Towards hope, new conversations, carrying on.

Yesterday I gave a talk to a group of City University students. I was invited to talk to the cultural studies course members by Dr Dave O’Brien about 3 things; firstly my thoughts on (not) digital theatre (in that I think digital artefacts and infrastructure are much less interesting than the changes wrought on us and our society and how interesting (and in my interests, interactive) art can interrogate that), the second: my work as a practitioner, and finally: existing in the arts as a human who has to eat, wear clothes, travel places, live under a roof, sleep in a bed, generally.

I’m pretty good at the first two. I’ve got a PhD in the first, and the second is going OK, I’m not ‘mid career’ yet, but I’m 29 years old and for the past 2 years I’ve been earning the majority of my money from freelance work in The Arts. For 3 years before that I did work for nominal bits of money (£50, £100) and expenses covered. For the 10 years prior to that I wrote and made and played and tested and produced poems and plays and soundwalks and opinions for ‘free’.

After the lecture a student came up to me, having been late and missed the bit about my practice (it was a 9am Wednesday lecture) and said ‘so what it is it you actually do?’

This answer always begins with a pause, and then I pick some of the following things: “I am…. a theatre maker, producer, event putter-onner, consultant in areas digital and game-y, creative producer, project manager of large scale digital projects, board member, game designer, lecturer, researcher, co-founder of a record label, evaluator, speaker.”

 She stared at me for a second and said “how old are you?”

And there was something else in her eyes

“I’m 29… Are you ok?”

 “Yeah, it’s just, it’s just a little overwhelming”

When I was chatting to Dave about how to make the lecture useful, he explained to me that these students – because of how funding is shifting away from arts and humanities in universities – are increasingly made up of very well off young people, much more international than before. Those, in short, who can afford to aspire to a career in the arts

In the lecture, the third part I showed the class 2 excepts from 2 blog posts, from Bryony Kimmings and Andy Field about a conversation that has bubbled up in recent days on how little artists are paid.

Bryony Kimmings is not a common example. She is extraordinarily successful. And astonished me when she described £75 nights out (I spent £11.50 last night, and £5 of that was the ticket) – but what you decide to do with your money is entirely up to you. I wouldn’t flinch on spending that on a new triathlon suit or replacing the headset on my bike, that’s priorities, they differ. They balked when they saw her figures.

Then I showed them a screenshot of the headline figures from my last year’s accounts. Here’s that.

Cursor_and_Draft_accounts_2011-12.pdf__page_4_of_7_-2

This year’s are likely to be more ‘profit’, but the more work that I am getting is because I moved to London – so my living standards have taken a big hit, I’m probably worse off and instead of a small terrace all to myself, I have a room in a shared house in South East London. There’s no lounge, and I just had to wrap my printer in a plastic bag and gaffa it shut and put it in the garden because I found 2 cockroaches living in it. (Alright, I didn’t HAVE to do that, but apparently that was my reaction). I can’t afford room for a desk. I recently got a chair I sit in to work from which is nicer than sitting on the bed.

I am tired. I am living on about £900 per month in a city that eats money. I work 6 days a week most weeks. I only this year took my first week’s holiday (I went to visit friends in Scotland and Manchester). I am angry. I am tired. There are better ways.

These were the things I told the class, through showing them those things:

Let go of the idea you will ever ‘just’ make art

Let go of the idea you will earn a middle class living

“Do you think it will have changed, do you think it will have got better by the time I graduate”

“How old are you?”

“20”

“Honestly? No.”

I didn’t go there to break young people.

So I also told her to remember how lucky we are if we make a kind of art that is acceptable to funders at all (cf. the difficulties of Hide&Seek, the complete lack of funding for exciting, vital new forms of culture such as independent video games, and the entirely expect loss-making activities of many internationally touring bands I know and love). I told her to remember to love what she does. To acknowledge that it’s much easier to feel the scared and overwhelmed, but to know in those big empty spaces which feel difficult to hold open are ripe for filling with whatever you want to. It won’t be predictable. It will be difficult. It shouldn’t be in some ways, and in others that slippery, sticky difficulty is precisely what making a thing is. Why it’s good. Don’t be desperate, be angry. I told her to get political. I told her to remember to love herself and not lose herself to what she does. Remember to enjoy it, especially when it’s easier to feel the other things.

Alan Lane published a brilliant post today about how HUB and Slung Low operate. I have so much respect and love for the way that they work. And think, despite it being true that that way of working can’t work for everyone there is so much to learn from it – not least that you can do something different – find your own model. I talked in the lecture about alternative models for funding. I dismissed crowd funding, as I typically do, as misused, lazy, and problematic in most examples I seen of it used in the (subsidised) arts sector. But I did talk about HUB, even before that blog post. I talked about pay what you can which I experimented with in Performance in the Pub. I talked, as Alan and Porl know, about how the most important things about a pay what you can model of supporting events is the conversation, saying ‘this space is different, that’s ok, let’s find a way to work out how we behave here’. I posted print outs of the cost of each event, I divided it by capacity and posted a ‘break even’ donation figure. My donation average was never under that. Some people didn’t pay at all. They saw some performance they would not have otherwise seen. That’s ok. That’s still a win in my book.

