What Do We Do Now?: Arts & Labor Alternative Economies Fair
Over two days in the heart of Chelsea’s booming gallery district, non-profit awareness group, Arts & Labor hosted a series of roundtable discussions, community activities and workshops in the gallery spaces occupied by Eyebeam (themselves an exhibition space for experimental art and technology). This event, billed as an “Alternatives Fair” fostered the initiation of a dialogue between dozens of previously existing alternative resources within the New York City creative community. The series of panels and open discussions, which were free and open to the public, functioned as a solidarity group in which attendees – individuals from dozens of distinct yet interconnected fields – shared their concerns and dialogued issues relating to their roles as teachers, artists and activists.
Although the program had been in in the works for over six months, an issue that appeared repeatedly in the conversations over the two days was a performance event scheduled at the Brooklyn Museum on the same Saturday as the fair. What Do We Do Now? hosted its initial roundtable and opening reception on the eve of Between the Door and the Street, a community-based event conceptualized by Suzanne Lacy for the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center. While at once acknowledging the intentions of Lacy’s project, which sought to actively engage artists, activists and the wider community in an active discussion of social issues, a number of the cultural workers who had committed to participate in the performance preemptively reacted critically to their own choice to volunteer in the piece. In an open letter composed by Leina Bocar, a performer in Between the Door and the Street, Lacy and the event planner were criticized for operating vis–à–vis the accepted capitalist norms of unpaid participation as well as for failing to provide childcare services for mothers who would have otherwise wanted to participate.
Bocar’s criticism of the Brooklyn Museum for “perpetuating labor inequality” as experienced by women collectively and also by the creative community echos the thesis brought to the fore several three weeks earlier, at Simon Leung’s event, ACTION! at the Kitchen and the continued conversation over the commercial value placed on cultural work. Bocar’s critical response to feminist pioneer Suzanne Lacy’s project reiterates the concerns expressed nearly two years ago by dancer and performance activist Sara Wookey towards Marina Abramovic’s performance art spectacle for a member’s only Gala at LA MOCA. Although Bocar recognized the importance of the issues highlighted by Lacy in her project, and acknowledged her peer’s positive intentions, her concerns, projected and reiterated by several individuals at the What Do We Do Now? panel lay in the troubling aspect of the treatment of performers as unpaid voluntary contributors as opposed to artist deserving of appropriate monetary compensation.
What Art & Labor successfully draws attention to is this continued failure on the part of contemporary society to collectively create a system of exchange for artistic and cultural practice. The realities of this change may be slow in coming, as Bocar and Wookey argue, thousands of individuals in the art world continue to work for free – often their only option for remaining in the field. When examined in relation to the astronomical sums of capital that pass through what is collectively known as the art market every year, the reality that the vast majority of the individuals that make up that sector earn poverty-level incomes (or support themselves largely through a series of unrelated service jobs) appear all the more absurd.
In the brief introduction to the event written in the first page of the fair’s “Resource Guide,” an alphabetical listing of the organizations represented, states that the mission statement behind the fair was that the “neoliberal assumption that there is no alternative to our current situation is patently false” reads as both a shared concept between the different groups represented at the fair and yet, at the end of the day, a frustrating reality. None of the groups or individuals at the fair received monetary compensation for their time and no solution to reform the decades-old model of unbalanced cultural exchange was put forth.
Without doubt it would take more than a few dozen passionate activists to alter an international economic system. Faced with the slow death that was the failure of the Occupy movement and the unfulfilled expectations of the current political administration, the uncertainty, even frustration, felt by the larger community was expressed in the event’s existential title. Bocar, as did all the representatives of the dozens of advocacy groups that made up the session, work within the systems with which they themselves find at fault. As inspiring and truly impactful as many of the organizations in attendance are, they remain enslaved by their very passion for the work they do. Although in theory many of us would take the stand against producing art unless receiving due compensation in advance, we too highly value our careers and the opportunity to create work in the world to simply step aside and allow another, less ideal-driven peer take our place. What Do We Do? indeed.
1 Wookey, who had initially auditioned for and began rehearsal as a performer in Ambromovic’s exclusive production for the guests of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’s annual gala. Prices for a single seat at the gala dinner were sold for $1,000 apiece to a community of museum members supporters. Sara Wookey, “Open Letter to Artists” The Performance Club (November 23, 2011) http://theperformanceclub.org/2011/11/open-letter-to-artists/ (accessed October 19, 2013).
2 The author was not compensated for this essay contribution.