Live Art and the Gig Economy

by Malcom Whittaker

Malcolm Whittaker keeps up with the turn of the Earth by working as an artist, writer, researcher, teacher and performer.

“Oh, this is so contemporary”, I am being paid thirty dollars an hour to sing and dance whilst dressed as a gallery officer from Monday to Saturday for the Making Art Public exhibition. 

“Oh, this is so contemporary”, I am being paid forty dollars an hour to sing and dance on Sundays. 

“Oh, this is so contemporary”, I am being paid two hundred and fifty dollars to write here and now for Extra! Extra!

“Oh, this is so contemporary”, I probably shouldn’t be writing at all.

Doing this singing and dancing is supposed to remain a completely ephemeral experience for gallery goers. It is supposed to leave no trace. It is the 2005 work of artist Tino Sehgal, who sold the score to John Kaldor in 2014 for Public Art Project #29. Kaldor then gifted the score to the Art Gallery of NSW, where I sing and dance the work once more. Or that is my understanding at least. I am but an “interpreter” of Sehgal’s “constructed situation”, which seeks to imbue interpersonal relations into the visual art world.

However, given Sehgal’s successful selling of the work within a visual art market, I wonder whether the mode of production of this constructed situation, as with the outsourcing of labour within the delegated performances of many of the Kaldor Public Art Projects (including this here newspaper), is organised to produce a problematic sense of surplus value. It is problematic because the surplus value never belongs to us as the largely unacknowledged workers of the work, or who are the work, and always belongs to the capitalists higher up the food chain, whether that be John Kaldor, or artists such as Tino Sehgal, Marina Abramovic (Public Art Projects #27 and #30, for which I also “performed”), Santiago Sierra (Public Art Projects #22 and #27), or even our EXTRA!EXTRA! editor-in-chief Lucas Ihlein.

It is often espoused that these sorts of delegated performance works offer critiques of capitalism and the labour relations therein. In the case of Sierra, the exploitation of the labour force is a deliberate strategy to create unsettling social sculptures that make these problems palpable. In the case of my labour for Sehgal, I am but a singing and dancing shift-worker, both enacting the work and acting as the work. “That looks like a fun job. How much are you getting paid to do that?”, gallery goers often ask in between our endless routines during gallery open hours, and then offer a sympathetic look when I answer.

Whether or not our salary is commensurate is possibly contingent on how much Sehgal himself was paid for the work. Given the lack of documentation on the work, it is rather difficult to find an answer to this question. About fifty thousand dollars is the median guess from the other interpreters when I quiz them on what they reckon. Sehgal cleverly creates such speculation around his work through his anti-documentation anti-material stance. On one level, this stance does indeed privilege a live encounter with the ephemeral work as paramount, and there is nuance to the pronoun this being “so contemporary”. This refers to the immediate moment of encountering the work, in the upmost contemporary present, although a parody of contemporary art is probably the first and foremost reading for most viewers.

On another level, the stance perpetuates a self-mythologising for Sehgal and a sense of commodity fetishism for his ephemeral constructed situations, disconnected from their actual use value. What in reality is a relationship between people becomes a relationship between the situation as a “thing”, not so different from any other physical artwork in the context of commodity fetishism that produces surplus capital for the higher ups. Sehgal’s achievement of this is both significant and impressive, as is the staging of the work by Kaldor, but the achievement has also become a sort of kool-aid to be sipped in awe of the artist. Could it be that in actual fact, Sehgal’s desire for zero documentation of his work is strategic, because its documentation would expose a slightness to his situations – a similarity to a bit of a silly flash mob in this case, and possibly impact upon their fiscal value in the process? In any case, this mystery is harder and harder to maintain.

What is truly contemporary now is incessant documentation. In this reprise of This is so contemporary for Making Art Public, it has become nearly impossible to police gawking patrons from recording the work on their smartphones, technology that was not so readily available when the work was first presented at the Venice Biennale in 2005, and this behavior has rapidly increased since the presentation of the work at Art Gallery NSW in 2014. Viewers now regularly shun the “interpersonal encounter” proposed, and opt instead to video these singing and dancing “officers” when they begin the act of the work in the gallery. Ironically, this perhaps makes them even more active as viewers than their mere triggering of this singing and dancing.What is equally contemporary as the incessant documentation of life to be lived out later is the ever-increasing casualisation of the workforce for a gig economy, which results in a need to work multiple jobs at once. I am writing this article in the town of Kandos (mid-west NSW), where I am skiving off being so contemporary for a couple of days to work as a participating artist of the Cementa festival. And I am also, right at this minute, moonlighting from my Cementa duties to generate this content for EXTRA!EXTRA!

My practice as an artist is typically predicated on providing context rather than content, through a process of appropriating and repurposing social forms for the public. Examples of my works include support groups for ignorance and dog walks for deceased and departed canine friends. As per a motto I have come to adopt, “these works aren’t about something but rather are something”, and the aboutness takes shape in the way the interpersonal relations play out in the context created.

The social form I have appropriated for the Cementa festival is that of the handshake. For the commission to make a work in Kandos, I am looking at what might constitute meaningful community engagement by endeavoring to shake hands with every resident of the regional town. There are echoes in the work of both Mierle Laderman Ukeles shaking hands with the New York City sanitation department, and with Making Art Public artist David Capra’s work for the first Cementa festival in 2013. Ukeles’ handshaking took place over an extended period of time (and was meticulously documented). Capra’s handshaking was in part faciliated by a highly visible costume.

My handshaking has taken place in the everyday flow of life in the town over the course of the festival, barely registering as art. I have self-consciously used the ordinary handshake as a live art activity in an attempt to open up sincere interpersonal relations around the act. I would have preferred not have documented my undertaking of the act at all, but do not have the clout of Sehgal to stave off pressure from the likes of festival media or this here newspaper. Cementa did give me the agency to produce any work I liked for the festival, in response to a weeklong residency in Kandos.

Such agency is incredibly rare. What helped me refine my approach to such an open brief was to consider what would be commensurate with the artist fee of one thousand dollars offered by the festival for the gig. Festival co-director Alex Wisser was incredibly understanding of such a position. Most of this fee consequently went back into the regional town over the course of the festival as my everyday spending. I was happy for this to be the case, in part because it felt like I was working for myself. It felt like my labour was producing surplus value for myself and the festival in relatively equal measure. I am also happy to accept that this cannot always be the case, and for this reason I agree to be paid thirty dollars an hour to interpret for Sehgal. Or am I interpreting for John Kaldor, or the Art Gallery of NSW? This confusion is a bit of a problem.

What would make me happier is greater transparency regarding all the labour relations we engage in as artists. What would make me happier still is to move from what is (or was) so contemporary, and towards what could or should be so contemporary. Let’s reimagine (or re-interpret) ways of being together, as I believe art should. In so doing, let’s strive to quantify the value of artists labour, especially those who produce intangible ephemeral experiences, whether they be singing and dancing or shaking hands or whatever else. We might not be able to obtain and articulate such a value, but we should strive to do so, and work out why and for whom we are laboring in the process. In the meantime, I need to get back to splitting my attention between the five other jobs I am working right now.

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