Contracts, Community Agreements and More Relational Tissue
Over the past year, Delany Boutkan has been in contact with the artists of MELT, Squirrel Nation, Feminist Health Care Research Group and Harriet Rose Morley, whose varied pursuits focus on the critical evaluation of contracts, work agreements and the negotiation of ways of working within communities and with institutions. In this text, which Boutkan wrote in close collaboration with the artists, they hope to advance thinking about what these documents might be and how they might inform future roles.
Employment contracts and work agreements used to make me nervous. Until, while working for different cultural institutions, I became the person with the ability to access those documents myself. Whilst I have not gained much power over changing their intention, as I’m not a lawyer, being able to download the institutional contract from a server, the previously intimidating legal record became a Word document on my computer and I came one step closer to learning to rethink and undo their uses together with the artists I worked with.
Within employment contracts and their hierarchies within cultural work, there are substantial attributes to these formal papers and the making of them which reproduce power imbalances and more. As artist Ren Loren Britton mentions: “Contracts, when they come from institutions and towards artists, are often relatively unchallenged documents. Or at least that’s how the institutions would like to present them.” Together with Isabel Paehr Ren forms the artist duo MELT, which studies and experiments with shape-shifting processes as they meet technologies, sensory media and pedagogies in a warming world. “It might be that the cultural institution [who writes up the contract] has access to lawyers or legal rights experts, for example. These experts make sure the contract is sealed in a complex manner in legal language,” says Isabel Paehr (MELT). “But then, of course, the artist signing the contract cannot afford a lawyer every time they have to sign one.”
“Many times we have had questions about a contract or wanted to have parts of the document rewritten, but this action is often not anticipated by the person who gave us the contract.,” Ren Loren Britton (MELT) continues. “[In a collaboration with an institution] we once had to rewrite a complete contract, following an entire board of directors having to look into its changes. This slowed our project down by almost a month.,” Isabel follows. “From our interactions [with the institution] it also seemed that this particular contract had been in use for years and no one had looked at it critically thus far. Until we mentioned there’s no way we can sign this document.”
“These interactions have often resulted in delayments in payments for the work that we had already done and they also produce more [communication] labour for us in the end,” Isabel Paehr (MELT) follows. “Because the other party we are working with does not expect us to see the contract as a living and changing document, but rather as something that we would just sign without reading. Almost pretending it didn’t exist within a work relationship.”
Inga Zimprich from artistic research collective Feminist Health Care Research Group (FHCRG) agrees. “Agreements and similar kinds of documents are a part of the relational tissue that we share when we step into institutions or other collaborations. There’s a lot of power at work there and contracts and agreements are places where this power divide shows. Yet, within cultural work these power structures are usually kept invisible.” FHCRG aims to create spaces in which artists can share vulnerability with each other, centre (access) needs and break through the competitive mode of working in the arts. It questions the internalised, ableist concept of productivity that is often rewarded in the art field. “Contracts and agreements have the potential to make aspects visible that are usually not visible and are not talked about [during a work collaboration].”
Within the cultural work field, contracts, agreements and the work conditions described in them often remain discussed in meetings behind closed doors or in the peripheries of public debate. If these contracts are even discussed or exist at all, since many artists end up having to work as self-employed, under informal agreements — increasing competition and decreasing the ability to unite. “It seems we, workers in the art world, are often idealising the rather unstructured way the field works while at the same time we’re afraid to insist on regulations, we fear being sanctioned if we make things too difficult and we feel powerless in relation to the field,” Inga from FHCRG explains. “But this way of thinking also leads to us giving up on a lot of basic workers’ rights and it becomes very difficult to hold people responsible for their actions.” And this is damaging, she states. “In the art world there is often no space to speak realistically about the artist’s actual time commitment, our engagement, our expectations, our need to earn money and our limits of capacity to do the work as expected.”
“I have the feeling that a lot of work that we do around agreements [with our collective] has to do with making their power structures more explicit. Because if they become more transparent and more explicit, we can criticize them,” Inga (FHCRG) says. “At least when the power structures are clear, you can say something about them and perhaps propose an alternative.”
