Portrait of María Inés Plaza Lazo by Alex John Beck

María Inés Plaza Lazo on just and New Futures for Art Workers

María Inés Plaza Lazo knows how to connect individuals and institutions within and beyond the international art world. She is a curator, publisher, journalist and the co-founder of “Arts of the Working Class” – a street newspaper that critically reflects on the precarious nature of the art world and is distributed by homeless, unemployed or enthusiastic individuals on the streets of Berlin and around the world. With her strong interest in establishing a system of mutual aid and solidarity, María Inés Plaza Lazo shares THE NEW INSTITUTE’s fundamental concern of caring both for our planet and the well-being of others.

What’s the idea behind “Arts of the Working Class?”

It is a street newspaper that was born in 2018 out of an explosion of aesthetical, social, and political concerns within the so-called “art world.” These concerns are currently changing the cultural institutions’ very own language, but a few years ago the theoretical foundation to change the cracking system was lacking. My co-editors – Pauł Sochacki and Alina Kolar – and I were hoping to better understand our roles within this system.

"Food Eats the Soul", an issue inspired by the social asymmetries in Rainer Maria Fassbinder's "Angst essen Seele auf" marks the third year of “Arts of the Working Class”' circulation on the streets of Berlin and the world. The cover with the headline "Bite the Hand that Feeds You" combines French and English to inaugurate collaborations with artistic and social projects in Switzerland.

How did you come up with the idea?

The newspaper resulted from a collaboration Pauł and I started in the midst of a solo exhibition he was preparing at a gallery. It was an exercise to understand the toxicity of the environment for which it was created: the so-called “art world.” The paper was launched within the frame of the exhibition, among paintings and a collection of propaganda posters of former socialist parties, making visible how images are created within a specific context of interests and how they represent the conditions we are living in.

The idea of the working class, as we understand it historically and ideologically, doesn't exist anymore.

What are these conditions?

“Arts of the Working Class” is based on the sense of urgency, on the experienced impossibility of growing within the discursive realm of cultural institutions – unless you're exploiting yourself. It should serve as a tool for everyone involved in the arts to change the structures from within. Thus, “Arts of the Working Class” is expanding: it acts as an art publication that challenges the dominant discourse and as a global instrument of social aid; a provocation rather than an idea.

Pauł Sochacki, Smoking Kills, 2015

Pauł Sochacki’s paintings might seem a little odd, both formally and thematically. However, they propose a riddle that should help everyone to understand their underlying message: The need to redistribute wealth in order to enjoy art as it can be: challenging.

There is a lot of debate within Western institutions on issues of gender and race inequality – but not that much about class. Why is that?

The idea of the working class, as we understand it historically and ideologically, doesn't exist anymore. We need to understand what it means that the wealth has been accumulated by few within this speculative economy – the gap between the billionaire class and the 99% of working people around the world has led to completely different setups of labor rights and exploitation mechanisms. We are talking about class when we talk about racial issues. We're talking about class when poverty and gender define the margins of cultural hegemony. We’ve been used to the habit of ignoring class, but we need to start talking openly about it to understand the vertical organization of society that is still seen as a given.

What kind of solidarity can be possible the moment that class consciousness is enabled?

Is that why you founded “L’Union des Refusés,” the first labor union for the notoriously precarious art world?

“L'Union des Refusés” is complementary to what unions are already doing in countries like Germany, the US or the UK, where syndicates and labor reforms were definitely more present before neoliberalism took over. It interrupts the inertia of highly bureaucratic processes in order to enforce a sheltering structure based on people and their will to transgress the overimposed labor conditions to which they are submitted. It brings back the joy of taking the time to understand and take care of our peers.

How exactly does it work?

It’s necessary to find new ways of communicating and structuring unionizing work – for me, this structure is best embodied in the practice of “The Hologram”, which is based on an initiative by the artist Cassie Thornton and the Feminist Economics Department. It works with a setup of three people taking care of a fourth person, finding a cure for individual pains or struggles without them being doctors or experts. We at “Arts of the Working Class” believe that taking care of the wellbeing of art workers on a social, physical, and mental level means breaking up the inner paradigms of vertical power structures that we're all carrying within ourselves.
How can the practice of “The Hologram” operating on the micro-level actually change the precarious nature of the art world on a broader scale?

It all starts with a conversation. The editorial team of this global union is happy to grow along with a network of people that further connect the dots within the struggles of precarious, cultural labor conditions. We perceive it as our task to work with museums, institutions, directors of the most ambitious, well-funded programs as well as neighbors and vendors on the streets. We want to challenge ideas about who has access to wisdom, to knowledge, to the tools of self-empowerment. What we aim to do is challenge the ways in which institutions and individuals have been taught to think.

