Invisible Labor

Art historian Ana Varas, Ph.D., joined artists Raphael Arar and Renee Couture for a discussion on their works in Invisible Labor, an exhibition presented at Carnation Contemporary in October 2022.

Ana Varas  Before I start talking, would you talk about what you're doing with each series? I find it very interesting that your work is so different in many aspects, and there are very obvious parallels. How did you end up exhibiting together and who created the dialogue between your pieces?

Raphael Arar  I'm fascinated by systems and how they’re affected by acceleration and progress. A lot of my practice revolves around trying to make work that explores them to understand some of their deeper implications. This often means digging into both their social, political, and economic dimensions and their more immediate interaction models.

Exploring these dimensions and interaction models means considering the feedback loop between how we as humans relate to the machines that we create and how those machines end up changing the way that we relate to one another. Those machines could be very literal machines, but they could be more conceptual machines. Lately, I've been looking at economics as a conceptual machine of sorts.

While I like to explore interaction as a concept, most of my work also has some kind of inherent interaction model. You'll see that in the show. Some of the pieces require interactivity. Others are more passive and just operate on their own or rely on participatory or opt-in ways of engaging.

Renee Couture  For the past three years, I've been examining my relationship with motherhood, which is ambivalent. Sometimes I do enjoy it. Sometimes I'm absolutely bored out of my skull, worn down, frustrated, and want to run for the hills. And sometimes I’m amazed at the change you see in a tiny human in such a short time.

While Raphael's work is so researched, I’m letting my emotions lead me instead. I'm also letting the time I have available dictate the modes and media that I'm using. Art making is my lifeline to my emotional health.

AV  Motherhood is a lot.

RA  First, we were paired, and then we came up with the curatorial statement.

RC  I don't know how we were paired. It was serendipity, right?

RA  It was serendipitous.

AV  Oh, really? That's super interesting.

RA  And then we started talking. I looked at Renee's work and saw it was a lot about emotional labor and being a mom. For the past couple of years, I've been looking at aspects of capitalism and economics. Much of that work has been looking at the invisible aspects of labor and what we consider, or what a textbook will define, as labor. Mainstream economics primarily leaves out reproductive labor, or care labor, and the emotional support that we provide one another.

As we started talking, we realized we were exploring many of the same things, just in entirely different ways.

RC  Definitely, and I think I really appreciated that Raphael recognized that breastfeeding is a form of labor because, heck yeah, it's a job.

Many people just think it’s something that you do sometimes, but it also kind of takes over your life.

One of the things that really struck me is that Raphael is taking these huge concepts and research, and putting them in a small sculpture that's doing a very focused thing. Almost all of that labor and all of the research gets hidden in a way.

Yet we see the results of capitalism and labor happening all around us. But then the inverse is happening in my images, where that emotional labor is hidden. But all of these lines that I'm making with a tiny brush are expressing that hidden labor of care—and love and hate.

AV  I found that a very refreshing part of both of your practices. I was familiar with your work, Renee. But seeing where you have taken it is refreshing. Because I started first seeing your work—and seeing every breath represented with those lines—with those colors.

And I saw your video first, I just have to deal with this for one minute. Or what is the exact wording?

RC  I only have to get through this one minute.

AV  I was like, “Oh my God. Yes.” It’s literally just your hands, and your stomach, and breathing. And it’s also being represented in all those photos of you sitting. When you're sitting there you see this very calm presence as you're seeing your three-year-old version of yourself. But then as you said, there are all these emotions. It’s not a burden, but it’s all this baggage that nobody sees, and all this labor, and all those hours. Other mothers might understand it because they have been there. But it's still something that our system has not recognized. We talk about it, but we don't even know how to support each other as mothers. I've been there.

The New York Times did research on breastfeeding and what compensation would look like if it was actually paid. It's insane because it's not only spending the time feeding this little human, but it's also all the calories, and the toll it takes on your body. Basically, we would be rich. It is incredible to see how it's one of the most natural things in the world, and still, it is not recognized in a neoliberal system. That's one of the parallels that I saw immediately with your practices: that invisible labor—and your work Raphael reminded me that it's energy and time that we spend, like with the Capitalist Clock. We are putting in that work and we're not being recognized. We're kind of like little rats. We’re trapped and we don't even know it; we are just fitting the system.

It reminded me of the work of Santiago Sierra. He reflects a lot on labor. He had this particular piece where he paid heroin addicts and prostitutes to get tattooed. It was just a tiny line on their back. He wanted to show this invisible labor that nobody talks about. They are like the underdogs. Nobody wants to know that they are there. It’s this heterotopic world everybody knows exists but does not talk about. So he brought it to the forefront and it was controversial. But the whole point was bringing those things to the conversation.

