by Sarah Rodigari and Malcom Whittaker
A recording of a conversation, run through dictation software, in three acts.
Level 2, Art Gallery NSW
Two characters convene. They each have a background in theatre, rendered daggy and repudiated by the contemporary art world they now work within, which has included much enacting of live art works for Kaldor Public Art Projects over the years. They walk and talk. They record the conversation that unfolds. The conversation will be published in the newspaper EXTRA! EXTRA! Does this make them journalists? Maybe of Nietzschean type, in that they offer “no facts, only interpretations”. The same could be said of much of what passes as journalism in the post-truth world they live in.
Critic Michael Fried suggested that art depreciates when it reaches the point of theatre. But maybe he didn’t go far enough. Maybe it is life that depreciates when it reaches the point of art?
SARAH: So, you’ve already written about This is So Contemporary?
MALCOLM: Well, yeah. They needed some content last week. So, I wrote a reflection on labouring and interpreting for the Tino Sehgal work This is So Contemporary that we both did in 2014, and I am doing again now.
SARAH: I haven’t read your article. Should I read your article?
MALCOLM: Maybe? It’s coming hot off the press this afternoon.
SARAH: How shall we think about this piece then? Lucas has approached us to write something about art and labour. What did you want to say about art and labour that you haven’t said in your article?
MALCOLM: Well, maybe it would be good to expand on it. What you mentioned earlier sounded interesting. The article that you found and then couldn’t find again, about the focus on valuing artist’s labour beyond a fiscal sense? Is that what the article was about?
SARAH: Last week, you talked about labour, what you’re doing, how much you’re getting paid, who’s getting valued. You were in This is so Contemporary in 2014 and now it’s 2019 and you’re in it again. Are you getting paid the same?
MALCOLM: I think it is a little bit more this time around.
SARAH: That’s something we might want to fact check.
MALCOLM: What I think we need to fact check is what an award wage is for a performer. A slippery ground is created because we’re not deemed performers, but rather “Interpreters”. Officially speaking, contractually, you’re an interpreter, not a performer.
SARAH: Are you entitled to an MEAA rate for a performer or a NAVA rate as an artist?
MALCOLM: Strictly speaking, within the “score” of the work, you are not an artist or a performer, but rather an “Interpreter”. The other problem is that you’re labouring to produce capital for someone else. This is what I wrote about last week. Whether it’s a commensurate wage or fee that you’re paid to interpret in a Sehgal work, or in any of these delegated performance works, seems to me to depend on how much the artist with their name on the work is getting paid and what you are paid comparatively to execute the work. I don’t know how much Tino Sehgal was paid. To me, the idea of whether our wage is a “good one” or an “award one” or an “appropriate one” seems to be that it should have some interplay with that greater context. But because there’s a lack of transparency around that, it does feel like you’re not acknowledged because you’re an “Interpreter”. And your name isn’t mentioned. What are you really labouring for?
SARAH: Okay, so what are we going to talk about this week, given that that you’ve already written an article on art and labour?
MALCOLM: Well, I wasn’t really sure what we were doing this week. We scrawled some notes and then we were just going to wing it with a conversation.
SARAH: Let the improvisation begin.
MALCOLM: Maybe, like you said, the point is to shift the conversation from being one of valuing artists’ labour in a financial sense, versus, I don’t know, an aesthetic sense or something like this? Is that what you reckon?
SARAH: Uh, I’m not sure. How do artists work and how do we value what they produce, not just financially, but also socially and culturally – which is of course linked to economic value. There’s a lot of discussion around fair pay for artists, so that’s great, but how might we value the work that artists do differently so that artists can recognise the labour that they’re doing and see merit in it. Is that even possible?
MALCOLM: What is a process by which we might be able to work to achieve and articulate that? Within the practices of Tino Sehgal’s work, and maybe yours and mine, the labour is achieving an intangible performative experience. Is there an assessable efficacy as the outcome of what you do?
SARAH: I think there’s also some idea of sustainability. To be invited to do This is so Contemporary again raises questions for me. Why do I want to do that? What do I get out of it? Is it just a financial exchange?
MALCOLM: Performing artists seem much more accustomed to getting paid and asking to be paid than visual artists. I’ve done a couple of the Australia Council peer review panels, and visual artists actually are so ill-accustomed to being paid that they don’t even ask for fees. Whereas people with more of a performative background or practice value their labour and ask for a fee for what they’re doing.
SARAH: This becomes complicated because in visual art, the labour of the artist isn’t necessarily valued, but the artwork is, so you get paid for the object. Perhaps the object will sell and if it sells, you recuperate the labour costs in its sale?
