“Arts of the Working Class”
“Inviting everyone to join the discussion”
The homeless newspaper “Arts of the Working Class” and the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles present the special edition “Worlds Of Homelessness”. In an interview with “The Latest” at Goethe, editors María Inés Plaza Lazo and Alina Ana Kolar talk about their idea of an art magazine for everyone, how a distribution network of homeless people helps with its realization, and how Covid-19 affects the magazine and its sellers.
By Elisabeth Wellershaus
How did the idea for the “Arts of the Working Class” come about? What is the backstory of this international homeless newspaper?
María Inés Plaza Lazo: Our starting point was a desire to broach the issue of the precarious conditions that exist within the world of art. By this I mean not only the working conditions that many cultural professionals face today but also the exclusion mechanisms that see many people denied access to art nowadays. For example, there are various art and culture magazines that are extremely overpriced. Publications like “Art Forum” tend to end up only on the coffee tables of the privileged. That’s why we decided to create a newspaper for which people would pay only what they are able to so that it can serve as intellectual nourishment for all. Once the journal had been launched, Alina joined our team. Together, we now publish a newspaper in which the “official representatives” of the art scene meet with people who are active outside this world; they then jointly redefine their perspectives. In principle, anyone can contribute to our journal.
Alina Ana Kolar: As we wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, and because we also wanted to include migrant perspectives, we quickly realized that the newspaper would need to be published in several languages. And not only in the supposedly dominant languages such as English, Spanish, or French. We wanted to give our authors the freedom to decide themselves which language to write their articles in, regardless of which that might be. Consequently, our readers will never understand every article; it was important for us to accept that this is not even possible. That not every experience can be translated. And that there is in any case so much that can hardly be conveyed merely by language alone, and that might be easier to get across by looking at a music score or mathematical formula.
Does your readership tend to be made up of people from the cultural scene, which is certainly something of a bubble, or those from outside this world?
María Inés Plaza Lazo: Our newspaper has a circulation of 10,000. The recommended donation in Berlin is 2.50 euros. The entire sum goes to the homeless people and students we work with. By using this network and this distribution approach in various countries we hope to reach as diverse a readership as possible. One of the prejudices we are keen to dispel is that homelessness is synonymous with ignorance. Just because someone has been living on the street for the past 25 years does not mean that they cannot or do not wish to take part in intellectual life. We believe it is important to realize that the boundaries between what appears to be a failed existence and the life of people who feel that their livelihoods are secure are extremely fragile. This is obvious from the mere fact that more and more postdocs are to be found working in cafés these days or being exploited as voluntary staff of cultural institutions.
What does the title “Arts of the Working Class” stand for?
Alina Ana Kolar: We are attempting to redefine the term working class because changing professional conditions and societal structures have altered the relationships between social classes since the term was coined. Moreover, we see ourselves as being part of the precarious art scene because we also suffer in our work from financially unstable structures. By creating quality content, our aim is provide access to art for people who do not move within cultural contexts as a matter of course. For example, I myself come from a background in which art did not figure; I only discovered it via the various channels made available to the general public. On the one hand, our work is a conscious decision to embrace this community and to resist the pressure to adapt and conform within an otherwise brutal economic system. On the other hand, it is not easy to survive, especially in the world of art. People who work in creative structures these days must cope with everything from economic uncertainty to homelessness. These are precisely the paradoxical circumstances amid which we act and which we wish to address.
How have your editorial activities and the lives of your newspaper sellers changed since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic?
Alina Ana Kolar: People on the street are, for obvious reasons, particularly vulnerable to the Corona crisis. Homeless people are now dependent on the general solidarity of the civilian population and on rapid political responses. Money must be distributed more fairly, and sleeping places must be offered at fair conditions. The self-determined life of all those who depend on help must be promoted. At “Arts of the Working Class” we are currently doing our best to provide help, but we hope and expect more solidarity and assistance from outside to make our work effective. The next issue is still being produced, homeless people continue to sell the newspapers, but they definitely have a harder time because of social distancing. Until the fall, we are concentrating on online alternatives, since print production is down due to savings at our advertising partners. But we are actively looking for other funding opportunities to keep the newspaper going.
What does the thematic focus of your newspaper look like?
María Inés Plaza Lazo: The newspaper was created at a time when the borders between cultural production and policymaking had become completely blurred. We do not have to search very hard for a topic if we want to illustrate how art and politics overlap. Artists are protesting, establishing associations, and getting politically engaged all over the world. On the other hand, there are new political movements emerging in countries like Germany that are so socially provocative that topics can literally be found on the street. However, one macro-level theme would certainly involve questioning neo-colonial structures within Western cultural organizations. It is simply a fact that there is a canon of accepted work and activities here that is dictated by firmly established hierarchies. We are generally experiencing that people in many European countries are not really embracing social diversity because suppressive mechanisms are still in action. As journal publishers, it would be all too easy for us to rant against discrimination and propose some simplistic solutions. But we are more interested in inviting everyone to join a discussion of social issues.
Alina Ana Kolar: One article from our current edition, for example, is by Michele Lanzione, who we met in Los Angeles at the Goethe-Institut’s “Worlds Of Homelessness” conference. He contributed a wonderful piece entitled “Otherwise Caring from the Underground”. It is precisely the topic that is closest to our heart: that participation and community should not be the privilege of a particular social class.
What other insights did you take away from “Worlds Of Homelessness”?
Alina Ana Kolar: Taking the time to listen. The realization that we must constantly question and re-evaluate ready-made views and ideas. Whether it is the idea of what a home is, or understanding what others want or need. The assumption that we already know all this is a colonial hierarchical way of thinking that urgently needs to be unraveled in our class society. Through the encounters in Los Angeles we have seen once again that community-based work is one of the most beautiful forms of solidarity. At “Arts of the Working Class”, we try to do this by working with a diverse, global team of writers and artists and by giving equal importance to each voice. There is already a strong demand from fellow writers from different regions of the world who want to create their own “Arts of the Working Class” editorial teams to contribute and publish their local interests, expertise and ideas – which will allow us all to enter into a larger dialogue.