What Matters

Issue #09: The Money Issue

What Matters was the last of a series of salon conversations as a part of the Xavier Le Roy _In Dialogue public program, co-presented by Dancehouse with MPavilion. The conversations aimed to link dance and choreography to current issues in art and society; highlighting the connections between the thinking, moving body and contemporary aesthetic, cultural and political issues. Led by Angela Conquet, Artistic Director of Dancehouse, Xavier Le Roy was joined by a panel of local practitioners such as choreographer Matthew Day and Joeri Mol – senior lecturer in Organisation Studies at the University of Melbourne; as well as French artist Mathieu Brand.

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Angela Conquet: We often ask ourselves ‘what matters’ in the way we make art today; in the that way we produce art and in the way that we share art with audiences. Today, we will be talking arts in relation to markets and money. We will also be talking about how markets or money affect, impact, determine or prescribe the context, the form, the modes of production, the artists status in society, the economies of value and the value of value itself.

I’d like to start first with Xavier and ask what prompted the making of Self Unfinished which is now such an emblematic piece for his repertoire. Self Unfinished is a piece that was created seventeen years ago and is still touring today. When it was created, in the context of the European contemporary dance scene, it was really something. It was the very opposite of what you’d see back then and I wanted to ask you, Xavier, if you remember the context then and what prompted the particular shape and form that you gave to this solo?

Xavier Le Roy: There is one specific aspect of that work which relates to our topics today, which is that when I decided to make that work, it was also a moment when I decided not to ask for any support. I noticed that after two years in a row with the support from the city of Berlin and the attention the work got, there were expectations building as to the kind of work I was doing. I thought how quickly I came under the influence of this convenient way of producing, when the state gives money to you, but also when you answer to this ‘giving’ and this sort of exchange. It conditions the form you enter into and what you produce. That was one of the reasons why I decided not to ask for money, and that was also possible because I had decided to work alone. Which, in the context of performing arts, is not something that you usually do – you work with people. The practice [dance] is not necessarily a solitary practice like writing can be or painting. It’s part of the medium that you work with someone – although there are exceptions. This decision was made possible by unconsciously producing what I would call my condition of work as much as possible. It’s always produced by the surrounding economic environment you are a part of, but in proportion, it was more conditioned by my decision than by the pre-existing market. The piece was planned to be shown two times and that was it.

Maybe one important thing to add is that when one works in the field of art and wants to make art, one can ask themselves: do you want to make art and make this your living, your way of surviving, or do you want to make art without depending on that production to live? My decision was to try to make a living with what I decided to do; that’s very important in relationship to economy and to how the market functions.

AC: Could I ask you to go a little bit back to what you said about the funding system back when you made the piece and how, in a way, it conditions the form of the works that you made back then. If you were to ask for a grant, in what way did you feel it would be conditioning?

XLR: There are several things, the first thing I think of now is the application form for choreography in Berlin. You have to fill out the names of the choreographer, the composer, the dancers, the light designers, the costume designers, the dramaturge … and if you do, there is a proportion of how much of the money that is given to you can be allocated to salaries and to the production. So in this form, it is pre-inscribed that you should work with a composer, with a costume designer and so forth. Of course, you can choose not to do that, but that means, in my experience of this system, that when you make the report of the end of the production, it becomes very complicated to explain why you didn’t have a costume designer etc. – it makes your life complicated. Of course, if you want to enter the system, you will look for a way that makes it possible and people will more easily give you the money if you can report where it is going – simple as this. So this prescribes the shape and the form of what you do.

AC: Mathieu Briand, you are quite the opposite of Xavier as the model that you used in making your exhibition et in libertalia ego is quite unique because you invited other artists to make work within you own work[1]. In that sense, it ended up being a long journey for yourself and for the others involved – and ultimately for us, the viewers, experiencing your installation. We can, as viewers, experience the work and understand the many layers and journeys that many artists have had whilst embarking on your island. How many years did it take to make this work?

