2013 Teamster Frieze protest banner (image courtesy Teamsters)

On April 9, Frieze New York and city labor unions announced that they had reached a settlement regarding using unionized workers for their fair in May. The announcement came after two and a half months of negotiations between Teamsters and the Frieze leadership. However, a more public debate had been happening on Twitter leading up to the negotiations, which began in late February. Using the hashtag #StrikeFriezeNY, artist Joshua Smith spent weeks attempting to spur an online discussion between Frieze, their sponsors, artists, and other city entities such as Bill de Blasio. The tone of the tweets was rarely angry, but reverent and at times comical, using, as Smith told me over Twitter, a Michael Moore–school approach.

“These issues are particularly easy to discuss” Smith said, “because artists say they’re pro labor, so let’s ask them in public.” The debate reached such a point that one of the Frieze directors, Matthew Slotover, contacted Smith via Twitter direct message. Although Frieze did not publicly disclose the impetus for sitting down with Teamsters, they began soon after Slotover contacted Smith.  I emailed Smith at length as the negotiations were coming to a head behind closed doors.

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Alex Teplitzky: First of all, what prompted you to engage with Frieze on Twitter in the first place?

Joshua Smith: I’m a New York artist and I care about the positive or negative impact our industry has on our community. So I was pretty upset that an art fair was building a really substantial structure on public land, but not using local union labor to do it, which should be a given in New York. I was almost equally upset that so few artists and galleries cared enough about the issue to speak up in solidarity with the workers, which should’ve also been a given. I expect of artists and their colleagues to buck authority when they need to and to take potentially risky stands, if the cause is important. Playing any role in dismantling the tradition of using union labor for the construction of an enormous venue in New York, especially one on public land, and especially on behalf of an art fair is a pretty important cause to me and plenty of other people.

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The major exceptions to the politesse of the art community that Frieze represents, by far the most outspoken figures last year were Arts and Labor, the Occupy Wall Street working group that’s done a lot of great work on various inequities in the arts and the artist Andrea Bowers who hung a letter at her gallerist Susanne Vielmetter’s booth in solidarity with both Arts and Labor, and the unions they’d built allegiances with. Andrea’s letter caused a big stir. I’m shocked there weren’t more artists who spoke up.

Anyways, Andrea-excluded, the kind of high-octane art world that the fair represents was basically silent in face of the protests. All of the real energy was coming from outside the fair, from the Teamsters, the other unions, and Arts & Labor. The passivity of the actual galleries in the fair and the artists they were showing was super upsetting, especially on the heels of a couple ultra-active years of Occupy-influenced protest that witnessed all sort of activist energy in New York. Even in the art world.

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I got a Twitter account back when Occupy was really thriving, because it’s the medium of choice for sending and receiving swift announcements and engaging in public dialogue. And if you’ve got a willing participant you can basically conduct an interview in public. My thought was to ridicule the fair in public for disregarding labor, and to kind of extend that ridicule to other organizations and individuals in the arts for working with and engaging with the fair, which to me was tantamount to disregarding the concerns of the workers, and turning our back in actuality on the ideals of equality that we like to write a lot about in the arts. So I started just tweeting every now and then some protesty thing or another that was aimed at the fair. Then, really, Nicole Eisemann, William Powhida, and the young artists Sean Joseph Patrick Carney and Matthew Giordano (all of whom are crazy-adept at Twitter-ing) showed up and the whole thing caught fire after a little while. Nicole introduced me to Andrea, she got on board, and we all went nuts, trying to engage in dialogue with as many people as possible, and it kind of caught on. Or people noticed it. Something.

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AT: Your tweets pretty consistently referred to the fact that you liked Frieze magazine, so you weren’t calling for an outright ban on the entire Frieze institution.  Can you talk about the fine line that you were walking in being public about these issues?

JS: Well my concern was in trying to focus my own protests on the actions of the fair,  and trying to exploit the fair’s insistence that the two organizations are separate. Of course they technically aren’t so separate. They don’t just share their branding, but they literally share in management. Yea that’s kind of a conflict, in terms of editorial, but an ad-centric magazine isn’t a government so it’s not technically corrupt. It’s just compromised. But I wanted to  be careful to make clear that I wasn’t suggesting at the outset that a protest be levied against the brand itself, or that the mothership be dismantled or something. Good work should be rewarded and the magazine’s good! But bad policies should be fixed and the fair’s labor policy was a very bad one. Plus I just thought it was funny that we kept flirting with Frieze editorial staff, like we were trying to woo them into joining the protest against the fair. At our worst we were enraged, at our best we were funny, and hopefully it was always kind of charming.

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AT: What was the time period that you were sending these tweets out? I seem to recall it being over a period of weeks, but I may be mistaken.  Were there any breaking points in the conversation?

JS: I was really publicly supportive of the work that Arts and Labor had done on Frieze for the last couple of years, and I said a fair amount of critical stuff about the fair in public since then, but I think I sent out the first #StrikeFriezeNY hashtag on January 20th. Matthew Slotover one of the cofounders of the magazine and the fair (with Amanda Sharp) contacted me directly (via Twitter) on February 5th after a couple weeks of lots and lots noise on Twitter. So that took about two weeks. Bernadette Kelley of the Teamsters publicly announced that they were in negotiations with the fair (via Twitter) on February 27th, at which point everyone basically laid off, because that’s what you do apparently when they’re in discussions. We weren’t involved in that at all. That was for the grown ups. Zoë Lescaze of Gallerist wrote a piece yesterday, April 9, that the fair was in the process of unionizing. You can imagine the party that ensued. An explosion of exclamation points.

