Nina Cristante is an artist, autodidactic nutritionist, Aquarius and my best friend. Had it not been for a mutual friend linking us during her temporary stay in NYC seven months back, I may’ve never been introduced to the full spectrum of her work. Just a subtle trail of digital breadcrumbs. Slow-mo-promo. A whisper, a wink, a bikini body meme. A deliberately ambiguous website hosting austere at-home workout videos and fragments of clients’ food diaries.
New York based Dora Budor’s commission for the Palazzo Peckham project at this year’s 55th Venice Biennale is a multi-functional and multi-faceted conglomeration of people and variables, titled “New Lavoro”.
Previously, Budor held a casting from which she chose a selection of contestants to participate in her show. The winner, Rachel Lord, a Los Angeles-based artist, receives an all-expenses paid trip to Venice to visit the exhibition and the rest of the Biennale’s events.
The reality show will be presented on the glass surfaces of the tables in the New Lavoro café within Palazzo Peckham, where visitors can watch the episodes unfold as they enjoy a snack in what is now the common tablet screen surfing manner.
Not only will the reality show be “on view,” but Budor has additionally invited a selection of artists (Debora Delmar Corporation, Janus Høm & Toke Lykkeberg / Generousability, Josh Kline and Brad Troemel) to create “recipes” for works that London-based art students hired to work as servers and staff of the New Lavoro café will create on site. Budor also commissioned 8 musicians, (nightcoregirl, Al Tariq, False Witness, Ilja Karilampi/h00dumentary, Daniel Keller (Aids-3d), Colin Self, Nick Weiss and Slava), Elena Michael (James Michael Shaeffer Jr. and Adriana Blidaru), to create a soundscape/mix-tape for the project based on re-using and re-mixing reality show music with contestants’ interviews, as well as inviting writers, (Harry Burke, Pablo Larios, Toke Lykkeberg, Courtney Malick, Elena Michael, Kari Rittenbach, and Agatha Wara) to contribute to a magazine that accompanies New Lavoro. Fashion duo Eckhaus Latta was also incormporated into the project to make a New Lavoro collection – clothes that are used both in the reality show as costumes and as work uniforms worn by the bar staff in the installation of New Lavoro, which is produced by American Medium.
Courtney Malick: Can you tell me a bit about how you were initially invited to do begin this project? I’m wondering if people from Palazzo Peckham came to you with the idea of using the cafe, or if that was a space you particularly wanted to use?
Dora Budor: The inspiration for using the space as a bar came from the initial conversation with Palazzo Peckham, when they suggested that all the exhibition spaces could have a functional aspect – and asked if I would be interested in doing the bar and restaurant. I was not especially inclined, but as we continued speaking I was informed that the bar would employ young artists and art students from London and I immediately felt that this could be a good beginning to my story. Since the curatorial idea behind Palazzo Peckham was to create a space for conversation, participation and events, while engaging with various models of creative work balanced on gray areas in between art and entertainment, interior design, online television, modes of distribution and networking, I felt it would be appropriate to think about the functional space as a surface for behind-the-scenes production methods and engage with a set of activities that surround or make art production possible, but are not necessarily stated as being apart of it.
I had had a studio visit with a gallerist months ago and she asked me what my next project was going to be. Overwhelmed by the redundancy of studio visits becoming repetitious and telling the same story to everyone, I decided to delve into delusional answers – one of which was, “I’m shooting a reality show.” She responded that she didn’t think that was a good idea because art reality shows typically ruin people’s careers, both creators and participants. I realized the doomed reality of the unsuccessful was a great starting point and could possibly become interesting.
CM: I see. So, the people who manage the bar will be hiring young art students to work at it, but they will not really be involved in your piece?
DB: There are two different groups of participants – the cast of the reality show and the young art students whom the operator of the bar, Jackson Boxer, will be employing as staff. They will both be wearing the same clothes. The video content screened in the installation becomes sort of an advertisement, or promotional material for the lifestyle brand of New Lavoro.
CM: How did you work with the designers on the costumes? Were they taking into consideration the fact that the people wearing these uniforms in Venice will be working in a service/food setting, more so than thinking about the contestants of the reality show?
DB: From EckhausLatta’s side came a whole vision both for patterns, based on Thai fishing outfits and various uniform designs, and for the use of materials – ones that are reminiscent of kitchen use, holding burning pots and structures that have rough finishing. They managed to find a balance and create a universal type of ‘uniform’ that could be used for any type of laborious activity, and incorporate the specific branding.
