Precarious statuses, contracts, pay, abuses of power, self-exploitation, and hypocrisy... The work of Joshua Schwebel identifies and reveals recurring, problematic practices in the contemporary art world, despite the fact that they are often invisible, masked, or hushed up. Through a process of infiltration, dialogue, and through the various forms that his projects take, the artist highlights the political, ethical, and artistic paradoxes within the institutional bodies he is invited to, while striving to raise awareness so that, collectively and progressively, it will be possible to “restructure the system in a way that makes it more responsible.
Marie Bechetoille : Recently, you were invited to participate in two collective exhibitions focusing on Alison Knowles, presented concurrently at the cneai= in Pantin and at La Galerie, the contemporary art centre in Noisy-le-Sec.1 On the one hand, with the work Audience Engagement, you paid visitors to activate the works of other artists, and on the other, with The Hostage, you invited artists to suggest protocols to perform at the homes of the project’s curators. Your work functions by detour (by invitation), delegation (to other artists, visitors, and to the institution), and redistribution (of money, roles, hierarchies). You position yourself in an in-between while also dividing your role: artist and curator, critic and colleague, visible and invisible, outsider and insider. Beyond the starkness of the institutional critique, in all of your projects you maintain an ongoing dialogue with the art venues and people involved: interns (Subsidy, 2015), mediators (Médiation Culturelle, 2017), directors and curators (The Hostage, 2017), and collectors (Privation, 2016). What does this operational mode of “infiltration” enable you to do?
Joshua Schwebel : In my work I attempt to engage with the power structures that authorize and legitimize art as art. I try to construct situations to reveal the people operating behind the institution by creating a conflict between personal and institutional values: wherein a person must act outside of the representational or bureaucratic frameworks normally functioning in institutionalized art. An institution is always composed and affected by the individual people who make it exist. At the same time, an institution is a foil, or a mask, that permits individual people to ‘act’, to perform another interest, often not even their own, or to raise a personal interest to a more ‘legitimate’ status. So the institution is a representation, but also an infiltration, as people act in its name, rather than expressing their own interests.
As an artist invited and supported by an institution, the staff are bound to support my work, as they are bound to support art. They are also bound to the image, financial longevity, and reputation of the institution. In my work I produce situations that demand a deviation in administrative protocol as my work. For example, in Destinerrance (2010), I readdressed the publicity mailout for Centre Skol in Montreal, sending the brochure announcing the season’s programming to a new set of addresses and an unknown, one would assume, non-art, public. The risk in this work was that by sending the publicity material to a non-art public, it may obliterate the entire task of circulating publicity, which is to reach an interested audience. Or, it may broaden the viewing public, by reaching those who otherwise may not access the circulated invitation. In this, like in many of my works, in order to manifest my work, representatives of the institution must choose between the functional protocols of the institution, or the artistic priorities for which the institution was founded. I make the procedure and negotiations around my proposal public. This way, if the institutional representatives choose to say no, they are revealing the power of the institution to determine what art ‘is’, in very negative ways. The choice that the institution, or its representatives make, then, reveals the underlying political character of institutionalized art.
I think that institutions can change as well, but the motivation for any change is complicated and slow. The institution itself is a conservative social structure: because they are bound to funding bodies and corporate sponsors for support, institutions are hyper-aware of their financial fragility and this makes them unwilling to change. This mediated tie to funding is politically and artistically regressive and fundamentally contradictory with an artistic mandate. As an artist I can show this hypocrisy by finding places in the institution’s decision-making process where financial decisions override political, ethical or artistic promises made by the institution. In my work I reflect these imbalances back to those in power. I hope that by showing this disjunction I can motivate more coherent, honest, and engaged relationships.
MB : In the work Médiation Culturelle [Cultural Mediation] presented at FRAC Lorraine in the exhibition Ressources humaines [Human Resources]2 , you address the future director with a letter presented on a base under plexiglas at the entrance to the institution. You highlight the working conditions of the mediators who have an external subcontractor’s agreement and ask for “a change in their status and working conditions”. The modification of contracts apparently constitutes for you “a symbolic artwork and a political action”. Can you tell me about this artwork, its conception and reception within the team?
