Exhibition Prosthetics IV:
The artist's contract as model towards radical interdependence
I began my first teaching position this semester, and one of the things I was most excited about (and made sure to take advantage of no matter what) was that I was allowed to take a class for free. By some stroke of luck—perhaps even divine intervention—there was a spot open in Joseph Grigely’s class titled Exhibition Prosthetics. This series of writings will be reflections from the week prior on talks I have gone too, virtual exhibitions I see (since I am taking this class during a pandemic I cannot in good conscience visit in person ones), as well as the readings assigned to me by Joseph, and any conversations we have together in the interim through email or instagram. We’ll see how it goes.
(Edit: the previous version of this erroneously stated that Susan Hapgood wrote the essay I referred to and that it had the title of the larger book. It is actually titled Certifiable and was written by Martha Buskirk.)
In Dean Spade’s Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law he puts forward a critique of the right based legal reform strategies that have been utilized by Gay and Lesbian activists in the last few decades arguing instead for a look towards certain administrative burdens as a possible space for radical legal interventions. In the chapter Trans Law and Politics on a Neoliberal Landscape he outlines the shifts that have occurred with the ever greater implementation of Neoliberal policies and what that means for the rights of marginalized peoples across identities of race, gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship status, etc. Thinking in terms of the pathological margin which works against normative notions of the dominant text, it’s necessary to consider the limits of the law. A lot of these ideas that I am writing about here find other possibilities in the chapter of the book I’m working on tentatively titled The Cultural Text and the End of the World, but here for the purposes of this ongoing substack series which accompanies the class I am taking (Exhibition Prosthetics) I want to consider the artist contract.
I want to start with Joseph Grigely’s recent legal language as artwork Paragraph X, which follows from the work artists with disabilities have been doing in the creation of accessibility documents or riders which are themselves not dissimilar to the riders given by touring bands (for example). In a quote attributed to Johanna Hedva on the website www.accessdocsforartists.com they write, “access documents are used by rock stars and divas all the time—they’re simply called riders and no one bats an eye. this is because they are helpful for everyone involved: the person can say what they need in order to do their thing, and the venue/institution knows exactly how to provide support for them to do their thing.” I’m sure we’ve all heard of the story of Van Halen’s infamous requirement in their rider that they have M&Ms backstage with all of the brown ones removed. And while for years this was seen as another part of decadent rockstars being petty and particular it was actually a way to check quickly for possibly breaches of safety protocols. On it’s own it’s a rather mundane and relatively simple action to remove all the brown M&M’s if tedious, but it signaled to the band and their crew that if they were there it was necessary to check over the entire set up, as at the time they had one of the most complicated live show set ups and many venues weren’t adequately equipped to facilitate it safely. So no brown M&Ms meant they had to look over the entire set up for safety problems because chances are it meant their complicated rider was not read.
In general this is representative of a larger problem on the part of institutions and venues (as well as larger architectures of control and mobility in general) where anyone or anything that deviates from the norm is seen as not of immediate concern. For Grigely, Paragraph X addresses what is an across the board problem of accessibility in online arts programming (and has been for arts programming even before the pandemic put everything online). The paragraph reads:
X. All public events, both online and in-person, should be accessible to people with disabilities and follow the national accessibility statutes of the host institution(s). Additionally, provisions for access should be clearly stated in promotional advertising for events, and the advertising should include a contact person to whom inquiries about access can be directed. When documentation of the even is posted online, this material should also be effectively accessible.1
This paragraph is what could be called boilerplate text, in that it can be used within the context of anyone who is crafting a contract as an artist. It is the absolute base line. For many of us we could argue that Grigely’s text does not go far enough and we may prefer to adjust it to what we could consider adequate in its declarations for access. However, by placing this legal language as the bare minimum for inclusion as an accessibility stipulation in a contract Grigely points towards how even what may seem like the bare minimum is itself not already being done by these institutions. Because of the nature of legal language it is easy for those with more power legally and economically to twist and shift what it is that is required of them legally (and sometimes this means doing illegal things with the understanding that it’s cheaper to settle lawsuits than do what is asked of you). Spade in his book uses the example of Hate Crime Laws which while in their forward facing rhetoric seem to be an attempt at making a safer world for those who are violently discriminated against on the basis of their outward identity markers. However, as he lays out these laws often imbue carceral law enforcement agencies with greater power to enact their own versions of violence upon those who are supposed to be protected by these laws, because it is more often law enforcement which perpetrates the violence in the first place.
