The Power of a Community: Ahmet Öğüt’s Intern VIP Lounge (2013)

Intern VIP Lounge (2013)

Intern VIP Lounge was presented for first time during the Art Dubai fair in 2013 as part of a non-profit programme commissioned by Art Dubai Projects. This lounge is designed to provide not only a relaxed and entertaining ambience, but also a special programme of events as a knowledge exchange space, such as film screenings, talks and conversations. The space is only accessible for interns who work at the art fair after registering their pass at the information desk of Intern VIP Lounge located in the fair. With the self-referential and parodied character of the exclusive VIP lounges found at any other art events, the installation attempts to reveal the invisibility of the displaced and dispossessed labourers, which is currently regarded as a notable issue in the field of contemporary art.

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Fig 2. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Image © Gehry PartnersGehry Partners.

The city where the art fair takes place is the capital of the Emirate of Dubai and is renowned as part of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Dubai has been the place where the art market regards the full potential to produce money through the people with oil. To take advantage of the place, well-known international art institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre have been building their overseas branches in Abu Dhabi, along with local art museums such as the Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Dubai Museum of Contemporary Art, with the aim of transforming the city into a hub of contemporary art. However, though the attractive and seductive facade of the city comprised of cutting-edge skyscrapers and high-rise buildings represents itself as the heart of capitalism, the hidden side of the place upholds human rights issues related to labour abuse, including a notorious labour camp in Dubai. A similar problem occurred at the construction site of the museum, and its construction was suspended through the instigation of protests worldwide. Most famously the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition – a collective of artists and activists – successfully raised awareness, by circulating petitions to the Guggenheim, regarding issues of “migrant laborers, the corrupt and misleading practices of labor recruiters, as well as the low pay and inadequate housing conditions, surrounding the living and working conditions responsible for building the museums.” In this sense, Intern VIP Lounge presented in Dubai where there are detrimental issues with regard to labour amplifies the artist’s intention and critique of the issue of “slave labour” in the cultural industry since they resemble each other depicting “the asymmetrical financial structures” of the world.

In Intern VIP Lounge, interns are offered free coffee, a chocolate fountain, a table tennis tournament and free mocktails. This service is provided as compensation since they end-

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Fig 3. Ahmet Öğüt, Views of Intern VIP Lounge, Art Dubai, 2013. Images from http://www.ahmetogut.com/ahmetwebinternvip.html.

ure almost 12-hour shifts each day during the fair period but are rarely paid. Unlike entry into any other business sectors, the art world, including galleries and art institutions, demands young professionals who have just graduated from an art college to spend at least several months on an unpaid internship programme, with the nice title of “acquiring new skills”, to step into the professional world. Without any proper rewards, the owners of an organisation not only take their labour for granted but also rely on this free labour force to maintain a smooth operation. Therefore, in this structure, performing the internship becomes essential since everyone accepts it as the natural order and at the same time there is no other way to resist it. In a similar vein, the Precarious Workers Brigade can support the situation. The Precarious Workers Brigade is a UK-based group of precarious workers in culture and education. This group calls out “in solidarity with all those struggling to make a living in this climate of instability and enforced austerity”.

In 2013 they issued the letter to the Serpentine Gallery in response to the museum’s unpaid internship scheme and warned that “over the coming months we will be engaging in a series of targeted actions at yours and other institutions to encourage the creation of such a policy [one that involves a fair pay].” The day after the letter was delivered to the museum, a public action was drawn up by Future Interns. Through this combination of actions, sending letters and initiating the protest, media attention was attracted leading to the release of a supportive article, and they finally received an apologetic response from the museum with the withdrawal of the internship advert. This remains as one of the successful actions “in exposing the gallery’s abusive work” through “moral questioning”. Öğüt’s Intern VIP Lounge uses different tactics and ways of revealing, circulating the issues of the Precarious Workers Brigade. However, as mentioned earlier, it has a similar tone attacking the art world’s problematic system and structure. By creating the space, the artist attempts to reverse the conventional meaning of the VIP lounge by recompensing the interns in order to disrupt and subvert the existing hierarchical structure on the one hand, while on the other hand he creates a platform for interns to socialise with other workers and to be able to share similar interests and enthusiasm. Particularly, the latter can be viewed as important since the space helps “the release of a social potential for transformation” encouraged by “human contact and interaction”.

Intern VIP Lounge: Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011) by Andrew Norman Wilson

“Dream Factory”, the selection of films curated by Aily Nash and Andrew Norman Wilson, was presented as part of the screening programme of Intern VIP Lounge at the Dubai Art fair. Among diverse topics addressed by Nash and Wilson through the films, Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011) strongly shares a common point with Intern VIP Lounge in terms of focusing on “the space of labour”.

