New York

Wes Larios, Acknowledgements (detail), 2018, vinyl text. Installation view. Photo: Mark Waldhauser.

Wes Larios, Acknowledgements (detail), 2018, vinyl text. Installation view. Photo: Mark Waldhauser.

“A new job to unwork at”

PARTICIPANT INC

Wes Larios, Acknowledgements (detail), 2018, vinyl text. Installation view. Photo: Mark Waldhauser.

When Maria Gómez Chávez struck out on her own, her only option for getting by was to marry a man—and over the years, she kept getting married again and again to support her family. Wes Larios, her grandson, understands that he has the privilege of being an artist today because of her economic pragmatism. As part of the group exhibition “A new job to unwork at,” Larios’s text-and-photo installation Acknowledgements,2018, paid homage to his grandmother’s largely unseen labor and myriad sacrifices: Her name and the names of her consecutive husbands and their children, along with their birth dates and years of death, were pasted in black vinyl letters throughout Participant Inc, including on an office air duct and at the top of a stairwell. 

Acknowledgements was sneaky: One had to actively look for it among the more corporeal pieces. But it was also one of the most poignant works in the show—not only for Larios’s moving gesture, but for how it made plain the cunning women must deploy to survive an oppressive and patriarchal system. These were some of the ideas that bounced around this eleven-artist show, curated by Andrew Kachel and Clara López Menéndez. Their project (which also included a summer residency and several public programs) felt conversational, the discursive product of bright minds reading, talking, and finding affinities between various sources and objects, shining a light on that enduring and seemingly insurmountable question; How the fuck can we get out of this? (“This” being, ultimately, capitalism and its attendant brutalities.)

A hefty reader compiled by the curators provided meta-commentary on the fact that the project was conceptualized, in part, as a catalyst for dreaming up ways to sneak out of the “psychosocial . . . domination” of labor and to change “the system” more broadly. The works on view illustrated this in more or less literal ways. In Devin Kenny’s Untitled (butane tags for Dead Prez), 2011, the artist scrawled pimp the system in ash on a pockmarked square of Cortega tile. The inscription cites hip-hop duo Dead Prez’s early-aughts song “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System),” a narrative of trying to survive outside the bounds of legality when legality refuses you shelter. The piece evokes the prison-culture practice of writing messages with contraband, such as matches and lighters. Kenny’s gesture was simple, but it deftly bound together themes of race, disenfranchisement, and danger.

Some canonical pieces were also on view—sculpture and photographs by labor activist Fred Lonidier, and documentation of performances by Mierle Laderman Ukeles. The inclusion of these artists reminded us that there has been so much art and so many exhibitions about working a job at least partly because the notion of the “day job” in the art field is a particularly strange and secretive one. Working at such a job is a bourgeois pursuit, yes, but most artists’ circumstances are painfully precarious. Those who try to make a living in the arts are frequently exploited and abused, yet many in the art world espouse leftist pro-worker rhetoric. And too little is said about how often young people with art jobs risk their safety by turning to illegal forms of employment in their off-hours to support their professional “careers.” The exhibition as a whole seemed more concerned with care: creating a sense of solidarity and offering modest proposals to make life more livable. But its title was lifted from Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (1967), a deranged text that arouses because it demands total revolutionary violence. 

Tehching Hsieh’s thirty-minute video One Year Performance (Outdoor Piece), 1981–82, captured a moment of derangement. In this documentary piece, we see the artist performing the titular famous work, in which he committed to never entering any kind of interior space for a year. At one point in the video, Hsieh is arrested for getting into a street fight, and officers drag him into a police station. His visceral scream is startling, and echoed in one’s mind—it was the only time the meditative space of the gallery was disrupted. In the face of Hsieh’s howl of refusal—and of our agonizing political reality today—my heart beats faster when I consider SCUM’s proposal to go out into the dark with “a six-inch blade” and strike.