Response: Archiving Exchange, Mapping Value

Valuing Labor in the Arts

Response: Archiving Exchange, Mapping Value

By Alison Gerber May 22, 2014

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center hosted Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This daylong event included a series of artist-led workshops that developed exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics.


Alison Gerber participated in Caroline Woolard’s "The Exchange Archive" workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum and was commissioned to produce this response.

We gathered around a large table, twenty participants in Caroline Woolard’s workshop “The Exchange Archive.” Asked to introduce ourselves, we staked our claims one by one. Caroline sat impassively, looking into the eyes of each speaker. Without comment, she gently tapped at her phone as each speaker began; she was timing us. Craning my neck, I could see that as each speaker began, she set a timer to count down from one minute. No one seemed to notice. Halfway around the circle, one of the participants went a bit long; the telephone began quacking loudly. Quack quack quack quack quack. A pause. Quack quack quack quack quack. Caroline never broke eye contact or acknowledged the noise. The participant, flustered, tried to finish his introduction, now a little less coherent. Quack quack quack quack quackQuack quack quack quack quack. When he stopped speaking, Caroline silenced the alarm, telling us she did a lot of work in groups and liked to keep people on track. We moved on with Caroline tapping at her phone as the participants hurried through their presentations, hoping to avoid the embarrassment of the attack duck. During the last introduction, Caroline neglected to reset the timer as a participant started speaking, and the telephone began to quack after just a few seconds. He threw his hands up and laughed nervously: “I’m done!”

I prefer timers to clocks, prefer abandoning myself to engagement over the watch-checking gesture that means, no matter my intention, that I’m bored, ready to go, done with this. Caroline’s response to her timer’s quacking stuck with me for days after the workshop. Why not tell people they had one minute to speak? Why not acknowledge the quacking that first time, since the speaker might likely interpret the noise as an incoming call to a rude participant’s unmuted mobile phone? Was Caroline maybe…performing?

The artworks I find most engaging usually involve social games, administrative and teaching practices, and public spaces. They move as artworks between visibility and invisibility with a fluidity that can be baffling, upsetting, or amazing. This ambivalence is key to the content of such artworks, and makes them particularly rich sites for a conversation about art as work and the value of art work. “Valuing Labor in the Arts” was a remarkable gathering of people who do, talk about, promote, and care about these kinds of artworks. As Lise Soskolne from Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) put it, it was like “an amazing reunion of people who had never met.” Like a well-curated exhibition, the event showed us how elements that might have been ephemeral to individual artworks might be better seen as shared structures of meaning—ways of understanding such artworks as a genre.

Were we who sat around the table collaborators, students, participants, co-creators? Artists or audience?

Both of the workshops I attended—Caroline’s as well as one led by Helena Keeffe and Lauren van Haaften-Schick—were centered on the collective development of continua and scatterplots. In Helena and Lauren’s workshop, we placed ourselves in the gray areas between “yes” and “no,” while in Caroline’s we placed canonical artworks into a coordinate system defined by two axes: the X axis indicating whether the work involved long-term or short-term exchange, the Y axis marking whether information or objects were exchanged. The workshop leaders used the maps to structure conversations about meaning and value in order to help participants think through their arguments and positions relative to one another. An emphasis on understanding through classification emerged as a central theme throughout the day’s activities. This emphasis stayed with me after I went home to write about the day; my questions around Caroline’s use of the timer and my interest (and sometimes concern) about relational and social artworks in general led me to think through my own Cartesian plane.

I wondered whether Caroline and the other workshop leaders would promote the event as an “exhibition” or a “performance” on their CV, or whether it would go under “teaching” or “service” or some such category. Were we who sat around the table collaborators, students, participants, co-creators? Artists or audience? I talked these things over with other participants in the days that followed and, implicitly, I drew a map, something like the space in my mind where I go when I think about relational, exchange-based, and social art practices:

I advocate for the use of two simple lines, related but not parallel: art or not-art, real or not-real. Crucially, use of this map requires a stock of sticky notes and a willingness to exploit their flexibility. To understand and engage with practices such as these, we need to accept a good deal of fluidity and ambiguity, to understand that at their best these practices can’t be pinned to one spot on a map. Like all maps, this diagram is for the cartographer; the landscape doesn’t require it. But the orienteer can be well served by the distillation of rich and multivalent experience into two-dimensional space. “If I place the artwork here, then…” “But if it’s here, then…”

We are better off if we realize that this ambiguity is more useful than certainty.

What we participants experienced around that table with Caroline was an artwork, with Caroline as performer. It was also a workshop, and Caroline an expert instructor. These interpretations are both true, no matter Caroline’s intention or the individual or aggregate experiences of those of us who were there. We are better off if we realize that this ambiguity is more useful than certainty. Artists may argue one position—say, by including an object as either a “performance” or as “teaching” on their CV—but we know they will change their position later, depending on audience, interlocutor, opportunity. No position on the map—art, not-art; real, not-real—is right or wrong, but all are positions in arguments about the content, meaning, and value of the things we did together, with diverse ramifications and corollaries.

Calicopie. Hors d'oeuvre. Photo: Alison Gerber.

Late in the day, we all walked together from the UC Berkeley Art Museum to an event space, where Yasmin Golan and her catering business Calicopie provided hors d’oeuvres. In the evening, little signs marked each of the small bites; one read: “EMPLOYMENT: Union-picked organic strawberries/Walmart banana cream.” Another: “EXPLOITATION: spicy corporate slaughterhouse chicken processed with minimum wage labor.” We stood around, drank from disposable glasses of wine, chatted. Over and over, we agreed: The food was amazing. Later, we sat around banquet tables for an evening of talks where Yasmin spoke briefly about the night’s catering. She talked about parallels between the invisibility of labor in art and in food production, about the ways that aesthetics can disguise the conditions of production. She talked about the berries, and then about the chicken: “The chicken tonight is actually from Kentucky Fried Chicken, which pays its workers $7.63 an hour on average. Even managers only make $10.89, but they gross 4.22 billion dollars a year.” She was forced to pause after the words “Kentucky Fried Chicken”; there were audible gasps and muttering from the audience. Yasmin closed with a smile, saying, “It’s just an opportunity for you to…kind of…explore and enjoy these things.” The audience laughed, and later I overheard one woman reassure another: “Oh, she couldn’t possibly have gotten KFC in here. They’re very strict about outside catering.” It seemed to make both of them feel better.

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