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"There was an opportunity there that went begging for making a case for public art and the social and cultural capital that it represents"

Essays

Andrew Clifford on Dugal McKinnon's Popular Archeology

Giovanni Tiso on Tao Wells' The Beneficiary's Office

Heather Galbraith on Kim Paton's Free Store

Richard Meros on Bronwyn Holloway Smith's Pioneer City 

Martin Pattrick on Colin Hodson's The Market Testament

Hannah Zwartz on Suburban Floral Association's Shopfront

Emma Willis on Mark Harvey's Productive Bodies

Mark Amery on Dance Art Club and radio

Cathy Aronson on Julian Priest's Free of Charge 

Sally Blundell on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2013

Kerryn Pollock on Projected Fields

Reuben Friend and others on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2015

 

ESSAY

 

THE WORK OF ART

Giovanni Tiso on Tao Wells' The Beneficiary's Office

 

 

Late capitalist society is engaged in a long-term historical process of destroying job security, while the virtues of work are ironically and even more insistently being glorified. David Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler  

And therefore, in short, I’m saying, all work that’s done has to have the quality of art. Joseph Beuys 

 

A vacant commercial space is a site of anxiety, more so than a vacant dwelling. If it happens to include a shop front, its emptiness becomes a concrete representation of crisis. An empty shop on the corner can bring down the whole neighbourhood. We use phrases like that: to bring down, to depress, as if to reify the mood. The Letting Space projects are partly a response to the anxiety, a way of replacing those conspicuous absences with another sort of activity, another kind of trade. But what of the empty office on the sixth floor of an otherwise bustling building? What of the emptiness of the spaces that we cannot see?  

That Tao Wells' Beneficiary's Office occupied such a space is one of the least commented on aspects of this intensely debated project, yet it fitted in perfectly with the subject matter. Being unemployed means being less visible, having less of a voice, keeping or being made to keep a lower profile. And so Wells and the curators chose an empty office on the sixth floor of a downtown Wellington building, upstairs from a branch of the Bank of New Zealand. Below, the engine room of commerce; above, an interrogation of the nature and the value of work. Choosing for the first time in the series not to occupy a shop also meant a shift in the terms of implicit comparison, for business has a far broader set of meanings than retail, and these would quickly come into play. 

 

But first of all one would have to deal with a piece of misdirection: for if you took the elevator to Level 6, 50 Manners Street you would look in vain for The Beneficiary’s Office, and find yourself instead at the headquarters of a PR firm set up by Wells and his collaborators called The Wells Group. This was almost invariably described in media accounts as a ‘bogus public relations company’ [1], which rather begs the question of what it was that made it fictitious in the eyes of journalists.

The Wells Group was in fact open during customary business hours, employed several people and engaged in public relations. The subject of these activities was the remit of the project itself, namely to advocate ‘the opportunities and benefits of official unemployment’ – nothing bogus about that either. Early reports were equally as reliable in referring to Tao Wells as an ‘out-of-work artist’ [2] even as he was being photographed, filmed or interviewed in the act of working. 

The reaction to this set-up – an artist on a Work and Income benefit speaking publicly about the virtues of unemployment, and receiving public money to do it – was swift and in some quarters inordinately savage. An early report in The Dominion Post printing the wrong claim that Wells had received $40,000 from Creative New Zealand for his project helped stoke the fire, but that the amount was a far more modest $3,500, including expenses, seemed to matter less than the principle of what an unemployed person should or should not be allowed to say. The alarming levels of rage that gripped some of the commenters on the Stuff website were perhaps less surprising or uncharacteristic than the initial reaction of prominent blogger David Farrar, who appeared quite unable to contain himself. His outburst deserves to be recorded in part: 

It’s unfair that I have to work 60 hour weeks to fund your fucking life style, you bludging wanker… 

Not just a greedy selfish bludger, but a stupid one also… 

He refuses to work, but is happy to apply for grants so he can preach about why people should bludge like him… 

Listen Mr Fuckwit, you are not forced to take a job. So long as you don’t want those of us who do work to pay you a benefit, you do not need to ever work again… 

