Why do some of us get paid well while others struggle because their work is considered “unskilled”? Who decides what we earn? Why is there still pay inequality between men and women, or workers in developed and developing economies?
These are questions we might be uncomfortable asking, partly because the answers open a can of worms about what is considered “worthy work” (white-collar professions), “unworthy work” (for example sex workers) and unpaid work (raising children).
In her new show, Melbourne artist, activist and feminist Casey Jenkins explores these ideas by “hiring” out her time, her labour, her body and her life for an hourly wage that matches what workers might be paid in the real-world.
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Based out of Dark Horse Experiment gallery in the city, Jenkins has already received numerous and varied employment requests, from minding children, cutting hair and compiling tax receipts, to performing sex acts.
‘’I won’t do any work that could cause harm to others. No recording devices are allowed, and the work space – and my body – must be left in the same general condition in which they were hired,’’ she says. These are the terms of hire, as set out in Jenkins’ artist statement. Further, the work she takes on has to be considered “untrained.”
‘’I’m not selling my mind or my heart,” she explains. “It has to be labour that almost anyone could step in and do in my place.”
‘’It’s been interesting that people I’m close to have expressed particular discomfort hiring me on the dates of the lesser-worker wage rates, while people who have requested types of work that are generally denigrated in society – such as sex work – have being unwilling to own their requests,” Jenkins says.
“They’re using pseudonyms and not showing up to sign the contract personally, or for requested work shifts. It’s been an interesting process to observe the way society segregates different forms of work.”
Jenkins set up Craft Cartel and Knit Your Revolt several years ago. They are art collectives that used craft and knitting – traditionally demeaned as “women’s domestic work” – to transmit feminist and social-justice messages.
With Body of Work, Jenkins says she wanted to focus how much of our time is self-directed and how much is dictated by the demands of others.
Jenkins is intrigued by what she describes as, “The limits of human empathy,” pointing to how we will care about people who look like us or those who, “occupy similar spaces on earth,” but will trample over others with blissful ignorance.
In urban Australia we tend to see deep wage inequity as a problem that is more relevant to so-called developing countries. Jenkins hopes to draw attention to the variations in what people get paid that exist here in Australia due to unacknowledged wage perks, uncompensated travel to and from work and even additional unclaimed costs of the materials you use to do your job.
The concept of paid parenting is, of course, another politically loaded discussion. “Parents are expected to happily give over their lives because the non-monetary rewards are considered adequate,” Jenkins says.
“I think our belief that the rightful attitude of many workers, often women, [is] to be happy slaves, content to give over their time for no wage. [This belief] is so endemic that we baulk at the idea of payment for these services.”
On opening night, Jenkins saw some fascinating changes in audience reaction as the night wore on. As she performed various rote tasks – such as reading from campaign notes at increasing volume – the audience began to applaud as if she had, in her own words, ‘’Performed some remarkable feat.’’
“What I am doing is no more or less taxing than that done by millions of workers around the world,’’ she says. ‘’I’m just requiring it to be viewed unflinchingly and that, apparently, is something that is rarely done.”
Casey Jenkins’ Body of Work is on at Dark Horse Experiment at 110 Franklin Street, Melbourne Until April 10. On April 9, the artist will be hosting a talk at the gallery with a Q&A featuring some of the people who have employed her during the performance.