Tori Abernathy


Taking Care

Epilogue to the Chiaroscuro Catalogue

I remember when I first came across so-called activist groups like Arts Workers Coalition (AWC) in school after I had already been ‘working’ in independent arts spaces like The Artistery (2001-2010), feeling simultaneously stimulated by the conversation and miffed at what I saw as the privileged position of these artists. To give a bit of context, I was working part-time as a server, attending Reed College full time, volunteering my evenings to plan and host arts & music events, and personally financing my own practice composed of a myriad of unsellable and performative gestures. From my shortsighted and youthful position, I felt vindicated by my marginalized martyrdom. I liked the punk rock attitude of the fuck the system thing, but felt like they weren’t actually putting their bodies on the gears[1]. It’s like, come on Andrea Fraser[2], the Philadelphia Museum of Art is still putting bread on your table for walking around in a suit making fun of the museum. At least you’re not breaking your back. At least you have the time to contemplate the finer things in life. Where’s the risk [3] in that?

Okay, so I’m still not the biggest fan of Andrea Fraser, but I have since come to understand the importance of unfolding ideological space for vectors of solidarity across relative social class, race, gender, age, etc. This ultimately leads to a desire to cultivate those same lines through different disciplines. This is the power of efforts that serve to highlight the abstract and perhaps invisible forces of oppression and value extraction that occur among and within the arts. Especially if the arts are a place for unpacking the issues of the day, if we align ourselves with other disciplines at the same time as asking questions and renegotiating new ways of working, there is a potential for those modes of self-contained inquiry to extend across a bigger plane that is ‘working’ in general. Much like David Harvey’s “right to the city”, we could say that the “right to imagination” is a vital and worthwhile effort in a time when there is a war waged on our collective subjectivity. Instead, we have all these neoliberalized, indebted, atomized, lifeless heaps flopping around on Instagram obstructing the view of a vibrant future.

In a big way, my perspective on this struggle is now informed by an inquiry into the successes and failures of a variety of 20th century labor struggles. I identify with labor movements that did not see one form of oppression as more powerful than the other, but saw value in self-organization itself. Those that called for more of a general strike, like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers[4] or the International Workers of the World fall into this category. My sophomoric notion that ‘at least you’re not breaking your back’ is akin to the ‘at least you’re not in front of the ovens’ of yore. The fact that others will always have it worse than we do should not hinder our ability to stand up for our rights. This is the defeatism of my grandmother, who still waits tables at IHOP because that’s-just-the-way-it-is and at least she has enough money to feed herself and her family, which is more than most. It is what stops her from paying closer attention to options like Medicaid or Medicare that might help her pay for the broken shoulder that makes her tiresome labor all the more wrought with strife. This splintering of different forms of suffering reminds me of the institutionalised racism encouraged by factory owners of an industrial age. Staging unskilled white immigrant workers to feel worried that unskilled black workers were picking up a piece of their pie was really just a method for creating divisions among the working class that would hinder their potential to organize together, to imagine a better life for themselves and for their neighbors near and far.

I call myself an arts worker to highlight a certain degree of solidarity with tradesmen of yore. It is a decision. It is a decision of identification. It is a decision that reminds me to stay true to a certain ideals and people as I encounter other decisions within my own practice as an artist, but also in my daily life[5] as an artist. We all encounter decisions and it would behoove us to set up systems to remind us of how we ‘ought to’ navigate considering the tremendous pressures that push us in other directions.

A couple weeks ago, I met with a local curator whom I hold in high esteem. I was seeking guidance on a completely separate, less abstract issue. I approached him because he’s aware of our situation. He knows that our staff volunteer all of our time and he understands our reasons. The conversation shifted in tenor for a moment when, seemingly out of left field, he said something like... “Anytime we’re working against the grain, it can be really difficult. When you’re not ‘buying in’, you tend to feel completely isolated and alienated even when you’re trying to bring people together.” I was struck by his tone shift, it was like the whisper of ‘friendly fire’ in wartime. It is a mood that I’m more used to encountering in activist circles whilst planning an upcoming action. In our limited time at this arts institution, there was no pragmatic need for this mode of analysis. It served no purpose but to suggest his comradeship with arts work on the edges of the market.


