I Was Wrong to Defend Marina Abramovic

by Reid Singer on August 6, 2014 · 8 comments For the Record

Marina Abramović Institute Main Performance Space, first draft rendering ⓒ OMA / Courtesy Marina Abramović Institute

Marina Abramović Institute Main Performance Space, first draft rendering ⓒ OMA / Courtesy Marina Abramović Institute

Last week, the performance artist Marina Abramovic posted ads for four jobs, with no compensation, on the web site of the New York Foundation for the Arts. I’m really glad I’m not one of the applicants.

I might have been, up until a few months ago, as an unemployed young person who scoured NYFA daily for anything that looked remotely like a job lead. A career counselor had told me that the NYFA site was a great place to start if you were looking for work in fields related to art or art history, and even if your lifelong ambitions don’t quite track with, say, a secretarial gig at a gallery, the advice still holds. NYFA has lots of great offerings for applicants who are bright and ambitious, but don’t quite know what to pursue. Some live at home, as I did in my mid-20s, and quite a few are willing to work for little or no pay if the job leads to whatever ephemeral accomplishments are implied by “getting one’s foot in the door.”

This is the demographic the Marina Abramovic Institute has targeted in its recent job posts. Applicants looking to help out with administrative tasks, research, tech, and special projects should expect to work three days a week, with additional hours required on occasion; while prerequisites include “prior experience working in a fast-paced arts non-profit,” and a “college-level background in art history,” these are not, in their minds, prerequisites for getting paid. Lots of people have pointed to the listings as the latest example of exploitation of labor in the art world. Others have cited it in support of the notion that Marina Abramovic, who has lately been positioned as a matron saint of performance (in the HBO documentary The Artist is Present, Klaus Biesenbach claimed that she was “in love with the world”) is, in fact, monstrously callous and cold.

Back in 2011, I was more forgiving. On AFC, I even defended the performance Abramovic conceived, under the direction of Jeffrey Deitch, for a donor gala at LA MoCA. The plan was for hired performers to pose nude, for hours, with their heads stuck through the center of the dining tables, slowly rotating on lazy susans. After hearing about the performance, the legendary choreographer Yvonne Rainer had written a letter to Deitch, calling it “degrading,” and using other terms I thought were self-righteous and hyperbolic.

In this case, the performers were being paid (albeit modestly). Rainer visited a rehearsal, where she grumbled to one of the performers that “prostitutes also get paid.” While the gala didn’t sound like a party I would ever want to go to, I agreed with Paddy Johnson’s point that, like sex workers, it is important to let people decide if and how their work is degrading, without an outsider electing herself to save the day. Abramovic’s work featured nudity and some serious endurance (during the three-hour gala meal, participants were prohibited from moving their bodies), but this was hardly new to her oeuvre. In other words, the people who work in a Marina Abramovic project understand the sacrifices they’re making. They still do, even if Abramovic, herself, does not.

When I applied to NYFA jobs (and when I first emailed Paddy, telling her how much I wanted to write for her blog), I was willing to make these kinds of trade-offs, and found myself pretty much inured to the thought of working for organizations who are, themselves, strapped for cash. But this is not an apt descriptor for Marina Abramovic, or the nascent institute that bears her name.

Over the summer, models wearing smocks with the institute’s monogram on it appeared in “Work / Relation 2014,” a video expounding on the merits of teamwork, which Abramovic made for the folks at Adidas in honor of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This might be generously called a “commercial-film,” or a progressive step forward in the history of business sponsorship of the arts. More sensible critics might call her the definition of a sell out; if, weeks later, she still isn’t paying her employees decently, then the compromise hardly seems worth it.

Last year, Abramovic ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the institute building’s initial design process, with a stated goal of raising $600,000. The Institute pulled out all the stops, even releasing a bizarre teaser video of Lady Gaga practicing the “Method” nude. Within a month, MAI exceeded its goal, ultimately raising over $660,000. Incidentally, if Abramovic wrote the promotional copy for her Kickstarter campaign, instead of having someone do it for her, then I will eat a handful of dirt.

It is a grotesque fact of life that most arts organizations assume they will attract people who are willing to accept less pay than they’re really worth, and that this is systematically figured into their budgets. The market has never been more flooded with capable, well-educated people who are trying to work in contemporary art, and it isn’t much to ask Abramovic to reciprocate at least some of their idealism and goodwill. If she feels entitled to having four qualified applicants under her employ, then she should recognize that they have entitlements of their own. Not all of the organizations with postings on NYFA offer salaries and benefits appropriate for an able-minded college graduate. Marina Abramovic can.

  • Leah Stuhltrager

    very well written. thanks for a good read. your work is appreciated.

  • strunken white

    I could see how at the time Yvonne Rainer’s criticism sounded a little holier-than-thou, but she wasn’t always the canonical Yvonne Rainer we think of (her somewhat hagiographic autobiography notwithstanding); she was a young dancer once and (I imagine) had enough experience doing things for free or for a pittance from that position to understand why it’s unacceptable.

    In some ways that gala was a much, much lesser evil than this recent nyfa posting but it does bear remembering to recognize that Abramovic has been consistently on this path for some time.

  • oscarxrobinson

    Going to the root of these situation we might want to take a closer look at the motivations of some artists and organizations. What are the agendas? Are they seeking to expand human knowledge and contribute to culture and the humanities? Or is there an individual, ego-expanding or monetary motivation?
    The studies of scientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists such as Ellen Dissanayake, Brian Boyd and Stephen Pinker on arts and creative practices have shown nine main aspects evident throughout human history.
    Although contemporary art often deems itself of existing beyond scientific studies, beautiful uses of art mentioned (enhance social cohesion and cooperation, contribute to higher thinking and intelligence, solve perceptual problems) can be found today. Some of the uses also stated seem more relevant to MA and her institute – nonfunctional entity, solely offering aesthetic pleasure, a medium for promoting selective attention and to territorially expand as an individual in a social community.

    Maybe this ‘job’ postings can function as a wake up call for the arts community to question the role and capacity of arts and the humanities today? What can/should be tolerated? Does art need to be separated from society? Has it ever been, especially today, when it has become a focal point of monetary investment and only a exclusive field for people with the financial capability to work within the arts domain?

  • Jack Royal

    They should get minimum wage, but I don’t see a problem with not paying much if they can get qualified applicants without offering much.

    Some people don’t need a lot of income from a job.

  • xxjo

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  • Seph

    It seems that one of the aspects of Singer’s story/situation that has been given little attention is that what Abramovic is doing is unethical. Saying this is about recognizing what’s in front of us, not name calling. We should acknowledge that art, like any other human endeavor has an ethical component and Abramovic is essentially taking advantage of people because there is a glut of (over) qualified workers in the labor pool and she can save money for herself by refusing to pay her staff.

    This is simply theft, and Singer it seems to me, had refused to say this out of a sense of politeness or awe (and perhaps even an indifference to other people’s suffering). However, it is theft and it is unethical because she is stealing the value produced by her volunteers’ labor and profiting from it. I hope people who have supported her work start to pull back and refuse to continue to be complicit in this.

  • Meghan

    Disappointing to see someone of her stature being ok with abusive employment (er, volunteer) practices, and so disconnected from the material reality of being a young person trying to get a start in life. Perhaps she is exclusively angling for the independently wealthy? Either way, I’m embarrassed on her behalf.

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