Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia

Curated by Lorelei Stewart


Contact: Erin Nixon, Assistant Director, 312-996-6114,

Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia

June 24-July 30, 2016

Cassie Thornton, Unpaid Bills That We Have Already Paid, Digital Photo, 2016.

Cassie Thornton, unpaid bills that we have already paid, digital photo, 2016.

Artists and organizations included: Christian Nagler, Ahmet Öğüt (with Natasha Sadr Haghighian, Dan Perjovschi, Martha Rosler, and Superflex), Cassie Thornton and the Feminist Economics Department (the FED) and Vanessa Viruet and Julia Arredondo of Vice Versa Press, Adjunct Commuter Weekly, BFAMFAPhD, The Occupy Museums, PrecariCorps

June 7, 2016—Chicago, IL—In response to a nexus of economics that make it increasingly difficult to earn a living as artists, obtain higher education, and work within colleges and universities, Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia examines artistic and activist approaches to critical economic issues in US education and art making. These issues include income inequality, rates of artist compensation, wage stagnation, the precarity of part-time faculty, rising tuition costs, and increasing student debt. Curated by Lorelei Stewart, Precarity brings together numerous local and national organizations including Adjunct Commuter Weekly, BFAMFAPhD, The Debtfair collective, PrecariCorps, and Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), as well as imaginative projects from artists Christian Nagler, Ahmet Öğüt (with Natasha Sadr Haghighian, Dan Perjovschi, Martha Rosler, and Superflex), Cassie Thornton, and Vanessa Viruet and Julia Arredondo of Vice Versa Press. Through satire, exposition, creative solutions, advocacy, and other inventive means, the artists in this exhibition seek outcomes outside current social and economic models, while making clear the costs of these growing crises.

Begun as a print publication, Adjunct Commuter Weekly quickly evolved into a multimedia platform appealing to the niche, yet growing, market of commuter adjunct professors. Adjunct Commuter Weekly serves as resource, entertainment, and platform for those forced to work in, as the American Association of University Professors puts it, “insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and few protections for academic freedom.” PrecariCorps is an association that seeks to improve the lives of contingent faculty—academia’s invisible army comprised of adjuncts, post-docs, TAs, non-tenure track faculty, and lecturers, among others—through charitable support, research, and public awareness. PrecariCorps’ photo and text-based work features images of adjunct activists, their working conditions, and personal testimonies.

In Day After Debt: A Call for Student Loan Relief, Ahmet Öğüt invited a group of leading contemporary artists (Dan Perjovschi, Natasha Sadr Haghighian, Martha Rosler, and Superflex) to design sculptural sites in order to collect funds for the Debt Collective, a student-debt forgiveness initiative launched by Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubillee. In addition to creating a platform for organizing, advocacy, and resistance to help those struggling to repay student loans, the Debt Collective has literally alleviated individual debts, buying it in bulk for pennies on the dollar and outright forgiving it. Like wishing wells, the exhibited sculptures function as collection points for the public to contribute to this student debt canceling initiative.

Cassie Thornton’s Mystery Hands is a children’s book and immersive installation that invites youth to learn about the financialization of their world so they can, as Thornton says, “imagine alternatives before their imaginations are turned into financial instruments.” Within the context of the current financial crisis of the Chicago Public Schools, the book and the installation present debt as a monster of the adult imagination—an immeasurable, ungovernable, and invisible force that shapes individual, community, city, and state behaviors and priorities. As the recent transformations of financial structures in higher education have increasing analogues in K-12 education, Thornton asks, “what might children make of the market-driven system and its costs, if we trust them where adults have failed?”

BFAMFAPhD is a collective of artists, designers, technologists, curators, architects, educators, and analysts who address the impact of debt, rent, and precarity on the lives of creative people. BFAMFAPhD’s video Artists Report Back statistically analyzes rates of artist employment, employment for arts degree holders, and the history of arts education in order to question the role and outcomes of expensive art schools. Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is a New York-based activist organization focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable labor relation between artists and the institutions that contract them. Presented here are W.A.G.E.’s Fee Calculator, which sets standard rates of compensation based on organizational budget to be paid to artists for fourteen fee categories; its wo/manifesto; and several of its interventionist posters and videos. Occupy Musuems was formed in New York as a branch of the Occupy movement, specifically targeting economic inequalities in the art world. Included in Precarity are images of their Debtfair exhibition model, which aims to alleviate a group of artists’ debt burdens, while highlighting art as financialized instrument.

Artists Vanessa Viruet and Julia Arredondo of Vice Versa Press construct a storefront within the exhibition called Botanica Dinero, selling handmade goods such as candles, self-printed books, and imitation lotto tickets all centered around the idea of paying off their student loan debt through capitalistic creative approaches and allowing them to engage in conversations about the humorous ways people have struggled and survived living with student debt.

In his performance A Socialist’s Worst Nightmare, Christian Nagler recreates a televised 1979 Phil Donahue interview with Nobel laureate economist, free market proponent, and late University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman. He has been considered by many as the embodiment of the sort of morality that has produced the crisis in higher education, the creation of maximum flexibility of the labor market, and the replacement of social welfare systems with debt subsistence (including varieties of predatory lending). Highlighting some of Friedman’s surprising positions, such as a universal basic income, Nagler’s performance as Friedman focuses on the economist’s public presence in which his manner and mode of argumentation speak to our current political moment and its forms of populism.

Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia is part of Standard of Living, an ongoing series of exhibitions and events that explore shifts in economies and work. Topics covered in the series include how and where economic exchange takes place, new models for sustainable economies, employment-driven migration, and relationships between place, work, and economic viability. A key component of this series is community involvement. Partnerships, relationships, and dialogues with community organizations, labor unions, and artists help guide the development of exhibitions and events.

Gallery 400 Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia Programs:

Friday, June 24, 5-8pm—Opening Reception: Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia

Thursday, July 14, 10am-6pm—Pop-up Shop: Botanica Dinero by Vanessa Viruet and Julia Arredondo of Vice Versa Press

Wednesday, July 20, 7pm—Performance: A Socialist’s Worst Nightmare by Christian Nagler

Additional program details to be announced.


Gallery 400 also offers guided tours for groups of all ages. Tours are free of charge but require reservation. Please complete our online form (accessible at to schedule a tour of Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia. For more information, or to discuss the specific needs and interests of your group, please contact us at 312 996 6114 or

Major support for Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia is provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Additional support is provided by the School of Art & Art History, the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. The Daryl Gerber Stokols and Jeff Stokols Voices Series Fund provides general support to Gallery 400.

Founded in 1983, Gallery 400 is one of the nation's most vibrant university galleries, showcasing work at the leading edge of contemporary art, architecture, and design. The Gallery's program of exhibitions, lectures, film and video screenings, and performances features interdisciplinary and experimental practices. Operating within the School of Art and Art History in the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Gallery 400 endeavors to make the arts and its practitioners accessible to a broad spectrum of the public and to cultivate a variety of cultural and intellectual perspectives. Gallery 400 is recognized for its support of the creation of new work, the diversity of its programs and participants, and the development of experimental models for multidisciplinary exhibition.