Haven’t We Always Been Precarious?


It is unquestionable that precariousness has been established as an essential characteristic that comes to define life in times of post-Fordism. One of the most representative aspects of precariousness is the emergence of the idea of multitude, which, identified as precariat, conceives itself as a new kind of “oppressed class”—but not necessarily in classic Marxist terms—given the actual conditions of the labour market: flexible, temporary, highly competent and educated, demanding, variable and, in general, unstable.One popular case in the UK is the Zero-Hours Contracts. Nevertheless, these characteristics constitute a new form of labour exploitation, well defined by the activist Alex Fonti as “On-Call Worker”.

A common understanding of the birth of the precariat starts with the crisis of the welfare state. The idea of a stable and secure fixed-job relation between workers and the private or public sector—which for many years was understood and promoted as the model structure for capitalistic production coming from developed countries—in the contemporaneity is becoming disintegrated to give space to less regulated laws that benefit the employer, which is to say: more unstable jobs for the multitude without legal protection from the State. This is a typical scenario in industrialised and neoliberal economies, nevertheless, also implemented around the globe. That is why, under these circumstances, some questions arise when thinking about the precariousness outside its traditional conditions: What are the consequences for societies that have never managed to provide or consolidate a welfare state? Is it pertinent to consider in this context the existence of the precariat? Moreover, if the case, how could this multitude be articulated as support for artistic production?

Precariousness, as a concept, gained relevance (but it also became highly problematised) in the context of the EuroMayDay movement at the beginning of the 2000s. Since then it has derived in different interpretations that, on one side, insist on classifying the forms of precarity according to the acquisitive power, types of work, and the positive or negative relationship established with the political and economic structure of the State.For a genealogical and critical review of the precariat struggles: Gerald Raunig | The Monster Precariat On the other side, the precariat emerges as a possibility to nominate the multitude, which, affected by the post-Fordist capitalistic structures, seeks to generate cohesion in order to react as together against the means neoliberal practices are articulating our daily-life. As Gerald Raunig affirms, “the concept of the precariat becomes especially fruitful for molecular and transversal approaches, to theory and politics in an exchange with the complementary concept of the multitude, in the potentiality that its singularities concatenate into the precariat in all the heterogeneity and autonomy of the struggles. Both concepts, multitude and precariat, are not to be understood as sociological categories, as groups to be empirically classified, but rather as complementary: namely as potentiality and actualisation of the concatenation”.For a genealogical and critical review of the precariat struggles: Gerald Raunig | The Monster Precariat

Furthermore, Vassilis Tsianos and Dimitris Papadopoulos defined precar- iousness as “means [for] exploiting the continuum of everyday life, not simply the workforce”.Vassilis Tsianos, Dimitris Papadopoulos | Precarity: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Embodied Capitalism | transversal.at | 2006 Then, it is logical to understand that labour focused on intellectual production, care, affectivities and symbolic dimensions, become the representative kind of post-Fordist precarious life. Immaterial work—just as intellectual, affective and symbolic—takes as much time and energy as a “traditional” job from a person’s life. In fact, is the articulation of the subjectivity that is at stake, and if it is taken as a form of labour, then it is logical that it will comprise the totality of a subject’s time and lifespan. Precarious’ vital praxis and immaterial labour (since life and work are faded) are characterised by vulnerability, hyperactivity, simultaneity, recombination, post-sexuality, fluid intimacies, restlessness, unsettledness, affective exhaustion and cunning, in what the authors have called the embodied experience of precarity.

In this whole scenario, contemporary art practices understood within the field of immaterial work and particularly linked to creativity, symbolic and intellectual values are experiencing a reconfiguration from practice to work. According to José Luis Brea, in this reconfiguration, the artistic labour acquires an “anthropological function embedded now within the work-product-of-knowledge space”.Vassilis Tsianos, Dimitris Papadopoulos | Precarity: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Embodied Capitalism | transversal.at | 2006 Therefore, under post-Fordist conditions the capitalisation of the immaterial work has managed to be integrated into artistic labour. Thus, the aim of postmodern artists from the 1970s was accomplished: to integrate art into life. However, this operation, unfortunately, should be perceived from its reverse, from the other side of the coin, that is to say: life integrated into art. We identify here a peculiarity: artists as a productive force in post- Fordism times are part of the exploited workforce of precarity, which, in strictu sensu, has been a generalised condition of artistic labour since modernity. In this sense, artists may have found a disruptive potential born from vital praxis itself, as part of the precariat.


