The possibility of a future
by Pilar Villela Mascaró
The woman of the house
At the start of the pandemic, when we were all ordered to lock ourselves away in our homes, I felt hopeful for a few moments. Now, a year and a bit later, I am not sure if I wrote this somewhere else, if I said it in another text, another forum, another online conversation. Someplace else that is always the same, always the same chair, the same computer, the same view.
So, in the ‘phases of lockdown’, I experienced a first, optimistic moment in which I thought the pandemic could bring about radical changes (for good) in our institutions and our ways of life. Then I fell into another state that followed more or less immediately, in which any thought about the future—however near or distant—anguished me so much I preferred not to entertain it.
Right in that moment I was, as people say, striving to living in the present. Being confined to our homes during a state of emergency that was clearly an exceptional time for everyone (whether they went out, or not) was not enough to make time to stand still. It was not a time out, but a time of different intensities, a time when ‘the old’ clung on to survival for dear life with all its tiny, sharp, and tenacious claws.
The bills kept arriving, even if jobs began to dry up bit by bit. Decisions still had to be made as if there were an outside, although that outside almost always appeared trapped within the confines of a small screen. The new normal demanded we live the life of before in circumstances that were often less favorable than those of before, at least for THAT ‘life from before’. My initial worry, of course, was how my family and I would make ends meet; halfway through the pandemic none of the members of the family had a stable job anymore, just a few very poorly paid hours work per week. In lockdown and with a small child at home all day, and with careers that are fairly useless in the context of a pandemic (an artist/cultural manager and a poet, both getting on in years), the thought of finding fulltime employment did not seem feasible (and it was not).
The woman who does not understand what is happening
As the months went by, several things became more evident to me. The logic behind face masks, for example. Using one in public spaces protects others, above all else. Its unquestionable politicization centered on this problem. A self-imposed discomfort in no way guaranteed our own wellbeing, but instead implied a perhaps infinitesimal decrease in the probability of someone else being infected. Some people even suggested this information should have been concealed: As long as people believed they were saving their own skin, they would wear one.
Affirming its limited usefulness for personal protection implied two things: On one hand, the idea the illness threatening our lives could only be contained by statistical logic. On the other, and as a consequence of the first, that we could do a lot more to protect ourselves collectively than we could to protect ourselves as individuals. The disadvantage of both situations was they lacked pathos and emotivity.
Of course, for politicians this decision passed over individual behavior in favor of logic regarding population control. Controlling others. But, what was going on for each and every one of us? It was a lot easier to convince people to lock themselves away because they were protecting themselves and their loved ones. Much easier to impose the odd coercive measure that blocked the uncomfortable question, What are you willing to do to reduce the probability that someone you do not know does not die now, does not die from this?
For an individual, being in a public space was a personal risk (taken recklessly or out of necessity), but was rarely experienced as the increased probability of the death of an unthinkable, faceless other. How could that be an experience? How could something so abstract be felt, lived, experienced by an individual?
What the pandemic made evident to me was the (shared) inability to perceive, to make sense of, the way our everyday actions and our small joys and sorrows are shaped in a globalized world of vast integrated production processes, statistics, algorithms, and Big Data.
The woman who sells cookies
That inability lead my attention to the reason it is so hard to conceive of something that despite being debated among certain academic circles, for example, still proves to be a kind of intellectual scandal when posed as a daily experience: This reason is the idea that not only are ‘the machines’ substituting the work done by people, but that ‘the machines’ are reorganizing it so we work more, and earn much less. Three of these forms of ‘free, yet productive work’, or unpaid work that benefits society and some individuals, interested me in particular.
The first was the contrast of working for free by and for ‘oneself’ and working for free for ‘others’. Leaving aside domestic and caregiving work, all free work ‘for prestige’ implies this kind of exchange when the intermediary is a platform or institution. While the party hoping to benefit from lending their efforts free of charge to a larger organization promising visibility, for example, rarely obtains said benefits, the larger organization benefits from the free contributions at least by saving costs, and at most by obtaining spectators, followers, and candidates (or even indicators). These swell the ranks of those willing to participate in the hopes of accumulating sufficient visibility ‘critical mass’ to be able to ‘monetize’ their efforts.
Social networks or video platforms are an example, of course, but so is the demand by some academic institutions that teachers who are not their fulltime employees declare their activities under a ‘self-employed’ status, that is to say, not as paid by the institution. They also require participation beyond class hours in order to retain these.
Secondly, I was interested in the way the pandemic and working at home (but also work on platforms) had intensified erasure of the limits between the public and the private. Also of interest was how employers and on occasion other organizations that do not have a contractual relationship with individuals are able, as a result, to benefit from the goods and services acquired by individuals for non-work purposes.
