For its tenth birthday weekend just gone, Tate Modern staged No Soul For Sale, a non-profit ‘Festival of Independents’, bringing 70 artists’ collectives, publishers and non-commercial spaces from all over the world to fill its Turbine Hall. Well, perhaps ‘inviting’ would be a more accurate word to use, rather than ‘bringing’, as each participant had to pay their own way, with resourceful galleries doing last minute fundraising events and even garage sales to afford their flights to London from as far and wide as Beijing, Rio and Melbourne. A necessarily scrappy and messy affair ensued, with many No Soul For Salers showing only what they’d been able to squeeze through hand luggage or the symbolically empty packages they’d sent ahead of themselves.
This perceived lack of financial support drew fire from an anonymous British group of artists and arts professionals, calling themselves Making A Living. In an open letter to Tate, widely emailed and posted online, they took umbrage with No Soul For Sale’s ‘romantic connotations of the soulful artist, who makes art from inner necessity without thought of recompense’ as well as the concomitant expectation that ‘we should expect to work for free and that it is acceptable to forego the right to be paid for our labour.’
In an interview I conducted beforehand with the curators of No Soul For Sale – Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, with Vicente Todolí on behalf of Tate – here, they defend the event (once previously staged as part of X-Initiative in New York) variously as ‘a tribute to the people, the artists and the art lovers who work beyond the traditional market system’ (Cattelan), or an act of ‘hospitality and generosity’ (Alemani). While Gioni adds that, ‘Nobody really ever pays respect to the people who work in situations in which there is very little money involved and yet a lot of energy and enthusiasm’, Todolí qualifies this by saying: ‘Obviously we are not the only ones being hospitable here. All the participants are … as generous as Tate, if not more. But that’s when things get interesting: when people are willing to share, going beyond any immediate quantifiable gain.‘
Not everyone was in sharing mood, however. The greatest visual equivalent of this underclass attitude among the half-empty and shambolic spaces of No Soul For Sale was the padlocked façade of a foreclosed home presented by the Brooklyn-based Not An Alternative. In the installation’s accompanying essay, filmmaker Astra Taylor posits a critical stance towards such participatory celebrations, in which: ‘Every action is subsumed by a new framework, including our very sociability – our likes and desires, our heartfelt comments and curiosities – which are mined, analyzed, and monetized by the new powerbrokers.’ Rather than looking towards the wider economic crisis or social media’s digital encroachment onto privacy, maybe they should have looked closer to home.
And what of this mythical, unquantifiable gain? Is it meant to be a warm, fuzzy feeling? Perhaps for those at Tate Modern it was supposed to be a great showcase for their alternative positions in the belly of the institutional beast? Those who penned the open letter clearly believe that this exchange might be closer to outright exploitation, with Tate benefiting through increased audiences and shop revenues while participants remain out of pocket. One commenter to my piece online said: ‘No money for materials, tickets or accommodation… Some coffee I think. Nice one Tate.’ Let’s call this the art system’s hidden ‘Gift Economy’ – working for nothing or for some ethereal glow of mutual advantage. We should even be grateful. Never mind the political backdrop of a new government here in the UK that’s about to slash arts budgets across the board, this must be a familiar scenario for struggling art professionals the world over.