On seeing a performance of exploitation…
Making its way across the web as I write is a story about the exploitation of performers at the hands of Marina Abramović. ARTINFO is running the best recap of the story, and Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic has picked it up and carried it as well, but here’s a brief:
Abramović was tapped by LA MOCA to produce a performance work for the Museum’s annual gala. The outcome? Each table at the gala comes with a performer getting paid $150 to sit under it on a slowly-rotating lazy-susan with his or her head protruding up through the table’s center, which carries the promise of intermittent and likely uncomfortable eye contact throughout the evening. One human-centerpiece-to-be was none too happy about such future prospects and sent a missive to Yvonne Rainer, presumably because Rainer’s position in the artworld is unassailable, her politics predictable, and her network far reaching. Rainer in turn decried the spectacle in a letter to Jeffrey Deitch, which was published on the web as co-signed by Douglas Crimp, Taisha Paggett and, according to ARTINFO, Tom Knechtel and Monica Majoli.
In response to Rainer, Abramović told ARTINFO, “All these accusations, you can’t have them before you actually experience the situation and see how I can change the atmosphere [of the gala], that’s my main purpose.” And in a comment to the LA Times, Jeffrey Deitch said, “I would just hope that when people make allegations like this, they would actually come to see the performance and talk to the performers.” To make good on that, Deitch invited Rainer to a rehearsal of the piece.
A ticket to see this performance costs at least $2500, so entreaties to see it before judging it are disingenuous. But more importantly, such entreaties are missing the point of the work itself, which is odd, since they are coming from the artist creating it and the institution hosting it.
After all, to take part in the performance costs the performers their labor for at least the duration of the gala, but it also, as we know, costs the duration of the tryout and of the rehearsals too, and the value of this labor and time, as Abramović and the museum have priced it, is $150. The tenor, if not the point, of Rainer’s letter, was to point out the exploitation of the performer in this situation, because the tenor, if not the point, of the performance itself, the thing that would make it possible for living centerpieces to “change the atmosphere” of the event, turns on the condition of their being exploited.
Which is to say, it is exactly the stark confrontation between the gala’s (monied) patrons and the (not-so-monied) performers-turned-centerpieces that is meant to be “experienced” and which gives the performance its reason for being—it’s the very thing that would make it possible, in fact, for Abramović to conceive of the work as something that might “bring some kind of dignity, serenity, and concentration to the normal situation of a gala.” Would not the change of atmosphere be entirely different if, for example, Eli Broad and Larry Gagosian and Dasha Zhukova were sitting under those tables? How would dignity or serenity or concentration ensue from such a reversal?—the whole point is that it would be a reversal, that such asymmetry between patron and performer is what the performance is about.
From one perspective, then, the thing that makes such a performance what it is is exactly the fact that most people—people who cannot afford to support LA MOCA by buying a gala ticket for $2500—won’t see it. And what makes such a performance from another perspective is that the people who are “performing” in it are exactly those same people. And it’s the confrontation between these two classes of people, the possibility of their mutual recognition, that makes the performance what it is—a performance of, if not about, exploitation. Seeing such a performance, and so “experiencing” it, if it is indeed to take place as described, wouldn’t change a thing.
[9/12 update: the LA Times runs a full story here.]