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Bodies on the Line

"You can have the party. Give us the power!"

Andrea Fraser had already been onstage in front of a packed house at the New Orleans Museum of Art's auditorium for more than half an hour. Dressed in a black suit, she was delivering a monologue based on the transcript of an epic 1991 city council meeting. In that meeting, an ordinance was discussed that would ban discrimination in any of the social clubs that apply for parade permits in New Orleans. The discussion opened up into a marathon airing of thoughts and grievances on racism, heritage, and the role of the carnival in a city defined, in many ways, by its Mardi Gras.

Fraser's performance was astonishing. In one moment, she would be raising her voice in anger, playing the role of an activist speaking on behalf of marginalized black communities in a largely white district. In the next breath, she would be stridently castigating that activist, channeling the presumably white woman who represented these affluent uptown neighborhoods. Then, a nervous bumpkin who hadn't been to a council meeting since elementary school, interspersed with drawling asides from a dry, imperturbable council president. The performance wasn't just based on city council archives; it seemed to tap into an archive of gesture and voice and facial expression and lived experience, brought together, through performance, in the body of the artist.

The line paraphrased above was from one particularly powerful speaker, who made the argument that the economic benefits of Mardi Gras were unevenly distributed. Who, she asked, owns the hotels and restaurants? Who even gets to work in those establishments? If Mardi Gras generates $400 million in economic activity, and $35 million of that ends up in city and state coffers, then where was the rest of it going? Not to the city's many disintegrating black communities, who are so important to the city's culture. It was at this moment that the performance began folding back on itself. It was at once a profoundly moving testament to what art can do, to what it can be, and a critique of its own context. It was impossible not to draw a parallel between the unevenly distributed benefits from Mardi Gras and those derived from Prospect.3, the Biennial that commissioned it. And it did this while paying devastatingly powerful tribute to the city and its people.

Artists who attempt to grapple with the ethics of their host institutions would do well to look hard at Fraser's work. This week, another performance work (this one playing out in a hotel room, by email, and on social media, with a series of drawings generated as part of it) has garnered a great deal of discussion. Ryder Ripps' ART WHORE was made in response to an invitation from a hotel to stay in a room and make art for one night, and be reimbursed up to $50 in supplies. Ripps' response to this appraisal of his value, which he has characterized as exploitative in his online discussions of the project, was to hire people who were advertising sexual services on Craigslist and commission them to make drawings and pose with them for his Instagram feed, where they became fodder for a social media shitstorm in which Ripps has avidly participated.

Comparing and contrasting this work with Fraser's performance is instructive. Both works involved people who were in a position of less power than the artist. Both works made use of content created by these people.

But the differences are instructive. Fraser did not put any words in their mouths apart from their own; Ripps did, often making the claim that they were fine with the experience or enjoyed it. Fraser did not use labels except those used by her subjects; Ripps seems only ever to refer to his participants as sex workers. Fraser's work did not visually represent her subjects' bodies, but Ripps' did. Fraser used her own body in her performance as a way of making her own position (of power) visible; Ripps depicted his own body in the full documentation video, but not in the more widely circulated photographs.

By choosing to narrate the experiences, define the identities, and depict the bodies of those in a less powerful subject position than him, Ripps acted in a way that was ethically unsound: It reinforced and did not interrogate inequitable power relationships. (The argument has been made that no one was hurt and that there was therefore no ethical problem, but this is actually beside the point, and also, the only ones who can say that for sure are Ripps' "sex workers.")

This claim shouldn't be controversial; it seems pretty much aligned with Ripps' intentions going into the project. The work was framed as a response to the often asymmetrical power relationship between brands and the artists they hire; this asymmetry was performed in the relationship between artist and the "sex workers" he hired.

Some defenders have bandied about the name Santiago Sierra, which offers us another useful opportunity for compare and contrast. Sierra has staged spectacles in which participants are hired to perform exhausting, painful, and demeaning tasks for menial pay; this labor is made visible as a performance, often in a gallery or museum. For his work Nine Forms of 100x100x600cm Each, Constructed to Be Supported Perpendicular to A Wall (2002), a series of crude rectangular volumes are displayed in the gallery, supported at one end on the gallery wall and on the other by several dozen workers. This work was shown at Deitch Projects in 2002, with a press release consisting only of Sierra’s proposal for the work. In it he demands that: "The workers will always remain facing the wall and have to be Mexican or Central American."

