Horizontal Allies

By Sjoerd Knibbeler Rune Peitersen

This text speaks about Platform BK’s role in addressing the precarious socio-economic position of, not only artists, but also of precarious workers in other sectors. It talks about the art installation ‘Dit Zijn Onze Helden’, which created a strong image on the position of the artist in society at large. It also points at the skills of artists and their privileged access to people and networks in powerful positions which enables them to influence the system for a larger constellation of ‘horizontal allies’.

Skills and Privileges

One of the main drives for Platform BK has been the question how can we, as artists and cultural workers, use our skills and privilege to reformulate our own socio-economic position, and by doing so, help other precarious workers? How can we cultivate a notion of care that means more than just taking care of our own?

Although cultural workers in general are in an evermore precarious situation, the cultural field differs from other precarious groups. Generally speaking, cultural workers are highly educated and come from middle to upper class backgrounds. Given our practical and theoretical education, ‘we’ have an above average understanding of image and narrative construction. We understand how to tell a story, analyse an image, and contextualise a problem. We can deconstruct, reconstruct and add value to a narrative, both ethically and monetarily.


Dit zijn onze helden Malieveld; Den Haag; mei 2020; Photo: Sjoerd Knibbeler

These are extremely valuable skills in a world obsessed with imagery, symbolism and branding. With our collective knowledge and skills, we have the (visual) language, creativity and insight to address not only artistic but other issues, and to put these on the (political) agenda. Through historical institutions and the networked construction of the art world, we even have access to the upper echelons of society – if not directly to their finances.

This level of skill and access is seldom available to other precarious groups.

A cleaner or postal worker rarely gets an opportunity to drink white wine with the director of their company or organisation, talk about their observations in life or show off their creative skills.

In this respect, we’re more privileged and have more agency – perhaps not individually, but as a broad field.

While many of our problems are shared by other sectors, artists have the opportunity to join a larger fight for the rights and interests of all workers, recognising that most of our issues have the same foundation: massive and growing inequality due to decades of unchecked capitalism. If we’re serious about care, we need to look at and change the bigger picture.

To an individual artist, this might seem a daunting task – one that lies outside the reach of artistic practice, which in itself can be difficult enough to sustain. But together, we can pool our energy, skills and resources, and act collectively with organisations like Platform BK as a driving force.

Dit Zijn Onze Helden – For Our Heroes

During the first lockdown and the ongoing government refrain about the ‘heroes’ in the healthcare sector, Platform BK commissioned Yuri Veerman to come up with an intervention in public space that would address the discrepancy between public rhetoric and the actual socio-economic circumstances of healthcare and other essential workers. In a wonderful collaboration between a number of artists, journalists, unions and NGOs, the installation and accompanying website, Dit Zijn Onze Helden – For Our Heroes, was launched on May 20, 20201 Seven ‘essential’ professions, an artist, the prime minister and the CEO of KLM were put on pedestals, the height of which was determined by their income.

The reactions during the two hours it stood in The Hague were telling. Most passers-by expressed immediate recognition and support – the mother of a shop clerk, teenagers from the surrounding impoverished neighbourhoods and even the police officers checking our permits. A few saw it as a crude left-wing stunt and attempted to defend the height of the CEO’s pedestal. But all were struck by the clarity of the statement; nothing new was being said, but it reframed something we already knew – thereby opening the topic for reflection and discussion. It was one of the most fulfilling artistic events I’ve ever taken part in. People came and sat down for hours, went away and returned, engaged in conversation with other bystanders and us, the collective makers. Art3 was suddenly relevant to this particular audience of passers-by. The installation offered a simple visual proposal for how to read a complex problem – or perhaps more accurately, exposed the actual simplicity of that problem. Also, the work showed how artistic labour fits into a larger context and, by doing so, showed solidarity with other precarious groups – positioning us relative to our horizontal colleagues rather than vertically, as it were.


As an artist, I feel free to experiment and work as I please and challenge the way we see the world. The notion of challenging the status quo is often seen as art’s raison d’etre from the artist’s perspective, and any limitation or questioning thereof is an infringement on personal or artistic liberty. This highly individualistic perspective is supported by the financial structures of the art market – from galleries and art fairs to collectors and collections.

However, as a representative of Platform BK in the early years, I often found myself in the company of people from outside the art world, including ministers, civil servants, union organisers and other precarious labour representatives. To many, the arts were just one in a growing number of precarious sectors whose problems needed addressing. The role of critical voice and free space was not relevant to these conversations, which revolved mainly around economic interests. The arts are a small wheel in a much larger system.

