Waiting area: The office at West 44th Street, the first location of The Work Office (TWO), July 2009
In early 2007, after years of relative prosperity, irresponsible lending finally broke the housing market, families were foreclosed upon, and banks were shuttering their doors. The nation’s unemployment rate soared and the economy came dangerously close to a second depression. “I remember wondering, is this going to be the Great Depression of the 21-century? What will it look like? What’s going to happen to my neighborhood? Is Bed-Stuy going to become a ghost town?” Naomi Miller, a New York-based artist asked as she and Katarina Jerinic sat down with me to discuss their most recent collaboration, a social-art project called The Work Office (TWO). With keen interest in socio-economic issues, Miller and Jerinic, who are both photographers, sought to move into the genre of creating participatory public art events.
“I remember [Naomi] saying, ‘I think I should be documenting all of the houses being foreclosed upon,” Katarina said. “But she was less interested in documenting it herself; she wanted to mobilize people to do it themselves. With The Work Office, we’re constructing this elaborate situation and asking people to participate with us.”
The Work Office (TWO) is a multidisciplinary art project informed by the structure of the Work Progress Administration, which created 8.5 million jobs for Americans during the Depression-era. Funded by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space program and the Black Rock Arts Foundation, TWO is a mock employment agency for artists seeking “paid work.” The project is a gesture to "make work" for artists of all mediums by assigning them simple, conceptual art projects to explore, document, or improve daily life in New York. Housed temporarily in a donated office on Ann Street in the Financial District, TWO is open to the public for three “work cycles”— approximately six weeks. Once the three cycles are completed, the physical location is closed.
Moonlighting: Katarina Jerinic and Naomi Miller work overtime at the Office.
In late 2008, Miller and Jerinic spent months conducting historical research and developing a structure for The Work Office. Labeling themselves Administrators, the pair made a list of jobs based loosely on those created by the WPA: build a bridge, reinterpret a news article, document a need for repairs. They decided to ask people to “apply” for work by submitting an original idea to reinterpret one of the tasks. If hired, participants are given one week to complete their assigned project and are expected to attend a Payday Party at the end of their “work week.” Free and open to the public, the parties are a forum for exhibiting the work created during that particular workweek. At the end of the night, each employee receives a paycheck.
“We came up with the idea of the Payday Party because of something we read about the Federal One Program,” Jerinic said. “When artists would line up to get paid, they would meet each other and create these informal social networks.” Rather than ask artists to donate their time and efforts, the Administrators set a wage akin to that of the Depression-era—a whopping $23.50 per week—and set out to create a new community of artists.
Following the positive response of the first cycle of TWO, which opened in July 2009 on West 44th Street, the Administrators decided to open the employment agency a second time. The current space, which opened in April 2010, is located at 156 William Street in the Financial District. Closing its doors on June 3, the second cycle of TWO has thrown three Payday Parties and hired 31 artists of varying ages and degree of experience; some are starving, others not.
Paperwork: Employees sign a contract, complete their work, and get paid!
I moved to New York City two months ago with no job, little cash, and lots of great ideas. Upon hearing about the Work Office (TWO)—and the $23.50—I applied with a proposal to record an oral history of children’s book author Charlotte Pomerantz and reinterpret her story in claymation. A few days later I was invited for an interview with Miller and Jerinic at their TWO office on Ann Street in the Financial District. The office was sparse room with two desks, an orangutan poster reading, “Hang in There, Baby,” a bowl of gummy bears, two green phones, and The Bureau of Existential Crisis Services, a project by TWO employee Sara Shaoul, who created the Bureau to solve all of our melancholic woes.
I sat in a cold metal chair as the Administrators had me fill out the necessary paperwork and questioned me on the nature of my work:
Can you complete your project in a week?
Can you actually do claymation?
Do you want a gummy bear?
Will you be able to attend the Payday Party?
Three days later, I received a note congratulating me on my selection as a Work Office employee. My first job in NYC! Plus, $23.50 would afford me three navel oranges, a container of hummus, and a loaf of gluten-free sourdough bread from the overpriced natural foods store near my place in Bushwick.
I set to work. The parameters of the project offered a perfect balance of structure and creative freedom to take risks without feeling the pressure that comes with extended lengths of time and total conceptual liberty. That said, the outline I drafted prior to beginning the project quickly morphed when the intended 45-minute interview with Charlotte turned into an afternoon spent in her back garden. Charlotte and I covered ALL things from our mutual dislike of headphones to the fact that her husband may or may not have known Fidel Castro. With just one week to find a substantive narrative and reinterpret it in claymation, TWO and Charlotte Pomerantz took over my life.
The process of plucking the most invigorating moments from mine and Charlotte’s conversation to ensure that her life, work, and spirit were portrayed accurately became an obsession. Set pieces were discarded; storyboards detailing numerous versions of the film were cast aside. Edited moments of Charlotte’s life were removed, stripped, tweaked, and deleted. Clay pieces hardened and piled high, creating a solid rainbow mass, an unintended work of art representing the refuse of my process. The oral history took shape by removing what wouldn’t work rather than knowing immediately what would. After much trial and error, the film—just like The Work Office (TWO) and Charlotte herself—was revealed as a wholly alive, breathing work of art.
At the end of the week I attended the Payday Party. Understanding the project utilizes social interaction as its primary medium, I spent time discussing the works of other artists, watching their films, observing their pieces, and reading their magazines. As I did so, a common theme emerged. The Work Office, a project informed by a time in U.S. history when many were jobless and starving, was filled with hopeful art. The optimism and camaraderie created at the center of the project spilled out into the streets surrounding the Office. Networks were fused and ides were developed between participants. The Payday Party was not just another New York gallery show; it sparked the beginnings of a community eliciting positive action by sharing stories of their neighbors and themselves.
The Work Office (TWO) will close their Ann Street location on June 3. A third cycle is set to open at a Brooklyn location later this year with funds provided by the Brooklyn Arts Council. For information and general inquiries, contact the Administrators at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beth Malone is an editorial intern at NYFA Current. Her work has appeared in Creative Loafing, Pine Magazine, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. She’s the founder of Dashboard Co-Op, a nonprofit arts organization that promotes the work of emerging artists.
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Malcolm X Part 1 (1991-1996)
Kenseth Armstead is a NYFA Fellow in Video