From Re-enacting Redistribution to Working Class Heroes

Alina Lupu


The everyday experiences of a city’s inhabitants are significantly influenced by the efforts of low-wage service industry employees, whose living conditions are not widely recognised. Investigating these conditions was what led artist Alina Lupu, first through an exploration of the minimum wage and universal basic income in Romania, and ultimately to speculating on the impact of automation on the social fabric of Timișoara. Born and raised in Romania, Lupu is a post-conceptual artist concerned with the conditions of participating in the economy and is based in Amsterdam. In this essay, she describes the process behind her work ‘Working Class Hero’.

Disclaimer: the project presented at Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard, titled ‘Working Class Hero’, was initially supposed to take a different turn (pun intended!) and address universal basic income, redistribution of wealth and ways of skipping economic development steps. But in the process of moving from planning to reality, from the realm of ideas to material reality, works tend to change––as they should. Still, I thought it would be insightful to also share what could have been, alongside what ended up being, in hopes of clarifying my thinking and demystifying the process. So strap in tight, and let’s go. 

Traveling to Romania

Development happens in parallel processes. It halts. It accelerates. Countries learn from each other. Although results cannot always be replicated across different cultures, it can still be helpful to look to those who have tried to tackle the same challenges as us, rather than starting from scratch. In some cases, developments in one profession or field can also be applied to others, even if they are governed by different principles. One such development, which has received a lot of attention in recent years, is universal basic income (UBI).

According to the Basic Income Earth Network, ‘[UBI] was first proposed at the local level by Thomas Spence at the end of the 18th century and at the national level by Joseph Charlier in the middle of the 19th. It was the subject of short-lived national debates in England around 1920 and in the United States around 1970. It resurfaced in Western Europe around 1980 and slowly spread until it gained worldwide popularity from 2016 onwards.’¹

I’m a Romanian national, but I’ve been living and working in the Netherlands since 2012. As an artist whose field was subjected to budget cuts the year before I arrived in my adopted country, I’ve witnessed a UBI pilot but never participated in one, and the idea sparked my curiosity. I thought it would be a good topic to address in an exhibition focused on work.

In 2017, the Netherlands made global headlines when it piloted a UBI programme among 250 residents of Utrecht. The monthly amount participants received was 980 euros. At the time, this was just over 60% of the minimum wage for full-time employees aged 22 and over, which was 1,565.40 euros gross per month². Enough to cover some basics, but too little to live a life of luxury.

When I started making work for Bright Cityscapes, I used a report titled ‘Economy in Timișoara: Territorial Distribution of the Economy in the Timișoara Metropolitan Area’³ as my project’s research foundation. But I also wanted to look beyond this report, which focused on employment and economy, as I was interested in not working, in unemployment, and in what people do if they don’t fit the mould of industry, or labour in general. This led me to explore the concept of UBI. I already knew that Romania hadn’t held UBI trials yet, but through my research I learned that a UBI Lab⁴ was founded in Bucharest by Clara Sigheti in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, with the goal of collecting findings from other European countries.

Conditions in Romania differ from those in the Netherlands. The standard of living is lower in Romania, and the country has suffered a massive brain drain––not to mention a drain of a number of other organs, metaphorically speaking. This has had a major impact on Romania’s workforce over the past three decades, since it began its accelerated transition from communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy.

I see myself as part of this brain drain. I left. At 27. But my motivation for leaving my country of birth had little to do with a search for better working conditions––as I noted earlier, despite the higher overall standard of living in the Netherlands compared to Romania, the field I ended up working in is one of extremes, where income levels had dropped significantly before I left my home country. In a neoliberal twist, the average artist’s income in the Netherlands is similar to that of a shop clerk or cleaner⁵, two jobs which happen to be common side gigs among artists.

So I didn’t leave because I wanted to earn more––I left to develop other aspects of my potential. But the reality is that I left nonetheless. And for a while, I earned minimum wage in my adopted country. Incidentally, the minimum wage in the Netherlands is four times higher than in Romania.

