Saturday, June 14, 2014

MASTER'S TOOL: Is Unpaid Labor Feminist Practice?

I didn't move to Berlin to simply experience community... I'm moved here to experience success. I look out here and imagine your bodies assembled as a vehicle that I'll drive toward success.

I'll say community so as to imply that an exchange of labor will happen, but the galleries will probably be competing for me... flying me to China or wherever and I won't have much time. All the while, I will pretend--maybe at times actually believe--that you and I are in the same boat. 

When I see you, I'll fake like the success is burdensome. I''ll pretend that I'm not avoiding your emails...I'm just sooo busy. I'll act interested in your dishwashing job... never talking over you with tales of all expense paid travel, schmoozing... instead to you my confidant, I'll pornographically complain about how not-so-glamous I feel cause the institutions keep me wanton. And I won't be condescending at all when I say that I wish I'd never left you... for success. But, I promise, I will continue to feign poverty. Pretending that 2 months vacation is normal... deserved and necessary. That I've earned it. But it's just not enough really. 

The jumpstart of my career with your body no longer yours in front my lens... dead in my photo... worked its charm on my grant applications. I don't have to worry about rent this year. Full time thinker... thinking about buying a house. But I'll pretend things aren't going so good that at any moment the art world could spit me out so I will continue to cling to my budgets renting cameras... buying lights... hiring drivers but convincing you my beloved friend that there is no payment for what you do... cause what you do is amazing... too amazing to be cheapened with a price. And you'll have to understand that I only have money to pay the professionals... 

But I won't forget you like the half dozen mutual friends forgot us after their biennials. That was their fate... their flawed character... not ours. We won't be separated by my ability to spend and your inability to save for a future anything. Our class difference won't do what it does to everyone else. 

When they want to exhibit my work in corporately sponsored museums run by donors from mutual trusts... I'll believe myself subversive enough to avoid hypocrisy... that my work will challenge those white walls built with money from the undervalued labor and I make them think differently, even change their ways. 

I'll take our conversations, friendship and love making as evidence that you can't hold anything against me... you my communion wafer. I fed your body... made only a little profit and left you nothing. Except that promotional tshirt. 

I'll expect you to feel loved... even when the pressures of my bright future prevent me from convincingly caring about what happens to you. When you see your ideas and influence fingerprinted all over my body of work... you have to accept it as an homage really. Cause I performed these concepts, and surely you were smart enough to hoard some good ideas for yourself... make your name on a different authenticity. 

I will treat your suspicions, critiques and requests as insults, threats and jealousy. You have to see it from my perspective... if you want my success to result in anything for you. 


I am in full support of women separatists but note that separatism is a long walk away from where we are... a separatist doesn't have drag queens working their fundraisers for free... doesn't host events with male attendees... Once we've forged a 'community' with a value of being anti-racist, feminist, trans-inclusive or whatever the right terms are, we no longer have these easy access arsenals of identity to destroy each other. So please smash a phallus if you must but take these critiques of gay white male bodied person telling us about feminism and revise your terms of community to reflect this convenient separatism. 

Is free labor a feminist practice? My conclusion is: No, I do not believe that Feminism which forced us to reconsider domestic labor as having a value, as deserving a financial stability and consideration, brings us to a moment in the production of art where labor becomes merely a social contract hardly spoken with no real framework of promise or accountability. 

I see free labor as being a bi-product of thoughtlessness rather than a political decision and to claim it as a political choice means you're not to be trusted. If you were to have hired an actor you would have had to produce a script for them to rehearse. Instead the failure to conceive the project fully converges with the egotistical desire to produce something and because that something is still in the realm of thought rather than actualization of course it was unable to get funding. Not having to consider the politics of labor absolves the artist (read: employer) of a great deal of responsibility. It is easy to see why one would avoid this task. No one is criminal for having utilized free labor, though I welcome contesting this value judgement, but my point of rupture stems from the fact that free labor is the not-so-new standard approach to art/film production. 

I believe Feminist art production reflects the value system not merely in the product but also in its means of production. Can Feminist production embrace free labor as a practice: Yes, but this does not absolve the employer (read: artist) of any responsibility, in fact ethical utilization of free labor compounds the already complex nature of employment. 

Queer Community Project is the phrase that now sends me running in horror. Community in this construction reads for me a shared delusion. While claiming to simply 'survive' current economies, we fail to see the greater invitation to rewrite our expectation of artists: art production is not a reparative or generative process it's an undoing. Community contradicts notions of a singular authorship and without this standard of authorship recognizable to a globalized art market, ownership of community produced material will always be debatable. Are we really in this together? 

