Response: Hammering It Out

Valuing Labor in the Arts

Response: Hammering It Out

By Julia Bryan-Wilson 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.


Julia Bryan-Wilson participated in Sara Wookey’s "Collective Actions, Moving Thought" workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum and was commissioned to produce this response.

Designed by Mario Ciampi and opened in 1970, the current building of the UC Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA) is a Brutalist marvel, though its soaring cantilevered concrete structure, deemed the most seismically unsafe location on campus, is now interrupted by braces meant to provide stability in the event of an earthquake. This expensive partial retrofitting, completed in 2001, was only a temporary measure, and soon the museum’s collections will be shipped out altogether to a new space in downtown Berkeley.  Something about this history—of inadequate support, of trying to prop up old systems, of finally giving up and moving on—interestingly resonated with the proceedings of the one-day practicum “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” organized by the Arts Research Center, as about 150 artists, writers, scholars, and students gathered together to discuss issues of economic privilege and survival in the contemporary moment. 

How do new artistic practices challenge and disrupt ordinary orders of value within and beyond art institutions?

Throughout a series of workshops, participants refined their responses to key questions: How can artists make evident, visible, and perhaps financially viable the contours of their labor—their thinking, acting, doing, creating—particularly when they do not make traditional, marketable objects? How do new artistic practices challenge and disrupt ordinary orders of value within and beyond art institutions? And how can we formulate nimble and nuanced dialogues around complex issues of inequality, scarcity, and coalition-building?

The workshop I attended, choreographer and dancer Sara Wookey’s “Collective Actions, Moving Thought,” explored gesture as a mode of nonverbal knowledge production. She asked us to designate a performance arena in the middle of a large gallery and then move to a series of prompts she asked us to meditate on using actions instead of words; one was the word “labor,” and gradually the clunkier, literal motions like jumping jacks or robotic jerks gave way to a fluid dynamic between and among bodies, as some came together to improvise and build engine-like human/machine hybrids [fig.1]. The more expected embodied responses—those that signaled diligence, exertion, endurance, and repetition, somewhat akin to the task-based dance of minimalism—were interspersed by those that performed acts of care, comfort, and tenderness (notably initiated by women) [fig. 2].

As bodies enacted somatic reactions to Wookey’s instructions, light poured in from the museum’s many windows. At times I was too tired to move—it was the weekend, ostensibly a time of rest—so I lay down on the floor, gazing up at the skylights. Throughout my long history with BAM/PFA, I had never spent time flat on the ground (though in 2003, when I was a graduate student, I passed many hours in a massage chair, gazing up at Cai Guo-Qiang’s electric fireworks). This reorientation made me recall Maria Nordman’s famous 1979 one-day exhibit in this space, when she covered museum surfaces with white vinyl, removed filters from the skylights, turned off artificial lights, and left all the doors to the building unlocked, turning her piece into an experience about architectural emptiness and plentitude. Forty years after it was built, the museum’s battered concrete floors and scarred walls bear the traces of its many past installations, and these layers of histories still live and echo within the space.  

One sculpture, Jonathan Borofsky’s large, red Hammering Man (1976–1983), part of BAM/PFA’s permanent collection, kept returning to me so insistently it felt like it was haunting me [fig 3]. Throughout the past decades, Borofsky’s 18-foot-high piece has often been displayed near the same spot where we were dancing, and its endlessly hammering mechanical arm, its motorized gears and pulleys visible, eerily echoed the construction-like gestures of the workshop participants. Schematic and faceless, this silhouetted figure has his head bent toward his work, work that is represented in a state of suspended animation: never progressing, never completed. The artist has installed similar sculptures indoors and outdoors in locations across the world, from Seattle to Seoul, as homage to a wide spectrum of manual laborers, including assembly-line workers and shoemakers.

[Figure 3] Jonathan Borofsky. Hammering Man, 1976–1983; wood, paint, steel, aluminum, foam, Bondo, and motor. Purchased with the aid of funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the UC Berkeley Art Museum Council, its members, and friends. Courtesy of BAM/PFA.

