Last Saturday I caught the experimental comedy Merger, She Wrote which debuted as part of the HOT! Festival at Dixon Place. Written and performed by comic Becky Eklund and performance artist Santi Venegas, the story takes place in New York City following the Kafkaesque merger of a knitwear company, for which Santi toils as a design assistant, and a methadone clinic where Becky works as a substance abuse counselor. Becky and Santi lean on each other through the merger and inevitable downsizing, and realize that they are kindred creative spirits who happen to hate the jobs to which they are holding on for dear life.
A sort of 21st Century 9 to 5 for the Queer, Green Card-seeking artist set, the show touches on immigration, the environment and capitalist consumption while paying loose tribute to pop cultural icons like Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Disney princess, Ariel.
What Merger, She Wrote conveys most effectively, though, is the struggle for many artists to balance their aspirations and creative output against the soul-sucking day jobs that allow them to keep roofs over their heads while paying their bills and chipping away at college debt. In 9 to 5 our white collar heroines manage to climb the corporate ladder, going from put-upon worker drones to queen bees but the final destination for Becky and Santi, who would rather jump off the ladder rather than climb up it, is a little less clear. Such is the case for many working artists, curators and art students living in New York who have to face the economic realities of pursuing their creative endeavors in a post-recession Art World. Times are tough it seems, but not for everyone.
In her contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennial, New York-based performance artist Andrea Fraser; best known for her work in the area of institutional critique, wrote the essay “There’s no place like home.” The six-page document, written during the height of the Occupy protests, sheds light on contradictions between the economic and social definitions of art and the actual function and meaning of art as defined by artists, critics, curators, and historians. Check out this eye-opening excerpt from Fraser’s essay:
More broadly, it is clear that the contemporary art world has been a direct beneﬁciary of the inequality of which the outsized rewards of Wall Street are only the most visible example. A quick look at the Gini Index, which tracks inequality worldwide, reveals that the locations of the biggest art booms of the last decade have also seen the steepest rise in inequality: the United States, Britain, China, and, most recently, India. Recent economic research has linked the steep increase in art prices over the past decades directly to this growing inequality, indicating that “a one percentage point increase in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1% triggers an increase in art prices of about 14 percent.” And we can assume that this hyperinﬂation in art prices, typical of how luxury goods and services respond to increases in concentrations of wealth, has also catapulted an unprecedented number of art dealers, consultants, and artists themselves into the ranks of the top 1, .1, and even .01 percent of earners, with the reported prices of many artworks well above $344,000, the 2009 threshold for 1 percent status.
Indeed, the art world itself has developed into a prime example of a winner-take-all market, one of the economic models that emerged to describe the extremes of compensation that have become endemic in the ﬁnancial and corporate worlds and now also extend to major museums and other large nonproﬁt organizations in the United States, where compensation ratios can rival those of the for-proﬁt sector.
Less than week after seeing Merger, She Wrote I found out about DebtFair’s Artist Meetup billed as a large scale meeting focusing on community building and identifying solutions to rising debt amongst artists. The meetup, which takes place Sunday, August 11 at Abrons Art Center, is part of the larger DebtFair project developed by Occupy Museums, a group known for actions at MoMA, Lincoln Center and the Berlin Biennale.
Participants will be invited to share their current debt stories and engage in personal interviews to be collected and shared on the group’s website. A group of participating artists will install the first prototype of a DebtFair, where art is available in exchange for direct payment to the artist’s lending bank. The combined 27 artists currently enrolled in DebtFair account for over $1.6 million in debt. If you can take time off from your side gig at the knitwear company or you aren’t too busy catching up on client paperwork at the clinic then check it out from 3 -7 this Sunday.
This event is free and open to the public. For more information on DebtFair or the August 11th artist meetup, please visit www.debtfair.org.