JS : The group exhibition, Ressources Humaines, that this work was a part of, came to pass because the FRAC Lorraine was in the exceptional situation of being without a director. Their former director, who had carved out a profile for the space as a feminist-led structure, had departed. As the FRAC had not yet found a new director there was a hope that the staff could achieve greater autonomy and a more horizontal organization structure in this period without an established hierarchy. The exhibition was conceived through discussions with an invited curator as a chance to reflect on working conditions within the organization set against a broader context of labour as a topic in contemporary art.
I began my project by speaking with the médiatrices and their leader (head of education and documentation), to learn about the conditions of their employment. I discovered that, like many art institutions in France, the FRAC Lorraine sub-contracts its mediators: they are employed by a for-profit corporation which provides generic hostesses and front of house personnel for all sorts of forums, from airports to hotel lobbies. The strategy of employing people through sub-contracts is convenient for art institutions, as it is for other publicly-funded political structures. By sub-contracting mediation its costs can be categorized as exhibition expenses, rather than an operational expenses, and so the operating costs of the institution appear lower, since there are fewer employees on paper. Consequently, the FRAC’s relation to these young women is mediated by a third-party corporation, and it is divested of its responsibility for their working conditions, since their contractual obligation is to the third-party corporation over and above the médiatrices themselves.
As my work identifies and reflects instances of hypocrisy within the institutional structure, I search for incidents when the financial interests of an art institution override the best interests of the artists, the mandate of the centre, or the premise of the work it shows. In this case, all three conditions were contradicted by this decision to subcontract the mediators. The mediatrices are, alongside the artworks, the only face of the institution to the public. In the absence of the artists and curator, they communicate the work and their reflections to the public. They also provide emotional and affective labour: they absorb and deflect the reactions of the public to the art, shielding the director, artists, curators, and others from any accountability for their work. Their politics inflect the politics of the centre, and their precarity reflects a centre that betrays any premise of political engagement or feminism as it allies itself first and foremost with neoliberal values.
Through discussions with the mediators and with the FRAC’s educational coordinator, I learned that not only are the mediators subcontracted, but also that their official title is not mediator, but agent d’acceuil (hostess). As well, since they are not officially employees, they are subject to subtle forms of disrespect by permanent staff within the institutions.
As they are not effectively employees of the FRAC and consequently, don’t have access to the FRAC’s employees’ kitchen, I suggested installing a coffee machine in the entrance that would be theirs alone. I also requested that negotiations commence to change their official working title from ‘agent d’acceuil’ to a title of their choosing (after discussions the médiatrices told me they would prefer to be officially recognized as médiatrices).
I submitted these proposals by way of an email, first to the curator, with whose support I addressed the exhibition coordinator. When I explained to her that the negotiations towards making these changes would be my work, she responded that my proposals were not possible. She then explained that since they didn’t have a director at this time, it was impossible to make any changes to the employment structure.
The paradox was that the possibility for my work to occur only existed in this hiatus of leadership, but in order for my work to proceed, it needed the presence of someone in a position to make decisions. Therefore my project would need to extend past the exhibition duration, and address the incoming director. When I proposed this circumvention, the exhibition coordinator strongly resisted, arguing that she was afraid that she would lose her job if the incoming director was forced to address a situation for which she was partially responsible. I recognize now that this was a consequence of dealing with an administration that was contending with the workload of an absent direction, and was therefore overworked, at the same time as it was without a delegated or secure leadership. However, this did not completely explain the fear behind her response. My only conjecture here, is that the former director had left a rather traumatized workforce in her wake, who were more afraid of taking decisions on their own than they were of obstructing the process of an artist. Despite the exhibition coordinator’s strong reservations, I went ahead with this proposal, in which I requested that the title of the médiatrices be changed in their contract, as my work, by way of a public statement and a letter addressed to the incoming director.
