‘Real Work’ @ FACT Liverpool

Candice Breitz, Sweat (2018). Featured here: Zoe Black, Emmah, Gabbi, Connie, Jenny. Installation view at FACT. Photo by Rob Battersby.

I went to see ‘Real Work’ at FACT twice (mostly because the first time I went I didn’t have enough time to see the whole thing) but I think this was the best way to do it. The first time I went I saw Liz Magic Laser’s ‘In Real Life’ (2019), an immersive film installation analysing the gig economy, and then I returned to see Candice Breitz’s ‘Sweat (2018): a series of interviews with a group of sex workers in Cape Town.

They felt like two separate exhibitions and while it’s clear that there are links between the two pieces of work – themes of labour, workers’ rights, precarity – these themes are so general that so much more work could’ve come under them. It felt as if the themes in each artwork were enough for a whole exhibition by themselves so why were they forced together like this? My more cynical side is thinking that FACT has done this to make themselves look a bit more woke while not having to commit too much of their programming to individual shows about sex work/gig work – a nice bit of performative activism for the press. But maybe this is just me being bitter because they rejected my exhibition proposal.

Anyway, this sense of performative activism leads me onto my next point nicely; both of the works in this show fit perfectly into that art world trope of creating something that comments on an issue while not doing anything to fix it, or in some cases, actually adding to the problem. Think Olafur Eliasson flying huge chunks of glaciers from Greenland to London as a comment on climate change.

Liz Magic Laser’s piece uses the work of five freelancers across the world to create a reality show in which they all work towards self improvement in their work-life balance (I cringed even writing that phrase). One is an animator, one a graphic designer, one a script writer, one a voiceover artist, and one a social media influencer. Collectively they create the reality show that they are all featuring in and, I assume, they are all paid the rates they usually charge on the various websites they use for freelancing.

What is lacking is any sort of comment – we are being shown the working lives of these gig workers, but the artist doesn’t seem to be voicing an opinion. It’s like a documentary without Louis Theroux. Is it a comment on the precarity of this kind of work, and how it can often be unsustainable and unhealthy for those involved? Because if so, surely hiring them to create the work is just worsening the problem by adding to this precarious industry.

Moving on with all of these thoughts about exploitation already on my mind, I walked into Candice Breitz’s ‘Sweat’. The artist interviewed ten sex workers in South Africa, and each of these interviews were being played on individual monitors. Out loud. All at the same time. The noise was almost unbearable and you could only hear what they were saying if you went right up close to each monitor and really concentrated, and even then it was difficult.

The stories of these workers were being silenced by Breitz’s artistic decision, and apart from paying them for the time (a bare minimum) it doesn’t seem like Breitz has done anything to help this marginalised community. This is yet another example of an artist walking into a community, taking their stories, and then misrepresenting them. More specifically this is a white artist who is not a sex worker taking the stories of black sex workers and displaying them as her own whilst simultaneously silencing them. I’m honestly quite impressed that she has managed to do so much wrong in just one piece of work.

I think that if you are going to make art about socio-political issues, especially if you’re working with a community that you are not a part of, you have a responsibility to use your work as a platform for change and not just to comment on how these issues affect other communities and then walk away. So with that in mind here are some things to check out if you want to do more to help both freelancers and sex workers:

– A great article explaining the gig economy and what you can do as an individual

– This group advocate for the rights of gig workers such as holiday & sick pay, maternity leave, and minimum wage

– These two groups campaign for sex workers’ rights in the UK

– This group that Candice Breitz worked with on her piece who campaign for sex workers’ rights in South Africa