I think pay-what-you-can is a conversation every venue can have.
Just by creating a new space.
You do that by saying ‘this is different’
You use new language
You don’t say ‘donation’ if possible, because that always sounds supplementary
You tell people how much it cost in time and money and bodies to make a thing
You explain it’s ok if you can’t afford more than £2
You ask them how much the song that saved their life is
You tell them you’re not going to patronise them with pricing to show worth (as opposed to cost – i.e., ‘we can’t lower our prices, we want to be seen on a par with the Playhouse!’)
You say ‘what was this worth?’
Money is not the only economy. What we’re talking about here is value. Solid research suggests that you can create money “downstream” in creative ecologies by holding open a space to talk about other values.
You have to talk, though, directly and openly.
To everyone involved.
Not through a marketing department. Or rather, not in marketing. But in conversation.
You stand on the stage.
You stop being an institution. What use are institutions in conversations?
You are a person, and you hold open a new space.
I think every publicly subsidised venue should have 1 pay-what-you-can performance each week. I think certain post-code areas, ages, and income groups should have priority booking.
I think you solve the problem of people who can afford to pay seizing on it as ‘something on the cheap’ by asking them to be decent.
This is also what I am trying to do in Thisison – the app I am producing and researching for Albow – making a space for this conversation in digital spheres, making it cash-less and mobile. Encoding a conversation about value in user flows and interaction

I really really wanted to give that 20 year old student – and the others – enough hope and realism to continue to make in the existing, and enough anger and energy to think about breaking this system, making and playing with new ones.

The last slide I posted in the discussion said the following two things – about (not) digital theatre, and about being a part of The Arts, as a maker:

Listen. Be open. Challenge.

Pull language apart and look for meaning.

“If we don’t talk to each other, then we end up with nothing. And there’ll be a whole load of empty buildings with no art to fill them.”

That second bit is from Andy’s blog. To it I would add ‘and no audiences’.

Why the fuck should I expect to work outside the conventional employment system and still expect living standards of people who give their time over to that system?

That the system punishes you for stepping outside that system is HOW IT REMAINS THE SYSTEM.

So, here’s to Bryony. Who was angry, and said so, revealing the kind of income details people (especially nice, working class people) are not supposed be open about.

Here’s to Andy, who made practical suggestions.

Here’s to Alan, who runs things differently. Who pays everyone a flat median wage and open up his space with others for others and other economies.

Here’s to all of us. Chipping away at the system.

Advice that I repeat to myself when I feel it’s all to heavy: Carry on. Remember to enjoy it. Remember to love yourself and those you ask to work with you, and see the things you do. Feel angry, feel lucky. Listen. Be open. Challenge. Pull expectations apart and look for new ways of thinking.

Here’s to that.

Further reading:

Bryony’s post: http://thebryonykimmings.tumblr.com/post/67660917680/you-show-me-yours
Andy’s response: http://andytfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/transparency/
Blast Theory talk about being a company: http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/cash-money/
Alan on Slung Low’s way of working: http://alanlaneblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/blog-post-transparency-money-and-being-the-theatre-company-we-want-to-be/
Money, Love and Attention, more from me on economies of value: http://www.albow.com/money-love-and-attention/
Performance in the pub, a year in, including spreadsheets of all my costs and losses: http://www.hannahnicklin.com/2013/01/happy-birthday-performance-in-the-pub/

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10 Responses to “Towards hope, new conversations, carrying on.”

  1. Matt Adams November 29, 2013 at 11:02 am #

    Hi Hannah, thanks for your post. One immediate response I have is that we are now in a world where being adventurous about who will pay what for your work has become essential. Historically universities have been very weak in this area and it comes as a real shock to students when they graduate about how much there is to learn. We need to encourage emerging practitioners to consider ‘value’ at all levels when making work and to take risks with their business models as well as their work.

  2. Hannah Nicklin November 29, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Thanks for this Matt! I’m pretty bad at being adventurous about money, and particularly on the asking-for-more thing I think Bryony is probably good at. Agree with your point here.

  3. Brendan McCall January 7, 2014 at 1:18 am #

    Thank you for this inspiring blog post, Hannah. While unfamiliar with your work, I was directed towards it from a newsletter I get each week, “You´ve Cott Mail”, which also had a link to Bryony´s post. I completely agree with you, that a lot of action is required to change The System. Yes, as creative individuals we need (and should desire) to remain open. But we also need to get angry, en masse. It is one thing for us to speak out and voice the tangible challenges that face us, regardless of discipline or art-form, but it is quite another to start taking action as a community. I see the poor ways that artists (especially performing artists) are paid as a “class action suit”, something that other industries would never tolerate; yet, we unfortunately accept it, perpetuating a broken system in perpetuity.

    Hopefully, 2014 will be a year to change this.

    In my work as an artist, as well as a teacher, I do my best to find ways to create better working models for my collaborators, more access for my audiences, and more strategic tools to my students. It is not easy, and like you, I tend to juggle a number of hats and play a number of roles in a month and in a year. But posts like yours reignite my commitment to making a positive change in this arena, and is inspiring. Thank you for your work, your drive, and your candor–

    Brendan

  4. Hannah Nicklin January 7, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

    Thanks very much for this, Brendan! Coincidentally I was having a real down ‘this is all to difficult’ day when your comment came through, and it cheered me up a little. Have you also read the post by Action Hero? That’s very enlivening too: http://www.actionhero.org.uk/2013/12/how-to-make-a-living-as-an-artist/

    All the best, and in solidarity,
    Hannah

  5. Brendan McCall January 7, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

    Thanks for the reply, Hannah. And I´m glad for the timing of your comment, to help lift your spirits a bit. We are in this together, and our problems can at least be halved by working together.

    Thanks, too, for sharing this post by Action Hero, which I was unfamiliar with. It seems that this conversation is definitely happening in the UK, which is great. Hopefully, it will spread to other countries as well, and the age-old problems of artists and money can improve soon.

    Best,

    Brendan

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