This year, PPL and Drearysomebody, will conclude construction of a dance-opera called ‘Any Size Mirror is a Dictator‘ with a six-week installation and durational performances at Momenta Art, Sept 5-Oct 19, 2014.
After much debate and consideration, we have decided to launch HATCHFUND CAMPAIGN to bring in dollars and sense.
An in-depth analysis of this small act, written in pseudo-political science jargon (as an act of writing-as-performance as part of her role of “recursive dictator” within the dance-opera) by Esther Neff, is below.
The idea that there is an economic crisis in the arts at all hinges on the final and hegemonic establishment of a turn-of-the-century conception of art: that it is a functional—moreover fungible—part and parcel of society.
As such, “the arts” undergo the same crises as “society,” crises which are caused and demonstrated by the increasing divide between rich and poor, by the prison industrial complex and by hyper-commercialization, privatization, and corporatization, et all. These crises do, oddly, bring artistic practices and their “value(s)” into much interesting and problematic question, spawning areas of art theory which, for example, return to essentialist humanist views in formal argument against perceptions of art as leisure, or formally confront economies as performative systems.
I am not here to argue for any specific relationship between “art” and “society” and I will not be using any symptomatic arguments for “the value” of art (I believe that “value” itself is both constructed and subjective). Instead, at the beginning of this expository recursion and introspective case study, I simply want to note that the establishment of this basic, fundamental theory of art’s fungibility, which underlies much of art theory today, is intrinsic on a doxic level, reinforced and demonstrated “scientifically” by the rise of experimental (scientifically moded) artmaking and the rise of the 501(c) 3 sector, as aligned with the tightening grip of post-consensual capitalism. As a paradigm (i.e. thoughts and ways of thinking which are constructed to be universal), this conception of a functional/fungible “role” for art in (an ecologic/economic) society, involves certain smaller, more concrete structures which model artmaking/art and our conceptions of what art is and who artists are:
1.) Art being a functional/fungible part of society means that the artist is a worker, first and foremost. As such, the artist is subjected to the same valuation schemas for labor as any producer of forms of fungible goods and services. As entrepreneur, as worker, as producer of product. If the artist is not making money and not working as a worker in these ways, they are not a working (“professional”) artist and their artistic labor is not valuable.
2.) This operates intrinsically with art’s subjection within, and consideration solely as, a set of objects, which are products, fungible within markets, as markets construct economies, which in turn construct culture, which in turn constructs art, which in turn is subject to markets (see: Jameson, in which culture itself is product). This cycle, many argue and feel, is not only economic, but ecological, an understanding of sustainability, a way of existing safely and freely. If art is not being bought and sold, it is not art as it does not functionally construct culture or participate in culture at all.
3.) That it is the artist’s responsibility to operate functionally and fungibly within these paradigms, which ultimately serve as the only way to value their existences within a society dominated hegemonically (see Antonio Gramsci) by capitalism. If an artist cannot sell their art product, the art product is not valuable.
Figuring out how to actualize the third structure for artists and art dominates much of the dialogue about an “economic crises” for art; artists’ failure to fulfill such a critical component of the ultimate theory that art is a functional part of society burdens them with debt, guilt, humiliation, and fear of ostracization from this very society. Furthermore, any artist who doubts the intention of art to be fungible finds themselves relegated to the crazy camp of outsider artist, or just bad (invaluable) artist (i.e. not participant in society).
On the other side of the same coin, arguments that art is valuable because it is transcendent, therapeutic, empathically stimulating, a part of human nature/essential, beautiful, that it allows for self expression, catalyzes catharsis, and raises consciousness, even that it is anti-capitalist and/or otherwise “politically relevant,” multiply and compound as they are developed and designed to insist why certain art (and programs which teach, fund, and otherwise support art) should be exchanged with money, and/or a lot of money. Thus, conceptions of the values of art are Totally formed by structures for capitalism-based valuation schemas.
This is the point in roundtables about arts economies at which someone always says something reductivist (but “true”) basically stating that: Despite any objections to this vast paradigm (i.e. capitalism itself and its models for human existence), artists such as ourselves ARE, without a doubt, humans living in this society where all goods and services, including space (housing, land, essentially), food (less controlled but totally related with currency within urban areas, see land), health care (access to medicines and specialist members of society), water (see, housing, there are no more public drinking fountains and it is against city laws to open a fire hydrant) and all other resources are subject to currency-based capitalism. When we attempt to work for any reason other than capital gain, we soon find ourselves resourceless (homeless, hungry, sick, thirsty, naked, etc), not to mention deemed valueless as individuals. Capitalism is not a choice, its autopoetic many-headed modes perhaps dominate our very consciousnesses, (see Meszaros) perhaps especially in urban areas, and perhaps especially in New York City. The question we must ask ourselves thus becomes less about how to, futilely, as martyrs or nuns, resist fungibility and become ascetics (somehow) anesthetic to capitalism and more about how to functionally survive as participants, social animals, in society. Perhaps we can most agree: we would like to survive ethically, practically, with compassion and generosity, but we would also like to survive in society (with people, who are the sum, substance, subject, and source of all art as it is made by people), and so we seek ethical, practical, compassionate, and generous ways of dealing with some kind of monetization of art.