The following lines will draw the actual precarious condition of contemporary artists living in Mexican cities like Puebla, where the modern art system never managed to penetrate during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Artists from this region are facing a situation of precariousness that does not come from the processes that seek to dissolve the welfare state. If a contextualised interpretation of the precariousness could be possible for artists and general workers living in cities like Puebla, Mexico, would be through considering the global modernisation strategies that abruptly caused the reorganisation of labour coming from tourism, formal and informal commerce and the settling of multinational companies in the region. In this context, the bet for the development of arts and culture carried from cultural policies from the public sector using the touristic scope, and the arrival of the private university has triggered the discussion about the place of contemporary art in the local art scene. The art system in Puebla, which is perceived in general as arid, is in a precarious state since art students and professionals find themselves in the city without spaces for the general experience that art implies: production, exhibition, discussion, trading, commercialisation, etcetera. How is it, then, the notion of artistic labour constructed in this context?


Neoliberal policies for the country’s development implanted by the Mexican government officially started with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Those national initiatives reached the regional governments’ administration with the National Plan for Development and State Plan for Development, which had as main purpose the de-centralisation of the industrial and farming regions since most of these were in the limits of Mexico City. For the State of Puebla, the strategies involved different processes since the 1980s until now. Among those we find: the modernisation of the agriculture (PROCAMPO plan), the modernisation of the textile and motor vehicle industries (from which only the motor vehicle industry succeed via Volkswagen and is still the emblem of the project), the incentive for the tourism (Pueblo Magico Program and the incentive of massive production of handicrafts), and the concentration of modern urbanisation in the capital-state region via commerce and services sectors of production. On the last stage of the project, mainly leaded by the last two government administrations over the past 12 years, the immaterial labour seems to be particularly profitable for the Angelopolis Region, noticeable with the arrival of the educa- tion enterprises of national prestige (currently, Puebla city and the near- by towns gather around 450 universities), the hospital sector and private health. In this context, paradoxically, the average income of Puebla’s inhabitants is below the €250 per month, most of the population from farm regions are looking to immigrate, especially to the United States, and the most common jobs are informal commerce and bureaucratic employment.

It is evident that neoliberal policies have affected the live of the inhabitants of Puebla, and it is difficult to say that the state has become neoliberal or global. It would be more plausible to say that Puebla went from being a farming and textile state controlled by the government—and in constant tension with the union workers and farming leaders and with a deficient urban concentration—to an impoverished neoliberal state. The region remained with a sort of agriculture and touristic development, and with an ultra-specialised automotor enterprise—some modernisation glimpses accumulated in the Angelopolis area gained through commerce and immaterial work. In this sense, it is not possible to speak of a welfare state since it never existed. Precariousness then would be inherent to the hasty attempts of modernisation in Puebla as a region from the south, where the inhabitants went from being precarious from a pre/proto/modern peripherical city, to a precarious from a city with neoliberal/global pretensions.


One of the neoliberal tendencies of Puebla’s economy in the Angelopolis region, as already said, is the abrupt rise of a considerable number of enterprises related to the services of care and hospitality. Superior private education is now an important income source for the State since it mobilises hundreds of thousands of students from all the corners of the country. Artistic education is also part of this furore for the professionalisation development. So, besides the two public universities that precede the neoliberal period, the region of Angelopolis (Puebla and the adjacent towns) co-exist with another four university centres offering visual arts professionalisation.

Precariousness, as we have defined it for the regions from the South, becomes evident in the artistic field, since nor the public policies, nor the private sector seems to be interested in building the necessary infrastructure to sustain the needs of the professionalised and in-way-to-professionalization that artists require to exist. In a city with a dozen of galleries interested in contemporary art (at most), barely a couple of museums that integrate to its programs discussions about those practices, and a clientele system lead by the Government benefiting a fist of selected artists who did not participate in the global contemporary art discussions at all, the landscape reveals, as we have mentioned before, jejune. Those artists who have chosen to maintain their residences and activities in Puebla, to take part of the discussions of contemporary art from there, refer their labour as precarious since it demands extreme diversification, flexible due to the significant number of “clients” they need to deal with in many different activities, and generally, depending on the university network. It seems that the entrepreneurship tendency has been a frequent palliative among part-time professors and students to make up for the social and symbolic needs that the universities do not provide to the community they have involuntarily created. The universities disengage from the problem of the lack of infrastructure for the artistic Labour that the students and professionals for the arts are facing.