Denormalize the workspace
In some instances of collective work between the artists themselves (without institutional interference), the contract or agreement, as a document, returns but in a manner which tries to destabilise the hierarchy and rationality of the contractual form. MELT explains: “When setting collective work conditions, we should work from a position of denormalizing the workspace. Because within that process, there are so many ways of being in a space that are assumed rather than intentionally set,” Ren (MELT) elaborates. “Whenever we [as an artist duo] are working with others, we try to collectively create conditions to intentionally set a space that is less violent than those assumptions, starting from the needs of all the people involved.”
Inga (FHCRG) adds, “Within our collective (FHCRG) we did work with an exercise that comes from Radical Therapy, a self-organised form of group therapy developed in the late 1970s in the US, that is still being practiced and passed on. In these groups participants write a contract with themselves [to agree with yourself] about what they are going to work on in therapy. This contract with oneself and with the group strengthens the self-determination of the group member. It manifests that they themselves know best what is at stake for them. In our group process we have been writing letters to ourselves and to the other group members stating how much we wanted to give, what areas of work we wanted to commit to, how much time we were offering to the group and which tasks we didn’t want to end up doing. We were also revising our letters. It was one strategy to break the cycle of production pressure in art collectives and to counter the limitless self-mobilisation in this exploitative work field.”
Artist, builder and educator Harriet Rose Morley is often reliant on public interaction and collaboration in her artistic practice. Workshops, conversations and educational events in her artistic practice provide an accessible and inclusive insight into topics such as the relationship between artistic labour, self-organisation, feminist pedagogy, technical crafts and self-build ideals. Harriet introduced me to Care Riders at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, in a workshop she hosted for a working group of research project Collecting Otherwise. The working group exists out of both institutional colleagues and external artists, designers and researchers — all of us were (at the time) freelancers, which complexified our work relationship towards each other and the institution.
“There’s a lot of assumptions that happen when you’re coming into work relationships,” Harriet says “And [in institutional collaborations] there seems to be no framework for these questions to be discussed in a caring way or for those perspectives to start informing what our working environment actually looks like.”
Harriet Rose Morley shared her recent research into her ideas of ‘hard work’ and ‘soft work’. “‘Hard work’ being; hard skills and technical skills versus ‘soft work’ being the less visible communicative and organizational skills “When working on a building project, perhaps people I collaborate with think that all they’re going to do is learn to build. But actually, what I would like us to think of more is how that project requires us both to learn how to work together physically but also reflect on what it means to work together psychologically, emotionally or communicatively.” Harriet points here towards a condition which MELT and FHCRG similarly brought up in our meetings: due to the absence of a conversation about work conditions that work for the artist in a caring way (taking into account their physical, mental and emotional safety and abilities), work conditions for artists remain reliant on top-down institutional views of what a work environment looks like which exclude and oppresses many.
