July 2002
volume 1, issue 1


Still Learning From Las Vegas

Saturday, September 16, 2001
Las Vegas, Nevada

"In support of today's protest by the Las Vegas Culinary Union against the Venetian Hotel Casino's anti-union activities, two Los Angeles artists are casting a shadow on the new Guggenheim Museum. The opening ceremonies for Las Vegas' newest institution of high art at the Venetian Hotel Casino take off this afternoon, but the motif of counter-celebration is already hanging in the sky. A "Black Cloud" is hovering over the museum today as members of the Culinary Union gather to protest union-busting by the Venetian. This "cloud" of over 1000 balloons is being called a sign of symbolic mourning for the Guggenheim's passive compliance with the Venetian Hotel Casino's anti-union campaign. Artists Nicole Cousino and Sarah Lewison predict further bad weather for Las Vegas, if contracts like the one the Venetian has made with the Guggenheim are going to be the centerpiece of the city's program to bring in high art."


It seems surprising that a city such as Las Vegas, with an economy centered on dragging folks in on the promise of a jackpot, is also a union town. Vegas is one of the few American cities where everyone knows what a union is, and the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employees International (aka the Culinary Union) is one of the more powerful union. With over 55,000 members, HERE has political alliances, attentive media coverage and police protection for rallies. Their members are housekeepers, busboys and cooks who provide services from making change to placing mints on the pillows. Although theirs is the least visible labor on the Strip, they have successfully organized all but two casinos. One of the holdouts is the Venetian, which continues to rebuff efforts by HERE to unionize their workers. When the Venetian announced their lucrative partnership with the Guggenheim, offering space to build two new museums in return for lease fees and a share of profits, HERE attempted to steer the Guggenheim to consider alternative unionized properties for the venture. Given the experience of the museum at the Bellagio, the Venetian was likely to increase annual profits by several million. This past September, HERE sought to use the Guggenheim's opening as an occasion to expose the museum’s disregard for the union's long-term dispute with the Venetian. To accomplish this exposé, they asked several artists to design and implement elements for their rally.

HERE felt that Venetian owner Sheldon Adelson was using art to raise the value of his property through cultural cache and increased foot traffic and HERE wanted to usurp this artistic appropriation through their own visual display. As artists interested in spectatorship and civic space, Nicole Cousino and I were eager to work in Las Vegas, a city that flaunts the potential and superficiality of wealth. The campaign offered an opportunity to examine relations between labor, capital and art under superlative circumstances. Even though the event was cancelled due to the events of9/11, the collaboration raises questions about the relations between art and labor in a service economy.

The Culinary Union had been picketing sporadically in front of the Venetian for three years with the goals of building worker solidarity, dissuading Venetian customers, and pressuring the Venetian's owners into accepting unionization. Our proposed cloud project was intended to direct attention from the Venetian's facade and toward a large rally that would include a medley of events, performances, pickets and other artist projects. While the black cloud referred directly to the stand-off between the union and the Venetian, it was also to be contextualized as implicit institutional critique by its sheer proximity to the art Institution.

It is significant that the institution in question here was the (Mc)Guggenheim Vegas, currently exhibiting the BMW-sponsored "Art of the Motorcycle." Their other recent traveling show, "Georgio Armani," was sponsored by the Time Warner magazine "In Style," yet was certainly enriched by the $15 million gift Armani made to the museum. These kinds of exhibits are effectively advertising-elevated-to-the-position-of-high-art, with imaginably correlative economic benefits for the companies whose wares are on display.

The franchising of museums like the Guggenheim is of-a-piece with the franchising of other upscale commercial outlets (Starbucks, Gap) throughout the world. In this case, corporate economic globalization not only exploits weak labor and environmental standards in poorer countries, but also opens up new sites in low-rent cities for museum branches, or 'franchises' like the Guggenheim. Their low-overhead pre-packaged shows tend to steal audiences away from local institutions, while contributing to the global homogenization and commercialization of cultural exhibitions. Much like McDonald's has done, the Guggenheim's director Thomas Kren anticipates further international incursions, including branches in South America, East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.


