Shannon Cochrane on Looking For Work by Milijana Babič

It’s the opening night of City of Women, and I am happy to be Ljubljana. But I am also tired, exhausted from a long night of not sleeping on planes, crossing the ocean, and either sitting for hours or dashing quickly through airports. This is the job of the traveling artist. But it’s okay, because when I arrive to the opening exhibition of the festival, this feeling of complete body and mind exhaustion is familiarly echoed in Milijana Babič’s Looking For Work at Škuc Gallery. The first piece you see as you enter the gallery is a long wall of descriptive text, where the artist has evaluated and listed the pros and cons in point form of several of her prior jobs. As I am looking at the piece, a fellow viewer leans over to me and asks, “So which of these jobs have you done?” It’s not a tongue-in-cheek question. I’ve also cleaned houses for a living (I put myself through art college with that one), waitressed, bartended, and sold random useless stuff (in person AND over the phone). We’ve all been there I think. Looking For Work is a reminder that many of us are still there, and will likely be there again.

The exhibition also houses a publication that contains all of the text transcripts the artist had with potential “bosses”, the people who answered her newspaper ads in which over the course of a year she advertised that she was ready and willing to take on any kind of job offer. These texts read like a classic Buzzfeed list, “Top 10 Things Not To Say To Female Colleagues”, or “25 Best Random Texts From Strangers”. To me it reads like a parlour game played with friends over a few beers: what wouldn’t you do to make the rent? But the better question, and the one already tidily disguised in the first, is: what would you do?

At home in Toronto, many people have a habit of following, “Nice to meet you”, with “So what do you do?” I’ve always hated this question because somehow saying that you are an artist is like admitting you don’t have a job. I’ve trained myself to make a distinction and to say that my job is ‘X’, but my work is being an artist. Looking For Work tickles my conceptual funny bone by playing with our middle-class notions of the value of work, and attempting to conflate this with having a proper job.

But make no mistake, being an artist is a proper job. At the bar later, Milijana and I talk about how every artist is also an organizer for an arts or cultural organization (if you are lucky enough to get one of those underpaid jobs), and more importantly, for yourself. You have to be a multitasking master. Forget about making the art itself, there are a myriad of other things that have to happen first: administrative paperwork, documentation, applications, taxes, promotion, working every opportunity. Artists hire themselves in an endless cycle of contract work.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña says it best later that evening when he testifies that the power of performance is its ability to conjure up all kinds of potential meanings and associations for the viewer. In Looking For Work, the artist’s intention is not to put herself in harm’s way, exploit herself for exploitation’s sake, or to live someone else’s life. The project itself is always just that – a project – but it is clear from looking at the videos and reading the texts that this work is work. The artist takes terrible job after job as both illustration, and as embodied demonstration. And while she is always aware that the work has an end goal (an art exhibition), she enters each position with honesty. She tries to do a good job. She works for her work. Contained in the artist’s straightforward performative gestures caught on videotape and cataloged in various ways, I want to find the secret to unlocking the power to raise minimum wage; I want to shine a light on migrant workers and the conditions they face; I want to go back in time and overthrow the warped system that insists a man be paid more for the same work done by a woman. I think about all the women in the world working for pennies, doing shitty jobs for shittier bosses, and whose skills are exploited while their true talents are ignored and neglected. The personal is universal.

And at the end of the day, it might sound simple, but Looking for Work makes me grateful that I have a job.


Related project: 
Iščem delo