To admit the precariousness condition could open a flux of thinking and action about the ways of artistic labour in Puebla. For that, we have considered three correlated approaches: the global-economic dimension, the vital praxis dimension, and the art theory dimension. From an economic scope, precariousness is a quasi-inherent condition to the modern artist, and with neoliberalism, it acquires a symbolic level since it gives cohesion to the global working class. In Puebla, the economic status of the precarious artists become the result of a sudden demographic explosion of art professionals trying to develop themselves through labour in a territory in which institutions and infrastructure never achieved a sufficiently modern ground. In this sense, we consider that the precarious way of living, so common in Puebla since the twentieth century, may turn into a possibility for rooting the contemporary art practices in the context in a subversive manner, imagining alternative economic models based in self-management, horizontal financing or mutualism.

Regarding the vial praxis, we understand that labour in contemporary art in Puebla has become a place for enunciation from precariousness, which indeed promotes a bond with the multitude, with the precariat. The artist’s working conditions in Puebla currently find a kind of synchronisation with the other precarious working multitudes living in the city (people living in the informal economy, domestic workers, part-time, temporary and informal workers in general). All of them are living a complicate subsisting manner since it seems that the cultural, economic and tourism policies are tightly enclosing the uses of the public space. In the face of the impossibility of existence using the conventional structures, raises the possibility of criticising the given structures to imagine the generation of a new one derived from the vital and effective real conditions. Precariousness understood in the vital praxis may function as an imagined territory from which the artists may fall upon in context and generate strategies to regain the city, and this is an urgent topic in Puebla since the public spaces are in open extinction (fenced public parks, traditional markets disappearing, public places taken by street traders) and entirely controlled by the government.

Finally, from the theoretical field, we locate a discursive possibility to consider precariousness in contemporary art. Considering the analysis of Gerard Vilar about Theodor W. Adorno, precariousness in art consists on “that its being barely rests on its shape and matter”,José Luis Brea | Tercer Umbral | Editorial CENDEAC | 2008 | Translated by the author. that somewhat implies that art requires, particularly in contemporaneity, to behold the full spectrum of symbolic, social and affective relations that articulate it. As an ontologically precarious practice, to think about art implies to admit its instability and constant state of revision and intersubjectively. It implies to rethink its entkunstete condition, since de-artification as a concept and practice, allows imagining art beyond its actual condition and objectual qualities.

If precariousness is a global condition and precariat its working-class multitude, then contemporary art may find new paths for dialogue that, from this place of enunciation (precarious art workers from Puebla), allow to generate networks to discuss the artist labour condition and contemporary labour in general. On one side, local networking through the concept of precarious labour itself would allow the artists to connect with other workers in favour of thinking the act of labour beyond capital and exploitation. For this, the recuperation of the public space in Puebla City is vital. On the other, the generation of networking with artistic workers around the world that departing from the precarious are look- ing for bonding and sharing outside the institutionalised legitimated and capitalised grids. In this sense, to look for different strategies for reading the artistic labour as a social, collective and affective activity, may turn into an axis for a subversive and radical reading.

To make visible the hidden labour that sustains the artistic activities may become a starting point question the hegemonic structures built around immaterial, affective and artistic labour, and how it shapes and affects the construction of subjectivities in the contemporary context. In the broad scope of precariousness and its subjects here presented, the precariat may function as an amalgam that could foster the reconfiguration of society beyond its economic conditions and a conceptual platform to think life after post-Fordism.

Artistic labour, on the other hand, would become a way to critically embody that place, elaborating sensible strategies for the cohesion of the precariat, in order to project ways of labour through affective and non-capitalistic social relations—as it looks for paths for the liberation of time for the precarious worker. Following Jose Luis Brea’s ideas, “the know-workers notion [...] shouldn’t point out exclusively—nor absolutely [...] the software producers, patent or content information, capable of generate economic wealth, but, and above all, to those participants in the exchange of information that in their activity generate critical order, agencies that favour data intertextuality, contrast of given ideas. Among them, the new artist, whose anthropological function is embedded now in the work-product-of-knowledge space, would be re-codified”.Gerard Vilar | Precariedad, estética y política | Kindle Edition | 2016 | Translated by the author Puebla then, could be a breeding ground for the restructuration of the art sys- tem coming from de precariat conscience. Artists could integrate their labour as an aesthetic imagination tool and practical activity, beginning with the troubled embodiment of precariousness.