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Making Art About (With) Day Laborers

January 14, 2012

Brendan O’Neill Kohl’s ten-minute film, Day Labor and Yoshua Okóns’ four-channel video Octopus utilize and center their narratives on day laborers, predominately Mexican and Central American migrants. In Day Labor, a bike messenger in his mid-twenties decides to employ a day labor to avoid riding up and down the streets tired and hung-over. This produces a ripple effect, as other bike riders, a lawyer, tattoo artist, kindergarten teacher, and even the director of Day Labor adopt the bike messenger’s strategy. While there are many ways to read this film, it seems to convey the importance of day labors for the US economy, their range of skills, and Americans’ desire to subsidize labor. See below:

Day Labor

Okon, a well-known Mexican artist, takes on a much more controversial topic. Employing day labors from Central America, Okun seeks to make a point about the “invisibility” of day laborers and American ignorance of the United State’s role in Central America. The video challenges viewers to contemplate the role of the United States in producing migration and think about day laborers (and migrants) in a much more nuanced manner. Unlike Cubans, the United States did not grant Central Americans refugee status. The essay by John C. Welchman, for the Hammer Museum, aptly describes the performance piece:

“Deployed in signature outsize orange shopping carts, squatting on low-slung lumber trolleys, or crawling commando-cum-campesino-style on the parking-lot asphalt between ranks of SUVs, light trucks, and pickups, the combatants in Yoshua Okón’s multichannel video installation Octopus (2011) face off in the precincts of the Cypress Park Home Depot, a couple of miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Dressed in jeans and black or white shirts, they tote imaginary handguns, invisible AK-47s, or hand-faked binoculars. Ducking around the commercial signscape (“California’s Home Improvement Warehouse,” “Rent Me Hourly At . . . ”) and weaving between vehicles, Okón’s irregulars act out abbreviated conflict simulations in a ritualized replay of the civil war in Guatemala” (John C. Welchman)

You can also see it here: Octopus

While Octopus presents a more poignant and controversial message, both raise questions about the relationship between artists and migrant labor. At the end of Day Labor, we are told that all works were hired the day of filming, highlighting the impromptu nature of the work. Okun, on the other hand, is said to have paid them more than the going rate. What is not clear is how each of the artists conceptualized their working relationship with day laborers. Are they collaborators or just actors used to convey the artists’ message? In regards to Octopus, what are the ethical concerns of having victims of a Civil War (recent scholarship argues it resembles genocide more than a conflict between two or multiple parties) perform for a museum going audience?

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