Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Katherine Mezur

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 Katherine Mezur, a freelance dance theatre scholar and Research Associate at the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was recently based at the International Research Center of the Freie University Berlin, "Interweaving Performance Cultures." She is investigating the work of Japanese women butoh and contemporary performance artists who create work in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, focusing on issues of gender, migration, and new media. She also works as a performance dramaturg.

"Making" as labor and revolution
I participated in two workshops. The first: Collective Actions, Moving Thought lead by Sara Wookey and the second: The Exchange Archive led by Caroline Woolard. When I first walked into the registration area I was excited to see a real mix of people, and I later found out that they artists from different disciplines, established artists, new artists, curators, and scholars, but mostly a diverse array of visual artists. I was impressed by the interest and drive of these artists to take on the deep problems of artwork value and compensation. Because I research and practice in the cross-disciplinary performing arts, particularly dance, theatre, and performance/media art, I wished there had been more theatre and dance artists represented. Why weren't they there? Perhaps because dance and theatre are collaborative arts and they produce a product that is experiential…. The Wookey workshop raised many issues that we did not have time to deal with: setting up a system of monetary self-evaluation and making a strict budget for earning a living wage (after taxes) so that one can evaluate what one is offered as compensation. Dancers are notorious for saying "Yes!": an inner automatic response because one so badly to dance.  The "movement" sections seemed tangential to these deeply felt discussions on labor value and living wage issues. Wookey brought up the hot topic of the "historic" dance "commodity" such as Yvonne Rainer's Trio A, which she performs and teaches all over the world. Should we all try to learn a dance of historical value and pitch it to make a living? Within the dance communities there are also the differences between the traditional dances such as the South Indian Kathak, where there is a guru teacher to whom one gives money but the dancer would never ask for compensation. Dance seems caught up in this endless cycle of little monetary compensation and immense self-sacrificing devotion and drive.

Juxtaposed to this The Exchange Archive led by Caroline Woolard, was lively and forward looking and even daring in its pursuit of (almost but not quite) utopian exchange. Woolard had very direct questions and problems for our small sub-groups to debate and come up with suggestions. She had us deal with the idea of "Archive" (in all its complexities of canons and compensation) by making an archive of performance art/time artists. By playing a kind of card game and placing our "bets" on a gridded outline on a table top, we all could see and feel the complexity of the task of creating an ensemble exchange archive project. I really enjoyed the depth of the visual artists' knowledge and passion for "naming" the influential performance artists for this archive project. Several artists brought up how race is still so marginalized in these canonizations of valued art makers. Diversity is a constant ongoing ensemble project.

In small groups again (with reporting back to the whole group that was very important) we chose topics that had arisen in our smaller groups. And luckily we diverged from that too: we ended up by talking about how to engage the engineers in the tech (wealthy) classes in art making and supporting: how does one create true interaction, not just The Possible but the ACTUAL that could deal with housing, sharing real estate differentially: Woolard and Jackson created a kind of synergy of ideas that defy the usual "us and them" strategies, instead we wanted to move on to engagement that uses creativity in these new relationships. How do we deploy the methods we use in making things to these other challenges? Collaboration and ensemble "making" spun around our groups and table. Woolard also reminded us to work with the others' terms: be the staying and committed to the neighborhood artist, the one whose work is "making," and whose "making" can work.

I think we need to have these conversations on a weekly basis, perhaps in online webinars with visual, performance, conceptual artists, curators, scholars and yes those interested  and needed supporters.  Thank you so much ARC!

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