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A Problematic Performance 

An interview with Sara Wookey about Marina Abromovic, workers rights and saying no.

In 2011 dance artist Sara Wookey auditioned to perform for artist Marina Abramović at the fundraising gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.

Abramović’s design for the event titled An Artist’s Life’s Manifesto included a number of human centrepieces; heads poking out of holes in the table that would lock eyes with guests as they rotated on lazy susans, and recreations of her 2005 work Nude with Skeleton in which performers [1] lay naked under a replica human skeleton.

There were also volunteers who dressed the 750 guests (each paying $2,500-10,000 to attend) in white lab coats and shouted out Abramović’s artist’s manifesto. A number of celebrities and digantaries atteneded including Gwen Stefani, Will Ferrell and Los Angeles’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Debbie Harry also performed. Highly realistic cakes that looked like a young naked Abramović and Debbie Harry were cut up (imitating sexual violence) by topless men and the pieces were handed out to guests [2].

At the audition, performers were warned that they might be poked or fed by guests and were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before entering the audition. In return for 15 hours of rehearsals and 6 hours of performance time they would receive $150 and a year-long MOCA membership worth $50 as payment.

Wookey turned the job down and wrote to her mentor; choreographer and film-maker Yvonne Rainer with her concerns about the working conditions and low pay. In turn, Rainer with art historian Douglas Crimp wrote a letter of protest to Deitch that was signed by other artists, such as choreographer Taisha Paggett [3]. Deitch invited Rainer to attend an audition and himself attended a public forum held to discuss the gala.

Rainer’s letter to Deitch was precluded by an email she sent to her close colleagues that included Wookey’s original email. This was later corrected so as to not include Wookey’s name in lieu of the NDA she had signed although she soon went public, with an ‘Open Letter to Artists’ [4]. Following and in response to Wookey’s letter other dance and performance artists - Abigail Levine, Gary Lai, Rebecca Brooks [5], Carrie McILwain [6] and others [7] - also shared their perspectives on events.

Hamish MacPherson: Your Open Letter to Artists makes a general point about needing a union to protect performer’s working conditions and agency but I’m really interested because it addresses an acute and literal situation about being silent and still and being objectified. So in this case it was more than just a job that was low paid, more than just a job that was being shown as entertainment to an unsympathetic audience but one where you were being asked to consent to being touched and looked at without any way to say no. And you were instructed to sign a non-disclosure agreement before knowing what you were signing up for. And I’m aware in the news today [24 October 2017] there’s Zelda Perkins who was Harvey Weinstein’s personal assistant who’s just broken a non-disclosure agreement [8]. She was filing a suit against him for sexual harassment which was settled. So it’s interesting on such a concrete and wider level. What do you remember about the audition?

Sara Wookey: Thanks for including that part about not having protections about potentially being touched or fondled. I distinctly remember...I forgot that was part of the letter because I tend to think of it as being so much about the economic conditions, not necessarily about the conditions the workers were in which is always about a certain level of health and safety which wasn’t necessarily in place, but I do remember...I remember Abromavić in the audition saying,“If you are touched or fondled stay in performance mode” and I find that quite interesting, that’s quite a common term that we use in our field of ‘performance mode’ and what is performance mode? That can be defined in many ways but it was a very accepted term in that moment  and I think that we all kind of understood what performance mode means which is, you carry on, you carry on doing the performance. The example would be if you’re performing on a stage and someone starts screaming something at the performers, you just carry on.

HM: Pretend it’s not happening

SW: Pretend it’s not happening right. There’s a wall between you and them. And I don’t remember distinctly which situation bothered me more, the economic...the low pay, or the conditions or maybe a combination of both.

But I do have to say that after the letter that Yvonne [Rainer] wrote to Jeffrey Deitch they did end up putting small placards on the table that said and I’d have to look this up if I’m correct “please don’t touch the dancers” or “please don’t touch the centre pieces”, the second one being obviously much more problematic, this notion of ‘centerpiece’ [9]. And I think she did refer at some point to them, the dancers, being centrepieces. I mean it’s in the centre of the table whether it was the rotating head or the body. So even though there were placards, the fact that one is to stay in performance mode even though there are placards I don’t know what she would have instructed beyond that, I wasn’t there at that point.

