“Always Working,” in more ways than one

by | May 24, 2012 | Curatorial | 1 comment

This was about to be one of those classic “sorry I haven’t posted in a while” posts, and I guess it still is in many ways: I am sorry I haven’t posted in so long, but I’ve been busy with a couple of academic projects, and some burgeoning curatorial work that I’m excited about. One of those projects is a group exhibition I’m curating for Vancouver’s Access Gallery, which opens this June (more details below).

It’s the first independent curatorial project I’ve tackled in a while, one that has developed out of a couple of years of thinking about these artists’ works and how I think they fit together. It’s been a pleasure to work with an artist-run centre like Access where there is so much freedom to execute a curatorial project, but it’s also been a lot of, well, work. One thing I learned early on is that it’s a bit ridiculous to title a project “Always Working,” because it either:

a) makes you feel like you’re not working enough;

b) makes you feel like all you do is work, every time you think about the show; or

c) makes you realize how woefully underpaid everyone is in the contemporary art world.

Despite feeling like the title is chastising me every time I read it, I’m now working on trying to articulate what I am proposing with my curatorial framework, both for myself and for the more practical venues of press releases and gallery websites. For now, this is what I’ve come up with:

Always Working

Didier Courbot, Jamie Hilder, David Horvitz, Kelly Mark, Carey Young

Curated by Gabrielle Moser

June 23–July 28, 2012

Access Gallery, 222 E. Georgia St., Vancouver, BC

Opening Reception: Friday, June 22, 8-11 pm


“A standard way of relating politics to art assumes that art represents political issues in one way or another. But there is a much more interesting perspective: the politics of the field of art as a place of work. Simply look at what it does – not what it shows.”

– Hito Steyerl, “Politics of Art”


By focusing on repetitive tasks, excessive labour and obsessive engagements with art as a mode of work, “Always Working” explores the uncertain relationship between artistic labour and the politics of everyday life. Although the merging of art with everyday life was a goal of the twentieth century avant-garde, in recent years it seems this integration has been achieved through the globalization of the economy, where forms of affective labour, such as care-giving, lifestyle coaching or relationship counseling, are now legitimate forms of work that require monetary compensation. “Always Working” questions this shift and proposes that useless and excessive forms of artistic labour might offer a position of political resistance to these trends. Whether using laborious methods in the production of their works, or assuming the role of the worker in their performances, videos and installations, the artists in “Always Working” prioritize useless labour: work that cannot be “put to work” in order to participate in the increasingly globalized economy. Focusing on how artistic work is connected to, but distinct from, everyday forms of labour, the exhibition takes seriously Hito Steyerl’s call for an art that focuses on the political context of its production, rather than looking for a politics outside itself.


For several artists in the exhibition, work involves assuming and exceeding the role of the everyday labourer, such as Carey Young’s video documenting her presentation of free, “how to” advice on public speaking in London’s Speakers’ Corner, or David Horvitz’s offer to stop what he’s doing and devote one minute to thinking about you in exchange for one dollar. For others, making artistic labour visible, both in and outside the studio, is a key concern, such as Kelly Mark’s artist contracts with Canadian galleries which have been renegotiated so that her work is renumerated according to the hourly minimum wage (an amount that is always higher than the CARFAC-suggested artist fee). Similarly, Didier Courbot’s photographic series captures his ongoing interventions meant to fulfil practical urban “needs,” such as painting in a crosswalk on a busy street, or installing a birdhouse on a streetlamp: a project he will expand on through performance and photographic works made during an artist residency in Vancouver. Finally, Jamie Hilder’s impersonation of a “downtown ambassador,” who provides tourists with an alternative history of the city through its attempts at managing the appearance of poverty, and his subsequent arrest by Vancouver police, suggest that there is something radical and even dangerous about the kind of “work” that art can do.

There are also a few discursive programs planned in tandem with the show, including a panel discussion during the opening weekend and an edition of No Reading After the Internet, the out-loud reading group that is the brainchild of my dear friend cheyanne turions and co-hosted by Alex Muir. I think of Vancouver as a place where productive discussions about art, labour and politics are always on the go (witness the deserved frenzy around the upcoming Institutions by Artists conference, for instance), so I’m looking forward to looking at this work with friends and acquaintances and having some heated discussions about how artistic labour might be a site where political action can take place.