Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Chelsea Wills

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. We have asked participants to send us their reflections on keywords, puzzles, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day. This post is by Chelsea Wills, a visual artist who works with places in flux and works closely with people inhabiting them.

I came home thinking about was risk and the number of ways that we as artists deciding (or being pushed) to take on risk with our work. All kinds of work include risk, and I relish some kinds of risk in my creative work. Artists work play many roles, some of its purposes are that our world is interpreted and re-interpreted to create newness , it bring attention to things unseen, it offers and enacts space where intersections are possible in previously unimagined or forgotten ways. 

This work is inherently risky. It is talked about in terms of creativity but this risk is invisible in lots of other ways. Artists are unique in their position of being the site where the risk meets in the art world. They interact directly with their own work, institutions, galleries, collectors, and the general public. The ways artists assume risk in these convergences is somewhat ambiguous at best. I came home from Valuing Labor in the Arts with seeds of what grew into some working fluid categories that I see in thinking about artists embodying risk.

Personal Risk: What am I risking? What do I stand to gain? Does this work compromise relationships to my self/family/friends/community/collaborators? Is this risk worth it for what I am trying to convey? Who else is shares this risk with me? Will I be able to count on them if things go wrong?

Creative Risk: Can I do this? Have I done it before? Is it a “valid” idea in my mind? In someone (collaborators, institutions, etc.) else’s mind? Who shares the risk if I mess it up? Who decides if I mess it up?

Financial Risk: What value is this work assigned by me? By someone (collectors, audience, insurers) else? By institutions? How much of my time does that constitute? Who recieves the benefit of this works success?

Institutional Risk: What does this institution stand for? How do they share risk with artists? How do they allow/support/create success for artists? What value do they put on all types of labor that happen there?

Broader Cultural Risk: What bigger conversations do I have access to? Who supports inclusion/exclusion from them? What risk do I put myself/my collaborators/the communities I work with in?

I am interested by beginning this articulation of risk in thinking about how risk is shared. By who and when? How do we as artists create, dismantle, imagine situations where we can share hard kinds of risks and allow each other the autonomy to work to our edges?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Sarah Wilbur

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. We have asked participants to send us their reflections on keywords, puzzles, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day. This post is by Sarah Wilbur, choreographer and PhD candidate in World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA.

Let’s Ask Ourselves…
[A Dance-based Addendum to the “Grey Matter” Quiz]
April 23, 2014
Sarah Wilbur

As a cross-sector dance maker and scholar who writes about dance makers and institutional dependency, I appreciate how Helena and Lauren’s slippery “Grey Matter” quiz resists tidy “yes-no” answers. The very structure of a quiz mandates self-reflection. By hailing artists who attempt to fashion careers through the nomadic practice of “gig dependency”, the Grey Matter quiz should constantly be retaken. It institutes a practice of looking before we step and stepping with a sense of what a steadier foothold feels like, when confronted with an invitation to depend. “Gig dependency” might be a crude characterization for some, but within the hyper-dependent field of dance, “gig dependency” behaves as a kind of institutional dependency, one requiring local strategies of belonging and engagement. The institutional attachment of certain dance makers to the contemporary museum or biennial circuit, while unexceptional historically given the longstanding co-operation of dance artists with non-dance institutions, begs us to consider how the institutional promiscuity of US live dance performance might score in this inspiring quest for advocacy and reflexivity. To start this thread, I’ve remade the quiz from a dance perspective. LET’S ASK OURSELVES… [201]