(I) a obsolete : one skilled or versed in learned arts b archaic : physician c archaic : artisan (II) one who professes and practices an imaginative art (III) a skilled performer; especially : artiste (IV) one who is adept at something [6]

The category of the artist, at least as we conceive of it today, arises from the conditions of alienation. Artists express themselves through their work. We profess imaginative arts. We are joyfully skilled. We would not need such a category if industrial capitalism did not alienate the category of the worker from his work, his workplace, from herself, from those around him.

The capitalist system transforms the labor of the worker into a commodity that can be traded in a competitive labor market. This is distinct from work as a constructive socio-economic activity that’s part of a collective human effort performed for personal survival and social welfare at large. In a capitalist economy, those who control the means of production establish a labour market that extracts maximum labour (and now we can speak of this as ‘value’ as well) from the worker in the form of capital. This economic arrangement of the relations of production provokes social conflict as workers competes with other workers for higher wages, thus alienating them from their mutual economic interests - from their potential in common.

As artists, as facilitators, as so-called ‘curators’, as people, RECESS enjoys the work that we do on, more or less, our own terms, more or less together. As such, the act of collaborative cultural production itself becomes a political act. The continuation of this act is an exercise in joyfully realizing our potential in common.

Those who have been involved with RECESS work together under a shared recognition of the potential for the arts to catalyze social change. We work together out of a recognition of shared goals, desires, and concerns. But also, we work together because we understand that in order to inspire change you have to work hard and you have to take risks. We work hard, we work for free, and we push each other to take risks that would otherwise go untaken if we were isolated, alienated from one another. We carve out this space for ourselves together. We’ve literally built our own institution, if you take the building that houses us to function as an institution. The walls painstakingly patched, sanded, painted, and repainted by Matthew J. X. Doyle in Chiaroscuro were originally built by then co-directors Chloe Womack, JP Huckins, Brennan Broome, and myself. They have been retouched by so many others since.

Earlier in 2013, I interviewed Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble on the occasion of their Keep Hope Alive block party and Acceptable Losses exhibition at the Feldman Gallery of PNCA.

You could say that this is one of the really great things about working in a collective. You have each other to embolden one another. We can say to each other: "We shouldn't be frightened. We can do this together, and regardless of what happens, we're in it together." Just like being in affinity groups, that solidarity really helps a great deal in battling self-censorship, especially if you're doing provocations and interventions. It's better to be in a group than to try to do things on your own. [7]

At this point, for me, there is really no other way to work than collectively. I’ve come to understand this about my practice, but also myself. I’m more of an extrovert; I gather energy from realizing my shared potential with others. I’m not really concerned with being the sole ‘auteur’ of our experience, you know?

I’ve been thinking about the interview with Steve Kurtz a lot lately. RECESS is simultaneously starting to do bigger things and going through major organizational changes. Although the specific group that built RECESS’ walls no longer works together, I am still reminded of a moment when Chloe and I were driving in the back of JP’s pickup truck with Justin Flood in the passenger seat. Exhausted from the previous night of painting and on our way to get cheap lumber, Chloe and I switched off reading passages from the texts we were reading at the time. All the texts seemed to revolve around compassion and the commons. Sharing our overlapping research interests was maybe our own way of saying ‘I love you’ or at least ‘I care for you deeply’. Something she read to me by art critic Jan Verwoert in my weary, yet animated, state still rings in my ears:

