Not For Profit: Redistribution in the Work of Joshua Schwebel

Amber Berson

Image courtesy of Joshua Schwebel

Between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015, the Canadian artist Joshua Schwebel will be partaking in a long-term residency at The Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. This is a program which is funded through the financial support of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. At the end of this residency, Schwebel will have an exhibition at the Künstlerhaus, presenting the work he did during his time there. As part of his contract with the prestigious Bethanien, Schwebel received a studio and accommodations and will also receive an exhibition budget. For this new work, (working title) Subsidy, the artist will take the entirety of his exhibition budget to pay the unpaid interns that facilitate his time at the residency and who carry out a myriad of daily tasks at that centre. What the viewer will see when visiting this exhibition are the contracts, the paper work, and the ledgers that document this exchange of resources between one worker and the others. A visitor to the exhibition will walk down a long, constructed hallway where, at the end, they might feel something akin to the claustrophobia of the current job market, where most work is done for free on the long-walk towards disenchantment. When the a-ha moment is actualized and the audience realizes that the work was the simple (and highly political) act of paying the interns, they might be happy or they might be angry. They might not think this is art (though they would be, historically, wrong). They might be relieved and they might be jealous. Paid internships are, after all, a sort of Holy Grail in the art world and beyond [1].

In 1999, at the tender age of 15, I transformed a one-day shadowing requirement at my high school into an internship at Vice Magazine’s Montreal office. Being an intern at Vice in the late 90s was as glamorous as it sounds. My duties included framing and artfully arranging pictures of Andrew W.K., watering plants, making sure the recycling went out the door and managing guest lists for events. In short, super low stakes stuff. Vice, like many other publications in the early days of their existence, struggled to pay writers, but it did eventually start paying me for my work. My motivation for working for free was seeing my name on the masthead of a magazine, and I was happy to be there. But, as soon as I started taking on more responsibility as an intern—transcribing interviews and helping with bookkeeping, for example—the office started paying me minimum wage. I was a teenager with zero training working at a cultural publication with zero dollars and they were paying me to do work and they gave me free training.

My internship at Vice was my first, and also my last—and it sort of led me to believe that all internships were like that: places for young people to make some summer cash, learn some new skills and make a few contacts. This is, of course, very far from today’s reality. While no official statistics exist on how many unpaid internships occur annually in Canada, where I am based, “some suggest there could be up to 300,000 unpaid interns in Ontario alone, including 100,000 who are not on the books and not always protected by workplace safety laws” [2].

Legally speaking, there is no such thing as an unpaid internship in Canada. Students are permitted to exchange labour for course credit, but outside of that sole exemption, all labour is supposed to be waged and covered by provincial workplace regulatory law. None of this stops thousands of people from seeking out unpaid internships. Like volunteer work, internships are often a way to get a leg up in a competitive job market. Unlike volunteer work, on the other hand, internships are not a way to give back to a community, or to provide short-term temporary relief or help within a community. Internships are exploitative. They provide organizations with a free labour force and exploit vulnerable people. Worse, they exclude those who can’t afford to work for free, increasing the gap between the rich and poor, the privileged and the under-privileged.

Discussions around and about unwaged labour are fashionable, but also important, in the art world these days. This is perhaps because a) so many unpaid internships occur within this particular community and b) so much unwaged labour is taken on by artists and cultural producers [3]. As I’ve stated elsewhere, even artist-run centres, which were formed to create paid jobs in the Canadian art world, are subject to failing to pay for labour. This is because with less funding, or no increase in funding, fewer staff members can be employed, at lower pay, and with no prospect of a raise, resulting in low morale, high turnover, and general job dissatisfaction [4]. Unpaid interns are employed (without pay or benefits) to fill the gaps [5]. Schwebel’s project at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien is not a critique of the centre itself but of the culture. In his own words the Bethanien “is not one of the ‘bad ones’, but the fact is, we are in a situation where there just isn’t enough money going into culture. And, as a result, people are producing culture out of love, as amateurs. And, we expect the entry level—those who are at the bottom of the totem pole—to have to commit through love and self-exploitation first, before we let them have any serious responsibility” [6].

Joshua Schwebel's practice has a long-term engagement with issues of labour, value and democracy—activist subjects that are particularly relevant given the current economic climate. This project, like so much of his work, speaks to the deep issues that affect the cultural community. In previous projects, Schwebel has addressed audience statistics and funding requirements (Popularity [2012]), quality and privilege in juried-exhibitions (Please Do Not Submit Original Works [2012-2013]) and access to museum and private collections that implicitly exclude certain populations because of their prohibitive entry cost and other barriers to access (How to Get Into a Major Museum Collection [2012]). In this case, Schwebel challenges the “implicit contradiction” present in the art world, which declares itself a “culture of access, openness, and radical political critique, while ignoring and therefore obfuscating the growing gap between those who can afford to support their cultural commitments and those who cannot continue in the field due to lack of external financial means.” In paying all seven interns whose contracts overlap with his own, Schwebel is making a small contribution towards bridging the gap between theory and praxis.