Also let us not forecast value on things not yet made... we are not tasked with changing the world, redefining or even merely documenting a generation of art nor are we capable a creating a 'scene' in any convincing way. Production of a 'scene' in real time is merely performance and always a hollow cliche. I have a troubled relationship with the words "queer community" as true it can be a form of empowerment, but it is often invoked to manipulate, monitor and regulate difference. I don't believe communities are self-identified. Art stars and our even more beloved never-recognized-until-after-death outsiders are easy fuel for an art market derived from valuing a few by denying relevance or even consideration to a vast majority. We live in an era of everyone believing they would make the perfect reality tv cast... Truman Syndrome is ubiquitous and therefore envisioning the means with which you yourself become a star makes you dreadfully typical. Let us see what comes from not desiring these ends. Is your work for some stranger across the globe who you do not know but who might buy it or screen it in their festival... or is it for your community? Clearly, a community politic complicates the standard art practice in a way that almost certainly denies you the possibility of a career. Can you pay your rent with funds generated from a project built entirely from free labor?

At the end of many collaborative projects comes also the end of many friendships. Do we really believe this commonality is merely artistic difference? Could it be that the lines of its financial trajectory are not clearly drawn and agreed upon? 

I've lived in Berlin for 3.5 years, I've been on a number of sets within the queer-identified scene, many of whom are here now. Tonight is not about any one particular project, it is about a commonplace practice of requesting labor via loosely worded social contracts involving no monetary reimbursement or compensation whatsoever. This is a global problem within labor, which was never my interest because, being from Midwest America, I got used to the idea that labor and love would always be separate entities... I watched my parents struggle in work, not loving work. When people told me that I should build a career on my passions, I thought what a useless thing to do with passion. And this rhetoric of loving work continues to make work abusive for most of us as we attempt to endure the fate of neoliberalism... Even in my shit jobs like Bully Bakery where I was supposed to "put more love into my sandwiches" and at 6 am when I responded unenthusiastically to this request he glares me in the eye inches from my face to bark: 'NO! You have to love you job!' This from a man who paid me 6/hour collected the tips in a jar that he was going to redistribute at the end of the month, 3 months later I never got the tips and I was fired... for shitty foam and a bad attitude. I will take million critiques about my ability to communicate with my employers. I should have asked him about the tips after the first month. I should have argued back on behalf of myself... cause I think that's why he didn't have respect for me anyway. But, some part of me believes that talking back or standing up for myself is futile, cause once someone is willing to overstep--that's just what they are. So if you feel the finger being pointed at you personally this is not my intention... it's been really hard to acknowledge that friends, who love to use the word community, have engaged me in uncompensated labor, and yet not one of them has asked me "Was it good for you too?" I don't believe there is such a thing as accidental narcissism, instead I see it as a cultivated disregard for others. I believe this narcissism is symptomatic of a larger problem of labor and the struggle to love it. Whenever artist friends complain about compensation for their 'work' --they all say it the same way too 'work'-- I believe this notion of art as work also interrupts the process of what we do as a community of lovers. Obviously this talk resembles absolutely no conclusive strategy. Do we love the political that way we love art, or rather our conceptions of self as art workers? Does the political often become a convenient ornament... only elemental rather than central? Does the individual ever survive the political? Doesn't queer art cease being queer once it's sold in a global market of devaluation?


When I performed the Berlin Femme Show in 2011 or 12, I was meditating on gossip, specifically queer gossip, trigger warning and word policing. The performance title: It's Conceptual, I Promise, reflected my own terror upon returning to a Berlin Femme Show after previously getting boo'd endlessly by the editor of L Mag at S├╝dblock during my Berlin stage debut with Liz Rosenfeld... Citing this previous experience as a means to justify a more combative performance, I decided that if boo-ing is inevitable best to make it a master's study. I appropriated Sinead O'Connor's SNL performance in which she covered a Bob Marley song acapella and then ripped up a picture of the pope declaring: "FIGHT THE REAL ENEMY!"

I love ineffective feminist performance art. FEMEN is a lovely moment in time for us to see that indeed, feminism can be even violent. When white European feminists state: 'I don't listen to Angel Haze because she links her lesbianism with her childhood sexual abuse.' I hear the violence of college education via it's vast remove from experience with poverty, religious upbringing that often connects homosexuality with sexual trauma and of course the tricky subject of race. Angel Haze is a 26 year old telling a brilliant albeit difficult story... she has much time to assume many more phases or poses and yet some liberated white women of Europe seem eager to insist that hers is the wrong story to listen to because of a word or uncomfortable pairing. 