Mathieu Briand: Seven years. I came to this decision because I was totally desperate. I always produce my work without a market in mind. I have been very lucky because I found people to work with and I didn’t need much money to live on at that moment. It was very easy to live in Marseille with no money. This condition was the same, perhaps, in any city in the 60s. But now, after 2007-2008, when we had this big crash in the market, of course all this affected contemporary art. It has affected the way people view work that doesn’t make money. Like other artists who were producing work at that moment, I was kicked out of the system. Also, because some of my work was produced by institutions, not only French institutions, but all over the world, I would not get money from public systems. So, I was very desperate and I tried my hand at living in Madagascar. This island reminded me of all the hysteria of pirates and all this political thinking around pirates. At that moment, I only had a little bit of money left over so I went to this island and I discovered/imagined this project and I really realised that, in fact, I have to convince people to help me to do this project. But to convince people, I need to begin the project and so I began this project with the support of other artists. This was a big moment – to think, ‘ok, if I want to have a balance, I need support,” and the first support I can have is from artists because artists are like my family. So that’s how I began this project.

XLR: Can you tell us the kind of support you got from the artists and in what form?

MB: It was just a form of their own art. Money was not the point; the point was the fact that, in art, we have a lot of curators now, who have taken the place of artists. People imagine that

if you are a visual artist and you’re successful, then you have a lot. But no, you’re just in a window of the system – you can make it very easy for someone else. Later, I went to people with money and said, ‘look we’ve done this already, I’ve got an island, I’ve got this studio on this island, I’ve got these artists working with me – so now I need your money.’ It was one of the biggest collectors. It was not possible for him to collect this island or any of this work but I said, ‘yeah, but we have to open doors together. It would be, for you and for us, something that we need for the future.’ And so, he decided to put money into the project.

AC: What’s really important here is that it is one of those exhibitions/installations that you can’t really buy. You can buy bits and pieces of it, but what you cannot buy is how all the pieces of this work sit together to create the journey that ultimately makes the exhibition. You can only take a souvenir from the exhibition by buying a single artwork.

XLR: What can you buy? When you pay for your ticket, what you’re buying is a time – a durational personal experience made with a group of people.

AC: We now know that there are so many artists that invent new ways of presenting or sharing art with their audience that aren’t necessarily collectable – dance is precisely one of those art forms. We’re still struggling to find ways to preserve, document and to see what can be left as a trace. With visual arts, there seems to be less and less of a product you can buy. Joeri, how would you talk about markets in relationship to what we are discussing? What can or can’t be bought?

Joeri Mol: What seems to fall by the wayside is the notion of thinking about the body as a social body. If we look at notions of the state, community, family and marriage, or even organisations at large, they seem to fall apart and I wonder what’s at stake there. Also, how social bodies such as the state and other collectives like religion, the arts, science and the media, are being marketised to an extent … perhaps we’re seeing the demise of the social body as much as we are seeing the triumph of the individual body. This is not to say I don’t champion the arts, I very much champion the arts and that’s why we’re having this discussion in the first place, but I am pessimistic about where we’re going these days. In October 2015, there was a protest at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a group led by Max Geller called Renoir Sucks at Painting. He chanted “God hates Renoir” and crassly qualified his work as ‘empty calorie-laden steaming piles’ during one of his so-called ‘guerrilla art lectures’. He’d just unexpectedly turn up at an art museum and go on a diatribe about Renoir and how he wasn’t great.

Shortly afterwards, Genevieve Renoir, who claims to be the great granddaughter of Renoir, tweeted “when your great grandfather paints anything worth 78.1 million dollars then you can criticise. In the meantime, it’s safe to say that the free market has spoken and Renoir did not suck at painting.” Again, this is a controversial statement but perhaps coming at it from a very different angle. This elicited a response from Geller who said in return, “I think this is one of the most absurd and insane arguments for anything. The idea that we should let the free market dictate quality.” Except is it? Are we indeed living in an insane and absurd world where money mutes all considerations of value? Whilst I don’t like it at all, I do fear that we’re sliding towards that. Few people here would consider Jeff Koons to be the greatest living artist but his Balloon Dog fetched over 58 million dollars which is the biggest fee that any artwork has fetched in recent memory.

AC: Do you think this is a problem?

JM: Yes, I think this is a big problem actually.

AC: Why?

