Art

Underpaid Labor at the Art Show

A view of Melinda Ring’s performance on Martin Kersels’ Biennial stage (all photos © Paula Court) (click to enlarge)

My friend was trying to convince me the other day that $20 was not an unreasonable amount for a museum to ask visitors to pay. We were standing in the lobby of the Whitney shortly after the Biennial had opened, and maybe I was having none of it simply because I was feeling snarky while remembering previous years when I occasionally got invited to the press opening or whatever. Or maybe it was because I’m basically a starving student still, while already well-advanced in years, and such amounts really are a significant outlay for me.

A view of some of the mice (click to enlarge)

But I was thinking about how much “world-class” contemporary art pieces are going for these days even in a recessionary market, and how much cash someone must have at their disposal to even be thinking about purchasing a work for a collection and/or public exhibition on the scale of MoMA or the Whitney, and basically we’re talking like minimum five or six figures, right? Which is at — or several times more than — what I’m able to pull in with all my various experience and smarts.

So the bug of socialism was squirming around inside me even before we went in to see a performance in the installation piece of “Live on 5 Songs” by my old art school friend, Martin Kersels. He wasn’t around, but Melinda Ring, a New York-based choreographer was. She was in charge of that evening’s performance, an adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, to be played out among the five half-monstrous furniture-esque fabrications of Martin’s piece, and performed one-time only by a series of casts that Melinda hadn’t worked with previously as ensembles, or in most cases, even as individuals.

From what I gathered, Melinda’s version of the piece — renamed “Mouse Auditions” — was in response to a couple of realities: one, some of her perspective as a long-practicing choreographer who obviously felt the self-exposure and vulnerability involved in both sides of a sort of hierarchical divide — director and performer — of trying out for, and trying to work together in collaborative art projects.

The second reality was the Whitney’s own limited financial support for the artists whose work they were showing. I’d already heard from other artists what being invited to participate in the Biennial meant in terms of costs/compensation, and everyone understood that part of the equation was the recognition and additional exposure that accrued in being selected to have work in such a premier venue. But the money for covering expenses involved with artist projects for that venue had to come from somewhere, and it was clear it wasn’t all coming from the Whitney, despite the elevated prices for potential audience.

The mice at work (click to enlarge)

Given the apparently low budget for the performance of Melinda’s piece, she made a conceptual turn in her approach, after concluding that there really wasn’t enough to support an actual performance, and thus she decided to bracket the audition process as the main — and only — event. So, with sweatpants/leggings and cheap white t-shirts provided as costumes for the performers — along with do-it-themselves white plastic shopping bags tied around their heads to provide a semblance of mouse ears — she undertook to try out in public several dozen actors, dancers, performers and wannabes in the handful of roles laid out in the first pages of Kafka’s classic.

I’d forgotten how much the foundation for the story’s unfolding was capitalist enterprise in the modern era. Or at least about the deadening system of responsibility and hyper-rationality that is pursued in support of running efficient business, at the cost of its human subjects. Not only is the protagonist Gregor Samsa beset by the demands of the office that is missing his services as a traveling salesman because he has been inexplicably transformed into a bug, but his family also adds to the bad energy around his failure to perform his duties because of this unexpected, radical turn of events. As I’ve already suggested, Melinda’s concept generated further metamorphoses — the humans and bugs all became at least half-mice in her version, which besides the general victim persona suggested by this furtive, timid creature, called to mind more specifically the use to which Art Speigelman put this cross-species shift in his graphic novel series about the Holocaust.

Melinda didn’t go any further in that direction, pretty much staying true to the text. After she’d gotten her auditioners suited up — awkwardly, in full view of all as part of the public (non)-performance — and had each of them mark up with a sharpie their own headshots which had been casually affixed on the wall (to make their images look more like a mouse), she spoke down to the “mice” crouched below her from atop part of Martin’s piece. From this perch, she gave her performers — and the dozens of folks there that were her audience — a spiel about what the whole event was supposed to be. It was done in a voice that managed to sound at once firm and tentative, and kind of weakly amplified through one of the several microphones that were part of the staging ground of Martin’s piece.

Melinda — who, don’t get me wrong, is really one of the nicest people I know — continued in this passive-aggressive mode throughout the performance, by first allowing that one of the “roles” to be tried out for was that of director of the piece itself, and then sporadically interrupting the efforts of the various “directors” in mid-critique of the various other auditioners’ performance of the actual characters of the piece, while the rest of the potential “cast” looked on, half-attentive from the floor in their various costumes for characters (each mouse had had the names of the parts they were going to try out for written in Sharpie on the backs of their t-shirts).

The near-anarchic quality of the set-up reached a couple peaks: for one, when several performers simultaneously tried out for the part of Gregor’s weeping sister, and all three were squeezed into a sort of a raised go-go-girl dance cage — one of the stations of Martin’s piece. One of these actors — in what was difficult not to read as a bit of schadenfreude, if not outright revenge — abruptly broke character to join in Melinda’s directing of another performer’s “directing” by spontaneously giving notes to that guest director of the moment, (who was giving notes to someone else), and who had just rather roughly given notes to him — the impromptu, self-assertive new director — when he was trying out for another part, preceding his shared turn as Gregor’s sister.

Another peak came with the scene where Gregor’s father, not recognizing his son as a giant beetle, attempts stomping on what he perceives as a threatening pest. Three different pairs of performers “trying out” for the two parts mounted another station of the piece and enacted a series of stylized pas de deux of a man repeatedly trying to flatten a man-size bug — while both still cheaply and crudely dressed as mice. At the same time, a “director” was trying out actors in other roles on another station, and — as often during the course of the auditions — there was a lot of cross-talk and scurrying around when the mice-actors went to try and themselves adjust the occasional squeals of feedback from the PA while various microphones were being manhandled.

What I liked about the piece — no, what I loved about the piece — was its super-smart inhabiting of the space provided, while offering back an organic critique of not just the immediate context of the exhibition, but the whole structure of an art world that asymmetrically relies on artists’ work to support not just viewers and collectors’ desires and impulses, but also that over-determining bureaucratic machinery behind self-sacrifice showmanship. This was combined with an equally poignant playing out of that other hierarchical relationship of creative enterprise, where strangers and acquaintances put themselves out there to do whatever expressive thing they feel the need to attempt. And all this through what was one of the most gripping of contrived yet real life melodramas, which in this version became the spectacle of creating a spectacle itself live in front of an (often indifferent) audience wandering in and out on the way to some other “main” event that might or might not be upstairs.

I myself, though friends with both Martin and Melinda, had anticipated only coming in for a while to get a feel for what I assumed would be a formless, undirected event, and then moving on to see the rest of the Biennial. But much to my surprise, I wound up staying for the full couple hours of the halting, fumbling pretend of “let’s put on a show even though we can’t really put on a show.”I can’t describe a fraction of the myriad of egos, encounters, and events acted out on the temporary stage, but let me just say, if “Mouse Auditions” was on TV, I’d watch it every night. It was that good. And after recently paying for a discounted ticket to see William Kentridge’s production of The Nose at the Met, and the Wooster Group’s revival of North Atlantic, and then retaining barely a residue of either major spectacle the following day, I was grateful for this example of culture eating itself on a shoestring performance that Martin and Melinda had generated in the constricted context of the Whitney Project Space. So for that I have to thank the Whitney, for providing the space and context for the piece to play out. I’m just glad it was on pay-what-you-wish night.

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