by elisabeth smolarz

Interview with Elisabeth Smolarz

(GM) Was there a story or a specific experience that inspired The $100 Dollar Project?

(ES) In the mid 2000s, the consequences of globalization were dominating the everyday conversation. I remember having coffee with my French teacher, who just had a baby, and he was quite conflicted about the fact that everything they bought for the baby was made in China, and that every piece of clothing we wore that day was made in China as well. I thought “since China had become such a big part of my life, I should go visit.”

At the time, there were only a few residencies in Beijing. I chose the Red Gate Gallery Residency . While there I had the choice to stay with all the artists in the 798 area or to stay by myself in the city—I chose the latter.

There was a construction site very close to my apartment (China was getting ready for the Olympics at the time), and the workers would eat right in front of my building. It was a bit surreal to be the only Polish-German among all the Chinese construction workers, but we often shared a beer; it was the best city for street food! (ok, Mexican street food is also #1).

The director of the residency told me that the workers come to Beijing from their villages and normally get paid by the end of the year. Many times, not at all. There were suicides and accidents all the time, he said.

The year before I arrived, China became part of the G8+5, an international group that consists of the leaders of the heads of government from the G8 nations, plus the heads of government of the five leading emerging economies. So, clearly, China was catching up to the West. Consequently, because the articificial value of the Yuan (Chinese currency) was so low, most Western countries moved their production to China, including some art production. Painters from Germany or the USA, for example, hired art students from the Beijing art academies to paint paintings for them to later be sold on the German or American art market.

After researching the dynamics between China and the West, I knew I wanted to make a portrait that would visualize my personal experience, as well as convey the socio-economical position of China.

Since the exchange of money for labour had such a strong presence in the society, I decided to hire participants to be in the portrait. I didn’t have any money at the time and $100 was all I could spend. Because of my own hesitations about the value of labour, I decided to let the participants do whatever they wanted, and in turn, determine the amount of money they think they deserved.

On a Saturday, my assistant and I went to a restaurant where we asked the owner if she could help us find participants for the project. She stepped outside the restaurant and yelled to the streets. She shouted out about my plan to hire people to do anything they wanted. Most of the people on the street laughed about the idea of being paid for doing nothing. Later, 26 of them showed up at the studio. They sat together and talked and laughed.

I filmed for 33 minutes.

Most of them were confused and laughed when I paid them at the end of the session. I explained that they did work, that they were subjects for a portrait, which is a very common practice throughout history—artists hiring models.

The general consensus among the participants was that it would be nice to get paid in life “to do nothing.”

In that moment, it occurred to me that this is the idea of a basic income, and I decided to continue the project in all of the G8+5 countries, creating video portraits of working class communities in the most powerful countries in the world.

(GM) Can you further elaborate on what you mean by “basic income”?

(ES) The formal definition is a proposed system of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, in addition to any income received from elsewhere. A basic income is typically intended to be only enough for a person to survive on, so as to encourage people to engage in economic activity.

What is interesting to me about this concept is that in Europe people think of it as a leftist idea. Switzerland, in fact, just voted against it, which is no surprise considering their current political climate.

I am simplifying, of course, but it seems to me that the right thinks of the basic income as additional spending money, which would be fantastic for the economy. I, however, feel like the current system of currency production could lead to a basic income fairly quickly. This video is a bit funky, but it explains how we currently create “money.”

(GM) I’m interested in your statement that these videos are “portraits.” In your conversation with the participants in China, you compared your use of them (the participants) to the common practice of artists using models. However, I find the job of models to be much more physically demanding. Many times, especially for painting subjects, models have to sit still for an extended period of time without moving. Even early photographers–who used cameras that required the shutter to remain open for many many minutes–required models to refrain from moving their bodies, often causing discomfort. In your project, your subjects are given the free will to do whatever they wanted. My question, then, is whether you believe your subjects are doing labour?

So this is a language thing—the word “use”. There is something that bothers me about the idea of using people. I know you don’t mean it in the negative way, I just wanted to briefly express my difficult relationship with the word “to use”. I think artists like Santiago Sierra use (even abuse) their participants. I, however, see the people in the 100 Dollar Project videos as collaborators, since they have to make all of the decisions of how they want to represent themselves.

A large part of the process was to meet the participants before the video shoot, explain the project and answer any questions they might have, including the questions of money and how each group will present themselves [in front of the camera]. Of course the idea of how each of us present ourselves in the day to day is something we do on constant basis. But if I asked you to be in my video, you would most likely spend some time thinking about your choice of clothes and decide on your actions. As time passes, though, you would probably act as yourself in front of the camera.