HM: That sounds like ‘please do not touch the vase’ or something, that kind of sign you would see.

SW: Yeah, so on one hand it’s saying this is something not to touch but she’s setting up a condition in which it would be quite easy to do that and telling the performers to stay in performance mode. Again I only experienced it up to the audition and not beyond so I don’t know if the language changed. But it did disturb me me.. I slept on it, I didn’t rush home and respond to this via an email to Yvonne. It was the next day and just that question of how do we as performers, what are  we willing to agree to and what are we not(?) that kept on my mind. And I think, in an audition, it would be quite typical to say “stay in performance mode”, this is the set of conditions that are set up and we carry on, that’s what we do as performers, we commit to the performance and I think shifting that behaviour might go against our training at the more conventional level. I mean, for me it took up to the next day to go “wait, something is very wrong with this situation”. I felt it instinctively in the room but I was only able to articulate that a day or even days later. So what does that say to the conditioning that we have as trained dancers or performers in terms of what we sign up for or what we agree to do and at what point...where’s our bottom line with that? Where are we not willing to agree to that or commit to that and, sadly, I think for many the bottom line might be quite low so I’ll just leave it at that.

HM: Do you know anyone that took the job?

SW: Yes I do....

HM: Do you know anything about their experience of the final performance?

SW: I’m thinking of one dancer in particular who is a colleague of mine that I was in school with at the time, getting my Masters degree at UCLA, and she felt very comfortable with the situation. I think she felt quite opposite to how I did. We were in a huge disagreement around this and she felt that “This is an experience, this is about endurance, this is about risk. This is about putting myself through a situation and yes there might be risk involved; of abuse or...yes there’s low pay and the conditions might be questionable but that’s part of performing” and I can’t speak for her but my guess is that’s part of...that’s what you sign up for partly. That’s kind of the attraction, kind of the draw. And it was interesting hearing that from her as she is a trained dancer and because there were other people who took the opportunity to be in the performance who were performing artists or live artists and they were also speaking back to my letter saying “we don’t agree with you because that risk that we take is part of the culture of our practice” if you look at the history of performance art or live art, and even Marina Abramović’s work in particular, yes there is this area of risk and risk to one’s own body and abuse that one agrees to.

And I think just to be clear, my letter hopefully is being read not as a critique of Marina’s work as potentially exploitative which I would say it is but I can respect that she comes out of a practice in which exploitation and risk is in a way part of the culture of performance. As a dance artist that’s not part of the culture which I exist in or even my training because it’s more about care I would say in my experience within dance. One takes care of one’s body, you take care of your material, your instrument. You want proper floors, you want heating, you want water. And I think there’s a different culture of what care might mean or what risk might mean in performance art, in live art. And I accepted that and I was very much speaking from a dance artist perspective and speaking for my cohorts in dance but yet other dance artists didn’t agree with me so I can’t claim that’s universal within the field of dance.

HM: On the one hand you may have different individual perspectives but on the other, do institutions have a...what’s their responsibility in that? Is it just “Ok it’s up to the performers to decide where their ethics are”. Or do they have a different kind of responsibility?

SW: That’s a really good question....I don’t know. If you take the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as an example, where one might find in the kind of infrastructure of that institution, or mission statement or legal...I am not sure how flexible are those...they are staging, often presenting art works that could be problematic or could be risky in all kinds of ways. Art is a space to take risks. It’s a very fine line isn’t it? A museum is an institution...we want a space where we can be provocative and test boundaries. I’m very grateful that those institutions exist. Speaking from my experience within visual arts institutions I don’t think there’s a history of care around the body in terms of what’s being presented because historically a museum would be presenting inanimate objects. It does bring up questions around the protection of human beings that work within that institution, as well as the labour rights within that. I don’t think there is a history of how to take care of a human being as the artwork that’s being presented. So maybe it doesn’t exist. So maybe what those protective mechanisms are just haven’t been there, aren’t written.