Ben Kinmont’s heuretic essay Promised Relations: or, thoughts concerning a few artists’ contracts addressed the relationship between the legal contract and the social contract and how these two forms of the contract mirror and influence each other. What he shows are artists’ contracts that look beyond the “boilerplate” form towards greater realizations of the artistic role in relation to the social. Perhaps my favorite of the contracts he discusses for the radical assumptions it creates about the rights of the artist as worker and therefore the worker in general is done in absolute simplicity. The contract I am talking about is the one crafted by the artist Seth Siegalaub with the lawyer Bob Projansky called the Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sales Agreement which would come to be known as the Projansky Agreement, which as Kinmont points out would go on to affect legislation in California which still states that the artist is entitled to 5% of the resale of their work (which if you know about the exorbitant prices art can resell for even this nominal amount is huge). Kinmont quotes Siegalaub as writing about this contract,
We realize that this Agreement is essentially unprecedented in the art world and that it just may cause a little rumbling and trembling; on the other hand, the ills it remedies are universally acknowledged to exist and no other practical way has ever been devised to cure them
Whether or not you, the artist, use it, is of course up to you; what we have given you is a legal tool which you can use yourself to establish on-going rights when you transfer your work. This is a substitute for what has existed before - nothing.
We have done this for no recompense, for just the pleasure and challenge of the problem, feeling that should there ever be a question about artists’ rights in reference to their art, the artist is more right than anyone else.
As Martha Buskirk points out in her essay Certifiable this kind of artists’ contract is often incredibly controversial to those who buy art, and so will often lead to lost sales or denials of the contract by collectors as well as institutions. Buskirk points out in the essay Hans Haacke’s use of the contract illustrating a few of these kinds of situations (one being the loss of a sale to the collector Peter Ludwig, as well as the denial of a donation by the Museum of Modern Art of a Haacke piece). What was so controversial was the idea that the artist would continue to be paid upon every resale of a work (what is called a droit de suite) and that the artist had the right to continue to show that work as they wished. The problematics of definitive ownership abound. Imagine if we considered all housing publicly owned so that spaces where people could live were not sat upon vacant. Or we more freely considered food that had not sold in a grocery store forfeit to all those who needed it but could not originally afford it as opposed to simply trash. And we consistently and consciously sought alternative funding models for libraries that did not require the imposition of late fees on the most vulnerable of its patrons. These are themselves stretches perhaps to relate (if ever so slightly) to the issue of artistic ownership, but maybe it’s not?
If we consider as Spade points out (specifically in the case of the argument of their book) that “we must resist logics that frame harm as primarily individual and that seek narrowly focused remedies accessible only to those already deemed ‘legitimate’ bodies for claiming rights (white, non criminalized, nonimmigrant, nondisabled, nonindigenous).”2 then it is also necessary to consider the ways in which the separation of seemingly disparate but actually logically interconnected structural inequities allows us to find strategies for thought shifting in the most peculiar of places.
Grigely’s text both operates as an accessible tool for those who are not as skilled in the creation of contracts, as well as a reminder of the actual inequities that are themselves so pervasive. To think and think again about the ways in which we can orient legalistic language towards something approximating activism, we can begin to craft alternative epistemologies for working against legal frameworks themselves without simply reproducing them. Belief in collective modes of interdisciplinary and interdependent thoughtfulness can help us think differently about what it is that we take as neutral, apolitical, and unmarked.
Spade, Dean. 2011. Normal life: administrative violence, critical trans politics, and the limits of law. Brooklyn, NY: South End Press. p. 161