GAUGING the GREY AREA: Standards for Artistic Labor

QUESTION No. 1: Does this opportunity align with your creative strengths, experiences, and goals as a dance maker?
A: This idea inspires me creatively to become involved. While its scope does not align perfectly with my experience/training, the invitation provides an occasion to research and learn from the organizers, context, and collaborating artists. I think that my collaborators would probably want to work with me on translating my work within this context. [10]
B. I find this work interesting, but not well aligned with my present investments as a dance maker. The project of adapting my work may contort its general scope and intentions, and would require a great deal of rehearsal time for my dancers to learn and master the task at hand. I’m torn. [5]
C. I cringed when I saw the scope of this project. My values do not align with those of the presenting organization. I cannot participate in this project without a deep sense of personal conflict and a deep loss of time that I should be working on other things. My dancers/collaborators do not value this kind of work or approach. [0]
D. I’m eager to take advantage of this unique and exciting opportunity. The experience and working relationships are excellent and the support structures are strong. The timing and resourcing available for this opportunity converges with the availability of my closest artistic collaborators. It’s as if I dreamt this. [15]

QUESTION No. 2: What is the potential financial gain/impact of this project? (same question)
A: MEAGER. I get a small performance honorarium, one free parking space, and reception food/drinks the night of the performance, and networking opportunities on the night of the performance. [5]

B: STOKED. This commission includes space, designer fees, rehearsal and performance pay for the dancers, a design budget, and choreographic stipend. [15]
C: NADA. I’m subsidizing the entire cost of rehearsing, designing, and producing this work, which is largely irreproducible due to the context of this production. This subsidization includes [0]
D: INCOMENSURABLE. They are paying an artist fee that does not include ancillary costs of production. [10]

QUESTION No. 3:  How does my acceptance of this opportunity condition or constrain the future exploitation of dance artists by sponsoring organization/institution?
A: Production conditions are inadequate, but there is room to negotiate on behalf of myself, and my collaborators, which could set a good precedent for future projects and other artists interested in working with this sponsoring organization. [10]
B: This opportunity is suboptimal, but presents an opportunity to bring attention to the issue of exploitation by communicating areas of disconnect to this partner to contextualize the affiliated expenses at play in my dance making. [5]
C: This opportunity is so fair and so transparent that it benefits all involved and sets an ethical standard for future collaborations in this type of production context. [15]
D: Even if I benefit (minimally) from this project, I will be complicit in the system of artist exploitation and will subject my collaborators to exploitive conditions. [0]

QUESTION No. 4: What are the personal, financial, embodied, and relational risks and rewards of this project?
A: There is financial support but a relatively high degree of risk via poor working conditions, low production values, and insufficient time in the performance space, minimal publicity and exposure, or other kinds of heavy contingencies. [5]
B: This opportunity involves suboptimal conditions that pose physical hazards to my dancers and myself and that incur debt and strain my working relationships. Why am I even considering this? [0]
C: I am excited about the possibilities opened up by this opportunity and reassured by institution’s willingness to mitigate potential risks for all participants. [10]
D: This project puts me and my collaborators in a good position financially, physically, and professionally through heightened networking and exposure to new/important constituencies. I’m optimistic that the benefits outweigh the risks. [15]

QUESTION No. 5: What kinds of communication labor does this project demand and how does this work affect the impact of my dance making?
A: Project targets a narrow but committed constituency. There is little room for exposure beyond immediate participants, and little budget/desire to reach beyond current targets, but the quality of interaction is strong for those involved. [10]
B: Project marketing falls on me with the provision of materials fees but no mailing list. The time to fashion and distribute publicity takes time away from the creative labor of dancemaking and institutional rationale for presenting is minimal or at least suspect. [5]
C: The institution has minimal experience working with dance and little capital has been invested in contextualizing this work for potential audiences. Audience demand/interest is questionable, time and resources to promote the work nonexistent, and risk of misrepresentation for artists is high [0].
D: The institution has broad reach and an excellent reputation within the communities that I work in or desire to connect with. Past publicity by the institution resonates with my own value system, and the possibility of national press exposure is high [15].

*(Addendum to No. 3) Here I account for the intermediary function of the choreographer as a frequent subcontractor of designers, performers, and third party collaborators as a significant distinction for dance and live performance. The risks to secondary and tertiary collaborators in dance contracting frequently fly under the radar if/when presenters do not know to look for these details (or feign ignorance, as the case may be). Conversely, sub-exploitation of dancers and support personnel by choreographers remains a relatively closeted discourse in dance.[1] To mitigate this, this question asks the negotiating dance artist to account for these sub-dependencies and interpersonal ethics.

