My name is Ela Kagel, I am a freelance curator and producer based in Berlin. For the past two years I have been running the Free Culture Incubator, a workshop series for freelance creatives and cultural workers. This initiative was a collaboration between the transmediale Festival for Art and Digital Culture, and the Governement’s Center of Excellence for the Cultural & Creative Industries. Basically, the Free Culture Incubator was a platform for researching the price and value of freelance creative work. When I started this project in 2010, I was very optimistic that an ongoing series of workshops and debates would help us in understanding more about the economic side of our work. Now, two years later, I have a much better idea why it is so challenging to make a living in the sphere of the free & open:
1. Fuzzy Terminology
There is potentially a vast space for misunderstandings between two people who talk to each other. We all know that. It’s already there if we talk about regular things, like taking care of our kids or how to bake a pie. However, when it comes down to all the fuzzy and grey-zone topics which very often don’t even have a local name, the likelihood of misunderstandings gets bigger and bigger.
The Free Culture Incubator merges two different worlds: the idealistic sphere of free & open culture and the business incubator, breeding new profitable ideas. One of the problematic things around the Free Culture Incubator is rooted in the label “free” or “open”. It provokes a whole range of false expectations, such as “free” as in “freedom of price”. Other terms are highly unclear, too: “creativity” or “values” for instance. We all have a vague idea of what’s behind these terms, but at the same time the range of interpretations is simply too wide to get a clear message across. And this is actually something that weakens our position on the long run. If we lack the words to clearly state what we do, and how we do it and what it costs then we can’t expect others to support us.
Jodi Rose, a Berlin-based artist and curator, has written a remark about that in her blog
“….Indeed, the importance of naming is that the terms we choose both defines and creates the space and marks the boundaries or limits of potential. Naming is an act with powerfully resonant political and philosophical implications.” Very true.
2. The Creative “Industries”
According to the official image of Berlin the city is in abundance of creative jobs and the cultural & creative industries are making tons of money. Reality tells a different story, though. There ARE few branches within the creative industries which are profitable, but others are still struggling to make a living. Just merging ‘creativity’ and ‘economy’ doesn’t automatically lead to new economic models, or necessarily shape the transformation from a creative initiative into a business. This is a long and challenging process marked by trial and error – and we are currently far from efficient mass production, as the term “industry” suggests. BTW: setting up industries is not the prime goal of most creatives, either. On the contrary, a growing number of self-employed cultural & creative workers are trying to establish alternative forms of economic production and value transfer.
Talking of values: the traditional business plan is our one and only reference system to economic value. Wouldn’t it be just about time to think of alternative metrics that allow for the conversion of cultural values into a price in a more differentiated way?
3. The Price and Value of Creative Work
We still know very little about the price and value of creative work. Despite our obsession with everything ‘creative’ we have problems to put the creative work into an economic perspective. This has many different reasons, and I don’t want to elaborate on all of them, but one aspect seems to be important to me: Markets are usually based on price systems which everyone can refer to. Within such a system, everyone can clearly navigate between high price and bargain offers and people are able to tell the difference between products or services - in terms of quality, quantity or exclusivity. In the sphere of the ‘free’ and ‘open’ we cannot rely on any traditional value or price structures. Everyone has to come up with their own value proposition, which often turns out to be quite a solitary venture. At the same time, politicians love to see us all as part of a larger collective, the so-called ‘creative class’ or the ‘cultural market’. No matter if these entities actually do exist or if they are just a fantasy of city marketing campaigns, there IS a growing need to unite forces and share knowledge & resources. The big question is just to what kind of network or collective people can actually relate to. I am glad about initiatives such as Edgeryders, as they offer a homebase for people who are willing to share & connect. And I hope that the platform will become strong enough to keep up the connections over a long period of time.
These are the key findings I am taking with me after two years of Free Culture Incubator. If you want to know more please do get in touch!