Reactor

Debate About Performance Artist Pay and Rights Gains Steam

by Hrag Vartanian on November 28, 2011

Marina and in a performer in a tight spot. (via moma.org)

The debate surrounding performance art and the rights of artists has started to grow past the original controversy initiated by Marina Abramović’s gala performance for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this month. Now, three reperformers who took part in MoMA’s Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present retrospective last year have come forward to support the efforts to reexamine why major art institutions don’t pay adequately for the time and efforts of performers and reperformers, as artist who stage previously staged works by performance artists are known.

The letter, published on The Performance Club, explains:

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.

The three individuals who penned the letter, Abigail Levine, Gary Lai and Rebecca Brooks, outline some of the pressing questions in this debate:

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.

These are all excellent questions that deserve careful examination in light of current Occupy Wall Street debates and the growing concern for labor rights in this country.

The trio also write, “We are pleased to see an active debate emerging around these issues in the last few weeks.” Yes, we are too. Now, what are we to do to ensure the rights of performance artists?

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