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Performance in the theaters, photo: Willem Popelier

Artist Dries Verhoeven invited ten Bulgarian migrant workers to perform ‘a visual requiem for the working man’ on several Dutch theatre stages. For the duration of the project, they live and sleep in West Den Haag – home for documentation of the project as well.

When trying to find a job, some have the privilege of choosing and pursuing their passion. Others, however, are simply in search of making a living. The figure of the migrant and seasonal worker is highly revelatory in terms of the interdependencies created and obscured by capitalist modes of production. In Western countries, migrant workers often take up jobs that are essential to keeping the local economy running and closing shortages on the labour market, yet still they are often met with accusations of ‘stealing jobs’ and calls to ‘go back to their own country.’

As these individuals move westwards in search of better wages, industrialists move their production facilities (mostly) eastwards to profit from cheap labour. While most consumers in richer countries are happy to benefit from competitive prices, they are horrified to learn about the true cost of production – the poor working conditions of the people that make those products, hidden away beneath layers of flashy marketing campaigns – and are quick to call out the exploitation: “Shut down the factories! Pay the workers better! Give them decent hours!” But what do the workers themselves have to say? What if speaking up, or having others speaking on their behalf, would cost them their whole livelihood? In his exhibition Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid (Brothers, exalt thee to freedom!) Verhoeven explores such questions and tensions by bringing the viewer, as worker and consumer, in a rare face to face encounter with a group of people whose working life is most prone to exploitation, precarity and eventual obsolescence.

Verhoeven invited ten Bulgarian individuals who have experience as a migrant worker in Western Europe to work as performers on Dutch theatre stages. Each performance, or ‘living installation’ lasts eight hours. At the end of a working day, the performers go home to West Den Haag, where they live and sleep for the duration of the project. Bulgaria is the EU country with the lowest minimum hourly wage of €1.87, closely followed by other Eastern European countries (Romania – €2.86, Hungary – €2.93, Latvia – €3.12), so it comes as no surprise that people look for better-paying opportunities in richer countries’ slaughterhouses, distribution centres and farms.

[blockquote]Verhoeven brings the viewer in a rare face to face encounter with a group of people whose working life is most prone to exploitation, precarity and eventual obsolescence

Valentina Panova uit Svilengrad, Bulgaria

Blagovest Ilchevski. Plovdiv, Bulgaria

My arrival at West is greeted by a Russian work song – an anthem of the 1905 Russian Revolution and the 1917 October Revolution – that had been translated into Dutch and played loudly from an invisible source somewhere on the street: “Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid! Broeders omhoog naar het licht!” (Brothers, exalt thee to freedom! Brothers, rise up into the light!). I march through the building to the beat of the anthem until I reach two adjacent rooms with blacked-out windows. In the middle of the room to my left, a small vitrine on legs contains a model factory inhabited by live ants going about their daily tasks. Ah, the humble worker ant, working as hard and diligently as ever. Ant colonies have been studied for their remarkable self-organisation and collaboration. Their collective intelligence enables them to create complex decentralised systems through interaction with other ants, rather than through a leader that delegates tasks down the hierarchy. Not driven by personal ambition, politics or profit, these creatures might be able to teach us humans a lot about community-building.

In the next room, the artist’s Bulgarian collaborators appear one or two at a time, on a 3-channel video installation. Looking me in the eye, they speak about their childhood memories, hobbies and  working experience, while making repetitive gestures with their hands related to their working routines – picking fruit, lifting boxes, sewing… At the back of the little catalogue I was given at the entrance, their names, dates of birth and previous occupations are listed in a kind of CV format.

Exhibition at West, Prime Champ 2014, Scale model and ant colony, photo: Willem Popelier

Exhibition at West: Objets trouvés, photo: Willem Popelier

One by one, the performers share personal thoughts and anecdotes. Through their stories, I get to know the nuances of life on production floors: “My boss at the factory floor was a control panel,” says Valentina, “Every day I would receive a list of tasks from a machine.” Antonia recounts the time when a sewing machine needle went all the way through her finger and her colleague had to pull it out: “We didn’t even report it as an occupational injury. The next day I went back to work with two fingers taped together and continued as normal. There’s no time to make a fuss or act spoiled.” Her job at the time was sewing a specific type of back pocket on Hugo Boss trousers that was quite complicated to make. “Half of the trousers got sent back by quality control because the pockets weren’t good enough.” Rilka, who worked in the flower industry, describes the process of arranging the perfect flower bouquet. Such stories speak to what is considered as skilled and unskilled work, revealing that there is no such thing as unskilled labour. It reminds me of the healthcare workers, delivery people and garbage collectors that kept our society running during lockdown, while many of us were either ill or tucked away safely inside our homes.

