Audit Report: A Supplementary Text

Catalogue essay

Make or Break

Merch Stand

Underbelly Experimental Arts

Festival, Sydney

September 25 – October 6, 2017

Documentation of report, signed by

Make or Break and Isabelle Sully

This report is provided as an assurance service in order for the user to make decisions based on the results of the audit.

Section 1: Disclosure of Findings

 

On encountering Make or Break’s project Merch Stand (2017) a number of findings reveal themselves:

  1. Generally speaking, artists are insufficiently remunerated for the labour that is asked of them by institutional structures.

  2. The demand for wages runs the risk of homogenising all artistic activity, all activity in general, with money.

  3. Wage contracts would leave the institution in control of the definition of what is being paid for and how it is to be evaluated, rather than allowing the artist to be in control of the production of her own value.

  4. Art institutions are generally under-resourced, resulting in the exploitation of artistic labour as an institutional given.

  5. Through not demanding fair pay artists run the risk of accepting forms of exploitation as a given.

  6. There needs to be a challenge to the wage-relation that affords artists remuneration without negating art’s speculative nature.

 

 

Section 2: Description of Findings

 

For the 2017 edition of Underbelly Experimental Arts Festival, running across the 7th and 8th of October at the National Art School, Sydney, Make or Break have produced a roaming merchandise cart. This temporary business is trading in merchandise that has been developed alongside and for each project in the festival, in collaboration with the participating artists, to be sold in an attempt to earn and redistribute profit to the artists who are otherwise, according to Make or Break, insufficiently remunerated by Underbelly for their work. In so doing, the project seeks to draw attention to the inadequacies of artist fees through working to display a more nuanced perception of the conditions of production for experimental and ephemeral artistic practices, laying the groundwork for a demand for fair pay.

 

This project sits within a long-running conversation surrounding art and labour, one characterised then problematised by Anton Vidokle in his essay ‘Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art’, when he writes:

 

While a concern with labour and fair compensation in the arts… has been an important part of artistic discourse, so far it has focused primarily on public critique as a means to shame and reform institutions into developing a more fair system of compensation for ‘content providers’. We need to move beyond the critique of art institutions if we want to improve the relationship between artists and the economy surrounding their work. [1]

 

Vidokle goes on to argue for a ‘full and radical’ affirmation of the fluidity between the work artists do as artists and the waged-work they do to sustain their practice (and themselves)—in the fully interconnected sense of Marx’s communist promise. Vidokle proposes this fluidity in order to maintain the ‘undefined quality close to the centre of what we all know art to be’. Such a quality is what Marina Vishmidt characterises in economic terms as ‘speculation’. In her essay ‘Anti-Work, Anti-Art: The Paradoxes of Radical Proximity’, Vishmidt argues that attempts to see artists paid result in alienation from their own modes of production, as ‘creativity [then] functions as a springboard for capitalist populism, assuring every exploited worker and discontented artist that their interests are no different from those of capital.’ [2] The artist, therefore, would not be in control of defining the value of her own labour and production, instead handing it over to the institution through wage contracts. Yet Vishmidt insists on a definition of art as labour, and in doing so, via Sophie Carapetian, perfectly articulates the paradox at play in this project:

 

In a time of the proliferation of alienated labour, where more and more of life comes under the remit of work, should artists be arguing that one of the last forms of un-alienated labour be recouped under the wage relation? [3]

 

 

Section 3: Recommendations

 

When artists making institutionally critical work are being invited by institutions to do this work on an increasing basis perhaps a rethinking of the wage-relation needs to happen through institutional practice, rather than as a reactionary result of it.  This seems necessary, as the type of societal recognition and demand for institutional reform outlined in Make or Break’s project cannot be truly waged if it is to remain within the contained borders of a self-determining artwork. This is perhaps evidenced by the fact that while Make or Break are working to draw attention to the unfair conditions of artistic labour, they have instituted a structure for their project which asks other artists to perform unpaid labour of their own. [4] Yet rather than just dismissing this as a formal flaw in the project, even though this is indeed possible, this structural reality has also managed to articulate the murky territory of doing institutional work in an under-resourced setting. It has also revealed that artists too are institutors at times—Make or Break’s position at the top of this temporary hierarchy doesn’t stop them from being artists—meaning the political decision to position oneself as oppositional to institutions seems nearly impossible. If we are institutors of the network of our own production, how can we remain anti-institutional? From both sides, isn’t it in our best interests to resolve the problematic of wage-relations from the position of the institution/institutor? [5]  This is where we could begin to think of other forms of critique that position the wage-relation as a process of direct site-specific negotiation, rather than implementation; one that considers demand in relation to resources and scale and which willingly submits to a self-serving institutional agenda, to the erasure of ones own singularity. Such a form could be the artist-as-auditor.

