Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and activist. Her films include Zizek!, a documentary about the world’s most outrageous philosopher, and Examined Life, a series of excursions with contemporary thinkers including Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Cornel West, Peter Singer and others. Taylor’s writing has appeared in The Nation, the London Review of Books, Bookforum, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Examined Life, a companion to the film, and coeditor of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. Taylor also helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign. Most recently she is the author of the book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. She is currently working on a documentary about democracy.
The Plight of Musicians
You think you’re so clever and classless and free.” So said John Lennon. Americans in general like to think of themselves as having transcended economic categories and hierarchies, and artists are no exception. During the Great Depression artists briefly began to think of themselves as workers and to organize as such, amassing social and political power with some success, but today it’s more popular to speak of artists as entrepreneurs or brands, designations that further obscure the issue of labor and exploitation by comparing individual artists to corporate entities or sole proprietors of small businesses. Today, the psychology of creativity is useful to the economy and the disposition of the artist is ever more in demand. The ethos of the autonomous creator has been repurposed to serve as a seductive facade for a capricious system.
How do we advocate for culture workers and encourage them to unite if they don’t even think of themselves as workers in the first place? If artists are fortunate enough to earn money from their art, they tend to receive percentages, fees, or royalties rather than wages; they play “gigs” or do “projects” rather than hold steady jobs, which means they don’t recognize the standard breakdowns of boss and employee. Many creators, musicians in particular, spend a lot of time on “the road,” not rooted in one place; hence they are less able to organize and advocate for their rights. Meanwhile, companies like Google and Youtube appear to exist in some vast network, way off in the “cloud,” a vast and nebulous communications network. This talk will look at the ways digital technologies have transformed the cultural economy, how value is extracted within the new order, and offer some concrete examples and avenues of resistance.