This already occurred before the pandemic, of course. Platform economies are the most obvious example, as are the use of the family computer and electric and internet services when working from home. When an employee becomes a service provider they transform their ‘private’ (non-work) life into that of a company. They become a company. One could, of course, point out the individual’s lack of discipline (financial or organizational) in their inability to distinguish between the two things (work time and resources and ‘personal’ time and work). However, another way of looking at this is considering that the opportunity offered by new technologies to organize fragments of scattered work also allows companies to divide their processes in order to save some traditional labor costs (where they pay a fixed salary based on time and not per unit produced).
‘Becoming a company’ also implies conceiving of one’s life as a ‘personal branding’ project. ‘You are your own brand’: The individual regulates their actions, relationships, their body, their moves with a view to becoming a desirable product they ‘sell’ to various clients. Images of people well dressed from the waist up but in nothing but underpants and slippers from the waist down—a body ‘cut in half’ for a videoconference—epitomize this division.
Finally, I was interested in where small economies (let us say household economies) and what these are able to produce, and all those goods and services requiring large concentrations of capital to be produced, intersect. One can make cookies at home, but one would be hard-pressed to produce an electrical energy supply able to provide for the requirements of working from home. One could ‘put together’ a computer, but one could not produce all of its parts. In an urban context, a vegetable garden could not produce all the food a family requires.
In the light of this and similar situations and the sterility of continuing to discuss them in academic forums, I had the idea of opening a Facebook group. There are three main rules for the group, related to the three points I mentioned above. Firstly, all self-promotion is forbidden: The idea is for people to contribute by promoting activities their friends and acquaintances do to supplement their incomes. It is precisely one of those places where everybody ‘works for free’ for the platform, of course, but also for the people they love, for things they are interested in, or that grab their attention. The second rule is that only ‘independent’ projects are accepted, specifically projects where the producer or group of producers themselves are in charge of all the activities that would be carried out separately in an incorporated company (acquisitions, production, accounting, marketing, public relations, etc.). In this sense, the aim is to try to distribute the marketing and public relations work among a group of people with similar interests. Finally, the third rule is that only products and services for sale are accepted—not collections, not exchanges, not fundraising campaigns. It is not just about creating visibility. It is about people who have been forced to manage their own income having the support of a community to achieve their objective: Obtaining funds to pay for rent, electricity, gas, internet, etc.
For demographic reasons I decided that rather than addressing the group to ‘mothers’ or ‘women’ for example, I was interested in a demographic I believe I form part of: professionals, for the most part with a background in the arts and humanities, who cannot subsist by working for someone else, whether due to lack of work, or—more often than not—because the remuneration they receive for the work is not only inconstant, but also insufficient to cover even their basic expenses. Although the group is not separatist it is directed mainly to women, as they are who usually take on a third activity (in addition to their profession and household work) in order to supplement the family income.
Three months after starting the group I have noticed some peculiarities. The first is that it is hard to understand a sales group is not a place of work, a place to sell oneself. I reject one or more posts every day from people promoting their own projects. The second is a lack of understanding that the very format of the network demands constant ‘content production’. In other words, many people think if they recommended someone at some point, they will not have to do it again because they have already recommended them once. It has also been hard to maintain the idea that what we are recommending are people, not projects.
Although for now the format is that of a social network group, I see it as a set of questions. Of course, the group as it is has been useful in as much as some sales were through it. However, the questions posed remain open: How can we ‘work for free’ to benefit others without a corporation appropriating that work? How else can we organize ourselves under our current living conditions in order to improve those conditions as a community not through activism, but by organizing everyday ways of life similar to existing ones? Now, today, with what we know and what we have, how can we coordinate what we do and believe there may be a future beyond mere survival in this ‘new normal’?
If you are interested in the project you can find it on fb @Mujerío: por una economía de comadres (Band of women: for a close women friends economy).
Spanish traditionally uses the masculine form of nouns and pronouns when referring to a mixed group of both males and females. The original Spanish version of this text instead employs ‘@’ on several occasions henceforth, as it is a commonly used, inclusive, and gender-neutral ending.
Pilar Villela is sometimes an artist, sometimes writes, is sometimes a manager, and sometimes a teacher. Their recent projects include coordinating PaperWorks Art Book Fair (2018-2019); carrying out the performance Llorar as part of the exhibition Tu de mi/Yo de ti at the Museum of Mexico City (2019); and La red que ciegamente tejen, a collaborative piece presented in artist Enrique Méndez de Hoyros’ exhibition Vortex. Tiempos dislocados at the X-Teresa museum (2019). They currently teach at the Faculty of Arts and Design of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where they edit the magazine ArteDiseño. This year, Villela participated in several round tables and published the essay Cuerpo sin alma (Soulless body) about the possibility of reconsidering using Spinoza to recount the history of performance in Latin America (https://terremoto.mx/article/cuerpo-sin-alma/). Since 2013 they have a Facebook page about present-day working conditions (@empresasoyyo). You can find some of their work as an artist on the website http://pilarvillela.blogspot.com/.