This idea of being part of a larger system eventually found its way into my own thinking and practice. I look at the systems in which one operates or finds themselves, thereby trying to understand how (visual) narratives develop.3 I want to understand the motivations behind the actions by other actors of that larger system because this gives me a way to understand their situation and position. In my work, I describe a grey zone filled with contradictions and without certainties. This zone is ambiguous, and it’s precisely this ambiguity that can offer understanding and empathy. Acknowledging that people whose actions I would normally disapprove of are simply caught up in larger systems allows me to empathise with the individuals and reflect on the structures that produce them. Ideally, these people can then become my allies in challenging and condemning the system, rather than targetting individual actors within it.


Whereas certainty tends to seek absolutes and produce mental cul-de-sacs, ambiguity within artistic space offers a way to acknowledge and rethink one’s own position. I guess you could say that confronted with too much ambiguity, the mind is forced to seek greater distance, thereby revealing a bigger picture.

While ambiguity opens up space in an artistic setting, it rarely leads anywhere in a political one. Here, certainty and a clear goal are important. The more certain a person is of their position and ambition, the stronger they stand in negotiations.

However, being too certain often leads to selfishness or dogmatism. When there’s no room for doubt or ambiguity, negotiations between political allies can be mired in complexity. The discourse becomes factionalised and transactional. Factions bring specific conditions or agendas into play, like economic or historical interests. These usually aim to preserve existing systems of thought or privilege. In that sense, certainty can be seen as a conservative force, a way to envelop new ideas in an existing balance or system, essentially preserving that system. Changes within a system, therefore, yield little if any actual change. They’re a way of reshuffling existing conditions rather than rethinking the game. Only when the system itself – the bigger picture – is transformed can one speak of change beyond one’s bubble.

Need Is Good

If we’re to change the way we work, the way we live in the art world, and our impact on society at large, we need allies from other fields. Basically, as precarious workers and human beings, we need each other. It’s good to acknowledge that we, I need others.

I need my family, friends, support structures and something meaningful to do – sometimes known as a ‘job’. I need the bakery, grocery store, library, plumber, electrician, postal worker, police officer and fireman. I need the teachers at my daughter’s school, libraries, stable internet, bookstores, museums and concert halls. I need to know someone cares for all of these people and their professions. I need other workers to have access to healthcare, welfare, legal aid, education, and of course culture, to ensure they’re not constantly on the verge of a burnout. What I don’t need is a system that encourages someone to profit off them and me. A system that encourages greed over need, short-term, individualistic accumulation over sustainable collective growth. Need, not greed, is good.

Beyond the Bubble

The ‘heroes’ installation was obviously just one small action. It opened a space for political dialogue with people who wouldn’t normally engage with art. It also brought our own precarious position as artists into perspective. The artist stood between the stock clerk and the cleaner – as one artist commented on social media: ‘Yeah, I do feel like a bit of both’.

This feeling of recognition opens up common ground, a place where we can meet our ‘horizontal allies’. It’s easy to befriend someone we agree with, but sameness also presents a risk of agreeing too much, being too certain.

The real challenge lies in finding common ground with people we disagree with. Maybe we should challenge our own certainties, our own status quo, by looking for friends in unexpected places, forging alliances across sectors.

Operating in a Wider System

Although the art world is very much a system on its own, it operates within larger a one. What sets us apart from other systems is the access to power we potentially have and the skills and familiarity with ways of communicating what’s ambiguous. There’s tremendous freedom in this position, which allows us to go beyond the transactional discourse of practical politics. In doing so, the cultural field can play an important part in trying to move the societal focus and narrative away from a solely individualistic approach. Acknowledging our position as individuals within a wider system will help us recognise that we need allies if we want to bring about profound change.

We should keep in mind that despite all of our privilege and many important questions, we don’t have all of the answers. We need to listen to and learn from others – even those we disagree with. Because we need each other. And that’s a good thing.

Note from the author: Conversations with Alina Lupu, Joram Kraaijeveld and Philippine Hoegen helped me gather my thoughts. They might disagree with every word, but I’m very grateful for their time and insights.

Rune Peitersen *is an artist and founding member of Platform BK, an artist-run pressure group for visual artists in the Netherlands. Platform BK was founded in 2012 as a reaction to the severe budget cuts by the State Secretary of Culture, Halbe Zijlstra. The text Horizontal Allies was first published in [Trigger Magazine #3: Care]

  1. An interactive representation of the installation at (www.ditzijnonzehelden.nl) 

  2. Whether the installation really qualifies as ‘art’ is open for discussion. I see it more as an ‘artistic intervention’ in public space, but most onlookers used the terms ‘art’ or ‘artwork’ to describe it. 

  3. Relevant works in this relation [Safe Distance] , [The Operators and the Targets], [The Voters and the Politicians]; (www.runepeitersen.com)