Artist duo Caroline Ward and Erinma Ochu (Squirrel Nation) shared their experiences of co-creating a Community Agreement for the Open Labs of the JUST AI racial justice fellows, this agreement aims to subvert the logic of the institutional top-down work environment as stated above. In their Community Agreement Squirrel Nation describes that The Fellows Lab (a research residency) is affiliated with JUST AI Network, an independent network of researchers and practitioners committed to understanding the social and ethical value of data and AI and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The research residents (fellows) are convening ‘Open Labs’; discussions and creative workshops to generate a collective space for supporting their ongoing work. In their own studio, Squirrel Nation creates experiences from concepts that consider co-existence as an ethic. “A community agreement is a cultural infrastructuring of our own space on our own terms,” state Caroline and Erinma. “This particular community agreement allowed us to remain centred and [in it] fellows cited examples of agreements we had experienced before, at events, and other lab settings.” Caroline and Erinma continue to explain that visitors to the Lab were expected to respect their ideas and work on their terms and not those of the institution: “A shared experience for black and minoritised researchers and practitioners is often one of extraction, and also access is rarely built in, and recognised as vital to the knowledge generation process. This community agreement positions that upfront.” They continue: “Community agreements are learning tools for creating common ground and can foster individual and community accountability. Lab visitors [people attending discussions and workshops] were sent the document in advance of a meeting. In being read, the agreement creates a contract with the reader, and offers pointers for self-reflection as to what worlds we are bringing into being. It opens up space for different trajectories to the future”. For example, in their agreement they state: “Like climate change and other social phenomena on which there is broad critical consensus, the existence of structural oppression of various sorts will not be the object of skepticism, nor will empiricist methods that demand “proof””
Squirrel Nation also suggest “If people are open, it can lead to adoption of principles into practice such as authorship, reparational and citational practices that rebalance the hierarchical politics of cultural knowledge production. The document builds community by inviting equity. Collective work can then go further, creating common bonds, intersectional solidarities and collective actions”. They also point out that this work enables institutions to fulfil their civic duty; “In the UK public institutions and grantmakers have a public sector equality duty, to foster equality of outcomes between people identifying with different identities and backgrounds. Ironically this legislation was introduced to ensure institutions addressed racism and ableism, rather than the labour falling on the victims of discrimination and inequality.” More often, they recognise these innovations are mobilised by practitioners and activists: “Sarah Chander, one of the JUST AI fellows, reminds us that ‘in the policymaking space, revoking and dismantling often doesn’t go down too well… structurally anti-racist [technology] is often contested as unrealistic and anti-innovation’.” Squirrel Nation here, but also Harriet, MELT and FHCRG, collectively point towards institutions needing to focus more on actively understanding the labour they currently are putting on the artist identifying with backgrounds and identities their policy (and therefor bureaucratic documents such as contracts) do not take into account and oppress, while working through changing this.
Community Riders, Access and Care Riders are doing just that. They entail the production and reflection of a living document that foregrounds the needs of a marginalised person, duo, collective and/or community who made the document. Squirrel Nation consider this sensibility for such needs from the person as “radical praxis, sensing that you need to take care.” They say: “Ramon Amaro refers to this as a form of ‘precognition’, anticipating from lived experience what might happen, a kind of predictive quality. Doing this work alone is a lot of labour and can be traumatic. A creative collective approach brings joy. Co-producing our community agreement, there was a lot of laughter.”
Knowledge surrounding the creation of Care and Access Riders and Community Agreements is often shared amongst artists in workshops, conversations or online platforms. “The first time I was introduced to the idea of the Care Rider was in a workshop hosted by Staci Bu Shea at Hotel Maria Kapel (HMK) in Hoorn,” Harriet explains. “I became attracted by the proposition of artists holding this concrete and clear expression of their needs in one document, an expression which usually heavily relies on in the top-down contracts from institutions.” Ren of MELT, in their turn, was introduced to the Access Rider through Johanna Hedva, whom had published theirs’ online in an extensive blog post.
“Working with an Access Rider eliminates or clarifies a lot of questions [between institutional workers and artists] really easily if taken seriously by the institution,” Ren (MELT) explains. “As an artist, freelancer or designer working in between multiple contexts. Access Riders shift the labour of me needing to follow up and respond to recurring questions around things like physical access needs or ways of communicating” Isabel (MELT) continues.
Can we see Riders as contracts or agreements in their own right? MELT says no. “Even though Access Riders and contracts both clarify what is needed and sometimes both documents are asked to be counter-signed, I do move away from describing my own Access Rider as a contract or agreement,” Ren (MELT) states. “Contracts are supposed to be open to negotiation,” Isabel (MELT) adds, “And access needs are not.”
“It is an interesting document in relation to contracts however, because it does put a wedge into the work conditions, the working patterns and the freelance agreements of institutions to create some more access,” says Ren (MELT). “it may, however, not be sustainable for institutional workers to uphold the changes in an otherwise discriminatory and oppressive surroundings.”
