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Code: Red - Political and Art Economy of Sex Work

sex work economy, exchange, Gail Rubin, art, Tadej Pogacar

Ever since Gayle Rubin published her article “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex” the phenomenon of “prostitution” or “sex work” has inevitably been linked to Lévi-Strauss’ general theory of exchange, in anthropology better known as alliance theory. [1]In her article Gayle Rubin uses the established anthropological and socio-economic theories (namely those of kinship systems and Marxism) to explain the development of sexual oppression in society. Soon after her article was published, the term “sex work” was introduced in contemporary language in order to overwrite exactly the negative definition of prostitution: the stereotyping and humiliation of women and men working in sex industry.[2]
Here it has to be acknowledged that such negative definition of sex work sometimes comes as an inevitable result of the anthropological interpretation of the origin of sex work.

According to Levy Strauss’ alliance theory no matter what is the choice, the woman becomes a passive link in the chain that is formed based on economic offer/demand coupling. Rubin therefore concluded that such systems of oppression are not based upon sex but gender, a classification that is attached to individuals by their culture and society. Although initially based on the biological sex division this classification is developed through many cultural and societal confining models.[3]

Tadej Pogačar’s long-term art project CODE: RED that the artist took on board in 2001 took into account the majority of already existing and newly emerged arguments and disputes surrounding sex work in social, economic, political and art terms.

CODE: RED furthermore opened up a discussion that ponders far beyond the original Strauss’ and Rubin’s arguments. What originally started as a critique and has been already accepted as one of the main arguments of feministic scholarship: that the patriarchy was based on an endless exchange of women among men in a ring or a chain of give-take rituals and policies, gradually developed and became receptive to slightly different interpretative potentials. In this text I want to argue that instead to cling on the understanding of sex workers as passive victims of the circular exchange, Pogačar puts in the focus of his project sex workers as subjects that are rather seen as potential agents of shift in the social and economical relations between genders.

In a continuous series of events such as performances, conferences, workshops, public art projects, or public debates, Pogačar deals with issues such as trafficking, employment, social, cultural, health and human rights of sex workers and other urgent socio-economic or political phenomena concerning this underprivileged societal group. However, the most important aspect of all these events is the artist’s aim to locate the acts of free will and active agency instead on complaining and self-victimisation of sex workers.

Self-Organisation and Parallel Economy

CODE:RED is a long-term participatory project that since its very beginning focused on investigating and discussing of various aspects of sex work as a specific form of parallel economy and economic system’s “disobedience.” It functions as an ongoing collaborative and interdisciplinary platform that throughout numerous series of projects explores the potentiality of analogue economic models of various isolated groups and social minorities.

The artist starts from the fact that on every continent the sex work industry provides a vital source of income for different classes of population that are excluded from the main stream and dominant economy. People forced into prostitution usually come from underprivileged social groups living on the edge of society that are often stigmatised, deprived of their basic human rights or even physically attacked. CODE:RED actually researches the specific modes of self-organisation of such marginalised groups and communities, that develop outside the dominant social, economic, and political frameworks and thus create better sex work conditions. For example, in 2003 CODE: RED Sector Zagreb resulted with the social design for the WORKING UNIT Z 01 module, which aim was to help sex workers in carrying out their activities. The module was mobile, versatile, and portable. In addition, it could be hooked up to existing power sources and water and sewage systems and its units could be enlarged, joined in a group, or linked end to end. The module’s interior consisted of five zones: hygiene, reception, lounge, the light zone and the work zone.

On various occasions through its many editions CODE: RED used other real public spaces and virtual geography and thus it took the form of an open dialog between Pogačar, the other invited artists, the participating sex workers and the public. The project enhances public activities and activism of already existing organisations of sex workers that are already self-organised and self-aware of their subversive strenghts.

