Artist paints noble picture of dole

WORK IN PROGRESS: Tao Wells is using a taxpayer-funded project to promote unemployment. "We should never be forced to take a job,'' he says.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Tao Wells is using a taxpayer-funded project to promote unemployment. "We should never be forced to take a job,'' he says.

An out-of-work artist is setting up a taxpayer-funded "beneficiaries' office" in downtown Wellington to promote the virtues of being unemployed.

He is part of a $53,000 performance art installation series paid for by Creative New Zealand and Wellington City Council.

Creative NZ is defending its decision to provide a $3500 grant but said last night it was unaware of the installation's "precise content" when the grant was signed off.

Tao Wells, 37, advocates the opportunities and benefits of unemployment and says it is unfair that long-term beneficiaries are labelled bludgers for exploiting the welfare system.

Wells' installation, The Beneficiary's Office, urges people to abandon jobs they don't like rather than suffering eight hours of "slavery".

"We need to work less, so we consume less. The average carbon footprint of the unemployed person is about half of that of those earning over $100,000."

His Manners St office will run from Monday for at least two weeks and is open to the public. The project is part of the Letting Space public art installation series which uses vacant Wellington commercial spaces.

Backed by five "staff", Wells plans to promote his unemployment philosophy publicly and debate it with politicians and the gainfully employed.

He described himself as an unemployed artist with a masters degree who had been "off and on" the unemployment benefit since 1997. Wells said he was receiving welfare and admitted his benefit was at risk by him speaking out.

Late yesterday afternoon his benefit was cut off after Work and Income learned of the project.

His case has parallels with Wellington's "political busker" Benjamin Easton, who lost his benefit earlier this year after revealing he had not had a job interview since he went on the dole nearly three years ago.

Wells denied his pro-unemployment stance was hypocritical when he was being paid $2000 for the project. "We should never be forced to take a job. If you're forced to take a job it's a punishment. If a job's a punishment then society must be a prison."

Asked about the irony of taxpayers funding an art project that promoted unemployment, Wells said: "That's a huge argument, there's some huge ideas there. The bottom line is money. What I'm critiquing is the idea of work."

Creative NZ boss Stephen Wainwright said the agency's role was to encourage, promote and support the arts. Innovative new work, such as the Letting Space series, could act as a powerful form of social commentary and encourage debate.

The Beneficiary's Office is on at 50 Manners St, level 3, from Monday.

- An earlier version of this story said the Beneficiaries Office art programme, Letting Space, received $40,000 from Creative New Zealand. In fact, it was only given a total of $3,500.

The Dominion Post