Having a layabout wanker who is illegally claiming the dole, promote dole bludging as a lifestyle choice is not innovative. Would Creative NZ give money for a tax felon to set up an office and advise people not to pay their taxes?…

This makes my blood boil… [3] 

 

As the righteous indignation spread, Work and Income responded by suspending Wells’ benefit. Except, contrary to Farrar’s assertion, this had not been ‘illegally claimed’ at all, and the artist managed to have it reinstated in short order. In a second, less expletive-filled post [4], Farrar shifted his focus and intimated he would put his influence to good use and lobby for the funding of Creative New Zealand to be cut, a view echoed in prime-time by Roger Douglas. And after acting Social Development Minister Judith Collins was given an equally prominent opportunity to observe that, seeing as Wells is such a creative chap, if only he applied the same skills and effort to his CV ‘he probably wouldn’t have a problem’ [5], the time came for a new issue of The Listener to hit the stands. 

Presented with an opportunity to engage in thoughtful fashion with an art project that had caused such controversy, the country’s erstwhile magazine of ideas opted to publish an editorial that repeated under a veneer of politeness and with better use of the subjunctive all of the savage lines of attack that had been pursued by the most conservative commentators, parliamentarians and punters. Under the shrill headline ‘A Blow to the Art’, the editorial enquired rhetorically: ‘When an artist bites the hand that feeds it, does he deserve that public funding?’ and went on to offer the following analysis: 

To […] bedevil our sense of the balance between free speech and public decency, Wells has accepted public money to create an art installation in which he disparages working people, and exhorts them to ditch their jobs, live off the state and become minimalist consumers. Officials deemed it art for the 37-year-old long-term beneficiary to glorify the notion of slacking and bludging off one’s fellow citizens.

The conclusion, in equal parts veiled threat and stern warning, is just a smidgen more oblique than Farrar's avowal to deal with the blaspheming funding agency directly: 

The risk for [Creative New Zealand] if it continues to make similar funding choices is that soon taxpayers may not be asking the question of the artworks, but of CNZ itself. [6]

To the extent that conceptual or difficult art often seeks or indeed needs to provoke a strong reaction in order to engage its public, one could be tempted to reach the conclusion that these responses are sufficient to label the project a success. I myself indulged in that point in an earlier version of this essay, calling the Listener editorial excerpted above Wells’ true masterpiece – and I am still convinced that it is: you will not find a better, more precise formulation of the politico-ideological consensus in this country, and how it needs to be guarded in the name of ‘decency’, than in those 700-odd unsigned words. David Farrar’s tirade, too, is an emblematic performance piece on the simmering anger of the over-entitled and over-employed.

These and most other reactions, collectively, demonstrate the lengths that we will go to as a society to deny beneficiaries the right to speak, and constitute therefore a valuable social document. But provocation as a dimension, crucial as it is, cannot be allowed to exhaust the meaning and value of The Beneficiary’s Office. The project is better than that, and demands that we seek to account for the questions it left unanswered and for the silences that surrounded it. 

For one thing, the extent in which the project generated actual debate must be qualified. A one-sided backlash is not the same thing as a two-way conversation, and one struggles to name many individuals or institutions who stood up in support of Wells when he was at his most exposed and vulnerable. So where was the Left in all this? How did the Alternative Welfare Working Group pass on the opportunity to stroll into the limelight and defend an alternative view of welfare? Where were our public intellectuals and Wells’ fellow artists when he had his livelihood abruptly cut off in what must be one of the most blatant acts in recent memory of intimidation against a dissenter? With all due solidarity for Creative New Zealand and how it came under fire, one could also question Manager of Art Development Cath Cardiff’s regret at the anger that the project had garnered [7]: that anger was in fact integral to the project, and pointed to the agency’s own value in promoting challenging work and art that is hard or downright impossible to sustain commercially. 

There was an opportunity there that went begging for making a case for public art and the social and cultural capital that it represents, even – if not especially – when it is at odds with the dominant ideology. 

Who else are we expecting to fund such work, and can we really afford for it not to be funded? The questions raised by Wells are amongst the most important of our time: how to revolutionise society and the very concept of labour, no longer in the name of equity and justice, but the survival of the species. David Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler wrote this over ten years ago: 'What has been called utopian in the past is now a practical necessity' [8]. To work less, so that we all can work. To discriminate between the work that makes us richer, and the work that makes us poorer. To imagine a post-work society and create the material conditions for its existence.  

