A report on Blake Fall-Conroy’s artwork that performs at the same rate as the world’s lowest pay standards
US artist Blake Fall-Conroy’s Minimum Wage Machine is a sculptural installation constructed out of wood, Plexiglas and custom-made electronics. Participants turn a hand-crank that releases pennies at a rate that corresponds with national minimum wages. The machine can be reprogrammed to match rates in different countries and cities. At the current UK minimum wage rate of £6.70 per hour, turning the crank would yield one penny every 5.37 seconds.
We spoke to Fall-Conroy about where the idea for the installation came from, the message he was trying to put across, and asked him to weigh in on our current debate about paying artists.
It was while working a routine, low-paid job at a remote service station that the artist Blake Fall-Conroy came up with the idea for his installation Minimum Wage Machine. ‘I was working at a gas station out in the countryside’, he says, ‘very few people stopped there. I was bored all of the time.’ Giving literal expression to the phrase watching the clock, Fall-Conroy spent his workday measuring out precisely how much his time was worth. ‘There was an old clock on the wall’, he says, ‘and I would watch the second hand go by and count out each penny I was earning.’ He was on £6.50 an hour, just above the minimum wage at the time, which worked out as one penny every 5.54 seconds, roughly a dime a minute. ‘It seems crazy’, he says, ‘that anyone’s time could be worth so little, and I wasn’t even at the minimum’.
Fall-Conroy developed the Minimum Wage Machine as an attempt to make tangible this realisation of the economic value of our labour time, asking himself, ‘what would be a way to make this experience into an art project?’ On the surface, Minimum Wage Machine is a pretty rudimentary construction – a box made of cheap plywood, a Plexiglas container, some pennies and a hand-crank – and Fall-Conroy admits it is simple: ‘you just turn the crank and money comes out’. Its simplicity, however, is partly the point. ‘I wanted to strip away any extra information other than this idea of working and waiting for money’, he says. The monotonous action of turning the crank is supposed to represent all kinds of work, Fall-Conroy explains, and ‘allows the user to focus on the pause between when each penny is dispensed from the machine, the amount of time worked per unit of compensation.’ It is, he hopes, an authentic simulation of ‘the feeling of what it’s like to work for minimum wage.’
While the installation’s aesthetic might be unrefined, the interior of the piece contains some complex, customised electronics. Fall-Conroy has a background in mechanical engineering, working full-time as an engineer building remote-controlled robots, and often incorporates this expertise into his artwork. The Minimum Wage Machine, for instance, is controlled by embedded electronics, which allow it to be re-programmed according to different national minimum wage rates. The piece has been shown all over the US as well as in the UK, with a copy made for FACT, Liverpool’s 2013 exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life.
The installation resonates with our current topic of debate about paying artists, and so we asked Fall-Conroy about his opinions on the subject – a subject about which he had plenty to say. He emphasises that he has no ‘grand ideas on how to fix the art ‘system’’, but he does have a great deal of experience dealing with galleries. His success in recent years has meant a lot of interest in his work, but little change in terms of remuneration. ‘Whenever I am contacted’, he says, ‘I hear the same thing 99% of the time: ‘We are a small gallery, we have no budget, we aren’t paid ourselves, we can only cover shipping’, or even, ‘look, this famous person in the show isn’t receiving compensation, so why should you?’’ Rarely has he felt properly compensated by a gallery for his work (with FACT, he stresses, being an ‘example to the contrary – they were amazing to work with’).
You would assume that with the Minimum Wage Machine, a conceptually driven piece about low pay, galleries would see the irony of asking Fall-Conroy to show it for free – apparently not. But this is a conversation, Fall-Conroy confesses, that he relishes. ‘I actually enjoy having the ‘compensation discussion’ when a gallery calls up and asks if they can show the Minimum Wage Machine for free, without any compensation to the artist.’ One can see why such a paradoxical situation might be so satisfying, even serving to reinforce the message behind the piece itself.
While Fall-Conroy worries that in agreeing to showcase his work for free he becomes complicit in a ‘system that devalues artists and their work’, he can see the other side of the coin. ‘I also feel that sometimes the curator (or gallery itself) may equally be playing the same part’, he explains, ‘often they too work for very little, if any compensation, or have no money to give’. And, while Fall-Conroy recognises that with a secure, full-time job he is in a fortunate position to be able to waive his fee, he nevertheless sees his options as twofold: ‘show art for no compensation or don’t show art.’ Understandably, he often chooses the former.
Blake Fall-Conroy is an artist and self-taught mechanical engineer based in New York. His projects often incorporate mechanical and electronic components as well as everyday objects to comment on a wide range of issues from consumerism and the American spectacle to surveillance and technology.