In the Cragg Lecture Theatre we were given a day-long ensemble of contributors, organised by Collaborative Research Group, in which some thematic ideas emerged (having grabbed an off peak train down from London I can only testify for the afternoon period, although from what I heard, the morning was a bit of a miserable woe-me-I'm-a-struggling-fund-seeking-artist affair).... That may have been inaccurate. Nevertheless the ones I missed, which I recommend researching: Caroline Wright of AIR Council and Paying Artists Camapaign, Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt on art in post-revolutionary Cuban society, Susan Jones with some historical insights, Carlos Noronha Feio, Hurley and Thornton and Tania Skakun on how those effervescent French creatives get by.
Wider social studies aside, one recurring motif primarily geared itself toward the artist/performer as a kind of self embedding creative agent; or Daniel Day Lewis, Thoracic type. Luckily, this happens to be a personal favourite of mine (as you might discover from buying my contributed book, 'Artists At Work'). Sam Curtis' 'Stealth Art Practice' (which I did manage to see) was one particular highlight, in no small part to his good presentation skills. In this he recalled going 'undercover', like a secret non-millionaire artist in Harrods, working behind the fish monger section in order to see what levels of creative resistance he could muster within such obviously bourgeois settings. This entailed treating the work place as a material; culminating in high baroque-inspired fish display designs and ice landscaping, alongside 'verbal games' with celebrity regulars. It was only as a non employee that he was then comfortable to 'come out' as an artist, recording his process thereafter. What drew me most to his activity was its close proximity towards expressing the element of absurdity which can manifest itself in organised work in which one has little input. But which is quelled and self-silenced, often only coming to be expressed as the worker's own failure to identify with their work effectively (at least in my own previous experiences anyway). Such tentative steps of avoiding offences were also apparent in Angus Sanders-Dunnachie's retelling of the not-so-secret second lives of artists/art technicians, or artist technicians, or artists also working as art technicians, depending on your pretension stance. Avoiding disclosure of the specific institutes he is placed, he nevertheless hinted at their degrees of global homogeneity, providing photographic evidence of recurring cultural features and sub cultures found on his travels. So too in Holly Roger's exchange rate caring for her her nan, which entailed an investigative portrait, plus a tenner, for a list of apathetic errands the art student must obligingly fulfil. The real portrait here seemed to be that of a gentle compromise in roles and a reminder of the social contract that caring offers even as a creative act. And so the title of this symposium may have well been 'how artists re-make a living'.
However, lecture theatres can be tiring procedures and I began to wonder whether such a setting was all too appropriate for what nearly verged on an orthodoxising of such activities. When artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles began her lifelong 'Maintenance Work' in 69 and Sophie Calle was making portraits of hotel rooms and working in a strip club in the late 70's and 80's it was conceptually interesting under stubborn art contexts. Playing around with anthropological presumptions. Such approaches to creative DIY cross-overs were comparable to the prior spirit of 'No Wave'-labelled downtown New York, of playful participation and urbane bohemianism that always looks better in retrospectives. When 2016's Manifesta 11 announced its tagline; "What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures." to be curated by Christian Jankowski, illustrates that this is no longer - if it ever was - an underground concept. But such a large scale temporary operation might finally reveal what true alliances artists who participate in these temporary events are on and whether such artist 'collaborations' in their mediating and gestural ways with 'the working man' (this term can actually be found on some of the promo websites) effects the usual structure and production of these art events or whether its goal is just to amuse a wider audience through participation. We'll see. It is also fitting that this should take place in Zurich; an EU pin-up, popular with art investing and collecting. This would propose not only that artists have always reflected changing work methods and 'lifestyle choices' in where and how they make art; but that social classes and demarcations exist among Art labour and artists themselves. Demarcations are not simply defined by boundaries though, but the privileging of who has access to their bridges. Take for example, Sarah Jones' 'At Risk Of Falling' for the 2.30pm slot in which she also did a 'Calle'; working in a strip club and recording the experiences in prose and audio. I have nothing against job/art idea repeating, as extra approaches can be sought and can only go to show how some things haven't changed much, but I couldn't help but wonder if this fell onto a kind of deprivation-experience tourism when intended for presentation. One was left uncertain whether her 'hustling' men for a paid dance was supposed to reflect symptoms of a quasi-feminist perspective within an ultra capitalistic hetero-male serviced industry... or her own metamorphosis into a 'time is money' bitch machine. I assumed it included a bit of both. But that didn't stop me from feeling uncomfortable with the notion that she could simply quit, or that other women artists and workers in real situations of poverty had gone much, much further and rarely, if ever, get heard.
