Presenting visual and performance art in unexpected public spaces.

The Work Intern is Indebted at Proteus Gowanus

By Matthew Morowitz

Meredith Degyansky works. As part of Art in Odd Places (AiOP) 2014: FREE, she was known as The Work Intern, offering her help to businesses along 14th Street in exchange for time, banking her labor for goods and services from these entities. Yet being The Work Intern is only one chapter in Meredith’s life in labor, a personal narrative she explores as part of a project-in-residence at Proteus Gowanus. Titled Indebted, Meredith has erected a wall of shelves with artifacts and accompanying text that delineates her life and her labor. The piece can be separated into three sections, each highlighting different temporal and ideological aspects of her journey. The first takes a look at her formative years, engaging in systems of service and learning the foundations of an exchange economy. The second shows her years in higher education, her entrance into the world of unpaid internships, and the false promises of this almost paradoxical system of paying to perform labor that might not result in a career. The last row explores the ways Meredith has reacted to her situation and the systems that engendered it, how she is seeking ways to create dialogue and propose alternatives to an economic system that has largely failed her and so many others.

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Meredith in front of Indebted.

AiOP was able to attend the opening of this work on December 6, 2014, and talk with Meredith to learn more about her project, what influenced her, and what she hopes to accomplish. This work is part of a larger show, Labor, which will be on view at Proteus until February 22, 2015.

Can you tell me a little about your project?

The piece, Indebted, encompassing floor to ceiling shelves on one wall of the gallery represents my life in labor as a narrative moving row by row from top to bottom told through small notecards and found ephemera.

The story unfolds with small exchanges that are intuitive to us as young people such as doing chores, picking up after ourselves, and saying thank you. When I was a child, my mom paid us for our chores in poker chips but the poker chips we earned weren’t even worth anything material or monetary. But as a young child, the idea of “getting more” was incentive enough to keep cleaning. It also represents small gestures me and my sister did for each other that were never spoken of. I would pack her school lunches because I wanted to and she would – throughout my whole life – speak to adults for me. It moves onto a display of compensated-pre-higher-education-labor I completed as a teen such as delivering newspapers and waiting tables. The first row attempts to characterize the whimsical motions we go through in life, you know, the basic transactions we make with the community around us before we grow into the “real world”.

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Indebted.

The second row represents the system we are thrown into; analyzing my education (which cost me a lot of money) and the irony of paying for education when we are actually laborers as students and in my case, a student-athlete. It then explores what happens when we get out of school, using my experience in serial unpaid internships that never led to paid gigs as a lens to look at a system of broken promises. Thus recognizing the conundrum several of us with liberal arts degrees from well-known universities fall into: uncompensated labor and loads of student debt.

A step-by-step guide on how to barter down your debt with Sallie Mae.  Videographer: The Work Intern

In the final row I propose solutions for altering these systems that dominate most of our lives. Maybe we don’t need to spend this much money on school because it doesn’t seem to lead to a secure financial life? Is there another way to educate ourselves and each other outside of a formalized institution? What if we had more intimate relationships with our landlords, our local farmers, and even our neighbors? I detail a past project where I was attempting to barter down my student loan debt with Sallie Mae by offering my skills as a graphic designer, and lunch packing skills [to provide office lunches], which resulted in a satirical dissection on the inflexible and inhumane nature of corporations. It also reveals a currency I created, called Monies, to represent my unpaid labor, including both internships and invisible labor like household and community work.

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Indebted.

Over the next three months at Proteus Gowanus, I will be hosting workshops and events that explore ideas of valuing our labor, valuing our time, paying our debt, and finding alternatives to the systems that are growing defunct.

Did your time with AiOP 2014: FREE as the Work Intern influence any of these ideas you have been encountering?

Definitely. For my AiOP project, called timebanks/14th, I worked at six different businesses on 14th Street. In exchange for my labor I was paid in Monies, where three Monies equal one hour of work. I’ve since been able to exchange those Monies for goods and services at those businesses. As much as I hate to run around spouting theoretical jargon, the project explored labor from a Marxist perspective. I went in thinking, “It would be awesome if our work lives were structured in such a way where we worked three hours at a farm stand for produce, three hours at a hair salon for a haircut, three hours at a vintage store for clothing, and three hours at a bodega for snacks”. I’d love to exist in a society where we’re constantly forced to do many different things, acquire many different skills, and also work with a range of different people. My experience with AiOP was amazing because I ended up having intimate one-on-one encounters with everybody that I worked with, people that I wouldn’t normally be around or interact with.

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Indebted.

What kind of dialogues do you hope this project and your overall project will create down the line? What kinds of reactions do you want to see from the public?