Which takes us to the other crucial dimension of the project that an excessive focus on the media response can obscure, and that is the work that went into it. The Beneficiary’s Office was months in the planning and several weeks in the staging – indeed the online media side of the project, via the website and the Wells Group presence on Twitter and Facebook, remains ongoing. All of this work has cost the taxpayer $7,000, an amount that is negligible not just in relative but in fact in absolute terms.

Consider the economic activity that the show generated, in the form of the work that it gave journalists and the media consultants of a few Right Honourables, and the very expensive prime-time news real estate it supplied with the requisite controversy. All of this activity, all of this business, is the stuff that our GDP is made of, which has the effect of undercutting the project itself, insofar as the establishment was never troubled by it: on the contrary, it fed on it. In this respect we should entertain the possibility that The Beneficiary’s Office has actually failed, or perhaps rather that the public – that ineffable entity that is always right, always decent – has failed it, by refusing to take up its challenge and receiving it only as a media spectacle.  

  

Midway through the life at 50 Manners Street of the Wells Group, the dispute around The Hobbit erupted. The media pivoted rapidly and seamlessly, sucking the oxygen of publicity away from the project. Never mind that work in the office continued, and continued to be documented. Never mind that the fundamental questions about the value of work posed by that industrial action actually vindicated the timeliness of Wells’ endeavour (Barry Thomas aka b'art Homme chimed in on Artbash to call the juxtaposition ‘a powerful moment in art history’ [9], but few others appeared to notice it). In the meantime Wells continued to interview people and be interviewed, staged a Labour Day Parade [10] calling for a 16-hour working day, gave two performances of his play Inuit Time [11], and published on The Dominion Post along with his colleagues a piece in response to the critics [12].

If the answers to the project collectively make up nothing less than a report on the limits of intellectual freedom in New Zealand – a report whose value we can point to without a moment’s hesitation – it is harder both for the artist and for us, the public as critics, to know what to make of its extant traces, as well as the silence of the social actors who could not or would not participate. It will be exciting to see where Tao Wells is going to take this next, but the challenge of building on the meaning and value of this continuing and important work is ours as much as his own. 

Giovanni Tiso
Giovanni Tiso is a Wellington-based writer and translator. 
He blogs at 
http://bat-bean-beam.blogspot.com/

 Footnotes

[1] The words used by Sean Plunkett in The Dominion Post of October 23rd, 2010, p. A27.

[2] Notably Lane Nichols in The Dominion Post of October 16th. The 3 News evening news bulletin of October 18th, 2010 opted for ‘unemployed artist’. 

[3] http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2010/10/paid_to_promote_virtues_of_unemployment.html, retrieved on January 15th, 2011.

[4] http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2010/10/creative_nz_pr.html, retrieved on January 15th, 2011.

[5] Prime evening news bulletin of October 18th, 2010.

[6] ‘A Blow to the Art’. Unsigned editorial on page 5 of The New Zealand Listener of October 30-November 5 2010, Vol. 227 No. 3677. Available online at http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3677/columnists/16375/a_blow_to_the_art.html. 

[7] A regret documented by Diana Dekker in The Dominion Post of October 23rd, 2010, p. A9.

[8] David Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler, Post Work: The Wages of Cybernation (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 69.

[9] Comment added on October 31st, 2010 by b'art Homme to his own article entitled ‘Creative Capital Council evicts artist whose art was too close to their bones’. http://www.artbash.co.nz/article.asp?id=1550, retrieved on January 15th, 2011.

[10] See a video of the Parade at http://www.youtube.com/user/WellsGroupVideo#p/u/1/q_M0cLp1H_k.

[11] See Robyn Gallagher's review of Inuit Time at http://wellingtonista.com/2010/10/19/review-inuit-time/.

[12] "What we have been advocating for, is to do those things that we love, not because we are told that we love them, but because we have found real love there, enough to share," - from the penultimate sentence of Wells Group's opinion piece published in The Dominion Post of October 29th, 2010.