I personally think, the MOCA situation has a huge cultural capital to speak from and position to speak from as well as Abramović. It is her work and she’s not employed by the museum, she’s brought in as a guest and there was a disappointment on my part of her not using her cultural capital to speak up for the performers in her work, at least in terms of the pay. I mean fair enough if she wants to create a culture of risk within that and people have the right to choose if they want to participate in the abuse, or not. But she did have the power to speak up about how her much dancers were paid, as did Yvonne Rainer, for example, at Raven Row Gallery [10] which, I felt, could have compensated the dancers more in terms of fees paid. But I do think there’s some respons-...I don’t like the word ‘responsibility’, but I think opportunity for artists of a certain status in the field to move those quite low expectations up. I also think, and my letter wasn’t directly to Marina Abramović it wasn’t to MOCA, necessarily, it was to myself and my cohort saying “We hold responsibility also in here; if we agree to do this we also agree to the conditions and we agree for that not just for ourselves but for the entire community which we work in and those who come after us”. We’re also part of setting precedents.

HM: Yeah, yeah.

SW: So I think that’s where my agency lies. I don’t have the pedigree that Marina Abramović has, my agency lies within my community of working artists so that’s who I really felt wo I was speaking to, again, including myself.

HM: In the original letter that Yvonne published, you were not named and then you wrote your own response. What was the decision to do that?

SW: As I mentioned, a non-disclosure agreement was signed when entering into the audition. So I’d already signed two, actually, because I’d taken part in two auditions. One was for the rotating head work and one was for the Nude with Skeleton. I hadn’t read the non-disclosure agreement on the first audition. But then it was when I went back to the second audition which I already knew that I wouldn’t be accepting the role if offered but it was important to me to get in and to be asked to do it in order to reject it. It also makes a much stronger argument than if you aren’t invited in or don’t get an offer and then you speak out about it. I thought it would be a stronger statement to reject the offer rather so I did end up going to a second audition. And because I knew that I would be rejecting the potential offer I took a copy of the non-disclosure agreement. I was quite interested in what it had to say and there was a threat to being sued for speaking out....So I’d already spoken out to Yvonne by email and exposed myself in that way so when she wrote the letter to Jeffrey Deitch I took the choice not to be involved and to kind of lay quiet for a while to let it play out. A friend of mine who’s an attorney read the non-disclosure agreement copy that I shared with him and he gave me advice and his advice was, “You’ve signed this thing, the chances of them suing you are very low and even if they did they’re going after someone [laughs] who doesn’t have...

HM:’re not paid enough to...

SW: ...large amounts of money”. A huge cultural institution going after an independent freelance artist is problematic to begin with. “But” [he said] “you have signed it so what I advise you to do is keep quiet and then after the event happens then make yourself known”. So I made that choice which felt right at the time. I don’t remember if there was another part of the question, but that was the choice not to be involved in Yvonne’s letter.. I would also add too, I think Yvonne’s letter to Jeffrey Deitch had slightly different arguments than I was making. I think Yvonne was pointing more to the content of what was in the work and to Marina’s work and comparing it the film Salo which is a quite grotesque film in terms of the abuse [11]. Even though I didn’t feel I was speaking to Marina Abramović, I was claiming that Marina missed an opportunity to speak out, to use her cultural capital to raise the conditions to a more positive extend, and I was critical of MOCA for doing the same. These were people that had the capacity as an institution and artist to create better conditions and to have a voice in how that was done. As I said, was primarily speaking to dance artists saying “Why do we accept this work? And if we accept this work we are accepting these conditions again for a community of people and we are also involved in setting standards in accepting or rejecting...we participate in this.” And I felt what Yvonne was writing to Jeffrey Deitch about was quite different from that so I didn’t feel I wanted to be involved in her argument.

HM: And how much of a risk did [writing your own letter] feel like, or was that in terms of your career or your reputation?