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Fig 4. Andrew Norman Wilson. Still from Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2011. Two-channel video, 11’ 3”. (https://vimeo.com/15852288)

Andrew Norman Wilson is an artist based in New York whose videos and installations address “a heady rush of images, technology, and bodies caught in the streams of circulation and representation that our era demands”. Workers Leaving the Googleplex is the 11-minute two-channel video that deals with the marginalised class of labourers working at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. Based on his experience – an employee of Google – the artist exposes the company’s existing “caste system” through his footage taken while working there for about a year. This presents how the employees, so-called ScanOps workers who are responsible for scanning pages at Google Books, are treated differently compared to other regular workers, and demonstrates how the class division creates different movements in the campus. According to the artist’s narration in the video, there are four different classes co-existing at headquarters in Silicon Valley. Classes can be distinguished by four different colour badges that Google’s employees wear; white badges for the full time; red badges for contracted employees; and green badges for interns. However, there is one group wearing yellow badges, and they are categorised as the “fourth class” according to the artist. Based on his observation, they work in a separate building which is next to the other buildings where other general workers are, but there is no chance to integrate socially with them because their work time starts from 4 a.m. and they leave the building at 2:15 p.m. following the superior’s order. This exclusion and separation of the ScanOps workers caught the artists’ attention, and he attempted to record the different movements of the four colour badged employees coming and going and to interview yellow badged workers. However, as soon as it was reported, the artist was immediately fired without any proper reason, and his one year experience at Google, with this event, has produced Workers Leaving the Googleplex.

By capturing the different movements of the workers depending on the colour of their badges, his work exposes the flexible, temporary and precarious character of freelance labourers in Googolplex. The most recurring aspect of both Intern VIP Lounge and Workers Leaving the Googleplex is that the key figures in both practices, interns and the fourth class of yellow-badged workers, are exclusive spectators. Thus, while the interns watch the film presented in the context of the Intern VIP Lounge, they naturally project themselves onto the yellow-badged workers, thinking about their precarious condition and position in the art world, since these figures share a point of similarity regarding the invisibility of labour.

 

References 

“A Timeline of Attempts to Fix the Art World.” ARTnews (Winter 2017). Accessed March 1, 2017, http://www.artnews.com/2017/01/03/a-timeline-of-attempts-to-fix-the-art-world/.

Bağcıoğlu, Neylan. “Artistic Labour: Seeking a Utopian Dimension.” Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia, vol. 5 (2016): 117–133. Accessed December 27, 2016. https://cadernosaa.revues.org/1053.

Bradley, Paige K. “Andrew Norman Wilson.” Artforum, August 30, 2016. Accessed April 1, 2017. https://www.artforum.com/words/id=62547.

Charlesworth, J. J. “Art Dubai Nervous anxiety, Middle-Easthetics.” Art Review (March 2013). Accessed January 22, 2017. http://www.campagne-premiere.com/d/1413493139- dubai_art_review.pdf

Gill, Rosalind, and Andy Pratt. “Precarity and Cultural Work In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work.” OnCurating.org no. 16 (2013): 26–40. Accessed March 3, 2017. http://www.on-curating.org/files/oc/dateiverwaltung/old%20Issues/ONCURATING_Issue16.pdf.

Gulf Labor Artist Coalition. “Artists Boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.” Accessed April 17, 2017. https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/gulflabor/.

Kompatsiaris, Panos. “Art Struggles: Confronting Internships and Unpaid Labour in Contemporary Art.” Triple C no. 2 (2015): 554–566. Accessed February 5, 2017. http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/613.

Öğüt, Ahmet. “Ahmet Öğüt: Intern VIP Lounge 2013.” Accessed January 25, 2017. http://www.ahmetogut.com/ahmetwebinternvip.html.

“Precarious Workers Brigade: About.” Accessed April 17, 2017. https://precariousworkersbrigade.tumblr.com/about.

“Precarious Workers Brigade: Dear Serpentine Management, We Have Recently Been Made Aware That You Are Advertising 3 Month Volunteer Placements….” Accessed April 17, 2017. http://precariousworkersbrigade.tumblr.com/post/69877673667/dear-serpentine-management-we-have-recently-been.

Wilson, Andrew Norman. “The Artist Leaving the Googleplex.” e- flux Journal no. 74 (June 2016). Accessed March 5, 2017. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/74/59791/the-artist-leaving-the-googleplex/.

“Workers Leaving the Googleplex.” Accessed March 25, 2017, https://vimeo.com/15852288.

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