a call to PAUSE

Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag, 1978) (1)                 

Arts Council England has recently announced its Emergency Response Fund to provide ‘financial support for artists, creative practitioners and freelancers’, a scheme designed to support artists who have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidance for applicants, in particular the eligibility criteria for support, raises concerns. Many of us do not easily fit into simple financial categories of accounting. Many of us are invisible precarious workers, the ‘dark matter’ of the creative economy. (2)    

As artists, our working lives do not align with Arts Council England’s evidently narrow understanding of how artists actually survive, get by, and create the conditions to sustain a practice. More worrying is what this scheme reveals about Arts Council England’s definitions or categorisations of what an artist is, which is based on economic success. Over the last few decades, the art industry has laid bare its own precarity. Many artists and institutions have been involved in the open critique of hierarchies of power, repeatedly drawing public attention to the exploitation of unpaid interns, volunteers and zero-hours contracts in the maintenance of systems of art production. What might appear to be minor details in a necessarily rapid drafting process of empathetic support for artists reveals the unswerving neoliberalisation of creative work. 

Just as with Government’s fiscal packages in the form of loans and grants to support the self-employed and small businesses affected by COVID-19, many of us cannot apply, because we don’t fit the criteria, are already indebted, or must now demonstrate profits. Balance sheets showing losses reveal the fact that artists of all forms and descriptions not only subsidise their own practice, but the creative industries themselves, through many forms of unpaid or poorly labour. Artists, like most other precarious workers in a gig economy, have many jobs, typically a combination of cash-in-hand, PAYE, freelance contracts, grants, per-diems, honorariums, fees and short-term contracts. Our current economic system is built on the backs of the neoliberal subject in the form of a ‘flexible’ workforce: the self-employed, the entrepreneur, and the part-time leftover fragments of labour on the cutting floor of what were once full-time positions.

And yet, under the published funding criteria, Arts Council England will only award grants if your creative practice accounts for more than 50 per cent of your total earnings. This can be read as an attempt to establish a legalised professional identification for an artist, one in which money is the main measure by which we should value art.  

Arts Council England’s insistence that one must earn more money from their practice than on PAYE is ethically dubious and discriminatory to practitioners and makers. It distorts the primary motivator of artistic labour. The presumption of a steady stream of art commissions or sales, and a consistent profit margin, means that only those who already have money can apply for money. 

Cancel everything: pay everyone!

We are less concerned here with the politics of state funding for the arts and more about how neoliberal society defines the role of the artist. The COVID-19 pandemic brings this into sharp focus. In this moment we are reminded of how it would be unimaginable to cope in isolation without music, books, film, performance and other forms of art and culture. This moment is also an opportunity to break from our usual patterns of consumption, and pause to rethink.

Every obstacle is a challenge to circumvent, but what these attempts to selectively support individual practitioners reveal is a different kind of monstrosity: the artist as neoliberal subject and ‘cost centre’. More competition! is the cry into the void opened up by COVID-19. What comes back through the screen, the tablet, and the phone is an exponential demand for more, even more than before. The spectre of self-invention is reflected in a viral hall of mirrors.  

The blurring of art into life, and life into art, as a world of endless over production and consumption, leaves many artists on a treadmill of self-exploitation. COVID-19 demands a response. The cultural economy and the public are fuelling early demand for content in a pandemic that has not yet peaked. This could be read as a premature shock reaction to the abrupt cessation of life as we know it under capitalism. It is as if someone pressed the pause button: a harsh awakening for many, and for others an opportunity to stop and rethink. This unique opportunity to actually pause demands that we stop pouring petrol on the fires of self-exploitation and the entrepreneurialisation of the self.

This is not a critique of necessary distraction and the sharing of creative responses and storytelling that genuinely help create vibrant online communities and alternative visions. It is a challenge to shape a different political subjectivity, first by accepting the invitation to PAUSE, and secondly a refusal to accept business as usual in the world to come. 

To pause is to acknowledge privilege. COVID-19 does not distinguish between rich or poor. But the lock down ruthlessly exposes inequality and COVID-19 is worsening its spread. All around we see life without security. 

In response to these recent measures, and in solidarity with all those on the frontline who are not able to stop and reassess, and all precarious workers, business owners, self-employed, the least employed and the unrecognised labour that supports life - to all those that cannot get the support offered, we call upon artists to PAUSE. 

This has rapidly become an exceptional time of social upheaval, and like the pandemic, we are only at the start of many struggles that are emerging from this crisis. Artists will be called upon to bring new poetics and objectives into these social struggles as they take shape. 

