Dancing a (micro)economy

Last week a debate went viral after some of the participants in Suzanne Lacy’s performance event Between the Door and the Street, wrote an open letter to the presenters, Creative Time and The Brooklyn Museum, questioning the lack of payment or child care available to the 350 participating performers:

We believe that assuming and relying on free/unpaid contributions of our time for your project continues to perpetuate a standard of capitalism that systematically underpays and disenfranchises us.

Nato Thompson, curator at Creative Time, and author of Living as Form, wrote a lengthy reply that included the following statement:  “The activists are also getting something out of this. Isn’t that worth mentioning? This is built around their concerns.” For Thompson, the event provided many activists a high profile public platform to assert and advance their political agenda. He seems here to be drawing a line between the art and the activism in this project. He posted the letter on his Facebook page and asked for opinions. Over 85 people commented. The largely thoughtful comment thread went round in circles:

“So activists should only come together if they are getting paid to do that?” Yeah, really…this sort of hypercritical bollocks gives doing good a bad name…

“I believe progressive institutions should lead by example.”

“the assumption seems to be that we should be grateful that we have been included in the project and work w/ CT, although the project couldn’t exist if we weren’t around doing to the work already.”

“artists who engage others in their work and address socio-political-economic issues have a particular ethical responsibility not to take people’s labor for granted.”

“We must conceive the economy differently,” urges philosopher Éric Méchoulan towards the end of his lecture on the history of contemporary western economics.  This lecture is the central text in Pascal Rambert’s performance piece A (micro)history of world economics danced. Rambert attempts to go “against the politically generalized”1 through an interplay among philosophical lecture, collective movement sequences, and short scenes performed by three French actresses, to show the effect the current economy has on a group of individuals. “I’m looking for the human,” says Rambert in an interview with Time Out the week the show opened in New York.

First developed with a group of 50 locals in Gennevilliers, France, (micro)history, a little like Rimini Protokoll’s 100 Percent, is a mobile performance structure, using the inhabitants of the city where it is being performed.  There’s tension here: this socially motivated performance piece attempts to explore the history and ramifications of our consumerist and increasingly dehumanizing capitalist reality, yet the piece itself can be branded, packaged, and sold. And it’s an attractive package for presenters, a readymade, that can slide quietly and inexpensively (the local performers, at least in the New York edition, are unpaid volunteers) into a festival program, as this did for FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival. A festival furthermore that is sponsored by Hermès and Nespresso.

As a performer, however, there were contradictions contained within the microeconomics of the piece itself that I found more immediately troubling. I volunteered in full knowledge that I was an unpaid volunteer, and that I was to make myself available for five, three-hour rehearsals, four, three-hour technical rehearsals, and four performances. I assumed all those placed in the volunteer category where in the same boat. We had collectively agreed to lend our bodies and time to the realization of a piece that, I hoped, would open up a dialogue about the imbalanced distribution of wealth in New York. Within the group of volunteers there was a choir who’s singing underscored parts of the show. The choir was a collection of individuals who sang in various choirs around the city who were interested in participating in the project. They performed choreography in some sections of the pieces but not all, so were not required to attend all rehearsals. It didn’t occur to me to ask if the choir were being paid until midway through the run of the show. I was surprised by the answer: “Yes, but we’re not really supposed to talk about it.” This secrecy is what I find most disturbing. It makes it seem like the presenters wanted those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy to believe that they were not at the bottom, or that such a hierarchy didn’t exist. This is reflective of a broader strategy that is pervasive in American politics that perpetuates and largely mythic notion of economic mobility .

The covert economic hierarchy operating within the piece was contradictory to the content and declared mission of the performance. Eric Méchoulan says in another part of his lecture, “Societies must be produced from within, starting from the human beings that constitute them.” Rambert had stated in his interview when talking about the volunteers, “They have understood that they are the core of the show.” From my perspective the micro economic structure of the piece was as follows: Those who speak are paid; those who sing, paid; those who move, not paid. The decision to pay some volunteers and not others repeats the problematic hierarchies that the piece itself seeks to question, and, to my mind, is representative of a larger problem with performing arts funding which seems to privilege text-based or rational expression over visceral or intuitive expression.

Perhaps such a direct relationship between and work and financial compensation is not the answer. Perhaps there is another way of thinking about how my time can be valued: the talks I had with Rambert on breaks, the interactions I had with the other participants, and the email thread between us all that has been active since the show ended. In the short amount of time we were together we built a kind of community. Does that community provide a form of non-monetary compensation that is equivalent in value to the pay I might have received? Did I get as much out this experience as I put in? I’m not sure. Ultimately, the relationship between A (micro)history of world economics danced and its producers changed my relationship to the piece and, for me, ultimately undercut its integrity.

Between the Door and the Street and A (micro)history of world economics danced have a number of differences: (1) Scale (350 participants versus 44), I would imagine compensating 350 people would incur a much greater expense and would require a different size budget. (2) Economic imbalance; from what I can tell all those included under the category of volunteer in Between the Door and the Street were not paid. (3) Place (the street versus a theater); participants in Between the Door and the Street were recruited based on their political affiliations and intentions for social change.  A (micro)history of world economics danced happened in a theater space in front of a theater crowd, volunteers were recruited via an email blast that went out to the presenting organizations mailing lists. The line between art and activism here is a lot less blurry.

Despite the contradictions and tensions contained within these two pieces they have opened up a little more space to debate issues of power, hierarchy, transparency, equity, and labor. How can curators be more mindful about presenting art works in a way that does not contradict the content? How can we support larger scale socially engaged art while finding a value system that is sustainable? How can institutions be more transparent about the distribution of money? How can we start to rethink a culture of “volunteerism” that makes the unfair assumption that participants have the means to volunteer?

  1. Malzacher, Florian, “Dramaturgies of Care and Insecurity: The Story of Rimini Protokoll” in Experts of the Everyday: The Theatre of Rimini Protokoll, eds. Miriam Dreysse and Florian Malzacher. Berlin: Alexander Verlag Berlin, 2008. 14-43 []

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: