I’ve recently taken to watching short clips of stand up comedy on YouTube before going to bed. During one late night binge, I came across a comedian talking about his past job as a cleaner. He reminisces, “I would be mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms. Nobody looked me in the eye, nobody talked to me. I remember one day I was mopping the floor, and a businessman slipped and he said ‘If the floors wet, you’ve got to put a sign down!’ I’m like, ‘I’m mopping in front of you. I am the sign! You know the little guy on the sign doing this [mimes mopping] – that’s me.”[i]
The joke pivots on the uncomfortable reality that we (‘we’ being implicitly white-collar) often fail to see workers who labour directly in front of us. Whether through discomfort, derision or just sheer obliviousness, we’re more likely to recognise the objects that signal the completion of their duties — the moment when we can consume their labour. At the same time, it is only when the outcome we take for granted, like a clean floor, butts up against the inconvenience of wet floor that we acknowledge that any labour takes place in the first place.
Artist John Vea’s practice consistently confronts us with our habitual blindness. His moving-image work Caution Cleaner (2014), for example, presents a man scrubbing a concrete floor, repeated across four frames. Filmed from above, his beanie-wearing, down-turned face is concealed. With dark skin, he’s evidently a Pacific male, but otherwise the specifics of his being are hidden from the lens. His identity is peripheralised even further as he slowly moves out of each frame, returning only to place a generic but familiar ‘Caution – wet floor’ sign in his place.
Like the comedian’s monologue, Vea’s work speaks to the de-personalisation of working-class or service labour. The repetition of a scrubbing across five frames, echoed acoustically in the cacophonous bristling sounds, parodies a typical production line, where work is piece-mealed, ceaseless and beneficial in no direct way to the worker beyond the return of wages.
The repetition of a monotonous action across multiple frames is a logic also found in Finish this week of and that’s it! (2009/2014). Here, Vea lifts a rock — a material reference to construction work — above his head and holds it there for as long as he can. Like Caution Cleaner, Finish this week of and that’s it! also performs the disappearance of the worker: gradually, but regularly, the figures disappear from each frame with only the rocks left behind to mark the performer-cum-worker’s previous presence.
Interestingly, the labour performed in both projection works is satirically illogical. Scrubbing the concrete floor seems unnecessary (there’s no visible mess to clean), nor does lifting a rock offer any clear outcome. On one hand, this pointlessness serves to highlight the endurance and alienation labourers must go through on a day-to-day basis. However, the works can also be read as a deliberate attempt to negate productivity. In normal circumstances, waged-labour produces a commodity or service that can enter a sphere of monetary exchange. By truncating this process, Vea circumvents a capitalist circuit that translates labour into de-personalised consumption. These actions then have a purposive purposelessness. Without any end product or service, it is labour in and of itself that we encounter, and the person who enacts it that we are forced to see.
Personal stories are also a crucial tool Vea uses to re-humanise workers. His research involves chatting with workers that he meets during his day-to-day movements, and his process can feel more prosaic than purposeful. Vea describes these informal interactions and casual conversations as ‘talanoa’. The word derives etymologically from ‘tala’, which means to inform, tell or relate, and ‘noa’, which conveys ordinary. “Talanoa”, education scholar Timote M. Vaioleti writes, “literally means talking about nothing in particular”.[ii]
The phrase ‘talanoa’ has become trendy in art discourse. It offers an easy way of claiming cultural mana, and the term is in danger of becoming a cliché. Vea, however, is interested in talanoa as a specific counter to dominant modes of data collection and analysis that reduce interviewees to statistics, a de-personalising approach that bears many similarities to capitalist thinking. Vaiolete argues that talanoa, as a “personal encounter where people story their issues, their realities and aspirations”[iii], offers Pacific peoples more input into policy considerations and consequent benefits than pre-determined, one-sided questionnaires that characterise most research methodologies. The same observation could apply equally to other minority groups. Through talanoa, people are able to become the agents of their stories, rather than objects for research.
Vea’s process consequently has both a conversational and a collaborative character. He seeks to re-tell the stories that he gleans, staying in close contact through the research and making process with the people he has encountered. Notably, Vea often remakes the same work, adapting it to take into account talonoa that he has had since creating the previous iteration. Finish this week of and that’s it! for example, was made in response to a friend’s redundancy, a grim reality faced by many other workers during the 2009 global financial crisis. In 2014, Vea remade the video work for an exhibition at Artspace, Auckland. This gave him a chance to incorporate recent talanoa about the difficulties of living on the minimum wage. For the re-shoot, Vea ate below the poverty line — then $2.25 per week — and the effects on his body are evident across the five frames, each filmed one-week apart. Nevertheless, he admitted in a recent studio interview to being wary of exploiting workers or outing them as whistle-blowers.[iv] Vea looks instead for mundane actions he can re-enact or objects that he can modify to act as metonyms for the realities faced by the people with whom he shares talanoa.
