Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.
While it’s six in the evening in Los Angeles, it’s mid-morning here in Melbourne. I’m sitting in the rare winter sunlight while I chat to Shevaun Wright over WhatsApp. An LA based, Australian born artist, Wright’s practice thoroughly integrates the knowledge gained from a career in law. Within her practice, there is an overarching concern with the social contract—a concept particularly pertinent in the tumultuous global atmosphere we’re currently facing. Today, we speak about this theme and two recent works: Class Action (2019), an exhibition/lawsuit that was the culmination of her Master of Fine Art research at the University of California; and Rape Contract (2017), a fictional legal contract Wright made to document the complex legal and personal struggles endured by a friend.
TH: It must be incredibly surreal living in LA at the moment considering the impact of the lockdown and now, the political turmoil following George Floyd’s murder. I imagine the events of the past few weeks must have been particularly strange to witness after being stuck inside for such an extended period of time, in such an unprecedented fashion?
SW: It’s been a really intense time in the States. During the first night of the protests, riot police were called in. Cars were being burned at each end of our block. I have never seen anything like it. It’s quite surreal. With everything that has happened—the pandemic and the crushing economic repercussions—it has all just culminated in the perfect storm. Unemployment is so high right now and the government has really mishandled the pandemic. The public outcry has been incredibly pronounced. People are simply fed up. Though sparked by the incredibly important issue of police brutality, these protests and riots have also facilitated an outpouring of that pent-up grief and frustration. And another important thing to remember is that George Floyd’s murder wasn’t an aberration at all—it was one instance of many similarly horrific examples of police brutality. There are important parallels to note in Australia, too. I was heartened to hear that so many people attended the Black Lives Matter protests in Sydney.
TH: I think there’s a lot of debate about the numbers at the protests. Many friends suggest far more people turned up than the media outlets have estimated, which is great.
SW: It’s absolutely incredible considering the supreme court ruled it illegal to gather in large groups. I was so glad to hear that. The rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody is an issue that has never been properly addressed in Australia.
TH: I think that a concept very relevant to these political discussions is the social contract—one of the foundational concerns of your work. I have to admit, I’m not well read on the subject, but to my understanding, it has deep philosophical roots beginning with John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I have, however, read a little in regard to feminist and post-colonial critiques of the concept of the social contract by Carol Pateman and Charles Mills—theorists whose work I would align with your practice. The central argument of such theorists is that the social contract doesn’t work for everybody. Rather, it has historically been imagined as a contract between white male subjects between which there’s no pre-existing power imbalance. In these dealings, those of marginalised or oppressed backgrounds are often subjected to exploitation, sometimes rendered powerless through contractual agreements which are not mutually beneficial. This concept seems particularly pertinent right now, when our lives have been changed so drastically by the pandemic—with lockdown rules, the threat of economic recession, not to mention our heightened awareness of police brutality. Would you see an uprising, like we have seen in the States, as the breaking of such a contract?
SW: I was actually talking to a friend about this recently. She had seen a comedian speaking about the social contract who contended that, in our current situation, rioting isn’t breaking the social contract because the social contract has already been continually broken by the police and officials who disregard it—like those responsible for the extreme acts of police brutality we are currently addressing. And so, these acts of civil disobedience are attempts to bring that social contract back into being in such a way that it is functional and fair for everybody. Going back to social contract theory, a lot of post-colonial and feminist critiques, at their very base, allege that there are certain people who don’t obtain personhood in the original agreement. So, in that sense, you have the landed, moneyed, white male contractor—who has full personhood—contracting with another similarly privileged white males. Of course, they are looking after interests that mutually benefit the both of them. Then there are other people that have been subject to that agreement who have not had a voice in the original bargain. If you want an example, just look at the history of slavery in America. People have literally been treated as property. They were not part of that agreement; they were treated as objects to be exchanged. With these perspectives in mind, I think you could see our current situation in two ways. Either, you could contend that the uprising operates as an attempt to reintroduce a pre-existing social contract that has been misused by police and officials who are guilty of perpetuating or excusing violations of such a contract—or, alternatively, as an attempt to amend the original agreement so that it can protect everyone and ensure everybody’s interests and rights.