The very title of It's Conceptual, I Promise of course meant to imply it's complete total lack of depth. I made everything as readable as Sinead on SNL. Joy and Mysti poorly sang verses in the style of Sinead doing Marley while a poorly green-screened video played of us ripping up pictures of the German Pope, Hilary Clinton, Romney family... Mother Thereasa on a cinnamon roll... onto Kate Bush, Ru Paul, Audre Lorde, Judith Butler, John Waters, Vaginal Davis, Bruce La Bruce, AA Bronson, JD Samson, even our friend Liz... and then of course ourselves. I was interested in the moment at which one begins to successfully share their work within a queer community and the seemingly inevitable and impulsive boycotts that one must bear thereafter. So I ripped up the photos of stupid politicians, stereotypical queer icons that I both like and dislike... why because this cliche art strategy of 'kill your father/mother' resembles only the hegemonic ego exchange of fashioning the self against otherness rather than one valuing profound difference. And looking back after not really thinking of this video performance for some years now, I relish the self-destructive nature of the piece. I don't make art to make a name for myself. My art, rather than making me look good, is mostly about falling apart before the audience. The world has enough ego... why not make something to be ashamed of? Why not make work about the failure of political art in general? It's almost always either heavy handed, cliche or overtly insincere... when political art is merely a crutch toward legitimacy rather than a shared agenda.. vision.. or whatever would make it real instead of performed. I also struggle to value notions of realness... so take the last sentence as an idea not a value structure. 

When you speak in cliche do you really expect others to honor it as sincerity? Do you really require affirmation? William Blake says: "Opposition is True Friendship." I find queerness to be a very specific site of otherness being that the families in which we grew up and grew alongside teach us of our difference. Rather than some external site of society or nation or god, our otherness is learned first from those closest to us. Our closets are built by those who arguably love us more than anyone... so shouldn't we be better equipped to grow from rejection, resistance and isolation. Queerness is also about being alone in difference. I don't believe the feeling of outside-ness ever really goes away. Affirmation is a white heterosexual male thingy... it's most frequently a delusion. 


My good friend Jeff moved to Brooklyn and within a year started Funding Emerging Artists with Sustainable Tactics or FEAST. It was featured in the NY Times. It predated Kickstarter in my recollection. Everyone pays of course 'sliding scale' $10-20 and they receive a voting ballot and a locally sourced vegetarian meal. The voting ballot contains the names of 10-20 proposed art projects and at the end of the night the project with the most votes WINS the money collected at the door or is awarded the prize pending on your perspective. 

It sounds harmless. It sounds good in fact. It is the quintessential community moment. But when I read about the projects getting funding somehow the language of the event had seemingly infected each proposal. I wanted to propose something completely stupid... frivolous... some sort of failed utopic project from the get go: PARTY BUS.

My friends and I were all grieving the loss of the last really trashy gay bar in Minneapolis. The Brass Rail, formerly a strip club with no cover charge, cheap drinks and really reasonable handjob prices, had been purchased by the same heterosexual investor who'd purchased the infamous Gay 90s and reopened it with a wedding chapel on the rooftop. He reopened the Brass Rail with flat screen TVs no longer playing porno, instead playing Slipknot music videos... the formerly homely staff replaced by gym bunnies and the stage no longer plywood... become a granite countertop. There was also a no jeans dress code... button collar shirts only. The only person of color in the bar was in his underwear on stage. Now, there is not a single gay bar in Minneapolis without a flatscreen TV. So I wanted to rent a party bus for a no rules queer party... 

Certainly I wouldn't be popular enough to win, I was just interested in making a mockery of the event, and the idea that emerging artists simply need funding. In fact, I highly doubt money being the major obstacle for most artists I know... since so few pay their workers... Fame, entitlement and comparison seem to be even greater obstacles in the production of thought: If art now can be object-less why does every single proposal usually fail to mention what they will buy with the money? Why is it that I am invited to countless fundraisers every single week and they never really say what they need to buy? For Party Bus I wrote a very simple budget line:

Party Bus Rental: $600 ($100 fee is someone vomits) any excess funds will purchase winter shades for a brief makeup tutorial/application outside the Taco Bell on Franklin Avenue to make gorgeous also accessible.  

And because I really wanted to juice the limelight of First FEAST MPLS, I put glitter $ over my eyes and wore my signature $ dress... when their ipod was unattended I hijacked the music interrupting the evening with a performance of that money song... while I poured beer on my friend Walter. When they announced that they were nearly done counting the votes... I ran to the back of the gallery space where I'd stashed my personalized sweepstakes check that I'd made with my name MYSTI written in glitter. I preemptively paraded my check around to gloat victory wether I'd won or lost. I was awarded first prize of $700. As I rolled around the floor with the bills raining over my body, my friend Joe Rizzo told me that two dudes left saying: "Yeah kinda leaves a bad taste in your mouth doesn't it.."


