Identifying the Disoeuvre: artistic labour beyond the oeuvre

Felicity Allen, independent scholar,

Althea Greenan, Goldsmiths University of London,

Janice Cheddie, independent,

Alexandra Kokoli, Middlesex University London,

Lina Dzuverovic, Birkbeck University of London,

People positioned as marginal to art’s production have to work socially and institutionally, as well as in the studio, in order not only to make work, but to change the structures to allow their work to be recognised and critically received as art. We propose that, rather than disregarding those whose conventional oeuvre seems interrupted and inconsistent, we should look for artistic consistency in an artist’s work made in and beyond the studio, through employment at art’s institutions, or connected, for instance, to the labour of care, activism, or other social practices.

This neologism, the Disoeuvre, was first published by Felicity Allen (b.1950s) in 2016 to elucidate the art careers of women of her generation, as an exemplar for others who might identify quite differently. As a critical tool, the Disoeuvre takes account of artists’ training in adaptability and their working lives across different sites. It responds to practices encountering  and persisting through ‘feminised’ labour (as maintenance or precarity), domestic instability, transience of documentation, new recognition for overlooked visual activisms and curatorial strategies, archival gaps; and is open to more.

How and where should we look to recognise and understand potential Disoeuvres? How can the Disoeuvre contribute to intersectional feminist debates? Can we identify artists’ adaptable yet consistent practices to recognise value beyond the progressive market discipline of a conventional oeuvre?

Speakers & Abstracts

Artists in the platform economy

Harry Weeks (Newcastle University)

2016 Arts Council England data conservatively estimates that 89% of artists in England do not make a living out of their art practice. It follows, therefore, that this vast majority must support their practice either through independent wealth, external support, or through labour undertaken outwith the field of art. Despite the wealth of art-historical interest in labour in recent years, the discipline has not yet accounted for these ‘second shifts’ undertaken outside of the art field by practicing artists.

This paper develops some initial findings from a series of 15 interviews conducted in 2018-19 with cultural workers in Edinburgh who support their practice through a ‘second shift’ in the platform economy; for instance, riding for Deliveroo, copy-editing and transcribing through online platforms, or Airbnbing spare rooms. Comparisons will be drawn between platform and art economies, particularly in relation to questions of inequality and unionisation. More broadly this example will serve as a starting point for a consideration of what an art history which accounts for artists’ work outside the art field might look like. Contemporary practices dealing with links between art and the platform economy (such as Shona Macnaughton’s 2020 ‘Here to Deliver’) will be contextualised by examples of a second shift being made the focus of the artists’ practice (for example, the work of seventies-eighties collective The Waitresses).

Keeping receipts, administering revolution

Rachel Warriner (Courtauld Institute of Art)

In the Archives of American Art, in a small box file dedicated to the activities of the activist group Women Artists in Revolution, is a file that contains receipts. Providing a trace of the time-intensive and thankless labour involved in maintaining the group and preserving its work, the receipts show the small but necessary tasks that underpin activism: the fees paid for xeroxing, postage, professional advice and services, taxis and phone calls. While not an artistic disoeuvre in the sense of a single artist’s career, this collective practice was a vital part of the activism that underpinned the careers of many women artists working in New York at the time. Away from the more glamorous and eye-catching protest actions that demanded a change in the art world, women were doing accounts, writing applications, compiling and maintaining mailing lists, cashing cheques. In this paper, I will consider how the work of administration contributed to building a feminist art world which created the conditions for women’s work to be taken seriously, arguing that far from a peripheral task, the work of administration was crucial to facilitating practice. Looking at how women artists analysed existing institutional and funding frameworks, and how they used these both to advance the cause of the women artists’ movement and legitimise the structures that emerged from it, I will argue that by attending to the ways in which the movement was administered, we can better understand its priorities, strategies, and successes.

Beyond uncreative art work and uncaring care work –  the practice of artist care workers Vård och Värde

Jenny Richards (Konstfack University of Arts, Crafts and Design)

This paper discusses the experiences, work and practices developed by artists working as care workers. The individualized, productive and competitive economy of artistic production (Phillips 2018, Praznik 2020) means that often the work done to support and nourish cultural work is hidden from view, not mentioned in artist biographies or discussed in how artistic practices are narrated. And while more recently the theme of care has been taken up in the art field and been the subject of exhibition making (Reckitt 2016, Lloyd 2020) artist care workers are often excluded from this discourse and focus, subject to the marginalizing effects of the artist oeuvre as identified by Felicity Allen in 2016. By exploring the practices of artist care workers from the perspective of the disoeuvre we bring into focus expansive and in depth bodies of knowledge, methods and communities that are generated and nourished by their practices, despite the precarious, exploitative and disciplining working conditions cut across gender, race, class and disability that the fields of care and cultural work are founded upon (Vergès, 2019, Bhattacharyya 2018).

This paper is informed from current collaborative practice-based research Vård och Värde (Care and Value) 2021 –  ongoing, developed with Gunilla Lundahl and many others, exploring home care work in a Swedish context from intersectional and intergenerational perspectives. Vård och Värde explores the social, cultural and political dimensions of the neoliberal working conditions of care work. Looking at how home care in particular is organised and the effects of home care on both the home care worker and the so-called ‘care receivers’, serves to focus attention on the logics of contemporary society, asking what types of bodies, work, behavior, skills, expressions and homes are valued and promoted at the expense and exclusion of others.

Make sure you get a proper job!’ Class expectations and access: entering the art world and establishing a practice from a feminist, working class perspective

Susan Merrick

For many people the Art world remains inaccessible, a strange world with its own language,

script, rules of engagement and what appears to be an exclusive guest list and an exhausting

amount of barriers. I believed my link to art had finished with my GCSEs, no one became an

artist, and no one that I knew went to galleries or art spaces. They were not for us, they were for rich people with a posh education who didn’t need to ‘get a proper job’.

In this paper I want to share some examples of how women artists have been doing it differently for decades, and how recognising these different ways of working, and disseminating them, is essential in providing access to working class women as both artists and audiences. I draw on my own experience of entering the artworld at 35, after years of working,marriage and having children, alongside highlighting some of the women artists whom I have interviewed over the past 3 years in the podcast Woman Up! that I host with Desperate Artwives, in association with the Women's Art Library. I argue that for women, especially those who don't fit the mould of traditional artist, to enter and have a practice in the art world, we have to do things differently. We have to write our own scripts, our own rules, run our own schedules and most importantly, support one another. Ultimately we need to continue to challenge and change our art world into something new and inclusive.

Round Table 

Comprising of 5 minute position papers responding to the concept of the Disoeuvre from experience of contemporary professional structures as well as art histories:

Introduction & Chair
Felicity Allen

Teaching as practice: Scandinavian women artists and their early C20 art schools
Aisha Bornø (University of Cambridge)

The Antibody: viral sprawling as antidote
Lauren Craig

The Missing Mother
Martina Mullaney (University of Bolton)

Where the Public and the Private Intersect - Positions of the Artist-Educator
Raksha Patel (UAL)

Still Here
Matty Pye (University of Northumbria)



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