In a world plagued by individualism and toxic competitiveness, I wondered: Is there any hope of redefining our priorities and escaping from unsustainable economic growth? Can we find new
gods than those of profit and efficiency? There must be other ways for humanity to thrive. Struggling to find opportunities for meaningful work combined with financial security, I look for answers on how to live and practice design
differently. On this quest, traveling through time and realities, talking to different knowledgeable sources, I do see a beacon of light, several of them actually. They seemed so far away at first, almost out of reach, but maybe they aren’t
as unreachable as they look. I decided to share some of the conversations I’ve had along the way. All of the discussions that follow are true as I recall them, except for the parts I invented.
G: ...Help me gather more of our friends here in Paris so we stop catering to the bourgeois and their Salons. We must realise we are facing the same struggles as the proletariat and have a role to play in social change. Let’s take to the streets with others of our class. Contact the Communes and tell them the art workers are joining their ranks.
M: I’m on it. John in Berlin would probably agree, I’ll get in touch with him too and see if he and other Dadaists will join our cause.
G: Great, just great. Then I will reach out to Mexico and New York, I hear artists there have similar struggles. Oh, will you look at that. They are already unionising over there, the Harlem Artists Guild is promoting collective action for economic and cultural change, fabulous.
M: Look out of the window Gustave, this May we are joined by students and factory workers. There are generalised strikes and posters all over the streets, what a sight to contemplate.
G: Amazing, just amazing. My friend in New York tells me they have a coalition now and are making demands with museum workers as well. Asking for percentages from the resale of art to be collected in a fund to pay for wages.
M: Your ideas are spreading like wild fire, it seems to be through collaboration of the oppressed and exploited that some form of change can be hoped for. We can’t let this be forgotten, artists and other workers facing precarity need to unite and make demands together, protecting each other...Harmonising Resisting Autonomy Coordinating
M: ...The village is quite empty now.
A: We are 4 left, but we were more than 20 at one point. A bunch of families living together. My children left, they wanted a more normal life, whatever that is. And then there’s the guy that burns down houses now and then, scaring people off. People will come back though, those who want this kind of life, families will be here again some day.
M: What inspired you to start this place?
A: Drop City of course, like most of these villages around the world. Like them, we agreed our land should remain forever free and open to all people. I think we’re the last one left in New Zealand unfortunately. The ideas of Buckminster Fuller, who taught at Black Mountain College. We don’t build Geodesic domes here, what inspired us was his philosophy of uniting as a community, a big family. Being aware of earth’s finite resources, doing more with less, accepting our ephemerality and that life is a constant transformation. Living united as a big family is important to us. What I’m mostly proud of is that we’ve managed to keep the land free, not like in Colorado where they ended up selling it. Selling land is such an absurd concept when you think about it. It’s a wildly accepted process in our society but who really owns the land...Sharing Communicating Harmonising Resisting Autonomy Coordinating Inclusivity Independence
Y: ...Well, here we are, you’re the last woofer of the season. Shall we have one last beer on the terrace before bed?
M: Sounds good. It’s crazy to think we were 15, less than a month ago, the house is so empty now. I’ve had a lot of time to ponder while working the land you know. I really dig what you are building here, producing as much of your own food as possible, canning and pickling for the winter. This thrive for autonomy you have is really inspiring. Do you think you’ll get there eventually, I mean to a place where you produce everything you need?
Y: Realistically, no. There’s a lot of stuff we still buy like pasta, rice or toilet paper. We also need trucks to drive to markets. Ideally we wouldn’t use any money, most of the fights we have here are because of pricing and sales. But few people are interested in barter so we have to make some money to buy what we do need. And, unfortunately, we rely on unpaid labour like you.
M: I do like it here, even though it’s hard work, it feels like I’m doing something sensible...Resisting Harmonising Communicating Sharing Common-Purpose Caring
M: ...There are other places like this but the one in Notre-Dame-des-Landes might be the most famous. Most people here would even say ‘ZAD everywhere, generalised strike!’. Can you explain what this place is and what it means for you.
A: ZAD stands for zone a défendre or area to defend in French. We are in the northwest of France, near Nantes where this land was supposed to be turned into an airport. Other farmers and activists like me didn’t like the idea so we came here to live and protect this place starting in 2012.
M: That’s quite honourable. I empathise with your fight but am not sure I’d be able to make such a sacrifice. Why do you think you gained so much recognition here?