In 2023, the minimum wage in Romania is 3,000 lei gross and 1,898 lei net.⁶ This translates to 605.97 euros gross and 383.38 euros net. One thing to consider here is that the minimum needed to live a decent life in Romania is estimated at around 3,275 lei, or 661.57 euros. According to the report ‘The Minimum Monthly Consumption Basket for a Decent Standard of Living for the Population of Romania’, a family of two adults and one child requires a minimum household income of 7,112 lei per month. For a household made up of two adults without children, this is 5,322 lei, and a single adult needs 3,275 lei.⁷

It should be noted, however, that besides bare necessities such as food and shelter, things like clothing, personal hygiene, education, healthcare, transportation, communication, recreation were also taken into account in calculating the amounts mentioned above, as well as unforeseen expenses (family events, health problems, etc.). This not only accounts for the complexities of life beyond just sustaining oneself, but also considers the need for personal development.

The minimum wage after taxes in Romania is about 60% of the gross minimum wage, similar to the basic income that was piloted in the Netherlands. Hence, as a minimum wage-earning artist, I was curious about what it means to earn minimum wage in one’s own country, as well as about what it would mean if this minimum would be covered by the state, leaving people free to fill their time as they see fit as their basic needs would be covered.

It became obvious to me that if UBI were to be tested and implemented in Romania, it could help prevent both brain drain and the spread of poverty. As Clara Sigheti, the initiator of the Bucharest UBI Lab, explained in an interview: ‘UBI assumes that the state periodically grants an amount of money to each citizen, an amount that covers basic needs, for a dignified life.’⁸ Sigheti also noted the challenges the labour market is currently facing, which will only accelerate in the future:

We have already discussed how automation will affect the labour market, but there are many other issues, from my point of view, that are even more pressing: the refugee crisis and the crisis of economic migration to countries with more developed social protection systems, peacekeeping and deterrence of terrorism, child poverty and its impact on education, the recognition of the unpaid work that many women do and women’s rights, the prevention of domestic violence and child abuse, the prevalence of crime, addiction, and physical and mental health problems in disadvantaged environments, economic inequity, and inequality of opportunity. But we also need to support innovation and encourage entrepreneurship. While UBI could help in all these areas, it seems a bit cynical to frame the issue only in terms of the advantages it would bring us. The way I see things, we need UBI because we live in a society that we have developed to the point where we have the technology and resources to cover basic needs if we organise ourselves well enough.⁹

I therefore thought it would make sense to set up a tiny UBI trial within the Turn Signals exhibition framework, building on some of my previous projects, such as ‘Who Says There’s No Money in the Arts, Timeline’¹⁰ and ‘Subtle Schemes to Derail Funds but by No Means Structural Solutions’¹¹, which dealt with new economic models, system hacking and redistribution.

As a result, my project proposal for Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard ended up being a fully conceptual framework that read something like this:

Find (up to) five people that live on minimum wage in Timișoara and record video interviews with them about how they currently live their lives and how they would like to live their lives if they had a guaranteed basic income. For their contribution to the project, participants would be paid approximately 60% of the minimum wage for a month. This experiment aims to both enact redistribution and reflection on how minimum wage currently functions, outside of the abstracted mechanisms set out in the report that Bright Cityscapes commissioned, entitled ‘Economy in Timișoara: Territorial Distribution of the Economy in the Timișoara Metropolitan Area’.

But when the time came to drag my idea into the world of the living, which meant finding people who earned minimum wage––the very first step in the process––there were some limitations. The people who were interviewed for the economic report that exhibition commissioned did not earn minimum wage, or so I was told. The researchers who wrote the report had not made detailed inquiries about the interview subjects’ salaries, as this information is confidential in Romania.

So I studied other reports on minimum wage in Romania to identify professions that could lead me to the people I was looking for, including ‘Salariu minim și trăi minim decent – de la mituri la oportunități’,¹² which was published in 2021, and a governmental impact study entitled ‘ANALIZA IMPACTULUI – privind salariul minim brut garantat în plată pentru anul 2020’¹³.

There were also individual assumptions. Some of the people I talked to assumed others earned minimum wage due to their preconceptions about certain professions.

I decided to do field research, travelling from Amsterdam to Timișoara a month before the opening of the exhibition and going out into the streets. But the first step I took was a symbolic one: I found a cash machine, withdrew the minimum wage in Romania in cash, and brought it back to my hotel room. It was the first thing I looked at when I woke up and the last thing I saw before going to sleep.

