The Internship Archipelago: A millennial’s thoughts on free labour in the arts
Opinion by Ellen Lee

In this day and age, the two most cursed words in the English language are probably: “free labour”.

Or maybe: “unpaid internship”.

With the rise of social media, it’s become much easier for younger entrants to call out malpractices in big companies and major institutions, turning the idea of free labour into a PR taboo. In the bigger picture though, you’d think that the arts should be the one domain where all work ought to be done for free, to avoid the dreaded pitfalls of “selling out”, i.e. co-option by mercenary interests.

In a previous article on Lensa Seni, my fellow mentee Farah Dianputri wrote about the disappointment of art world internships, citing a prestigious Kuala Lumpur gallery where I also used to intern. It’s true that there was hardly any work to do in that internship, but I can’t complain much since I applied for it at a point in my life when anything was better than nothing. Farah’s frustrations are valid, but I don’t think a better internship programme would have really done anything for either of us. The resentment that so many young people feel now towards internships probably has more to do with an indignant realisation that this isn’t the world they signed up for, rather than with any real malice on the part of the companies or institutions they intern at. The type of people who undertake poorly-compensated internships in the art world most likely come from money anyway, with parents who saved up to send them to quality schools, and they apply for an internship in their dream sector because that’s what they’re expected to do as young, serious people, only to realise that, despite all their parents’ money, their own hard work, and the institution’s pretensions otherwise, the thing that they love is absorbed by the same market logic as any other sector out there (many of which pay better), and has the same banal issues of exploitation just like the rest of them. All our dreams are sell-outs.

Art is not sacred, and I think most people who choose to work in the arts because it’s their passion end up suffering a second puberty when they realise this. The market logic that produces poorly-compensated internships is the same one that assigns commercial value to transcendental ideals like art, beauty and the human spirit; it forces these ideals to conform to banal, bureaucratic standards of KPIs, audience numbers, profits and losses, and sometimes even numbers of likes on Instagram. After a project is over and the opening reception champagne wears off, there’s the paperwork to file and the invoices to dutifully pay out, before the organisers repeat it all over again for the next budget plan or grant application. Bureaucratic thinking isn’t just the domain of the bureaucrats anymore; now, even artists have to adopt this mindset if they want to survive.

So, young people start to feel that something about this is pretty off, that this surely can’t be the entire purpose of art, but their critique still ends up adopting the same market logic that produced the problem. They demand better pay, better bosses, more diverse representation. The sudden explosion of Instagram accounts created to call out malpractice and -isms amongst major art institutions makes me anxious; they reduce the entire art world to petty PR disputes. Something is clearly not right in the art world – the future we had been hyping ourselves up for has failed to fulfil its promise, but this isn’t it either. This cognitive dissonance between glittering fiction and depressing reality that both sides are in denial of (supervisors don’t want to admit that it’s all pointless, young interns don't want to admit that they’re wasting their time) produces miscommunications and disappointments that, in turn, breed gossipy, suspicious, and resentful environments. While I can sympathise with many art world aggravations, sometimes the answers to certain problems lie in the capacity to imagine radical alternatives to the entire situation, rather than in minor improvements to office policy.

It wasn’t always like this. In punk-era England, collectives of artists, musicians and slackers used to squat in derelict buildings and lead, yes, delinquent lifestyles, while being free to make provocative art. In 1950s America, the controversial and Dada-inspired Beat poets ushered in the decadent, lackadaisical Sixties hippies who experimented with everything. Being broke and a bohemian was still considered a kind of delinquent “lifestyle choice” instead of the standard way of things. Now, people are broke and desperate because things are terrible and the economy is in decline, not because they’re rejecting a conformist 9-to-5 lifestyle to live for their art. In the absence of liveable wages, affordable housing, a robust national health system, free quality higher education that doesn’t saddle young students with years of debt, and topped off with a fraught pandemic economy, there’s no freedom to experiment or just mess around anymore. Time is money. And nobody works “for free”.

Passion is contingent on the availability and vitality of spaces where young people can see themselves doing free, unpaid work out of pure love for the community and for the art. The number of collective environments is diminishing, thanks to a pandemic and soaring rent prices, and taking their place is a naked, alienating culture of commercialism and overwork. I still have some romantic old-world bohemian notion that “free labour” can mean something else: liberated labour. Not like the internships that are just perfunctory CSR manoeuvres, but instead labour that is given sincerely and freely and the idea of sacrifice is seen as a virtue that can spark off important movements and dialogues instead of just being part of the vocabulary of workplace exploitation.

Unpaid internships and free labour still exist in the art world because of a misplaced notion that passion for the arts still exists, but the sad truth is that we are probably past the time when making sacrifices for work actually used to mean something. This is true across the board, but it’s just that some people are finding it out sooner than others. When I refer to “young people”, I’m mostly talking about myself, and soon I won’t be as young anymore. Instead of wishing I could make more money, I wish instead that we could live in a time of greater liberation from money, where the nauseous work-to-live-to-work cycle is broken, and where all work is done freely (even if it’s not “for free”), because I want to do it.

Featured image: Detail of a work from the Taman Kenangan series by Izat Arif, 2019. Photo from the exhibition, Domestic Bliss at ILHAM Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Ellen Lee is a writer under the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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