso—did they leave you the impression of such a transnational struggle against the dominance of global capital & precarious labour?)
This is going to take a bit of time to frame as an idea. So, bare with me. My main field of interest as an artist ended up being that of precarious working and living conditions. These can be working and living conditions for artists, but can also refer to living and working conditions for other professional groups, such as, for now, food delivery couriers, cleaners, restaurant workers, seasonal migrant workers, and so on.
To pick up the thread of my arrival from Romania to the Netherlands, I’d like to elaborate on one element which I hadn’t considered when I left to study art, that is the increasingly transnational way in which art education happens. I didn’t take that into account because, in Romania, I’ve never been exposed to foreign students during my studies. I’m not trying to picture myself as some sort of hillbilly, but, let’s be honest, in spite of my openness towards the world, before I decided to move to the Netherlands, I had only left Romania twice—once on a trip to Bulgaria, and the other time while visiting Venice. So then I ended up studying within an arts academy where the people next to me were coming from a variety of backgrounds (US, Brazil, Poland, Ukraine, the UK, Croatia, Estonia, Morocco, and so on). The Rietveld Academie is a Dutch arts academy; however it currently welcomes more than 60 nationalities among its students and staff. The main spoken language is English and migrant students outnumber the locals. This degree of diversity has been encouraged over the past two decades and it stands as a testament to the transformations that the world, and within it the art world, is going through.
So, me and my peers within the art world share a working language, this sort of bastardised art English, but we also end up sharing similar struggles when we begin our careers as artists, or when we simply want to make ends meet. We start working for similar restaurants, delivering food on similar platforms, applying for the same corporations in terms of housing, or the same residencies. And as the companies we work for and their arguable conditions cross borders (think of Uber, Deliveroo, Helpling to name a few) we end up going through these, I’d like to call them, almost precarious milestones, which connect us from country to country.
Within the art world—but I’d like to actually clarify that this might really just be a thing that the design world does better, since both of the exhibitions you mention are curated by a designer—there is an awareness of exploitation within the field of labour and also of self-exploitation. There are plenty of shows which touch upon working and living conditions in present times. And there are also plenty of shows and initiatives which tackle precarity. But there’s also a catch. We, as artists, end up doing these jobs temporarily, or we hope they will take over our time for a short period only. Therefore in spite of an awareness of precarity, we end up not always deeply reflecting on these conditions, because we see them as marginal to our own creative endeavours. We see them as phases throughout our actual professional development. As in: “well, now I’m serving fries for a living, but come next year, when my subsidy will be approved or I get to be in that nice museum show in Vienna, all of this shall be in the past.” To get to the point, I do see myself as “part of a transnational struggle against the dominance of global capital and precarious labour”. But what I’d really love is to also see more of my peers engage in this struggle alongside me. It’s happening. Just, not as strongly as one would expect.
- After almost a decade spent inside one of the centres of contemporary art, the Netherlands, how is the periphery seen from afar, from Amsterdam? What are the prospects of creating a competing master narrative, a non-Western one, composed of marginal(ised) yet empowering ways of thinking?
Uuufff, I never think of that. Quick reveal, I don’t think in terms of centre and periphery, though maybe it would make sense to? I don’t know.
But the reason why I left Romania for the Netherlands was not to move from the periphery to the centre, it was just because I felt there was at the time no possibility of personal growth or avenue of contributing to the world within my country of origin. Amsterdam is a village. The Netherlands the same. Amsterdam though is not the Netherlands. Travel an hour or so in any direction from Amsterdam, and a completely different reality will hit you. Amsterdam and also the Netherlands have their issues, which I discovered after finishing my education and deciding to stay. The country needs to deal with its (post-)colonial past, and the city needs to accept its rich migrant history better and treasure it for what it brings.