Vea perhaps achieves this most successfully in his responses to the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) scheme. Launched in 2007, the RSE scheme allows employers in the horticulture and viticulture industry to employ immigrants for up to seven months. While seeking to address local labour shortages, the scheme also was implemented with development goals for the Pacific. Consequently, the scheme gives priority to temporary workers from twelve approved Pacific Forum countries, [v]though around 75% of RSE workers come from just six of these: Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
Contractual obligations require RSE workers to remain with their original employer (even though these employers can transfer the temporary worker to other RSE placements at their discretion), effectively hindering workers’ abilities to circulate the job market while simultaneously creating job insecurities. They become then an ‘unfree’ labour force: vulnerably dependent and susceptible to exploitation. Add to this the reliance on others for transport, the ban on frequenting social establishments, the often over-crowded barracks, excessively-long work hours, hidden costs, and limited access to their wages, and the control over their movement become more apparent.
Because of these restrictive conditions, Pacific migrant workers occupy a blind spot in our collective understanding of local economies. In a review of Vea’s 2013 solo exhibition at Papakura Art Gallery, Auckland, sociologist Scott Hamilton noted that temporary workers are difficult for palangi[vi] to conceptualise and subsequently recognise. He writes, the “new migrant workers cannot easily be counted as either members of the Western working class or as inhabitants of traditional, pre-capitalist societies. They occupy a sort of twilight space between economies and cultural codes”.[vii]
Over the past few years, Vea has responded to the workers’ exploitation and subsequent invisibility by making several performance-based and installation works that employ ‘urban taros’. Cast in plaster from roadside cones, the stylised taro forms allude to the presence of Pacific workers in both agriculture and construction industries.[i] These multiples can also be understood as generic units typical of capitalism; cheaply made, easily reproducible and entirely divorced from the people who made them.
In his installations and performances, Vea uses the urban taro as symbols both of exploited labour and migratory Pacific labour specifically. Import, Export (2008), for example, contains the plaster forms in twelve large pallets (one for each Pacific Island nation involved in the RSE scheme), hinting at a global economy of cheap, immigrant labour. Urban taro were also used in Cultivate, a work first performed 2008, in which Vea and a group of fellow male artists re-enact the process of workers migrating from one place to another. They carried the urban taros in potato sacks from Vea’s studio space at AUT Auckland to Myers Park, Auckland, where they were then placed in rows reminiscent of plantations. The performance was re-staged outside Papakura Art Gallery, Auckland in 2013. Here, visitors were allowed to remove the urban taro and take them home, permanently separating the performers-cum-workers from the fruit of their labour. All that would be left behind were ghostly impressions of white residue, a variation on the remnant objects in Finish this week of and that’s it! and Caution Cleaner.
Creating work commissioned by and made for MTG Hawkes Bay offers an interesting testing ground for Vea’s methodology. It’s an area that has close connections with the RSE scheme. At least 22 of 112 nation-wide accredited RSE employers are in Hawkes Bay[viii] and at the season’s peak, there can be 12,000 RSE workers in the region.[ix] Furthermore, much of the research regarding migrant communities brought in through the RSE scheme has been conducted by researchers – and intended for an academic readership – outside of the area. Vea’s most recent work is also noteworthy for being the first instance in which the artist has entered into a community that is not his own. How does the process stand up outside of Auckland? Can Talanoa be an effective research tool when working with strangers?
As it happens, the period of Vea’s research for this exhibition fell in the orchardist offseason, and so opportunities for direct engagement with the RSE workers was minimal. Instead, Vea’s interest turned more generally to migrants and minorities within Hawkes Bay region, where many live in a state of deprivation. Stanchioned in a line inside the gallery is a series of parking meters. As forms, parking meters connote ideas of temporary occupation, where a space is leased for a short period, with the time being measured by the number across the parking meter screen. Within the everyday space of a car park is embedded an exchange that mirrors many of the realities faced by both migrants and seasonal workers: dependence on renting, temporary occupation, monetary exchange, and unequal power dynamics.
Consistent throughout Vea’s practice is at attempt to point us towards an absence: to utilise objects and actions that hint of something that goes unseen. The art world does not escape attention. In an act of institutional critique, Caution Cleaner will be projected outside the MTG Hawkes Bay forecourt each night during the exhibition: this a conscious effort to counter any prohibitive effects that the MTG’s entrance fee might place of the people from lower socio-economic groups who are Vea’s main demographic concern. Here, Vea acknowledges that the gallery space too has a certain power dynamic between occupier and visitor, who must also pay a fee for temporary occupation.
[ii] Timote M. Vaioleti, ‘Talanoa Research Methodology: A developing position on Pacific research’ in Waikato Journal of Education (12), 2006, p. 23.
[iii] Ibid, p. 21.
[iv] Interview with the artist, 10 September 2015.
[v] The Pacific Forum is an inter-governmental organisation that provides
provide a setting for heads of government to discuss common issues and problems facing the independent and self-governing states of the South Pacific.
The eligible countries for the RSE scheme are the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
[vi] Hamilton uses the Tongan spelling here.
[vii] Scott Hamilton, ‘Planting plaster: John Vea and the art of migrant labour’, http://eyecontactsite.com/2014/01/planting-plaster-john-vea-and-the-art-of-migrant-l, accessed 10 September 2015.
[viii]List of accredited RSE employers, http://www.immigration.govt.nz/employers/employ/LinkAdministration/ToolboxLinks/rse.htm
accessed 10 September 2015.
[ix] Personal correspondence with MTG Hawkes Bay Curator Taonga, Tryphena