A sick hope remains, in me, that art itself will prove that some human agency and potential for something else is still possible (and maybe even help us act out what that something might be).
The first problem confronted, within ensuing, weakly hopeful little interventions within a functionalist (subsequently, capitalist) world, deals with the scale of any one project and its scope, first and foremost.
So what do we have, within our own techniques and methodologies that we can use to determine how to function? Free, or “poor” artworks, to borrow Grotowski’s term, are agit-prop, DIY, and do not require a lot of labor, abundant resources, or private space. These ways of working “poorly” are useful ways, in creating a dance-opera, to build set, costumes, props, and other elements of said opera. “Poorness” is a politics of aesthetics here, and a part of other ideological structures, like mutualism, and collaboration. In NYC, we have Materials for the Arts, dumpster diving, and opportunities to learn skills like sewing and carpentry to Do It ourselves. Many (myself included) also like hand-drawing, and the homemade, as purely pleasurable/aesthetic decisions. However, though these politics of aesthetics and action subvert dominant exchange models, they are also defined by their subversion, negatively reinforcing the very models they resist (this is a complicated idea, see Žižek for more on “negative reinforcement” and how modes designed in direct opposition to other modes serve to reinforce the dominance of that mode being opposed).
Also, the actual problem hits full force when low-level engagement of time and labor is detrimental to the work, which it often is when you’re doing it yourself: if the work is to be complex, detailed, and able to engage with multi-directional logics and somatics of contemporary human life, there are certain types of “poorness” which curtail and oppress the work, ultimately removing the necessity of its existence, at the very least dulling its impact (this is one of many ways in which poorness is oppressive across spheres, see a parallel in food wherein eating healthy requires time or money and cheap fast food is always unhealthy, functionally maintaining the dis-ease of those in poverty, and the entire paradigm, fossil fuels used in transportation and the whole of it, is ultimately the worst of all for health). In art, dis-ease happens in aspects of complexity, originality, virtuoso, and the ability of art and artmaking to “ease” and “dis-ease” existence in its own ways, as the most detrimental poverty to these modes of artmaking is lack of time.
Case study, my collaborators and I have dealt with this problem by making work slowly, developing an opera over a few years so as to not take up too much of any one individual’s time at any given time, but it must take a lot of time regardless, in order to be both cheap yet be healthy and define health (of body, mind, planet). In the end, time becomes more valuable than money, much time is spent, and time is still a tangible part of labor systems which demand that labor be compensated if the laborers are to survive (as one person only has so much time in which to labor).
Second, and very much interrelated with the above, emotional/political/ideological beliefs support the social aspects of a project of theater and/or dance, which involve more than one artist working together, often in larger teams. In addition to creating solidarity and better work with more heads put together, the need and desire to work collaboratively further links our practices into monetary economy; it is one thing for a single individual to separate the production of art from other modes of production, i.e. to work in another sector for money and to make art with this money (time as philanthropy, art as personal cause). When labor, however, is delegated, and groups of performers are asked to organize their lives so that they can work towards a larger-scale project (especially if the core of the project is the vision of a central dictating choreographer, director, composer, or the like) free labor becomes slavery else artists are paid fairly.
These first two problems have only one ethical response for a maker/generative artist such as myself (and I have attended so many panels to this effect, Lindsey Drury, the choreographer of this case study even founded a task force to deal with Rights for dancers, especially women dancers): performers must be respected, they must have reasonable hours, they must have healthcare, they must be paid for their time. There is nothing else (no “opportunity,” no “learning experience,” no “we’re all in this together”) that can be traded performers for their time that is worth as much as money (performers who each generate their own work as makers in their own right and face these problems when they do so, we all perform for each other, all need to be paid).
How to raise money to pay artists is the secondmost point on which most artists and cultural advocates are stuck. I might imagine a world in which institutions and generative artists provide the essentials, such as housing and food, in exchange for art, but this exists only in our imagination; institutions and “generative artists” are, of course, largely crippled themselves by the same structures outlined above.