TH: I guess it feels like the past five years or so, with Donald Trump’s election, and now a global health crisis and economic recession, it’s all just boiled over. It’s exactly the right time for something big to really happen.
SW: And Trump’s conduct is just relentlessly provocative and taunting. I mean, hosting his first rally since the outbreak at Tulsa, the site of one of America’s most horrific acts of racial violence, mere weeks after Floyd’s murder! It’s hard to imagine such callous and taunting behaviour. It’s so in your face, it’s outright contemptuous and his supporters love that. It’s very scary.
TH: Trump definitely seems to epitomise a particular kind of American identity—the aggressive, incredibly transgressive, money-hungry business tycoon. It reminds me of the subject of your project Class Action (2019), the American billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Class Action documented your lawsuit against Broad, who allegedly attempted to embezzle funds from the sale of a Leonardo Da Vinci manuscript intended to benefit the Hammer Museum. He is, however, also the benefactor who funded the re-construction of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Art and Architecture campus—the school where you completed your MFA and the site on which you exhibited Class Action. While the redemptive sheen of art world cred means he’s not as outwardly sleazy as Trump, you seemed to perfectly summarise Broad’s person by exhibiting a copy of his book The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking (2012) as part of Class Action. The cover depicts him in a suit alongside a Jeff Koons sculpture. It seems clear here that ‘unconventional thinking’ implies underhanded and slimy conduct framed as creativity. He really embodies an American archetype. You wouldn’t believe it as a parody, it’s just too perfect!
SW: I’ve only been in America for five years, so I can’t profess to have a deep understanding of it, but I have observed an overt celebration of wealth here. It’s very disturbing, and is particularly extreme in LA. Even before the events of the past few weeks, I’ve been appalled by how people were treating, for example, undocumented workers and immigrants in everyday interactions, particularly during the lockdown. Here, the disparity between the haves and the have nots is very clear—not to mention the privilege that comes with being able to socially distance. Essential workers don’t have that.
TH: I’ve spent very little time in America, but from those few experiences, and perhaps also the ideals projected by American TV and comedy, there seems to be a real obsession with power and with social and economic hierarchies. This obsession seems to be epitomised by the heroic aura attributed to the money-making entrepreneurial figure.
SW: Yes, this obsession with money and image is very compelling and insidious. A friend that I’m currently working with, Dr. Nizan Shaked, is writing a book about the problem of philanthropy in museums and its corruptive influence. This is exactly what I was looking at in Class Action. These figures have an extreme accumulation of wealth, and then, they look to make their mark—to launder their reputation—through the arts. Eli Broad has made his mark on all of LA with his philanthropic ventures. He has a massive museum and many collections in major galleries. It’s a very effective, tax deductable way of leaving a legacy. Even more so than in Australia, the arts here rely upon private philanthropy. If you look into it, the list of awkward and insidious events that come out of this tension goes on and on. There have not been enough investigations into the use of museums to, for instance, bolster the value of private collections through the tactical acts of board members. You can have a conflict of interest policy, but it doesn’t necessarily avoid these issues.
TH: Despite his attempt to embezzle funds from the Da Vinci sale, Broad is still connected by name to UCLA?
SW: Yes, our Art and Architecture school is housed in the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Centre.
TH: That’s wild!
SW: Yes, it really is! Trying to misappropriate ten million dollars—it’s not often that something so substantial is just brushed off like nothing even happened. That’s so much money.
TH: As far as I understand, the materials you exhibited in Class Action were the culmination of your MFA research into this event and the documentation of your subsequent lawsuit against Broad?
SW: Yes, I approached Broad with the lawsuit I drafted and a very long letter listing all of the allegations and how the university’s naming policy had been breached. I offered to settle with him for a donation to a domestic violence centre here in LA and a withdrawal of his name from the school. Though I had him personally served, he never responded. I also wrote letters to the president of the University of California, as per the policy requirements. I requested that she withdraw his name, or to take steps to have his name withdrawn. Again, I’ve not received a response. At this stage, I’m considering my next move.
