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Can the state serve as a model?

When, in 1988, everyone who was redundant in the borough of Sint-Joost in Brussels was handed a form warmly inviting jobseekers to make their contribution towards brightening up their employment office, we felt that as far as we were concerned, the sooner the whole system of signing on was ditched, the better. We were not impressed by this attempt to make this extremely humiliating form of social control more bearable by way of holding an exhibition.

There was something wrong with the official invitation: a number of artists had appeared in the newspaper because they were at odds with an important aspect of the regulations on acceptable activities during periods of unemployment (*). At the time, engaging in art activities as an unemployed person was permissible only in relation to family, or … between eight o’clock at night and six o’clock in the morning. Any activity not associated with seeking employment or which hampered your availability on the job market, was in contravention of the law. It gave politicians and administrative authorities a fine weapon with which to cut off an unemployed person’s entitlement to benefits. Perhaps they simply didn’t care. In any case, if you were unemployed and enjoyed being creative, you were only allowed to be so between eight o’clock in the evening … etc. Enrolling in art classes at night school was also something you kept to yourself. Hyperactive inspectors (O.I.) would keep tabs on whether the lights in your work room were turned on and cut out articles on your exhibition from the newspaper. It helped to upgrade their personal suspension records (**). This was a fine damper on your right to freedom of expression. If you were redundant, you joined the underground resistance movement before you knew it.

In the meantime, nobody realised that artists, like other people who were unemployed, acquired a benefit at the end of their scholarship, or after having been a wage earner for two years.

A persistent premise

Of course as an enterprising artist you had very bad luck if you were caught. Surely art brings in money; why else would you produce it? The most progressive discourse illuminating the other side of the problem was just as narrow. Every human mind should be allowed to develop. Whether it is redundant or not. Isn’t art a valorizing activity? This humane view of the kinds of things an active welfare state can offer its citizens remains superficial and nurtures idiotic forms of paternalism: aren’t you pleased then, that you can exhibit your work? That someone is giving you the chance? Why shouldn’t you, as an unemployed person, contribute towards brightening up your own employment office?

Moreover, the borough of Sint-Joost offered to pay the costs. But isn’t setting up an exhibition a labour intensive work? Are the regulations regarding permissible activities during periods of unemployment a democratic compromise? Are we allowed to offer our work for sale and make some sort of attempt to recover the costs associated with its making, without losing our social security benefit? Are we sticking out our necks for the honour and a packet full of crisps au naturel?

About a wedge

In February 1998, five local unemployed people decided to accept the courteous offer made by this small Brussels borough. It took Issabelle, Issabelle, Arety, Alain and Axel a few days to understand the lie of the land. No, this was not just one more attempt by the RVA to track down a few unemployed artists, root them out and execute them. Nor was it a way of getting even with a number of individuals who, unemployed and philosophically aware of their situation, used it to give full vent to their passion.

Acceptance of this noble opportunity to brighten up the employment office meant forcing the participants into an illegal situation. The local authority listened in surprise, though with only half an ear, to the analysis. A small local opportunity appeared, a chance to publicly ridicule the narrowest way of interpreting the Unemployment Act. The door could no longer be shut.

Unemployed artists showing their work

During talks with the local official whose idea this was, we were surprised to discover that signing on is not organised by the RVA itself. The task has been landed on the Belgian local councils. They have to provide offices and staff for this. Of course, they also decide how it is done. They indicate opening times, whether the control takes place alphabetically, whether men and women have to report separately, the size of the office, and the degree of insolence or cheerfulness. Local councils stamp and fill in lists and send these to the RVA, which drafts the regulations and sanctions in each field of authority. There is no overlapping of competence, only cooperation and contact. Tracking down moonlighting is clearly not the work of the local council. Passing on information about a person’s activities at the request of the RVA is compulsory, but according to our man, only happens very rarely.

IIAAA, the five unemployed art lovers who had just met one another in this situation, consulted each other. We didn’t trust anyone and found ourselves in unknown territory. We had never heard about "producting public space", "appropriation" or "new urban initiatives". We had to cover ourselves, and the question was how?

Axel Claes, March 2003

(*) ref. The art of being unemployed: soft focus guaranteed
(**) ref. Archives of the artists’ platform: NICC complaint and info sessions. 


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