A: People have come and gone, I’d say on average we were 200. Our determination was strong and we managed once to get over 40’000 people to come and protest with us. We’ve used our tractors to make a barrier and have built road blocks, watch towers and shelters to live in. The police came several times to try and force us to leave, but we held our ground. The support of so many people and the media coverage of our success so far is probably the reason for our notoriety. It hasn’t been easy, I have felt a lot of tension between the people living here. Luckily, our mission of stopping Virgin Airports from building and replacing crops with cement was the glue that kept us militants together...Harmonising Autonomy Caring Communicating Resisting Anonymity Inclusivity
M: ...Amazing dahl Nico, it was delicious. It’s nice being back here but I can’t help feeling a bit sad every time I come back and remember this is the last squat in Geneva.
N: I know man, these used to be proliferating around the city. Using buildings that are kept empty for real estate speculation and allowing people like me with little to no income to have a roof to live under. Most of them got shut down because they nest artists and activists that spread ‘evil’ antiestablishment ideas. And young people don’t know how to take over a building anymore, this knowledge is getting lost.
M: That and the fact that in a lot of minds, these housing situations are linked to the heroin epidemic of the end of the 20th century. They were the only place addicts felt safe and accepted.
N: Yeah, I know, I live with some here and it’s not always easy. I do wonder, if drug use had been decriminalised like it is in Portugal, where users don’t have to hide from oppressive law-enforcement and and can seek help if they want it, would there be more squats today? I’m not blaming them, just wondering.
M: So how have you managed not to get kicked out from here, you’re so close to the city center?
N: The simple answer is we don’t let police in, under any circumstance. On top of that, we host events like art exhibitions, performances and concerts serving drinks and sometimes food. This allows us to generate enough income to buy food and pay for utilities.
M: Speaking of, how much do I owe you for the food?
N: As always, there’s no fixed price, everyone pays what they can. I got to work the bar for a few hours, see you later, good luck for the ping pong tournament...Harmonising Communicating Autonomy Common-Purpose Sharing Inclusivity Caring
B: ...Come rest in my shade child, let me tell you a story. Before the crazy people came, before the time they named this land Tanzania, people would come and visit me quite often. Protected from the sun and enlightened by my wisdom, my children would talk and share here. Most important decisions were taken under my supervision. Your forefathers would talk and talk, sometimes for days, until they all agreed. It still happens now and then, and I have brother and sister trees up north, in the colder lands, where those people came from, that tell me it used to happen there as well, people gathering around them and discussing collectively. I hear this idea has a new name today. They call it ‘sociocracy’, a form of governance based on consent rather than consensus, ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and taken into account. Unfortunately, the craziness of some has spread here like an illness. Instead of discussing, my children now follow the idea with the most approval, a system they call ‘voting’. My older kins were shocked because, following this approach, essentially half of the group could still be in complete disagreement with a solution and it would still be adopted. The younger ones, like you, are falling sick with dreams of speedy decision making and fears of time running out. They forget we are all small parts of the same thing, everyone should be considered and cared for...Resisting Harmonising Affiliating Inclusivity Common-Purpose Autonomy Redistributing Communicating
M: ...Haven’t danced my ass off like this in ages, it was amazing. Can’t wait for the next one.
T: Hm yeah, it was fun. I’m glad it wasn’t shut down by the police. It’s harder and harder to find real raves these days.
M: What do you mean by real rave?
T: A rave has to be an illegal party. Usually organised in abandoned or rural areas. It started in Berlin. After the fall of the wall and coinciding with the rise of techno music, a lot of unclaimed buildings were used for raves. Some of these places are famous clubs today like Tresor. In the UK, which is my scene, raves happened with the Acid House movement. These temporary spaces, occupied without asking for permission are a beacon of freedom where almost everything is allowed. You can dress as you like, dance in the weirdest way and take whatever drugs you want, nobody will stop or judge you here. Openness towards drug use creates an environment of acceptance that many never experienced.
M: I really like these ideas of inclusivity and tolerance. Speaking about the UK party scene brings me back to my teenage years and Sound System culture. This electronic reggae music makes me nostalgic and the movement has interesting values. To be recognised by your peers, it is basically mandatory to have your own music label. Anyone trying to make it in this music culture will not be accepted if they go through a big music publishing house. The sound system itself is a wall made from stacked speakers that are usually custom made artisanally. During illegal parties, dancers would surround the speakers and other sound equipment to stop the police from seizing it.
T: Uniting to protect the artists, how cool! It shows they cared about each other and weren’t afraid to fight for what they believed. Nowadays people just run away if the police shows up.