CM: Can you explain more what you mean about how the relationship between the two groups of participants is branded? Do you mean because they will both be comprised of young art students?
DB: The relationship between the cast of the reality show and the staff that will work at the café in Venice is, lets say, ‘pseudo-historical’. The cast of the reality show is a dislocated predecessor/or successor of the staff in Venice. More simply put, ‘branded’ to be a part of a similar ‘invisible industry.’ The cast of the show wears ‘uniforms,’ that were designed by EckhausLatta, and the staff at the bar wears them as well. They start to form the branded entity of New Lavoro, or become subliminal employees of the same organization. At first glance the viewers may be unsure of exactly what these uniforms represent, but gradually the audience within the café will begin to see the connection between the reality show and the actual employees of the café/restaurant.
The costumes are visually recognizable, and also feature copywriting used within the branding, which is applied both in the space of the café and also served as titles of the T.V. episodes. They stem from idiomatic translations of old Italian proverbs that are related to work, laziness and boredom. Once translated to English they lose their proverbial meaning and become almost a weird form of haiku branding; such as Good Wine Needs No Bush or The Hurried she-cat has made Blind Kittens.
I also wanted to emphasize the connection between the two different locations, two different languages and activities that then connect into a completely new lifestyle — and to me, as a foreigner, these mistranslations sounded like a new form of language that I was interested in using as part of project identity.
CM: I also wanted to ask you about the ‘invisible industry’? Is “invisible industry” a term that you came up with, or something that is used a lot? I’ve never heard of that before, but it makes perfect sense…
DB: I just checked and it’s not googleable – usually I am always unsure which idea is actually mine because everything exists in similar forms somewhere in the world… To me the “invisible industry” refers to all the operational procedures and daily activities that run in the background of art-making… sort of like how the computer or a company operates, where there are all these activities that you are not really aware of that enable the whole structure to work flawlessly.
CM: I mean it makes sense because so much cultural production was about service in like the 80s and then there was a switch to the information industry in the 90s and the more integrated those things become into daily life (via technological devices) the less we even notice or think about them.
DB: Yes, for example, how many hours per day one has to invest in writing e-mails or do day jobs in order to make a sustainable career. I was more interested in the backend of the whole production than the front end… I feel like this is something that concerns every one of us on a day-to-day basis. The project, and my approach towards art in general, is trying to incorporate those backend behaviors/actions in art making. Not in the Beuysian sense that every sphere of human activity, even peeling a potato, can be a work of art as long as it is a conscious act — but along the lines of the Guattarian definition that when a certain social space is structured, dis/organized and then recuperated it can become a third, mediated object.
CM: Yes. I was going to say that you are subverting the biggest part of this project, the actual reality show, by not having it play on a T.V. channel or website somewhere, but instead using it as the sort of backdrop for a social space… so it will be the focus of the installation in one sense, but also not in the “normal” way that a video is projected on a wall.
DB: Yes, exactly. You will be putting your latte on the screen. From the viewer’s perspective it is more similar to one’s early morning reading on their computer or iPad with breakfast spread out on the table and breadcrumbs between keyboard keys than it is to a classic experience of viewing video art. I was really interested and found it appropriate to the whole story that ‘user-experience’ becomes more personalized and even physically connected to the object… and in a way messy.
CM: Also a bar/cafe is a place for conversations, nothing like a white cube, so there is a kind of messiness in the sense that their conversations and chatter will all be laid on top of your work. Can you tell me a bit about how you chose the contestants? Were you looking for them to all share certain qualities or did you want them to be very different from one another?
DB: I put out an open call for young artists and recent graduates to apply for a reality show in NYC. We did casting through various distribution channels – in art schools, DIS, Artfag City, Hyperallergic and by word of mouth — basically everywhere where our target audience could see it. I was looking for people who are either graduating or recently finished art school and aspire to become a part of the art world. During the casting we tried to find a good match of personalities that would represent or reinterpret reality-show stereotypes. There were 18 participants for the final interview and then we cast 13 for the show.
In New Lavoro I decided to use other people, whether they are participants in the show or collaborators, to interpret or react to my ideas – either the ones who had more skills or expertise in certain areas, or ones that had more ‘spectacular’ characters than mine in the case of the reality show. I wanted to be a bland host, or coordinator of the whole event wearing a gray suit and using a CEO style of communication… As in previous work, I was interested in the stages when things are not completely there yet, intentions to succeed or aspirations to become ideal or achieve excellence in a desired (in this case creative) sector in the future. And in a place like the Biennale, the Venetian setting makes a perfect fictitious backdrop.