The expression “time is money” already implies the value of time, so in that sense, the time one spends “doing nothing” has a specific value, depending on your perspective, e.g a mother raising a child ensures the existence of the future of a county, but most of the counties provide no compensation for her labour what so ever. It seems to me that the system of value is strangely constructed and often times doesn’t make sense. And so from the art market point of view, usage rights, copy rights etc, the participants should be compensated even more.

My personal system I constructed for the piece was to pay the people for their free time.

(GM) What spaces did these filmed gatherings occur in?

(ES) It was very important for me to have a neutral background. I didn’t want anything to take away the attention from the participants:

Artist studio:
China, UK, Germany, USA

Artist residency:
Russia, Mexico, Japan, India, Canada

France, Brazil

Party room:
Italy, South Africa

(GM) You said you found your subjects in China by calling out on the streets. Where did you find your other subjects? Were any of them artists?

(ES) One of the important parameters of the project was that the participants consider themselves part of the working class. Some of them were artists, specifically in the Canada installment. I filmed it at the Gladstone Hotel, which has an ongoing exhibition program. I think every person who works there in an artist of some sort.

In Russia, I was told that “every one belongs to the working class.” Two of the participants I used were artists.
In South Africa, I filmed in a township, and was also told that “everyone is working class.” Then they started singing… so… for sure artists.

In India you see an artists from the Sarai program.

(GM) Why set the parameters of only using working class subjects?

(EM) In addition to the fact that a global shift of production was taking place in the 2000’s, I myself come from a working class family. My father is a plumber and my mother is a municipal worker. Both of my parents were laid off and looking for work during that time. I guess it was a mix of personal and global, socio-polical events that lead me to set the parameters.

(GM) It’s interesting that almost all of the artists you used as subjects consider themselves as being part of the working class, too. Do you believe this is because of the “other” work they do, outside of being an artist? Or is it dependent on their occupation as an artist? Wasn’t it Aristotle who said artists are the only laborers left because we work and produce, many times without compensation?

I feel that we as artists we are being placed all over. There is the idea that we are outside of society, live in poverty and our job is to contemplate life. Then there is the idea of the artist as an entrepreneur, and our annual income places us somewhere in the middle class. And then there is the super rich art star.

I can only speak from my personal experience. After my graduation I worked as: a baby sitter, secretary, art handler, assistant, teacher, all jobs that place me with the working class. Based on my annual income, I find myself in the lower middle class (the so called shrinking middle class), I guess the category “woking class” disappeared from the income vocabulary.

To an extent, the idea of the artist and the worker has always been romanticized or glorified, but the reality in New York City, there is nothing romantic about our lives.

When I was the assistant of a Swiss photographer he told me to never work for free. If the client offers to feed you, or give you $50 it doesn’t matter, they should always give you something. There has to be an exchange, and you should always ask yourself what are you getting out it.

Of course it is a different story if you work for yourself.

(GM) My assumption is this was an expensive project to execute. Were you given grants?

(ES) Indeed, the most expensive of all my projects so far. I received funding from the Sculpture Center, and some travel grants from Germany. Most of it was self-funded through, through jobs I worked on the side.

(GM) What did you find in your research? Can you give us numbers?

The amount of people I was able to hire directly mirrors the economic power of each country, which we all already knew. My favorite part of the project was when I realized that all the participants look more or less the same. And they do similar things. They all complain about not making enough money, and all of them love the idea of a basic income.

Japan, France, Germany, UK, Italy,

USA, Canada


South Africa, Brazil




Immigrating from Poland to Germany, Elisabeth Smolarz grew up on the cusps of two different cultures affected by a communist and democratic system. Consequently, she became involved in the idea of how consciousness and perception is formed by one’s surroundings. Since then, her work has been shown nationally and internationally in venues such as: The Bronx Museum, New York; Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, New York; Galeria Aleksander Bruno, Warsaw; Oberwelt e.V, Stuttgart; Kunsthalle Galapagos, New York; Baden Württembergischer Kunstverein; Photography Triennial Esslingen; Carnegie Mellon; Independent Museum of Contemporary Art (IMCA) Cyprus; Brooklyn Arts Council; Reykjavik Photography Museum; Espai d’art contemporani de Castelló; the Sculpture Center; and the 3rd Moscow Biennale among others.
Awards and residencies include the LMCC Swing Space Residency, New York, AIM Artist Residency, Bronx Museum, Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen Travel Grant, Karin Abt-Straubinger Stiftung Grant, Sarai Artist Residency, New Delhi, India, Capacete Artist Residency, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Red Gate Gallery Artist Residency, Beijing, China and more.