But the change which occurred in me while switching contexts had a lot to do with revealing for myself the fact that in spite of having seldom traveled outside of Romania, I don’t emphasise my nationality. I mention it, sure, when asked where I come from. Since there is also the increasing situation in which people are offended when asked about their roots, but it’s not my main point of focus. It is naive to say I don’t believe in borders or East-West debates, especially since there are so many people’s lives which are impacted by these ways of dividing. So I’ll put it differently. I believe in dismantling borders and erasing distinctions of centre and periphery, of class, of income and so on, after having acknowledged these distinctions in the first place. In conclusion, I don’t think the East needs to get its hip master narrative. We need to recognise we’re moving towards a transnational narrative, with many local twists.
- We are big fans of your published work: , you asshole. (which we see to be more about aspects of marginality and belonging), as well as This is a Work of Fiction (which we see to be more about the fragility of labour). Are these books reflective of your experiences abroad? Would these works have existed if you hadn’t moved to the Netherlands? In other words, how do you see aspects of labour precarity in the art world to be spread across the different scenes you have operated in?
First of all, thank you! I’m learning to take a compliment. And thank you for hosting the books at Dispozitiv!
I think my most significant influences have been pop-culture references (movies, TV shows, books, the lives of international artists) alongside experiences of a personal nature. Both , you asshole. and This is a Work of Fiction represent the lessons I’ve received over the past seven years and the education I’ve managed to tailor for myself by coming to the Netherlands. I’d confidently say that neither of them would have existed if I hadn’t chosen to relocate here. Being in Amsterdam gave me the practice of working and living in a language—English—that is not my mother tongue, and from there on it gave me the confidence to begin writing in this language.
What I ended up writing about were aspects of labour precarity, which I’ve known better as a migrant art worker in Amsterdam. Since we increasingly share these experiences across borders, I do hear comments from readers in other European countries of being able to relate to similar conditions.
I’ve never, however, had the chance to reflect at length on the requirements that Romanian artists face in Romania since I’ve only completed one year of study there. But this is a topic that I am curious to dig into during the next few years. So I’m trying to get back to my roots, with fresh eyes, since it makes sense that one can only accurately reflect on their past by getting some distance to it.
- You tend to use semi-fictional accounts in order to contextualise situations, or fictionalised auto-biographical details in order to frame your work. There is almost always an act of exposing (someone/something); on the verge of becoming an investigative effort, your practice borrows documentary, fiction, as well as personal correspondence material. Can you please tell us more about this, as well as your main mediums of work, how do you manage to combine performance, intervention, and writing as well as photography and video in your work so effectively?
I started off working as an artist by using photography and video. But if I think back to it, it’s most likely true that I started before picking up a camera, by writing diaries and letters to friends, the first time I moved from one part of Romania to another, when I was twelve. Or it might have been when I was drawing—poorly I must say—and then ended up staring at those drawings and looking for further context for them when I was a kid.
For a long time I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I wanted to do as an artist. I’m sure there’s a quote out there (God knows by whom!) which says that artists want to incorporate the whole world into their practice and it makes absolute sense to me, the whole world is so much more interesting than many arrested moments which end up displayed in galleries and museums. Not that I don’t enjoy visiting art temples whenever I get the time, but art comes much more naturally to everyday living than it does to most of us frustrated artists every once in a blue moon. So I guess what I’m trying to do in my practice is to be less of a frustrated artist and beat life at its own game by incorporating as much of it as possible in all that I do, by observing it and reframing it and sometimes just refusing to capitalise on it and just letting it flow and watching as it does that. Or taking up the provocation, assuming life is an endless stream of improv classes.
When being asked for a challenge saying yes and seeing where that takes me. I don’t start from the format. Some projects fit better as a performative moment (like “Quality, Speed Consistency”), others can only be captured as video and photos (such as the “Recleaning of the Rietveld Pavilion”, there are stories which can only be told in writing (like “This is a Work of Fiction”), or by reading them out loud during an event, or there are long term gestures which extend attention spans (like a month long, turned into a two year long setup in “The Message Board”), or interventions (which my video “Ride with us Philip”). There are emails which have formats that intrigue me, or application letters that can show how status can be constructed. And they all make me curious and all, once reframed and repeated, are the stuff of life. If I can achieve an almost seamless integration of my work within life, if I can trigger a few glitches, then I’d say my goal was reached. Sure, there is a risk in that, the risk of a gesture not being perceived as an artistic one, but that’s only a risk if it’s a matter of building one’s portfolio. I’d rather just make pieces that I enjoy and I’m learning from, sometimes at the detriment of recognition.