MALCOLM: But that’s taking a risk, right? In the performing arts, for example, in a professional context, I think you get paid for the labour and the value of your labour is your ability, your skill as a performer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be contingent on say ticket sales. You’re paid a wage, regardless of ticket sales. You’re not risking anything in the way visual artists would at the potential of selling their work.
SARAH: You have to get paid for performance because you have to be in the rehearsal space. The visual artist foregoes an artist fee in order to pay somebody to fabricate the artwork, which then potentially sells. That’s rare for a lot of people. Visual artists need to be paid proper artist fees regardless of the artwork.
MALCOLM: Of course!
SARAH: To come back to this Tino Sehgal thing, did the interpreters get paid the same as a visitor services officer?
MALCOLM: I think we were actually paid a little bit more. When we did it in 2014, I remember standing next to a real gallery officer and having a little chat in between routines. You know, I’m there in my officer’s costume, standing next to an actual gallery officer. I asked him and he told me his hourly rate and it was a bit less than the $27-odd dollars an hour we were getting last time. And this time round, in 2019, we’re actually on $30 an hour Monday to Saturday and $40 on Sundays.
SARAH: I wanted to bring up the idea of being called an “Interpreter” but not an artist. Isn’t an artist an interpreter of some sort? There seems to be a fine line between not being recognised as an artist or as a performer. Everything seems a little false. Like these flowers in the Jeff Koons puppy work we now find ourselves standing in front of.
MALCOLM gestures to fondle a flower in the Jeff Koons Puppy installation. SARAH slaps his hand away. A gallery officer gives them a disapproving look but says nothing.
MALCOLM: Well. I suppose that all art involves representation and all representation involves a process of interpretation, and in so doing becomes removed from the truth. Didn’t Plato make that observation a few thousand years ago? But Sehgal has leveraged this position for himself where the work is not considered theatre, even though it runs for a season, even though we have learnt lines and attended rehearsals and wear a costume. I feel like I read once that he doesn’t like the word performance because there’s a quantifying side to the word, like “key performance indicators” or “high-performance”. There’s a certain efficacy to what performance achieves that he wasn’t into, so instead he calls them “constructed situations”, using the language of the Situationist International. But why shy away from the idea of achieving something, and what is theatre but a constructed situation in the first place?
SARAH: Doesn’t Sehgal value the performance as an object? He sells it like an object. He separates himself from the gallery or the institution that goes on to present the work. He’s not building a relationship with the interpreters. They’re just outsourced labourers making the work happen.
MALCOLM: But each time I’ve been an interpreter for This is so Contemporary, there’s also always someone there to give the tick of approval of how “Tino would like it to be”. We have worked with Xavier Le Roy, Becky Hilton, Asad Raza and Ivey Wawn, as “directors” (whether they like that term or not). You’re interpreting, but within that there is someone there to oversee on Tino’s behalf, to keep the score, to be a delegate somewhere in between us as interpreters and him as the artist.
MALCOLM: All this wondering that we do is because of what Sehgal has orchestrated through his anti-documentation, anti-material stance, which elicits our speculation. Everything is hearsay, everything trickles through the grapevine, nothing is written down.
SARAH: Have you done any research on this?
MALCOLM: (Shrugs). I have read a couple of articles. He sells the work. There’s a verbal contract that says “this is what you have to do, this is the amount of people, this is the score, this is the amount of time they need to rehearse and train, this is how much they should be paid, which is equivalent to this rate”. Something like that. But apparently there’s not even any written contractual paperwork anywhere.
SARAH: So that’s what creates all this mythology and narratives around human labour, because it’s so elusive?
MALCOLM: To write it down would be documentation and therefore create a material trace of the work – which Tino forbids.
SARAH: I have also heard that if you buy the work, somebody delivers the contract to you verbally. Perhaps Kaldor could clarify this?
MALCOLM: Maybe you could ask him?
Pause. They walk.
SARAH: We’re walking from one end of this Kaldor exhibition to the other. What’s it called again?
MALCOLM: Making Art Public.
SARAH: We started at one end of the exhibition, skirting This is So Contemporary, and now at the other end there is Lion’s Honey, a performance by Agatha Goth-Snape. Both consist of other people working in public on behalf of the artist to make the art happen. We had an awkward conversation before about whether or not people talk about money and artist fees and how it always feels impolite to talk about money. In this instance, how do we talk about Making Art Public without talking about labour, and how do we talk about labour without talking about money?