M: For sure! On top of that, building their own equipment is a form of autonomy and producing themselves makes them independent from big companies...Caring Communicating Autonomy Resisting Common-Purpose Anonymity Independence
M: ...You really didn’t want to come to Corsica with us at first, even the boat ride was making you anxious, but you seemed to have enjoyed yourself in the end no?
A: Yeah, my parents just signed me up and sent me off because they wanted holidays together.
M: Tell me a bit why you liked it in the end, cause as soon as we touch shore, you’re all gonna run off and I’ll never see you again.
A: These meetings we do every evening, agora or whatever, at first I thought they were stupid. But in the end, it was a nice moment to share about our day where everyone listens and it helped solve problems or tensions in the group without naming or accusing people. Also, you remember? I really wanted my Nutella for breakfast, I have it every morning. Then Tom explained about palm oil and the orangutans and grey energy, I didn’t know about this stuff. He helped me understand why we didn’t have meat every meal. Oh and the reversed day was super fun, where you let us plan everything and buy the food and stuff. I just didn’t realise how much planning goes into a day, sorry for complaining a lot in the beginning.
M: That’s ok, nobody likes being forced to do something. It was quite impressive what you all managed to do that day. We ate like royalty and you bargained a great price for renting those paddle boats. I’m really glad you ended up enjoying these two weeks. Backpacking as a big group can be difficult...Harmonising Autonomy Inclusivity Caring
R: ...The line seems properly rigged, make sure you double check everything before walking it though.
M: I’ll wait till I’ve digested a bit more before I go on.
R: Yeah, you don’t want to get leash whipped on a full stomach.
M: Yesterday, I was listening to this podcast about libraries. They were explaining their history, how they’ve existed all over the world as places to store and share knowledge. But, if the idea was introduced today, it would seem absurd. Having a building and paying people so others can borrow things for free would be seen as just a waste of money no generating any profit. Isn’t this capitalist mentality sad? Anyways, it made me think of this library of objects you’ve started. How’s it coming along?
R: Better than expected actually. The principle behind it is ‘property of use’, you only own something as long as you are using it and then it goes back to the collectivity. These ideas are a bit too communist sounding, so we put other aspects forward. What we publicise mostly is the environmental benefit of not having to produce and individually own things we don’t use everyday like hand drills or big speakers for events. We’ve managed to get funding from local government, people are joining us and donating faster than we can keep the website up to date.
M: Amazing, hopefully you don’t get swallowed by the greed machine. This is what we see happening with the internet, designed to share information but now being restricted with subscriptions and pay walls everywhere. At least I can still pirate music, shows and software for now. Copyright and patents are so annoying, just slowing sharing of knowledge for profit. I get that I should be happy my work is protected as a visual maker but if you don’t have money for lawyers there’s not much you can do against corporations anyways.
R: Do you know the Creative Commons organisation? You can licence your work there and it can be used by others to build upon. You can chose if you want credit, that it should be also licensed there and if it’s only for non-profit use.
M: Definitely something I’ll look into. Time to walk this highline now, can you check my knots...Redistributing Autonomy Communicating Affiliating Harmonising Resisting
M: ...In your article for the ArtLeaks Gazette, you write about how, in our times of supposed economic crisis, collective organising is again necessary to face the precarity affecting underpaid or unpaid artists, workers and interns. Do you know of groups or organisations taking on this challenge?
C: Yes, there are many. Look at the W.A.G.E group in New York and their wo/manifesto of 2008. They are trying to bring attention to the economic injustice in the artistic sector. Other examples, a bit closer to us geographically, and that focus on broader sectors than just the art world include the Precarious Workers’ Brigade and the CarrotWorkers Collective, both from the United Kingdom.
M: And are these groups having an impact for art workers that potentially leads to political and social reforms?
C: They are, but they can always use more members, support and attention. The concept of ‘Art worker’ is a moniker that helps us recognise the possibility of such a transformation in a historically conscious way. The biggest challenge activist art workers face today is a lack of cohesion and clear direction for social change. Which is possibly a symptom of Neoliberalism’s individuality. It might only be through experimentation of new organisations, inspired by the past and possible futures, that artists and other workers will attain collective emancipation...Affiliating Redistributing Allocating Independence Harmonising Anonymity
M: ...Glad I joined this Evening Class presentation. Organising or joining a union for graphic designers seems like a great way to obtain better working conditions and job security. I didn’t realise a union could help with negotiating rates, contract terms and establishing realistic project timelines. It could also fight against underpaid or unpaid labour and make sure designers get paid or compensated with time off for overtime that we often have to do towards the end of a deadline. Not everyone is fully convinced by unions though. I heard Wendy saying she understands the benefits but she’s afraid of losing her independence.