He was accused of using prostitutes and heroin addicts and utilizing the system. But that was the whole point. It's very interesting to see your work, and how you're taking in all this research. You see the big picture and bring it into some idea. It’s similar to Santiago Sierra but less provocative. It's more playful. But it's dense in a way. As you said, this relationship with the machines—how we are dependent on the machines—and how we are kind of trapped inside them.

But at the same time, I found it amusing how you ask the spectator to participate—to actually know what's happening with the piece—and that you are making the spectator part of the system again. In a playful way that is like, “TINA. There's no alternative that I know about. Maybe there's no escape.” And this no escape is part of what I also connected with—what Renee was talking about with this ambivalent relationship with motherhood. I understand you more than ever. I have a 15-month-old baby.

RA  Oh, congratulations!

AV  Yeah, Renee was in residency at Pine Meadow Ranch when my baby was three months old. I was just starting the process. It’s this amazing opportunity to be a mother and love your child, but sometimes you want to be your old self and have your old life back; to be free of having a little human depending on you 24-7.

RC  Or even just check out.

AV  And you don't exactly like not having the time. But I thought it interesting that both of you are talking about these two systems that we are part of and we cannot escape because they are bigger than us. But then again, there's this resistance—and desire—to understand what these two systems are doing to us.

It is interesting. If you just see your bodies of work together, you would think that there are no parallels between your work—there's actually a lot and it creates a very interesting dialogue.

I'm very curious to go and see the exhibition at some point. You know how it is with a baby. It just makes traveling harder—the distances and stuff.

RC  Yeah. Traveling becomes work. I mean, traveling always presents challenges, but it becomes even more challenging when it becomes an expedition.

AV  Yeah. And I wanted to ask because this is kind of related. Raphael, do you know anything about the Zapatistas?

RA  Oh yeah. Quite a bit.

AV  You have done a lot of research on neoliberalism and how we're part of this system, and there's no alternative, or you cannot escape from it. Have you actually tried to find these alternative modes of living that are kind of more autonomous and sustainable, and that actually work within the system?

RA  Yeah, absolutely. So communities like the Zapatistas or Cooperation Jackson, which is a network of predominantly black-owned cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi, are trying to take land back and build a solidarity economy. And of course, you have Mondragon, which is one of the largest cooperatives in the Basque region in Spain. All of these communities, organizations, and models have inspired me quite a bit.

One of the pieces is called YOUR MONEY IS NO GOOD HERE, which I call an inverse vending machine. When you put in a quarter, it actually prints out a receipt and spits the quarter out. On the receipt, it says, “YOUR MONEY IS NO GOOD HERE" along with a QR code that will take you to some sort of website about non-monetary economic strategy.

AV  I love that.

RA  It’s a gesture that there are alternatives. When you were talking about Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” and neoliberalism, I do wonder about this labor of love that I see in a lot of Renee’s work. There's the reality of being a mom and all of the emotional labor, but also a sense of hope and optimism. I see a lot of joy in your work, too.

The hope is that as people come to the show and they're not only seeing or feeling a harsh critique but maybe walking away with at least a sliver of that hope.

AV  I think that's part of it, right? You see the aesthetics—I feel like your work is very playful. So that's bringing all these very dense concepts back. They bring them down and say, “Okay, it's not all lost.” In YOUR MONEY IS NO GOOD HERE I really like how you came up with this alternative. Like telling the viewer, “Okay, we'll send you somewhere else.” It’s not just all gloom and doom.

And with Renee’s aesthetic, it's just beautiful. The colors that you chose, and how the photographs are black and white, but you start bringing color to those breaths. In the piece Hero’s Journey: Recalibrating Myself, you're sitting looking at the face of your three-year-old self and it's all covered in blue. There’s this link—this thread—from the throat to the face of your three-year-old self. And it kind of even reminded me of Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas. It is beautiful how you're connecting that in such a visual way.

RC  I've been thinking about how we are as we raise our kids. So much of that is connected to how we were raised and it's something we can’t escape. It's something that hopefully we deal with. And many days I think, “Oh, I was not the mom I want to be.” But in the end, you're doing your best with the tools you have. Hopefully, if you have some not-so-great tools you recognize that and maybe get some better tools. Basically, we can't escape ourselves. We are connected to ourselves. And recognizing how I was raised—there is that baggage there.

Also trying to have compassion for my own three-year-old. I mean, her Slinky broke the other day and it was this huge thing. I was just thinking, “I CAN’T FIX THE SLINKY!” And I'm ready to run for the hills over a Slinky. She's freaking out over a Slinky. I also need to try to remember what it was like to be three—when a thing that was your world breaks. Really I’m trying to connect back to these things.