I hope people start questioning this path that we’re all forced into, how horrifying and troubling it can be, and how it’s not necessarily promising anything. I’d like for fresh high school seniors to question the education that they are about to pay for, how they’re paying for it, why they’re going, and what they want from it. The practice of borrowing to pay for college needs to be much more transparent to young people. I have siblings right now who are 17 and 18-years-old and are getting ready to go on to the next thing and I’m asking them, “Do you need to go to college? How else can you educate yourself?” We need to think of alternatives to higher education, and in the same realm, think of alternatives to acquiring our needs in life. Through my experiences with labor, time, and money, I’ve developed a personal philosophy where my life focus is not on a career but rather on continuing to acquire a range of skills that I can exchange for what I need. I want to “work” less so I have more “time” – even though I’m not quite sure what either of those words mean yet.

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Indebted.

AiOP 2014: FREE: Thoughts on the festival by Thinker in Residence Nicolás Dumit Estévez

Cutting across the map of Manhattan, Fourteenth Street sets the boundary for downtown, exploding into a frontier like bazaar, a frantic place of trade and exchange, a truly inner-city port where among cascades of plastic flowers, pelicans made with shells, rubber shoes, Rita Hayworth towels, two-dollar digital watches, and pink electric guitars with miniature microphones, an array of shrine furnishings is offered.

Celeste Olalquiaga

Of all Places! The Lichtenstein around the Corner 

Nicolás Dumit Estévez

The New York City block seems to have the lifespan of a night’s dream. The Caribbean restaurant where one had maduros yesterday may serve Turkish food the next morning. It is as if the metropolis were issuing one constant reminder that nothing should be taken for granted, including the city, not to mention life itself. Most of the Fourteenth Street I first met a quarter of a century ago resembles today a suburban strip mall more than the postmodern corridor of inexpensive goods Olalquiaga talks about in Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities.

The e-mail invitation to be a Thinker in Residence that I received from Art in Odd Places (AIOP), an annual festival devoted to art outside of the confines of the gallery space, presented me with the quandary of confronting my current relationship to the street under consideration here. Likewise, it made me realize how, in recent years, I have avoided treading Fourteenth Street, fearing perhaps the revelations that often emerge out of places one was familiar with, but to whom one has become a stranger almost overnight. My job for Art in Odd Places entailed strolling the thoroughfare to respond to the festival works. I intended to follow my instructions faithfully, keeping my bulging eyes peeled for a meeting with art where least expected and, concomitantly, for the least anticipated manifestations of it.

A first stop took me to Rags-A-GoGo, a second-hand clothing store, where I picked up a program I planned to use as a guide, but it soon revealed my inability to deal with orchestrated itineraries. I settled for a hybrid approach between a Situationist dérive and an organized art crawl. I did so in light of the performative nature of the festival and that of the environment in which it takes place: the streets. One of the biggest challenges of either doing away with the program or following it faithfully was posed by the performance of religions I encountered. Upon reaching Union Square, a man stationed by the side of a halal food cart prayed on a small rug, facing Mecca. New Yorkers watched him with polite bewilderment, pretending not to look while actually looking. I, on the other hand searched in vain for a description of his action in the brochure I had tucked in my tote bag.

At Union Square I looked carefully for Marieke Warmelink and Domenique Himmelschbach de Vries, the Dutch couple of the Embassy of Goodwill, until I spotted them holding a hand-made banner advertising “One Hour of Free Help.” Their presence came to my attention after engaging in a conversation with the Hare Krishnas chanting and offering cookies to pedestrians, while a stationary camera documented their activities. Diagonal to the good art Samaritans from the Netherlands, a young man operated single-handedly a large “Jesus” sign. I divided my attention between the Dutch couple and the hypnotizing publicity the Christian missionary maneuvered with the grace of a choreographer. He had heads to watch and crowds of sinners to redeem from damnation, all at the same time. I observed the Christian preacher and listened to Warmelink and Himmelschbach de Vries’ invitation to let them help me write this piece. A visitor to the city stopped by to talk with the artists as I moved away to see the Thomas Hirschhorn-like structure erected next the Hare Krishnas. It was a Sukkah! I took it as a response to my wanderings, not through a desert, but around the oasis for social interactions that Union Square exemplified toward the end of the afternoon of October 9th.

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Food, like religion, can be said to be one of the main staples of Fourteenth Street. I am not talking just about the chain restaurants that have sprouted up on every block. There were the chili peppered mango and pretzel vendors, as well as a man enticing hurried New Yorkers with a “Taste of Freedom.” His makeshift stand dispensed hot dogs spiced with condiments from different geographic regions outside of the United States. I read the cooler in which Felipe Cicade, the artist, kept the buns and sausages tightly wrapped in tinfoil as a arena where battles or alliances between flavors unfolded.

