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.

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