TH: How was the exhibition and lawsuit received by your peers and the wider university community?
SW: My peers received it really well. While mostly supportive, the faculty gave me a little pushback in regard to my role as a student—as somebody who had benefited from attending the school. At the same time, most of the lecturers that I worked closely with at UCLA are artists known for their works of institutional critique, so it was difficult to argue against it, considering I’m doing something comparable.
TH: I’m surprised by the pushback. Of course, in recent decades, the potential of institutional critique as a truly critical art form has been rightly questioned. It has been argued, for example that the institution targeted merely recoups a cultural currency through flaunting its flaws. With that in mind, I found it incredibly exciting to read about Class Action. It seemed to me a truly subversive act: a successful example of institutional critique that maintained its critical rigour.
SW: I definitely didn’t want to overlook that fact that I was implicated as a student. I have benefited from going to a very good school, and I’ve benefited from philanthropic donations in various forms. But it was a very interesting project in that it could draw attention to the way art is mobilised to launder reputations, to sort of cleanse them. In going to that school, students provide affective labour that supplements this agenda. A lot of my art is about making what is invisible visible. It’s not like I’m giving perfect answers, but I’m asking a lot of questions in my process.
TH: Yes, of course. I think it’s amazing that what’s going on in the background is so often overlooked. There’s so much the is concealed in the workings of the art market. For example, in my own research, I am currently reading about how American Abstract Expressionism—one of the most iconic movements of the twentieth century—was a prop of cultural imperialism used to obscure politically-minded art and promote America as ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ on a global scale. I’m amazed by how many people don’t know that and are happy to dismiss discussion of abstract art as a ‘dull topic’ based on aesthetics. But there is such a crucial and telling story behind it!
SW: Oh, I know, it’s compelling. I studied that with my students in our Modernism class. You must be reading How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art by Guilbaut?
SW: It’s absolutely incredible—the war of culture!
TH: I read an article that quoted you speaking about your experience of studying art history. You said: “One of the things I came away with – and particularly also studying modernism and theory – was being given the tools and language to navigate writing my artist’s statement, writing grant applications and the like.” It seems very funny and very true—perhaps a nod to the utility of art history and its continued use as a tool of persuasion?
SW: Haha, yes! And it really did help me.
TH: It’s funny how an educational experience can be condensed to fodder for a kind of contract in the neoliberal art world.
SW: Totally. I suppose it’s kind of comparable to using a legal background in a way that you weren’t really supposed to. You are given a certain language and you can apply it, or mis-apply it, for other means. You can use it to raise the questions you want to raise.
TH: That’s interesting. Like institutional critique, I think interdisciplinary practice has gathered some negative connotations due to its buzzword potential. It implies the promise of innovation, when often, it merely refers to the importing of rather rudimentary ideas and concepts from other fields. However, you have worked as a lawyer in the past, and have thoroughly integrated the language and structures of law into the critical apparatus of contemporary art. How did you make the transition to working exclusively as an artist?
SW: I graduated from an Arts/Law degree at Macquarie University. I then worked as a commercial lawyer specialising mostly in construction law for around six years before completing a Master of Arts at the University of New South Wales while continuing to work part time. But then, I found a course online that was focused on the relationship between fine art and law. This took me to New York where I subsequently did another residency at the Whitney. That’s when I really made the choice to one hundred percent dedicate myself to art. I had always pursued art on the side, but it wasn’t really until then that I really gave myself permission to make more conceptual art. At this time, I was exposed to some really incredible contemporary Aboriginal artists. For example, Vernon Ah Kee’s Tall Man (2010). This is an incredible artwork. The experience of seeing it for the first time—I’ll never forget it. The fact that Ah Kee was able to depict Lex Watton in this work—a man that was under a gag order, who couldn’t appear at the gallery, who couldn’t appear even in the media—that flicked a switch in my mind. I realised that you could make art that challenges the law, that probes legal issues and has the potential to circumnavigate them. I was also grateful to attend the annual Yale conference Law as an Artistic Medium. Here, a lot of theorists and artists were talking about that growing field. It was at this point that I really got into making fictional contracts and more word-based art.