The pandemic has caused work to stop. Paradoxically, only a general strike could have achieved this before. Artists were among the first to invent responses to the social and political events during May ‘68, in a coming together of workers with students and artists in the production of a radical critique. ‘Art is the armchair in which the State sits for its own pleasure’ wrote Alain Jouffroy, an artist active in the strikes as he joined others in putting art in the service of revolution. In this moment of COVID-19 the pause, as a deliberate act of non-productivity, is not an intention ‘to end the rule of production, but to change the most adventurous part of “artistic” production into the production of revolutionary ideas, forms and techniques.’ (3)  

To pause is to cease to be usefully productive for capitalism, but not to surrender your work. The pause is the moment to regain strength for the refusal to accept business as usual in the world to come. Artists have the ability to reassign their labour power to resist commodification. It is the act that reassigns the labour of non-productivity to imagining and instituting other possible worlds and futures.

To pause means we down tools, at least for a little while. It means taking time to look at the world we’ve created, not in abject horror or fear but to make sense of our collective responsibility. Embrace the void, accept the silence. Live with your personal responses before propelling them into the world. Learn to own your emotions without transforming them into opportunities for others to consume more and more. Pause to consider what it means to really share.

Let others breathe. Let everyone who is able to do so, pause.

We cannot switch off our social media, we should not. We are in an unprecedented moment of community building and connection. We need each other. But don’t drown out this moment by asking us to consume more, look at more, read more, share more, produce more. Many of us are facing a multitude of fights to simply survive this crisis.

To pause during this pandemic means galleries, museums and other cultural institutions participate too. Participate in the pause - embrace the void, accept the silence. This pause is open-ended: we must not rush to fill it, abolishing the horizon. Let us use this space to think, not show more and ask of others to produce more and to consume more. Yes of course let us use art to reflect and to help us understand, to come to terms, to heal, to imagine other possible futures. But not when we are in the thick of it, not when our friends are struggling, not when we don’t yet know what lies in front of us.

“As a gesture of protest and in solidarity with my peers who are not getting paid, my website will be closed until further notice”. To pause is a courageous act that others have already taken. Whether that’s in solidarity with precarious workers, to think how to proceed, to refuse business as usual, to manufacture alternatives or to imagine alternative futures.

To pause, we give ourselves the space to ask questions. With a longer pause we create space in which to think about the answers to those questions.

The urgent questions we need to ask right now are too numerous to list here. Let us instead consider how COVID-19 and the cessation of life as we know it, exposes capitalism’s cracks. After years of austerity, growing inequality and exploitation, capitalism now depends on socialism for its own survival. Precarity as the condition by which neoliberal capitalism has enacted its domination is now fully exposed.

To pause is to evaluate. Do we want more and more of our lives ‘online’ and to work remotely? Before we have even addressed this question, the pandemic brings about its inevitability. We are living out right now the triumphs of Silicon Valley and its dream of total neural connection and distraction, seduced to reside in cyber space via the tentacular internet of things. The digital world is gearing up to facilitate an ever-present online universe, taking our ancient practices and rituals of togetherness and proximity and making them virtual. In the months to come, unless we pause, we will help eradicate the imperatives of space and proximity in the pursuit of machine intelligence and surveillance revenues, further dismantling the institutions of social solidarity. Universities will learn to better commercialise distance learning and AI capabilities. Companies will let go of expensive office and work spaces in favour of working from home. Galleries and museums will find new revenues from virtual audiences and online exhibitions. 

PAUSE means facing the world, and acknowledging that this is not the world we want to live in.

Calls for a new ecological thinking reverberate in empty skies, with no planes overhead, and the uncanny appearance of dolphins in the Venetian waterways, where once giant cruise ships docked. In this unprecedented moment of temporary cessation, the opportunity arises to invent new narratives and mentally prepare for a post-carbon economy. As we discover new ways of being together and acting collectively, we will also develop strategies of adaptation. As artists we have a responsibility to invent responses, to invent new languages of criticism and of hope.

The one refusal we must share in the formation of new struggles and new solidarities is the collective cry that says NO to business as usual. We cannot go back to business as usual, to how things were. We cannot truly say NO unless we pause first.

Gruppo Pause


1 Sontag, S. (1978) Illness as Metaphor, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux  

2 Sholette, G. (2006) Dark Matter: art and politics in an age of enterprise culture, London: Pluto Press

3 Jouffroy, A (1968) What’s to Be Done About Art. In: Art and Confrontation, New York Graphic Society

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