JM: Because we see the celebration of the individual – of the individual artist and the individual work. I think what I really fear is that what we are seeing the failure of the collective body and this is not just happening in arts. But that it also happens in arts, is perhaps more terrible than when it happens in corporations or even in science. We are not able to come up with a definition of the problems we’re facing these days in society as a collective problem. We’re facing all these terrible worries like climate change and starvation pandemics but whilst this is going on, none of the solutions are collective. I mean, think about Paris now, we are facing one of the gravest problems of our age – climate change. It’s a huge issue and although peoples lives are being lost, you still see that it’s very difficult to become a collective and the answer becomes the market – carbon pricing. It’s a very ironic solution. It’s not the money per se, it’s that the problems get inverted onto the individual. You’ve got a problem with your 80-hour workweek? We will enter you into a work-life balance training-program and that’s how we solve issues. We can’t push the problem back onto the collective because everything gets pushed back on us [as individuals]. We’re all becoming individualised – we’re on LinkedIn and Facebook, branding ourselves. Or the market is branding us, through methodological individualism in science as in the arts.

AC: Do you feel that the artists have decided to position themselves as marketeers or have the markets pushed the artists to position themselves more and more as marketeers – rather than as interpreters … and to play not against market forces, but to take advantage of this wave of consumerism and the activeness of the free market, which can then result in big prices. Is this the artist’s fault or is the market shaping the behaviour of the artist?

JM: I think the latter completely which is why I am so pessimistic. It seems there is no critique possible of the market anymore. You can hate the market these days and sell your book [about it] on Amazon. The market loves you back. That’s the problem with the market, it loves you back no matter how much you hate it. The market divides and conquers. You see it in universities across the world with the rebranding of the faculty of arts as cultural industries. We don’t have a problem with the market – we’re just calling ourselves the creative industries! This is terrible, because with it, we relinquish our autonomy and our ability to be a counter-power that society especially needs now. Now, it seems to be all about marketing and branding ourselves on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on all sorts of ‘social media’ as we call it. It’s all about our individual brand names and that’s what I do fear.

AC: I think you talk about something that has to do with the scale of compliance or resilience of the artist when it comes to market forces.

MB: I think it’s a cycle. You can sit the other way around: the artist has been the model for the market economy to use this method to make it more valuable. You can observe the artist as a self-organised enterprise that is becoming the rule, not only for art. It’s a little bit difficult to put it into an order because I think there is a cycle. I still think that art can produce this temporary moment or space where the collective and the group is thinking together about another way to deal with a problem. Of course, on a very large scale and level, there is nothing outside of capitalism. So you can see it like “whatever you do, capitalism will swallow you – it’s a super-sucking machine that is able to integrate everything you will invent.” And yes, I am also a pessimist in a way.

AC: Would you like to talk about those ways of making art that create this fleeting moment of existing together in a collective experience? Of experiencing time and space differently, be it an object or an embodied moment?

XLR: There is a big distinction to make first if we want to analyse this. There are, indeed, art objects that you can take home and there is art that doesn’t produce this object. I think it’s different. Even by repeating the performances that I do, and being paid every time I repeat them, I make it become a sort of an object … but within this object, every time I repeat it, there is this experience that is produced. This experience is, in the case of performance, a moment of collective commune that is under the rules of the market economy. There is something that is produced which is very different from the object I would bring home – that I’d accumulate. These categories don’t say the same thing socially.

MB: Well, I don’t think we have to be scared of the market. The problem is the attention that we give to this problem. If we look at capitalism around the world, it’s just exploding – it’s something that’s normal. Once there were 100 collectors, now we have 10,000. So of course, the market is bigger – where people were 100 million, now we’re a billion. This is a mechanical thing, but we have to think about the past. I remember 20 years ago, everyone was in the art world because there was a market in the art world. Everybody was asking for more money, more space, more public, more everything. We got it – we have more space, more public and now it’s an industry. There is money, there is a public, there are artists. Artists have always been confronted with problems – politics, money problems – it’s life, it’s just like that. I don’t know why we have to be scared now. The people who get money, are they willing to give money back to art without fetishising the object and its value? That is the question! The question of the market is more why Jeff Koons doesn’t give money to dance. We have artists now who are super rich and it’s these artists who have to react. Once they complained about the market and now that they are rich, they just try to become richer. I think that when we are artists together, we don’t look at the money we get, we look at the work that we do. Money hypnotises everybody so that they don’t see the real question and then you can’t see the potential of answering these problematics creatively.