I also put forward a proposal for how to install this work. In accordance with the status of the médiatrices as external to the FRAC, I asked for the reception desk to be displaced to outside the building, and for the vitrine containing my letter to the future director and statement to be placed where their desk normally stood. In response I was told that it would not be permitted or possible to move the furniture. Several obstacles were raised such as security, the comfort of the médiatrices, etc., but the major point of refusal was that the table at which the médiatrices worked was a commission by an artist.
It became apparent that the staff were more emotionally engaged in rallying to protect the furniture than they were towards reflecting on or changing the working conditions of their peers and colleagues. Several of the staff offered helpful suggestions to work around what was a total blockade by other members of staff against moving the furniture. When we finally reached a tenuous agreement, the technical staff installed garden furniture in the courtyard rather than the standard office furniture I requested as a compromise.
I was facing such a bizarre anarchy involving so many people offering their suggestions for, opposition to, and support of my work, when in a conventional exhibition structure, it would not fall to the technical staff to impose their opinion on the possibility of the work. I had surrendered much of my artistic autonomy in penetrating the domain of the staff, and it was a work that attempted at all costs to be sensitive to the conditions and needs of the workers who operate inside the institution. But this political position was also very confusing in practice. I had entered the work open to a vision of emancipating the staff, yet the reality was that the leaderless staff was politically recalcitrant, conceptually incoherent, was not accountable to the artistic quality of my work, and wanted nothing to do with any change that would threaten their stability or the established social hierarchy. Despite my critical approach to institutions and institutionality, this institution wanted nothing to do with criticality. This particular form of an alternative made it impossible to produce a coherent work.
What finally broke the work, however, was on the very day of the opening, when one of the mediators expressed her insecurity and rage about being visibly more precarious for the sake of my work. She did not understand why she needed to be visible in such a way, when, despite its problems this was a secure job, and my work was threatening this security. I had lost contact with the médiatrices because my time was taken up negotiating with the staff instead of building trust with the very people my project sought to make more secure. At that point I decided to reverse the installation, and placed the vitrine with a statement and a sealed letter addressed to the incoming director outside the building, where I had proposed to place the acceuil, and to set up a proper workstation in the entrance.
All of these struggles internal to the institution remain invisible to the general public and are not revealed in the work I displayed. I have asked the médiatrices to keep a record of the way that the work has been received, but as far as I know nothing has shifted. I am waiting for a response from the incoming director, but until she takes her post, she will not engage with my work. I have, however, received word that the work provoked several long conversations and debates, over and above those in which I participated. This suggests that despite the fact that I consider the work unsuccessful, because it failed the people with whom I wished to work in solidarity, and didn’t achieve the goals I had hoped for (changing the contract title of the médiatrices, presenting a strategic resistance in the form of a displacement of the acceuil), it did make visible, to varying degrees, an aspect of the institutionalization of contemporary art that normally remains unrepresented to the exhibition public.
MB : In a publication based on your project Subsidy, Amber Landgraff very judiciously summarises in her text the process of “self-exploitation” of the arts scene: “in the fields of art and culture, unpaid internships are considered springboards for young workers, the means of proving their determination and love of art. It is not enough to work for free, the truly motivated art worker must also take pleasure in it. The myth that encourages work in the art field to be seen as a vocation, something that cannot be denied even if you’d like it to be, contributes to the intrusion of unpaid work that consequently becomes the cornerstone of the art community. Then there is the concomitant idea whereby working in the art world gives you more freedom, more free time, and more interesting work. Self-exploitation governs these myths. In order to give oneself the freedom of working as an artist, many workers accept lowly, poorly paid positions to finance the time spent working for free. Rarely stable, these jobs lead the workers to be constantly in search of a new job. In addition, participating in artistic life involves frequent attendance at events and openings. It is therefore very difficult to distinguish between work and leisure time. Just as the dream of capitalism leads many communities to participate in an exploitative system in the hopes of joining the small percentage of rich people, the dream of being an artist leads many to participate in constant and exhausting self-exploitation.”3 Your projects highlight the hypocrisy that reigns in institutions, which exploit to varying degrees while presenting works and research relating to socio-political, feminist, and post-colonial issues that are often cross-sectorial. How do you see this ethical paradox? What might potential forms of resistance be?