Despite the hardships they face at their jobs – low pay, no breaks, no possibility to negotiate better conditions, and the physical intensity of the work – the performers still speak fondly of their occupation; “You are part of a process which goes to many people and this is important work,” says Kalin. “I’m a worker!” he exclaims proudly. These perspectives, emotions and particularities are concealed from us as consumers when we buy food from the supermarket or go shopping for clothes. We seldom think twice about all the hands and processes involved in making and delivering a final product that the workers themselves do not get to enjoy. As I move on to the next room, I spot Antonia and Miroslav having a chat in the garden. The performers must be having a day off from working at the theatre. I reach a cosy screening space and as I sink into one of the couches, Valentin walks by and with a quick nod and ‘hello’ disappears into his room. The final work on view is a documentation of the whole project.  Unlike industrialised production processes, the whole process of recruiting the performers, meeting them for the first time, getting to know them, their travel to the Netherlands and arrival at West, as well as the work that went into setting up the theatrical performance, is revealed.

Performance in the theaters, photo: Willem Popelier

Performance in the theaters, photo: Willem Popelier

I get to see the artist giving directions, and the performers perfecting their singing. The camera records moments of success, frustration and convivial exchanges. Verhoeven, skilfully aware of his special position as artist-employer, raises further pertinent questions with the group: What happens if I abuse my power as your employer? What if we disagree about your remuneration? What if you decide to abandon the project and leave? Who holds the power then? Other than the power relations between employer and employee, this part of the exhibition indirectly addresses art’s validity as a profession, especially in an alienated society where quality of life is often mistakenly equated with economic growth, rather than the status of social relations (which numerous contemporary art practices prioritise). I get to witness the research, labour and collaboration that goes into realising such a production.

Verhoeven, skilfully aware of his special position as artist-employer, raises further pertinent questions with the group: What happens if I abuse my power as your employer? What if we disagree about your remuneration?

While certain groups of workers and occupations are undoubtedly more exploitable and precarious than others, it is important to realise that it’s not just the future of migrant labourers that is imminently at risk. Neoliberal capitalism and the algorithm have long since extended their reach and started transforming all areas of working life. So what if my jeans are being made by a robot? OK, how about if your employment prospects depend on how you’re judged by a machine? In some companies, the recruitment process has already been outsourced to algorithms. Have an after-sales complaint? Here’s the link to live chat with our customer support robot. Enter flexi-work, the zero hour work contract and hustle culture, where every individual has to constantly fight for their own economic survival, with nothing being guaranteed. Long gone are the days when workers stood and sang together in solidarity. The system – someone, somewhere, someplace – has made sure there’s no time and energy left for that.

“Legt in elkaar uw handen/ Broeders, en valt met een lach/ Eindigt der slavernij schande!” (“Put thy hands together/ Brothers, and go down smiling/ End the disgrace of slavery!”), went the anthem as I walked out of West. This time I notice that the sound is coming from a white worker van equipped with a megaphone parked sideways on the pavement, as if its driver, in an act of defiance, has deserted his post but not before sending out a clear call for a workers’ revolt. After all, the song has been picked up and become the most sung anthem of workers’ movements in various countries for at least a good 50 years. Was it time? As people around me hurry about their lives now that the lockdown is over, it hardly feels as if anything major is about to happen on this hot June day. But perhaps, a revolution doesn’t have to be grand and disruptive. A small kind gesture, saying ‘no’, or even taking a day off, could be a good start.

Broeders verheft u ter vrijheid runs between June 5 and August 18 at West Den Haag and is a co-production between Studio Dries Verhoeven, SPRING Performing Arts Festival, West Den Haag and a number of participating theaters in the Netherlands. The project consists of an exhibition/project documentation at West Den Haag and a ‘living installation’ that will take place for eight hours a day on select days in various city theaters in the Netherlands, for instance on the 3rd of July in Stadstheater Arnhem, and on the 9/10/11th of July in het HEM, Zaandam

Manuela Zammit

is a writer and researcher

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