Moreover, the absolute necessity of paying performers comes into conflict with another two problems when we start asking where we are going to get this payment money: Since this case-study is a dance-opera, the obvious answer seems to be ticket sales. Looking closely into this model however, we bear witness to a closure of access to art; if this is the way, then our art becomes a luxury product that is VERY expensive to buy if we rely solely on ticket sales to reimburse performers for their labor. I mean to say, that if the income from our product being purchased is directly correlated with the worth of the labor performed, only the wealthy could buy it, since we put a lot of time into it. A direct production model for art either decreases the quality of the work (it becomes fast, cheap, and unconsidered, see above) or limits access to individuals and groups living in poverty (for example, most of our friends and fellow arts community members). Not only does the sheer number of people who are subsequently barred from education, health care, and other necessities increase every day (as these things become luxuries), the number and kinds of people who are expected/able to pay us for our labor diminish and homogenize. Personally, I have absolutely no desire to make art for the wealthy only. Nor do I want to make art that is deemed valuable enough to buy only be extremely privileged sectors of a society. Against this last sentence, arguments that artists have always had benefactors bear some weight, and perhaps I/we would gratefully accept such support if such an angel appeared, a miracle.
More likely sticking around, is this problem of access and the position of art and who pays for it, a problem that leads us into the larger problem of free market economies in general. Another symptomatic problem of this larger problem of the free market is that when artists rely on supply-and-demand alone, the amount of supply (product) that is deemed valuable is limited. This may seem fine, maybe one can argue that the world doesn’t need that much art and that those artists who can’t become pop (on the level of Lady Gaga say, who can afford to pay her backup dancers fairly) should not make art at all. This argument about the free market and its effects on the art itself has always been a problem for “the avant-garde;” the complaint being that work that precedes (in time, supposedly) a demand for itself is unlikely to become popular on a large-enough level to support itself through its own sale alone. Also, not all art will ever be intended for a mass audience, and not all art is even recognizable as culture/a part of society before it constructs culture and society itself via its own existence. The free market has also always been a problem for community-based art, which serves those making it and those benefiting from the locality, energy, and other elements of its making, often not from any product. Another related consideration to be underlined out of the assumptive text above is that art is not only about the product of art, artmaking itself can be a “valuable” process that individuals should be able and allowed to participate in, across social strata and beyond any economic viability of their products.
Models attempting to resolve (make sustainable a solution to) these problems that work within capitalism include (across problems): lobbying/proposal writing/activism for government funding for art (actual funding of which there becomes less and less), philanthropy (i.e. asking those with money to pay for the making of the work), reversion to sale of objects and object-based work, and the artists working outside of the arts sector to fund the art.
Back to the “case study.”
PPL, the collective of which I am co-director with Brian McCorkle, is a loose and project-based team of poor artists making “avant garde” “performance art” “opera.” Driven by McCorkle’s and my “ethics and values,” PPL usually pursues few of these resolution-of-economic-problems models, relying instead on finding a balance between “poor” politics of aesthetics, conviction/martyrdom, small-group (duo) performances, making work in institutions and for higher-class artists that can pay us, and working day jobs in arts education. However, this project that we are making now, a dance-opera called Any Size Mirror is a Dictator, functions, and seeks to function in a very socially-dramaturgical manner. It is, in its own autopoetically insane way, forcing us to be “fungible,” as it evolves to inaccurately and psychopathically “reflect” the society it constructs and is constructed by. We have created reflective performance structures that we do not control, after many months of working towards this idea. As a project intentionally and systemically put-into-repetition, Any Size Mirror is a Dictator actually has no ethics, it seeks to become what it can see in the mirror, and sometimes it sees us seeing it: starving, angry, fools, enslaved to our own ideological romances with art history (before post-consensual capitalism), our own desires to be important and valuable in non-capital-based ways, and our own inability to truly function without being fungible. Simultaneously, our 3-year process of exhaustive reflectivity tells us, if we want to truly make ART, as art defines itself, and refuses to be defined by any dictatorship, even one formed, silently, of concept (“politics,” “society,” “mental health”), simulacra (currency=gold, culture=market) and values (the value of a human being, the value of a situation/experience, beliefs in rightness, beliefs in quality, beliefs and desires conflating and inflating), we must give the project what it wants, and see where we can go, NOT argue for the empiric value of something that we think we understand.
It is here, strangely torn between the very concrete empty savings account and the silver-lined clouds of civilization’s collapse, that crowd-funding (stupid name) becomes our best (i.e. most ethical, supported by the beliefs and suppositions espoused here) option. It has become important to us, and to this project, solely this project.
