Anne Elizabeth Moore joins 127 Prince as a regular contributor with a series of writings focused on labor, intellectual property, and gender issues inherent in social practice art forms. Her writings will be posted monthly, often highlighting a specific project, program, or event.
Midway through 1996, I found myself in hot, hot Georgia, seated at an elaborate table with the most brilliant minds cultural production then had on offer, as well as the most successful. Steven Durland, Maureen Sherlock, Mel Chin, Michael Brenson, Jacquelynn Baas, David Levi-Strauss, Anne Pasternak, Bill Cleveland, Mary Jane Jacob, Jeffrey Kastner, Susan Vogel, Homi K. Bhabha, Mary Ellen Strom, Doug Ashford. The food people were flown in from Italy; they were to be referred to as artists. Each meal was conceptually attuned to the intended topic of conversation, each ingredient mulled over, considered amongst the others, and arranged to draw out a unique realization reserved, usually, for the domain of art. Arguments erupted, as they do at dinner tables: opinions clashed, voices were raised, questions put forth or ignored in service of a more important point. Declarations were lost to grappa, others raised only because of it. Guests continued to eat heartily, praising the food artists anew with each course. Or, sometimes—because occasional dishes were not meant to be delicious—praising instead the aesthetic choices, emotional impact, or bold statements made vie the chosen medium of food. But always: the guests ate.
I. Was. Starving. It seems the exaggeration of a petulant child to say so, and inappropriate considering that the work we were there to do, and to discuss, dealt with malnourished folks—kids in poverty, incarcerated adults. Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games was rich only in athletes, sports fans, and corporate sponsorships. In well-documented raids, police had jailed or evicted from the city those who did not have permanent places of residence. Many hundreds of thousands were displaced in Olympic Village construction. Some gained temporary jobs while the big show was in town, and this fact was oft repeated and roundly lauded. It was common knowledge but rarely forwarded that they would lose them again once the medals had been awarded, and no social structures had been put in place to create housing or permanent employment for those in need. This economic truth was mirrored in the physical landscape of Atlanta: sidewalks around the Olympic Village had begun already to crumble before the games had even ended. In a vague attempt to tackle the ever-present cultural issue of economic disparity in the face of Atlanta’s Olympics, and the deeply embedded class and race biases these pointed to, we occasionally discussed them at our fancy dinners.
OK, I’m being unfair. In truth, of the six artists projects on offer during the summer 1996 Arts Festival of Atlanta program Conversations at the Castle, Mauricio Dias and Walter Reidweg’s Question Marks dealt directly with youth and adult incarceration, while Maurice O’Connell’s fake-organization-as-research-based-creative-inquiry Brothers For Others presented a snapshot of Atlanta’s youth in need. Anyway, can I hold cultural producers to task for defining culture so narrowly that the High Museum of Art’s ham-fistedly pan-nationalistic Rings: Five Passions in World Art exhibition achieved more conversational currency at our dinner table than the street culture and whitewashing thereof? I cannot. That was “Culture” with a capital C, and everyone who came through Atlanta—this was ensured by the extensive multicultural advertising—knew it.
But equally truthful is the likelihood that I was undernourished at the time. We ate and drank what our corporate sponsors gave us—frequently diet sodas, sometimes sandwiches—because we were unpaid interns. And, because we were unpaid interns, we were worked to the bone. (In fact, I did have an emergency room visit that summer). As interns, we were not considered among the guests at the dinner, and not invited to participate. A ring was placed around the table, often benches set a meter behind invited guests, where interns, other artists, and journalists were supposed to sit.
Except my job was to record the conversations as they unfolded, which meant I had to sit at the table. This became awkward when food was passed around. Or when my stomach growled. Or when anyone asked why I wasn’t eating.
“I’m not allowed to,” I told one woman on a particularly trying day. And, accepting this as part of her aesthetic experience, she stopped passing me dishes.
I was not alone in finding this physically and conceptually distressing. Another intern and I even secretly planned our own creative response. We would buy frozen, pre-packaged TV dinners and sit at the base of the table during the final meal and watch, rapt, as the highly scripted drama unfolded before us. We never did it. We were too busy.
Now, I explain all this not to advocate for intern’s rights—they deserve few, mine included—nor to complain about my former bosses who did, after all, teach me quite a bit about how I do and do not want to see art function within culture. I explain all this merely to demonstrate how some of the most intelligent, well-meaning, creative problem-solvers in the world, when put to the artistic task of thinking through the inequities of society, can still rigidly adhere to the exclusionary practices they’ve come to accept as normal within the art world.
There isn’t, in the art world, a more important conversation to initiate now—conversation being a theme key to the essays I intend to write for 127 Prince over the coming months. These will look at labor and gender in social practices, and how the very capitalist ideals that social practices aims to uproot become re-inscribed, usually by accident.
Anne Elizabeth Moore is the author of Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (The New Press, 2007), and Hey Kidz, Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People (Soft Skull, 2004). Co-editor and publisher of now-defunct Punk Planet, founding editor of the Best American Comics series from Houghton Mifflin, Moore teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and works with young women in Cambodia on independent media projects when she’s not traveling the globe lecturing on and researching freedom of expression. Recently, Moore mounted two single-person exhibitions of her conceptual art, was the subject of two documentary films, and her work appeared on the radio program Snap Judgment and in the Progressive, Bitch, and on Truthout. She has written for The Onion, Feministing, The Stranger, In These Times, The Boston Phoenix, and Tin House. Her work with young women in Southeast Asia was recently featured in Time Out Chicago, Make/Shift, and Print magazines, and on GritTV and NPR’s Worldview. She is currently updating Stud’s Terkel’s Division Street: America for WBEZ/Vocalo in an ongoing web project called Revision Street: America and will continue her work in Cambodia this winter under a Fulbright Specialist Grant.