After our movements wound down under Wookey’s guidance, we made a “mind map” about words associated with “labor,” scrawling phrases on pieces of paper where we had just danced [fig. 4]. Then, seated on Fritz Haeg’s large braided rug, we debriefed about emotional exertion, interdependency, feminism, race, pleasure, and wellness [fig. 5]. Wookey joked, “I want to give a workshop about dancing in museums,” referring to the logistical problems faced by dancers who are increasingly invited to perform in museums, even as museums are unprepared for the realities of making sure their physical needs are met. (Surfaces ideal for pedestals and heavy foot traffic are punishing for bones and flesh.) Wookey talked about how she became the center of a controversy and an inadvertent activist in 2011, when she published her “Open Letter to Artists” regarding issues of unfair compensation during a performance by Marina Abramović at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) gala. As the “Open Letter” plainly stated:   

I rejected the offer to work with Abramović and MOCA—to participate in perpetuating unethical, exploitative, and discriminatory labor practices—with my community in mind. It has moved me to work towards the establishment of ethical standards, labor rights, and equal pay for artists, especially dancers, who tend to be some of the lowest-paid artists.

Wookey continues to agitate, as do many of the workshop leaders, for transparency in standards of pay, and she ended our time with a discussion of her own contract negotiations for this event, risking, as she said, the “awkwardness and crudeness” of disclosure to help prod a larger collective conversation about the difficulty of demystification within advanced capitalism [fig. 6].

Over the course of the day, I met artists from as far away as Houston who had flown in hoping to learn lessons to take back to Texas, and learned about a promising new worker’s alliance in the Bay Area for art handlers. Certain questions came up again and again: How do we overcome our simultaneous aversion to—and fascination with—talking about money to advocate for meaningful change in an industry known for wildly divergent valuations? How, too, do we account for the complexities of accrued cultural capital that may not fit into neatly monetized remuneration schema? Participants discussed histories of labor organizing, freelancer’s unions, and pointed to pay guidelines in places like Canada: Some of these feel pertinent, others more wishful, as models for artists’ organizing. Vital related topics were touched on: the sheer impossibility of survival in San Francisco for many independent arts spaces given rising rents, artists’ role in gentrification, and the post-culture wars state of arts policy in the U.S. International debates were less visible, though they point to the relevance of these issues within the wider art industry: the boycott of the Sydney Biennial for its corporate sponsor’s ties to offshore detention centers, and the Gulf Labor protests regarding coerced labor to build museums in Abu Dhabi.

Here, museum walls showcase not the final products of artistic labor, congealed into reified finished things, but instead what is on display is the labor itself

During these workshops and conversations, artifacts and materials from BAM/PFA’s current show, The Possible, guest curated by David Wilson, surrounded us—evidence of hands-on, participatory activities like looms and indigo dyeing stations [fig. 7]. The Possible is part of a growing tendency within art institutions. Here, museum walls showcase not the final products of artistic labor, congealed into reified finished things, but instead what is on display is the labor itself, messy and in process and arguably not nearly as visually interesting. There are plenty of spaces in the Bay Area to make stuff and see people in the midst of making stuff, but only a few for the specialized objects and actions called art. I suppose it is logical that The Possible is on view just as the museum is transitioning out of this building, as it marks a turn away from old models of artistic making, like those signaled by Borofsky’s serial sculpture with its endlessly hammering man.

[Figure 7] Collective Actions, Moving Thought workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joanna Lehrmann.

Though Borofsky’s piece offers a perhaps outdated vision of individual work, his looming, toiling figure, its arm perpetually in motion, sticks in my memory as a compelling visual form—a marked counterpoint to the stilted, and vulnerable, and poignant motions of some strangers tentatively touching each other in Wookey’s workshop as they undertook an oblique and silent dialogue about the burdens and intimacies of laboring together to make something new. While examining the history of labor unions is certainly worthwhile, my guess is that other kinds of as-yet-unknown formations, ones that account for the reorganization of labor (and of art) as we currently know it, might emerge as more pertinent for artists’ organizing efforts. Hearing about these nascent formations throughout the event was the most galvanizing part of the day. Which pasts are usable, if given a little retrofitting, and which will eventually need to be abandoned? We must acknowledge the promises and risks and potential failures of collaboration, and continue to look forward while we also look back. 

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