SW: So at the time I was teaching at California Institute of the Arts - CalArts - and they have a strong relationship to MOCA and the Dean of CalArts had identified me to Jeffrey Deitch so I had a pending...nobody knows this...I had a pending appointment with Jeffrey Deitch about a project [we both laugh]. Seriously...we were working on setting a date and I was very cognizant of that but I was absolutely fine to lose that gig. That felt to me absolutely not an issue. I felt so strongly what I had to say what had to be said and the potential consequences of that....The meeting never happened. I wasn’t interested anyways in working with the institution or with him. I just don’t think our values were at all aligned in any case. There was some concern about my reputation in the field and will anyone ever hire me again if I write this letter but I also I had trust that I was speaking from an honest place... there was an urgency that I think trumped any potential fallout from that.

HM: Had there been any situations before that? I mean this seems unusual in terms of the scale of the institution and the artist. But was this not something new for you?

SW: I think the scale was definitely new for me in terms of the gross difference between what the museum was bringing in andthe small amounts of money they were paying the dancers. And in terms of the working conditions, that seemed more extreme than anything that I had ever been a part of and partly again because I’m a dance artist and I’d never actually made myself vulnerable to, or entered into the context of performance or live art in the museum. So it’s not surprising that the situation did feel quite different for me because normally up to that point... I was never in the situation of working for a high profile performance artist whose works are know to be risky in some ways. Obviously I’d worked closely with Yvonne Rainer in museums before but I think Yvonne is quite clear with institutions of what is required in terms of Trio A or any of her work being presented so she was advocating for the care for and culture of dance within the institution. Whereas Marina Abramović was not, obviously. But I think, many of us, I’ve certainly done loads of work that’s been low, underpaid, and no pay. And not all of that is necessarily a bad thing. There are all kinds of exchange that we have in these situations. Sometimes it’s economic and sometimes it’s otherwise. I think it was also a point in my career; I mean I just reached a point as an independent artist living on my own in Los Angeles where I knew I had to make a certain amount of income in order to continue in my field. I think it really hit me at that  point in my career that if I want to stay in the arts I have to have a certain level of income and lifestyle in order to make that possible. I think that became very clear to me. Also I want to stay in my field, in order to do that I need to earn a living.

HM: It feels to me that this even has become, if not a thing of legend then it’s become quite a big reference point, for example it forms part of a chapter in Boyana Kunst’s An Artist at Work [12] and I wonder how that feels that it has this life of its own, or it’s become this emblem, I wonder how that is.

SW: I think now when I hear that I’m actually quite happy for that because it has effect, because it’s gone out. And I think it touched a nerve. I think in writing it I really didn’t have an intention of...I definitely had an intention for myself and I think I definitely had the intention of ‘I need to change the way that I work, I need to be more involved in arguing the case for artist rights’ and I have since then been much more involved, for instance I’m on the Independent Dance Committee at Equity [13], since moving to London. I was quite active in Los Angeles talking with the commercial dance sector in terms of how they organise themselves so I think it really was a catalyst for me in terms of changing the way I operate and work within my field. So at the time it very much was, again, speaking to myself as much to my cohort saying “something needs to change”. I was quite surprised at how much it did circulate and how much response it got and I think I was surprised at what a nerve it touched, like that nerve was quite sensitive and it was kind of waiting to be touched almost. And once it got touched I felt people were kind of opening up and being willing to speak about some of these issues more than I would have expected. I also, at the time, wasn’t aware of how powerful social media can be. I wasn’t even on Facebook at the time....I think I had gone on Facebook and had gone off it, so that kind of surprised me, how viral something can go quite quickly. So I think there was an element of surprise for me immediately after that and then since then I’ve been quite aware of how much it’s affected me and the way I operate within my field, in terms of what I ask for and how I negotiate around conditions and money. And also I am very grateful that it has become, as you say, this emblem’s reference , a go-to-place when we’re talking about labour rights and conditions.

HM: And could you say anything about how the working conditions are now that you are in. I mean you’ve written a book Who Cares? [14] where you’re talking to curators and artists. It seems to be a lot of it that’s about working conditions or the relationships between institutions and dancers. It feels like there’s a trajectory.

SW: Yes, it’s interesting how those kind of feel connected in some way. And the question is?...conditions?...

HM: Yeah so I guess...have things changed?

