Precarious futures are already here
An interview with Rodrigo Ghattas-Pérez on the Verdensrommet network and the structural challenges of Norwegian cultural politics by František Fekete
František Fekete: I am interested in how cultural politics in Norway works for artists coming from non-EU/EEA countries. I had certain positive expectations about its inclusivity and accessibility, which you have partly contradicted. As someone with lived experience, can you briefly talk about some key structural problems which artists from non-EU/EEA countries face in reality?
Rodrigo Ghattas-Pérez: In Norway, in recent years, there has been an increasing mobility flow of artists and cultural actors mainly from the so-called Global South. From the “outside,” there are certain working guidelines in place which appear to be relatively easy to overcome at first. However, the more you dig into the way the cultural sector works, the more you might end up uncovering many “preventive measures” that make it difficult for artists to operate in the way they need or want in order to build a healthy livelihood. Over time, this contributes to increasingly systematic financial insecurity for these artists.
In part, this is due to some “invisible” bureaucracies and gatekeepers that you, as a newly arrived artist, are simply not aware of. And so it might take some time to learn how to navigate that system of culture, while at the same time trying to make your way through the intransigent bureaucracies of the immigration system. Both of those things together can be particularly hard to grasp for students and artists in the early stages of their “immigration timeline” in the country.
FF: You have co-founded a mutual support network called Verdensrommet which deals with all of these issues. Since when has it been operating, and how does it work?
RG-P: There was momentum at the very beginning of the pandemic and definitely an interest on my part, and others, to tackle all the invisible complications and difficulties many of the non-EU/EEA artists have to face. A lot of these uncomfortable processes, both emotional and bureaucratic, were sort of hidden from the public. I started this collaboration with a friend and colleague of mine, Gabrielle Peré. We came together to start a virtual space for mutual support. It was nothing fancy, really—just a private Facebook group for people that we knew were struggling with the same things. What we wanted was to create a network, a system of nodes, an ecosystem for people to help each other out by exchanging information, anecdotes, stories, tactics, and strategies about dealing with the UDI (The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration), drawing all this knowledge from their own experiences with work and immigration.
FF: Can you give me some examples of an activity that you are doing or organizing?
RG-P: This year we organized an event called Immigration Clinic for Creative Professionals.
It was a seminar where we gathered artists, advocates, lawyers, and union representatives. We also invited people from the immigration office to take part. We had multiple discussions and round tables about the legal tools we could use to exert positive changes in the current political frameworks. We are currently writing a report on that, and we hope it will serve as a great tool for future advocacy work. It is really about political empowerment for artists and others.
FF: What are your main goals?
RG-P: What we want to do is to create meaningful resources to help both the artists that are already here and those who will come to Norway in the future. This is a straightforward way to empower and connect them so that they can become better at dealing with all the immigration issues and life-work uncertainties that they will be facing.
Additionally, we do a tactical translation of some of these resources into the language of politicians, to help them better understand how artists operate nowadays and to get their policies to match these realities.
Economically speaking, I’d say that the way artists operate in Norway is a mix of the gig economy, the figure of the social entrepreneur, and the studio artist. Most Norwegian artists make a living through a patchwork economy. Fortunately and unfortunately, this does not apply to non-EU/EEA artists, since we are not allowed to work outside of our field. The patchwork economy implies having multiple sources of income inside and outside of the art field. Even in one of the richest countries of the world, art for many is a synonym for precarious work, and we are trying to change that.
We’re trying to debunk that myth because we do think it is possible to create a model of fair redistribution—an economy of abundance—that will better our reality by means of achieving economic sustainability for artists. Ultimately, we do have the same goals, but our understanding of how things should be done and our understanding of how artistic practices should be modeled on these goals radically differs at times. These dichotomies are particularly fascinating to me.
FF: I think a patchwork economy is a general phenomenon for cultural workers all around Europe. In my opinion, what is really fascinating but disturbing at the same time is how our working positions are derived from the opportunities we obtain. For example, if someone pays me for curating a show, I will curate it, but I can’t afford to be a full-time freelance curator because it is simply no way to sustain a livelihood.
Nevertheless, Norway has one key difference, and that is the role of unions, which is not something we are quite used to in the Czech context, especially not in the art field. How do you see the role of different artistic unions?
RG-P: The work that unions have done for artists and the broader art field in Norway, some over the span of a century, has been incredibly valuable. Although, in my opinion, in recent years most of these efforts have been directed at maintaining and sustaining what they have already achieved. We have been able to recognize some gaps; in particular, there is a gap for anticipating multiple precarious futures that are yet to come. If we speak of the present, those futures are somehow already here, as we experience post-pandemic constraints and see deadly cuts to the country’s cultural budget for 2023—a situation that was unthinkable only a few years ago because of Norway’s robust economy.
