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An Open Letter From a Dancer Who Refused to Participate in Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Performance

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I participated in an audition on November 7th for performance artist Marina Abramovic’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. I auditioned because I wanted to participate in the project of an artist whose work I have followed with interest for many years and because it was affiliated with MOCA, an institution that I have a connection with as a Los Angeles-based artist. Out of approximately 800 applicants, I was one of two hundred selected to audition. Ultimately, I was offered the role of one of six nude females to re-enact Abramovic’s signature work, “Nude with Skeleton” (2002), at the center of tables with seats priced at up to $100,000 each. For reasons I detail here — reasons that I strongly believe need to be made public — I turned it down.

I am writing to address three main points: One, to add my voice to the discourse around this event as an artist who was critical of the experience and decided to walk away, a voice which I feel has been absent thus far in the LA Times and New York Times coverage; two, to clarify my identity as the informant about the conditions being asked of artists and make clear why I chose, up till now, to be anonymous in regards to my email to Yvonne Rainer; and three, to prompt a shift of thinking of cultural workers to consider, when either accepting or rejecting work of any kind, the short- and long-term impact of our personal choices on the entire field. Each point is to support my overriding interest in organizing and forming a union that secures labor standards and fair wages for fine and performing artists in Los Angeles and beyond.

I refused to participate as a performer because what I anticipated would be a few hours of creative labor, a meal, and the chance to network with like-minded colleagues turned out to be an unfairly remunerated job. I was expected to lie naked and speechless on a slowly rotating table, starting from before guests arrived and lasting until after they left (a total of nearly four hours). I was expected to ignore (by staying in what Abramovic refers to as “performance mode”) any potential physical or verbal harassment while performing. I was expected to commit to fifteen hours of rehearsal time, and sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement stating that if I spoke to anyone about what happened in the audition I was liable for being sued by Bounce Events, Marketing, Inc., the event’s producer, for a sum of $1 million dollars plus attorney fees.

I was to be paid $150. During the audition, there was no mention of safeguards, signs, or signals for performers in distress, and when I asked about what protection would be provided I was told it could not be guaranteed. What I experienced as an auditionee for this work was extremely problematic, exploitative, and potentially abusive.

I am a professional dancer and choreographer with 16 years of experience working in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in Dance from the University of California, Los Angeles. As a professional artist working towards earning a middle class living in Los Angeles, I am outraged that there are no official or even unofficial standard practice measures for working conditions, compensation, and benefits for artists and performers, or for relations between creator, performer, presenting venue and production company in regard to such highly respected and professionalized individuals and institutions such as Abramovic and MOCA. In Europe I produced over a dozen performance works involving casts up to 15 to 20 artists. When I hired dancers, I was obliged to follow a national union pay scale agreement based on each artist’s number of years of experience. In Canada, where I recently performed a work by another artist, I was paid $350 for one performance that lasted 15 minutes, not including rehearsal time that was supported by another fee for up to 35 hours, in accordance with the standards set by CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front Des Artistes Canadiens) established in 1968.

If my call for labor standards for artists seems out of bounds, think of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG, established 1933), the American Federation of Musicians (AFM, founded 1896), or the umbrella organization the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the 4A’s, founded in 1919), which hold the film, theater and music industries to regulatory and best practice standards for commercial working artists and entertainers. If there is any group of cultural workers that deserves basic standards of labor, it is us performers working in museums, whose medium is our own bodies and deserve humane treatment and respect. Artists of all disciplines deserve fair and equal treatment and can organize if we care enough to put the effort into it. I would rather be the face of the outspoken artist then the silenced, slowly rotating head (or, worse, “centerpiece”) at the table. I want a voice, loud and clear.

Abramovic’s call for artists was, as the LA Times quoted, for “strong, silent types.” I am certainly strong but I am not comfortable with silence in this situation. I refuse to be a silent artist regarding issues that affect my livelihood and the culture of my practice. There are issues too important to be silenced and I just happen to be the one to speak out, to break that silence. I spoke out in response to ethics, not artistic material or content, and I know that I am not the only one who feels the way I do.

I rejected the offer to work with Abramovic and MOCA — to participate in perpetuating unethical, exploitative and discriminatory labor practices — with my community in mind. It has moved me to work towards the establishment of ethical standards, labor rights and equal pay for artists, especially dancers, who tend to be some of the lowest paid artists.

The time has come for artists in Los Angeles and elsewhere to unite, organize, and work toward changing the degenerate discrepancies between the wealthy and powerful funders of art and the artists, mainly poor, who are at its service and are expected to provide so-called avant-garde, prescient content or “entertainment,” as is increasingly the case — what is nonetheless merchandise in the service of money. We must do this not because of what happened at MOCA but in response to a greater need (painfully demonstrated by the events at MOCA) for equity and justice for cultural workers.

