LABOR: FINDING GUIDE (FAILURE)
In an attempt to honor labor activists and US labor history, and to somatically understand the content and organizing logics of the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University, I embarked on “LABOR: finding guide,” a ritual performance of recopying, by hand, the librarian-authored finding guide to this archive. This performance is an offshoot of “LABOR: a fiction,” and “LABOR: an installation,” comprised of hand-embroidered tapestries, altered employment documents, a one-of-a-kind red employee handbook, a table and chair painted bone white, and a spilled backpack painted flat black as if charred: the portable adjunct’s office after transformative fire. Footage from this performance loops on a video monitor nestled inside the backpack/office.
After a sequence of research visits to the archive in 2009, and after making art about my struggles with money and jobs, I wondered if I had bowed deeply enough to those who had fought for worker rights and a pro-worker, anti-capitalist consciousness. I note that I am at times skeptical of labor activism, with its culturally situated notions of “the worker” often taken to be universal. And as a child of a person born in a former Soviet republic, I felt the recurring embrace of the Soviet Union in the name of “radical” to be naïve, and slightly annoying. Censorship also lurks: a character in “LABOR: a fiction” is fired after attempting to unionize her workplace and must sign a gag order; the record of her activism can never be public and this heightens her sense of personal shame and failure. She is not allowed archival entrance: no file name, number, description, not even .5 linear feet. Yet despite these critiques and fears and omissions, I wanted to gesture toward the archive’s stories of beautiful resistance.
Completing this performance would honor the individuals and organizations in this archive, I reasoned. I failed. Intense pain set in. I worried about developing arthritis. I dreaded entering my studio and had nightmares featuring a parade of dead people. So I recopied for seven hours, filming each minute, knowing that I did not have the computer file space to store all of the footage, and about fifteen pages in to the sixty page document, I stopped.