Subjectivity of an Artist’s Object: A Participant’s View of Alvin Luong’s “Workers Dance”
Alvin Luong’s Workers’ Dance (Young Workers, 2021)—a multimedia piece that incorporates high-resolution headshots with dancing bodies captured on personal phone cameras—explores pandemic-induced unemployment among young gig workers: a very specific economic crisis that is still resounding among those who rely on the gig industry to survive. Using the participation of eight female-identified/female-presenting and queer women of colour of ages 35 and under, Luong’s piece combines both large-scale headshot photographs of each individual in the style of Jeff Wall’s Young Workers, 1978– 1983, and a video component that documents the bottom half of the individuals dancing to the telephone music-on-hold from Canada’s Revenue Agency (CRA). As one of the eight participants, I was both a subject (in my decision to “dance” for Luong’s art and to engage with Luong’s work as a critic) and an object (manipulated by Luong’s artistic parameters). These juxtapositions of the top and the bottom of the eight individuals point to the absurd situation of people suddenly losing their employment as a result of the pandemic and being forced “to dance” to the government’s holding music as they wait to access government funds to survive.
Apart from evoking Wall’s Young Workers, Luong here recalls the placement of state head photos close to the ceiling in China and Vietnam, equating the heads of state with the divine. In a photo taken at a Chinese Buddhist shrine in Vietnam where his family’s ashes are stored (that Luong shared with me), there is an image of Ho Chi Minh, the former president of North Vietnam, above the door—a space where images of the Buddha are typically hung. The pink gradient at the bottom of the headshots in Luong’s photos is reminiscent of the painted portraits of the former president of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Tse-tung, hung in and around public spaces in Beijing, China. Mao’s painting also mimics an outdoor shot with shadows painted into the picture, where Mao wears grey—a symbolism Luong repeats in his portraits by asking his participants to wear grey. Similar to these state head photos and paintings, Luong’s participants stare into the distance with an aspirational gaze. The difference is that Luong’s eight participants are all working-class, female-identified or queer women. Like Wall, representing working-class individuals, Luong seeks to create irony through a sense of dissonance between the state and the symbolism of state heads, while simultaneously undermining the “power” of the state by giving back power to the working class.
The portraits—taken outdoors to evoke both Mao’s portraits and to satisfy a pandemic restriction in Ontario—hang close to the ceiling, above the sight of the viewer. There is a gap of the white gallery wall between the headshot and the video of the dancing body of each participant, which is placed on the floor. In the video, the body dances to a three-minute Muzak that keeps resetting, further adding to the awkwardness of the moving body. Each of the eight pieces becomes an absurdist performance piece of its own, with the white wall acting like a buffer as the eye of the viewer scans the piece from top to bottom. The video breaks the spell of the headshots staring into the distance, the overall piece evoking political satire cartoons in newspapers: a balloon head with a tiny body. In the process, the wall in-between loses its neutrality, becoming a pause that causes the viewer to consider the absurdity of the piece.
Luong’s project unfolded over the summer of 2021, with an initial questionnaire that he sent out to eliminate subjects who represented a majority representation in Western photography: white, male, cis-het. His demographic was also strictly 35 and under, with folks who had lost their gigs as a result of the pandemic and were forced to rely on the Canadian government to supplement their income and, by extension, survival. Luong then met with his participants over Zoom to clarify the project, the compensation (everyone was compensated for their time and physical labour of dancing) and the positioning within the domestic, private space for the video recording of the dance.
Luong’s body of work such as Turbo and Young Comrade focuses on the ways the citizen becomes an object of the state, especially a welfare state where the citizen relies on the state’s mercy for survival. In Workers’ Dance, I found myself reliving the frustration and despondency of being on hold with the CRA for questions regarding access to CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) as I danced to Muzak on loop, for Luong. His parameters included that I stand 45 degrees off centre from the camera (in order to match Jeff Wall’s Young Workers’-style images while I danced for 35 minutes. These were captured by Luong at a later date on a 4 x 5, my face placed against the wide-open sky). I was also tasked with recording the video component in the confines of my one-bedroom apartment in Mississauga, Ontario, on my android phone. These parameters highlighted accessibility issues in the formulation of this project.
Since I didn’t have an iPhone like many of the participants, I ran into unforeseen technical difficulties. My phone refused to record for an uninterrupted 35 minutes despite having enough space within its drive; just as the recording would near the 30-minute mark, the phone would stop recording. This meant I had to rerecord multiple times—a reality that many of the participants had to contend with—each time getting more and more tired, the chronic pain in my feet flaring up. In the end, Luong decided to splice two recorded videos to create an illusion of one video as a whole. Standing at a 45-degree angle for a prolonged period also caused me back pain; again, an unforeseen issue.
This first iteration of Workers’ Dance was envisioned theoretically, and, thus, Luong can be excused for being unable to anticipate these issues. For the artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario, with a tight timeline, this iteration became Luong’s learning process, a process he can use to finesse future iterations. Further, in keeping with the ethicality of creating artwork that was largely dependent on his participants’ physical labour, Luong also offered to treat the participants to lunch after completing the headshot component of the piece, engaging in an ethics of care. In my case, over pho and banh-mi, we talked with each other about the Canadian government’s complicity in the pandemic-induced economic crisis as well as the uncalculated issues of this first iteration. This dialogue created a space for self-reflexivity on Luong’s part; and through dialogue exchange while sharing a meal, I also transitioned into a subject in Luong’s work. ❚
Workers’ Dance (Young Workers, 2021) was part of the 2021 AGO X RBC Artists-in-Residence program at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, from October 7, 2021, to October 7, 2022.
Sanchari Sur is a PhD candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Their work appears in Al Jazeera, Quill & Quire, Michigan Quarterly Review, AAWW’s The Margins, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, Toronto Book Award short-listed The Unpublished City, 2017, and elsewhere.