TH: The first work of yours that I encountered was Rape Contract in 2017. It had an incredible effect on me. It’s difficult to not be enraged by the story it tells. Rape Contract is a document written in mock legal rhetoric, incredibly frustrating in its blandness and bureaucratic nature. At one point, it outlines the conduct expected of the rape victim—the behaviour they must adhere to in order to make them the ‘perfect, believable victim,’ so to speak. For example, you reference things like dressing modestly and not getting drunk in public—the kind of things that often get thrown in women’s faces to discredit them. But there’s more. In invisible ink, only visible with a torch, is the scrawled personal commentary of a rape survivor, describing not only the distressing details of her assault, but also the dehumanising legal process in network of webs, arrows, and crosses. Phrases in the contract are also circled or underlined, deconstructing every aspect of the document, laying out the compromising and silencing—and incredibly insulting—aspects of the experience. Various kinds of language are bound in this one work, both legal and personal. It speaks volumes to the complexities of communication, of what we say and what we mean; of what we can’t say (for legal or political reasons) and what lurks behind the platitudes and clichés we sometimes hide behind.
SW: It’s always been a goal of mine to make artwork that is accessible on multiple levels. In regard to Rape Contract, I can’t really the take credit for creating the complexity you refer to. It was a collaboration—it’s not my story, it’s theirs. My friend, who I wrote the contract about, had gone through a devastating legal process in Australia following her sexual assault. When I showed the complete contract to her, she really wanted to sign it, to acknowledge it as hers. It epitomised the unfairness that she, and many people in similar situations, endure. It wasn’t until we started working with her personal language that the extra layer—that deeply personal account—became part of it, on top of the legal language. I do really enjoy working with different discourses that have a tension between them.
TH: It was incredibly aggravating to read those comments. They worked to kind of amend or interrogate the legal jargon. It exposed the personal trauma, and the way that legal language can cloak the rawness of such an experience.
SW: Yes, my friend actually had to fight to be legally allowed to speak about it in a very limited way as a result of the settlement. When we came to collate the documentation—for example, the police report and the personal writing—we butted up against the legal system at every turn. There were words that, even though they were in invisible ink, we still couldn’t show. So even in the artwork, words were doubly redacted. It summarises just how horrible this experience is, how it burns away inside you.
TH: I’m not sure this was in Class Action, but I saw some documentation of your work featuring a X-shaped motif, once depicted on an exhibited document and again in neon lights in the gallery.
SW: Oh, that’s from actually from a different project, Double Redaction (2019). It was a commission for the New School in New York for their exhibition In the Historical Present (2019). To celebrate the New School’s Centennial, a series of artworks, performances and projects were commissioned that responded to archival material in their collection. I responded to documents dating from around 1991. At this time, the New School challenged the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) after they instituted a new policy whereby a grant would be given to an arts organisation on the condition that they sign a contract that had an anti-obscenity clause in it. This clause stated things like, for example, the work exhibited couldn’t contain any homoerotic or sadomasochistic elements, or anything that might be read as paedophilic. The New School challenged the clause on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. They settled out of court, and had that particular clause redacted. The cross on the documents represents that change. While they obscured the clause by crossing it out on the document, it remained there—a reminder of that battle. I wrote a fictional memorandum for the work to go alongside the documentation, which sat under an opalescent larger wall text on which the clause was written. The X was placed over it, echoing the cross found in the original contract. It was an excellent opportunity to explore other means by which various forms of control and censorship dictate the way art museums operate, and silence particular conversations and identities.
TH: I think it’s important to think about such issues critically. We need to consider what conversations are heard, and what political arguments are promoted, and why. In our current global situation, for example, I feel that a lot of discussion online has been problematically tarnished by neoliberal rhetoric. Yesterday, I read a great article by Cedric Johnson on nonsite.org outlining how readily Black Lives Matter has become a slogan cynically used by big corporations to align themselves with progressive racial politics while they simultaneously continue to exploit and underpay their workers, many of whom are African American, Mexican or Hispanic. Johnson points out how, during the pandemic, many of the same corporations have come under fire from labour activists for their mistreatment of workers.
