Opinion

Liveblogging ‘The Artist as Debtor’ Conference

Coco Fusco introducing the conference (all photos by Hyperallergic staff for Hyperallergic)
Coco Fusco introducing the conference (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I’m at Cooper Union today to liveblog the The Artist as Debtor: A Conference about the Work of Artists in the Age of Speculative Capitalism event. You can see my preview article about the conference here.

Watch the Conference LIVE:

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8:41pm ET — And we’re out. Thanks for reading.

8:37pm ET — Now artist Ahmed Ögüt has the mic and is talking about his own strategies of getting paid.

8:30pm ET — There’s a question from a person who is an economics student, who didn’t know anything about this program or how debt impacts art school programs. She asked if there are corporate funders of art departments like there are for many other departments.

Left to right, Martha Rosler, Noah Fischer, and Coco Fusco.
Left to right, Martha Rosler, Noah Fischer, and Coco Fusco.

8:20pm ET — A question from the crowd is questioning why the conference did not pay speakers or reach out to art professionals familiar with fundraising to help fund this, and the organizers and Rosler think this doesn’t fit into that category. Rosler pointed out that no one got paid for Occupy. She says there is some collective work outside the market.

8:08pm ET — Now it’s question time. Things are clearly winding down.

7:57pm ET — Interesting observations by Rosler about the introduction of European neo-expressionism (mostly Italian and German), who (if I understand correctly) said the work was an attempt to silence dissent in the local art scene with the introduction of fascist seeming art.

Before the 1980s, Rosler says, the term “young artist” was someone under 40. Anything under that was considered juvenilia.

7:55pm ET — This is really a talk about the evolution of bohemia and artist neighborhoods. Mentions George Maciunas as an innovator who brought Lithuanian socialist collective practices to Soho, and the evolution of city-sanctioned artist neighborhoods.

7:45pm ET — Rosler says in the 1960s she went to Brooklyn College for free, and in the 1970s she attended UC San Diego, and she didn’t have to pay then either. She is focusing on history.

Martha Rosler speaking
Martha Rosler speaking

7:39pm ET — We’re at the final speaker, artist Martha Rosler. And what a day. The audience is the largest it has been all day. They all seem very engaged and are listening carefully.

7:38pm ET — Shaming works, Fusco says, and cites accomplishments of Guerrilla Girls at getting women in commercial galleries.

A banner on the floor of the Great Hall.
A banner on the floor of the Great Hall.

7:28pm ET — There’s no equal opportunity in adjunct hiring or firing, says Fusco.

7:21pm ET — Coco Fusco is talking about art schools and how they are really structured as trade schools. She is hesitant about the rebranding of art as research, which she says is a way to access corporate, government, and private money to fund the “research” (like other academic fields). Really interesting stuff that cuts to the heart of the issue.

7:15pm ET — Are many prominent artist copying the speculative structures of the museums? I agree with Fischer, and it’s pretty clear that it is being aped by many artists.

7:11pm ET — An interesting question is being poised by Fischer, how can museums be wrong if they’re art?

7:05pm ET — And we’re back … an unexpected speaker, Noah Fischer, is discussing museums and how they are part of the system. The original Western museums, like Louvre, were built from palaces, and he says they have always been political and we should be concerned if they transform back into palaces.

Noah Fischer speaking
Noah Fischer speaking

INTERMISSION, things will resume at 7:00pm ET

5:51pm ET — W.A.G.E. said they raised $53,000 from ~800 people for their work. They’ve been a nonprofit since 2011 and only turned to fundraising after they were unable to get foundation grants because of the nature of their project.

5:40pm ET — Many of the questions suggest a number of the attendees want W.A.G.E. to do more than it does. Why not consider artist assistants, etc.? Fusco makes it clear that it is about pragmatics, not the fact that people don’t agree with the same goal. I think these questions prove that people are hungry for change in the system.

5:35pm ET — The troubling aspect of this conference that people are starting to discuss is the fact that people attending this conference are unpaid (as Fusco mentioned from the stage, she is covering all costs incurred) and that the conference is launching an online publication that appears to be unpaid as well. I’m not a fan of publications that do not compensate contributors.