CM: Tell me more about the whole process…
DB: I feel the whole approach to this show is channeling ideas of what Douglas Gordon coined as ‘promiscuity of collaborations’, which manifests these multiple shifts of production in where artists, musicians, fabricators, cinematographers and fashion designers replace the individual artist to create new collaborative forms.
Claire Bishop’s ‘Artificial Hells’ is relevant to the project as well, particularly the idea that, “the virtuosic contemporary artist has become the role model for the flexible, mobile, non-specialized laborer who can creatively adapt to multiple situations, and become his/ her own brand. What stands against this model is the collective: collaborative practice is perceived to offer an automatic counter-model of social unity, regardless of its actual politics…”
There were certain modes of production that I wanted to engage with – how to use outsourcing methods typical for within the workflow of a television production house or advertising agency in an art context — which is not a new idea — but I wanted to take it to the point where every element of the exhibition is approached in that way, and where everything is a modification or iteration of the previous state or idea. That is how I decided to have an ‘umbrella’ for everything, which became New Lavoro (Italian for New Labour or New Work) and from there it will expand to the soundscape, fashion collection, T.V. show, group show, restaurant/bar and a magazine. It was meant to be gesamtkunstwerk or total design, but in a way appropriate to how a production house or branding agency would approach it. The work will exist in its primary incarnation, which is a script of a reality TV show, after each step further it will take elements of previous iterations and remake or re-accommodate them to fit new contexts and new branding opportunities.
The questions of authorship become very blurred here, and the work expands through different levels of production and becomes molded within different hands. For example, the four artists I commissioned to provide recipes for the works that will be made in situ by the staff of New Lavoro in Venice, made variations of their previous work regarding site-specificity and a go-green-obsessive lifestyle. The curatorial framework for this part of the project was influenced by Whole Foods’ Mission Statement and Core Values, which I used as restraints and guidelines for the fabrication of work – everything needs to be produced ‘fresh’, ‘healthy’ and from local ingredients, modified according to the context of Venice. Therefore in the case of Generousability, which is a collaboration between Janus Høm and Toke Lykkeberg, the instruction was to make 3 new video works that are in some way engaging with food and consumption, according to the existing formula of their project, which presents cultural products as artistic products by treating them both with the same kind of intellectual generosity. For example. in one of the videos they apply Rirkrit Tiravanija’s press release from an exhibition at Gavin Brown Enterprise as a narrative to one of the most famous Youtube comedians, Remi Gaillard’s Chef video. Another example is Josh Kline, who re-framed his work, Share the Health (Assorted Probiotic Hand Gels), to include Venetian canal water in probiotic gels where different bacterial cultures collected from the spit of venetian street vendors, which will be growing in soap dispensers throughout the whole duration of the show.
Ideas of ‘Freshness’ of the re-made works came from dealing with issues of temporariness and trends in art, almost comparing them to computer software updates or new/cheaper spring/summer versions of fashion collections, which serves as a much needed vehicle to get or keep audiences interested. This theme was also impacted by the constant influence of online image circulation – where the similarity of ideas and formal expressions appear in different locations at almost the same time. A good example of this is a research Tumblr whoworeitbetter.info – curated by Alison Feldish and Derek Frech. This is a site that rips off People Magazin’es “Who Wore it Best” section, comparing common practices in contemporary art on a visual level of similarity. This is also present in recaps of biennials and art fairs that often express observations such as “I’ve been spotting neon works all over the place” (Armory Art Fair, 2013) or ‘identify several strange recurring trends (art made on or from mirrors, references to outdated technologies’) (Frieze Art Fair, NY, 2013.).
I was interested in fabricating ‘updated’ versions of these commissioned artists existing work and advocating for the production of the works by others, taking into account the idea of ‘context’ as a current trend and also re-enforcing it as such.
CM: Do you feel that this recipe concept is kind of carried over from the way that you had asked for specific things from the participants in the reality show — or how do you see the competition and these ‘recipe’ works speaking to one another?
DB: Yes, definitely. Doing an art reality show is always troublesome in relation to the ‘real world.” It seem unserious or game-like because it implies that the participants need to be pushed in certain directions or ‘instructed’ in order to create work – whereas working artists produce work without many restraints or instructions from the outside – or at least that is how it is presented to be. But more than that, I was interested in producing a script for a show as a recipe, which could be modified and interpreted by participants, and then in postproduction and editing re-framed yet again.
The idea of framing things or commissioning them was important for me and kind of interesting as a procedure — and also the aspect that it can fail, because I am basically creating the framework, but it depends on the participants whether or not they will make something out of it. It quickly became about taking and giving control to others as well
CM: Do you think the contestants were resentful of some of the challenges?