SW: Exactly. I saw an email from the food delivery service DoorDash in which they boasted about how they were going to donate a million dollars to charities and enact all of these diversity-driven policies. But I know people who have worked for companies like these. They can work for eight hours and earn $50 for their workday. That’s possible because these apps treat their workers as independent contractors and not employees. They do this so they don’t have to pay them a minimum wage or give them any benefits. It’s not even a living wage—it’s just shitty exploitation. This is the thing about the celebration of wealth—people don’t question these things. It’s like the role of philanthropy in museums. When these rich public figures give money to museums, galleries, or educational institutions, people are distracted. They don’t think beyond that—about whether it’s right that one person should accumulate so much wealth, and where that wealth came from.
TH: I think another insidious issue steeped in the troubling celebration of wealth is that it can go hand-in-hand with diversity politics. Neoliberal identity politics don’t want to dissolve economic inequality but diversify it. The whole ‘we need more female CEOs’ argument is case in point.
SW: And this is where it becomes very complex. One of the major focuses of the Black Lives Matter movement in LA is getting rid of the current District Attorney, Jackie Lacey. While she is an African American woman, Lacey has terrible record of not prosecuting police officers involved in deaths in custody. There have been major protests addressing this shocking oversight. I try to interrogate issues like these in my art. I think art gives you that kind of platform where you can attempt to expose and probe such issues without necessarily offering clear answers or operating within restrictive frameworks. For example, with my previous work as a lawyer, I was working within the system. With art, you can kind of step outside and look systemic problems and structural issues rather than be limited to isolated cases. It’s enjoyable to play with these ideas in that way, with a little more freedom. You can reimagine and restructure things to bring certain issues to the fore. Looking into Eli Broad was actually a lot of fun. I got to look deeply into the history of that site, and also, how Broad made his fortune. That led me to other trajectories around the taxation of philanthropic donations. There’s a whole growing field on what is termed ‘venture philanthropy’, which is where philanthropic organisations and philanthropists have a commercial attitude towards achieving change. It’s a corporate venture for them, to get the best bang for their buck. They’re quite aggressive in how they pursue that in their tax-free state. It makes them very dangerous figures.
Shevaun Wright is an LA based, Australian born artist. After spending six years working as a lawyer in Sydney, Australia, Wright began working exclusively on her art practice. Despite this apparent career change, Wright’s art practice employs her expert knowledge of the legal system to explore contract theory and probe the inner workings of the art industry, such as the compromising role of art philanthropy. In 2019, Wright completed a Master of Fine Art at UCLA. Her MFA exhibition documented a lawsuit against the namesake and benefactor of the UCLA arts centre which houses the school of Art and Architecture. Wright has been the recipient of such awards as the Whitney Independent Study Program, New York (2015); the Art & Law Program Fellow (2015), and the Parliament of New South Wales Postgraduate Aboriginal Art Scholarship (2013). In 2018, MARS Gallery, Melbourne held Apologies, a solo exhibition of Wright’s work. Wright has featured in many group exhibitions in Australia and abroad, such as By and By: Hope for the Future at the Durden and Ray and SOIL Gallery, Los Angeles (2019); Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2019). Wright was also a finalist in the 2014 Parliament of New South Wales Aboriginal Art Prize.
Tara Heffernan is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis concerns the work of post-war Italian artist Piero Manzoni and its attendance to the capitalist aesthetic mode of the gimmick, an aesthetic model Heffernan believes pervades modernist art-making, particularly in post-war Italy. Her broader research interests are politics, feminism, and the lineages of modernism and the avant-gardes in contemporaneity. She has published in Third Text online, the Journal of Visual Art Practice, and in Australian art publications such as Eyeline, Artlink and Un magazine.
Featured Image: Shevaun Wright, Class Action (2019). Installation detail, gallery entrance. This exhibition took place at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center, University of California, Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the artist.