MALCOLM: Well, Agatha’s work seems like a joyous gift for the delegates she is working with, especially when we can see them from our position interpreting for Sehgal. Their labour is for their own enrichment, being provided the time and space to simply read in the gallery.
SARAH: I’ve said yes to doing Kaldor projects in the past because I saw them as an opportunity to work with international artists and develop my skills and understanding of art practice.
[Editor’s note: in 2015 Sarah Rodigari was a selected artist for Kaldor Public Art Projects’ Australian Artists Residency Program for Marina Abramovic: In Residence. Sarah reflects on this experience in her PhD thesis.]
MALCOLM: Sure, me as well, and critical reflections have then been generated and fed back into my own practice through my participation, which has been incredibly valuable.
SARAH: But with the international artists, there is seldom an interpersonal relationship. In this case, you don’t get to work with the artist, even though you’re in their work.
MALCOLM: But with Agatha you do.
SARAH: Yes, and you are not constrained by a “conceit” in Agatha’s work, to use one of your words. You are just reading.
MALCOLM: Yes. Richard Schechner has this idea of “dark play”, where some of the participants don’t know they’re part of the play. The frame has been concealed. The conceit is still there. I think that’s definitely what’s going on in Sehgal’s work. Even though you remove the didactics and all the usual technologies of framing an artwork, that doesn’t mean that we’re not still at play and experiencing an art project and a performance. I think This is so Contemporary might be aiming for something of an institutional critique, but for many patrons it probably falls into the realm of parody, which incidentally is a place I have mistakenly fallen in my own work plenty of times.
SARAH: What have you learnt about yourself from working on the Tino Sehgal piece? Did you get fit?
MALCOLM: Oh, yes. Definitely. That’s an added bonus, for sure. That’s value adding! Adding further fitness value was cycling into the gallery each day, as Tino has requested we do. Oh, everyone also refers to him as “Tino”, as if he is our mate, and I find that funny. I’ve never heard an artist that you’ve never met referred to by a first name so much.
SARAH: Is it important for you to value or respect artists that you’re working with? Or do you just take this job for the money.
MALCOLM: Not necessarily, but don’t get me wrong. I do respect Tino Sehgal, but respect doesn’t place something above critique. This is also a chance to work and be paid as a practicing artist, which is rather rare. It’s also nice to hang out with the other interpreters. It’s convivial in that sense. We’re a sort of temporary micro-community. I like doing the performance too. It has moments of great joy, when you do one of these routines and you get a sense of satisfaction when you do the job well, when you all come together in unison to reach a successful iteration of the performance. It is satisfying as an artist, aesthetically, in terms of what you have achieved with your comrades, in your three-person ensemble.
SARAH: This is a good point because Kaldor Public Art Projects employ a lot of local artists to work on their international projects, and these do form supportive local conversations and art communities.
Same time. Same place. Walking through the Sehgal exhibition.
INTERPRETER(S): (Singing and dancing.) Oh, this is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary…
MALCOLM: Oh, great.
SARAH: Did you ever feel like you’re busking when you’re doing it?
SARAH: Have you ever thought of busking?
SARAH: Do you know how much buskers get paid? An hour?
SARAH: That’s something to look into.
Pause. They walk towards the escalator.
Same time. Same place. They stand on the escalator, looking down on the INTERPRETERS as they head up to Level 1.
MALCOLM: On the record, what were you saying the other day about feeling a little bit humiliated when you did it last time?
SARAH: I did it with you in 2014?
SARAH: Did we ever do it together?
MALCOLM: I don’t think you ever had the pleasure.
SARAH: I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing you do it. I wouldn’t mind seeing that on video.
MALCOLM: That’s one of the liberating joys of the work. There’s no incriminating footage of me. (Pause). Although, maybe there is? Who knows?
SARAH: Hypothetically, it does look less humiliating this time round. Because this time around, you’re within the context of an exhibition space with other contemporary artworks, as opposed to being in the entrance of the gallery.
MALCOLM: There have been a few significant improvements in how the work has been staged this time around. Placing the work in a gallery means that it resonates with the other parts of the space, rather than the work accosting people like a sort of flash mob in the entrance hall. Also, a wonderful degree of care has been shown to us as performers. For example, every hour we take a little break to have some water, have a snack, have a sit down. With this sort of care factor in mind, and the repositioning in the gallery space, we’re producing much better work.
SARAH: Shall we get a coffee?
MALCOLM: I don’t have my wallet. Your shout?
Audio recording fails.