5:11pm ET — Everyone should listen to Soskolne’s presentation in full. She is touching on almost every issue you can imagine related to the problems of nonprofit economics and how they treat artists as charity cases. I couldn’t possibly summarize this presentation. So. Much. Good. Material.

5:07pm ET — Very deep stuff from Soskolne, who is fantastic. She is discussing difference between charity and philanthropy and questions whether arts philanthropy is actually philanthropy since it does not tackle core problems at all.

5:03pm ET — Soskolne is bringing up executive pay at New York City museums. For instance, the salary of Lisa Phillips (New Museum) is 5% of the institution’s budget.

4:56pm ET — W.A.G.E.’s Lise Soskolne is explaining that the organization is a reform organization that believes in the nonprofit model and wants to reform it.

4:46pm ET — The crowd is definitely growing at the conference and it’s not even 5pm, it appears to be double of what it was a few hours ago. Sholette is talking about reversing the dynamics of debt, and he is asking “What Is the Debt Due … ” for artists for their work.

During Gregory Sholette's presentation.
During Gregory Sholette’s presentation. (click to enlarge)

4:46pm ET — Interesting presentation by Sholette about how our economy has made the artist into the model of the neoliberal entrepreneur. The conflation of artists and “creatives” benefits neoliberalism. Essentially, he’s saying that artists are a tool of capital, generating an image of radicality that is mostly fictional.

4:36pm ET — Interesting idea: Sholette asks us to imagine that people stopped buying art supplies for one month. What would happen? Also, “who wins when artists compete?”

4:35pm ET — Artist Gregory Sholette says his presentation is two parts: first, the “medicine,” and the second is participatory. Interesting …

4:28pm ET — Paraphrasing: There is a collective hallucinogen in the art world that we are exempt from debt issues, partly fueled by the myth that art isn’t about money. —Fusco, the comment got applause from the audience (I couldn’t resist and applauded as well).

4:18pm ET — Question: if there is a listing all of alternative initiatives by artists. Caroline Woolard mentioned: groupsandspaces.net.

4:15pm ET — Debtfair mentioned their recent models at a Momenta Art exhibition. I was there and took photographs in December 2014. Here they are:

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4:10pm ET — So far, I’ve been really impressed with the seriousness of the evolving discussion. It is clear there are so many people have been working on this for a while, though I was aware of that with my work at Hyperallergic. It is still impressive to see it presented in a unified way.

Presenter for Debtfair.
Presenter for Debtfair.
Debtfair's graphic for their first Debtfair. (via)
Debtfair’s graphic for their first Debtfair. (via)

4:08pm ET — A representative of Debtfair is next, what is that? It is “a multi-faceted artistic campaign to explore the relationships between economic inequality in the art market and artists’ increasing debt burdens.” Their role is to link economic realities and artists’ lives. Their first Debtfair was at Abrons Art Center in 2013.

4:00pm ET — Powhida is discussing the Pareto Principle (80–20 split) and how it is related to uncomfortable ideas of natural selection and how it impacts us even today, such as the 20% affording housing deal in new developments. He wants artists to consider the value they create.

3:55pm ET — Artist William Powhida is elaborating on his recent article “Why Do We Expect Artists to Work for Free? Here’s How We Can Change the System” for Creative Time Reports. He is discussing the best data to understand the lives of working artists, and points out that auction records are largely useless.

3:51pm ET — Many of these stats being presented by BFAMFAPHD have been reported elsewhere, and we published these two articles about their data and findings:

3:46pm ET — WOW: 7 of the top 10 most expensive private, nonprofit school in the US (After scholarships and aid) are art schools. All the stats BFAMFAPHD presents are pretty amazing. Caroline Woolard explains that when she teaches a class at the New School, and the college takes 95% of tuition, while the professor gets only 5%.

3:36pm ET — And we’re back. BFAMFAPHD are asking: what is the work of art in the age of $120K art degrees?

BFAMFAPHD begins.
BFAMFAPHD begins.

INTERMISSION, things will resume at 3:30pm ET

2:56pm ET — Fusco reiterates Aranda’s point that the levels of student debt now forces many people to think about ways to instrumentalize their degrees, and the long term impact of that is flight (as in leaving the country to avoid debt) or submission (pay back debt). This means fine art is increasingly becoming like commercial art and the design field.