 

The auditor is a supplementary figure, at once independent and structurally incorporated. They are employed by institutions and organisations to increase efficiency and effectiveness, yet bring to this role their own set of standards and regulations that the institution seeks to follow. The auditor therefore provides the institution with publicly accountable assurance of their compliance with and adherence to codes of ethics and conduct. Instead of thinking of criticism as by necessity exterior, the internal audit is part of the institution (the artwork becomes part of the institution, the institution becomes part of the artwork), thereby structurally aiming to intervene outside oppositional norms. In a lecture-cum-essay she wrote in 2014, Oraib Toukan notes that, ‘to intervene is to violate. It is to insert oneself into a context with the hope of correcting it. Knowing the context of one's intervention—embracing it and tastefully moving along with it—is a form.’ [6] This is perhaps the erasure of ones own singularity: that the artist’s signature must actually be willing to disappear, that the artist must will her own disappearance—so that the critique may become structurally absorbed, held institutionally to account to and by itself. [7]

 

 

Section 4: Final Comments

 

Make or Break’s project has revealed itself to be temporary fix in the struggle for artistic remuneration. [8] While this could be seen as a shortcoming of the project, it has also provided us with an example of a moment when ethics clash with resources—generating a kind of institutional sympathy—which could assist in how we might start to intervene long-term. It has become more and more clear that arguing on ethical terms against institutional complicity is no longer sufficient. Given the administrative and legal spheres of art institutions, a way forward might be to find ways to name and document this complicity as compliance through formal channels; to give it a tangible accountability. This might be the task of the artist-as-auditor. For to be an auditor is not to just fall into the trap of becoming an administrator, of just doing the work of the institution while under the illusion of a different moral identity. Rather, it is to rethink the centrality of the art institution and to forcibly decentralise it through interventions (artworks), so that control isn’t held by the institution exclusively, but instead regulated by artists-cum-auditors. This returns to Vidokle’s socialist approach, one that urges us to consider our personal economies as sites for redistribution. [9] In refusing the institution as the only regulator of work we can begin to understand how art’s unquantifiable nature may come to assist in the demand for a social wage not only within the institution of art, but for everyone.

This audit was conducted by Isabelle Sully on the 15/09/2017 on behalf of Make or Break (Connie Anthes and Rebecca Gallo).

 

[1] Vidokle, Anton. ‘Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art.’ www.e-flux.com. Accessed on September 15, 2017. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/43/60205/art-without-market-art-without-education-political-economy-of-art/

[2] Vishmidt, Marina. ‘Anti-Work, Anti-Art: The Paradoxes of Radical Proximity.’ www.openspace-zkp.org. Accessed on September 19, 2017. http://www.openspace-zkp.org/2013/en/journal.php?j=4&t=25

[3] In her essay, Vishmidt refers to an ongoing conversation she had with the London artist and activist Sophie Carapetian. The above quote is an excerpt from a text Carapetian wrote to Vishmidt, which Vishmidt went on to include in her essay. Vishmidt, 'Anti-Work, Anti-Art: The Paradoxes of Radical Proximity'.

[4] The artists with whom Make or Break have directly collaborated will only receive money in the form of a dividend if the merchandise sells, leaving their value to be determined by market speculation. From the sales, each of the participating artists, including Make or Break, will receive an equal percentage of the total profit. Yet as it stands, the artists labour is financially unaccounted for, excluding Make or Break who have received three separate grants for production costs of the project, from which they will take an artist fee.

[5] To risk problematising this even further, recent discussions around documenta 14’s supposed bankruptcy have also highlighted desires on part of institutions to deny demands waged by neoliberalism. Following numerous articles claiming the bankruptcy of documenta, the curatorial team issued a statement urging for a reassessment of the institution financially. In it, they condemned the news coverage, labelling it as a political campaign, stating that ‘by imposing growth demands on documenta we challenge the institution as a public and critical sphere. This political takeover of documenta is not being done by asking documenta to explicitly serve specific political agendas, but rather, in a subtler yet equally effective way, by asking a public cultural institution to become primarily an economic institution subject to the demands of profit and success.’ You can read the statement at: https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/statement-by-the-artistic-director-and-curatorial-team-of-documenta-14/7013

[6] Toukan, Oraib. ‘We the Intellectuals: Re-routing Institutional Critique’. www.ibraaz.org. Accessed on September 13, 2017. http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/98.

[7] On this clause, it seems no coincidence that in the case of education, the student auditor is a person who attends class informally without working for credit.

[8] On the provisory that the merchandise sells.

[9] I think here of the network of funding produced by this project and how it might be possible to think of this on more radical terms. That rather than being a resolution to a form of exploitation, this network produced a community through which the redistribution of resources allowed for opportunities outside capital to occur; such as the development of a work (and the contribution of cultural capital) to support an arts festival with limited resources and which the artists themselves believe in.