The subversive actions of such communities in the urban, media and virtual environments in the context of CODE:RED first started during the first public presentation that within the framework of this project took place at the 49th Venice Biennial in 2001. The First World Congress of Sex Workers and New Parasitism was essential part of this edition of CODE:RED Sex Worker project. The project was a public platform for discussion and public actions that gained official support of the Slovenian Ministry of Culture and was realised in a close collaboration with the Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes (Comitato per I Diritti Civili delle Prostitute) from Pordenone, Italy. The Congress itself started with a long march of sex works brought together in Venice as representatives of numerous sex worker organisations from Europe, Asia, America, and Australia.

The opening march’s route went from the Giardini, through St. Marco’s Square up to the AA Gallery but the project’s activities mainly took place in a white tent that was especially erected for CODE: RED near the Venice Giardini on Via Garibaldi. This space was entitled Prostitute Pavilion (Padiglione delle Prostitute) as an ironic reference to the Venice national pavilions. Activists, sexual workers, organisations from Italy gathered during the opening and discussed the issues that the sex workers face in their everyday life and professional activities. A special thematic issue of the newspaper SEX WORKER was printed as a documentation of the participants’ activities.
In collaboration with a number of the leading activists and organisations another similar event, the conference "The Ultimate Sex Worker Conspiracy Soiree: Conference and Party" was held in 2002 in New York with participation of activists from New York, Washington, Boston, and Baltimore. CODE:RED USA discussed various topics of urban minority of sex workers in NYC. The project started with the research of the particular urban and legal context of the conditions of life and work of sex workers in New York. PMCA establishes links between local organisations, artists, activists and protagonists. A special website featured a database and project documentation allows the general public direct access to the project.

Through such performance, public actions, interventions and various other media the participants of all these projects discussed different issues such as the impact of globalisation and new technologies on sex work practices, control of the public body, parallel economies and marginal communities, the right to work, sex workers’ human rights, legal and social regulations, taboos, circulation of money and women, etc.

Society of taboos: labour, kinship, sex and gender

Usually the circular theory of exchange has been used by feminists in order to interprete some negative contemporary phenomena such is the international chain of trafficking of women. This global phenomena takes the form of a "circulation of women" which links together the various social groups in one whole: in the society as it is constructed today and that is in focus of CODE:RED. However, society, the ways people and groups of people related and functioned as a larger group, did not have such a structure since its start. This was ensured through the use of kinship systems and incest taboos, and gender.[4]Gender is culturally defined and states that one is a "man" or a "woman," and that a person must be one or the other and cannot be both.

Since there is nothing else that would push men to look for women outside of their inner kinship circle besides the incest taboo, the incest is thus a negative prescription. The incest taboo in which one's daughter or sister is offered to someone outside a family circle for an exchange of a woman from the other tribe starts a circle of exchange of women: in return from his kin woman, the giver is entitled to a woman from the other's intimate kinship group. Thus the negative prescriptions of the prohibition have positive counterparts. The idea of the alliance theory is thus of a reciprocal or a generalised exchange. At this point it is important to recall Levi-Strauss’ division of societies into three fundamental types according to their marriage rules.[5]

The first type is associated with societies that define only those whom one cannot marry and he labels complex: it is made up of societies that only have negative marriage rules, such as, for example, modern Western societies. The second, which he labels transitional, includes societies like clan organisations that employ positive marriage rules in principle but not in practice. The third consists of those with positive marriage rules that Strauss called “elementary.”

In the third type, associated with marriage as the organisational pivot, societies define the class of persons one cannot marry as well as those with whom marriage is required or prescribed. Levi-Strauss focused on this type when examining the role played by marriage rules in the origins of society, of the nature of original society, and of the rise of inequality.

It should be acknowledged that over time these systems began to exist solely for themselves, imposing gender and gender roles that supported a system based at least partly on the control of men over women. In this self-propagation based on the oppression of a group, these systems are analogous to Marxism, which is the perpetuation of wealth gained via the surplus value of labor. As wealth is accumulated, capital from that wealth is used to gain more wealth, etc. As males and females are born, they are taught to be men and women who grow up, form a viable economic group together, and birth more males and females who are taught to be men and women.

