We read with interest and dismay Yvonne Rainer’s critique of Marina Abramović’s performance proposal for the Los Angeles MOCA gala earlier this month. We hold these two artists in the highest esteem—for the courageousness, intelligence, humor and beauty of their work and for their unapologetically unconventional lives as women and outspoken citizens. We had the opportunity to train with Abramović and perform in the three months of her retrospective at the MoMA in New York in the Spring of 2010.
In her critique, more explicit in the first “unofficial” letter to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, Rainer focuses on two issues. One is her concern over what Abramović was asking the performers to do at the gala. Rainer deemed the performances exploitative, particularly understanding them, as she did, simply as party entertainment. The other issue is the performers’ inadequate pay for demanding labor: $150 for a day of rehearsal and a challenging, somewhat risky 4-5 hour performance day. Rainer’s final letter focuses on the former, raising many legitimate critiques. However, we think this latter issue demands attention, as well.
Leading up to the Abramović retrospective in 2010, the 39 “reperformers” engaged in a series of successful negotiations with the MoMA for better wages and working conditions.* The initial offer we received from the museum struck many of us as untenable: $50 for a 2 1/2 hour performance shift, no compensation for prep time or time in between shifts, and, most troublingly, no workman’s compensation, which would cover us in the case of injury. Through a first round of negotiations, we achieved a modest pay increase and a change of status to “temporary employee,” which provided us workman’s compensation and some other benefits. However, we were only able to approach a fair wage for our work after two fainting performers made evident the difficulty and risk of our work. Still, we were not paid enough to avoid working other jobs during the run of the exhibit.
In 2008-2009, the MoMA’s operating budget was $160 million.** This puts it well in line with major opera houses and Broadway theaters, which must pay their performing artists union wages. More than 750,000 people attended the Abramović exhibit. By all accounts, it was a blockbuster show for the MoMA. If live performance is going to be one of the revitalizing forces of mainstream art museums, the performing artists who are making that possible must work in decent conditions and be fairly paid.
Marina had made clear in our auditions that all terms of employment would be handled by the museum. For a variety of reasons, we chose not to try to bring Marina into our contract negotiations. We had had a remarkable training week the previous summer, and we knew this would be important work, both experientially and, potentially, for our careers. Marina spoke to us about the challenges she had faced trying to bring live performance into a major museum on such a large scale. Many of us also felt a commitment to this creative experiment.***
The issues that Rainer focuses on in her letter are worthy of serious attention. It is clear that new complications arise as the risky and provocative actions of performance art get transferred from the body of the artist to those of hired performers. Do the performers lose their agency? Does an action that is challenging when framed as art become exploitative when framed as entertainment? The issues Rainer raises of the homogeneity of the performers, in terms of race and body type, are also vital concerns. They are not unique to the MOCA gala performances and deserve to be addressed on a more systemic level.
We are pleased to see an active debate emerging around these issues in the last few weeks. We use the moment to make a clear call to artists to insist that performers who are embodying their works are paid fairly and work under respectful conditions. We call on museum directors and curators to pay performers decent wages, wages in line with the value that the institutions derive from their work, and provide safe and comfortable working environments. And we call on performers to demand that this happens. We do not have to compromise decent pay and fair working conditions, especially in the largest and wealthiest institutions in the country, to be involved with interesting artists and work.
Finally, we make this call humbly in the face of the many millions in this country out of work and facing economic hardship. We hope our efforts will be a piece of a larger movement for labor rights.
–Abigail Levine, Gary Lai, Rebecca Brooks
November 28, 2011
* Some reperformers objected to the idea of renegotiating the contract, feeling the offer was fair and the experience worth it on its own. We had a lively and open debate via email. A small number signed the original offer. Most held off and, ultimately, all reperformers signed the updated contracts.
*** The issues regarding performer security raised in relation to the MOCA benefit were addressed fully by the MoMA and Abramovic. Both leading up to the MoMA exhibit and throughout the run, we worked closely with the remarkable security staff at the MoMA. We had procedures in place for responding to inappropriate action by viewers or unsafe conditions. The security guards were sensitive and important collaborators in our work.