One reviewer described the experience of seeing the work in the gallery as follows:

The workers in the gallery were neither exclusively from his two areas of preference, nor were all facing the wall. They were slightly bemused, somewhat pissed and eager to voice their opinions about the work, which were polite, but, as might be expected, negative. The workers were also very good at getting around their absurd job, and asked viewers to stand in their place to see what it was like. One pulled down his shirt to show me the bruised shoulder on which Sierra’s large minimalist forms were supported. At that point, the white, thrift-store-clad gallery attendant came over and asked if everything was OK. (Menick)

Sierra's work and Ripps' both involve paid workers, from sectors of the labor force that are undervalued and not infrequently in harm's way, in the production of a work or exhibition. Both make the economic transaction behind this involvement explicit. Both reveal the bodies of the participants. Both reveal the specifics of the underlying economic transactions.

One central proposition of Sierra's work is that the gallery visitor is prompted to confront his or her own role in the perpetuation of inequity and oppression: What cause could there be for imposing such discomfort on the workers, except to present this situation to an audience? It's not just the institution; the visitor is the root cause of this exploitation. In order to do this, Sierra not only foregrounds the economic transaction, he also makes it explicit that the job required will be painful and is only available to people of a more marginalized racial group.

In contrast, by playing down the role of race and downplaying the potential negativity of his participants' experiences, Ripps makes it less obvious to the viewer that inequity is in fact being perpetuated, and many have argued that his actions were not unethical. Thus, the work can't be defended on the basis that it reminds the viewer of their complicity. If measured by the standard of Sierra's work, it is a miserable failure.

To be perfectly clear, giving this project positive attention, and to some extent any attention at all, does make one complicit in Ripps' unethical actions. I'd rather not write about it, because this makes us even more involved, but it became necessary to do so because we are already complicit in the attention this project has received, thanks to our support of his earlier work and our public statements on Twitter yesterday, in response to requests for comment.

I once tweeted that no one understands the "biopolitics of branding" better than Ripps, in other words, that he understands the way that brands get inside you. Someone who understood the biopolitics of branding should understand that, as a curator and writer who has previously bought into and supported on a personal and organizational level, the brand of Ryder Ripps became a part of me and of Rhizome, and our public knows this. In fact, our support for Ripps' earlier work, most recently with a prominent nomination in the Prix Net Art, is one small reason why people have felt all fucked up about his project for the past few days. ART WHORE essentially forced us into taking a position. On the one hand, silence, which would be (and was) interpreted as tacit approval of the project; on the other, public disavowal of the work.

If the project was intended as an elaborate troll, which is the most generous possible interpretation, then it was still not interesting. A more nuanced troll would have forced us to confront contradictions in our own position, making it difficult to make any statement at all. The lines drawn by Ripps' project are just a little too clear; we have little doubt about our own position, and binary opposition seems like the only possible result.

Right now, we are seeing a crisis resulting from the perceived erosion of the internet (and of technology in general) as a white male-dominated space. The effort to police that space in subtle ways or via outright harassment in order to retain control will inevitably fail, but it is already clear that the effort to foster an internet culture that supports a diversity of digital experience will take persistence over years, in the face of bitter opposition.

Fraser offers us a glimpse of how bitter arguments can suddenly open up into moments of possibility, yielding real social change. In the meeting that came to life again in her performance, antagonistic viewpoints were expressed, voices were raised, names were called, people were ejected forcibly. And yet, in the end, something happened that made things a little less unjust in the Crescent City, and the vote was unanimous. I still get chills thinking about it.


Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ripps did not appear on camera; as corrected above, he did not appear in still documents, but he was prominent in a webcam stream.

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Heather Corcoran Nov. 14 2014 14:05Reply

I’m commenting to offer a bit more context as to how we got to this point in this discussion, and to apologize for two things.

Rhizome has a status in an active and engaged network. We believe ourselves to be uniquely embedded in, and in conversation with, an immediate body of net artists, writers and enthusiasts. This is both thrilling and tough — all art, people and institutions exist within a network, but as an art organization based on the internet, I believe Rhizome feels that network more, and certainly treats its role in it more actively.