SW: I don’t know you tell me!

HM: Maybe that’s not the right question...what are the concerns now? Or what are you interested in now?

SW: What’s interesting for me right now as I find myself having far more conversations around economic conditions for artists than I do around, let’s say the issue of working conditions in terms of health and safety. I think those were two things that were at issue in that work at MOCA. It was the pay and the conditions in which the workers were in and the potential lack of safety measures. I find the former is much more a part of my experiences working in negotiating with institutions or individuals. But I think it’s a very challenging issue still because six years ago as of today, I know Equity’s working on it but, we still don’t necessarily have an ideal model to reference in terms of pay scale in our field. And that is still quite surprising isn’t it? Because you can find it in other fields, in theatre and for actors, for musicians. Other countries have it, The Netherlands has it, Canada has it, quite clearly laid out so there is something to reference. And I think in the UK, and certainly in the US, the countries that I’m working in most, we don’t really have reference points for what our work is worth. So it’s so subjective and I find that really challenging in terms of “How do I take care of myself within that but yet still do the kind of work that I want to do and engage with the institutions, the people I want to work with and develop relationships within those”. Because for me now it’s very clear that it’s about relation building and almost any work that I take or refuse to take has to do with who the people are that I will be engaged with and that’s evolved over the last couple of years. And especially relationships that might be sustainable ones that will go further than just the one-off gig or the ten week teaching that I might do. And how do I see the network, which opportunities that come up for me that might be potentials in terms of relationship building and sustainability. I mean I could give examples...

HM: Do you want to give an example?

SW: Well I’ll give an example of looking back to the past. In 2014 I’s pretty amazing to think about this example...I was invited by Vivian van Saaze who’s a professor at the University of Maastricht and we had been in touch about some projects and she invited me to come talk at Tate Modern for a small research group of curators and academics on curation and performance. And it was an interior research group that was looking at...mainly the purchases that the Tate had made; Tino Sehgal’s [15] work and how to re-install work over time. Because I’d worked with Yvonne Rainer they were interested to hear from dance artists like myself and Bertha Bermúdez who works [as a dancer and researcher] with Emio Greco [16]. The two of us were invited to talk about how we work around the living archive concept. There was no money, it wasn’t to be paid. This is 2012 so it would have been soon after my open letter and I was going to be in Amsterdam for some other project. They could fly me over to London, they could put me up in a hotel but the event itself wouldn’t be paid and I thought “Should I do this or not because it’s not paid?” because that is usually kind of a question that comes up for me. And I did take it, I thought “Well they’re going to fly me out, they’re going to put me in a hotel so I won’t be spending any of my own money to do this, the food was covered and I’m happy to spend the day in the room and share my experiences with like-minded people whom I could meet and learn from. If that had been an opportunity that might have come up maybe six months ago I might have said no to it because it wasn’t paid but I was trying on new ways of operating as an artist and the idea of exchange. I did take it and what came out of that was pretty amazing because two significant professional relationships emerged from that experience of being in the room together. One was Emily Pringle who is Head of Learning at Tate and the Chris Berndes, Head of Curation at the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands. Those two relationships have developed and grown onward over the years in a very organic and satisfying ways. Both relationships led to other very well paid projects, but more than that, the relationships have continued with the two women in different institutions that have been highly valuable in terms of our exchange and conversations around my practice and the museum. And had I not been in the room and taken that I probably would not have established the opportunity to have these relationships so it has brought up a question to me of “If I say no to work that’s unpaid what other kinds of sets of values or exchange might be there that I’m missing out on?” And I’ll just say, more recently, I got invited quite last minute to speak on my work with Yvonne at documenta [17] which sounded amazing but it happened to come in quite late. It was paid and I would have been happy to accept but it was overlapping with my holiday. It was somewhat difficult for me to say no to that and that said a lot to me about where I am an artist who wants to practice self care in terms of give myself a proper holiday. I did not want to cut my holiday slightly short to take a little bit of work that’s paid in my field. So I had to really exercise some new muscles around sending that email and politely saying “Thank you for the offer but it’s during my annual leave” and it was still...really....I had to massage that one. So I think both of those examples are kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum of accepting productive work that isn’t paid and saying no to good work that is paid for various personal reasons, I think it all comes back to...I keep using the word care, but I care for myself in those situations, for what I value in the field relationships that I have with people and where those relationships can feed my practice and where I can be of and care to be of service.

