Kuba Szreder’s The ABC of the projectariat

iLiana Fokianaki

Harun Farocki, Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades, 2006. Still from 12-channel video installation, 42:26 minutes. © Harun Farocki GbR.

March 31, 2022
Manchester University Press

The ABC of the projectariat seems, at first glance, to be a humorous glossary of phenomena familiar to members of what Kuba Szreder names the “projectariat”: “a person who does projects in order to make a living.” Once you’ve read it, Szreder’s book—an acute account of the grim reality of working conditions within the contemporary art field—remains fun, but is no longer funny. Through sixty-six alphabetically ordered entries, the academic and independent curator offers an introduction to the work ecologies of the less glamorous subsection of the industry: a stressful life of pitching projects, managing painstakingly attained cultural capital, and the stress of making ends meet, given the fluctation in one’s monthly earnings, while traveling constantly via early-morning flights on budget airlines.

The book contains all the classic terms of the labor movement: C, for example, is for “Capital,” “Circulation,” “Curatorial Mode of Production,” and “Control.” More surprising entries like “Cynicism and Cliques,” “Time Machines,” and “Trawling” offer a fresh perspective on the bleaker aspects of our professional realm. D is for the dark side, or “Dark Matter,” referencing Gregory Sholette’s 2010 book which draws parallels between the invisible physical phenomenon that connects the universe and the unseen exploitation of cultural workers.

The ABC of the projectariat lays out starkly the labor that sustains cultural production, and the daily conundrums, mundane and existential, inherent to navigating the many intersecting art worlds: burn-out, application writing, exclusion, fear, opportunism. These are all terms in the ABC; all problems of the projectariat. The book is itself a labor of love (aka free/underpaid labor, according to the phrase’s entry under “L”): a rigorous archive of terms, but also a meticulous analysis of the possibilities of change. In entries like “I is for Instituting the Commons,” Szreder highlights the need to transform neoliberal entrepreneurship into the “entrepreneurial productivity of the multitude that is at the core of the commons,” offering examples of how this can be achieved through boycotts, productive withdrawals, and other strategies.

Although the book’s portrayal of the exploitative and self-exploitative nature of project work and of how cultural capital rarely translates into its monetary equivalents is both accurate and poignant, it does not adequately address the issue of class privilege. It is an unspoken truth that a career which cannot guarantee a regular income—in an historically exclusive industry—will attract more than its fair share of people from backgrounds that can absorb the risk of financial uncertainty.

Geopolitics as well as class plays a role here, since in parts of the European North grants and infrastructures help democratize entry into the projectariat. Beyond the established centers, art markets are nearly non-existent and museum and academic positions a rarity; fierce competition for a slice of this tiny “pie” makes it even more difficult for anyone without a financial buffer to survive in the long-run, as the book’s entry on “Competition” confirms. In my native Greece, reliance on a small but wealthy elite renders the projectariat dependent on what I would describe as “social mobility by proxy” (P is for “Powerful Wealthy Friends”).

Thankfully, The ABC of the projectariat avoids simply painting a portrait of doom and gloom, but narrates possibilities of solidarity and collective resistance, particularly in the form of “Exodus,” which Szreder identifies as “one of the modes of action fundamental for the struggles of the projectariat.” The book offers a historicized trajectory of care for labor in all its forms, but also allows projectarians a bit of insurgent optimism, in proposing new ways to reconceive our privileged precarity.

Kuba Szreder’s The ABC of the projectariat: Living and Working in a Precarious Art World is published by Manchester University Press.

Labor & Work
Institutional Critique, Debt, Precarity, Money & Finance

iLiana Fokianaki is a curator, writer, and the founding director of art institution State of Concept Athens. Her book Gossips: WomXn Gather will be published in 2023.

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March 31, 2022

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