I want to argue, however, that far from being societies that have only negative marriage rules, contemporary societies actually function as if they were “constantly in transition”, very similarly to clan societies, whereby there are still reminders of the positive marriage rules.

Following Levi-Strauss’s conception of the smallest viable economic unit as one man and one woman, the division of labor by sex can be seen as a result of such taboos. Thus it does not come as a surprise the usual stereotype of sex work as uniquely female profession that in some languages is emphasised by the mere fact that the word takes only a female gender.

Society of Exchange: gift, kinship and gender

The importance of reciprocity of gift for the primitive societal relations was first theorised Marcel Mauss.[6]He emphasised the significance of the gift since according to him giving, receiving and reciprocating gifts are dominant social intercourses in primitive societies where all sorts of things circulate in exchange—food, spells, rituals, words, names, ornaments, tools, and powers. Women are only inevitable part of such circulation since as any other gifts they never come as free but their exchange creates additional social pressure for further exchange.

Usually this circular theory of exchange and kinship has been used by feminists in order to interprete some contemporary phenomena such as trafficking of women. Kinship is therefore not an isolated domain but linked to economic and political structures. Marriage exchanges need to be analysed within their wider economic and political context rather than in isolation, as they were interpreted within the context of Levi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology.

In identifying the nature of structural domination by men over women through the mechanisms of kinship system, Rubin picked out these two concepts and found their connection as particularly useful – the link between the concept of gift and the incest taboo. Together, they lead to the concept of "exchange of women" - that places men and women in an asymmetric power relationship by rendering men as "givers" and women as "gifts" – objects that men exchange exclusively among themselves.[7]

Regardless to the fact that the exchange ensures an amount of interaction between humans and takes the form of a processual exchange ritual, women in these systems do not have the right of exchange; this is reserved for one of their masculine kin. Nevertheless, some parts of this Rubin’s argument appear to be as problematic as the Marxist exposition on how oppression of women takes place. Similarly, by subsuming gender under class it can tell how those in the lower class are exploited but it cannot tell why it is always the women, rather than men who fill the lower class in the first place. Rubin is not explicit on why it is women rather than men who come to be exchanged, rather than exchanging.

Rubin is highly concerned about this vicious circle of structural male domination that accords male and female children different social meanings and status to their respective gender. According to her the revolutionary reorganisation of society is necessary, a shift that would completely do away with kinship structure that subjugates women. However, as many other theorists she failed to specifically point out how this shift could be concretely achieved.

In that sense, focusing on women who attempt to actively participate the deconstruction of the routes of exchange of sex and capital from within sex work industry is Pogačar’s proof that the vicious circle of theory is not necessarily so inevitable in practice.

Governing Liberty: capital, gender and art

Ever since the term recuperation was used in the 50s and 60s by the Situationists and Guy Debord to describe the procedure by which ‘mainstream society takes a radical idea and repackages it as a safe commodity’ the artists are trying to find a successful strategy in order to defeat this almost compulsory societal effect.[8]
Recently theorists argued that we are urged and commanded to rebel against the system in order to gain access to the system which is how the system works. Therefore, according to recuperation as a critical concept such artistic quest is condemned to failure at its start.
My question here is whether it is possible to entangle the existing modes of recuperation and simultaneously to overcome them within a single art project and whether in the period when there are many marginalised systems, turning rebellion into money is still that bad. I would examine this question in the context of Tadej Pogacar’s project in which the money’s route is changed to an unexpected destination. I want to claim that the project CODE: RED is a witty outdoing of the liberalism’s vicious circle of recuperation of subversive art by using the liberal system for recuperation of marginalised communities.

Political theorists commonly describe liberalism as a normative political doctrine that treats the maintenance of individual liberty as an end in itself. Liberty is seen as setting limits both to the objectives of government and to the manner in which those objectives might be pursued. Even Foucault, although he did not perceive the issue of individual liberty in normative terms, accorded it a central place in his account of liberalism as a rationality of government.[9]
The significance that liberalism attaches to individual liberty, he suggests, is intimately related both to the aim, which it shares with political reason more generally, to recruit the government of oneself to its own larger purposes, and to a prudential concern that the state might be governing too much. Thus, the state regulation of certain kinds of behavior might in fact be counterproductive.

