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DENVER — Are contemporary artists only symbolically different from their working comrades at Amazon?
I move freely amongst the abundant shelves in a bustling warehouse, not bound by the clock or an objective. I’m surrounded by smiling cardboard boxes, but I’m not at one of the United States’ over 300 Amazon facilities; I am at the art exhibition The Fulfillment Center created by Black Cube, which calls itself “a nomadic art museum”. Executive director and curator Cortney Lane Stell has argued that the show spotlights the impact of e-commerce on laborers. I saw this unique show months ago, but as time passed it wore on me and I became increasingly concerned about the workers — I mean artists — and more ambivalent about the commodities — I mean art.
When a US city welcomes an Amazon fulfillment center it is welcoming more jobs, not more prosperity. In 2018, The Economist noted that the arrival of a new Amazon warehouse in Lexington County, South Carolina lowered unemployment, however, after the center opened the annual earnings for workers fell by 30% from $47,000 to $32,000 between 2011 and 2017. When a 950,000 square foot Amazon distribution center arrived in San Bernardino, California in 2012, unemployment also dropped, from 12% to 5%, yet the number of people living in poverty grew. Employee turnover at Amazon is high, which is strange because employees who commit to two years (in some cases one year) enjoy vested stock options and tuition reimbursement. In 2018, The Atlantic reported that Amazon employees called workers approaching the two-year anniversary “the walking dead” because they were frequently fired for minor infractions or quit from increased managerial harassment.
A 2016 letter reads:
You work alone and in competition with your peers. You are a speculator betting on your own unlikely success, and if you fail it’s because you have failed to work hard enough. You have no choice but to exploit not only yourself but also inadvertently all those working along the supply chain. You are a contracted subcontractor, a self-employed employer, and you are often unemployed — but without being anyone’s employee your ability to organize is limited.
This isn’t an excerpt from an internal memo at Amazon; this is a letter published by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E). W.A.G.E. is an organization that has developed mechanisms for nonprofits to regulate artist fees, thus offering transparency in the opaque commissioning market of contemporary art exhibitions. An institution may apply to obtain certification by W.A.G.E., and submit financial statements and artist fee payments for annual review and renewal. With W.A.G.E., an institution such as Black Cube, which is W.A.G.E certified, demonstrates a commitment to payment standards for artists. (Art handlers, photographers, or other outside contractors are negotiated outside of W.A.G.E.’s supervision.)
Several participating artists commissioned to make work for The Fulfillment Center confessed to Hyperallergic that the cost of making their artwork (including materials, shipping, and travel), exceeded their payment. Artist Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s “Live to Die” (2019) filled several shelves with stacks of red doormats that say “welcome” in Chinese and English. Pinned between the rugs marked with the color of luck and fortune are figurines of a girl wearing an Asian rice hat and carrying a bundle across her back. Datchuk told Hyperallergic via email:
I was given a budget of $3,000 and I maxed this all out with the cost of red mats and porcelain to make the figurines and international shipping from China, which did not leave any leftover money for return shipping [to the artist’s residence in Texas]. I was paid a $500 honorarium for my participation in the exhibition and I saved that to use towards return shipping. At least I think I saved it. I am always borrowing money from one payment to help fund the next project.
Stell informed Hyperallergic by email that participants were paid above the minimum artist fee required for a group exhibition that’s prescribed by W.A.G.E. Art production budgets, she noted, were developed based on each project, “Not all works were shipped. Some works were fabricated by fabricators, others by the artist.” Some artists traveled from out of state, and those costs were also covered by Black Cube, aside from one artist who obtained a grant for overseas travel.
The expenditures for Fulfillment artist Sammy Seung-min Lee’s “Changing station” (2019) also exceeded her payment, but Lee echoed the comments of several artists in the exhibition: saying she would work with Black Cube again because the institution provided professional development and ample promotion of her work. For comparison, Lee highlighted her recently concluded art residency with Denver’s Children’s Museum. The museum continuously renegotiated her on-site time commitments and the expectations for her commissioned artwork. When she pushed back on requests for time and work outside of her contractual obligations, Lee claimed a staff member insisted previous artists accommodated such amendments. “Why would artists do that?” Lee asked in frustration, “Why work 120 hours when you are paid for 60 hours?”
“Young artists don’t feel like they can say no to symbolic work,” sociologist Alexandre Frenette told Hyperallergic, “no one is selling exposure to a 60-year-old artist.” The carrot dangled by the stick of underpaid work experience is the promise of future earnings, much like with Amazon. This argument is supported in the recent report compiled by W.A.G.E and Cornell University in which bigger institutions allocate lower fees based on a percentage of operating budget. The unregulated, ruthlessly competitive market leaves American workers struggling to value their labor and artistic intellectual property without veering into exploitation.
“I could have four solo museum shows in a year and still not make enough to live on,” says Fulfillment artist Adam Milner. W.A.G.E provides fee calculations based on the total annual operating budget of the institution and other factors, such as the number of artists in an exhibition, but it does not consider cost of living or annual income. The self-regulating effort by a fraction of the commissioning market may not be enough to sustain artistic practices, but it is radical when considering how labor inequities survive in privacy.
“Mega retailers are a product of public policy not just consumer choice,” whispers an Amazon box as it cruises down a superhighway of conveyor belts in the video “Big Opening Event” (2019) by artist Nina Sarnelle. “Tax breaks, subsidies, massive incentive packages,” the whisper grows into a chorus of voices, “since 2012 Amazon alone has received $2.4 billion.” Consumers’ behavioral change toward e-commerce was hastened by government assistance — a fact not popularly discussed until “HQ2” looked toward New York. Today, Amazon is valued at $800 billion and will pay zero taxes in 2019, and the US government’s lax taxation is a prime reason it was able to double its profits in 2017 and 2018.
In Doris Lessing’s book Out of the Fountain (1975) she eloquently writes of the diamond cutter’s process:
A man may spend a week, or even weeks, studying it, accumulating powers of attention, memory, intuition, till he has reached that moment when he finally knows a tap, no more, at just that point of tension in the stone will split it exactly so.
The day of an Amazon Fulfillment Center employee is dictated by many slices of time: the “time off task” (using the restroom), the time to fill a box, or the 30 minutes of break for an 11-hour shift, five days a week. Like the diamond cutter, an Amazon employee will not realize until the end of his or her investment if the choices made at the start were right.
The ever tilting valuation of time is echoed in my conversation with Datchuk who navigates anxiety about pay with students,
I feel like you will never get paid the amount you deserve for the sleepless nights [spent] going over an idea in your head, the days experimenting to get it right, and the countless hours answering emails, documenting work, filling out applications, and going to FedEx, that eat up your day.
The artist and the Amazon employee are not on disparate paths; claiming one underpaid person’s time is unique from another leads to the marginalization of skills, a form of class condescension. Artists advocating for another workforce is a good starting point. Nonprofits are not exempt in the race to garner revenue from the creativity and sweat equity of contractual workers. Successful exhibitions grab new sponsors and sell merchandise, companies build brands on our backs, and publishing platforms runs advertisements on the edge of my words. Everyone gets a cut, but some cuts are crumbs.
The Fulfillment Center continues at Black Cube Headquarters (2995 South Umatilla Street, Englewood, CO 80110) through February 14, 2020. The exhibition is organized and curated by Cortney Lane Stell.