AT: How did various people entities respond to your tweets when you tagged them. I remember you got Raymond Pettibon and Richard Prince involved — anyone else?

JS: I don’t think Richard Prince ever really threw us a bone, but that’s OK, he’s cool, whatever. Pettibon totally engaged, though, mostly just by tweeting out supportive stuff at all of us, and I think he said “Fuck Frieze” once which might have stung a little. That was cool. That guy’s one of my favorite artists. Ha. Richard prince, might have “favorited” some joke or something. But basically the way it worked was one of us would tag someone in a tweet and ask them how they felt about the fair’s use of nonunion labor. We made a lot of jokes and tried to be engaging. We’d then plug as many people as possible into that thread, and include the fair and the magazine so that they would all see all of it. So we’d have, say, Raymond Pettibon, Andrea Bowers, William Powhida, and then Bill de Blasio and the punk band Propagandhi all on one thread. Propagandhi shouted us out, but de Blasio never did. Oh well. At one point Artists Space said something supportive of worker’s rights, and that made everyone really happy. The rapper Obie Trice jumped in. Plenty of artists and writers. I think we were pretty close to getting Michael Moore, from my home town, in the game, for a minute, but then it wasn’t necessary, because the discussions had begun. The point was to spread it out as widely as possible. But at the end it was all targeted at de Blasio and the fair sponsors, but we never heard from him.

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AT: Tell me about your conversation via DMs with Matthew Slotover. At what point did he finally respond to your tweets?

JS: Matthew got in touch on February 5th, and he was totally cool. I was shocked that he contacted me, because he’s a press-savvy guy, and I’d been acting like a real dick. We basically had an off-the-record interview, for a couple of hours and then stayed in touch for the next few days. We each agreed that it was OK for me to release a screen-grabbed statement from him on my own Twitter, and that the rest was locked away. I thought he was cool, and that was cool with me. His statement was just “Frieze New York uses local contractors and labor, always has done.” It’s a flawed statement, but it was cool that he reached out, and that he agreed to let me reproduce a statement. I was pretty impressed. And really, I don’t have any doubts that Matthew, his co-director Amanda Sharp, or any of the folks who work at or with the fair are good, cool people. I’d met many of the Frieze team prior, and no one in the world is some bad person. They just might have bad positions, and those are always subject to change. I’m so glad that Frieze has changed its position on this one, and has worked out something with the unions. It’s an uncommon victory for labor, and I’m ecstatic that it happened in the art world. We all owe Arts and Labor and Andrea Bowers a huge debt of gratitude for really shining a light on these issues, and of course the Teamsters, and Frieze an enormous round of applause for making it work. It’s super inspiring.

Alex Teplitzky

Alex Teplitzky is a digital media manager, fiction and arts writer and Brooklyn-based DJ. He maintains an art blog called Tout Petit La Planete,  featuring...

8 replies on “Did a Few Tweets Force Frieze to Unionize?”

  1. As Smith’s comments implicitly show, the answer to the question posed in the headline is clearly “No.” Or “Hell no, not by themselves.” A lot of other on-the-ground organizing and agitation was crucial to the success of this campaign. I would expect Hyperallergic not to blindly (or lazily) overlook all of that. I’m surprised the piece is so carelessly framed around a single individual. And that it fetishizes the power of (admittedly prolific and entertaining) trolling on twitter. Maybe the headline is just provocative linkbait, but please do better.
    Congrats to all those who worked together to win this victory.

    1. The answer is definitely “no.” Nonetheless, I wanted to document one side of the story that hadn’t really been shown yet.

    2. I would expect an anonymous commenter not to blindly (or lazily) overlook all of our reporting on this subject over the last two years and instead carelessly frame their comment around a single inherently non-journalistic interview piece representing one individual’s voice.

      A report on the Arts & Labor debrief on the 15th will be the latest in a long line of pieces on this subject:
      et cetera (search the site)

      And yes, this type of headline is a long-standing technique, a humorous trope, or whatever you want to call it (’s_law_of_headlines ) .

      Thanks for reading, and your concern.

      1. Thanks for the links. Yes indeed, HA has done a commendable job overall covering the story, so good job there. I was not familiar with Betteridge’s law, but I will admit that reading its definition in the wikipedia entry does not inspire any greater confidence in the framing of this piece. 😉

  2. so wait, why am i as an artist supposed to be so supportive of the Teamsters? The only experience I have with them is when they charge me $150 at Javits to plug in the electricity in my booth or when they refuse to let me stand on a ladder or use a screwdriver. Smith’s assumption that artists and big labor are natural allies just doesn’t ring true for me. Given the choice I am supportive of ‘small labor’ — all the guys who are just barely getting by who really need the work. Big paychecks, gold plated health plans, pensions — this is the Teamster’s world thanks to shakedowns like Smith’s but it isn’t the artists’ world.

    1. I’ve had positive experiences with unions and the benefits that impact whole families. Replacing union jobs with ‘small labor,’ though I think your term is a misnomer and freelance or contract is more accurate, is shortsighted. Contractors have little to negotiate with.

      1. Hrag, am not impugning the quality of union labor or even saying they charge too much — they have a right to charge whatever they can. Just responding to Smith’s moral-high-ground argument that artists should naturally support Big Labor. I feel this is a dated notion at best, deserving of clear-headed re-evaluation and fresh thinking — something artists are supposed to be good at.

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