When asked about what institutional contracts can learn from Care Riders, Access Documents and Community Agreements, Ren brings up an example they came across recently. “We did a talk with Varia [a space for developing collective approaches to everyday technology in Rotterdam], not so long ago. And they work with a document which they call ‘a collaboration agreement’,” Ren explains. “Varia’s document also borrows or is in dialogue with Johanna Hedva’s Access Rider.
“You could feel from its language that there was no lawyer doing the writing of the document, for example,” Isabel reflects. “But instead, you noticed that it came from the need of people coming together to think about: What kind of relationship do we want to make possible? What are everyone’s needs? How can we continue to develop this document?”
“The language of the ‘Collaboration Agreement’ is already much more friendly than that of a formal contract. However, as much as Access Riders and contracts are not the same thing, contracts and Varia’s Collaboration Agreement are also not the same thing [as one is written by a lawyer and the other by the artist community]. But those last two documents exist closer to each other in terms of their position [in a work relationship],” they continue.
Harriet, in our conversation, brings up another alternative to existing contractual negotiations in relation to Riders and Community Agreements. “[These negotiations between formal institutional agreements and Care/Access Riders] are about setting a precedent for the necessity of these types of conversations and that it shouldn’t necessarily be the artist encouraging those conversations, but also the other way around,” she says.
“It should be institutions asking artists to offer them this information or even fund paying artists to make such access or caring documents. It would be wonderful for institutions to say: ‘Okay, we have a budget for half a day and we’d like to work with you to create this document. So we know how to work together.’” Harriet continues: “These processes should not be done in isolation, but instead through a formalised conversation which is approached with care.”
“I think that’s also why I like so much what Johanna Hedva says in their Access Rider,” Ren (MELT) elaborates. “They say something along the lines of; This document isn’t just written for me. This is for all of my disabled kin and actually all of us, to make a more accessible way of working part of our practice.”
A DUTCH TRAMSLATION HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN METROPOLIS M No 5-2022 NEO 90s
*Delany Boutkan in cooperation with Squirrel Nation (Caroline Ward and Erinma Ochu), MELT (Isabel Paehr and Ren Loren Britton), Feminist Health Care Reseach Group (represented by Inga Zimprich, FHCRG are Julia Bonn and Inga Zimprich) and Harriet Rose Morley.
Delany Boutkan is a researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam.
References and people brought up in the conversations:
Archival Care Rider by the Collecting Otherwise Working Group https://collectingotherwise.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en/archival-care-rider
Care Rider Workshops by Staci Bu Shea: https://stacibushea.info
Complaint! by Sara Ahmed
Do the Right Thing – A Manual from MFK (Malmö Free University for Woman) by Lisa Nyberg and Johanna Gustavsson
A [love] letter to [black and brown] [queer] and [disabled] [feminists], Dreaming Beyond AI by Sarah Chander
JUST AI visiting racial justice Fellowships
Louise Hickman, 2019. Transcription work and the practices of crip technoscience. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 5(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v5i1.32081
Community Agreement for Open Labs by Louise Hickman, Yasmine Boudiaf , Irene Fubara-Manuel, Sarah Devi Chander, Erinma Ochu, Caroline Ward. 2021.
Ramon Amaro, 2018. Precognition. In: Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, eds. Posthuman Glossary. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 365-368.
Public Sector Equality Duty https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/advice-and-guidance/public-sector-equality-duty
Sick Woman Theory – Hedva’s Disability Access Rider by Johanna Hedva: https://sickwomantheory.tumblr.com/post/187188672521/hedvas-disability-access-rider
Christen A. Smith, Erica L. Williams, Imani A. Wadud, and Whitney N. L Pirtle, 2021 Cite Black Women: A Critical Praxis (A Statement). Feminist Anthropology 2, no. 1: 10–17. https://doi.org/10.1002/fea2.12040
The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman
The Transformative Justice Framework and Community Accountability
Varia, Gouwstraat 3, Rotterdam: https://varia.zone
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