Post Art School Hinterland: Earning in the grey zones of the artworld

This is the second half of my Making a Living report, the first can be read here but this one can also be read in isolation, since the subjects of inquiry are quite different.

The first part charts various experiences of ‘making a living’ through university, squatting and communal living, this part charts how things changed when I began renting.

I now exist for the most part within the contemporary art scene in London, what I mean by this is that the majority of my output finds it’s audience and discourse enclosed by those parameters. Although for me personally I see my practice as co existing between a political space and art space for which I make no separation - it should be said though that others often do.

My relationship to this world was solidified when I came to rent property, I have always considered economic conditions and personal relationships between community or individuals to be the primary material components for the production of artwork. So in this instance my way of living, as a continual project in its own right became decoupled. Suddenly there was living and there was producing, until I learnt to recouple them in a new way later.

As I transitioned from squatting to renting, on the most practical level things had to change. Suddenly everything wasn’t communal, a division of fridge space, my bed wasn’t everyone’s bed and at the end of each month I needed to pay £300. I don’t think you can ever really be aware of exactly how this changes your relationship to other people and things until you’ve experienced it some other way – but with that said I hadn’t moved into a standard house. It was a live/work warehouse, an old industrial space divided into rooms, socially it was communal, which I guess isn’t hard when there’s 13 of you.

I still live there and I like it a lot but each month it can be a struggle to cover the rent, I live pretty much hand to mouth and every month I just about find a way to do it. I want to be clear, this isn’t poverty, i’m not struggling to survive, this is self imposed and chosen and it’s not masochistic.

As I recounted in the first half I have three years experience of doing datamining, commercial network analysis, I know how to do web design from the ground up, video edit, I can code in 4 languages. I can also build, do electrics, install exhibitions, write and project manage. But despite these being pretty lucrative skill sets to some degree, I chose to do these things for money as little as possible. I’m not unique in this respect, I know many individuals with overlapping skill sets who also do paid work as little as possible, most of them went to art school, all of them have primary interests outside of paid work. I’m not interested in compromising my time and ability just for a company to guarantee me stability and an ‘advance’ in my ‘career path’ – I want to do work that I consider vital, with or without pay.    

When I do paid work for the most part I do so exclusively for individuals and organisations that I respect, feel an affinity towards and want to support. This however comes with a different kind of compromise, these are generally individuals that don’t have a lot of money. So I work for what they can afford, to make it happen, sometimes we trade skills, shares, artworks or just time, on average I make about £400-600 a month before rent.

But the Art World is a pretty unique place, some describe it as an exceptional economy, probably because over 95% of those contributing barely break even. Maybe though that’s okay, when you consider the inequalities of the world on a broader scale. Because in the Art World you get entertained for free, the commercial and public gallery system ensures all day viewing for free, once you’re in it you get fed a lot by gallery dinners, always paid for, alcohol for the most part is free.

You meet interesting people and some of them come from polar opposite backgrounds but once you’ve got this far you know the usual class dynamics don’t apply, at least in dialogue – you can say what you like and what you’re thinking, nothings off the table and every things up for debate. Although I think once you learn the rules don’t exist in the Art World, it’s easily extended outside it. Categorically though this is not some egalitarian micro-utopia, the same inequalities subsist, they’re even perpetuated but this just happens to be where i’ve found myself and this is one of the things that makes living on less than £500 a month in London viable and for the most part enjoyable.

Insider trading is endemic in the Art World, in fact it’s basically the defacto format by which most transactions seem to take place, this is one of the core reasons why the it will never experience a Napster Moment. This is played out from micro to macro. I’ve built websites for ‘free’, whilst the client/friend sits on a judging panel for a paid commission that I just so happen to win - payment by proxy. At a macro scale you can see this happening in instances such as Damien Hirst’s diamond skull or auction works. However this isn’t quite the same as the financial industries, the Art World is inherently a communal place, the lines between professionalism, socialising, discourse, partying and everything else barely exist – most opportunities and ‘professional’ relationships are likely to be developed under the heady influence of late night discussion and alcohol.

With that being the context and within the ‘Making a Living’ frame, I should state now that I don’t sell artwork, on principal, I made this decision during art school and for a long time held the position dogmatically, arguing with those that did. I’ve come to understand this position differently now, essentially I don’t want to give up or become reliant on a system I judge as unsustainable. Particularly when money inevitably changes your practice, the things you produce – as it should, I stated before I consider the economics to be a material condition of the work. In thinking this way it becomes abundantly clear to me what I would lose if I were to sell work. I guess the bottom line is that I don’t ever want to require the art world to exist in order for me to produce something.

Since staking this position, I’ve dematerialised much of my practice and predominantly due to the long winded nature of explaining it I no longer define myself as an artist to others. Instead I’ve built and operate a brand identity - as is the visual/semiotic language currently in vogue.

Which is a necessary attribute to bring up and describe, if I can even begin to explain how social capital effects ‘careers’ or ‘opportunities’ in this instance. Many young artists now speak in the language of brands, self described as brands, aspiring to be brands, this particular thinking is probably bred from the #postinternet crowd. The subject definitely goes beyond my short description here but it’s to broad and messy to get into in any depth (but for an expanded view I co-wrote this).

On a personal level however I can say this has allowed me to create a high degree of visibility within a social/professional scene without having to maintain an excessive physical output, which is  typically expected of an artist/curator/writer (or whatever term is used to pigeon hole and ‘professionalise’ ones practice at the time) – instead I am offered opportunities based on a particular brand narrative, tied into past, present or infrequent associations. Brokered through connections, i.e bringing specific individuals together for a particular conversation – essentially slightly off kilter network weaving.

