Essential Work

Essential Work

Online program. Sept. 23 to Sept. 30, 2020


The months since the pandemic began have been a time of massive change. As a culture we’re reassessing the types of ‘work’ that hold the fabric of society together, and how they are (or are not) valued. In questioning what is ‘essential’ the necessity of touch and connection to others has become painfully palpable. And there’s a growing realization of the urgent need for the deep systemic work required to make our interconnectedness function in a way that creates genuine freedom and equity for all. These films explore isolation, music, temporary and precarious work, justices won, and the many still to fight for.

Recitative, Shir Handelsman (Israel, 2019) 5:00 mins.

But Wait, Sophia Jaworski (CND, 2020) 8:01 min

Dream Delivery, Yuan Zheng (China, 2018) 9:22 mins

We Know We Are Just Pixels, Laure Provoust (UK, YEAR) 4:44 min

Labour/Leisure, Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson (CND, 2019) 19:00 min

Where I Am, Christine Wu (CND, 2020) 4:32 min

All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Ufuoma Essi (UK, 2019) 14:25 min


Essential Work Q&A with artists and moderator Grayson Alabiso-Cahill

Curatorial essay by Clare Samuel

It’s been half a year since the Covid19 pandemic inaugurated deep shifts not only in daily life but in our perceptions of who we are as a culture. Worldwide lockdowns made different rules about what was ‘essential’, a powerful word that raises many questions about the essence of what it means to live together as humans. The necessity of touch and connection to others became painfully palpable, juxtaposed with a visceral awareness of our vulnerability to this unpredictable and indiscriminate disease from others. Certain services were designated essential, but many of those jobs in care, food, and delivery are low-paid and precarious. This brought to the fore previously marginalized conversations about the types of work that actually hold the fabric of society together, and how they are valued (or not) under capitalism.  After seventy years of rampant neoliberal policy encroaching on almost every corner of the globe, and every arena of our labour and domestic lives, the invisible threads that connect us as a species were finally thrown into stark relief.

This encounter with the spectre of death, with our own finitude, sparked realisations about what is really important in life, and the answer was resoundingly, ‘other people’. This has played out in both community interactions of care and in global social justice movements. Just before the pandemic hit the headlines, Indigenous protests across Canada in support of the Wet’suwet’en were finally receiving large-scale media coverage, and the struggle is ongoing despite the increased danger of pipeline security forces bringing the disease onto their lands. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong continues, protesting increasingly repressive legislation from Beijing, in the face of pepper spray and teargas. And the brutal murder of George Floyd, yet another Black person to die at the hands of the police, was a flashpoint for the already strong and well-organized Black Lives Matter. Liberal white people became more aware of ‘the work’ needed to understand systemic racism, and their own complicity in white supremacy. People all over the world shunned curfews, braved the ubiquitous virus and took to the streets in support of BLM. Revolutionary concepts like the abolition of the police force and the prison system are now being discussed within mainstream circles.

The world is watching as US President 45 sanctions both state and vigilante violence against his own citizens in these peaceful protests. In real time we’re seeing a country so close to ours work its way toward to Fascism, and the scales are falling from many Americans’ eyes about what the ‘land of the free’ ever really was. It seems to me that much of the shiny veneer of white-supremacist patriarchal capitalist ‘life’ in the world has been stripped away, revealing how deeply antithetical to human existence it actually is. Even as we experience the pull toward ‘business as usual’, as a culture we’ll walk away from this changed. Can we do the deep systemic work needed to honour our interconnectedness, and can grow our societies to function in ways that actually work for everyone? The films in this programme resonated for me in relation to that question, and the strange year that has been 2020 thus far. They explore isolation, precarious employment, dreams, the unitary power of music, justices and freedoms won, and the many still essential to continue fighting for.

Recitative by Shir Hendelsman made me think of the solidarity Italians created by making music together on their separate balconies during lockdown. Here a lone figure on a platform delivers a Bach recitative, with back-up from a fleet of heavy machinery of the type used in construction projects. Delivered into an expanse of sky, the cantata is a martyr’s wish for redemption, and the desire to be one with god. The only film actually created since and in response to the pandemic, Sophia Jaworski’s But Wait, reflects on the lockdown’s reshaping of space, time and human relationships. Archive and contemporary footage create tensions between nostalgic capitalist dreams of infinite consumption and contemporary scenes of production and service, and between workplaces and the domestic realm. The piece ends with a soundscape of the 7pm celebratory noisemaking many cities across the globe instituted to thank their frontline health workers.

Yuan Zheng focuses on another form of worker who unexpectedly became essential to locked-down life: the delivery person. Dream Delivery is the imaginative vision of an exhausted young delivery rider. This visually stunning film explores the dizzying pace of China’s contemporary urban life and the lives behind its ‘economic miracle’. New kinds of markets are birthed, hierarchies of culture are questioned, and the delivery people become mythological figures. Despite already living in the strange landscape of the ‘post-internet’ the lockdown made many of us more keenly aware of both the value and the emotional and experiential limitations of living online. The uncanny We Know We Are Just Pixels by Laure Provoust* personifies the points of illumination that make up our visual experience of the digital. Pixels are numeric measurements of red, green and blue light, and the piece strikes me as an inversion of the way that capitalism reduces people to mere numbers. The film calls into question the ethics of our relationship with these ‘entities’, it made me think about how white-collar workers relocated to their homes are treated when they become ‘just pixels’. I also thought about the emotional work many of us had to do to maintain any human connection virtually during lockdown, and the simultaneous connection and isolation that this form of communication elicits.

The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia is the stage upon which Labour / Leisure (dirs. Ryan Ermacora and Jessica Johnson) examines the deep class divide between agricultural labourers and affluent holidaymakers and retirees in the region. Previously rendered invisible, these temporary migrant workers came sharply into focus when travel restrictions went into force, threatening Canadian agribusinesses’ ability to harvest their own crops. Such precarious employees are often exploited by the companies they work for, and they contribute to our health care and pensions –funds that they have no access to as temporary citizens. And yet the country is completely dependent on this ‘foreign’ labour to be able to pick much of the fruits and vegetables grown on its land.

With Where I Am (dir. Christine Wu) and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (dir. Ufuoma Essi) the program turns toward the work of social justice. Hong Kong-born Wu explores the distances and connections she feels, as a settler in Canada, between these two places, focusing on the passionate protests for change raging in both countries. All That You Can’t Leave Behind uses music and archival footage to reclaim Black women’s collective history in the last century. The piece draws from the past, including footage from the Civil Rights era, but its contemporary formal treatment points toward an imagined future freedom, and the work required for that day to come.

*With the exception of this film, all works are programmed from our annual open call for submissions.


Clare Samuel is an artist, writer, and programmer originally from Northern Ireland, now living as a settler in Toronto –the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. She serves on the board of directors at Pleasure Dome, is the co-founder of Feminist Photography Network, and teaches at Ryerson and OCAD Universities.

This event is co-presented by CFMDC and sponsored by Workers United Union.

Image credit: Dream Delivery, Yuan Zheng (China, 2018)