As a career move, a commission from a union does not have the prestige of one from a museum, but we relished the notion that our labor might contribute to the economic justice for workers in an(other) underpaid occupation. Below the black cloud, we envisioned a choreographed flotilla of gondolas on the sidewalk filled with union members singing about what it takes to keep the Venetian's own gondolas afloat. A set of informative commemorative postcards would be distributed to tourists, and an authentic Venetian Gondolier's Union representative would appear at the rally. At the time the event was cancelled, we were negotiating a proposed infiltration of custom napkins into the Guggenheim's opening reception, printed with a broken heart with 'labor' on one side, and 'art' on the other.

Our proposed activities were all subject to approval by HERE's lawyers and the lead organizer. These negotiations kept alive the sense that our participation in this campaign was mercenary, that we would move on to other projects while this struggle for union recognition would continue. At this moment, our focus was upon this group of workers, to whom we were brokering our labor and ideas, but the next moment, we might be pursuing a different agenda. Underlying this sense of the mercenary was a recognition of the convoluted way the logic of artistic autonomy functions to conceal our economic and social dependence upon authorities that confer status and value upon artistic practice.

The lead organizer did not respond positively to the napkins, saying he didn't understand the connection between art and labor. Had we been in direct discussion with him (all conversations took place through an intermediary), we could have pointed out historic examples of art's collusion with social justice, such as Diego Rivera and the WPA. In lieu of debate, we turned these concerns back into our project by seeking to define distinctions between the union's and our domains of interest. For example, the union was primarily concerned with its members' sense of commitment and solidarity, manifested by a kind of outing of Adelson's unfair labor practices. While supporting the union in their focus we were also interested in creating a larger public support and understanding of the issues. In the commemorative postcards we designed, we insisted on balancing the union's agitation with a second text that explained why unionization is good for the workers and for a city.

In reflection, there are connections to be drawn between the service industry and some contemporary artistic practices. HERE's large size reflects a surge in employment in the service sector countering a decrease in manufacturing in developed nations. It has been observed that, correlating to the growth of the service sector, there has also been an increase in artistic practices that involve expenditures of labor in excess of material production. In her article "How to Provide an Artistic Service," Andrea Fraser characterizes these as practices that in economic terms would be called service provision. These include artists engaged in institutional critique, in orchestrating meetings and experiences for the spectator (Maria Karlsson), in the provision of food (Rikrit Tiravanija), drinks or music, site interpretation and analysis (CLUI), advocacy and community education (Guerrilla Girls, Gran Fury), and the development of new social and economic structures (Art in Action, N55, @rtmark).

What is the situation of the service provider? Unlike artists who produce objects that acquire an economic value as luxury commodities, service providers either need to survive upon payment for their services or by an outside source of income. In the machine of exhibition, criticism and investment, value and prestige are highly wrapped up in a disinterest as to the social use value of an object or artistic action. Institutions act to objectify art, so that it is presented as the output of creators operating as autonomous agents of their own desire and interests.


This transformation of personal value and labor into symbolic value casts a blind eye to the particular genre’s form, but objects and actions lead different lives in the world of exchange. Ultimately however, is the service-providing artist providing any service other then accrual of prestige for the institution?

In Las Vegas, what was our relationship with the union? Was it a collaboration, a parasitic relationship; were we being called in like plumbers or specialty surgeons to provide a service? Considering the discrepancies in power and focus between us and HERE, it seems difficult to call this a collaboration. Technically, we were contracted specialists, whose job was to fine-tune the union's public relations vis-a-vis the Guggenheim campaign. We were providing a service, yes, but one that was consonant with our own desires for social discourse.

Like entrepreneurs or effective unions, we sought to shape our participation in this project so as to maintain control over its use and meaning. We wanted to create an affective image/moment that would resonate autonomously, and we also chose to aid the Culinary local (HERE) in their cause. It would be worthwhile to examine the ways contemporary artists retain control over how their art is used, in an attempt to produce collectivity, autonomy and agency in the midst of a speculative international market.

 As long as the system of belief on which the status of our activity depends is defined according to a principle of autonomy which bars us from pursuing the production of specific social use value, we are consigned to producing only prestige value."Andrea Fraser, "How to Provide an Artistic Service"