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The Art Sweatshop: Postscript

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Art Sweatshop Storefront
Dawn Celeste, a participant, starting her shift in a protective suit. Image by the author

The Art Sweatshop was a one-day participatory installation that happened on 18 May 2019 from 9 am to 6 pm at Panpisco Building, Manila extending from 98B Collaboratory. A little less than two weeks prior to its opening, the Art Sweatshop posted a call for paid participants at 98B Collaboratory's social media platforms. Applicants were directed to an online form where they were informed of their responsibilities as participants. It stated the honorarium amount of PHP 200 per 30 minutes of work as well as the terms and conditions of the participation. The form gave notice that the participants will be recorded and streamed live. They were asked to give their particulars and book shift timings. A paper version was placed on-site. A day before the exhibition, an advertisement was posted at 98B’s facebook page to invite online audiences as clients to watch the live stream of the performative labour and comment on the feed a subject to be drawn.

On the day of the exhibition, participants were briefed by an administrator (performed by Ides Josepina Macapanpan) on the rules and regulations of the sweatshop. They wore boiler suits, boots, and goggles. They were led to a storefront where they sat in front of an easel behind a glass window display. They were asked to draw and the timer was set to 30 minutes. The participants were instructed to choose an item from comments online and the requests written on the glass by passers-by. They were prompted every 10 mins on how much time they have left. After their shifts, the participants were debriefed and given a feedback form to fill up. Lastly, they had to sign an acknowledgement that they had received PHP 200 as compensation.

Inside the Art Sweatshop
Macapanpan asking a participant to sign an acknowledgement. Image by the author

The write-up for the exhibition by Antares Gomez Bartolome was written as questions to avoid preempting the results of the development of the work since it was not completed until the last working shift of the sweatshop was over. The totality of the exhibition was only apparent when it closed shop at 6 pm on its opening day. Bartolome positioned the questions in front of the artwork to disrupt passive viewership and challenge the audience. This postscript is partly an attempt to address his questions while offering posterity to those who participated online.

Art Sweatshop Ingress
Antares Gomez Bartomolme and Bianca Therese Fabrigaras during the ingress. Image by author

The main interest of the exhibition is to stretch out the ethical practices attempted during an everyday work environment. It simulated certain conditions of manual labour to look at the spectrum of negotiations between the administrator and the participants. The exhibition wanted to observe the effectiveness of these negotiated best practices of aestheticised labour. It was a conscious effort to stay away from messianic agendas of typical workshop art: to inform its participants of their misfortunes and offer solutions as a take away for participating in art projects. Especially since the site in Manila was populated by the urban poor. However, this intent should not allow the exhibition to be lulled to a merely aesthetic spectacle without any pressing social value. It still tried to maintain antagonism towards art practices that forgo ethical considerations of participants’ autonomy and authorship and privilege artistic skill and knowledge.

The exhibition was not without shortcomings. A mistake was made during the ingress of the exhibition when the artist unthinkingly gave an exhibition flyer to a handful of children and asked them to participate the next day. The initial idea for the exhibition was to not have participants under the age of 18 to avoid child labour. Such is an opportunity for processes to demonstrate vigilance in remaining ethical. The manifestation of ethics into visual and physical forms was attempted at by installing contracts between the artist and the participants, the option to break said contracts, stating clear-cut responsibilities, rule and regulations, terms and conditions, and also providing necessities (such as food, drinks, bathroom breaks, electric fans, protective gears, and such).

Images by Kean Barrameda

Throughout the exhibition, the participants and the artists were able to negotiate these conditions. For example, the participants often felt uncomfortable in the hot and confined space. After they considered their work done within five minutes of their shift they asked if they could leave. The administrator negotiated such requests (higher pay, getting slots, bathroom breaks, removal of boiler suits, complaints about the heat, and such). However, negotiations were still conservative as the sweatshop did not see any violations of the rules and regulations. Even if the participants were asked if they wanted snacks, leave for a bathroom break, or take off sweat-drenched suits, they still chose to conform. During feedback session after their shifts, the participants said what they thought the administrator wanted to hear: yes, they learned something new, art is good for the habitus, and yes, they were satisfied with the performance. It was a number of passing audience outside the glass display who were abusive and harassed the participants (your work is ugly, that’s the wrong colour, you’re not doing anything) while rapping at the glass and some had to be reprimanded.

Contracts and feedback forms signed by the participants. Image by author

Another misgiving was listlessly presenting corporate concepts to the urban poor who never worked a day in the office. Half of the audience in the morning slots were locals of the neighbourhood. They asked what the exhibition was about and after the explanation, they admitted it was not easy to understand. But merit had to be given to the participants as some began to reflect upon the comparison between the instability of contractual labour and the authoritarian control of corporate employment.

The exhibition also failed to handle the technological intricacies. The careful planning of methods to include an online audience was not matched in effort when it came to live streaming the performance. The mobile device installed to record video stream lost battery in a short amount of time and had to be recharged off the installation. There was also a failure to engage the online audiences who commented.

During the artist talk, there were a few common concerns that were brought up. One was the lack of quality checking when it comes to the participants’ work. Some participants asked if they submitted substantial work, will the salary rate go down and if the work was exceptional, will the salary rate increase. Some walk-in applicants refused to participate after they were told that they had to draw saying “I can’t draw,” despite the assurance that it was not a requirement to be skilled in any art practice. The decision to not reject deskilled labour had too many rationales. One worth mentioning is the intent to restrict the artist from her mandate as the sole author and to give the participants more autonomy. This, more or less, levels out the hierarchy in the roles of the agencies (the artist and participants) in the performance of the installation. The installation was more inclusive in allowing artists and non-art practitioners to elicit a range of reactions.

Some of the audience suggested for the work to be longer, more fun, more arduous, more participants, more split testing, and more to stay true to the idea of a sweatshop. Suggestions were good to implement in a reiteration of another funded work in a bigger space with able art assistants yet it still echoes the need for art the be an expansive spectacle, the need to generate visitors to validate itself as a work. But the Art Sweatshop cannot risk watering down the antagonising of art that is only accessible to those initiated, educated, and trained. A more sophisticated approach with better structure and parameters is needed if the Art Sweatshop were to address the gnawing gaps and areas of improvement as Bartolome pointed out. A delicate sway of both stripping down and supplementing the Art Sweatshop to communicate better the ethics of the participatory.

Cover image by Kean Barrameda

(7-minute read)

List of participants to follow. You can request for Bartolome's questions.

I still could not believe the generosity of the people at 98B Collaboratory: Katherine Nunez, Gabrielle Gatchalian, Hya Locke, Ferd Failano, Mokka Lanzona, Christine Capili, and Juno Vizcarra. The monumental tasks I had to face during the ingress and egress would not have bulged if not for Antares Gomez Bartolome, Ides Josepina Macapanpan, Bianca Therese Fabrigaras. I also express my appreciation to all who came and had to trudge through three hours of traffic in Manila.

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