Sometimes, small-scale and artist-run initiatives are described as being the base of an ecosystem of the art world that enables artists and curators in the early stages of their careers to grow into professional and successful artists. However, this statement limits the value of those initiatives and organizations and sidelines them from the larger field of art that values individual, artistic success. To understand the political potential of small-scale art organizations and networks, we have to focus on other values than the ones that affirm the traditional hierarchy of the art world that celebrates individualism. At the same time, it might be true that small-scale, self-organized organizations and networks are important for artists when starting off their careers, it is also a field that is, or has the potential to be a field that offers other realities and roles than within the established cultural and economic capital systems. Many artist-run initiatives want to be radical places, well connected to local and global communities and discourse while at the same time creating alternative relationships and communal realities. The groups of engaged artists, curators, and cultural practitioners that run these initiatives work from a point of view and conviction that art is necessary, and these spaces support what they feel is urgent. Things are done simply because they are important. These spaces make it possible for art to exist outside of art market centers and to function within local communities, for change. These practitioners try and work hard, often without or with insufficient funds, dodging and warding off the limits and requirements that come along with the funding – with impressive creativity! Even if these practitioners sometimes fail to meet their radical intentions, at least this field is filled with people that really try creating other circumstances. And that is a valuable action.
Over the course of the art project Sauna for the unemployed (2014-ongoing) where I hire unemployed people to have a sauna bath together while sharing the knowledge and experiences one gets by being unemployed, I have collaborated with several small-scale, self-organized initiatives and artist-run spaces in Sweden and abroad. I was highly dependent on these local, self-organized Contemporary Art platforms in rural and urban places around the country, such as Extensions Hagen, Art Lab Gnesta, Galleri Syster, Not Quite, and Gylleboverket in Sweden, District in Berlin, Germany, and Studio 17 in Stavanger, Norway.
All of these organizations adapted to the nature of the project, supporting it with time, energy, connections, their position, and publics. I often came to them, sometimes with very short notice, and asked them to collaborate – not being invited as usual within the art field. The first and most intense year of the project I had my own funding through a public art project fund. After this first year, Sauna for the unemployed then became dependent on invitations from organizations that could cover costs for its production. Realising the project in this way proved to be harder than one could believe since funding often comes with the expectations of an exhibition, event, or other public invitation. Sauna for the unemployed is a social and process-based project that doesn’t necessarily fit into these forms (even though it can transform itself to work within these by exhibiting its own history). Being a project with its own funds, organized in collaboration with these self-organized organizations in a non-formal structure at the side of their planned production, the project was made possible without compromising its own logic. After completing the project with its designed framework for a year, I can now run the project or present parts of it within established norms of the ways art is shown and produced, while keeping the integrity of the project. I cannot emphasize enough all the engagement and time the practitioners of those self-organized institutions and organizations put into the project – these organizations were the link between the project and local communities, making almost anything possible, with very small economic resources, just because they felt the project was important even though it didn’t always fit into their financial forms and planning.
Sauna for the unemployed is an art project that investigates the knowledge that is found in the gaps of a CV and the political potential of being outside while at the same time in the midst of the discussion on waged labor. It encourages unemployed people – a group that is not well organized and lacks a common voice in the debate regarding their rights and social position in society – to start a conversation about their philosophical, political, and social situation. Sauna for the unemployed asks for another reality, where the unemployed situation is not experienced as a personal failure, but seen as a structural consequence of a system that does not take responsibility for everyone.
The architecture of the project is modeled off of the structure of the labor system, which organizes labor through jobs. This structure is constructed yet creates a real situation in order to enact the structures of the workforce: the employer, the employee, and the unemployed. The job is to have a sauna bath together with a small group of other employed ‘unemployed’ people, talking about whatever concerns the group regarding their position and experiences of being unemployed. The conversation is recorded, the sweat is collected and their time, emotions, knowledge is bought for an hourly wage. The job ad that precedes the sauna bath is published in established job centers, and the content of this ad implies that there are specific experiences and knowledge gained through unemployment and that it is important for society as a whole to understand this situated knowledge. The project has also been presented in forms of publications, texts, installations with towels and sound, music and public talks.