This may seem silly, but hear me out…Crowd-funding first deals with the immediate problem: it allows us a way to pay performers during and directly related to their processes of artmaking. Parallel, time becomes money, at least in an almost fair way (depending on how much money we can raise). Crowd-funding is also deemed our most ethical option because it allows the performances of the work to be free (i.e. we ask only for payment for the labor of the employed performers), and so people of all classes can experience the “product.” This freeness usually (has in the past) results in a high demand for our “product(ions),” audiences grow large (though not mass) and remain diverse (in many different ways). The freeness and availability of our work in product(ion) form then, is our second ideological consideration. Complicit with us in this freeness scheme, is Momenta Art, the gallery where we will hold this project’s six-week installation and durational performances. It is worth noting, in response to those who might suggest we relocate our demands to be paid, that Momenta is a not-for-profit space. Momenta disseminates and exhibits artworks and artworking that is certainly not meant for mass consumption, processes and art which often hold forms that are difficult to monetize (i.e. performance, social arts practices, documentation of community projects as visual art, meetings and panels, etc). We would like to support their organization as much as they support ours, we engage with Momenta on a mutualistic level, not as their employees. If you would prefer to support Momenta, please do so! Relatedly, Crowd-funding usually relies on small donations, not large chunks of money from wealthy patrons alone. This allows classes, communities, and cultural subsectors to work together to fund art, and allows individuals and groups throughout various “strata” to decide what art they want to support.
Crowd-funding is a form of free-market demand modelling, which attempts to trade the value of our product for your money, but actually it fails to model this alone, because your donations may also be driven by your love for one of the performers, or by a reciprocal relationship within our local arts community. In some ways, the crowd does not care if the product is “valuable,” and it may even use other evaluation schemas than those directly constructed by capitalism (if indeed there are any). Finally, crowd-funding allows audience members to our work and supporters of us as people to perform their own agency, using whatever justifications they hold dear, perhaps using beliefs that there is value to art that is made grassroots, by people rather than by companies. Perhaps we can even believe that live events are valuable, that face-to-face relationships and shared situations are valuable towards cultural and social being-together, valuable enough to deserve money, which is the highest form of value, within economically-dominated post-consensual capitalism.
Click HERE to visit our Hatchfund Campaign
As an after-note, let it be noted that, we have chosen Hatchfund carefully. Maintaining the pressures of a time-sensitive campaign via requirement of a minimum earning, Hatchfund does not take the funds from unsuccessful campaigns, they distribute these funds as matches to other projects. They also take NO cut of artist income, rather inviting donors to pay for their administrative labor costs. Even further, they operate interpersonally, working closely with artists and paying close attention to each project they accept; you have to apply to Hatchfund, they choose based on experientially-developed conceptions of a reasonable budget, fundraising plan, and possibility of the project being completed. All donations are tax-deductible, and you will not have to pay for a ticket to experience the final work.
 Questions which, perhaps inform performative turning and actually bode quite well for the health of art as a self-defining way of becoming…questions such as, is there such a thing as universality? (towards deciding if something can be universally valuable, see the euro), what is the nature of nature? (towards determining if we are really all going to die at our own hands), and so on. This is a pretty great time for art and for philosophy, and for relationships between these (now global, finally diasporous and conflictual, performance especially becomes a way of thinking about existence, far beyond what is variously defined as “art.”)
 I’m not saying that functionality is the opposite of “art for art’s sake” (this, in many ways, is a great argument for the monetary value of an art object/product) I am saying that art is forced to function, before it is even deemed art, as a fungible thing/functions as a valuable thing.
 The implications of this forced relationship is evident within art criticism art history, academic spheres, and intellectualism at large, which have experienced the same subjections and capitulatory shifts as art and artmaking communities.
 Performance may deal in content, to follow the analogy, with foods such as carrots and hamburgers, but performing as actual acts is analogous to forming different human relationships with health as a concept.
 A jolt of embarrassment hit me as I wrote these three words like that. I am just coming to realize that this type of embarrassment means that I am being what may be perceived as uncool, uncouth, (fucking hippie!) “insensible,” just like the “woman,” “poor person,” “mentally ill person” that I am, etc. Maybe I should write towards this type of embarrassment…
 We do apply for some grants, but we rarely get them, we have difficulty participating in market-driven institutions, various and complicated particular situations here…
 Of course there are! Didn’t your momma love you when you were a baby?
 As per all crowd-funding campaigns, we are also offering “perks” in exchange for your money, which I guess is in case the art isn’t enough on its own, but more probably designed to assuage the artist’s deep fear that the art isn’t enough.