I am not judging my colleagues who accepted their roles in this work and I, too, am vulnerable to the cult of charisma surrounding celebrity artists. I am judging, rather, the current social, cultural, and economic conditions that have rendered the exploitation of cultural workers commonplace, natural, and even horrifically banal, whether it is perpetrated by entities such as MOCA and Abramovic or self-imposed by the artists themselves.

I want to suggest another mode of thinking: When we, as artists, accept or reject work, when we participate in the making of a work, even (or perhaps especially) when it is not our own, we contribute to the establishment of standards and precedents for our cohort and all who will come after us.

To conclude, I am grateful to Rainer for utilizing her position (without a request from me) of cultural authority and respect to make these issues public for the sake of launching a debate that has been overlooked for too long. Jeffrey Deitch, director of MOCA, was quoted in the LA Times as saying, in response to receiving my anonymous email and Rainer’s letter, “Art is about dialogue.” While I agree, Deitch’s idea of dialogue here is only a palliative. It obscures a situation of injustice in which both artist and institution have proven irresponsible in their unwillingness to recognize that art is not immune to ethical standards. Let’s have a new discourse that begins on this thought.

Sara Wookey is an artist, choreographer, and creative consultant based in Los Angeles. Her Web site is www.sarawookey.com.

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90 thoughts on “An Open Letter From a Dancer Who Refused to Participate in Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Performance

  1. In looking for a counter-example to this kind of exploitation, Rachel Rosenthal’s Doing by Doing collective comes to mind as a very organic and egalitarian collaboration between a famous performance artist and her students. But I have been unable to find any actual information regarding payment to members of that group. The amounts earned at performances and from sales of DVDs, etc. do not appear to be large, and there is a benefit to participants in terms of the learning experience, so even if the pay were found to be low or no, this is not like laying someone out on a slab naked to be poked and leered at by wealthy donors. But anyway, it does raise the issue that there are multiple lenses (not just payment of union scale) through which the relationship of an established artist and her collaborators can be examined. The process of making art is generally very difficult financially, and the rare exceptions created by the star system are not the normal situation, and it may well be that those artists most likely to rise to the top of that star hierarchy are also those most predisposed toward the exploitation of others.

  2. According to wikipedia, MOCA receives minimal government funding and 80% of its expenses are paid by donors. So $1k a seat performance dinner is understandable. But what I am fascinated about is how much an artist like Abramovic is paid for performances like this. I assume her air faire and hotel are covered and that she receives a per diem., But how much is she paid for the work itself? And who made the budget for the other dancers and performers? Is there always a very big discrepancy in famous artist pay vs the other perormers like Sara Wookey’s? I assume so. If that is the case, would there have to be such a big discrepancy?
    I’ve always wondered this with Laurie Anderson, who I love. From all the touring and performances and art events I wonder if she is wealthy? And if she is, do her instrumentalists, video artists, etc get more than average? Or just average?
    Are we still under the philosophy that if you’re asked to perform with Marina or Laurie or Matthew Barney that you shouldn’t expect decent compensation because you should be so glad just to be involved, for the exposure….??.

  3. I am a great fan of Marina Abramovic’s work but her management seriously need to consider the differents between artistry and exploitation!!!!

  4. I don’t mean to make light of this situation, but what on earth would you have been doing for fifteen hours of rehearsal?

    Also, @agiftoftongues, I would imagine she got a fee of $2,500 for her involvement. At this type of event, if you have a lead artist it is pretty common that they be paid a fee for whatever they’re doing. In the unlikely even you are engaging a bunch of artists – like a soloist and a backup choir – I would still imagine you would pay the backup folks at least what this author says she was offered. But this is assuming we’re talking about a 30-45 minute slice of performance with one rehearsal. Performing for four hours and going through some entire artistic “process” over the equivalent of five three-hour rehearsal “calls” for $150 is disgraceful.

    As for Laurie Anderson, I don’t know how her whole thing is structured but I would guess there is a central business, like the Philip Glass Ensemble, or maybe even just a management company, through which all those touring fees and event honorariums (and all other income) get distributed. She probably has some defined amount of money she makes per year plus a cut of whatever is left after all expenses are paid. I bet she is pretty wealthy on the order of $200+K/year or so, especially when you consider that she has royalties and other sources of income from previous projects she’s worked on, commission fees, and so on.

  5. “The time has come for artists in Los Angeles and elsewhere to unite, organize, and work toward changing the degenerate discrepancies between the wealthy and powerful funders of art and the artists, mainly poor, who are at its service and are expected to provide so-called avant-garde, prescient content or “entertainment,” as is increasingly the case — what is nonetheless merchandise in the service of money.”

