Photo © Brad Isaacs.*
On November 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street’s National Day of Action saw thousands of people turn out at a number of events planned throughout Manhattan and beyond. I too intended to join the Arts and Labor Group’s Occupy Lunch on the Highline—an event that sought to address the working conditions of the 99% in the arts: overqualified gallery assistants who do not have a proper lunch break; unpaid interns racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt; art handlers who are often artists juggling multiple part time jobs with no security. But before joining in on the protest, I attended the conference “A Symposium of Curatorial Interventions” at NYU because I took particular interest in seeing the keynote lecture performance by then-Vancouver-based artist Rebecca Belmore. One of the most renowned performance artists in Canada, and the first aboriginal woman to represent the country at the Venice Biennale in 2005, Belmore’s practice has consistently dealt with marginal histories and contemporary politics through poetic references and evocative actions. Needless to say, OWS stole away most of the conference audience. Among those gathered, including the organizer Lissette Olivares and the speakers (the Yes Men among them), OWS was the coda to which they constantly returned.
It was in this context that Belmore began her keynote. She gave an overview of her practice and showed documentations from previous works, including Wild. For this 2001 performance at the Grange House, a nineteenth-century manor and a national historic site in Toronto, Belmore refitted the beddings in the master bedroom with a deep red cover decorated with beaver pelts and tassels of long black hair. Lying in bed as visitors came through, the artist’s physical presence evoked the invisible histories of aboriginal people in this site of colonial settlement where an aboriginal woman would certainly have been unbidden. Topless and comfortably snuggled under the cover, Belmore also pointed to the repressed interracial relations that have always marked the history of contact. After brief descriptions of a number of works, she began to show images of the Vancouver Art Gallery, a civic art museum currently housed in an historic provincial court house. Her photographs of the museum showed clusters of tents and camping gear set up in the front lawn by Occupy Vancouver. The most prominent public square in the city, the site of the museum often serves as a meeting point for political and cultural congregations. Drawing on the political potency of the site as well as the building’s history as the seat of judgement, Belmore so aptly presented Worth (—Statement of Defence) in front of the museum.
On Sept 11, 2010, Belmore staged this previously unplanned performance in front of the main entrance of the Vancouver Art Gallery. That morning, she called Daina Augaitis, Chief Curator and Associate Director of the museum and a number of friends to come and witness. By 3pm they saw Belmore sitting down on the pavement with a hand-painted sign that read “I am worth more than 1 million dollars to my people.” After scrubbing down the sidewalk, she carefully laid out the cover from Wild, taking time to brush the tassels of hair to one side. When the cover was finally arranged the way she wanted, she wiped her feet and lay down, arms outstretched as though she was getting crucified. After a number of deep breaths, she got up, folded up the cover, and called upon Augaitis to receive the bundle. As she walked away after the performance, she yelled, “I quit!”
Video courtesy of Harold Coego.
As people speculated on the meaning of those two words, the details of why Belmore would even consider quitting emerged. This performance launched into public view the ongoing legal battle between Belmore and her former gallerist Pari Nadimi. Sued for upwards of a million dollars for alleged wrongful termination, Belmore has been struggling to keep her autonomy as an artist, as well as control over the way her work is presented and circulated. In giving Wild directly to the museum, she was not only bypassing the dealer but putting herself in the position of the donor. Designating how and to whom she will give, she was able to reverse the power relations momentarily. I say momentarily, because in the end, the museum received the work for free, and the artist remains monetarily unrewarded. This is not to suggest that this gift-giving is meaningless; however; it continues to raise important questions of monetary compensation and value as it is related to Belmore’s case specifically and to the larger issues around performance art and other practices that remain difficult to commodify.
Central to Belmore’s performance is the question of worth. Closely related to the term “value,” “worth,” as it is used in the title and the hand-painted sign, implies an importance beyond the dollar amount that has been affixed to her work. To what exactly is this exchange value of one million dollars assigned to when it comes to suing a performance artist? How is the immaterial creation and artistic labour measured? It seems egregiously arbitrary for the gallerist to slap on this price, especially considering that Nadimi had previously raised the damages sought from $250,000 to $750,000. The public proclamation of Belmore’s self-worth—more than whatever dollar amount her former gallerist determines she is worth—can be understood as a refutation of the capitalist art market where the market value is as much determined by pure speculation as by supply and demand. Simply put, the work begs the question of how art is valued. Belmore’s performance is a refusal to let Nadimi—and by extension, Sotheby’s auction houses, Chelsea galleries, and the larger mechanisms of the art market—determine the value of art at the cost of the livelihood of artists.
Top: Worth (Statement of Defence), 2010. Performance view, the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo: Emilio Rojas.