- Can you maybe also tell us something about your political/citizenship involvement and the Amsterdam West municipal elections. What made you do it? And how did it end?
Talking about the stuff of life. In the winter of 2018, I was struggling, by then for almost a year already, to find a place to live in Amsterdam with my partner. I knew I was about to be evicted at any moment, had no precise idea when, but knew I could rely on a healthy three months notice before moving. I had already graduated from the Rietveld Academie and decided to remain in the Netherlands.
One day a piece of news popped up in my social media feed, prompted by one of my former art school teachers, and I found out that the city of Amsterdam is about to hold local elections. It would choose its council members, since Amsterdam doesn’t get to vote on its mayor, but it would also introduce for the first time the possibility of electing neighbourhood representatives to advise on the situation on the ground and suggest policies. Ten signatures from your neighbours could get you on the ballot. All you needed to do was to be registered in the neighbourhood you were running in. You would need to speak at least a basic level of Dutch. I had finished the first series of classes in the language so I could navigate the signing up procedure. Always a fan of improvising and learning by doing, I set out an open call and reached out to my friends and decided to take part. I knew nothing about Dutch politics. My urgency was housing. I decided to bring the topic into the discussion with the municipality if I was to be elected. But even before that, since the process is a classically democratic one (training, speeches, meetings, etc.) I got the chance to talk about the lack of housing for people with a lower income.
Just before anyone gets the idea that the Netherlands is this utopian society where anyone and their dog can run for public office, speak their mind and be heard, bringing about change, I’d like to clarify that the process was a rather peculiar one. Instead of allowing just citizens who were politically unaffiliated to run for the position, the municipality also decided to allow party representatives in on the game. So we had, in the neighbourhood where I was running, five political party representatives and four independent candidates. And since it was the first time this process was in place, every other person not in the running had little to no idea about who to elect, which gave the political party representatives the upper hand. Then you had the bonus of my choice in going ahead and presenting myself in English. (To clarify, the Netherlands has a high level of English comprehension, to quote an EU survey: “The Netherlands has a tradition of learning foreign languages, formalised in Dutch education laws. Some 90% of the total population indicate they are able to converse in English, 70% in German, and 29% in French.”)
Amsterdam even more so is a melting pot in which one can live a perfectly long and happy life without ever knowing a word of Dutch. Even so, my linguistic decision made for some very uncomfortable conversations about migration, to put it mildly.
The most valuable lessons I’ve taken from the process I’ve tried to summarise by documenting them weekly throughout my campaign in notes that can still be found on social media. The story which emerged from this campaign is much more nuanced, and I think only reading through my notes can genuinely do it some justice.
Conclusion? I did get 81 votes. Clearly more than the number of friends I had at the time. But not nearly enough to get elected.
In the meantime, I had two more Dutch level classes. And this year the story continues with a new course in political debating for women which I will pick up later this autumn, and with my involvement in doing a housing survey in my former academy, trying to understand better the housing situation of international and local students that come to Amsterdam. My election experience served as a gateway into the rest of my practice, but it also, hopefully, showed locals that migrant artists might want to stick around and get involved. To be continued.
- Your most recurrent interest seems to be precarious conditions of labour/living in the art world. You heavily engage with these tensions regarding notions of labour and autonomy and precarity that have an impact on the majority of cultural producers. You have your own experience with specific labour conditions such as fluid working hours, high demand of mobility, intermittent contracts, increasing living costs. Can you tell us more about your delivery jobs as well as how they translated into your art practice? For instance, Minimum Wage Dress Code comes to mind, but by all means, mention and explain other projects that have also emanated out of this experience.