    Please tell me what it is you provide after you tell me what it is that you do not provide.

  6. >”The time has come for artists in Los Angeles and elsewhere to unite, organize, and work toward changing the degenerate discrepancies between the wealthy and powerful funders of art and the artists, mainly poor, who are at its service and are expected to provide so-called avant-garde, prescient content or “entertainment,” as is increasingly the case — what is nonetheless merchandise in the service of money. ”

    Please tell me what it is you provide after you tell me what it is that you do not provide. I could assume what you mean because I am an artist but I’m not about to speak for you. Every answer to this helps!

  7. Thank you for illuminating this exploitative practice. It is wrong. I appreciate your measured, reasonable expectations to be paid fairly for your work, to have good working conditions and to see your choices as co-creating standards within the cultural community. There is only honor in owning the realities of this kind of situation. Thank you for being of service to us all.

  8. Why are we surprised by this at all? This is happening every where we turn, and at every corner. What this writer/dancer is saying is that the contract which has previously been employed for humans to respect each others’ basic needs in terms of compensation is missing here in the US. I see this all the time in my profession as both a photographer an a university educator. Read Jaron Lanier he has great insight into this dilemma, which is a situation which will continue to develop in ways that are antithetical to our humaness, individualism and just our basic ability to survive.

  9. You were simply asked to “intern” at the feet or on the table of a great artist.

  10. I admire you for taking a stand. It’s hard to do. I know I have certainly been in situations where I’ve felt exploited, but needed the paycheck (however small it may have been) and therefore carried on.

    Not sure about Europe, but in Canada, the arts are much more highly subsidized by the government than in the U.S. That means better working conditions for artists, but also more government control over what they create. Many Canadian artists I know support themselves through government grants, which means they have to have their projects approved by the same conservative (little c) government. These artist supports largely exist so that all creative types don’t defect for the U.S., where there is more opportunity for glory (although perhaps more suffering for those who don’t make the cut).

    The reason that Ms. Abramovic can exploit performers like you is that there are way fewer similar jobs than there are people who want such jobs. Perhaps unionizing would be a solution, but that means that even fewer jobs would be available overall, but the ones that would continue to exist would simply be remunerated better. So better-paid jobs for fewer people, or the status quo?

    • Artist grants in Canada – really?! The percentage of artist grants’ awarded to Canadian artists is (around .01%). Canada is a cultural wasteland – ‘the arts’ are not in any way a priority for the government – many serious Canadian artists (some brilliant) that I have been so blessed and enriched to have known have either moved away or just given up – they do not hold out hope that the government will somehow recognize their creative dream and that they will be bestowed a Canadian artist’s grant. (Theatre/Dance)

  11. Thank you for your clarifying statement, which points in my mind not only to the dubious practices of Ms. Abramovic, but to those of other artists in the field of so called performance art, too.

  12. You would think Abramovic would have enough respect for fellow artists to demand/offer the highest possible compensation. Or pay it out of her own pocket. What nerve.

  13. I can understand that you would feel like it is an exploitation, and everybody has a right to want to make a living. But performance art and “working towards earning a middle class living” just doesn’t ring right in my ears. Most artists, including Marina Abramovic herself, worked for many years for nothing, many lived in poverty for a long time. They don’t perform to get paid, but because they want/need to. Of course, everybody has to eat, but if earning money is your motivation to perform, perhaps you’re not really artistically compatible with Abramovic’s philosophy.

    • Rubbish. If she did actually live in poverty then she, of all people should have the common decency to pay people properly. The Kylie scam was the normal cheap trick of an opportunistic production company seeking to pocket the funds allocated for dancers in the budget. Blew up in their faces and it is sincerely to be hoped that they get blacklisted in the trade.

  14. Asking individual artists, who have no reputations or sharp-elbowed managers, to speak up for themselves is not an effective solution to a systemic problem. They are powerless, and by declining a job they are not making a bold statement – they’re just making room for another starving artist who doesn’t have the same strong convictions. The power resides with the corporations and their media arms, with the agencies, and with the handful of superstar artists. The Marina Abramovics and Kylie Minogues of the world (http://artsfuse.org/105702/fuse-news-when-a-pop-star-is-a-cheapskate/) may try to defuse criticism and rationalize their cheapskate hiring tactics by pointing to their own starving-artist days and encouraging young unknowns to “follow their dreams.” But their success was due as much to luck and timing as it was to talent and drive, and if they don’t feel an obligation to reach down from their lofty perches and pull others up, then they must be prepared for the inevitable scorn. Unions and other artist associations are absolutely essential to ensuring a dignified standard of living for artists; it takes power to negotiate with power.

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