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This article was written on 28 Nov 2011, and is filed under Claudia's Blog.

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Three Reperformers from “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” Respond to the MOCA Gala Performances

Hallway converted to performer green room on the 6th floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Abigail Levine

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.

** Boroff, Phillip. “Museum of Modern Art’s Lowry Earned $1.32 Million in 2008-2009.” Bloomberg News.

*** 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.

14 Comments

  1. John Wyszniewski
    November 28, 2011

    Truly shocked! I thought MoMA would have done better. I applaud the courage and humility of Abigail Levine, Gary Lai, and Rebecca Brooks. It’s so true that performers deserve decent conditions and better pay. We need to demand it and not stay silent – especially at top museums and performing arts centers.

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  3. Branko Miliskovic
    November 29, 2011

    And these problems will occur much more frequent if we continue performing just for a sake of our careers and for a sake of an institutions in which the performance is taking place. I always put the ART and ARTWORK to the top level of a priority so everything else is less important ( Performer, Museum, Venue, Honorarium…) but, as this is not our hobby and we have spent more then 11 years for artistic education and improvement and we constantly improve ourselves, we definitely must be at least ”properly payed” for the job that we work on. That is the job like any other jobs and there is nothing extraordinary what we are doing comparing to the science, medicine, sport…
    But as we all have our own expenses, bills, rents, insurances and billion other costs, we shall be payed according to the current average which is at least for emerging artists and is about $600,00 or € 500,00 per day of performance excluding hospitality, flight tickets and pick up/drop off.
    This , what we are witnessing at Gala MOCA or, evidently MOMA, judging to the stories of Abigail,Gary and Rebecca , is nothing less then job of a statist in the theater. However, all artists that have been performing in either MOMA or MOCA were consciously participating probably for a sake of celebrity but what they got was just a hungry stomach.

  4. Merilyn Jackson
    November 29, 2011

    As a colleague working with Joseph Franklin and his Relache Ensemble throughout the 80′s, I saw, through him, how important it was for the performers to be paid. Franklin negotiated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other institutions to always be sure his musicians and tech people were paid. Was it ever a fair wage? NO! But it sure was fun watching him fight so fiercely against those admin folk who believed the artists should simply work for the joy of it and for career enhancement! It seems to me the foremost responsibility is that this issue must be addressed by artists like Abramović when they first approach a wealthy institution. If not they will see their pool of talented, willing participants dry up. Shame on her for taking a back seat in this issue of fair payment.
    As a dance critic for the past 20 years, I am always concerned that the dancers I review and write about are paid fairly. I do my best to give sound documentation to those whose work most deserves the attention and rewards of funders and institutions, as well as the public. I still cannot wrap my head around why people, inside and outside of the arts, don’t see themselves or their colleagues as deserving of decent wages. I hope the entire American arts community supports artists like Abigail Levine, Gary Lai, and Rebecca Brooks who stand up for their dignity and the value of their work.

    • Branko Miliskovic
      November 29, 2011

      Completely agree with your report , Merilyn !
      However, that all what you are saying should be logical and normal if all other circumstances wouldn’t get corrupted. But , I am afraid that we are facing the scene far more degenerated and alienated, than we intend to believe.

  5. DeeAnn Nelson
    November 29, 2011

    Dancer need to be paid properly for their hard work and dedication to their art form. Unless they demand proper compensation they will continue to be despensable upon injury. But worse, then their life long dedication to their career is compromised. Regardless of the talent of the choreographer…dancers should not be treated as lab rats for art.

  6. Amy Smith
    November 29, 2011

    As the Co-Director of Headlong Dance Theater, a dance company that has worked hard for years to pay ourselves and our dancers fairly and equitably, this issue is of deep concern to me. Our budget is 0.25% of MoMAs, and we still pay our dancers $15-$25 per hour for rehearsal (depending on the project budget) and $100 per performance, even if they are doing one 10-minute piece in a mixed bill. For touring, we use the NPN guidelines of $500-$750 per week, plus per diem. I have also worked as an actor outside of Headlong, under Equity guidelines, and although the hourly pay is not a living wage (closer to $10/hr) when you are working under an Equity contract, the work rules protect the actors well. We MUST have continued dialog about this issue — dancers and actors have devalued their own time for too long, often feeling (perhaps rightly) that “if I don’t take this low-paying gig, there are 50 people lined up behind me who will”. It is the responsibility of institutions and makers to pay their performers a good wage, and it is the responsibility of performers to advocate on their own behalf, for the good of the future. Thank you Abigail, Gary, and Rebecca (and Sara Wookey) for speaking out about this issue and getting the conversation out into the public realm.

  7. Jody Oberfelder
    November 29, 2011

    It’s really brave of these performers to speak out.

  8. [...] re-performers write: Leading adult to a Abramovi? retrospective in 2010, a 39 “reperformers” intent in a array of [...]

