Weaponizing Precarity

An Interview With RM Vaughan

We were saddened to learn of RM Vaughan’s passing in October 2020. He was an author, playwright and artist, and beloved member of the LGBTQ2S+ community. We are grateful for his legacy and his tireless contributions to the arts in Atlantic Canada and beyond.

The following piece appeared in the Labour issue of Visual Arts News in Summer 2020.

The poet RM Vaughan sitting in a lawn chair, bundled in a blanket.
The poet, RM Vaughan

RM Vaughan is the current Writer-In-Residence at the University of New Brunswick. He was born in Saint John, raised in St. Martin’s and Quispamsis, and is now based in Montréal. Recently, Vaughan initiated and co-curated with Dr. Kenneth Moffatt the pop-up exhibition CUT/PASTE/RESIST (UNB, 2020). People from around the world answered the open call by sending in collages that depict something they are resisting. As a pioneer of Canadian queer literature, he published the poetry volume A Selection of Dazzling Scarves (1996) and the novel A Quilted Heart (1998). He also authored the nonfiction book Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures (2015), which combines his lifelong battle with insomnia with an investigation into the attitude of limitless productivity. In his contributions as an art critic, he questions, among other things, the forces at play in artistic production and the art world.

Jessica Arseneau: I would like to discuss the term precarity, which, since the end of 20th century in the field of labour, is often connected to the increasing flexibility and autonomy of the labourers. Interestingly, the etymology of precarious goes back to praying or asking for something and therefore relates to a relationship of dependence. Thus, on the one hand, it is used in relation to a greater autonomy of labourers; on the other hand, it seems to emphasize a notion of dependence on institutions. In light of what seems like a contradiction, how does this term apply to the state of working artists?
RM Vaughan: When talking about the actual word precarity, it is a new way of discussing what has always been true for artists, which is that our labour is chronically undervalued and underpaid, even though we contribute with enormous amounts to every economy we are a part of. It seems like everybody else who works in any other field suddenly has precarity, so now it is an issue. I don’t think that it is coincidental that we discuss it since other labour fields experience it. For the etymology, interestingly, since the economic crash of 2008, as a freelance writer I often feel like I am begging for work—I am like a supplicant. I don’t see much difference between people who use to hang around churches to beg for pennies and what I do.
Arseneau: One has to ask for artist fees, transport funds, etc., otherwise the artist has to cover everything and that evolves into greater precarity.
Vaughan: Precarity is also weaponized. The way capitalism turns us into autonomous workers has become weaponized in a really direct way. What we are seeing right now in Canada is that unions are being busted constantly. One of the ways of making workers ask for less is to convey to them that labour is precarious. A company is looking at this as an opportunity.
Arseneau: How would you describe this opportunity?
Vaughan: For instance, a couple of years ago I was asked by this massive festival in Toronto if I would write the opening intro to their booklet. I said yes and asked “How much is your budget?” Their response was: “We don’t have money to pay you. These are really precarious times for the arts.” I did a little digging and the person who could not pay me was making $400,000 a year from this festival. I thought: you just weaponized precarity to underpay or to not pay me. The richest 1% of people working in the arts are not artists themselves, but rich administrators. It’s a real problem that has to stop. What is never talked about is that artists are willing to do and are doing a large amount of voluntary and unpaid labour.
Arseneau: Also, many artists have a side or full-time job to sustain their artistic labour.
Vaughan: And it’s always easier to get funding to develop a work than it is to actually produce or display it. We have to account for our post-colonial reality in that we don’t trust our own art production because the centre is always elsewhere. You don’t have to worry about whether you are as good as the perceived centre because it’s not a finished product. Process is criticism-free. We value process through funding, but don’t like finished products. That’s why we have such an administration-happy system. Arseneau: As artists are perpetually engaged in short-term contracts from one institution to another with periods without any income, would you say that this instability contributes to a fear of failure? Vaughan: If we talk about precarity in the real way—that it affects people, which is primarily psychological—we can look at how it is used to inform us about our own anxieties and issues. We don’t talk enough about how it is exhausting for artists. About our psychological needs. If we work for a hotel and have a mental health breakup, there would be probably a system to give us assistance. There are no infrastructures for artists.
Arseneau: In your book Bright Eyed: Insomnia and Its Cultures (2015), you argue that we are witnessing a shift in the perception of sleep and more precisely a naturalization of insomnia. Do you think that this shift is reinforced in the art world? Is there a connection between the precarious state of artists and the willingness to sleep less in order to work more?
Vaughan: I have had insomnia since I was a tiny child. So, I can’t really intertwine it directly with the current state of the arts and capitalism because I wasn’t aware of all those things at that time. On the other hand, it’s a perverse reality that the fact that I have difficulty sleeping probably makes me a perfect worker for contemporary culture. Every neurologist I talked to said the same: this collision between the demands of capitalism and the demands of our physical health is like a train wreck. It’s gonna hit. I think you can start seeing it, especially in the arts. If the culture wants 24-hour workers, people who never sleep and who are always alert and attuned, then there are all these things, machines and phones, to constantly keep us awake.
Arseneau: If artists are enrolled in a continuous state of alertness and productivity to overcome precarity, is the capacity to daydream at risk? What does daydreaming, which is by definition individual, mean to us collectively?
Vaughan: It is the opposite. When people are put into an overflow of work and stimulation, one notices that people daydream. Imagination cannot be taken away. Daydreaming is a counter-reaction. Daydreaming is rebellion. To dream, to talk about dreams and to imagine collectively, I think art has a future here. And to come back to precarity, artists should strike. A union for artists should be created in Canada and we should make a one-year general strike of artist labourers.

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Jessica Arseneau

Jessica Arseneau, originally from Tracadie-Sheila, holds a BA of Fine Arts at Université de Moncton in 2011 and a Master in Media Arts with distinction at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig in 2020. For her studies in Leipzig, she obtained the Sheila Mackay Advanced Studies Scholarship in 2017. In the same year, she was awarded a grant to participate at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg.

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