I was once working a real job with vacation time and sick pay. It was February in Minnesota, Jack's sister was in Korea and she left him her car to use for the coldest winter months... provided he wouldn't take it on a road trip... I said that I'v never been to the Grand Canyon... but I also wanted to go to the largest gay resort in SW America The Habana Inn in OK City... the two destinations are not close. We could only take 8 days off of work... we drove 3400 miles in under 8 days... MPLS.. OK CITY, Albuquerque, Grand Canyon Village, Denver, Omaha, Minneapolis. We called it a drag tour but we really only performed from our Hotel Room Windows. We made videos and postcards... completely self financed: This is also a means to make art or display thought. One need not be entirely removed from the work force... the belief that you're above self-financing... that the State or wealthy patrons owe you... HELLO! They owe everyone! This is the fate of neoliberalism. Believing yourself capable of benevolent elitism is a violent assumption. Maybe working a shit job to self finance slows your production... but at least you own the work... The work as in the artwork created and the labor used to create it. 

We exist in a moment when few have actual jobs with health insurance and sick pay. Instead neoliberalism has our generation believing that free lancing is best... freer... adding more diversity to our CVs while not tethering us to foreign ideas like pensions, contract guarantees, and again, health insurance. Neoliberalism attempts to convince us that if we shuffle just enough... just a little more than the others around us... if we work for free for the right individual not the wrong one... then it is possible to ascend to whatever the hell is supposed to be beyond all of this work we're supposed to love. To fashion professional looking artwork in this moment in time is to blur the picture of what is going on right now... in labor and its disconnection with value. To create a piece that fits perfectly into a corporately sponsored museum again fails our aim completely... and absolutely no subversive reading can be given to an artist so eager to sign their name to a work that is in fact the work of many unpaid workers... this mirrors exactly the depravity of the corporate minds we abhor. 

IF WE SIMPLY LOOK BACK: There is a Herstory that supports us in this moment. 

So the title was an impulsive choice: Master's Tool. It is not my intention to speak down to anyone, but in the phases of discussing this project a few people asked "What does free unpaid labor have to do with Feminism?" I did gasp a little, mostly because labor and the political nature of payment, I see as being central to all feminisms. Maybe indeed some explanation is required, cause perhaps even well read feminists have forgotten this very overt agenda. 

The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House is an essay by Audre Lorde in which she responds to being one of two women of color presenting on the "Women of Color" portion of a feminist conference in which no other women of color presented on any other panel and how this reflects in feminism a white supremacist value structure that is quote: "a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic." Indeed, my impulsive decision to pervert this text with merely playing on it's words brought me back to the heart of it's struggle. Clearly, I cannot convey the racial politics to which she responds... we only need look around to see how white we are... but with regards to difference and allowing it to become a creative polarity we must admit that terms of labor and payment in participatory and community practice become prohibitory when bodies are the last budgetary consideration.

Master's Tool, for me, was to imply white dick actually. I can come to no other conclusion than that 'free labor' or 'non-instructional internships' are a model of devaluing people. Period. It is a white dick model of thought that anyone who wants the 'privilege' of being cast in your film should be ready to work when you say work and they should be fresh faced not bogged down by extracurricular paid jobs. This is the internalized entrepreneurial white dick that punishes everyone under the slot machine, lottery rule of Neoliberalism and it's now globalized value structure. Working hard to get ahead no longer means working for money... but having made a calculated decision of who you gift your work to and how then you manipulate this scenario into becoming payment. The question for those of us without parental piggybanks is: How the fuck do I support myself while also giving 100 percent to my unpaid employer? When you don't budget to pay people you make a very controversial decision in casting... if there is a reparative moment from this model of production in our future you will look back having been on the "wrong side of history."

If you have a scene in you mind that requires roses... lots of roses or poppies and you budget 90 euros for flowers while having an unpaid performer who you know suffers a precarious employment situation, you are an asshole. Cause I can perform roses and poppies for 90 euros... then at least the money stays "inside the community." If you think this level of consumption... flowers... this vintage dress... distant locations for single shots that will become the poetry of your film... is acceptable than you're drinking polluted water. When you buy objects instead of paying people you are actively participating in a cycle of consumption that overtly denies equality its chance. 

