It’s clear that the pandemic has shifted our priorities. Careers and work conditions have received considerably more attention; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. Resignations peaked in April and have remained abnormally high for the last several months, with a record-breaking 10.9 million open jobs at the end of July. In Australia, a similar wave is due to hit in March 2023; with ABC reporting that we are already seeing the changes in the labour sector with more people choosing to move regionally; and opting to work from home. Time will tell as to how this plays out in specific sectors. For those of us in the contemporary arts sector, we know that artists, curators, writers, installers, museum and gallery professionals have all had to face cancellations and rain-checks on projects; which has had a massive impact on our financial and mental well-being. Data by NAVA further re-enforces this industry specific dissatisfaction with a huge 49% of artists and 51% of art workers reporting significant or extreme impact on their mental health in relation to the changed conditions prompted by the pressures highlighted by the conditions of the pandemic.
During lockdown, I too reflected on the challenges of the industry; and how we can be doing better. Over the last couple of years, it's been far too common to hear about abhorrent work conditions from friends and peers (or to, regrettably experience these first hand). The precarity, the hierarchies, the unrelenting competitiveness, the emotional labour and the structural inequality. The above deluge with the added challenge of cancellations, interpersonal isolation and added financial insecurity has led many of us to ask ourselves if it's all really worth it? This led me to consider what truly, madly, deeply keeps me in the industry—it’s the people; and as a counter-initiative to the doubt and precarity surrounding our industry, especially in a post-pandemic context; I would like to highlight some of the people who I identify as those who have kept me along my career pathway. Brought together here for not only the quality of their work; but the grace in which they undertake it with; interpersonal qualities of generosity, sensitivity and transparency—all of which I consider to be core aspects of how one might understand the practicing of hospitality between peers in our industry.
Alana Hunt is an artist, writer and mother who lives on Miriwoong country in the north-west of Australia. What draws me to Alana is her commitment to challenge; she continues to challenge herself and through this becomes an inspiration to others to commit towards continued growth. I first crossed paths with Alana digitally when she ordered a copy of my publication Absolute Humidity, and wrote a soulful review for Hyperallergic; although she had not met me, she was committed to generously supporting my project. Since then, I have I have followed her work; and one of the most interesting characteristics about Alana is her approach to working internationally; she does not prescribe to the usual antipodean model of working with people only because they are in her physical locality; but rather she specifically seeks out mentors, peers and collaborators; from a wide range of geographies. This is evident through the artist’s long-standing relationship with South Asia producing a research project called Cups of Nun Chai (2010–ongoing) in response to the ongoing occupation of Kashmir; which is, in the artist’s words; “a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd. It is an absurd gesture when meaning itself becomes too much to bear. It is also a memorial, grounded in the killing of 118 civilians during protests that roiled Indian-controlled Kashmir during the summer of 2010.”
Ultimately Alana’s practice is focused on bringing our collective attention to elements of colonisation and violence that are often overlooked. The sensitivity, courage and selflessness in which she does this, can be a case study to all.
Taking Alana’s generosity as a point of departure, how can we think about building further infrastructure for peer to peer writing based reciprocal engagement in Australia. Is it a case of changing our individual and collective attitudes towards sharing knowledge; or does it have more to do with normalising generosity in the workplace. How can this be managed when we are competing with each other for grants, opportunities and institutional positions? One method is the transparency shared by writers in sharing the fees granted by specific publications and their editorial contact details; making public information that is challenging to ascertain, and taking some leg work away from fellow peers. For me personally, it is about shifting my attitude from that of individual excellence to excellence in a cohort based setting, and to strive to sometimes take a step back for the benefit of others.
Renan Laru-an is a critic and curator based in Manila. Renan first reached out to me back in 2011; when I was co-editing a platform called the Maximilian with friend Laura Brown. At that time the journal was focused on examining what it meant to operate online; and how Brown and I as editors could connect practices in Meanjin (Brisbane) to a wider international audience through an affordable medium. Renan reached out as he too had founded an online editorial platform in the Philippines called DiscLab or DiscussionLab and wanted to chat to us about our experiences. From that moment onwards, I had an ongoing peer based relationship with Renan; and each of us has invited the other to contribute to a range of different projects; we co-wrote an essay titled Questions of Speculation and Verification for DiscussionLab’s analogy; An Autocorrected Journal. We co-hosted a pirate radio programme with Clara Balaguer focused on the intersection of publishing and autonomy, and he invited me to curate a break away session of his curatorial project titled Herding Islands. The work Renan has undertaken as an independent curator has been deeply inspiring; he was the inaugural curator in residence at Sharjah; and was recently a co-curator of the 6th Singapore Biennale; Every Step in Right Direction in 2019. What I love about Renan is his unbeatable energy and commitment to work collaboratively in the sector; he is a rare curator who genuinely appreciates the values of working collaboratively; rather than using collaboration as passing curatorial trend. I’ve learnt a lot from Renan about how independent curators can support each other across geographies.
To be inspired by Renan’s curatorial methodology of sharing and collaboration is to also question why we don’t experience this more often. How can we think about peer based structures of sharing and reciprocity between nation states with differing levels of access to funding. How can Australian curators engage in the region of the Asia Pacific, and the Great Ocean and do so with care and consideration? Listening here is key in understanding trans-national relationships and what one can bring to the table. Australian institutions and funding bodies could be doing much more here to further leverage this critical space of exchange; and to increase capacity, knowledge and sharing on both sides.
Monica Narula, Shuddhabrata Sengupta & Jeebesh Bagchi are New Delhi based Raqs Media Collective. I first met Monica and Shuddha in my public programs focused role at the Institute of Modern Art in 2015 where they were invited by former IMA Directors Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh to showcase new work as part Burns & Lundh’s exhibition Imaginary Accord and subsequent public programs series; What Can Art Institutions Do? My role, which was really artist hospitality, research assistance and curatorial development was to pick up visiting artists/speakers from the airport and to assist them in their residency period. During their time in Meanjin/Brisbane I worked hard and went above and beyond in the delivery of their two works; The Time Symposium and Memorphilia; Monica and Shuddha recognised this, and encouraged me to seek adequate crediting for my work within the institution; to which they were also an advisory member of. Following on from this, a year later, I was invited to join their 11th Shanghai Biennale Curatorial Cohort and worked with them for a year in New Delhi. What I most admired about working with Raqs was their rigour in examining every aspect of their practice. I liked that they went between Hindi and English in our meetings; I liked that we had studio lunches, I liked that we openly discussed as the only white person on the team; how I could best leverage how I present to be an ally for our biennale artists and invited curators. I admire that they are not afraid of receiving and being critical; and that rigorous debate is central to their practice as artists, curators and intellectuals. It was an honour to work so closely with Raqs and I have learnt a great deal from their practices.
United here for not only the quality of their work; but the grace in which they pursue it; Alana Hunt, Renan Laru-An and Raqs Media Collective have each shaped my practice as a writer and a curator. When faced with uncertainty, precarity and challenging situations, I am brought back to these practices; and how I continue to learn from these peers and mentors through acts of reciprocity; and to think through how this may be further emulated within the industry more widely.