This is all to say that when this work by Ryder — an artist celebrated for many years by Rhizome, most recently featured in our Prix Net Art shortlist, and a community member and supporter — was published, we felt it. When the direct terms of that controversy circled debates on which we have strong opinions — sexism, precarious work, etc. — we felt it. When we saw how community members (including some of our own staff, and certainly speaking for myself) felt very discouraged by the work, and how it now sat within our support of the artists’ broader practice (and even our field), we felt it. And we felt this enough that we were compelled to respond to this artwork, swiftly, so that our silence wasn't taken as tacit approval of the work.

I want to give two apologies to Ryder:

One, that we initially criticized his artwork in a tweet without defining our terms properly. This is a problem we tried to address in our subsequent article. We should have published the article, alone.

Two, that the contextless tweet escalated a public controversy that has brought him a great deal of distress. The artwork's ethical problems are not unique, and we face them in certain ways too, but our tweet added to a debate that made it too easy to demonize Ryder — shareable, embeddable and easy to co-opt. His disappointing follow-up responses to the backlash of his work (before and after our comment, across many channels) has also been big factor in how aggressive some of the conversation towards him has been. Regardless, we hope this harassment stops.

The tweet also made it too easy to criticize Rhizome for our tactics, and not our position. I stand by that critical position on this artwork, and the need to have made it public, but I apologize for our way of disseminating it.

heleneverin Nov. 14 2014 23:20Reply

Dear Heather,

Rhizome is a non-profit arts organization which supports artists. It is not your place to bully artists based on an individual work which you don't like. Ryder has recieved death threats as a result of your tweet. Seriously, it's just one piece in a body of work. Is it worth the hostility?

Tom Moody Jan. 19 2015 09:50Reply

At one point Rhizome's conservator planned to monitor "social media" – that would have been helpful here as we could see both sides of the "debate": the private witch hunting of the "Facebook groups" where all this started, as well as Ripps' hastily-erased inflammatory responses. A reader could make an informed decision about whether the hotel project was, in fact, exploitative or misogynistic.
Instead Rhizome presents a reasonable-seeming comparison of the "ethically unsound" Ripps project with an ethically sound project by Andrea Fraser. And Art F City asked if Ripps' work was the "most offensive of 2014."
This institutionally legitimizes the rantings of the Facebook secret societies and encourages more of their brown shirt tactics in the name of political correctness (which are continuing, am sorry to hear).

Michael Connor Jan. 19 2015 13:07Reply

I'm dismayed by your suggestion that Ryder is currently being subject to harassment tactics. As we and you and others have pointed out, Ryder is far from the only one of us whose practice has ethically unsound aspects at times, and to continue to demonize him is too easy, and unproductive. To harass him is certainly unconscionable. As Heather said above, we all feel sorry for the distress that we caused Ryder.

I'm also a bit dismayed by your attack on closed Facebook discussions. To argue that every viewpoint, however unpopular, must be expressed in full public view is in effect to advocate for censorship.

Also, two factual corrections.

First, saying that we planned to "monitor" social media is a distortion. We are working on archiving social media, but we're working through the ethical implications of this; I anticipate that this will take the form of working with communities and users and putting tools in their hands rather than "monitoring" them.

Second, you say on your blog that this "started" on private Facebook groups. Maybe, but from my perspective the conversation about 'Art Whore' get going on Ryder's own Facebook thread, not on a private group. (That's the thread that would have been most useful for Rhizome to archive I guess, if the tools had been ready at that time, and if it met our still-evolving ethical guidelines to do so.)

Ryder deleted that thread, and many of the extant criticisms of his project were gone by the time I began writing my article.

Criogenia Jan. 21 2015 20:26Reply

Are you comparing private Facebook discussions to the SS. Seriously? Lady calm down.

Tom Moody Jan. 22 2015 22:46Reply

Not the discussions – the threat. You can probably research that.

Tom Moody Jan. 19 2015 14:33Reply

I didn't say that "every viewpoint, however unpopular, must be expressed in full public view." As you say, the parameters of your "archiving" haven't been defined yet. Some form of "monitoring" social media channels (as in auditing, listening to, finding some way to parse) is badly needed, if that's the new place for discourse. We've talked about this – now you're putting an Orwellian spin on my words.

Heather alludes to "debates" from those channels that touched off your tweet and this post. You should at least summarize the high points. You don't have to say who said what.

Facebook itself is not public! Ripps has said his discussion was "friends only."

Art F City applied a double standard by liberally screenshotting from Ripps' discussion, and yet scrupulously refusing to copy the complaints against his project from a "private, women-only Facebook group."

You made your own assessment, in writing this post, based on what you could read of Ryder's comments (that I did not have access to) but not his accusers'.

