José Ferrero

by Darcy Cosper

Like many people, you may have an ambivalent (if not downright hostile) relationship to your work. And at one time or another, while waxing cranky about your role as a cog in the great capitalist machine, you may have blithely wisecracked about prostituting yourself to the bad ol' Man. But those were just witticisms, of course! You with your high-speed modem and Dewars-a-go-go lifestyle, would never actually sell your body, would you? Don't be so sure. Entrepreneur Paco Cao, who runs the international Rent-A-Body agency, thinks you already have.

Cao, and the body as a product or instrument of production.

"Everybody rents themselves in the marketplace," said Cao, a 31-year old Spanish conceptual artist. "You work, and somebody pays you for it; there is no difference between that and prostitution." While questions about the body as a commodity are central to the "company mission" of Rent-A-Body, Cao is decidedly not in the business of carnal knowledge: sexual rentals of any kind are strictly prohibited.

The agency, according to its promotional brochure, offers "an up-to-date body. . . prepared to function as a living extension of your will." The prospective customer is promised "an articulate, versatile human, in possession of a wide variety of mental and physical capabilities. . . for a reasonable hourly fee." If this sounds to you like a boutique-y version of Temps USA serfdom, you're on the right track.

The rental body is available at three levels of service: Basic, Premium, and Deluxe. While it is ostensibly the corporeal body which is offered up, rental costs ascend based on the rented body's level of intellectual engagement. For thirty-five dollars an hour, a client gets "The Body As Prop" ("Requests for irreversible physical manipulations cannot be honored"). Seventy-five dollars an hour provides "The Active Body," which includes physical and smaller intellectual tasks, as well as dynamic conversation. At one hundred and fifty dollars an hour, on the "Total Mind Function" plan, the rental body "can serve as your alter ego." For around the cost of a decent therapist, that makes Rent-A-Body an exceptional deal. It also speaks to the myth on which much of advertising pivots: that products are magical items with the power to transform the consumer.

Our Bodies, Our Sells

Ads in the late 1800s used drawings of Rubenesque women in wheat fields to sell agricultural supplies, and just last fall Calvin Klein mounted his notorious kiddie porn campaign. The body as a fetish object in advertising might be passé, but it certainly hasn't passed yet. What's striking about this type of advertising is not its egregious use of t & a—most of us are too overexposed to the sexy sell to give it a second thought—but that, more often than not, the air-brushed, silicone-pumped bodies in these ads have no natural relationship to the product. From Old Milwaukee's Swedish bikini team to the hunky nudes clutching Samsung microwaves and television sets, the idealized flesh becomes assimilated into the product's aura as a promise of the luminous perfection a consumer could achieve.

With Rent-A-Body, Cao neatly inverts and calls attention to this phenomenon by using the body as both advertising hook and the product itself. Incorporating the strategies and language of advertising and commerce, Rent-A-Body also addresses ideas about work, the individual as a product or instrument of production, and the consumer's relationship to what she consumes. Additionally, the project raises questions about art as commodity, art as work, and the artist as a member of the labor force; these are hot issues during a period when national regard for the arts is, in many ways, at an all-time low. No doubt rabidly conservative Senator Jesse Helms and his minions would go apoplectic over Cao's project. Would it salve their wounds to know that he specializes in Catholic iconography?

Art, In The Flesh

Paco Cao's work hasn't always been so off-beat. A recipient of a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Oviedo in northern Spain, Cao once worked as a museum curator, and his early work as an artist was in sculpture and video installation. In 1990, he joined a long tradition of artists who defected from the formal constraints of the visual arts in favor of live performance.

His early, largely autobiographical performances involved, variously, pig's blood, nudity, cross-dressing, and religious images blasphemous enough to make Andre Serrano seem pious.

"During this period," Cao explained, "[I] noted that I was here, and the audience was over there. But the art is not only the work of the artist—the audience finishes the work. For me, the most important thing is the reaction of people, how people relate in this world, what people do and don't do, their reactions, and my reaction." So Cao set out to create for his ideas a formal structure that would engage audiences in a direct and immediate way. The ultimate result was Rent-A-Body.

An early incarnation of Rent-A-Body took place as part of an art exhibition, but in reviewing the ideas driving the project, he found himself too distant from his desired audience in the rarefied confines of the gallery. In order to reach a broader audience and increase the project's provocative potential, Cao needed to find a way to present the work outside of an obviously artistic context.

"I [wanted to try] to put [the project] in regular places, for regular people." Cao said. "I was thinking about how I could offer myself to people like an object, and then one day I saw an ad about a rent-a-car company, and I said, that's it!" The project, launched in Spain in 1993, included print advertising and street billboards, and received tremendous public response. The interactive nature of the rentals, including his collaboration with clients and contact with the public while on the job, allowed Cao to satisfy his craving for audience involvement.

During the Spanish phase of Rent-A-Body, the director of the Spanish Art Center rented Cao to act as his alter ego for a panel on contemporary art. The panel officials were not amused, and Cao, unable to fulfill his contractual obligations, required them to provide written documentation of their refusal.

The New York City version of Rent-A-Body was launched this February, under the auspices of the renowned not-for-profit arts organization Creative Time. Responses to ads in local papers and to the ten thousand brochures sent out have been strong, if varied—several people have called Cao to ask if he's hiring.

photo by Frank Micelotta

In one recent rental, he monopolized a seat on a rush-hour subway running from Brooklyn through Manhattan to Queens and back, wearing a sign which read "This body has been rented to remain in this space for three hours. Please do not talk with the body or disturb it." The sign suggested that riders who had responses to the rented body write them down on the notepad which Cao carried. People did, with comments ranging from "Nice tie," and "I have your wallet," to more in-depth reactions. One rider wrote, "You should have more respect for your body." Another appreciated "the distraction from the usual onslaught of homeless beggars," but felt that it was "another invasion of privacy."

photo by Rico Fernández

In another rental, Cao played the role of Jesus as part of Easter services at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. Pastor David Anglada, who was responsible for renting Cao, found out about Rent-A-Body through a friend.

Cao as Christ,
from Antena 3 TV Spain,
by Alejanvro Zueñas

"We were looking to do something different," said Anglada. "It was a perfect match...[Cao] knew the religious language and the visual connections." He mentioned Cao's desire to address the issue of capital punishment through the story of the crucifixion.

"It was very graphic; Paco had to struggle with the cross, which was very heavy, and got splinters in his back." The pastor thought that the people who attended the services were shocked, but not offended, and he personally felt an affinity for Cao's work.

"As a preacher, I'm an artist also," Anglada said. "My body is a part of my sermon. The expressions, the movements, [they're] all part of the artist at work."

Like any good businessperson, Cao has plans to franchise; he's talking with a cultural association in Arizona about opening a local branch of Rent-A-Body there. He also plans to open an international office in Spain to organize long distance rentals. As one of the most provocative contemporary artists around, and an art object par excellence, it is only fitting that Paco Cao belongs to the permanent collection of The Museum of Fine Arts of Asturias in Spain. He is currently trying to get himself sent on loan to other fine art and cultural institutions. If he turns up at a museum near you, get your body out to see him. He's a hot commodity. </end>

DARCY COSPER is a freelance writer and researcher. She lives in New York.

photo by Belén Rodriguez
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