Z: We do similar work and lobbying with the Artist Union. Tell Wendy, even though it requires some level of sacrifice and compromise, organising in unions has a major positive impact on the art and design professional world, helping new or less successful artists overcoming their precarious living situations.
M: Couldn’t these organisations join forces with other sectors, comprised of mostly self-employed workers, to demand fair and regular wages, pension and insurance? Another issue I’d like to see addressed is the value of art or design’s production time and its recognition by people outside the art world. Other creative labour is, like for example acting, filmmaking and architecture.
Z: Of course and not only for freelancers. There is a UK based initiative for a designer and cultural workers union. Anyone who considers themselves a cultural worker is welcome, be it artists or security guards at museums. They are taking action against unfair wages and fees, salary cloaking and unpaid pitching, unpaid overtime, illegal unpaid internships, workplace discrimination and bogus self-employment...Independence Coordinating Allocating Redistributing Resisting Anonymity Common-Purpose Caring
M: ...Thank you for doing such in-depth research and crunching all the numbers for this alternative taxation system. It makes so much more sense to take a small percentage on financial transactions. People won’t have the feeling they have to give back money they earned.
S: Not only that, this way corporations and big financial institutions end up paying the majority of taxes instead of individuals. Bartering and local production is also favoured, which is beneficial for the environment, because it would be taxed much less than something new produced far away that gets bought and sold multiple times.
M: You did mention that such a tax model would be heavily lobbied against by investing companies. Another issue you raise is redistribution of this money. The first thing that comes to mind is a universal basic income. A periodic, individual and unconditional monetary payment. Reversing the power dynamic of employers and employees, allowing people to volunteer or take time for themselves or their family when they need it and for people to think about the world they live in, what I like to call ‘contemplative boredom’, instead of focusing all their energy on survival and generating profit.
S: This does seem to be an obvious solution. However, there are several complicated factors to consider. How can you apply this universally all over the world, some countries still need running water and health care. There’s a risk of reinforcing nationalistic values where only certain people in a country would have access to this income and where borders could be closed. Additionally we might need to rely heavily on automation, which would be impossible to do all over the world or find ways for essential jobs to be done.
M: Mentalities would have to change so that money is not the sole motivator for work. And I do realise that, even if we managed to apply it, in the end, UBI only allows for the gears of capitalism to keep spinning as it makes sure the people keep doing what their ‘real’ job is: consuming. Nonetheless, I do think that this would be a step in the right direction, a transitory stage towards a better tomorrow...Allocating Affiliating Coordinating Sharing Anonymity Common-Purpose Autonomy
M: ...Don’t leave just yet, I know you’ve had a long weekend and want to develop those pictures of the protest as soon as possible. Please let me buy you one last beer and tell me about this fund I overheard you speaking of. Something about a living wages for artists.
D: Alright, alright. Let me break it down for you. Bear with me, my thoughts are a bit fuzzy at the moment, I’m quite tired. First off, the fund would collect money from government subsidies, private donations and also taxes from the sales of galleries, auction houses and artist members themselves. To become a member, applicants would be selected by an elected review committee of artists, curators, critics, educators and dealers. The fund would pay monthly living wage pay checks to the members.
M: It seems like this would remove quite some pressure from artists to be successful and have to advertise themselves too much. The selection process is similar to what Stroom does here in the Hague, with applications being reviewed by an independent committee of peers. Theoretically a great way to redistribute the wealth generated by art speculation, which in Switzerland, where I come from, is not taxed at all. Do you think we could actually apply your model?
D: It is designed to function in our current economic system. This would allow art to be more independent of the market and media, for it to reach its most emancipated incarnation and thus also connect most strongly with the “real world”. The only problem is it might be seen as too radical of an idea and I’m afraid few politicians would be on board...Affiliating Redistributing Coordinating Independence Anonymity Sharing Caring
M: ...Realistically, today, as designers we have few different options on how to generate the income necessary for our survival. We can find a job in an agency, be an in-house designer for a company, or teach. But these positions are getting rare and less stable sources of income than they used to be. We can be freelancers and, even though the freedom of having no boss is attractive, it comes at a price.
S: I couldn’t agree more, as I explain in my book Entreprecariat, the economy is pushing everyone to become self-employed with the risks and supposed benefits that go along with it. Being a freelancer means being responsible for health insurance, pension and more, which often go forgotten and can have drastic consequences. On top of that, it breeds toxic competitivity and allows for companies to pay workers less than minimum wage.
