Much of the work of Constantina Zavitsanos maps the bodily encumbrances of personal disability onto an axiological skepticism of contemporary forms of labor. In their work as well as their writing,1 disability and debt are treated as inextricable and interchangeable, and, for the artist, dependency—in the broadest, most abundantly connotative sense of the word—is emphasized as their artistic practice’s pedagogical and discursive content.
In 2015, this thematic coupling of disability and debt through dependency was the subject of the artist’s three-month-long Sweepstakes at the New Museum. Here, settlement money awarded to Zavitsanos following a successful class-action lawsuit (for unlawful arrest at a 2004 Iraq War protest) against the New York City Police Department was redistributed to museumgoers in the form of Visa debit cards, each containing a $25, $50, $100, $500 or $1,000 sum. The work’s descriptive text, alongside the cards near the admissions desk, permitted visitors to take the debit cards beyond the institution and to use the funds for any purpose whatever. While transaction records indicated frequent use of the cards for the museum’s $18 entrance fee, this mandate provided monetary stimulus for the individual provisioning of basic needs, the repayment of debts, the purchase of full tanks of gas, early dinners at nearby Lower East Side restaurants, MetroCards, or coffee in the lobby. Through this somewhat anarchic dissemination of money—which started at state-level before sliding down the civil hierarchy to institution then citizen—Sweepstakes diagrams, through the cards’ spending records, the polymorphous dependencies which condition all aspects of contemporary life in debt and subsume all forms of social labor under capitalism.
Whereas Sweepstakes mounted its critique by intervening into specifically material forms of dependency, in L&D Model—currently on view at Participant Inc.—the artist’s continued probing into questions such as “what counts as labor?” and “in what way is a body dependent?” is further abstracted. Here, Zavitsanos shifts the presentational form of thier political program towards immaterial forms of dependency, yielding practical and philosophical speculation as to how abnormality and excess are dealt with in a stage of capitalism whose logistical sophistication is predicated on their extirpation.
L&D Motel centers around two works, each of which flirts with the biological thresholds of sensory perception. The first of these two works is met immediately upon entrance: a sharp red light whose source emanates from the gallery’s industrial ceiling and ignites its wood-paneled flooring to the far end. To the right, a pitch-black wall supports a protruding plexiglass vitrine, enclosing another source of the red light illuminating the gallery, a collection of 5mW laser pointers. Each pointer concentrates its beam at one of several “transmission holograms” in the case. These differ from traditional reflection holograms: rather than refracting light back onto an opposing surface, transmission holograms usher light through them and split the incoming source in two. The resulting red glow evokes the ephemeral presence of something there but hardly, liminally so. The color of the lasers is strategic: red is the lowest visible light frequency perceptible to the human eye, hence its presence in photographic development studios. Zavitsanos’s piece harnesses that which barely enters into our phenomenal world, calling attention to the unfathomable multiplicity of things that lay outside it.
Adjacent to the vitrine is a hanging pair of over-ear headphones playing a looped recording of the artist verbally dictating to the viewer a visual description of the installation. This curatorial choice is, again, strategic; the descriptive monologue upsets the legacy privilege held by human sight over human hearing—the accommodation of one viewer’s ability at the expense of another—and destratifies sensory ability, as the work may be encountered in either afferent form.
The artist’s attempt to access the experiential effect of an only conditionally present entity is advanced by the title of this piece, Boxed Bet. Perhaps this title is appropriated from the objects molded inside the transparent holograms: dice frozen mid-roll. The choice of imagery is telling, as it develops the effect of the diffused red light by adding rich metaphoric association to it: a roll of dice is a paradigmatic demonstration of chance, circumstance, and nonlinearity of consequence. The dice roll encompasses both contingency and affirmation in a two-staged process: contingency, as a temporal event whose result is unknowable, and affirmation, as the necessity for the thrower to accept an outcome to which she is maximally unable to exert influence. The piece thus doubly confronts the viewer with that which is in excess of immediate knowledge and experience—the low-frequency light as evanescent occupier of space, the frozen dice as deferred chance in time.
The second major piece in the exhibition sits at the gallery’s opposite end and pivots thematically from the barely visible to the barely audible. Titled Call to Post, the work consists of a group of speakers concealed by a plywood ramp inclined upwards toward the gallery’s far wall. Viewers are invited to walk upon the ramp underneath which the speakers emit an infrasonic frequency of 5Hz, a substantial measure below the average human threshold of audibility, 20Hz. The low-frequency soundwaves cause the wooden ramp to lightly rumble, a marriage of the tactical and the audible. The ramp itself is another strategic choice; as opposed to an elevated platform which could elicit the same tactile–sonic experience, ramps are wheelchair-accessible and conform to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, producing a more accommodating presentational form and rendering that form an integral part of the installation itself.
In “The Logic of Gender,”2 the Marxist journal Endnotes denominate the abject as the forms of laboring activity which capital is either unable or unwilling to accommodate. Endnotes begins with the presupposition that the performance of a particular activity is only considered to be labor as such under capitalism if the product of that activity embodies an exchange value, as exchange value renders the product commensurable to every other commodity brought to market and thus the laborer commensurable to every other commodity producer. Thus, domestic activities traditionally performed in the home are not recognizable as labor for this very reason; it follows that these laborers do not participate in the wage relation. Domestic, labor-adjacent activities are pre- or non-industrial, unintegrated into the vast social production network of industry. Viewed through this lens, the question of gender becomes a structural problem for political economy; it is not merely a question of adopting the correct consciousness of or orientation towards the issue. Zavitsanos’s L&D Motel brings the question of disability into this theoretical terrain, linking gendered abjection to the disabled abjection. The installation asks what kind of activities are silently exorcized in today’s social production relations and technical divisions of labor, suggesting that the remedies for these political–economic asymmetries may arrive from that which displaces individual Promethean will, the recognition of extrasensory dependencies.
1. See Park McArthur and Constantina Zavitsanos, “The Guild of the Brave Poor Things,” in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, ed. Johanna Burton, Tourmaline and Eric Stanley (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018). 235-254
2. Endnotes, "The Logic of Gender: On the Separation of Spheres and the Process of Abjection,” in Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes (September 2013).