JS : I think that the artistic-institutional structure, being bound on the one hand to artistic presentation, and on the other to financial survival, is inherently divided. The more successful an organization is, the more enmeshed it is in the interests of its funders. The same can be said for artists (who are not independently wealthy): so long as we care about external markers such as career success, we in the art world are bound to our funders, our curators, our collectors, our art-stars and our patrons. There are people who have massive amounts of power, reputation, and money interacting with people who are deeply precarious, unknown, and insecure. This creates a very problematic power imbalance as the former can act with impunity. It is not hard to recognize that this power imbalance breeds a culture of abuse.
There is little oversight regarding labour conditions or interpersonal politics. There is, as Amber writes, a culture of self-exploitation, which is reinforced by the abusive personalities who rise to the top. These competitive and polarized conditions make it easy and possible to operate an art institution with negligible labour costs, and also erode any chance at solidarity amongst employees. We believe our lack of success to be our fault, and try to conform ourselves more seamlessly to the system. By doing so we uphold the prestige of institutions who are known amongst arts workers to abuse and underpay staff because those people or the institution they represent are ‘too important’ and ‘too powerful’. We need to shift that power, as we, collectively, also hold power to make these conditions public and to depose those people who think that the contents of an exhibition override all else.
We need to restructure the system in order to make it more accountable. To do this we need to call out the people who are abusive by forming a public network where there are consequences for those who do not pay their staff or do not treat people with respect. The zine and web platform ‘ArtLeaks’ is a good initiative in this vein. The current sexual harassment and abuse scandals that are being aired publicly are the tip of the iceberg. Much more needs to be done to expose the continuous and rampant abuses of power taking place in the art world. To counter this we need to offer support to those who speak out, and to speak out ourselves against this abuse more frequently, and more securely, even if this will compromise our own career possibilities in the short term. We need to organize coalitions across artists and cultural workers, to establish standards for proper working conditions for cultural workers and artists, and enforce consequences for those institutions which do not comply with proper standards, as W.A.G.E4 is attempting in the USA. Often people oppose the establishment of standards since they fear that they will more concretely institutionalize the artworld. I believe that setting up conditions in which institutions are held accountable for their internal politics, and in which people are paid fairly, treated with respect and openness, and encouraged to set healthy boundaries and limits on the amount of time they commit to their work, will create a more politicized, more engaged, and healthier artworld. The ethical and political situations that occur ‘behind the frame’ of art impact what is shown and its importance to the world.
A connected issue is that the art world is completely and willfully ignorant of privilege: class background in particular overwhelmingly influences access on all levels of the art world, yet this is never factored into public measures of success. There are exceptional and marginalized examples of institutions that attempt to resist these conditions (examples that I have personally encountered include the artist’s run culture network in Canada, La Galerie in Noisy-le-Sec, the KunstQuartier Bethanien and NGBK in Berlin), but these places are few and far between, and are not holding power relative to the major international institutions.
- The House of Dust by Alison Knowles”, curators: Sylvie Boulanger, Maud Jacquin and Sébastien Pluot, cneai=, Pantin, 9 October to 19 November 2017 and “Une maison de pierre dans une métropole utilisant tout type d’éclairage habitée par ceux qui invitent les autres”, curators: Maud Jacquin, Sébastien Pluot within the framework of the research programme Art by translation*, with Émilie Renard, La Galerie, Noisy-le-Sec, 22 October to 16 December 2017.
- Ressources humaines, curator: Virginie Jourdain, 49 Nord 6 Est - FRAC Lorraine, Metz, 23 June 2017 - 28 January 2018
- Amber Landgraff, “Paying Interns as an Act of Counterfeit, or Everyone Deserves to Get Paid”, in Joshua Schwebel, Subsidy, (Berlin: Archive Books, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 2016), 11.
- Working Artists and the Greater Economy is a New York-based activist organization founded in 2008.