Response: Dear Christian

Valuing Labor in the Arts

Response: Dear Christian

By Claudia La Rocco May 22, 2014

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center hosted Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This daylong event included a series of artist-led workshops that developed exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics.

Claudia La Rocco participated in the “Yoga for Adjuncts: The Somatics of Human Capital” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum and was commissioned to write this response.

Dear Christian,

I’m writing from Governors Island, where I have a residency through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Spring is finally here, and it’s one of those dazzling, windy days. The water is terrifically choppy. And it seems important to say, given the topic(s) at hand, that I have this residency as a writer, full stop (or something). I am also the organization’s research fellow, thinking about issues of sustainability (isn’t everyone these days). A little while ago, LMCC’s Director of Cultural Programs, Melissa Levin—do you know her? She’s lovely—told me that she has to fight for us.

She said:

I think of physical space as being equivalent to mental space—when people ask me why a writer or a photographer needs a dedicated space … well, they think, research, edit, and create dialogue. They also need space for making.

I can see the water from where I sit, the orange ferry going by, Wall Street as our mythologized lap of labor. I just ate a tuna sandwich. I am listening to Fiona Apple’s “Werewolf” on repeat, through headphones.

Yoga for Adjuncts: The Somatics of Human Capital workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Megan Hoetger.

When I told people about your workshop “Yoga for Adjuncts: The Somatics of Human Capital,” I kept saying it was marvelously sinister. This is perhaps best encapsulated by your final question to us, even as you asked us to breathe, to accept the ground beneath us: “Do you have a contract for this coming fall?”

Come on. What adjunct worth her salt has a contract?? That’s not how the system works—to the extent that it works.

Actually, probably some adjuncts have contracts. But, you know, it’s not like we talk to each other or anything. “Artist–teachers, despite their self-doubts about organizing, could be an integral part of the resurgence…” And of course our institutions don’t want that. Why should they? Did you read the article in the New York Times magazine by Charles Siebert about the legal rights of animals? I am thinking, with regard to the rights of adjuncts to organize, about these lines:

“The lawyer for the aquarium was so outraged,” Wise said. “He kept saying, ‘Judge, our own dolphin is suing us!’ And I understand that outrage. He felt: ‘We own this. This is completely ours, and what is ours is now claiming we can’t do something to it?’”

Siebert, I see, is a “contributing writer.”

And now I am thinking of the list of names you gave us for adjuncts:

Instructor, transient, visitor, migrant worker, freeway flier, academic third world, road warrior, teaching associate, lecturer, part-timer, sunlighter, surrogate faculty, collateral faculty, limited-service faculty, instructional aide, short-termer, twilighter, temp, field hand, boat people, circuit rider, gypsy scholar, TA, contingent faculty, partial affiliate, artist-in-residence, writer-in-residence, scholar-in-residence.

And on and on and on…

But there we all were, practicing some form of yoga on that ropey rug—Fritz Haeg’s Domestic Integrities, Part 1 (2012), to be exact—which isn’t really that easy. It isn’t, let’s say, the best way to actually feel the ground beneath one’s feet—or foot, as you had us in tree pose for an extended period. It doesn’t make for the most restful corpse pose. I couldn’t really relax, or let go of the ego, while you intoned:

The less we’re paid

the more we care

the more we care

the less we’re paid

And I couldn’t get out of my head that someone earlier that day said to me that the cantilevered concrete building we were in gets an “F” for earthquake safety. Corpse pose, indeed.  

But what I was thinking, when I wasn’t thinking of falling slabs of concrete, was that this was a fucked-up yoga session. But it was brilliant as a performance lecture, with all of us also as the performers, happy-babying at your pleasure. Yogi as Svengali.

And also: always multitasking. That’s the lot of the guest artist. When you walked away from me, I couldn’t always hear your voice.

Yoga for Adjuncts: The Somatics of Human Capital workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Megan Hoetger.