P.D. Ouspensky’s writings on the teachings of Gurdjieff were both in my backpack, in the shape of a book, and in my mind, in the shape of thoughts. ““It is the greatest mistake,” he said,…[ Gurdjieff ]…“to think that man [sic] is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He [sic] is continually changing. He seldom remains the same even for half an hour.”[1] Fourteenth Street was not the place I remembered from the early nineties, but according Gurdjieff’s statements neither was I the same person who strolled the street the day before. As I walked on Fourteenth at 8 am on October 10th, I continued to further reflect on these teachings and their complex explanation on the planetary influences on people. ““Have you noticed how, if a man [sic] passes quite close to you on a narrow pavement, you become all tense? The same tension takes place between planets.””[2] As if due to planetary influences, two middle age women wearing identical outfits and I crossed paths. Eva and Adele? I pulled out my iPad without bothering first to consult whether or not they were part of the art festival. The “twins” belonged in many ways to my quest for Art in Odd Places. The Flux Flags by Johannes Rantapuska & Milja Havas in the Hudson were for sure listed in the brochure, with the miraculous in them residing in their behind the scene installation by the AIOP curator Dylan Gauthier. Gauthier’s performative act consisted in paddling the river in a small boat, Bas Jan Ader-like, securing the small nautical banners to the posts of the decaying pier. [3]

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“To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper.”[4] During one of my crisscrossings of Fourteenth Street I noticed a formation of plastic chairs outside of a store. Was this a location, a proper, away from my wanderings? Before having a chance to settle down in one of the seats, three people carried them away and used them to form a circle. I related the action to that of my neighbors in the South Bronx who, in the process of extending the square footage of their New York City living quarters, work reclaiming sidewalks, corners and forlorn spots of our neighborhood. I was one of the few people sitting on Ienke Kastelein’s chairs, as busy New Yorkers rushed by at full speed. A conversation with Kastelein’s assistant informed me that a previous formation of the chairs at a nearby bus stop provided comfort to those waiting for public transportation to arrive. Kastelein’s husband and I struck up a conversation that delayed my arrival at the next stop.

I intended to find Melissa Calderón’s work installed at Otto’s Shrunken Head, a local joint on the East Side. However, I was not able to do so before stepping into an area of Union Square delineated in white chalk as a “bad luck spot.” The signature at the bottom read Felix Morelo. Several blocks beyond the park the sidewalk cracks had been band-aided in red tape by Kara J. Schmidt. At Otto’s Shrunken Head, Calderón’s sign spelling “Freespeech Freesnowden” coexisted amongst a panoply of souvenirs reminiscent of the Fourteenth Street of Olaquiaga’s Holy Kitschen essay part of Megalopolis, and that of my early days in Manhattan.

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Although AIOP was scheduled for four days, the scope of the festival will extend for me through future strolls on Fourteenth Street. I will certainly be on the lookout for the autonomous performance of the day to day and the Lichtenstein I found around the corner, emblazoned on a jacket worn by a man collecting bottles.I will also likely hear the voice of my art and life mentor and performance art guru Linda Mary Montano whispering to me, amidst the sound of sirens, chants and prayers: “Everyone is performing…!”

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Bibliography:

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley – Los Angeles – London:       University of California Press, 1988.

Olalquiaga, Celeste. Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities. Minneapolis –       London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Ouspensky, P.D., In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. San          Diego – New York – London: Harcourt Inc., 1949.

About Nicolás Dumit Estévez treads an elusive path that manifests itself performatively or through experiences where the quotidian and art overlap. He has exhibited and performed at Madrid Abierto/ARCO, The IX Havana Biennial, PERFORMA 05 and 07, IDENSITAT, Prague Quadrennial, NYU Cantor Film Center, The Pontevedra Biennial, The Queens Museum, MoMA, Printed Matter, P.S. 122, Hemispheric Institute of Performance Art and Politics, Princeton University, Rutgers University, Anthology Film Archives, The Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, The MacDowell Colony, Provisions Library, El Museo del Barrio, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, The Center for Book Arts, Longwood Art Gallery/BCA, The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Franklin Furnace, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, among others. During the past seven years Estévez has received mentorship in art in everyday life from Linda Mary Montano, a historic figure in the performance art field. Montano and Estévez have also collaborated on several performances. Residencies attended include P.S. 1/MoMA, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. He has received grants from Art Matters, Lambent Foundation, National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, Printed Matter and Puffin Foundation. Estévez Holds an MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA; and an MA from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and he teaches at Transart Institute, Berlin-New York. Publications include Pleased to Meet YouLife as Material for Art and Vice Versa (editor) and For Art’s Sake. Born in Santiago de los Treinta Caballeros, Dominican Republic, in 2011 Estévez was baptized as a Bronxite; a citizen of the Bronx.

http://www.elmuseo.org/office-hours/

http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/e-misferica-81/dumit-estevez

Image Credits:

2014 © Nicolás Dumit Estévez

[1] P.D., Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff (San Diego – New York – London: Hartcourt Inc., 1949), 53.

[2] Ibid. 24.

[3] While this older pier within the Hudson is decaying, all around it are explicit signs of the rapid gentrification of the area.

[4] Michel de Certeau, The Practive of Everyday Life (Berkeley – Los Angeles – New York: University of California Press, 1988), 103.