*(Addendum to No. 4) A general account for time outside of the event and adequate working conditions in dance, is of paramount importance in any booking situation. Most of the preparatory work of dance making costs time beyond the space of public presentation, and time in rehearsal does not generally equate with the time on stage yield of a particular work.[2]

*(Addendum to No. 5) Helena and Lauren’s concern with ‘exposure’ is replaced here with communication as a responsibility of all parties engaged in the dance making process. Again, I think that the social practice of dance making demands this, and demands a reciprocal exchange that , in my experience, suffers when discourse gets collapsed into a “my” vs. “their” turf war.  Perhaps I’m softening too much for some, but mobilizing communication as a co-researching and mutually supportive project promises more mutually agreed-upon results. Just as institutional intermediaries conduct various levels of research during their selection of artists, selected artists should come clean and recognize when a reluctance to study the history of a presenting organization and/or the value systems and spreadsheets at play in the institution’s commissioning process stands in the way of a more productive working relationship. Here is where I appreciate W.A.G.E.’s charge to artists to research the history and culture of funding and presenting institutions as part of the production negotiation. This kind of critical literacy trumps gut instincts by revealing deeper practical and material disjunctures that might evidence why an artist may or may not “like” a presenters approach.

These suggested expansions of Helena and Lauren’s “Grey Matter” have attempted to foreground the intermediary role of the choreographer as labor subcontractor, the secondary constituencies who are doubly vulnerable to sub-exploitation as a concern, and the co-researching required to sustain productive equilibrium as key issues worth considering when navigating the ‘grey matter’ of artistic standards in dance. This quiz should constantly be retaken. By challenging choreographers to recognize the interdependent relationships embedded in the question: “What do you need in order to feel supported?”, I shift the “what” to the “who”, in part, to honor the many “makers” whose support contributes to the resultant dance “work”. I imagine that an extension of these logics to the institution-side of the contract would yield dizzying numbers as well. To Helena, Lauren, ARC, and Art Practical: Thank you for the quiz and the quandaries. I depart from this exercise of quiz making as an even more robust advocate for a critical practice of reflection through interpersonal re-collection (re-collectivization?). While the temporal, spatial, material, and “human” contingencies at hand in making dance (within and beyond the Museum) remain un-standardizeable, Helena and Lauren’s quiz amplifies the stakes and energizes the discourse. Sometimes the wheels do not need reinventing, but we need to notice when they stop spinning.

Let’s ask ourselves…

[1] Robin Lakes’s essay on the Authoritarian roots of Western Concert Dance stands as an exception in this regard. See: Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion. N. Jackson, T. Shapiro-Phim, eds. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2008, p. 109-130.
[2] Author’s note: The bolded letters in the latter sentence refer to a self-fashioned term invented (albeit facetiously) in the early 2000s with a colleague/collaborator Ben Munisteri to refer to a well-known and little-reported rehearsal circumstance in dance, wherein an artist and dancers work on a particularly thorny part of a dance for hours, days even, only to have the belabored moment last for very short amount of time in the resultant dance product. The audience, viewing the dance in performance, will never be aware of the hours spent to refine a particular choreographic moment or subsection. On the rehearsal side, Ben and I decided to jokingly institute the use of the term TOSY –Time On Stage Yield-with dancers at the start of a rehearsal to let them know in advance whether we anticipated the day’s work to be low-yielding or high-yielding. By these temporal and physical ‘standards’, a dancer hearing our intention to work on a low TOSY section should put his thinking cap on and warm up, because the amount of repetition, adaptation, and confusion is likely to be high. In contrast, a high TOSY rehearsal could involve reviewing a large unison section with reliable timings, zero tactile contact, and simple spatial patterns. Different outcomes require different amounts of time, risk and corporeal preparation. Thus the disregard for the offstage time of dance making by commissioning or presenting institutions stands here as a potentially highly exploitive dimension of production negotiation.