I’ve started my inquiry into precarious working conditions in 2016, a few months after I graduated from the Rietveld Academie. Some decisions that lead to that were intentional, and others were accidental. At the time, I was invited to my alma mater to give a short talk about what life is like after graduating. The discussion was about to take place in front of the entire teachers and workshop assistants staff of the academy. It was during a Teachers’ study day event, a moment in which teachers and staff come together to share thoughts, reflect, and get some common ground. I was invited by a friend who was kind enough to allow me to speak my mind. Unbeknownst to him though, for several months before the event, I had been in search of a job. I had applied to several positions but got rejected time and again, so my last decision was to apply for a job as a food delivery courier. This was a job in which language was no barrier, and my background didn’t matter that much. All that I needed was to have a healthy body, a functioning bike, a phone, and a phone internet subscription. Easy! I got the job and the equipment (jacket, delivery bag, power bank) a day before the event at the academy. Ever the lover of transparency, I decided to step to the stage and deliver my talk as well as take questions, in full food delivery courier uniform. This resulted in quite a few jaws dropping in unison, in spite of there being little to no knowledge at the time of what the job implied.
Some people assumed it was all a performance, or so I’ve been told. I didn’t make an effort to clarify my position. Merely wearing the outfit on stage in the company of my former teachers had been enough of a statement. By the end of that day, Minimum Wage Dress Code was born. I decided something was disturbing in being looked at as being less deserving for only fitting into another working category than the one your diploma prepared you for, so I got to work on the topic of precarious labour. I also, later on, got to do the actual work of a food delivery courier. I completed a year of delivering for that first company, later moved on to a second, then a third.
I followed conferences on the topic of the platform economy (all of these companies call themselves technology companies because they mediate the work through apps, and they are together part of the platform economy). I met academics and policymakers that were trying to regulate the field but had never really talked in the beginning to the workers themselves. I wrote texts about my experience as a rider (the book This is a Work of Fiction contains a couple of them). I made performances on the topic, and I signed up for a union and went on strike against my employer when they implemented a change to their business model, which would impact people’s already low earnings. There are four food delivery companies in Amsterdam, or there were four to be more precise. Last week I signed up to work for the last one of them.
My inquiry into this topic is still ongoing. It also had me moving into the cleaning sector, another part of the platform economy. I ended up in a parallel working field and decided to take it all in and understand its conditions based on the training that I’ve had as an artist. I realised I could look at working within the platform economy from a different angle and go on to make links between the little to no pay that artists get, the long and/or very flexible hours, the lack of pension, the overall economic uncertainty and the conditions that platform workers experience. What bound me to this sort of work was my condition, not just as an artist, but as a migrant. My social mobility was impacted by being a foreigner, if there is still any myth that we can be socially mobile in this day and age! While within the art world, your country of provenance might not matter, or it might even be an exotic attribute. Within other working fields, fields such as account management, for which I had experience, having a different name, not speaking the local language to perfection, all meant that I could not access that sort of a job and therefore a more comfortable way towards financial security while my artistic practice was still picking up steam. I suppose circumstances forced me to go lower on the working ladder. However, circumstances can be relative. With enough cunning, they can be twisted and turned into food for thought and the basis of an artistic practice. Not sure I had much of a choice there, but that’s why I learned to develop a solid sense of humour about life.
- For us the contemporary issues of precarity in the art world are not just related to the political landscape, but also the supposed autonomy of art. Although it has been frequently denounced in the theoretical field, it seems that art as a heteronomic notion hasn’t been widely absorbed. Even more so, it appears that art is still suffering from the same prejudices as ever: romanticised as the product of spontaneity, inspiration, and sublime creative or even painful suffering, glamourised as the output of pure genius, that is inherently incompatible with and separated from everyday life. How do you see this juxtaposition between art and labour? Or where do you position yourself within this imaginary compass?
I think there is some misplaced praise given to the idea of autonomy, when in fact it’s not autonomy but healthy interdependencies which make for a durable, strong, and caring society, and for work situations that support individuals in reaching their full potential. It’s building long term collaborations, making friends, expanding projects in time, not just hopping around, making and remaking, turning and returning, these are the keys to how to be an artist. They’re also the keys, from my standpoint, to being a decent human being.