As I was making lines, and outlining the heads, I think that the blue image, Hero’s Journey: Recalibrating Myself, and the hot pink image, Hero’s Journey: I Need to Lean into Myself, were the first images I started working on. For some reason, I was kind of thinking about The Virgin Mary and how she’s the ultimate mommy. And how I am not the ultimate mommy. And then I showed the pink image to a friend, and she said, “Oh my gosh, they’re like pink handcuffs." We are tied to our past and it's hard to escape. I mean you can’t. You can just deal with it and do better.

I’m thinking about a lot of those things. And that journey through all of these different emotions. Sometimes I experience all of it every day—feeling trapped, feeling joyful—just pick your intense emotion, insert it, and it's part of my day.

AV  What I find interesting—going back to what Raphael was saying—is this idea that it's not hopeless, right?

RC  Yeah.

AV  It’s approaching this idea of care and love.

RC  It is. And I feel like I go through an arc with the images in the Hero’s Journey series that does end on what I feel is a hopeful note—image-wise, and title-wise. I feel like that's actually what's happening now—like the pieces parallel.

AV  Well, thank you. That gives me hope.

RC  Yeah, it all cycles around.

AV  This whole idea of care and labor, I see that here a lot at the Pine Meadow Ranch. There's this quote, “If you like strawberries, you eat them. If you love strawberries, you grow them.” I think it is a very nice way of understanding what care is and what labor is.

And I feel like it goes back to that: you care. So when it comes to labor, there's the labor that you have to do just to get a paycheck—it’s a part of this system. But within that, there's this work where you actually care. Care for the land, care for your artwork, care for whatever you are doing. It's even spiritual, right? You can do something with so much devotion and I feel like that's where it goes back to your work, Renee. It's kind of like therapy, just painting all those lines.

And I feel like you have to do it. When you do your art, you do this labor that you care so much about. You don't even see it as work. You put all your devotion, your heart, and passion there. And again, I see it in the ranch. There are people that just come and do their job—mow and stuff. But then you also see a lot of people on the ranch crew that really care for this project—for the gardening, and using their hands. You see the attention to detail. Within this whole idea of invisible labor, there's a lot to rescue.

If we want to put it in the economic system, there's not even a way of rewarding it because it's unmeasurable. Just like breastfeeding, it's unmeasurable because you're giving more than just milk to your baby. I feel like for the future, people need to care more for things.

RA  Yeah. I agree completely. There are a couple of things that immediately come to mind in the research that led up to a lot of this work.

Years before, I came across some material describing how Adam Smith, an ancestor of the free market and neoliberalism, wrote The Wealth of Nations and coined the notion of the invisible hand. He wrote that book while he was a bachelor, living out of his mom's house while she cooked, cleaned, and cared for him. He left her out of his model.

RC and AV  Wow.

RA  Right. It points me to that aspect of invisibility and the origin of the system we live in today. What’s next then? We try and make any kind of incremental, or radical, shift to another way of being and make the invisible visible. I think you're right.

One of the other strategies is around commons and commoning. How many resources can we hold in common? How do we effectively share those resources together?

Libraries are a great example, and so are community gardens. This is all at the local level, but you can imagine it at citywide, statewide, and national levels. What does it look like when you start to expand that umbrella of care, sharing, and consciousness? I think there are a lot of possibilities, and I do agree that it starts with that seed of care.

AV  It’s very interesting that you're mentioning the commons now because I did a lot of research on that for my own thesis. And I came across this article talking about the Arab Spring and how it started. It was analyzing spaces of what is public and what is private. In the Middle East what is public is not really public because it belongs to the government. So the article’s authors explained part of what triggered the Arab Spring was looking for these common spaces. They see the whole Arab Spring as an action of commoning, of taking back to the community. I find it very interesting because, in part of my research, I suggest that commoning is an act of decolonization.

RA  Yes.

AV  It's interesting to think about that term again but also include the non-humans. What does this whole idea of commoning mean with non-humans when we still have all these borders—when it goes back to this notion of care? How can we also have that in a non-androcentric way? So I'm very curious to see if you're thinking of exploring that more in your practice. What are your next projects?

RA  I have a project up right now at the Michigan State University Museum. It's a time-based installation that explores the social dynamics of climate change. It’s an attempt at turning the gallery into a microcosm of our interactions with each other on the planet. And the big questions it asks are, “Can the current generation account for future generations? Can we keep the system in a regenerative state such that future generations can enjoy or just have the same level of resources, quality of life, etc.?” I’ve tried to ask these questions through what I hope is a playful, sculptural format.

The piece reflects water levels and there's a tipping point involved. If the space exceeds what it's calibrated for by participants and the way they interact with it, it ultimately will reach the tipping point and the installation is over.