Among other things this allows for freedom of travel at low cost, since much of this high visibility is played out online through associations and reblogging content, the art scene sprawls across most major cities, heavily interconnected and as a result of its casual open nature, people are always keen to have you stay. Likewise we host people whenever they’re in London.

At this point I’m conscious that the explanation, of a way of living is becoming increasingly fuzzier, less articulate. I think the primary reason for this, is what i’m presenting here isn’t fixed, whilst for the most part it’s an unspoken mode between my peers. We don’t discuss at great length how we make a living – perhaps I’m more aware of it because i’m in the fortunate position of being able to make a sizable sum if I wanted to, at least in the short term.

I’ve been comfortable to express and explain these things here because in many ways they’re already in the past – squatting’s banned, ultima online markets have hit stagflation, artworld informal economies are difficult to track and I am again transitioning away from this. There are though things I and my peers do now that I would be uncomfortable sharing on a public platform directly linked to the Council of Europe, despite the honest and sincere intentions at the heart of EdgeRyders – these are things that exist in greyzones for a reason, laws and policies for the most part are yet to extend to them and I find it hard to understand a way any form of policy would safeguard their existence.

I would be interested though to discuss how some of the informal traits and experiments laid out might translate to something actionable – something a wider net of less well positioned individuals could benefit from.

And it is here that a correlation may emerge between the points and experiences i’ve raised, that might not be completely generational (because who would want to speak for a generation anyway) but are at least true for many of my peer group, our work isn’t visible because the paid work we wish to do, doesn’t exist as paid work, we do it ourselves and use our flexible skillsets to self fund.

By extension of this; we recognise the value of our skills, we understand the value in the implicit knowledge created from growing up online and we know how to execute. However for the most part we want to change things, we’d like to create positive change but as it currently stands the jobs, institutions and organisations available to us, do not appear to have the frameworks or courage to instigate that change and until they do we’re unlikely to build any meaningful allegiances.

Now you see me now you don’t

Another great post, Ben. I am ever more impressed.

As an economist, I would describe what you call a “gray” area as a nonmarket one. Stuff gets done by people who get recognized for what they do. The proof of this in the pudding: you guys survive, get free entertainment, free food, free booze and lots of other freebies. “Free” in this context means that no money changes hands, NOT that you don’t do anything to earn these things.

The move towards nonmarket economies is indeed a radical one. And yet, I don’t agree with your closing statement:

we’d like to create positive change but as it currently stands the jobs, institutions and organisations available to us, do not appear to have the frameworks or courage to instigate that change and until they do we’re unlikely to build any meaningful allegiances.

Here’s why: you don’t need to have a theoretical agreement with institutions. They might like what you do with art; or find value in your experiments with a low-cost life, without necessarily buying all of the disruption you attach to them. Who knows, they might even be right! Certainly the strategy of co-opting radical changemakers into creating incremental change instead is centuries old, and very successful so far. The pension system, for example, was introduced by Otto von Bismarck: not a social democrat, but a Prussian militaristic nobleman who despised the masses but feared them enough to make keeping them above subsistence level a high priority.

You can walk some of the way wth some of the existing institutions and organizations, as we have so far with Edgeryders. When we get so far that paths diverge, we will see: but notice that even getting there will be a huge, huge success.

How do we make them get us?

Thanks for this great post, Ben! I also identified myself between your lines and I suppose many other edgeryders too :slight_smile:

I see your point that institutions are slow at getting change and adjusting to the real needs of talent. I experienced this myself on several occasions. Nonetheless I always believe that there are people who always value my skills it is just a matter of time to identify and engage with them.

I think most youngsters today have versatile skills as that’s the only way we can survive in contemporary societies but it is really about trying to find your space where your contribution is required and appreciated.

That’s what my struggle is about too here in the UK. I have always done things I truly believed in and only cared about the money perspective in the second place. Although running a family with kids, I always have to think about tomorrow too.

But this is the beautiful thing about life, isn’t it?

The reason why I joined the edgeryders community is exactly for this. I think we are a group of people who all aim to catalyze the change we are longing for. How you and the companies or projects looking for your skills can find each other in a faster way through the individual networks we all are part of? What networking or crowdfunding opportunities are there to get ourselves paid when we cannot identify an employer or a sponsor who would pay a salary for what we are doing but at the same time there are many people who actually appreciate what we do?

These are questions that excite me a lot and if you have insights on any of these I will be very happy to learn about them.

This should go in the handbook

Hi Ben,

Came across your post when I was reading the latest analysis of Edgeryders making a living, and I think it’s highly illustrative of the “working lives” of many members in the community…

our work isn’t visible because the paid work we wish to do, doesn’t exist as paid work, we do it ourselves and use our flexible skillsets to self fund.

Now from policy end, as described in Dunja’s policy research paper ( one of the several that will feed into the handbook Edgeryders are producing), it seems quite clear there is a problem with underemployment: a lot of people doing  temp or part time jobs, risking real precarity and bracktrapping their careers, and leading to devalorisation of their work. because unlike some of us, can’t live off from what they love doing …

so Edgeryders case and message to policy makers seems to be this?

"Our way to tackle working lives is twofold at least: 1. taking up these small jobs, many times menial, only to do what matters for us… until you come up with better offer, starting with education and moving on to valuing skills that are not listed in job offers.

  1. refusing employment per se, going for what we call non-employment, a life lived with minimum means, and only doing what we like, and if we have some sort of a job at one point it’s because you also happen to call it a job. For us it’s just work that feels rewarding"…

Question: can we move forward and make a point about this experimental work that produces social value outside the formal employment models? I’m not sure if it’s loud and clear in the policy paper, and would be great if you joined our conversation about what should be at the core of the handbook for policymakers…