Seth Siegelaub on the ‘Artists’ Contract’ he conceived of during the 1960s

Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did you conceive the “Artists’ Contract”?

SS: The ”Artists’ Contract” is a much more modest project than you suggest by your question. Its intention was just to first, articulate the kind of interests existing in a work of art, and then, to shift the relative power relationships concerning these interests more in favor of the artist. In no way was it intended to be a radical act; it was intended to be a practical real-life, hands-on, easy to-use, no-bullshit solution to a series of problems concerning artist’s control over their work; it wasn’t proposing to do away with the art object, it was just proposing a simple way that the artist could have more control over his or her artwork once it left their studio. Period. But the broader social-economic questions of the changing role and function of art in society, the possibility of alter native ways of art making or the support of the existence of the artist; all these important questions are not addressed here. As a practical solution, the contract did not question the limits of capitalism and its private property; it just shifted the balance of power in favor of the artist over some aspects of a work of art once it was sold.

HUO: It would be about protecting the artist within the existing system.

SS: Right. The problem of art as private (capitalist) property, of the uniqueness of objects, this was certainly a problem in the air during the 1960s and behind certain art making projects. But it wasn’t just a theoretical-political problem, in the context of art making at the time it was also a practical problem, in that the selling of ideas or projects was something that the art world had never come up against before on any generalized scale. This has to do more with questions of how to transfer property ownership of an art work, and these questions were ” more-or-less” resolved by treating them in a way similar to the rights and interests given to authors or composers.

HUO: Or musicians? Whenever a piece of music is played in public the author gets a royalty on it. We could apply this to publications and exhibition. But, of course, there is the problem that it will never be popular enough for the royalties to be significant.

SS: Yes; and that was precisely the problem at the beginning, because the catalogues were barely sold, or sold for $2 or something. The idea of royalties of 20 cents for four people on a book, added to the fact that there were not that many people interested to begin with, makes for very little real money. But the idea or pos-sibility is still very important. This may change of Course if there is more interest or if the prices become expensive enough to make royalties.

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