This living-out-the-performance aspect of an artist was emphasised not just in the presentations but also in the wonderful adjacent Herbert Read Gallery reading room, where the book 'Living Labor' by Sternberg Press - which I happen to own a copy of - gives examples like Bonni Ora Sherk who in the 70's worked in restaurants as a 'performer'. Defining it thus;"[they] do art as they work, within the normal contexts and spaces of work, and they work as they do art; this precise overlap simultaneity and multiplicity is crucial" pg 106. Such context shifting is a fragile and delicate thing in the hands of artistic discourse but when an artist life's work consists of being a slightly eccentric employee you have to ask, is it merely academic? Like a child playing object substitution with a garden spade; it becomes a sword, it becomes a gun, it becomes a guitar, it becomes an archaeological dig for creative escape... But to everyone else (and eventually to their own adult admission) it's still only used for flicking away those dog turds. This is the real world image of unwanted work an embedded artist faces and only real world imagination will do. Or rather, more powerful imagination must be believed than a CGI induced one. At least if one gives up on gallery reliant careering. And yet for all the grass roots, self sustaining, anti-institutional activities there are few artists who don't lick their lips when a commercial venture, promotion or sale comes their way. To continue critiquing the free market after this might be somewhat contradictory, or just a bit silly. Whilst the potentials of such institutes as sites of social servicing cannot be denied. Perhaps this is why Sherk is now fortunate enough to run her own art gardens as part of an ongoing environmental awareness project that already existed in her art.
Then a break arrived with well deserved sandwiches, sweet food and tea (the benefits of a global economy; I imagine bagged up by an overseas student from UAL). So (bad pun time) whilst biting the hand that feeds you can be a dangerous occupation, it seems having your cake and selling it remains an ultimately timeless desire, whilst inevitably, among the zines and the later presentations like Ceramics Studio co-op, an ever growing necessity for a more collaborative cake sharing approach was fed. Whilst under innovation trends in art/science aesthetics, symbolised in Pradissitto's lofty light paintings, or artist run workshops and consultancies show often you are what you make and you make what you are. This later part of the day was intended as a more instructional presentation, focused on co-creating, services, entrepreneurial tactics and forms of self organisation whilst successfully avoiding the language of business advisory. I didn't stay for the final part of the day however. This was focused on 'inefficiency' and differently produced spaces through the group, Aberrant Architecture (who I had previously encountered in their 'social playground' exhibit at Fact, Liverpool). Although artistic responses to 'social spaces' - playgrounds, cinemas, warehouses - or what I would call 'hang outs' has long been exciting in theory but all-too-often tame in practice, I liked the fact that this group's inclusion acknowledges the labour of love any creation must celebrate as its main economy (I imagine). An amenable end to the day I'm sure, and an inevitable one too as it seemed we were all here in our quest for some kind of alternative 'autopoiesis' through productive labour; but an end I felt well subscribed to already, hence my early exit. A day of symposiums offered plenty of food for thought and just as many unanswered questions. Can a work production that doesn't exist yet still be realised, without overthrowing the great heritage of art, or is any audience-in-waiting hopeless?
But even among the less unpleasant commercial work and supplementary jobs I've had (over thirty) none were comparable to that drive towards working at/on an art object or idea itself. Offering as it does a cyclic holiday from producing profit or public scrutiny. To the extent that it becomes something of a religious hobby, too precious to seek a career from but seemingly too important to actually consider anything else. Perhaps this slightly romantic paradox is worth retaining though, or perhaps ultimately an artist must in some way overcome art itself, I don't know. In a Kingdom of lauded entrepreneurs mastering the art of good business doesn't necessarily equate with good art any more than it does a good businessperson, that much I do know. I also know that the promise of any creativity being put to good work is offered a great deal these days; evident in the number of people who call these activities a 'practice'; which to me just translates as 'professional inquisitive'. This isn't such an evil thing, but may only highlight the precarious boundaries for any artist working in a professionalised sphere. Artists already overcoming art.
Finally, if we also consider the ways artists work as extra-poeticised comparisons to what already exists in the world of work, then thinking creatively about what aspects make up the 'good' kind of work - if you believe in its existence - might be merited, i.e. more co-operative, open-ended or democratically orientated workplaces, whilst still accepting work's humdrum limitations, may be taken from the event. Walking around Canterbury today is very different to when I grew up near it. For one thing there are more arts, crafts and boutique shops and plenty of expressive students that existed far-less previously. And although I'm happy to while away an hour with a slice of cake and a cup of joe in some family-friendly arts hub, there must be a reason why I don't want to take this strategy up for myself. Whether art is indeed an ongoing subsumption into all spheres of commerce, in which everyone is encouraged to be a creative role-playing networker, or whether such ways of making a living can be more than just 'Ragged Dick' stepping stones towards a Daedalus-like market-hungry art world.... continues to remain up for discussion.