Hey look! My name is in a museum! Or at least on the window of a museum. And I did it by being invisible. That’s right—I’ve been named in a show-within-a-show called “Invisible Labor”. Full disclosure: I have zero work in this exhibition, and I’m not an artist. Got it? No? Well, who cares! My name is on the window! Yipppeeeee!
Okay, now that I got that out of my system, here’s the deal: The Bay Area Art Workers Alliance‘s (BAAWA) show “Invisible Labor” is just one part of Yerba Buena Center of Arts’ 7th installment of their exhibition Bay Area Now, BAN7. My name appears among a long list of art workers represented by the Alliance.
Hailed in vinyl, the multitude of names materialize before the eyes of the general public, who otherwise may not know they exist. The labor of art workers is invisible, and it is intentionally so. The magical element involved in the production and execution of art exhibitions, art workers install, ship, condition report, repair, conserve, label, pack, and crate artworks (and much more). Like cobbler elves who secretly repair shoes in the night, art workers toil endlessly constructing shows. Then, they magically disappear taking all traces with them before the first visitor steps in the door at the opening reception.
“Invisible Labor” exposes these traces by turning the slick, spotless White Cube inside out. Cluttering up the gallery space with unpainted pedestals, abandoned tools, bits of blue tape, hand-drawn diagrams, splotches of spackle, and drywall holes that look like the remnants of explosions; the artwork is intentionally unfinished and incomplete. A projector clicks through color tests against the wall, a moving blanket is hung like a Modernist quilt, and a soundtrack plays loud construction noises. Filling the YBCA space with the sights and sounds of highly specialized, and typically effaced, art labor, “Invisible Labor” plays with the line between artwork and preparator work.
If you have never heard of the Alliance, it ‘s because it’s a newborn-fresh organization (with an amusing Tumblr), whose goal is to be a support network for art laborers. In BAAWA’s own words:
“Bay Area Art Workers Alliance presents an exhibition of works by preparators addressing the invisible labor, aesthetic vocabulary, and materials that art workers use when they install and care for the precious objects that give value to institutions like YBCA. Each of these 50 new art works are constructed using on-the-job materials informed by vantages of the preparator — behind the painting, during the paperwork, inside the crate, from truck to office to gallery — that happen between, in proximity to, and in spite of the finished exhibition.”
Art workers are often artists or scholars of art themselves, as this exhibition demonstrates. The low pay associated with being an artist as well as a need for laborers with specialized skills mean that a lot of individuals interested in being a part of the art world have part-time and full-time day jobs to support their creative careers. These are not Armani-donning celebrity curators who jetset the world over to whisper champagne-scented nothings into the well-trimmed ears of wealthy patrons. These are people in steel toed boots who maneuver through the art world with levels, drills, box cutters, and pockets full of screws. They lift back-breaking heavy artworks, they build and move massive crates, and they develop a highly specific kind of knowledge that is part contractor, part truck driver, part curator, and sometimes even part therapist.
It is not just that art workers’ labor is rendered invisible. Caring for and handling high value, sometimes priceless works of art puts a strange spin on manual labor. As the authors of “Open Letter to Servicing the Culture Industry” state, art handlers and art workers often find themselves “a misplaced crate, a damaged artwork, a dead light bulb, or a dealer’s forgetting to take his Welbutrin for a few days away from getting fired.” The high prices and fragility of works, the often volatile personalities of wealthy collectors and curators, and the quick turnover of exhibition installs and de-installs breed demanding conditions for art workers. Art labor can be a high stakes game, and the losers are not usually the ones with all the money.
In previous years BAN has focused on individual artists whose work could collectively be read as a reflection of the current state of the Bay Area art scene. This year’s emphasis on arts organizations proves socially relevant in a time when many SF non-profits and galleries are shutting their doors and moving out of the city. However, the de-centralized curatorial process of BAN7 produced an exhibition that is perhaps a little too muddled. The viewer either needs to have pre-existing knowledge of the organizations or else be willing to wade through text-heavy panels to learn more. On top of that, the show feels disjointed, and the artwork on display is a little too vanilla to be representative of the current pulse of the Bay’s art scene.
On the other hand, the Alliance’s “Invisible Labor” takes muddled to the level of pure mess, and rightfully so. One of the more conceptual portions of Bay Area Now 7 (Sarah Hotchkiss and Carey Lin’s Stairwell’s project is another), the exhibition utilizes clutter and imperfection to showcase an aspect of the art world that not only gets overlooked, but is purposefully erased. I am arguably partial to this show since (did I mention this already?) I’m listed among the art workers; however, the chaos of the Alliance room succeeds by acting as a disruption—a rift in the perfect white walls of the gallery—that provides space for thinking critically about real bodies moving through real art spaces. Art, exhibition, and art worker are blended and blurred together to make visible a community of people who are involved in and affected by day-to-day life in the art world.