Image courtesy of Joshua Schwebel

Schwebel’s Kafkaesque hallway is a transitional space, a formal translation of the political situation, highlighting the irony of internships, which are meant to be stepping-stones on the path towards a financially stable career, but are now part of an endless cycle of unpaid and unwaged labour—one which rarely culminates in the happy ending dream job we all hope for. Transitional, as Schwebel claims, is the new permanent. In the liminal space of this artwork, the gallery, the audience and the artist are forced to acknowledge their complicity in an arts economy that relies on free labour. In the art world, the competition is high and the payoff, generally, low. This work, like most of his previous projects, isn’t necessarily winning the artist any new commissions, isn’t obviously contributing to his fame as an artist in that it is a fairly quiet gesture, and isn’t creating anything material and commodifiable. It is simply putting on display an issue that we aren’t collectively doing enough to change.

None of the interns knew in advance that they were going to be paid. As such, Schwebel’s nonetheless positive contribution, his token action, is not solving the problem. It is actually widening the gap between those who can afford to work for free and those who can’t by providing financial compensation to a group of people who can seemingly afford to work for free. But Schwebel has never tried to fix things with his work. In a conversation we had this past July, Schwebel stated that not only does his general project and specifically, his financial contribution, not solve the problem of internships and unpaid labour in the art world, it goes so far as to exacerbate it. And maybe that is exactly what we need to do—to make (highly) visible the invisible infrastructure that allows for us to continue having a cultural economy in which the rich get richer and the poor drop out. In paying the interns, the artist is working against his own profit, and against his relationship with the host institution who, understandably, were a bit uncomfortable being called out in this manner. Yet he is also highlighting a problem and asking for the community to involve itself in addressing the issue.

Since the artwork doesn’t attempt to solve the free labour problem, I won’t try either. But for a moment, let’s think about what it really means to refuse to work for free. It might mean always working terrible, low paying, small jobs. It might mean never engaging in work that we are passionate about. It might also mean separating activist/civic works from commodifiable ones as a survival tactic. Like Schwebel, I too want to live off of my work as a cultural producer. As an arts writer, most gigs are unpaid, or are for low pay. As a curator, I often drop my fee in order to pay the artists. We don’t work for free because we don’t value our labour, or our time. I do it because I consider my contribution to these discussions to be outside of the capitalist system—to be IMPORTANT. Self-importance aside, if we have the privilege to work for free, it should be to do something that makes us happy, because it allows us to take on a project that excites us. It shouldn’t be done in order to make someone else happy or for their financial gain, which is exactly what unpaid internships that mimic actual jobs, through applications, interviews and workplace responsibilities, do.

At the time of writing, the exhibition will not yet have occurred and so it is impossible to know what effects, if any, the action will have on the future of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Maybe the artist will succeed in creating a culture of paid work at the centre, developing a framework for no future unpaid labour. Maybe this will come at the cost of paying as many artists as currently benefit from funding at the Bethanien. Who knows? There is only so much money, and an abundance of possible things to pay for. Perhaps the redistribution of wealth for a more equalized economy might be the best solution.

 

 

[1] On occasion the Bethanien does offer temporary paid positions to interns after they complete their post.

[2] “Unpaid interns: No one is keeping track,” The Star, accessed August 17, 2015, http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/10/22/unpaid_interns_no_one_is_keeping_track.html.

[3] Full disclosure: I have volunteered to write this article – I am not being paid for my work here. Yet I do not perceive myself to be contributing to a negative spiral of unwaged cultural labour. Partially because I perceive my contribution to a discussion of Josh’s work to be a small token, and also pleasurable, but mostly because I consider my work here to be a small contribution to a larger fuck-you to the art world – a refusal, rather than an acceptance.

[4] See Amber Berson, “Self-Determination When Cash Rules Everything Around Us,” Esse arts+opinions 85 (2015).

[5] The artist suggests these article for further reading: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2015/may/11/work-in-the-arts-stop-working-for-free and https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/features/artstrik26.htm

[6] Interview with author, August 15, 2015.


Amber Berson is a writer, curator, and PhD student at Queen’s University who is interested in the idea of utopia and issues of labour, diversity, and equality within artist-run centres. She most recently curated The Let Down Reflex (2016); TrailMix (2014); *~._.:*JENNIFER X JENNIFER*:.~ (2013); The Annual Art Administrator’s Relay Race (2013); and The Wild Bush Residency (2012–14). She is on the editorial committee of .dpi, a feminist journal of digital art and culture, is an ambassador for the Art+Feminism Wikipedia project, and has been published in C Magazine, Canadian Art, esse, and FUSE Magazine.