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Lesson 7: Precarity

Working and living conditions for people working in the fields of art, design and architecture are precarious. This lesson deals with the socio-material conditions and strategies necessary to create a world guided by the principles of eco-social justice.

The questions in this lesson are based on the essay 'Art, Design and Architectural Practices Beyond Precarious Working and Living Conditions' written by Bianca Elzenbaumer. To read the essay, click here.

This lesson shows general principles for orientation and concrete strategies and tactics to facilitate the creation of economies, support structures and modes of life that can move artists, designers and others beyond precarity.

In the To Do’s, by Els Cornelis, you will find some general questions and exercises and some going deeper into the first and third principles of orientation from the essay by Bianca Elzenbaumer: Mapping interdependences within your own practice and Spider web of privileges.
To move beyond systemic precarity, it is incredibly important to recognise precarising patterns of work and life, as this enables the mobilisation of our skills as designers, artists and architects to invent other ways of doing.
Destabilising and anxiety-inducing working conditions call us to engage in revolutionary ways of thinking and acting.
Bianca Elzenbaumer

To do A

But to be a realist today, we need to be utopian.

At the end of the essay Elzenbaumer refers to ‘cruel optimism as locking us into precarising value practices as the escape from precarious working and living conditions always seems just around the corner, but their resolution continuously escapes us’.

What do you think of these statements? How do the notions of ‘realism, utopianism and (cruel) optimism’ relate to each other according to you? To what extent do you consider yourself to be realist, utopian or optimist? In what way and in what field can utopias help the world?
There is an urgent need to attune ourselves to recognise precarising value practices, i.e., to recognise those actions and processes—as well as the corresponding webs of relations—that are predicated on a value system that exposes us and others to precarious working and living conditions, while at the same time (re)producing them.

What are the worst actions and processes that you ever heard of or you yourself experienced with regard to precarious working conditions?
What made the working conditions precarious, destabilising and/ or anxiety-inducing?
How did you (re)act, and how would you (re)act now when having read this essay?

To do B

Mapping interdependences within your own practice

This exercise is not meant to be finished at once but can be a growing map. Look at it several times a week, and add or skip interdependencies and highlight categories that you find important or that ask for reflection. And most importantly, feel free at any time to revise your options. How can you transform interdependencies that possibly show an imperial mode of living into interdependencies that are mutual empowering and expressing solidarity? What can you specifically do, and what is needed to succeed?

Draw a map of interdependencies within your own practice (art, educational or other).

Who and what are you interdependent with?
Be as elaborate and precise as you possibly can. Do not only think of persons, institutions, but also of more-than-human others, objects and places. Consider the present as well as the past time, or make an explicit choice to only consider the present time.
Take into consideration questions such as:

Where do you work? What is the history of this institute or this workplace? What is the status of this institute or workplace? …
What is your role? Who else is involved? Who do you meet there? Who do you (almost) never meet, but is still important in your practice (ex. the janitor, the mail deliverer.)
What material or apparatus do you use within your practice? Where does this material or apparatus come from? What is needed to provide for it?
What do you drink during the day, what detergent do you use to clean the dishes?

An anecdote

Some years ago we, the founders of the Roadmap to Equality in the Arts, organized a conference addressing the under-representation and misrepresentation of women artists, WOC and nonbinary artists.

During the conference, one of the highly inspirational speakers, Petra van Brabandt, philosopher and head of the research department at Sint Lucas School of Arts Antwerp, said the following:

When breaking the glass ceiling (when making promotion), who is sweeping the shards from the floor?
Who is ‘sweeping the floor’ (not just in a literal sense) in your institute, workplace, in your home?
How would you describe this interdependency?
How could the interdependency become mutually empowering and expressing solidarity?
What is the first small step you could take today?

scroll down to watch the conference keynote speech and the conference panels of The Roadmap to Equality in the Arts conference

To do C

Visualize the longing for a practice that is engaged, caring or transformative


To what extent do you consider your own practice to be engaged, caring or transformative? How do you define these characteristics and in what specific way does your (art, educational) or other) practice answer these characteristics at this moment?


What do you long for in the (near) future with respect to these values?
How would you feel when you would be working toward a practice which you feel is engaged, caring or transformative?
How do you think you would contribute then to the (art) world, to society? How could you remember yourself of this feeling, of this longing, while being aware that you can work towards change taking a step every day?
How could you visualize this longing? Some ideas: make a small 3D sculpture to put on your work table, design a sticker for the cover of your laptop, print a symbol on your T-shirt, compose a sound you could use as ringtone.

To do D

Asking for help and being honest about issues you struggle with is seen by Elzenbaumer to be transformative, not only for yourself, but also for others. In her practice, she is consciously engaged in offering a helping hand, as well as asking for it. Most people however seem to have an easier time to provide help than to ask for help. But isn’t true connection build on both giving and receiving?