2:52pm ET — Fascinating question about the possibility for “good debt” and Ross says there is such a thing and that it could be about mutual relations.

2:48pm ET — Nice to see 132 people are watching the livestream right now.

2:43pm ET — Interesting point by Wood, do artists see themselves traditionally outside of the economy? I’m guessing he means artists in the modern era, as Rembrandt, Rubens, Hokusai, and many others we might consider “Old Masters” seemed much closer to the economics of their practice. Or did they have the same mythology or a variation of it?

2:35pm ET — Just asked Ross a question about his students and how their perceptions of debt have changed. He responded that years ago during Occupy he didn’t think the moment was right but now they are in a more “militant turn” in this regard. Psychology is hard to overcome, he says, as they don’t identify as debtors unless they can’t make a payment. He sees this work with debt as part of the justice tradition.

2:30pm ET — Wood read a piece by another writer. It was very poetic. We’re starting the Q&A for the first part with Fusco, Ross, and Wood.

A view of the audience at the conference. (click to enlarge)
A view of the audience at the conference. (click to enlarge)

2:15pm ET — This is an interesting way to communicate the story of debt on a personal level. This reminds me of early 20th-century agitprop, which worked to convince masses of people of clear political messages. Nothing is new here but the power is in the storytelling.

2:08pm ET — BEST LINE SO FAR: “This sounds like a Ponzi scheme,” says Wood regarding art school. “It would be if you could withdraw your investment,” Aranda says.

2:06pm ET — I’m hearing that people online are having trouble understanding the audio from Aranda. For those having trouble understanding, it is a dramatic presentation of a student (i.e. debtor) realizing their role in the art school system and how it generates value. “You want to be a precognitive NSA receiving my hopes and dreams,” says Wood. … “No, we want to work with you on your dreams. We want you to have the right dreams.” says Aranda.

1:59pm ET — Brian Kuan Wood and Julieta Aranda (who couldn’t be here in person and is participating via Skype) are play acting a fictional art school scenario and in the process trying to explain the art school model and how it exploits others. It feels kind of awkward.

1:55pm ET — Ross says that people often see the art world, and its debt, as independent, but it is interconnected. He is discussing the work to put high pressure on luxury brands working and benefiting from work in the GCC region, and hopefully generating some justice for debtors.

1:48pm ET — During the long time I’ve been covering Occupy and the activism around labor abuses at the construction on Saadiyat Island (including Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, NYU Abu Dhabi, and Louvre Abu Dhabi), I can say that Ross has been one of the most focused and clear spokespeople on the issue of debt and labor abuse. Here he continues that tradition by clearly explaining the topic of “debt resistance” and successful campaigns that have purchased debt on the secondary debt market for pennies on the dollar. The campaigns have successfully purchased $17M in debt. WOW.

Noah Fischer welcoming Andrew Ross to the stage.
Noah Fischer welcoming Andrew Ross to the stage.

1:43pm ET — Ross presents the shocking statistic that only 30% of jobs in the US workforce require college degrees, and fewer require a four-year college degree.

1:40pm ET — Andrew Ross explains that education is becoming a chop shop of life’s ambitions and preparing them for future labor to pay back loans. He explains why he thinks the term “indentured” is appropriate, even if some people don’t think it is the best fit. He also cites a York University stat, which suggests that every hour Canadian artists spend in the studio negatively impacts their income.

1:33pm ET — Andrew Ross, author of Creditocracy, is explaining the frame of credit and debt and how it is impacting society as a whole. He began with a clever graphic that read “You Are Not a Loan.”

1:18pm ET — Artist Noah Fischer is discussing the radical heritage of Cooper Union’s Great Hall, including Lincoln’s famous speech, the establishment of the NAACP, and important speeches in the women’s suffrage movement, and other landmark moments. He is also discussing visibility and its dialectic opposite, invisibility.

1:10pm ET — Coco Fusco is opening today’s conference with an overview of the problems facing art students. Much of what she is saying we covered in our “Accounting for Artists’ Debt” article.

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