Through the arts, they formulate what a redistribution of agency can look like.

To rebuild trust and solidarity within the modern welfare state, political scientist and fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE, Lea Ypi, offers a class-based model of solidarity. Can you identify with her approach?

Lea Ypi is right to say that immigration, solidarity and social class should have a more prominent role as principles in the academic realm and concerning the formation of institutionalized knowledge. The welfare state – in Germany, for example – is crumbling with respect to the alienating ways in which the government treats migrants as migrants and not as people who need to be integrated in society. And so it would be interesting to change the perspective: What does the conversation about immigration and social class look like on the streets? By connecting the poles of the academic realm and the streets, can we examine the kinds of conversations that can take place about class at all? What kind of solidarity can be possible the moment that class consciousness is enabled?

Jonas Staal and Jan Fermon, Collectivize Facebook, 2020-ongoing

To date, Facebook infringes on the rights to self-determination and privacy of nearly three billion users worldwide. Initiated by the artist Jonas Staal and the lawyer Jan Fermon, “Collectivize Facebook” is an ongoing collective action lawsuit that aims to force legal recognition of Facebook as a domain that is owned and controlled by its users, transforming it into a public domain. Through preliminary tribunals in cultural spaces and online platforms, the public is invited to join as co-claimants.

You chose to present the initiative “Progressive International” for our current newsletter – how does this project and platform try to establish a new form of transnational solidarity?

The idea of their internationalist agenda is that art workers, together with activists and politicians from all over the world, are imagining new ways of dealing with struggles of equality, social and ecological justice – and then finding a voice through the arts. The posters that have been designed by the artists are like vessels for the project as a whole. Thereby, we can reimagine what it would mean to act and to share and to study the arts. Through the arts, they formulate what a redistribution of agency can look like.

Who are the artists behind this project?

Jonas Staal, who acts both as an artist and an activist through his works, is one of the founders of the associated platform “Art of Internationalism." It searches for a new vocabulary that is progressive in terms of being intersectional and processual. The associated artists go beyond labels and really invest the time to study and engage with local movements and struggles.

Jonas Staal, Progressive International Poster, 2020

The platform and initiative “Progressive International” invited artists from around the world to visualise what internationalism means to them. Jonas Staal, one of the associated artists, contributed a poster that is grounded in the aesthetics of constructivist art and visualizes contemporary internationalism “as a collective, world-making endeavour.”

How exactly does “Art of Internationalism” open new and just futures for artists and cultural workers?

If there's a way to sum it up, I would say: Everything that is possible between collective governance and mutual care that aims to transform vertical modes of communication into horizontal ones. That might sound very abstract – and it can only be activated in practice. At “L'Union des Refusés,” we let the members from across the world decide the path to action. The same is true for the street journal. We can only activate it the moment it’s useful for those in need.

I dive in between the layers of class consciousness to find immediate and long-term solutions for the social polarization we are witnessing through populism and the manipulation of identity politics.

To what extent can art contribute to new visions of future societies more generally?

Right now, there is a chance to pervert the structures and try to make them accessible to the most vulnerable people in society. This should be the responsibility of the practices and discourses taking place within the art world. There’s something evolving beyond the empty phrases of identity politics. There’s such an urgency to stop exploiting ourselves as art workers that we should try to redefine the structures and see where we all stand.

What is your individual role within these structures?

There are ways of navigating the roles and migrations within myself that I need to dissect and honor at the same time: A Latina from a hard-working family in Europe, trained as an art historian and therefore forced to struggle against the precarity that self-perpetuates within cultural institutions. This precarity needs to stop, for everyone. I dive in between the layers of class consciousness to find immediate and long-term solutions for the social polarization we are witnessing through populism and the manipulation of identity politics.

Could you complete the following sentence “For me, this is personal, because...”

… because what else should it be?

María Inés Plaza Lazo grew up in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She lives and works Berlin.


Portrait of María Inés Plaza Lazo by Alex John Beck

Pauł Sochacki, Smoking Kills, Oil on canvas, 140 x 170 cm, 2015

Jonas Staal, Make Amazon Pay, 2020, Organized by the UNI Global Union and Progressive International, Visual identity: Studio Jonas Staal, Images: Remco van Bladel and Jonas Staal, Courtesy of Progressive International

Jonas Staal and Jan Fermon, Collectivize Facebook, 2020-ongoing, Produced by HAU Hebbel am Ufer and Theater Rotterdam, Photo: Ruben Hamelink

Jonas Staal, Progressive International Poster, 2020

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