Minimum wage from the ATM

With this image imprinted on my retina, I went around the city during business hours to talk to workers. I encountered a lot of reluctance. The people I spoke to weren’t reluctant to get paid, mind you, but they were hesitant to talk to me off the clock, particularly for a project. Money was scarce for them, and they felt it was a topic better left undiscussed. Still, the fantasy of escaping, of moving somewhere else where money would be more plentiful, always hovered over the conversations I had.

I talked to waitresses, cashiers, public workers, security guards, museum guides, and a self-employed entrepreneur. When asked what they would do if money weren’t an issue, most of the people I spoke to seemed to want to simply reproduce their working format and impose it on others. I found this puzzling, but also understandable. After a number of these conversations, I decided to change direction and give up on the idea of redistribution––of a UBI trial––involving the people I had interviewed. Instead, I considered what it would mean if their jobs were to disappear as a result of automation.

What would the city be like without its waitresses, cashiers, public workers, security guards, museum guides, and self-employed entrepreneurs, I wondered as I fed their words into my Notes app and Grammarly. I then asked DALL-E to generate variations of ‘Romanian waiter woman neutral background’ and brought these newly crafted characters to life using D-ID. What would it mean if I, the one reflecting on their positions, also ended up being automated in the process?

This brought me back to a recent tweet on the topic of automation: ‘ZIZEK: that AI will be the death of learning & so on; to this, I say NO! My student brings me their essay, which has been written by AI, & I plug it into my grading AI, & we are free! While the ‘learning’ happens, our superego is satisfied, we are free now to learn whatever we want’.¹⁴

Variations of Romanian workers. AI generated

I mentally replaced ‘learning’ with ‘working’, but then I had to remind myself, by listening to the interviews I had conducted, that for a lot of my subjects their work was intertwined with their identity. You don’t just take orders and serve food, sell tickets or guide visitors, or deal with work regulations or craft concepts––you are each of these actions while performing them. To change what you do is therefore to change your identity, and this requires more than just the money needed to cover basic expenses. Workers would have to learn what else they could do with their time that would give them a sense of identity, and this would involve a much bigger learning process to liberate their human potential.

Within the confines of my project, money did end up being redistributed: through small purchases I made during my stay in Timișoara, for which I saved my receipts, through tips, through the design work I commissioned for the exhibition, and through the DALL-E credits and D-ID subscription I bought. Part of the money went towards international automation companies, part of it was spent locally, and some it went to the Romanian state. Nevertheless, the true re-enacting of redistribution within the confines of a small UBI trial never happened.

Widespread implementation of UBI programmes may still be a long way off, but I can’t help but think that this is an idea, a development step, that Timișoara should take the lead in.

Index of Receipts

Text and Photographic documentation
Alina Lupu


1. Philippe Van Parijs. ‘A short history of the Basic Income idea.’
2. Dutch Umbrella Company. 2017. ‘Statutory Minimum Wage as of 1 July 2017.’ April 10, 2017.
3. Norbert Petrovici, Vlad Alexe and Vlad Bejinariu. 2023. ‘Economy in Timișoara: Territorial Distribution of the Economy in the Timișoara Metropolitan Area.’
4. UBI Lab Bucharest.
5. ‘How much does a hero earn? Artist’
6. Andreea Vasile. 2020. ‘Venitul de bază necondiționat: de ce am putea primi bani gratis.’ March 11, 2020.
7. Vasile 2020
8. Vasile 2020
9. Vasile 2020
10. Alina Lupu. 2020. ‘Who says there’s no money in the arts aka Timeline.’
11. Alina Lupu. 2022. ‘Subtle schemes to derail funds but by no means structural solutions.’
12. Ștefan Guga. 2021. ‘Salariul minim și traiul minim decent.’ Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, April 2021.
13. Government of Romania, 2019. ‘Impact Analysis Regarding the Guaranteed Minimum Gross Salary in Payment for the Year 2020.’
14. Zack Brown. 2022. “ZIZEK: that AI will be the death of learning & so on; to this, I say NO! My student brings me their essay, which has been written by AI, & I plug it into my grading AI, & we are free! While the 'learning' happens, our superego satisfied, we are free now to learn whatever we want.” Twitter, December 7, 2022.