DB: Definitely — the assignments that seemed kind of easy or didn’t involve risk or a certain element of excitement were not taken seriously. What pushed them the most, I think, was if they had to do something they would otherwise not be comfortable with doing, which is a typical ‘T.V. reality psychology’. Some time the contestants began directing themselves in a manner other than how people on reality shows typically behave. They wanted to make it more interesting, and their initial behavior dramatically changed from day 1 to day 4. They all wanted to be ‘the character.’ My approach of not forcing them to act in any drastic or extreme way allowed them to reflect their personalities after the images they already had of reality show characters…
CM: So were they just kind of following a system that was already set in place for them?
DB: Not exactly, but there were elements of that. That is something I’m always interested in. Similarly I’ve explored this in previous collaborative work with D+M, for example when we worked with aspirational MMA fighters, or in BodySurfing or when we worked with wannabe models.
CM: I see. Do you mean is that the contestants seemed to be filling a pre-prescribed role? It’s funny that even with artists — who are thought to be kind of operating outside of that typical social structure — you still see the same kinds of behaviors as you see of other reality T.V. participants. In a way it kind of nullifies the act of making art as being any different than cooking or singing, or modeling or whatever all the other reality T.V. competitions are.
DB: We saw that non-actors know how to behave in certain situations. Again, I was aware that I had to pick characters that are ready to give in in a certain way, and I had to pick a mix of people that would be willing to work. I mean the show is not extreme, and I was not interested in gossip material of blowjobs under night vision cameras or stuff like that…
CM: How did you decide on the winner? Did you give the judges any criteria upon which you wanted them to base their decisions?
DB: Each episode had a different judge, and they were all very different from each other: Xavier Cha, Andrew Norman Wilson, Keren Cytter, Brian Droitcour, Frank Benson, Brad Troemel, Jamie Sterns, and Korakrit Arunanondchai. They made the final decisions about who should be eliminated for each challenge — although we did discuss the contestants’ previous work, etc. At the end, I think Rachel won because of a combination of circumstances and planning – she made her character correspond and amplify a conceptual approach to her work and she took risks in everything she was doing – the overall feeling was that she was willing to go until the end or until she won. In her mind, losing was not an option.
CM: It seems that since the contestants resources were rather limited you were kind of pushing them to make immaterial work. Will any of their work will be featured in the exhibit or will they only be seen in the video? Did keep the work that they made?
DB: Some of the work will be shown in the videos but basically everything that was made was temporary – I wasn’t interested in giving them $1000 for supplies from Blick like they do on Bravo, but in fact exactly the opposite. It was more about ideas than perfect execution, and I wanted them to deal with impossible situations, limited budgets or spaces they usually would not be able to participate with, such as MoMA or the Apple Store. Some of the contestants’ work exists in documentation on Vine or on Instagram, but some just exists as a coat-check number from MoMA, like Nick DeMarco’s.
Nick took flyers from MoMA and wrote on them ‘TILDA SWINTON WHATS UP’ and checked them in at coat check. He’ll never go back to get them, so it is, in an ironic way, a permanent piece.
CM: It is a real show in one sense, but in another, it is your work. It could almost be interpreted as a performance in some way.
DB: I think my involvement was most present in pre- and post-production, where I had the most control to make it into a piece that corresponded with my concept. The importance of reality television, although it has been considered lowbrow, vulgar, or “unworldly,” cannot be ignored because of its global success, and in the eyes of some analysts, it is an important political phenomenon. In some authoritarian and orthodox countries, reality television voting has been the first time citizens have voted in free and fair wide-scale elections, or spoken openly about taboos. It is important to recognize worldwide how it became a beloved substitute for a scripted drama, (although most of them are actually scripted), and probably the reason for it is that it wasn’t afraid to give a current vision of the world and engage with hot-button topics of class, sex and race.
For me, one of the most interesting art projects or social experiments ever done in that field is still “the Warhol of the Internet,” Josh Harris’ “Quiet: We Live in Public” an Orwellian, Big Brother type concept developed in the late ’90s that placed more than 100 volunteers in underground bunker pods under 353 Broadway in New York City. Many of these volunteers were artists and they each had webcams that followed them, capturing every move they made. The weird thing that happened 5 years ago was that the day after seeing the documentary about Harris, I saw him smoking a cigarillo in the Bedford subway station, quite unexpected after the ending of the film that states he fled to Ethiopia to escape his creditors. Reality always has an alternate ending to a movie I guess…