HM: I guess even saying “no I’ve got to take a holiday” is somehow, not only nurturing yourself but nurturing relationships because it somehow gives a value...they recognise that you’re not just a machine, that you’re valuing your own time....

SW: And I was on holiday with my partner, valuing that relationship. These relationships are also important. And interestingly enough the invite from documenta came from someone, a curator that I had been connected with many years ago in Amsterdam so there was a history to that professional relationship and I really value his work. He’s highly intelligent and it would have been a very engaging opportunity. And my holiday, by the way, was also fantastic! So there’s always this kind of thinking about relationships. At any given time I might ask which ones need nurturing and developing, whether that’s with myself or my partner or a professional relationship and that makes it quite a different context in which to make decisions in. Because it’s not so black and white is it? It’s not “Oh it’s unpaid, forget it”. I mean even the time we’re spending here, I know you wanted to raise money to support this and you weren’t able to do that [18] and I very much value your work and the way you think and the professional relationship that we might be slowly developing and the exchange we’ve had. So of course it was a yes. We rescheduled five times [we laugh] but that’s just the way I filter my decisions now. I still need to pay my bills and I still want to be in safe working environment but it’s a set of relationships in which I’m thinking about.

[1] All the Nude with Skeleton performers were female at the request of MOCA’s director Jeffrey Deitch who felt that the rich businessmen in attendance would feel uncomfortable with male nudity. Catherine Wagley (2011) ‘Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Gala Controversy: Jeffrey Deitch Confronted and the Performers Speak Out’ in LA Weekly December 19, 2011

[2] Kreëmart (2012) ‘Kreëmart at the MoCA Annual Gala 11/12/11 with Marina Abramovic and Deborah Harry’

[3] Claudia La Rocco (2011) ‘Yvonne Rainer Blasts Marina Abramović and MOCA LA’ in The Performance Club 11 November 2011

[4] Sara Wookey (2011) ‘Open Letter to Artists’ in The Performance Club 23 November 2011

[5] Claudia La Rocco (2011) ‘Three Reperformers from “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” Respond to the MOCA Gala Performances’ in The Performance Club 28 November 2011

[6] Geoff Tuck (2011) ‘Disembodied: A Personal Account of Marina Abramovic’s Performance for the 2011 MOCA Gala’ in Notes on Looking 19 November 2011

[7] Jori Finkel (2011) ‘Marina Abramovic’s silent heads from MOCA gala speak out [Updated]’ in Los Angeles Times 13 November 2011

[8]  On 23 October 2017 Perkins told the Financial Times she was paid £125,000 ($165,200) to keep quiet after accusing film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment.

[9] The final placards by the rotating heads read:







[10] In 2014 London gallery Raven Row held an exhibition presenting live performances of Yvonne Rainer’s dance works alongside other aspects of her practice. Sara was one of 13 performers in the exhibition.

[11] In Rainer’s letter to Deitch she wrote that a description of Abramović proposal “is reminiscent of ‘Salo,’ Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists.”

[12] Bojana Kunst (2015) Artist at Work, Proximity of Art and Capitalism


[14] Sara Wookey (2015) WHO CARES? Dance in the Gallery & Museum

[15] Tino Sehgal is an artist who makes choreographies in museum settings.

[16] Emio Greco is a choreographer, currently co-director of ICK, the Amsterdam City Company for Contemporary Dance.

[17] documenta is an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany.

[18] In 2017 I applied to Arts Council England for a grant to support artistic research exploring practices of care in various ways including this zine. When I was not successful I decided that rather than wait until I applied again and was successful I could at least make the zine without much resources. The price of the zine covers the cost of printing.

Images: © Linlee Allen, except last image by Samuel Kennedy, courtesy of Sara Wookey

October 2017. This interview has been edited for clarity and accuracy.