In practice, however, it is clear that authoritarian rule has always played an important part in the government of states that declare themselves to be committed to the maintenance and defense of individual liberty—as it has, of course, in the government of states that do not make that commitment. Even now, coercive and oppressive practices are clearly employed in many contemporary governments. Such governmental practices continue to play an important part, not only in the independent states that took over the old imperial domains, but also in Western states themselves: in systems of criminal justice, the policing of Romany people, negligence of AIDS patients, immigrant communities and the urban poor, the provision of social services, and the management of large public and private sector organisations. Authoritarian rule has also been invoked as a necessary instrument of economic liberalisation in much of Latin America, parts of Southeast Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe.

How do such authoritarian practices relate to the liberal government of freedom? Indeed if, as Foucault suggests, the market plays “the role of a ‘test,’” then it is a test that surely cuts both ways, indicating not only that some people and some fields of activity can best be governed through the promotion of suitable forms of free behavior, but also that there are other cases in which more direct regulation by the state will be required. In this respect, the description of liberal political reason, considered as a rationality of the government of “the state as a whole,” as being concerned with governing through the promotion of certain kinds of liberty must be regarded as incomplete.

Most importantly, governing is tightly concerned with determining which individuals and which areas of conduct within the state can best be governed in this way and which cannot, and with deciding what can be done about governing the latter. Liberalism can hardly avoid the question of what to do about individuals and areas of conduct that seem not to be amenable to government through the promotion of suitable forms of individual liberty. Thus, rather than describe liberalism as committed to governing through freedom, it would be more appropriate to present it as claiming only that there are important contexts in which free interaction might be the most appropriate means of regulation: that certain populations, or significant individuals and groups and activities within them, can and should be governed through the promotion of particular kinds of free activity and the cultivation of suitable habits of self-regulation, and that the rest just have to be governed in other ways.

Perhaps sex workers are the most affected by such hypocritical treatment of social and economical liberty. In the more recent editions of CODE:RED Pogačar was mainly concerned with self-regulation, self-organisation and self-sustainability of sex workers’ organisations in the condition of liberalisation of the non-Western markets.

The game MonApoly- A Human Trade Game (interactive board game, edition of 100) was produced in 2004 as part of CODE Red as a kind of re-contextualised remodeling of the most famous capitalist game. MonApoly board game is a new cartography of global sex work and trade with humans. It visually follows Monopoly and the basic scheme of the most famous capitalist game, but its contents are completely new. While playing the game according to the precisely written rules the players can obtain new information on the global sex work, activist organisations, organised routes and crime gangs that organise slave trade, etc. The players can also finance the constuction of a safe house, support the operation of groups that are fighting for the rights of the sex workers and their programmes or can save a sex slave from Moldova.[10]

Instead of accumulating capital, the game explains the geopolitics and distribution of sex work: the enhanced global exhange of sex workers in the period of global capitalism and neo-liberal economy. In another context, the visitors of the Worker’s Club space (International Contemporary Art Biennial 2005– National Gallery Prague, curatorial project of Suzana Milevska) were invited to play this board game as a kind of leisure time off the busy Biennial agenda but also as a kind of ironic reference to the games plaid in socialist workers’ clubs, when sex work was hardly concieved as work.

The project CODE:RED Tirana (2002) was organized in collaboration with AAGW. AAGW, a non-profit organisation was founded by former victims of human trafficking in Tirana, in order to provide support for trafficked girls and women. AAGW supports a number of projects to aid shelter residents, including vocational training and job placement, as well as the production of artistic handicrafts and fundraising activities. All their products included in installation at National Gallery of Arts were on sale during the Tirana Biennial and were produced by victim of trafficking. Pogačar’s research showed that most of the Albanian women and girls who become victims of human trafficking are sent to Italy and Greece, though some end up in England, Germany, Belgium, and Norway. In Albania, trafficking in humans was not illegal before 2001, and only a handful of traffickers have been convicted, receiving sentences of just a few months in jail. Official estimates claim that more than 6,000 Albanian girls and women are victims of illegal trade in humans and were forced into prostitution.