This results in an inability of future participants to experience the piece in its original state. While I’m just exploring it at more of a planetary level through this smaller piece, there are certain things to explore at more of the local level. It's one thing to share resources amongst the three of us, but it's another thing to do it in a way where we're not just abusing the planet for immediate needs and then saying, “Oh shit, we don't have anything two years later, or for your children." There's a lot to explore there.

AV  It’s interesting that you want to do that. Again, as we talk about care and the sharing of resources, how can we do that in a way that we care for nature, and understand that we are part of nature? Not just nature as something to exploit and take from.

RA  Right. Humanity is not separate from nature, humanity is part of nature. Nature encompasses humanity.

RC  I would love to see that work you were talking about that you have on display. I've been thinking about that, but with parenting. What’s going to happen? What about climate change? What is Oregon going to look like? What’s going to happen with the next election? Or what kind of rights will my daughter have as a human being with a uterus? What rights won't she have?

For my work, I’m at the end of that series, but I’m completing three more images. I'm thinking about what's next and wondering how I can take the work further, but in a different way. I feel like in these images there's this intimacy with the self happening, and with the intimate nature of care. Is there a way that I could make work about that relationship in a non-cheesy, non-cliche way? How can I further some of the ways that I'm currently working? Through scale? Or through bringing things into space again and working three-dimensionally?

AV  It's pretty interesting that the conversation is going toward care. I feel like your art practice in particular, as you mentioned, is so emotional. It's so intimate. And as we're talking about the environment I’m also thinking about your husband’s job. Going back to what we give to our children—you can see all these notions of care, even with the environment and what’s happening with your family. Just the fact that in the summer your husband goes and fights fires and you're at home with your daughter. It's a good thing, but it's also hard.

That's down to what we are doing to the planet. How can we care for it, and how can you pass that care for the environment to your daughter? What does that mean? How does that look? So there's a lot there that doesn't make it cheesy or cliche.

It's the opposite. You have all the resources just from your life, from this daily thing.

RC  Yeah. Hopefully. I just want to keep the cheese factor to a minimum.

That’s something I really appreciate about your work, Raphael. You called yourself a glorified toy maker when we were installing. Your works are familiar but odd. I love the humor of the works and they make me think, “I want humor in my own work.” Bringing humor into an artwork is hard.

RA  You know, if I can respond to that, the funny thing about the humor in my work is that I never intend for it to be funny, it just happens. It just comes out and then I think, “Oh, that's pretty silly.” Or, “That's a lot more playful than I thought it would come out.”

RC   We kind of talked about the absurdity of some of the things that are happening in your work and that it's a little nutty. And then I think about all these lines that I'm making— they are a little nutty in a way. It's like we're both coping . . . .

RA  Yeah, totally.

RC  With some different things.

RA  Therapy. It's therapy. And a big part of care is therapy.

RC  It is. I think that if economics classes were taught through your sculptures more students would be willing to take economics classes.

RA  I’m honored. Maybe I’ll craft curricula based on these.

AV  Well, it's funny because when you were talking about your daughter losing her Slinky and it was basically the end of the world for her. I was just thinking about all these people on Wall Street—they lose millions and it's the end of the world for them when it comes to economics.

RC  Or thinking about what's happening in Florida right now with the floods. There are a lot of people who lost everything that didn't have flood insurance. Because of where they were living, they didn't think they needed it. And now the system that they bought into is kinda like, “eh, see ya.”

RA  I envision a future where there are no insurance companies. Insurance is the way that we are with each other and the social ties that we have. Having stronger social ties means that we don't need a fabricated sense of security. On such a global scale, it sounds very utopian, but holding onto that idea is something that makes me feel okay about the world in a way. That's the direction that I want to move toward. I'm inspired by a lot of the mutual aid efforts that take place, especially during natural disasters—for example, Puerto Rico and Florida, among other places. Hopefully, we'll make efforts to mitigate climate disasters such that these ecological catastrophes don't happen as much as they are now. At the very least, I feel optimistic that some strides in mutual aid are being made.

RC  Yeah. And it's almost like for anything to happen there has to be a serious economic butt-kicking. Even politically, selling caring for the environment by showing the economic ramifications might be more effective for some than showing an image of a beautiful forest, right?

AV  Well, yeah. That's when a lot of people start caring. 

RC  I think those are good thoughts, Raphael. They are good hopes for the future.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Anna.

AV  I enjoyed this conversation. It's nice to have this space to talk about art, ideas, and draw some comparisons. That makes me so happy.

Ana Varas is a writer, editor, and researcher. She recently completed a Ph.D. in Art History and Theory at the University of Essex, UK. Her research specialized in tracking community-driven art practices that address pressing socio-political and ecological issues. Ana currently works as the Arts Projects Coordinator at The Roundhouse Foundation/Pine Meadow Ranch

photo credit: Brittney Connelly

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