M: The entrepreneur is seen as a hero in the Neoliberal class, idealising the dream of individual success that stemmed from the Bourgeoisie’s Myth of the self-made businessman, embodied in our time by the Silicon Valley millionaires.
S: We creatives should be aware of the impact and value of our work. Creativity and economic competitivity become synonymous in Neoliberal Capitalism where cultural production is easily undervalued. The need to provide for food and shelter pushes some designers to turn a blind eye and ignore our exploitation and the ethical facet of our work that can have a great influence on society and the future of our profession.
M: I hope Margaret hasn’t convinced everyone that there is no alternative to individualism. But I have a hard time seeing how we can avoid this trend.
S: Ruben suggests we work collectively, caring for each other instead of competing, which would actively challenge the underlying economic model.
M: I completely agree this is the mindset to have and hope mentalities evolve in this direction of prosperity over efficiency. For me, this change can only happen if some infrastructure is in place to first guarantee financial security...Affiliating Coordinating Autonomy Redistributing Allocating Anonymity
M: ...I can’t believe I’ve only found out about your group now. I’ve been struggling to find examples of design collectives that have an unorthodox approach to their practice, how they organise and deal with remuneration. I’ve read on your website you try pay all members regularly and thrive to one day be able to sustain yourselves from your practice. Can you tell me a bit about your aspirations, how you manage decision making and funding at the Autonomous Design Group.
J: I’d be glad to. Our goal is to reclaim art for the people and to have artists recognised as workers. We try to make decisions collectively as much as possible, commissions are open for everyone and we share all files, often working by building designs on top of each other’s. We rely a lot on public donations, a crowdfunding of sorts. Our work is split into two main areas, doing project work for clients and making our own artwork to put up in the streets. To fund putting artwork in the streets, we also sell it on our Bigcartel site. Of the artwork we get printed, we aim to send half of it out to people for free to put into the streets, and half we sell.
M: I like that you want your work to be out in the world, it reminds me of graffiti and how every wall in the city becomes part of a gallery. Why is it so important to you?
J: We advocate spreading and sharing our message into the physical world, the every day public space to make sure we don’t only preach to the already converted left-wing internet users. All our work is open-source and licensed under the Creative Commons so it can be mass produced and pasted everywhere over and over again. Everything we publish, we do anonymously under ADG.
M: That’s quite unconventional, why do you choose to publish anonymously?
J: We’re trying to remove this idea of the individual artist, because there’s a lot of social capital that comes along with it. We resist the entrepreneurial perspective artists are encouraged to take on, and organise ourselves as members of the working class, while also questioning our position and recognising the tension that we may often be members of a more desirable gentrifier class in certain contexts. We must see our role as artists as being tied to the health of our communities and organise with them accordingly...Allocating Redistributing Coordinating Caring Affiliating Sharing Common-Purpose Independence
...So, after all of this talking and sharing of ideas, do you think you have answers to your questions?
To some extent, yes. I understand that, as long as we have to earn money to cover basic needs in a Noeliberal Capitalist system, we will have a tendency for competition and speculation. All design products and art works will end up falling into the claws of this, individualistic, profit-driven structure. There are other ways though and the best thing to do is try and live differently as best we can, promoting more wholesome values, caring for each other. Being critical of my work field and the economical and political system is important. Writing about it raises awareness but I feel like that is not enough. In my opinion, what can really inspire change is not what Art produces but rather how it is produced.
The Autonomous Design Group is a very inspiring example for me but I would miss some form of real life connections to the other members by working almost exclusively remotely. The Public, a Toronto-based design agency, is also heartening. They make work for social projects in their community, promoting care over competition and putting an emphasis on process and meaning over beauty.
I will try to encapsulate how I would like to live and create. I would start by finding people with similar ideals, interests and values to make sure we have a common goal, the corner stone of our group. Working and living together as a big family, we would thrive for horizontality and transparency, nobody has more or less power and we share all important information. Communication is primordial in any group, there should be regular, weekly or bi-weekly, meetings where any problem or idea can be shared and discussed. Decisions would be taken sociocratically, however long that might take. Everything produced would be licensed under the Creative Commons, promoting Open Source platforms and the sharing of knowledge. The tools and workshops we could have would also be shared and accessible to others, even outside the community, that might need it. The work would focus on local action, helping those around us and addressing problems in our region. It should be non-profit, not in the sense we work for free but rather that making money is not the priority. Ideally, money would not be an issue, but until something like UBI exists, we will survive on commissions, funding and donations, sharing all revenue equally between members. If a design union exists where we are, we will join it. If not, we will try and create one. Time to start looking for people.