When I ask friends why the need to make a feature film versus a longer short film or a film installation, I get a "the festivals break it into features and shorts, it needs to be one of the other." How can you be making a movie for festivals,  while saying it's for your community? Why if money is not the goal (or rather shouldn't be the concern or goal of anyone working under you) would you attempt to manipulate your work into the box of aspiring professionalism? If you do get money as a prize or even simply a name for yourself, what are you then obligated to do with it when you return your humble still-yet-to-be-paid community?

What happens when we suspend our desires to be seen in traditional models of success? Let us for a moment return to the 1970s with Roxanne Dunbar stating: "An enlightened power group will encourage 'climbing' knowing full well that the few who 'make it' will be thoroughly corrupted or destroyed in the process." I think inevitably when you fail to imagine anything other than a "career" model of artistic practice... success means leaving queer value structure. Right? The only model of art career available is one of unquestioned neurosis, hoarding, social positioning and devaluation of a majority. This brings us to a place where emerging artists feel they must act corporately as soon as possible because how else are they to present work that will resemble the work of a mastermind without the hands of many assembled under the name of one? My question is why should we? Responding to the technologies that keep the work from looking human... they're so costly... boring... bored dude work... rooted in unconscionable consumption... it resembles only everything you already expect to see. 

While the creation of a school of thought or a genre can't be actively cultivated, the terms with which people in a community make work often creates an innate signature aesthetic. Charles Ludlum says: "Evolution is a Conscious Process." I recommend that if the "community" or rather "those in control of the current social network" continue to work in a currency of favors and borrowed time, that some guarantee or actual contract of exchange and expectation be written rather than continuing in the worn out tradition of gossip determining who is valued with monetary wages, versus who should simply be happy to be included. Even mere inclusion is filtered and monitored by gossip. I have yet to encounter a self-professed feminist collective that operates on anything other than gossip... painful gossip meant only to cultivate a position for self via manipulating the positioning of another. 

An excerpt from Jo Freeman's The Tyranny of Structurelessness: "This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an "objective" news story, "value-free" social science, or a "free" economy. A "laissez faire" group is about as realistic as a "laissez faire" society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of "structurelessness" does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly "laissez faire" philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women's movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not)."

I think that especially academics conveniently recall second wave feminism for it's problems...whiteness, the sex wars, anti-pornography advocates partnering in legislation with the Catholic Church... I've heard no other era of thought so condescended and this is misogyny at work. What do academics have against the second wave?? It's read-ability? That these women so actively denied the ivory-tower it's delight in "specialized speech" for dialogue among specialists only??? All community organizing I've done has always been held beneath the pastoral patent leather sole of some academic phds who only learned how to talk over everyone else and they believed it was their job to do so. Second Wave Feminism actively galvanized people in a way that I would say no feminism has managed to do since. And maybe I look back to this history with a nostalgia that prevents me from seeing what is... but I believe the current models of production ignore these legacies entirely. It was the knowledge of these nuances of class that these women suffered to articulate... they left us with a very clear portrait of an all consuming problem and somewhere in our embrace of the more respected feminist rhetoric we lost sight of their legacy. Barbara Ehrenreich's What is Socialist Feminism? states: "So we cannot understand class struggle as something confined to issues of wages and hours, or confined only to workplace issues. Class struggle occurs in every arena where the interests of classes conflict, and that includes education, health, art, music, etc. We aim to transform not only the ownership of the means of production, but the totality of social existence." 

Convince me that your project is about actively supporting this legacy and I will volunteer my time. Do not however expect my dumbass to believe that simply being considered part of your community will be enough to keep me afloat. The newest model of Artist as someone always in need of money, has everyone looking like a bunch of blood sucking leeches. Parasites who obligate friends to hours, days and weeks of labor. While endlessly Facefucking "give what you can though it will never be enough" fundraisers that leave spending in a cloud of mystery. All the while art institutions are playing the same game cutting staff while spending endlessly and paying artists only in values of social, context or introductions to the wealthy. 

Things I hope are clear or rather now necessarily confused: Love and Labor are strangers sometimes, in fact, most of the time. That we don't strive for simple production and a wrench in the conveyor belt is an opportunity to conceive of a new means. Art and work are also strangers: cause struggling to think is VASTLY different from struggling to live... to pay rent... to buy food AND confusion regarding this profound difference is depraved criminality. THAT also love and art are not inherently good or productive... neither are some glorious destination rather both are temporary moments to which many blindly cling with absolute violence. Some people don't grow from a 'good' or 'loving' space... their input reveals that those who claim to only work from love or goodness rarely actually do... 

Thank you.  

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