My favourite reference on being an artist is a quote picked up from Situational Aesthetics by Victor Burgin and it goes like this:
“The aspirations of those who would isolate art from the social world are analogous to those of Kant’s dove, which dreamed of how much freer its flight could be if only it were released from the resistance of air. If we are to learn any lesson from the history of the past fifty years of art, it is surely that an art unattached to the social world is free to go anywhere but that it has nowhere to go.”
I believe it’s essential to keep one’s autonomy, to a certain extent, not nearly as much as one would like to think, but also to relate to the urgencies that the world is confronted with (environmental, ethical, labour issues, etc.), without retreating in a bubble. And, granted, it’s rather tempting to see art-making as escapism, along with art viewing, since so much of the everyday looks oppressive, but it’s by bursting the escapism bubble that we can together make the world more bearable and also ensure we can retreat from time to time. It’s a valuable labour of love. If we don’t do it though there’s not much of the world left to retreat in.
- You make valid and powerful points about the transformation of side jobs into a banal (and almost necessary) endeavour. What happens when you bring this seemingly trivial component of life into the art world? How is it to be an artist less interested in the (seemingly) glamorous side of exhibiting and traditional art displaying, and more into the inner, day-to-day mechanism that allows (or contrarily hinders) artists from creative expression?
In the Netherlands side-jobs have become the norm for most artists of my generation due to the progressive restructuring of the subsidy systems that have been in place for the past few decades. Dutch safety nets used to be stronger, but then again Dutch education has never been as international as it is now, so those provisions never took into account the influx of artists they would have to support. It’s currently the norm that most of my peers have side-jobs in order to facilitate their practices, or just not starve. From delivering food, to cleaning houses, walking dogs, assisting artists (kind of the same thing!), to cooking, babysitting, and carpentry, etc., the list is a broad one, depending on the transferable skills we’re each entering the artistic field with or gathering along the way. What is different in my case is that I’m not just holding down these sort of side-jobs, but also making them the focus of my practice and expanding my understanding of said side-jobs in the broader context of precarity for artists and workers alike. I’m not the only one doing this, but I am surprised it doesn’t happen more often. By looking back at the way I was looked at when getting my first such side-job after finishing my bachelor in art, I’d assume it is a matter of status to need to get a side-job, and it does hurt one’s credibility as an artist, as well as break this illusion that one can spend their days locked in their studio creating and doesn’t need to dabble in the everyday for anything other than a bit of poetry.
And now, it’s not that I’m disinterested in the supposed glamour and the traditional means of displaying art, but let’s just say that due to my work not being particularly easy to be classified due to its topic and way of existing in the world, it has failed so far to fit into the usual formats of display and distribution. That’s one aspect. The other one is the fact that if I were to enter a system of traditional displaying I would probably be more interested in reflecting on the system itself then allowing my work to seamlessly integrate into it, and this is something that the gallery and museum world allow only to a certain extent.
Most of my works have actually been made in spite of systems of labour, display, and distribution. Most of my works are rejected on principle. But I try not to jump to conclusions. I might end up dabbing in glamour in the future. Stay tuned!
- What type of thinking and practices do you think are needed to re-imagine the future of Europe and Eastern Europe? Is there a new thinking possible beyond “the end of history” or “after the end of post-communism”? Is it possible to strategise and come up with a revised vision for the future of Europe?
I’d like to think we can’t yet fully anticipate what the future would look like and leave it open. I’m going to base my entire idea of what artistic practices and lives should be on the concept of “I don't know.” I’m not a believer in grand narratives, to be honest, and the last thing I’d like to do is propose one. I recently brushed against the content of “Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century” by Patrik Ouředník. In it, there was a reference to “the end of history” and how the people that were unaware that such a theory existed went ahead and made history anyway.
Besides the humour of this idea, I take it that it’s fine to come up with theories, but reality always has its sneaky way of evading theory.
And then again I think what I’d ideally hope that the future will bring is the possibility of more mutual support and care for that which is unproductive in the traditional sense. I hope we can get the chance, as artists, but as human beings in general, to move between interests and professions out of curiosity not just out of need. We need types of thinking and practices which are fluid, just as our true selves, our senses of belonging, our sexuality, identity, and curiosities are.