One of the latest editions of CODE :RED, the fashion show performance of the operation Daspu is another Pogačar’s project, supported by the Brazilian collective Davida on the occasion of his participation at the 27th Biennale of Sao Paulo in 2006. Daspu is a real fashion house managed by sex workers, that succeeded in attracting a lot of attention of the media. CODE :RED explored the world of the prostitution and the parallel economic forms that operate within sex workers’ communities, as well as the twist in celebrity system. Sao Paulo Biennial, the largest art exhibition in Latin America, thus put a new shift in bringing art closer to the public through the fashion show by sex workers who not only modelled their own designs but also profited from the exhibition’s audience. The climax of the show was a wedding dress taylored with sheets from motels in Rio de Janeiro and a veil was made entirely of condoms.

The fashion line, called Daspu, was created by the sex workers’ organisation Davida and its president and founder Gabriela Leite. It was named after a contraction of the words "das putas," meaning of or by whores, and is a pun on Daslu, a chic brand of clothing in Brazil.
At the beginning Daspu caused a real furor in Brazil but soon became popular brand that gained even more success after the sell out of their T-shirts in the Biennial.

The latest edition of the project, CODE:RED Skopje, Lesson 1 (2007) researches a region that represents one of the most critical hot spots in human trafficking in SEE region. Macedonia is a significant geographic and strategic crossroad of the East–West and North–South trade, both in illegal international human trafficking and in forced prostitution. A problem that has recently been acknowledged in Macedonian official institutions under the pressure of NGO activists is the phenomenon of internal forced migration, which places Macedonia among those countries that serve as both the source and the final destination for human trafficking.

In the framework of CODE:RED Skopje, Lesson 1, five high school students used the gallery walls of press to exit project space in Skopje as a school board. Namely, they repeatedly wrote the sentence: “Sex-workers' rights are human rights.” Тhus the artist emphased the importance of the education for breaking the vicious circle of different constitutive elements that enable the societal tolerance towards human rights violations of sex workers.

The participants of the project, five disciples of the Building Construction High School “Zdravko Cvetkovski”: Marija D., Laze L., Simona L., Elizabeta S. and Marija S. under the leadership of their professor of fine art Ratka Ilievska – Lale were also invited to participate in two informal discussions with the artist Tadej Pogačar and with the curator Suzana Milevska. Even though the teenagers were exited and enthusiastically involved whenever the discussions focused on art issues, they were significantly confused by the notion of sex work and the main concept of the project. The professor’s comments and the retold parent’s reactions did not helped much in what at first seemed to be amusing game – many stereotypes and prejudices come through and showed the urgency of introducing sex education and more regular discussions on the problem of sex work and human trafficking in Macedonian high-schools.

The project built up around a small group of interested volunteers such as Zarko Trajanoski, human rights’ expert, Nora Stojanovik, activist and artist, Marija Toseva and Marija Todorovska, representatives of “H.O.P.S.” (Health Options Project Skopje), Marija Nikolovska, the International Organization for Migration – IOM Macedonia, and gained initial support of the NGO “Open Gate – La Strada,” a woman's lobby and action against violence and trafficking in women and by the Cultural Centre Tocka where the first meeting of the artist with the local participants took place already in April 2006. However, crucial for the artist decision to work with high-school disciples was the lack of any self-organised community or organization of sex workers.

However, soon after the launch of the project, the first self-organised public sex workers’ activist association consisting of a small group of local sex workers was announced on 17 December 2007, the last day of Pogačar’s exhibition. Namely, the organisers of the first organised International Day against Violence on Sex Workers that ever took place in Skopje referred to the exhibition as a kind of initial provocation for the action. [11]The red umbrella that became a symbol of the local participants of this event was in a way closely related with the red umbrellas that were seen on the streets of Venice already in 2001, as integral parts of the CODE: RED’s March (in this context referring also to the Venice tourist guides’ use of umbrellas of different colours to mark their groups).

