The Fair They Built: The Disappeared Workers of Art Basel, in Painting

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For days before Art Basel opens, an ant colony of installers, assistants, interns, and technicians (an estimated majority of whom are themselves artists-on-the-make, myself included) mill furiously about installing lights, cleaning floors, erecting walls, mounting complex installations, tapping on computers, and volleying text messages back and forth.

An hour’s train ride away, in Zurich, Manifesta opened, making an immediate joke of itself: What People Do For Money, it’s called. Posing an ostensible interrogation of labor ethics in the artworld, wherein another ant colony of interns, students, and assistants – those who weren’t underpaid were not paid at all – worked furiously to erect a platform for a blindly self-congratulatory display.

As soon as Art Basel opens – first to the VIP, then to the general public – all of the workers are disappeared. This is quite literal: in the badge system of access that Basel works by, worker badges cease to have any kind of validity once showtime starts. The fair they built, the works they installed, the floors they cleaned, are not for them.

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