Value/Labor/Arts: Welcome to this Special Issue Curated by the Arts Research Center

5.4 / Valuing Labor in the Arts

Value/Labor/Arts: Welcome to this Special Issue Curated by the Arts Research Center

By Shannon Jackson April 3, 2014

When is it okay to work for free? Is it acceptable as long as you’re working with—or for—another artist? What is an artistic service? Have you made an artwork if nothing’s left for someone else to own? These are just a few of the hundreds of questions circulating for artists working in the 21st-century economy, a scene in which the very old question of art’s financial contingency arguably has a different kind of urgency and opacity. With “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” the Arts Research Center (ARC) gathers artists, curators, organizers, and researchers from different fields to work together on such questions. This special issue of Art Practical, curated by the Arts Research Center, serves as a primer for the April 19 gathering and will include more responses and meditative essays added subsequently.

Precisely because the apparatuses and products of cultural labor are so difficult to pin down, remuneration systems are hard to standardize as well.

Many of us at ARC have been teaching around these issues of art and labor in our courses on social practice, on art in the public sphere, and more recently, in Julia Bryan-Wilson’s focused seminar, “Art and Labor/Art as Labor.” It was in that seminar that artist and MFA candidate Helena Keeffe devised her project, Standard Deviations. Keeffe asked me if we could create a broader platform for a set of issues that clearly need a wider airing. We begin to answer that question with these contributions.

We have invited a range of artists to create small, artist-led workshops devised to spur dialogue, action, and art making around questions of art, labor, and economics. Others will also lead discussions and surveys on the wider Bay Area landscape of cultural labor. BAM/PFA staff and guest curator David Wilson agreed to house our pursuits inside The Possible, an experiment that brings the labor of art into the exhibition process itself. We will conclude by reconvening en masse at the David Brower Center, a site that is itself in the process of installing a new juried show that reimagines alternate art economies.

Clearly, something is in the air.

And of course it is the perception of this being in the air—being of air, only air—that is part of the problem. Precisely because the apparatuses and products of cultural labor are so difficult to pin down, remuneration systems are hard to standardize as well. What to do when your work is another person’s hobby? What to do when an artwork is consumed in someone else’s free time, and when artists’ time must be spent for free? Greg Sholette’s image of artists and artist ecologies as so much “dark matter,” circulating in perpetual self-exploitation, looms large. Can light be shed on matters that seem to get darker each day?

In inviting artists to conceive workshops, and in inviting writers to respond to them, we worked with four questions that I will share here.

Christian Nagler, Market Fitness Derivatives Session 1, 2011-2012. Courtesy of the Artist.

What are the key questions artists should ask themselves in defining standards for the valuation of their labor?


As stated above and as Ignacio Valero and Abigail Statinsky both argue, this is not a new question, but one that is asked differently now that an entrepreneurial language has entered the vocabulary of so many working artists. Artists are often required to create their own support structures to share their work, whether by self-curating, by bartering, or by submitting to the do-it-(to)-yourself compulsions of Kickstarter. We have included here a selection (and a reminder) of some earlier, not-so-very-old manifestos of artists who found themselves asking how they wanted to be valued and wondering whether the available value systems were up to the task. Some worried about authorship and ownership, some about invisibility, some about whether an artists’ union could combat a highly individuating art market that kept artists from working with each other. Some, such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, felt that the repetitive labor of maintaining art—what artists were trained to disdain—was exactly what needed to be revalued.

W.A.G.E graphic; Courtesy of the Artists.

What tactics allow artists to create a sense of agency regarding the economics of creative production?


By creating a gathering that is more practicum than symposium, we hope that artists can propose various ways of responding to this question. Crucially, we are interested in exploring forms that ask economic questions inside the artwork. Rather than placing labor and economics in the sullied background, our invited artists, curators, and writers use the dynamics of cultural labor as a central material in the interior of their art. As in past ARC gatherings, we have found ourselves propelled by a range of keywords that inform artistic responses to socioeconomic themes: “strike,” “union,” “remuneration,” “value,” “money,” “bartering,” and “labor.” The primer texts and practicum workshops consider the formal parameters of these and other concepts. They ask whether alternate barter or exchange system might be formalized (Woolard, Syjuco/Smigiel); they wonder when non-participation or withdrawal become necessary (Wookey, Van Haaften-Schick); and they consider whether new remuneration systems can be devised (W.A.G.E., Statinksy, Keefe/Van Haaften-Schick). How are the arts imbricated in other economies, including the schools that teach artists (Thornton) and those that employ them (Nagler, Clements)? They ask whether “loving what you do” can be an alternate form of value even when, as Elyse Malouk implies, it is also an effect that propels “you” to do more work for free.

A Modest Occupation, 2013; installation view, Threewalls, Chicago. Photo: Clare Britt.

How do different artistic forms (visual, public, relational, choreographic, theatrical) engage and revise different types of art economies?


One key value for ARC is to make sure that artists from various disciplines contribute to the conversations we stage. In this assemblage, we incorporate a range of writing and art making that responds primarily to a visual-art landscape and its associated economies. At the same time, we also take inspiration from those who work in the time-based arts of performance and of poetry (Rana). Brooklyn Commune authors note that economic questions look somewhat different to those who inhabit the nightly service economies of theater or dance. The specter of mutual exploitation can be compounded when a visual-art museum under-employs performing artists (Wookey); moreover, the difficulty of “pinning down” the immaterial products of cultural labor has always been a conundrum in the long, ephemeral labor history of the performing arts. Indeed, if—as post-Operaismo philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato would have it—the “turn” to immaterial labor is a central characteristic of a post-Fordist service economy, then performing artists have occupied a proto-post-Fordist position for quite some time. Meanwhile, the “turn” to the social and to the relational in art practice asks related formal questions about money and labor. What happens to the job of the curator when a work seeks to curate itself? What happens to the job of the educational-outreach coordinator when outreach is part of an artwork’s structure? On the one hand, these forms challenge the divisions of labor within an art institution. On the other, they might appear to be a good deal for an institution, supplying as they do their own apparatus of production and programming.

Stephanie Syjuco, Shadowshop, 2010. Courtesy the artist; © Stephanie Syjuco

How might artists and cultural producers disseminate or appropriate models to accomplish their own projects?


We hope that by creating this special issue and practicum on valuing labor in the arts, we are doing our part in investigating, developing, and disseminating such models. Most of our workshops will be limited to small groups to allow for meaningful creation within the parameters of the workshop. While we are acutely aware that this depth of interaction will necessarily limit those who have access to it, the hope is that these workshop prompts can be widely shared and will provide fodder for more. Moreover, the second part of this issue will offer meditative essays from writers who work across a range of fields, including economics, sociology, art history, performance studies, dance, film studies, and literature. These texts, along with work produced in situ, will help us both document our processes and reflect further on the issues explored.

For now, we hope that, after reading this issue, Art Practical readers consider themselves primed for more.


Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum is sponsored by a graduate arts grant from the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, The Brower Center, the Berkeley Center for the Study of Value, the English Department, the History of Art Department, the Art Practice Department, the Richard And Rhoda Goldman Chair in the Arts and Humanities, and funds from ARC supporters. Support for the production of this issue is provided by a Microsoft matching grant for volunteer hours.

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