And also x2, the thing I am always thinking these days: How we are implicated, being in this system? Do you really believe that as art teachers we exist firmly in the service economy? Such a slippery idea for me. I mean, who are we serving, and what are we serving them, other than more debt, more uncertainty, more entitlement? There are too many adjuncts, and there are too many artists, and I don’t think these two things are unrelated. Do we value food during the feast or the famine? Why always the shuttling between these stupid poles?

And now, too, I’m thinking of Sara Wookey’s workshop, “Collective Actions, Moving Thought,” which I snuck into in the morning session, and how someone in there said that we were all passing around the same $25 to each other’s Kickstarter campaigns (I hate Kickstarter, it makes me feel vicious), and how Sara’s point seemed to focus a lot more on the individual, the idea of individual responsibility, while your workshop really made me feel the weight of the institution (concrete slabs) and … I dunno. The ways bodies and buildings can and can’t speak to each other. The relief of not using words, or not expecting them to get you anywhere.

(Yesterday I went to the Whitney and watched Miguel Gutierrez’s Biennial piece, the duet Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/ and I keep thinking of Gutierrez’s [mid-career] body and Mickey Mahar’s [emerging] body and the gorgeous economical knowingness coiled within MG versus MM’s fantastically exuberant violence of form … “the fucking voiceless, faceless dancers,” they called at one point. Oh, Christian. I wish I lived in a city that valued the labor of dancers. I wish that for the dancers, but more so, I wish it for the city’s sake.)

I’ve written 958 words to you. Do I want to write more? Yes, I do. But of course, as you know, my mandate was 1,000 to 1,500 words and I do not get paid any more money for that extra 500. I was paid in total $500. (I didn’t ask for more. Did you? Sara did. Good girl.) So there’s always that mercenary part of me, a part which seems to get bigger as the freelance years go by, that says, “Well, kiddo, you’ve dispatched this job, time to move along.” (You told us: “In human-resources economics, the ‘purchase price’ of temporary work is lower productivity,” but by then you had established yourself as a not entirely trustworthy narrator.)

Not everything can be monetized.

Breathing in, you know that you are breathing in.

Breathing out, you know that you are breathing out.

Not everything should be monetized.

I grew up in rural Maine (talk about a service economy). It occurs to me now that a lot of the art students I deal with are another kind of tourist; they won’t stay here. Sometimes colleagues talk about those students as being our future funders, and this makes me feel all sorts of uncomfortable. You know that scene in The Matrix where you see all of the humans incubated by the machines, so that they can feed off of their energy? Yeah, well.

Yoga for Adjuncts: The Somatics of Human Capital workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Michelle Ott.

The Staten Island Ferry is going by again, leaving the hive. The laborers come and go, to and fro. They are very tired. Are they very merry?

In an hour and twenty minutes I, too, have to get on a ferry. Back to the hive. (Do you know what I am doing tonight, Christian? I am going to a Performa panel titled “Who Can Write About Performance Art?” No, really. The things humans think to do.)

“Maybe I have an ideal view of the service economy,” you told me. “Maybe I am a cynic,” I said. Maybe, I am thinking now, I missed the entire point of the actual service we’re providing to—again, your delicious words—“these problematic creatures trying to push or laze their way into adulthood, or trying to extend their childhoods into the entrepreneurial wilds of the city.”

My letter is unraveling. Stopping and starting. You said that you maybe also wanted to alienate the concept of flexibility. I like this idea. I liked that you weren’t so well behaved. You didn’t cheerfully rally us to the cause. We’re all exhausted already, no? At the end of the day we did that whole Next Steps business and somebody said, “We need to recognize that we are all really tired,” and I wanted to cheer but I was too worn out.

But about that not being well-behaved business. Why did so many people decide that art should be so polite? Civilization is not polite. (I mean, my god, that show, The Possible, makes me feel like Kickstarter does. Creativity safe space, you share/I share it back, you give/I give it back, everyone’s an artist. Now I am just being an asshole.)

I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say at this point, except that, maybe, there is something about art making another space that isn’t necessarily about winning the day, and your work seemed to hint at this, and I was grateful for it.

Yes. I was grateful for it. I’ve written past the 1,500-word limit and I think that’s what I needed to say, that I hadn’t said by word 958: Thank you.

Thank you.


(1551 words.)

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