Why we have such a hard time talking about work and money

by | Jul 13, 2012 | Curatorial | 2 comments

Earlier this month, I spent a few weeks in Vancouver, installing an exhibition I curated for Access Gallery, called Always Working. While I was there, I had the good fortune to be able to talk about the show, and the issues it tries to address, with some generous and smart folks and I’m still wondering about some of the questions those discussions raised.

The exhibition, which features works by Didier Courbot, Jamie Hilder, David Horvitz, Kelly Mark and Carey Young, tries to make a connection between artistic labour with other forms of everyday labour, and to point to the ways that contemporary art is very much entangled in the same structures and forces that impact daily life and work. The artists in Always Working try to make labour explicit in their works and practices, from insisting that artwork in fact does important work by demanding to be paid an hourly wage in exchange for the number of hours the artwork is on view to the public (as Kelly Mark does in her series Minimum Wage), to selling one minute of their attention to strangers in exchange for $1 (as David Horvitz continues to do until July 28, 2012 in For One Minute).

While the exhibition tends to focus on the strategy of over-identification—the notion of assuming and exceeding the logic of capitalism in order to parody or undermine it—in these artists’ practices, there are lots of other ways in which the conditions of labour might be addressed through contemporary art. We began to talk about some of them in the panel discussion and reading group associated with the exhibition, but what I was continuously struck by is the tendency to avoid addressing the conditions of work in contemporary art that comes up, both in my own discussions, and in works of art more generally.

This resistance came to the fore especially when we read Hito Steyerl’s essay “Politics of Art” as part of No Reading After the Internet. The essay, which in many ways inspired the exhibition, argues that “political art” looks to represent political issues or inequalities outside of itself, in other places and times, when in fact the most interesting place for it to look might be at itself, at its own conditions of labour and economics:

“We could try to understand [art’s] space as a political one instead of trying to represent a politics that is always happening elsewhere. Art is not outside politics, but politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception. If we take this on, we might surpass the plane of a politics of representation and embark on a politics that is there, in front of our eyes, ready to embrace. “

I find Steyerl’s writing in the essay both endearingly bombastic and totally convincing. But the point that she raises still has me confounded: why do we have such a hard time looking at or talking about the space of contemporary art as a space of labour and politics? Is it simply that looking at how (little) artists are paid and how much they (over)work takes the glamour out of working in the arts, one of the supposed incentives for working this way? Is it that, as artists or curators, we are too close to these conditions—too embedded within them to be able to clearly see them and critique them? Or is it something else altogether, a kind of “allergy” in contemporary art to taking on a political discourse that was so long affiliated with working-class culture (as my colleague Alex Muir described it)?

There have, of course, been lots of efforts at investigating and changing the ways that artists are remunerated, such as the survey conducted by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) or “Waging Culture,” the research initiated by Michael Maranda at AGYU about the socio-economic status of artists in Canada. But these kinds of projects are often read as “activist” or advocacy work, rather than as art projects or works of art. I guess I am curious about why it is (seemingly) difficult to find artwork that engages with these issues within its own means of representation. Or, for that matter, why it’s equally difficult to find curatorial or writing projects that self-reflexively tackle the conditions of their own production. I’ve been thinking a lot, in particular, about the project “Lola’s Open Books” from issue 10 of Lola magazine, where the magazine’s editors offered a “map of how much it costs to make a magazine like Lola, and where we get/don’t get money from.” This seemed like a useful, even radical, way of addressing the politics of labour, work and money in the art world, yet I can’t think of another example like it.

I’m also curious about how some of these issues have been addressed in a few other recent exhibitions and programs which are sadly too far away for me to visit. Especially I Can’t Work Like This, a project that recently concluded as Casco in the Netherlands (and which might have one of the best exhibition titles ever). I would love to hear about other initiatives that take up some of these questions, or ideas for how to address the work and money in the art world in productive ways.