Criticism of Art Production Highlights Lack of Protections for Performers

An art production in late 2011 in Los Angeles drew criticism for alleged exploitation of the performers, including an open letter from a performer who declined to participate. The performer noted a lack of standards, official or unofficial, that protect the rights of performers in the art world, unlike in the music and film industries. The risks and realities of harassment and discrimination against artistic performers resembles ongoing efforts by New York City fashion models to oppose sexual harassment and exploitation.

Sara Wookey, who describes herself as a “professional dancer and choreographer,” wrote an open letter published by on November 23, 2011. She described her experience auditioning for a production by the performance artist Marina Abramovic for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA’s) annual gala. Abramovic reportedly selected two hundred performers to participate. The role offered to Wookey involved recreating a 2002 Abramovic work entitled “Nude with Skeleton” with five other women. Throughout the performance, she said, the six women were to “lie naked and speechless on a slowly rotating table” for almost four hours, without moving. She was told to “ignore…any potential physical or verbal harassment” during that time. She would have to attend fifteen hours of rehearsal, and would receive a total of $150. Organizers told her that they could not guarantee protection if she found herself in “distress” during the performance. For these reasons, she declined to participate in the production.

Abramovic is famous in art circles for her controversial and provocative productions focused on the human body. Many of her productions have involved her own body, including Rhythm 0, where she sat immobile for several hours next to a table with 72 objects, ranging from a feather boa to a loaded pistol, and invited the audience to use the objects on her in whatever way they wanted. Her 2011 production for MOCA combined several of her past works, and largely involved performers positioned throughout a reception and dinner party (link contains nudity). Guests could interact with them, but the performers were not permitted to move or react.

Criticisms of the performance addressed the potential for exploitation and abuse of the performers. The event itself (link contains nudity) appears to have avoided any serious incidents of mistreatment. Some attendees reported feeling uncomfortable around the impassive performers, while others believed that the discomfort was the point of the performance. Some performers addressed criticism in a similar way to common defenses of exploitation in the fashion industry, saying that people who did not want to pose naked for hours should not audition for an Abramovic piece.

Wookey raised valid concerns about a lack of standards protecting performers in art events. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and similar group, she noted, have existed for decades, with clear rules protecting members from exploitative or abusive treatment. Under existing law, legal protections depend in large part on whether a performer is an employee or an independent contractor. The New York State Department of Labor’s guidelines suggest that the MOCA performers, had they been in New York, would be employees, and therefore at least covered by the state’s health and safety regulations. The guidelines for identifying an “employee” in a theatrical production include rates of pay set by the producer, artistic control maintained by the producer, and a requirement to attend rehearsals.

The lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination in New York City and surrounding areas, fighting to protect their rights at the municipal, state, and federal levels. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

Web Resources:

Guidelines for Determining Worker Status: Performing Artists (PDF file), New York State Department of Labor
More Blog Posts:

Fashion Model’s Support of Controversial Photographer Demonstrates the Difficulty of Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Fashion Industry, New York Employment Attorney Blog, February 25, 2013
Sexual Harassment at Conventions Gaining Attention, Including New York’s ComicCon, New York Employment Attorney Blog, October 31, 2012
Former Stagehand Sues Metropolitan Opera for Sexual Harassment, New York Employment Attorney Blog, October 12, 2012

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