Bottom: Wild, 2001. Performance view, Grange House.
In the context of the understandably trying and paralyzing legal battle, this performance and the “I quit” statement may appear at first glance to be a complete repudiation of the art world. Perhaps it was at the moment of the performance, the peak of her frustration. However, as she continued to discuss her work, I began to think otherwise. Looking at the sign, I questioned to whom Belmore was referring when she wrote “my people.” Did she mean the Anishinaabe people from her home in what is now called Ontario, or perhaps all indigenous people? By using the singular possessive “my,” she is referring to a community of which she is a part. Given that the witnesses to her performance are her friends—fellow artists, writers, and curators—I am convinced that “her people” is the larger art community that she feels invested in being a part and nurturing. It is also this community of artists, art administrators, curators, and writers who rallied together after this performance to get the media to cover this story and raise money for her legal defense fund by holding an art auction.
Those who were called to witness played an important role in the performance. Among the Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous nations, the tradition of potlatch, a ceremony during which gifts would be distributed to the guests who are called to witness an important public event, has held an important role in marking significant moments in the community such as birth, marriage, and death. I see Belmore’s gifting operating in a similar way, where her people, including the chief curator of the largest art institution in the city, were called upon to acknowledge the declaration of her worth as an artist and as a person. The witnesses also served another function. Having seen Belmore’s performance, the audience gathered there can then give testimony elsewhere, telling and re-telling her story as proof of her worth and artistic autonomy.
After Belmore talked about this piece and her continuing legal troubles during the lecture performance, she showed a newspaper clipping about an imprisoned man ordered by a judge to create art. It was an absurd story, but one that struck a chord with her. She wondered out loud whether she would be forced to make work for her ex-gallerist if she loses the case—churning out one work after another as though she is sentenced to hard labor. She also wondered what it means for artists to quit. What if all artists stopped making work? I thought about Occupy Lunch and the working conditions of my peers as she searchingly asked this question. Put differently, to what distressing condition must artists be driven before they give up making art altogether? As though in response, the last few slides of her presentation showed images of Ai Weiwei, the famous dissident Chinese artist who was detained without charge for three months and fined for 2.4 million USD for tax evasion by the Chinese government, all for speaking out against government policies through his art practice. As Belmore showed a picture of paper money folded into airplanes that were thrown over the fence of Ai’s residence by his supporters, she brought out a stack of Cuban notes. She explained that her husband, Cuban artist Osvaldo Yero, was recently in his home country and brought back some money. After crumpling the bills up into little balls with the help of an audience member, she ended the lecture by throwing the clumps of notes to member of the audience, who would eventually realize the money is fake.
This gesture at one level speaks to Ai’s practice and his design firm Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., where the idea of creating something fake questions the authority of what is accepted as real. In the lecture-performance, Belmore drew clear parallels between herself and Ai; both artists in situations where their artistic autonomy and livelihood are threatened by the forces of the art market and the state in the worst possible scenarios. On another level, given the history of political tension between Cuba and the U.S., the act of distributing fake Cuban notes puts Belmore in the position of a smuggler of the counterfeit. In light of the discussion of her performance Worth, Belmore, as a counterfeiter and money launderer, seems to return to the question of value and the role of the artist in the art market. Distributing fake notes of the enemy state, Belmore is not outright rejecting her participation in the art market with its attendant problems; rather, she is putting forth subversion as a tactic. In the same way Ai is using the concept of “fake,” Belmore is responding to her quandary by creating fake money, thereby questioning the supposed real value of Belmore’s creation as determined by her ex-gallerist. Quitting may have crossed Belmore’s mind as an attractive option. But in continuing to make work that directly problematizes this ongoing legal conflict, she is determining the value of her own artistic labour and output.
With scrunched up color-photocopied Cuban notes in hand, I left the conference to join friends and allies at Occupy Lunch where they were handing out sandwiches and sharing too-familiar stories of their struggles in the art world. Later, we headed over to Union Square to join the larger congregation of people with all sorts of political messages from educational reform to union politics. On that day of action, among the overworked and underpaid, I continued to think about Belmore’s performance. I returned again to the question of “my people” and for whom she makes art. (And now I ask for whom do I write?) Looking out onto the mass of individuals with whom I stood in solidarity, I speculated that Belmore makes art for her people, in the most fluid, inclusive, and expandable way one can understand that phrase.
Liz Park is a Performa Magazine writer in residence.
This essay is published on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of Rebecca Belmore's performance and Occupy Wall Street's National Day of Action.
* Photograph (c) Brad Issacs. Location: London, Ontario, Canada. Billboard project organized by Jamelie Hassan and Ron Benner, supported by London Ontario Live Arts Festival. Unveiled Dec 8, 2011.