We need to ask ourselves: How can unions maintain a politically engaged stance that is not only about sustaining what they have achieved but also involves a future-oriented community focus? And by community focus I mean that they have to start looking at the relational aspects of their union infrastructures and to start thinking about fair redistributive economic solutions and collective models for artists. Earlier this year, Verdensrommet published a white paper on alternative economies for artists. While it is not a concrete proposal, it does show an intention, and it does draw a roadmap as to where to start looking for solutions.
FF: Could you briefly talk about some of the alternative models?
RG-P: We are currently exploring self-organized, trust-based, and regenerative economics. From time to time, we organized economic fiction labs where we offer a space for collective imagination on how to reshape our cultural economy. Artists need alternative forms of value exchange that adapt to the demands of our creative lives. Being able to make work, access resources, and maintain independence are keys to building sustainable artistic practices and social life arrangements. Deep reciprocity and mutual support are also key pillars of any interdependent economy. We are yet to explore more tech-based solutions—for example, testing ethical blockchain solutions to design a new value system for economic and human exchange that enables the fair redistribution of income, wealth, and opportunities. Another pending exploration is that of virtual currencies, barter networks, and autonomous economic governance. The possibilities are limitless; however, it requires a tremendous amount of resources, energy, and time to experiment and design new ecologically minded models that work in our specific context. This, I believe, is the beauty of this kind of work. You must build it from the ground up.
FF: Even though you’re talking about budget cuts, Norwegian financial support for arts is still very generous in comparison to other European countries, especially the post-socialist ones.
RG-P: True. However, I do believe that Norwegian artists—and that also includes artists based in Norway—might be the least equipped to actually deal with economic uncertainty precisely because of their dependence on the generous financial support you just mentioned. This financial system is very much linked, in the case of Norway, to fossil fuel extraction, which is directly or indirectly greenwashed on all levels of the cultural machine. I find that this fact is quite controversial for many people. I haven’t encountered many who would find this a priority topic to tackle (in the arts), but it has to be said. Most of that money, from energy-intensive activities damaging our planet, goes into powering the arts and the culture around it. We need to start reflecting on this and coming up with good solutions in order to prevent what I believe is an avoidable future where funding for the arts comes at the cost of our extinction. This means we need to think about sustainability in economic and ecological terms for the arts and the role of the artist in this new system of value. This also requires looking into Norway’s colonial legacies, which I find to be a very tough conversation to have in the Norwegian context.
FF: Why? What is the current notion of decoloniality in public debate?
RG-P: Unfortunately, that conversation is under a rock. It’s just not so much out in the public debate in all its vast complexity. It sometimes gets overshadowed by debates on racism or by specific individual relationships that have a racist nature. Nevertheless, the structural problems that have roots in coloniality and all its ramifications throughout Norwegian society—also within the art field—are something that remains taboo. There are few, very few, scholars that are trying to get there, but these conversations have been firewalled.
FF: How does Verdensrommet participate in this debate?
RG-P: For Verdensrommet this is a fine line where we actively try to avoid any representation of victimhood and reject victimhood for ourselves and instead try to work out the roots of these structural issues. The way the art field operates in Norway at times reinforces those structural issues.
How do we advance a different set of values than the ones that serve as guidelines for running the art field in the country and elsewhere? Of course, there is great work happening on a cultural level, but it’s far from being self-critical. And it is far from leading us to where we need to be in general.
I believe these root issues are very much tied to the rise of neoliberalism as an ideology that reduces all values to monetary values—in which the individual’s self-worth is inseparably linked to his/her ability to be a homo economicus, a purely capitalist subject. We have to stop throwing money at these problems—eventually, there’ll be no more money to throw.
Rodrigo Ghattas-Pérez is a Peruvian-Palestinian interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Oslo, Norway. His artistic and research practice emerges from collective intelligence following his efforts to generate grassroots networks and in(ter)dependent communities in the expanded field of art. Ghattas-Pérez investigates and mediates the complex relationship between art, the commons, and post-capitalism within the ecology of artistic practice, or what he calls the Cosmic Diplomacy of Artistic Value. His work merges multiple gazes, spirits, and perspectives in order to explore the variety of ways in which mankind’s expansionist impulse has impacted our human and beyond human eco-economic relations—taking a closer look at the co-production of contemporary art. Ghattas-Pérez is the co-initiator of Verdensrommet.
Verdensrommet is an artist-powered mutual support network for immigrant artists based in Norway. It stands for fair immigration policies and better living and working conditions, and it encourages new imaginations for the future of artists’ work.
Acknowledgement: Verdensrommet’s working group is not consensus-based. Everything stated below by Rodrigo Ghattas-Pérez is his personal perspective, some of it enriched by conversations with other members of the network and with other artists throughout the years.
The text is a part of the tranzit.cz / Biennale Matter of Art project Center and Periphery: Cultural Deserts in Eastern Europe, funded by a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (EEA and Norway Grants) in the program Culture.