Hello, again dear readers. Over the weekend I had my first holiday without emails, laptop news or work of any kind for more years than I can count. It was absolute bliss and I have hated and struggled with getting back into the swing of work. The uptick in anxiety that the return to my excessively long to-do list has caused aside, it has rammed one thing home to me. This is something which I have always been a little resistant to. Holidays, proper holidays, are very necessary. Earth-shattering news I know. Joking aside, it is something that can very easily get sidelined by those in the culture sector and other freelancers and self-employed individuals. It relates to discussions of artistic labour, support for artists generally and the pressures that come with both neoliberal capitalist structures and social media.
I spent my weekend in a scout cabin in the forest just outside Göteborg, Sweden. It was bliss. Walking, country air, chopping wood, playing Trivial Pursuit and Yazzie, eating almost continuously and being introduced to the world of sauna (which is a revelation - I am a definite convert). Most enjoyable though was the lack of screens. I left my laptop at home and my phone was used only for providing music. It is the first time I have deliberately separated myself from my working life since starting university about ten years ago and just enjoyed a break. I’d like to avoid this becoming a lifestyle column however so let's focus this through AL&SO.
Most of the art ten years has been a blur of juggling (usually pretty unsuccessfully) financial stability, job satisfaction, work-life, social-life and mental health. Through most of that time, I have been working part/full-time in the service industry, as a freelancer and on various AL&SO projects, studying as well as having my own making practice. The pressure in the creative sector to take on everything at once is real and, for some reason, not only tolerated but accepted and often even encouraged. Currently, I am working on Ephemeral Care as a board member, trying to develop a new platform from the ground up whilst also producing a text almost every week, running the social media and putting together the logistics of the upcoming elements in the Ephemeral Care programme. I also run a project called Raumdeuter Radio which will launch in Göteborg in September 2021 and then Brussels and Glasgow in 2022. Raumdeuter Radio couples audio artworks with public transport routes to reinterpret the social and physical space of the city. With this project I am building partnerships, curating the Göteborg edition, project managing all three locations, setting up a culture and sustainability research project associated with the project and am responsible for finding all the funding. I am also holding down a bar job amidst a global pandemic, working on a freelance design contract, editing a book, unsuccessfully applying for jobs and coordinating a set of exhibitions and public programming for the studio group I am a part of. That list is not there to show off or to complain, that is what I have been taught to think is a normal and acceptable workload. More hilarious still, I am currently only being paid for the bar job and (eventually) the design contract and hopefully Raumdeuter Radio. What that shows is that there is a serious imbalance. My weekend off has highlighted that; it’s something I need to make changes to address.
It is all too easy to get sucked into taking on too much and getting paid too little. Even when you are being paid for the stuff you're doing it can be very easy to take on more and more work sacrificing or neglecting yourself and your loved ones. An adage that was repeated endlessly by Craig Fisher at Nottingham Trent University during my time there was “you should be making an artwork every day”. That's right kids, one artwork per-day, every day. Whilst that is open to interpretation in terms of what an artwork is, what scale we are talking about and is productive in encouraging experimentation it came with a lot of pressure that has stuck with me. I was never very good at sticking to it. I ended up making a lot of trash and then moving onto the next thing without really thinking. That I guess was tempered by the other end of the arts-education spectrum at Akadmein Valand where I did my MA. Valand, during my time there, felt like an art school with a distinct issue with the idea of making art. The skew towards academia and consideration of minutia to the point of paralysis was a marked contrast to NTU but helped me learn to reflect more.
What the schools had in common in a lot of senses was the instance of maintaining a frenetic pace of activity and the suggestion that you should always somehow be constantly engaged in your practice yet simultaneously distant enough from it to snag problems, obsessions and issues. Maybe that’s true. Maybe that is how you become a great/successful artist, whatever that means. From a perspective of labour and energy, though, it breeds bad habits. Many staff from these institutions and plenty of other arts universities globally go down with fatigue, exhaustion, burnout and mental health problems. The finger is seemingly pointed back at them, sometimes even by themselves. However, with frustrations at their own workload spilling over into dismissal of the pressures they place on students and the behaviours such elevated stress levels can elicit, educational environments can become toxic very quickly.
The whole system is the problem. The ways we are training cultural professionals (even the phrase cultural professionals) are toxic. There must be an expression of the need for diligence and hard work but, there must also be a level of redress as to what artistic practice is, cultures of care and working methods outside of production and professionalism. Speaking with a musician friend recently about how she spends her time we got round to musical practice, as in practising playing your instrument. She said that she practices for 4-5 hours a day but only plays music for around 15 minutes of that time, as a treat, at the end. The rest of the time is spent working on technique and structure and solidifying the basics. I think this is sometimes forgotten about in talking about artistic practice. There is, at least in my experience, a view of artistic practice more in the sense of a dental practice. A professional endeavour which one establishes as some kind of theoretical space where unending, highly-skilled, essential ephemeral labour occurs. This feels a bit of a grind, with no space for pleasure or play of any kind. It's a serious business. At Valand for example the incumbent Dean during my time was Mick Wilson, a great curator and writer and thinker, but also someone who disagreed (and I assume disagrees still) with the making of more art objects. That stance somehow felt jarring with the format of an art school. In some ways, I suppose that links up with the sense of practice my musician friend presented, encouraging makers to spend more time considering and conceptualising the works and projects instead of just making with a kind of gleeful abandon. In a sense, it reacted against capitalist production models but, at the same time, seemed to go hand in hand with a weirdly neoliberal notion of the cultural professional. One who makes a single artwork every five years and spends a majority of their time in meetings and conferences, sending e-mails, making high-brow in-jokes, affecting boredom and being stressed.
That notion of the cultural professional, as a kind of stability to aspire to and the realities of the overworked, perma-stressed and still ultimately very precarious realities of those individuals feel at odds. When that is perceived as one of the most stable formations in the industry it makes you wonder why anyone wants in. In any case the constant shovelling of more and more commitments onto our plate without thought of pause, and often only accepting a form of rest when we are medically forced to isn’t good. There needs to be a huge amount more self-care. These are elements that should be taught in undergraduate courses as part of professional development modules (another critically miss-formed element of art curricula that could be much better used). The suggestion which surrounds many artists is that they are 'just so lucky cuz they are doing something they love' and 'won’t want to be paid for it because it’s a passion, right?'. True, it feels like that practice space can very easily become kind of glutenous, the whole 4-5 hours playing music and the basics are done away with as passé, old hat or irrelevant. However, that is too dismissive and also forgets that it’s not a bad thing to like the work you do. Many nuclear physicists, engineers, accountants and hedgefund-managing assholes, I image, are equally doing something they love; but I suspect there would be less suggestion that they shouldn’t be paid for it. Perhaps that attitude towards the value of the arts is what drives the maniacal, self-destructive working patterns and lack of questioning of the continued encouragement of those patterns. Between the standpoints of 'overwork' and 'you shouldn’t be paid for your work' many finding their way in the culture sector could be forgiven for landing in tenuous financial and mental-health positions.
My suggestion, schedule some time off. Go to a cabin in the woods, or lye on a beach or walk in a park. In these lockdown times some of that is hard, so build a sofa fort or lead a spelunking expedition into the loft or construct a Gooniesesq treasure hunt around your apartment - do something silly and other than your work, get away from the screens and the emails and give yourself a break. I know its hard, but even an hour a day written into your planner enforcing some downtime can go a long way, particularly when our sofa/bed/kitchen table is now also our office. In the immortal words of some person at some point: "Be good to yourself."
Joe Rowley - MAR 2021
The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.
Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.