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Todd Gilens

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. We have asked participants to send us their reflections on keywords, puzzles, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day. This post is by Todd Gilens, a project- and place-based visual artist working from commissions as well as initiating his own projects. Recent work has involved the San Francisco MTA, the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, the Stockholm Resilience Center and, through fall 2014, a private building fa├žade at 1286 Sanchez St. in San Francisco. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Thank you for a delightful and energizing conference; the positive effects of considering common difficulties in community should not be underestimated, and I wonder how to translate some of the exercises into accessible, ongoing form. Where could I find a dozen practitioners to reflect together on professional dilemmas? How often, in a year, in a career, would such a gathering be useful? Who are my ideal respondents?

The conference I experienced focused on ‘labor’ as time, pushing to the background other aspects of value-creation, such as skill, demand and distribution, all fundamental pieces of professional leverage. Likewise excursions into other professional models might have yielded both insights and new parameters of community, for example how architecture, graphic and game design offices bill for services, or non-profit systems in the conservation community, or the teaching professions; or how real estate developers, in their highly speculative, capital intensive activity, manage risk and investment.

A take on ‘patronage’ is described in Lewis Hyde’s excellent “Created Commons”, an essay which you may know already. His example is Thoreau and the kinds of support, none of it monetary, that he received during his short career. He suggests a model of monetization in creative work as a common pool resource.

Another thing that came to my mind is/was a performing arts initiative I worked under in the late 80’s called the Performing Arts Network. This was a system to book performers into small theaters around the US. Performers and crews fees were set to a ‘fair’ standard and some of the admin work was done by PAN, leveraging tasks and infrastructure that were appropriate at different scales. I suspect this program is no longer operating; even so, it would be interesting to know what influence it had on compensation in a wider scope.

It was exciting and empowering to go through your workshop together, and as a group of artist-persons (I am assuming we were mostly that), we collectively encourage each other. But my sense is that that experience will have little impact, and perhaps little practicality too, without being set in context of the rest of the system.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Caroline Woolard

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. We have asked participants to send us their reflections on keywords, puzzles, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day. This post is by visual artist, and Valuing Labor in the Arts workshop leader, Caroline Woolard.

The work I'm doing now (by facilitating the start of associations and is focused on creating longterm community livelihoods where shared decision-making and shared profit are possible. Personally, I was able to focus on and and for the past five years because I graduated without debt from Cooper Union, because I refused to go into debt for graduate school, and because I created a job for myself by co-managing a studio space that I built out with friends to keep rent low. So, while we resist conditions of debt and underpayment (Non-Participation, WAGE, Strike Debt), raise consciousness about our shared realities (Present Group, Collective Actions, Yoga for Adjuncts), and suggest self-organized initiatives (Appropriate Technologies, NYCTBD, BFAMFAPhD), we must also join the long-term struggles of all working class people by educating ourselves about the existing work around us (Labor Archives). We must understand the endurance work and leadership training that is necessary to make change- it took Fourth Arts Block three decades of organizing to get 8 buildings from the city for $8, and decades after that to sustain and maintain it! As I leave from SFO now, I am excited about bringing the initiatives highlighted together in a framework that welcomes and trains many leaders. As I leave, I am more excited about the importance of community land trusts and worker cooperatives as living examples of resilient institutions that keep individuals in dialog over time and create jobs for exploited individuals, looking to Fourth Arts Block ( and 3B ( as examples of just, democratic, and sustainable examples of solidarity economies that will remain stable options for future generations because the land is held in trust.

I am very interested in continuing the conversation, and hope to work toward another gathering, on the East Coast. Also, I would love to return to the Bay Area in late June, or in the fall/winter, to complete the Exchange Archive, do an audio project about Community Economies and time-space geography mapping, and write about Real Estate (not just land) Art! I also see a lot of overlap in the tech sector with the "sharing economy" as aligned with worker cooperatives, if sharing means shared decision-making and shared profits. Inspired by the gathering, Caroline.

