Episode 04: Alexandra Timonina
Open Mic / Work & Social Distancing
Alexandra Timonina is a PhD student at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage of Ca’ Foscari University, in Venice. She moved to the lagoon five years ago. She previously worked as part of the Biennale Educational team.
“While working on my doctoral research in modern art history at the University of Venice, I also collaborate with a centre that promotes Russian art. The quarantine got me stuck in Moscow, my hometown, to where I had travelled in order to do some archive work for my dissertation back in mid-February. I have lived in Venice for a while now, five years, to be exact, and I previously worked within the Biennale’s Educational team. I feel a deep connection to both cities, as they have boundless energy and beauty. Not going to live meetings, and having the projects I was supposed to be involved in put on an indefinite standby obviously has changed my plans for the upcoming 6 or 7 months, but luckily, I can still keep on with my thesis, even though most of my library is back in Venice. The routine can now be compared to a full-immersion period, when you should meet some important deadline and work alone in front of the desk. Having a solitary job, which to a certain point already includes social distancing by default, I thought, would help to feel just like that during the lockdown, but it didn’t. Not having a comforting certainty about a date when I could get back to my place in Venice, or see people and work normally, or make plans, I discovered, became a real obstacle.
What’s happening is affecting every dimension of our lives, including the world of work, which will never be the same again. It has already become obvious that its organisation, including both its infrastructure and relationships, is wrong at the core. Mushrooming during the last few years, some issues were sharpened to extremes through the lockdown. Underpaid work, the outdated hourly rate system, inequality and exploitation, but also our unpreparedness for increasing automation are just a few of the issues that need to be addressed. For example, such a simple thing as working from home actually requires more facilities than our current urban context can offer. A typical middle-class apartment is usually thought of as a place purely for living, and an extra room adds costs that can’t be met by every remotely working individual. In big cities like Moscow, where history shaped the urban fabric in a way that does not facilitate “living your neighbourhood”, co-working and similar solutions can’t make much difference. During the quarantine, for many of those who have had no option but to turn their dwellings into home offices, it is a struggle to combine such things as parenting with their work duties, especially if their occupation requires concentration and a silent environment like those working in academia.
Another matter we are now faced with, revealing how unjust the work system is, is a scarcity of social benefit policies that push an enormous number of people to their financial limits. In this sense, the lagoon city is fragile, not only in terms of its cultural heritage and ecosphere that are constantly threatened, but also in terms of professional infrastructure. It is already distorted by tourism forcing out the local community and making it hyper-dependent on seasonal cycles, while people have to deal with and adapt to a disproportionated labour market. These factors make the city truly hostile towards its own citizens and a global crisis compromises an already unstable situation. Over time I realised that many residents work in seasonal art and cultural projects, and that they rely on the months they have had in employment. Such force majeure events reveal how few guarantees and how little protection they have. Cuts on culture are predictable at every curve of the economic tide, but now we see the difficulties that nearly all young art workers in Venice and elsewhere— some of whom were already in rather precarious conditions—encounter, and this just confirms how wrong it is when every performance is judged based on short-term budgeting and, as a consequence, immediate results. Art and culture are slow, and it’s almost impossible to measure their instant impact. Yet they are a unique means for society to grow; a vehicle that makes us relate to reality in a different and more humanistic way. To protect them will have to become a collective responsibility. This is, however, impossible to do without rethinking the way we see and evaluate work, and cultural institutions should prove their importance and power by pointing out these turbulent dynamics.”