On self-exploitation for art magic
27 January 2021
—Jumping into this idea of precarity and exploitation that happens within the art world. For me, a dominant narrative is that the state is not doing enough, or that NAC is not doing enough, which is true to a large extent. But also a lot of exploitation happens even amongst “allies”, you know, or so-called “allies”— I use that term loosely.

—Say that we have limited funding, we have X amount of funding from NAC and this much money. And then we have this idea that very obviously cannot match up to this amount of funding. But we very much want to make sure the idea happens and so we start cutting corners. We pay ourselves and other people less, getting the lowest quotes from producers, fabricators and everyone else, because the budget has been assigned to us and we perpetuate the mistake of the art world in maintaining “the sanctity of the idea”.
—It becomes this weird situation where the people that you are supposed to help out, that you are trying to redistribute funding to, becomes stifled because you just wanted to ensure the show happens, when maybe a better way was to just scale down the show to a more humanly possible level. Maybe it boils down to how people want to do too much. We want to do too much with too little. As a result, people are affected by it.
—What about class? Do you think people need to be of a certain class to join the art world?
—Yeah, I think class matters quite a bit.
—It's hard, right? To talk about class.
—I think it's hard because we like to pretend that it's not a thing, but it actually is a thing. By virtue of how you interact, and where you hang out, and things like that.
—Just take artists who seek education overseas. And I'm not saying that that is a barometer of wealth, because a lot of people went through scholarships and other means. If you're someone studying in London, at a particular point in time, and you got to know this group of other “exile” artists, art school kids, with you and these art school kids coming back at the same time, this seems to naturally form group membership. Maybe because the group feels distant from the field for a while, but it just perpetuates those class dynamics, which underlies the very decision and ability to study overseas in London in the first place.
—Where do you think the self-exploitation comes from?
—I think there are many levels to it. It also depends on who is the one being self-exploited. For someone “entering” the scene, there's definitely a pressure to do as much as possible, to get known as fast as possible. To do that, because you have this idea that you are new, that you have to prove yourself, you do things for less.
—I think there's also the level where the social comes in, when we're stuck in a particular social network and they throw you in a situation where if you do not do it, you're going to let someone down and so you intentionally exploit yourself to do it, whether you agree with it or not. At this point you are doing it because, one, you don't want to let your social network down. Two, to turn a particular request down from that person would be blasphemy. There is definitely something that has to be said about how power and influence comes into play here. There's a difference between workers and practitioners that are aware of the conditions of precarity that surround their work and still consciously choose to do it, versus say, migrant workers who are like really precarious in that situation, but they have to do it.
—The question of choice?
—Yeah. Sure there's precarity that surrounds art workers, practitioners and artists, but can we really call them precariat in that same understanding as we do for migrant workers, who are discriminated against by members of the community?


—But in terms of self-exploitation, at the very base, I think there are some people who are masochists, they enjoy all these…
—They enjoy their self exploitation?
—It’s like this weird adrenaline rush for them, I feel. It's quite a recurring narrative, "Oh... going through this show was so tough blah blah blah, but the rewards at the end of it was worth it. So the show itself has this mystical quality to it, that transgresses any other ideas of care, ideas of monetary remuneration, it's that, that feeling of idealism that seeps through…
—art magic…?
—I want to say that there are art workers that might necessarily be precarious, people who are genuinely struggling. I think it falls into another point about the illusion of being an art worker. The facade I'm thinking about is this strange desire from artists to become a hit thing, that becoming an art worker is sustainable and cool, which lies outside the experiences of art workers who are actually precarious. These experiences are undercut by the illusion of working in the cultural industry as being very desirable and feasible. The reality is that this image of sustainability itself is sometimes perpetuated by people who aren't in those situations of precarity. But we liken them together as a single homogenous identity.
People don't see art workers as precarious, they have an image of art workers sipping glasses of wine and eating from a cheeseboard at the fucking art show opening or something. This is a really odd perception of it. And this image is perpetuated by people who aren't actually precarious lah and these narratives fold into each other. There are levels of stratifications within the field itself.


—There’s a logic [raised in Teo Yeo Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like] that applies to precarious workers, who are expected to live a lifestyle of asceticism, of extreme…
—hard work... physical labour...? Maybe prudence is the right term.
—...they valorize the person like, "I eat economic rice everyday”. As the logic goes, "you can only spend what you earn," which is warped actually.
—Right, it’s a logic that also makes it unthinkable for poor people to be artists, because in Singapore, art is seen as a luxury, and in that logic, poor people are not supposed to enjoy things in life and privileges. They have to be labor to get out of their poverty. So how can they make art?
—This makes me think about the trajectory of some artists. While being an artist has always been quite an elite occupation, I feel like there was a time when there were pockets of people who became artists because they couldn't do anything else. That group really interests me, because they really subvert that idea, that art is an elite thing.