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Kate Rhoades

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. We have asked participants to send us their reflections on keywords, puzzles, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day. This post is by visual artist Kate Rhoades.

          I came to this event hoping to be part of a Marxist revolution and though that definitely was not what happened, I was not disappointed. I found out about this practicum on W.A.G.E.'s website, so naturally I signed up for the workshop on Defining Value, Labor, and the Arts, hosted by W.A.G.E.'s Lise Soskolne. W.A.G.E. had a summit earlier this year to work out their certification program, which is a program to certify that non-profit arts exhibition spaces are fairly compensating their artists. Looking at some of the figures Lise shared with us, I was surprised by how huge some nonprofit arts institutions' directors salaries are, while their exhibiting artists are being paid next to nothing. There was also discussion during the workshop about a certain famous artist who will remain nameless, and their exploitative relationship with younger, non-famous collaborators--no surprise there, but still thought-provoking.

          I feel some ambivalence about this issue personally. I'm a young(ish) visual artist trying to eke out a living and make a name for myself, like a lot of people in Oakland. If some notable artist or prestigious organization that I respect asks me to come participate in their project for free I think it would be really hard for me to turn them down. In fact I've been in that very situation a few times in my career, and usually have some regrets about my decisions whether I agree to participate or not. On the other hand, I've been looking into W.A.G.E. or artists' unions of the past like the Art Workers' Coalition (thanks to Julia Bryan-Wilson's book, Art Workers) because I think that the only thing artists can do to counteract the winner-take-all art market, and all the other art world financial bullshit, is to band together and stop clawing each others' faces off to get the tiny sliver of the pie available to us. I brought up my ambivalence during the workshop, and one of my thoughtful fellow participants said that part of the beauty of W.A.G.E.'s certification program is that it holds accountable the institutions and their funders, rather than the individual artists who are perhaps the most vulnerable party involved. 

          In the afternoon I was fortunate to hear Catherine Powell's talk about the history of labor unions in the Bay Area. During the discussion following the talk people brought up the idea of artists aligning themselves with other labor struggles, like those of freelancers and educators. Later my partner and Catherine were talking about the possibility of creating an artists' union today. Unlike the conclusion that my fellow morning workshop participant came to, Catherine said that it would probably be more effective for artists to unionize rather than rely on institutions to hold themselves accountable. After all, institutions must first elect to participate in W.A.G.E.'s certification program. Without pressure from artists and the public, how many organizations are really going to volunteer to dramatically overhaul their budgets? I thought it was funny to have heard two equally convincing, but opposing solutions to the same problem. In the end, I think the two approaches don't have to be mutually exclusive. Artists could band together to hold each other accountable and not give their labor away for free, while at the same time pressuring the institutions we decide to work with to pay us more fairly. 

          I'm still waiting to figure out when we're going to start setting up barricades in the street or chain ourselves to something. If anybody has plans for further action, whether dangerously revolutionary or not, you can email me:

Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum

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. An important component of this event was a two-part thematic issue curated by the Arts Research Center for Art Practical, a leading arts publication in the Bay Area. This special issue served as a primer for workshop participants and as an inspiration and handbook for artistic communities who want to imagine alternative artistic economies in their own domains. Part one, published April 3, 2013, can be found here. Part two will be published in May and will feature workshop exercises as well as a series of commissioned reflections from writers and researchers. Below is the introduction to Part one, written by ARC Director Shannon Jackson.

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? 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 to work together on such questions.

One key value for ARC is to make sure that artists from various disciplines contribute to the conversations we stage. For this assemblage, 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.

This special issue of Art Practical, curated by the Arts Research Center, serves as a primer for the April 19, 2014 gathering and will include more responses and meditative essays from writers working in economics, sociology, art history, performance studies, dance, film studies, and literature. These future texts, along with work produced in situ, will help us both document our processes and reflect further on the issues explored.

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 the ideas raised in these articles can be widely shared and will provide fodder for more.