To practice a politics of dedication and recognise an indebtedness to the other as the condition of your own ability to perform means to acknowledge the importance of care. You perform because you care for someone or something. This care gives you the strength to act, not least because to not act is out of the question when someone or something you really care for or about requires that you should act. In conversation Annika Eriksson summed this point up by describing the experience that, as a mother, (when your child is in need of you) “there is no no.” This unconditional demand forces you to realise that you can even if you thought you couldn’t. By definition, then, the I Care implies the potential of an unconditional I Can. The decisive difference between this mode of unconditional potentiality and the illusion of inexhaustible potency, however, lies in the fact that the experience of unconditional care is one that comes to us both from and through the other. Paradoxically, you are freed from the economic regime of demand by virtue of a debt to the other; in other words, the existential demand will always overrule the economic one. And since it is unconditional and existential rather than economical, the I Care is equally the force behind an incommensurable surplus of exuberance. That extra bit of time and attention we invest into our personal relations as well as our work is precisely what makes these relations and this work un-economical. It’s a surplus that can never be justified by economic standards, but it’s the source of our modus operandi when we care. [8]

We do this because we really care about the capacity of the arts to act as a catalyst for social change. We really believe in the concrete social implications of transforming consciousness. That’s in our mission statement, but it’s in our hearts, too. I think that’s why it works. I think it wouldn’t work if we didn’t really care. It’s caring that pushes us forward. It’s caring that means that the work is exhilarating rather than tiring. It’s caring for one another, too. It’s the care that I think motivates us to act.

[1] Mario Savio’s infamous ‘gears’ speech outside Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley on December 2nd, 1964. The oft quoted section, however, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” is often used to set a historical precedent for militant resistance sentiments. Taking this passage out of context is proved to be misleading when we look to what follows. What he is actually calling for was a passive general strike, a sit-in made more palatable by watching movies. A sort of ‘strike in place’ a la the Wobblies.

[2] In the art history course with Doris Chon, Fraser was placed right alongside the AWC for the ‘institutional critique’ week, hence the strong personal association. Their criticisms are, of course, coming from and moving through entirely different spaces.

[3]Here I want to consider Tania Bruguera’s sense of ‘risk’ in political art. I’ve seen her address this a few times, but perhaps most noticeably at the Institutions by Artist conference in 2012. The full video is here: I asked Pauline Yao a polemical question about how the Arrow Factory operates with respect to Bruguera’s idea of risk that I think really tries to hold other arts workers accountable to the decisions they make.

[4]For a great read and more information about the League: Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. South End Press, 1998.

[5] Recently, I had an encounter with a weighty decision. I bring it up not to glorify myself, but as another kind of identification or non-identification narrative. An old friend from my high school debate team offered me an 80K salaried job in San Francisco working at the intersection of art, technology and marketing [ew, right?]. He started the company and he trusted my ability, intellect, and more specifically, my knowledge of the art market on the ground - the needs and desires of practicing conceptual artists. The job seems pretty easy: play with his product all day and figure out how other artists might want to use it; work with a team to help market the product to artists; wander around to relevant social happenings with this sparkling tool. That ingrained punk rock attitude had me immediately cast the possibility out of my mind entirely. In effect, my undergraduate thesis was essentially a litany on the evils of essentially all aspects of everything having to do with everything about this job. With a scoff, I relayed the news to my partner and he unflinchingly replied “Oh cool, when does it start?” His lack of reserve allowed me to reconsider for a moment. 80K is over 6K a month, which I tend to make over the course of about six months right now. I’ve always wanted a reason to move to San Francisco...

No. I guess I’d rather sleep in the back of a gallery without a shower and edit publications like this (pro bono) into the wee hours of the night, but wouldn’t all the other contributors to our little zine rather do the same thing. What would the reader rather do?

[6] Merriam-Webster Online, 'Artist', 2013

[7] Excerpt from interview with Critical Art Ensemble for PORT, 2013. Full transcipt available here:

[8] Jan Verwoert, “Exhaustion and Exuberance” in Tell Me What you Want..., Sternberg Press,2010