This is a perfect example of why some kind of etiquette needs to be worked out in copying, referring to, or, yes "monitoring" social media art discussions.

Michael Connor Jan. 19 2015 15:40Reply

I fully agree about etiquette w/r/t social media being needed! I think in this case it's particularly complex because no one seems really clear on the object boundary - i.e., whether the social media response should be considered "part of the work."

It's hard not to read "monitoring social media channels" without an Orwellian spin.

Of course, that is exactly what we did by archiving Amalia Ulman's Instagram feed, although everything captured on it is "public" in the sense that anyone can see it, without logging in. In that case, we made the specific decision not to capture her Facebook feed, which has a greater expectation of privacy attached to it. Such archives undermine the contextual integrity of social media, and the balance between this and various arguments for the public value created by non-profit digital archives requires further analysis.

Tom Moody Jan. 19 2015 15:53Reply

I would take Ripps at his word that the discussion of "Art Whore" was friends-only, and therefore social media "reaction," to the extent it escaped those bounds, is not "part of the art." Evidently some of his "friends" (who weren't really friends) pulled it into a private context and thereby declared their part of it off-limits to discussion. If Ripps deleted his posts by the time you were ready to write about it, and the dissent was never available, this says to me it's not a proper subject for the Ripps vs Fraser analysis you make here (where Fraser is clearly favored).

Ryder Ripps Jan. 21 2015 00:31Reply

i deleted the post in rage out of the fact that it was screen grabbed and made into a blog post.. there is much more to the story.. such as the fact that the person who's angry comments i was responding to on facebook later apologized telling me that they were going through unrelated emotional distress because of a breakup and drunk. The comment thread was friends only and i did not expect excepts that fit the art fag city's author's narrative it to be screengrabbed. Thats why I deleted the thread. It wasn't out of having anything to hide. But because of the slander and click bait distortions i experienced from this story, i now do have more to hide and do live in fear that i cant have open discussions.

Ryder Ripps Jan. 21 2015 00:32Reply


Tom Moody Jan. 21 2015 09:21Reply

Michael, if you truly felt sorry for the distress that you caused Ripps you'd removed the tweet slamming his work, as well as this post vaunting your superior ethical sense.

Besides picking and choosing which social media criticisms to validate, another example of your selective ethics is the choice of Andrea Fraser as a counterpoint to Ripps. That's actually pretty rich, since she also made an artwork about sex in a hotel. Let's let Wikipedia describe it:
"In her videotape performance Untitled (2003), Fraser recorded a hotel-room sexual encounter with a private collector, who had paid close to $20,000 to participate, 'not for sex, according to the artist, but to make an artwork.' Actually, according to Andrea Fraser, the amount that the collector had paid her has not been disclosed, and the '$20,000' figure is way off the mark. Only 5 copies of the 60-minute DVD were produced, 3 of which are in private collections, 1 being that of the collector with whom she had had the sexual encounter; he had pre-purchased the performance piece in which he was a particularly important participant."

Here's an artist who actually did have sex in a hotel – nothing nearly as innocent as watching while someone made drawings – and filmed it, in a piece that narcissistically dealt with her position as a much-feted artist and her "relations" with wealthy collectors in the faintly ridiculous upper strata of the art world. You've airbrushed out her past to present the new, earnest white liberal Fraser, flying from her LA art professor job to pantomime the little people of New Orleans, in their own best interests, of course.

The online magazine Dazed did a better job describing Ripps' artwork than you did – their treatment is skeptical, but balanced, accurate, and lighter in tone. For all its appearance of balanced "compare and contrast," yours is a hatchet job, reducing art to "correct" politics.

Tom Moody Jan. 21 2015 10:07Reply

Correcting my own typo, that first sentence should read:

"Michael, if you truly felt sorry for the distress that you caused Ripps you'd remove the tweet slamming his work, as well as this post vaunting your superior ethical sense."

Tom Moody June 5 2015 08:21Reply

Michael, you wrote above that: "A more nuanced troll would have forced us to confront contradictions in our own position, making it difficult to make any statement at all. The lines drawn by Ripps' project are just a little too clear; we have little doubt about our own position, and binary opposition seems like the only possible result."
Don't you think it's relevant to mention that Ace Hotel, the site of Ripps' project, is a sponsor of Rhizome? You will never be forced to confront your own contradictions if you don't mention them.