Possible questions to start a conversation with yourself, fellow students, colleagues or friends:
What help do you easily offer? And what help do you easily accept? How do you experience help that makes the recipient stronger or more dependent? When is it empowering and when is it not? How do you tell the difference?

In what way could sharing or asking for help be transformative, to you, to someone else? Do you know of a specific example of a situation where someone asked you for help and you experienced this as transformative? Or the other way around, you asked for help, and you experienced some kind of transformation, in any area?

When do you share your struggles; in what instances do you ask for help? And when don’t you? Do you know why? Could sharing this specific struggle be of value to you, and/ or someone else?

An anecdote

Several years ago Wafae Ahalouch, a visual artist and dear friend of mine, told me that when offering help, she wanted nothing in return. She only asked for the favour to be passed on to another person who, in turn, could use some help. I carry this with warmth in my heart, as I think it is a beautiful example of how we can connect with each other and make the world a kinder and more playful place.

Would you be willing to join this way of working of Ahalouch for the next month, half a year, year, and see how this feels? Could you introduce this work format within your class, work field, and broader?
it is imperative that artists, designers and architects who do well economically—and who benefit from a racial, gendered, social, and geographical power balance tilted in their favour—extend a supportive hand to others well beyond their circle of friends and cultivate de-precarising value practices. Such value practices can take pretty conventional forms, such as fair pay for collaborators, charging properly for our services to avoid fee dumping, taking time to contribute to eco-social causes, and slowing down and cultivating a way of life that is aware of our interdependence with the more-than-human others, such as animals, plant, bacteria and fungi.
Bianca Elzenbaumer
What kind of supportive hand would you appreciate, and what kind of supportive hand could you offer, and to whom? What could you do in your own context, such as school, workplace, art platform, student body or housing, (communal) garden, residency, …? And what is needed to get you started?

Who could you ask for the supportive hand you are longing for? Tip: It often helps to clearly specify what you need. Also, don't underestimate what people can or know. In addition, people often have extensive networks that they are gladly willing to use to help.

Online you can find more tips to make asking for help easier, see for example this website

To do E

Spider web of privileges

Exercise to make your own situation of privilege clearer

This could also be a group exercise, in which one discusses structures of privileges focusing on one’s own experience. For the group leader, it is important to realize the importance of social safety when discussing these kind of sensitive topics. One possible safety measure could be that no one in the group is allowed to question or criticize someone else’s experience, and that one is only allowed to speak from personal experiences.

What categories of privilege do you see? Elzenbaumer mentions gender, skin colour, geographical and social background and body fitness. What categories of privilege can you add?
Draw a circle and put the different categories evenly spread across the outer side of the circle.
Provide each category with a ladder divided by 5 bars, towards the center of the circle.
Put a dot on the ladder to indicate your position with regard to each category of privilege.
Connect the dots to see how these positions on different categories relate.
Looking at the result, ask yourself:
What are the privileges you perhaps took for granted that helped/help you in what you are reaching for?
In what ways do you experience missing privileges and how do you cope with that?
From your own position, how can you help the other? How can you act from interconnectedness and solidarity? What could be a first small step?

Note: Privilege exercises are also provided by unconscious bias-trainers such as Sarita Bajnath. A video of a training and experiences (in Dutch however) can be found on
Scroll to see this video

Exercise with a catalogue or zine of practices considered to be too ecological, social, feminist or queer.

Share every week with a group of 6 to 8 friends or fellow students one practice that is ‘marginalised in mainstream discourse because [it is] seen as too ecological, social, feminist, or queer’. Perhaps it is convenient to take a moment before a weekly scheduled group meeting.

After sharing the ins and outs of the practice, discuss with each other every week: What do you learn from the practice(s) you share with each other? How do they relate, and how do they relate to your own ideas and practice? How would your field of work change if these practices would be more visible and known in the art, design, cultural or educational field?
Make a catalogue (or zine) of ecological, feminist, and/ or queer practices or practices that are marginalized in mainstream discourse together.
Invent a catalogue (or zine) title and write a preface together for this catalogue (or zine) to share what you have specifically learnt from these practices. How did it change your view, or your own way of working?
Ask if this catalogue (or zine) can be added to your library. Or add this catalogue (or zine) to your own or shared library.

Card Game

The exercises described above contain many personal but also more general and philosophical questions.

What kind of card game or other game could you develop to explore these (and other) questions with fellow students, colleagues or friends?
How can this (card) game not only provide a safe and open space to share experiences and insights, but also invite concrete action?

Lesson 8: Cultural Appropriation