Inside S.a.L.E. Docks waiting for the performance (all photos by Greg Sholette unless otherwise noted)

VENICE — When I arrived in Venice three weeks ago, I immediately headed to the tip of the Donsoduro to S.a.L.E. docks, a contemporary art space run by artist and activist Marco Baravalle. As part of its unofficial Biennale programming, members of Workers Art Coalition, Aaron Burr Society, Social Practice Queens, and G.U.L.F. was set to have the Precarious Workers Pageant that evening. The last time I’d been in Venice, I was a student fellow at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

The cavernous, brick-lined building, a former warehouse for salt storage with high ceilings and exposed beams, was a cool respite from Venice’s demanding heat. In a corner were DIY constructed geometric forms made of tape, fabric, and cardboard, recalling the Russian Constructivists and the stage scenery of Varvara Stepanova. A lone horn player (Jim Costanzo of the Aaron Burr Society) wore a cape with the words: “Guggenheim Museum Abu Dhabi Evil Empire of Art.” A large screen showing slides illustrated what G.U.L.F. has worked to expose: the Guggenheim Foundation’s complicity in the latest addition to Abu Dhabi’s cultural precinct (Saadiyat Island). The workers on the island, often from the Sub Continent, endure bloated visa costs, and work in the heat and under deplorable living conditions to build what will eventually become the most elite residential area in Abu Dhabi. These workers comprise 67% of the workforce in Abu Dhabi yet make a fraction of the wages. The issues are displacement, indentured servitude, and extreme precarity.


Deconstructing Frank Gehry’s plan for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

The evening commenced: performers donned in fluro construction vests stood in two lines with their backs to the audience, who sat on wooden platforms. Each performer picked up one of the geometric forms and with choreographed movements moved the shapes as an embodied dismantling of Frank Gehry’s proposed architectural plan for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Gulf’s blog post explains:

Once upon a time the early, modernist avant-garde believed art was integral to creating a new, more democratic society that would set free the laboring masses. Even as their radical geometric vocabulary still haunts the projects of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, and other ‘starchitects’ commissioned for the Saadiyat Island projects, the avant-garde’s egalitarian vision is now dead on arrival.

By deconstructing the shapes of Gehry’s plan, the activists/performers hoped to recuperate these utopian, avant-garde ideals and visions of an egalitarian society.

The performers gathered audience members and lead a procession out of the space through the streets, around S.a.L.E. docks, to the Peggy Guggenheim, and finally to the Gallerie dell’Accademia plaza. As we marched, some performers used rebar to bang on plastic buckets — the materials of a construction site — to accompany the pageant. In the large plaza adjacent to the Grand Canal, the emancipated geometric forms were used to build a public commons. The lone horn player’s cape now read: “The Commons: Art for the Public Good, Creativity our Commons.” Gathered in a large circle that occupied the plaza, this new public commons invited performers to stand in the center and shout “Mic Check!” to start speaking, their words then repeated by the crowd (Occupy used this tactic as well). We heard songs and individual stories and testimonials of precarity — all addressing struggles for social justice worldwide. Andrew Ross (G.U.L.F. member) acknowledged the local (and often unseen) labor in cities like Venice that continues to bolster various tourist economies and the Biennale. Some people stopped to listen, others moved by with awkward glances. Not a typical day in Venice, and this sort of disruption gleaned the attention of more than a few.


The Pageant marching to the plaza

It was artist and activist Greg Sholette who had originally presented the Pageant idea by invoking the Paterson Silk Strike and Pageant of 1913 (held at the then Madison Square Garden), which was characterized by powerful worker/artist solidarity that eventually helped secure an eight-hour workday for silk workers. Barrie Cline, one of the performers, described the process of putting together the Precarious Workers Pageant:

The pageant project is on two tracks: how we might as a group (whose core is made up of construction workers in collaboration with artists and organizers) augment the efforts of Gulf Labor, pursuing global solidarity with the migrant workers of Abu Dhabi as well as developing the artistry and/or political engagement/citizenship within our own coalition.

She continued: “People would question us: ‘Why workers in Abu Dhabi?’ Because workers in our group have expressed that labor standards everywhere are being eroded … and the time to build strategies for global labor solidarity is upon us — both for raising awareness in rank and file and labor studies circles, and beyond.”


The new public commons (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It was an odd experience for me, protesting a site once dear to me (I still love the art!). But witnessing and being a part of the Pageant revealed what can so easily be concealed in art, in cities, and in labor. The bodies that moved through the streets and over canal bridges; the shouts that bounced off the ancient city’s walls; and the Venetian plaza transformed into a public commons all brought these issues into the public realm. Let’s hope the Guggenheim acts in a manner that doesn’t dissolve into platitudes and empty symbolism.

Precarious Workers Pageant took place on August 7 at S.a.L.E.-Docks (Venice, Italy). The pageant was a collaborative project with members of Workers Art Coalition, the Aaron Burr Society, Occupy Museums, G.U.L.F., and Social Practice Queens (CUNY)

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Gulf Labor helped program the Precarious Worker Pageant. This is incorrect and has been fixed to G.U.L.F.  

Gretchen Coombs lives and works in Brisbane, Australia, where she teaches in the School of Design at Queensland University of Technology. Her interests include art and design criticism/activism.