This action that was an unplanned but most urgent follow up to Tadej Pogačar’s CODE: RED also recalled the Monument to the Unknown Sex Worker that in 2002 was set up in Ljubljana between February 1 and February 5. The Monument to the Unknown Sex Worker was conceived as a public unveiling of the monument accompanied by the round table Globalism and New Exclusions. What the artist called “temporary monument” actually referred to the instability of the public space and to the specific fragmentary and heterogenous nature of a monument that can emerge as a spontaneous performative and non-linear subjectivity.


NOTES

1. Gayle Rubin. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex." Rayna Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.

2. The terms “Sex work” and “Sex worker” were coined soon after Rubin’s article, at a conference in 1978, and are attributed to Carol Leigh (alias The Scarlot Harlot), an artist, film maker, and prostitutes’ rights activist based in San Francisco. She participated in the ‘First World Congress of Sex Workers and the New Parasitism’ that took part within Tadej Pogačar’s project CODE:RED presented in Venice Biennial in 2001.

3. Later Judith Butler developed a gender constructivist theory that was based on similar assumptions but followed by a more complex argumentation in psychoanalytic terms in: Judith Butler. Gender Trouble. Feminism and Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

4. Claude Levi-Strauss. “The Future of Kinship Studies.” Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1965 (1965), 13-22. In this article Levi-Strauss coined the second type of societies “transitional type” - in principle clan organisations that he labels Crow-Omaha systems. They are based on positive marriage rules but operate as though they were based on negative marriage rules.

5. Levi-Strauss 21.

It is important to emphasise that even though Lévi-Strauss’ general theory of exchange was widely accepted, today we should take some of its arguments with reserve because this theory has been already challenged by the functionalists, poststructuralists and other theorists for being too rigid and based on unreliable evidence. The British structuralist Edmund Leach, who in contrast to Levi-Strauss was more concerned with researching people's actual lives than with universal mental structures, found that the Levi-Strauss' analyses were too superficial and not always based on the available data. According to Leach, Levi-Strauss had incorrectly assumed that wife-takers would be of higher rank than wife-givers among the analised Kachins; in reality, it turned to be the other way round since the former would have had to make substantial bridewealth payments to obtain wives.

6. Marcel Mauss. The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge, 1990.

7. Judith Butler already asked whether kinship is always already heterosexual. It is interesting to note that the required partnering in marriage is based on gender, not sex, thus depending on a culture's dictates of what is "man" and what is "woman."

8. I am indebted for this part of my argument to the discussion that took place within the panel entitled “Recuperation of Culture: End of Artistic Rebellion.” The panel moderated by Edi Muka took place at Stacion in Prishtina, on 6 December 2007.

9. Barry Hindess. Politics as Government: Michel Foucault’s Analysis of Political Reason. Alternatives Global, Local, Political. Volume 30 Number 4 Oct.–Dec. 2005.

10. Most of the descriptions of the projects are quoted according to the artist’s web site that is conceived as a web site of a virtual P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Museum of Contemporary Art, 10 January 2008 .

11. "News” HOPS-Health Options Project Skopje, 27 December 2007 .
Published: 2008-01-17
Author: Dr. Suzana Milevska

About the author or the publisher
Suzana Milevska is a curator and writer based in Skopje, Macedonia. She teaches Visual Culture and is the Director of the Visual and Cultural Research Centre – “Euro-Balkan” Institute. She earned her PhD in 2006 from Goldsmiths College – University of London where she was teaching (2003-2005). She is a member of I.K.T. and A.I.C.A. and an international correspondent for the Feminist Review –London, Contemporary, London and springerin, Vienna. She published in numerous art journals and magazines.
www.gender-wise@blogspot.com

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