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.