  9. Catherine Peila
    November 30, 2011

    Being in a position of running a non-profit presenting and educational organization, DNA, in today’s poor economy it is difficult to pay anyone their value. This really sucks because we have a mission to support the world of dance (American culture in my eyes), and thus part of the organization’s responsibility is artist, student/emerging artist, faculty member, employee,… career development which includes an appropriate pay scale. But because of the present state of funding and the fact that DNA’s client base are poor starving artists and we must keep class and ticket prices affordable we need to augment our earned revenue with contributed income. Running a space is expensive, producing artists is expensive, offering a space for audience to experience work. Funders often balk at giving money to venues for fees or salaries or rent or the not so sexy stuff … at least to smaller NGO’s, the non-CIG, which is the 99% in the artworld.

    That said DNA, like it’s New York cultural peers, is, in no way in the position to pay its artists what they should be paid but we still pay them with both fees, and performance and admin services and through subsidized programming at the expense of making a profit and each person struggling. But for the 1% of the artworld, which in this case is Marina Abramović and MoMALA (or the project/artist/organization funders), those who aren’t struggling so much, they should have paid their artists a higher amount. The wealth driven organizations need to take a stand and act. This would send a signal to the funding world that art is expensive and it needs support. I am constantly at odds with how the work of mission driven businesses is undervalued by the larger community. Change doesn’t only start with the venues or the artist in charge but it must also include the funders and the community belief system. It’s gotta change – wouldn’t it be nice if everyone believed that a professional dancer were as monetarily valued as a football player? Sigh…back to real life – If we can’t fund the cultural performer/creator/teacher/administrator with real dollars how about subsidized housing, subsidized education, healthcare…? Anyway, the dialogue is so so so big. It comes down to a value system and changing a practice. It can happen and will.

  10. Dean MacGregor
    December 1, 2011

    When I worked at Moma in 2000, the staff was on strike. The director had the curators manning the front desk and gave all employees that crossed the picket line free food in the staff cafe. I was horrified. A front desk person earned about $12,000. a year. Then they built the new Moma and the director had a secret pay amount added to his income provided by one of the trustees. I was sent home for yelling ‘scab’ at one of the employees. I was a guard and would have been fired if I didn’t show up for work. I left Moma then. When I started working at Moma in 1988 I was so pleased to be working for an ‘enlightened cultural institution’. Yea right.

  11. Jeremy
    December 2, 2011

    Props for posting this letter. This is a much-needed discussion.
    I think choreographers/presenters need to pay performers much better, even if they’re cash strapped or struggling to raise their own money. The common excuse that “I don’t really have any money of my own, so how can I pay my performers?” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one in dance has enough money, but that’s no excuse not to pay a fair wage. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

  12. Jennifer Wright Cook
    December 5, 2011

    Bravo to Abigail, Rebecca and Gary.

  13. Dino Dinco
    December 8, 2011

    On performance art, ethics and criticality in the wake of Marina Abramović’s 2011 MOCA gala performance and Yvonne Rainer’s critical letter of said performance.

    Please join us for a moderated open forum instigated by the outpouring of reactions and criticality surrounding, although not limited to, Abramović’s recent performance as part of MOCA’s fundraising gala. Using Abramović’s Los Angeles performance as one example, we hope that this forum will expand the depth and scope of performance art practice in the face of art / money / power, will investigate modes of working and programming that are seen as successful and not, and will serve to examine more deeply the role and function of performance art in museums and art spaces.

    We encourage those who participated in the performance at MOCA to attend this open forum and share their experience and their thoughts, as well as those who were guests at the dinner, those who worked as food servers during the dinner, those who were selected to perform but decided against it, performance art bloggers, MOCA staff, Debbie Harry, the cosigners of Yvonne Rainer’s letter, etc. All are welcome.

    An abundance of thought and reaction to this event (as an event, but also as a mode and model of production) has been documented on blogs and on facebook, at numerous dinners and privately over drinks. We look forward to coming together in the same room to further the investment and interest in some of these very important issues surrounding contemporary performance art practice.

    Saturday, 17 December 2011

    1:00 PM – 4:00 PM

    Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions / LACE
    6522 Hollywood Blvd.
    Los Angeles CA 90028

    LACE is equidistant from the Hollywood / Highland and Hollywood / Vine stations of the MTA Red Line

    Free admission and open to the public.

    Facebook event page:

    https://www.facebook.com/events/121823981266338/

    Moderators:

    Dino Dinco, multi-disciplinary artist and curator and Performance Art Curator in Residence, LACE

    Jennifer Doyle, UC Riverside Professor, author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (2006) and Hold It Against Me: Difficulty, Emotion and Contemporary Art (forthcoming, 2012).

    Matias Viegener, Professor of Literature and Critical Theory, CalArts and co-founder of the participatory art collective, Fallen Fruit

    * Please note: We will be taking up a monetary collection for a couple of performers who were part of the gala performance and who will be traveling from San Francisco to participate in this discussion. These two artists were some of the first to write extensively about their experience, helping to ignite the broad and often spicy discussions documented online.

    Please extend some true Los Angeles art community hospitality to our out-of-town artist guests in helping to make their presence possible.

    Thank you.

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