AC: Matthew, as a relatively younger choreographer and artist, living between two countries, two markets (or not), how do you position yourself?

Matthew Day: I think I’m a naïve optimist. Generally, I find it the least interesting thing to talk about. For sure, it’s a problem. It’s a reality and lately I’ve been wondering about the value of not having it and the opportunity of finding other ways and thinking about resources – what they are. A lot of those [resources] are other artists – the relationships you have with people and places. I’m not talking about exploiting people for labour; I’m talking about living a life with people, which is a social thing. For me, part of my naïve optimism is this belief that I might perform a solo work in a room of 100 people and that would be a full room – maybe 30 people will come to be honest. It is a life, and it touches different things at different points and for me, this is where I get some of my optimism. I would rather be touched and touch someone that to hold money in my hand. I mean, we’re all going to die.

AC: I do agree that money is not always what matters most and today, we’re trying to talk about what matters most and what really matters is still value; and we can’t talk about value without talking about the value of value. If you are more or less in the industry, or on the market, you do talk about what it took to make that art possible and that does come down to money. Not that that money necessarily comes down to the artist, but the money that allows for something to happen in the first place. I think what is really interesting with the last work that we saw by Xavier, which was a big work with 18 dancers, was the context. It was in a theatre, but not a traditional one. A few years ago, in Retrospective, the many dancers performed six hours a day. As an audience member, you get to experience a piece of work differently because you engage with the performers in a different kind of temporality, yet this work probably would never have been achievable in a normal production context. It is an expensive work to make. It didn’t make any of you rich but it took a lot of money to make that possible.

XLR: It’s all relative. It’s a very cheap exhibition in terms of the average price of what an exhibition costs.

MB: I think we live in a temporality that moves very quickly. So the notion of the present is more complex than before. Just the notion of what art is today would be very difficult for us to decide. The problem is also an educational problem too, because everybody is waiting for artists, but as artists, we don’t have any rules. We are not here to answer to society for these issues. We forget that when we go to Africa, these problems don’t exist. It’s another problem entirely! As artists, we have to put ourselves, not out of, but beside these problems because we can do nothing if we get stuck on this information and these problems. How can we find, eventually, the free time? People have to realise that we need free time – a lot of free time. This is a luxury. If we want to be able to propose different options for alternate realities, we need time. It’s a big responsibility as an artist. The time to produce, show etc. How can we secure this time? Is this a social thing? As artists, we want to give back to society.

MD: I am pretty slow, I like to take my time to make work. I need to. I guess I’m thinking about other forces again. It’s true that we’re in a time of speeds but there are other temporalities and other forces that are present now … and have always been and will continue to be. They are bigger than the social; they go above, below and across the social and the market. There are other forces at play and they will win. There are things bigger than the market.

AC: Like what?

MD: Well there’s the material world and that’s what matters to me. I am a naïve optimist but this is why I dance and this is why I believe in dance.


The Conversation took place at MPAvilion on 12 December 2015 as a part of Dancehouse’s Xavier Le Roy_In Dialogue public program.
Conversation transcribed and edited by Audrey Schmidt

[1] When Mathieu Briand swam to a small island off Madagascar in 2008, he was on a quest: to find a safe haven for contemporary art, where he could create art for art’s sake, far away from the strictures and bustle of the artworld proper. It was to be a creative paradise – in which Briand would eventually gather likeminded artists, dancers and writers, modelled on the fabled eighteenth-century pirate paradise of that name, also off the coast of Madagascar, described in the General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), by Captain Charles Johnson. Invited artists included Pierre Huyghe, Thomas Hirschhorn, Damián Ortega, Mike Nelson, Grégory and Cyril Chapuisat, Francis Alÿs. The exhibition is currently presented at MONA until May 2016.

Listen to the whole conversation!