Take me to your money

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Being an artist in Australia feels a lot like that time I was a tourist in Pompeii: none of the fucking maps look alike. Seriously, there’s a road marked here on this one, but it’s not on any of the others. And I’m standing in a courtyard that eight out of the ten maps claim does not exist. Where the hell am I? How do I get back to the food court? (I swear I remember a food court in Pompeii. In Pompeii. Under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, among one of the most remarkable archeological finds ever, I ate a dodgy parma.)

ABOVE: Pompeii postcard, made thanks to art

Pompeii postcard, made thanks to art

Aside from the fact that I rarely get heckled in Italian during tech rehearsal, the Pompeii metaphor stands up pretty well. I entered the creative industries the same way I entered that ancient Roman city: in awe, seeking culture and history and something bigger than myself. Then two street dogs started fighting near my leg and I got scared. But this is not a rant against life as an artist, or Pompeii (one of the coolest historical sites ever). This is more of a generalised puzzling. I’m that lost idiot wearing a bathers top as clothes because my campsite doesn’t include a laundromat, gesturing emphatically at my street map and saying “HELP? WHERE GO?”

Basically, in artist, all of this translates to: my project didn’t get funded.

Bummer.

OK, so, if you’ve seen my bio, you may know that I am one of the three Hack Residents at The Edge, State Library of Queensland. I started my residency in January and I have to say, The Edge is awesome. One of Brisbane’s better kept secrets. I actually resent telling people about my residency because then I’ll have to tell them about The Edge, and I want to keep all of its wonderful resources for MYSELF, ME, JUST MEEEE HAHAHAARR. Other Brisbane artists I’ve spoken to have expressed a similar annoyance that people are starting to know where that cave-like corridor between the Art Gallery and SLQ leads. It’s like Fight Club: it’s an open secret now. We used to just find each other by chanting “His name is Daniel Flood”* until someone else knew what you were talking about. (*That is a very specific Fight Club reference that only makes sense if you’re familiar with The Edge’s programming staff, so sorry to everyone except the three people who laughed at that.)

ABOVE: Yes, this is that concrete hallway you’ve been avoiding because you weren’t sure if you were allowed down there. YOU ARE. DON’T TELL ANYONE.

My residency project is a live event where people can interact with stories from marginalised communities. At the moment, I’m recording interviews with women who work in male-dominated industries – people who have ‘hacked’ (eh?) into workplaces where they would traditionally be excluded. It is fascinating work. I am a nerd for analysing work practices and gender studies and storytelling, so this is pretty great. But I have a problem: not enough funding.

The Edge is supporting my project with in-kind support, for which I am grateful and stoked. One of the wonderful things about the team there is their understanding that creative practice needs space and time for experimentation. The thing is, it also needs money. I was counting on additional streams of funding to make this project go. When two grant applications came back ‘negatory’, it was a blow. I’m not proud of how sad I got. Failing doesn’t come easy to me, as I’m sure it doesn’t to most. Plus, I had no idea what to do next. No map. Without funding, the project was stalled.

I am continuing anyway, because I love this project and I’m crazy-passionate about it, but I cannot afford all the hours of work, the resources, or the fees for additional artists without being paid for them. I will keep applying for further grants and funding avenues, but sometimes it seems like most of my life as an artist is spent writing applications rather than working on my art. And those applications need me to have already spent a lot of time figuring out the art part and getting really good at it and justifying why I should get the money to work on it further. I had hoped that this was just a symptom of me not managing my time properly, but from reading Justin Heazlewood‘s memoir/self-help book Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia, I gather that it’s not just me:

“Being an artist means running a business; a tiny one, sure, but as valid and high-maintenance as any other. Only when you are a few years into your practice does this dry reality begin to dawn. Like an extended practical joke, you look around from your desk to see if the cameras are rolling. All this time you’ve been a contestant on Admin Idol, duped into your own temping job by the faceless men at Officeworks.”
— From Funemployed (2014), p. 75. Seriously, buy it, read it, it’s good.

If I’m sounding a bit strident and self-justifying, it’s because I’m fighting against a lifelong conditioning that the arts are inessential. You don’t think about artists doing piles of admin for their art, because you don’t think of art as a job. Like, that sounds fun, but what do you really do?

This isn’t a hobby; this isn’t hanging out after work on the weekends. This is my career and I need to be paid at some point. It’s no coincidence that this period of reflection on my career path comes immediately after I filed my latest tax return. I’m barely treading water here. As a society, we can’t expect to benefit from everything that art brings to our culture and make artists pay for it all out of their own pockets. I was extremely gratified by Charlie Pickering getting shouty on The Project tonight, half-jokingly telling news outlets to stop covering art. Because, Pickering said, the news covers art and they talk about how much it will cost and then people get all “What’s the point of it” and – he yelled – “It’s ART! What’s the point of it? IT’S ART!” Cheering studio applause, echoed by my spraying of nachos at the TV: “Go Charlie!”

So, I’ve had my sulk, nailed my rejection letters to the wall and pulled myself up by my bootstraps. This project has hit a speed-bump but we’re still going to get there eventually. I don’t have a reliable map but I have the same things I had in Pompeii all those years ago: blind optimism and an unshakeable belief that I look awesome in this tankini swim top, no I don’t care that we’re standing in a museum, gimme another parma per favore.

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On dream jobs

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I have been sitting at my laptop for the last few hours, staring at a script, calculating syllables and syntax and subtexts. I savour every word changed, every minute I spend thinking about the craft of saying things. Sometimes it seems crazy that I get to do the same thing my heroes have done for years. This work somehow brings me closer to them.

I keep thinking about how it is a pleasure and a privilege to work on something you love. I feel very lucky indeed, but I do hesitate over the word “privileged”: it feels like a dangerous allowance, a concession to those who look upon creative careers as a luxury. In an Australia where our Prime Minister says that if you do not currently have a job, you have “no right to hold out for the job of [your] dreams“, yeah, I feel nervous about doing work I love. Enjoying my work somehow makes it feel illegitimate, unless I were making heaps of money from it (… I’m not).

Privilege is a peculiar benefit which is given to some people and not others. I feel privileged to be working as a writer and performer because I know that some people are not able to do this. Sometimes I am one of those people. When I’ve been too poor and sick to buy groceries or to get down the stairs, I’ve asked myself: “Who do you think you are, to want to make art? What gives you the right? You’re struggling to make ends meet and you want to write poetry?”

ABOVE: Pro-tip – having the State Library as your office is free and gets you dream views.

The Prime Minister is purportedly only targeting unemployed and underemployed Australians with his exhortations to stop “holding out” for a dream job, but we’re all only one piece of bad news away from unemployment, right? One dismissal letter, one crisis, one Budget axing our funding, and it could be us queuing at Centrelink. Then we, too, would have to stop “holding out” – holding out, as if we’re in a negotiation. Is Abbott saying that we don’t have the right to negotiate the terms of our own employment?

The problem with the phrase “dream job” is that its meaning is negligible. I would guess that Abbott means it as “one’s most ideal job”. But most of us know that we have to do many other jobs on the way up to the ideal. In the creative industries, it’s generally accepted that you’ll have to put in hours of study, training, practice, unpaid internships, portfolio-building, work experience – none of which pays the bills. If we, as a culture, only value the hours for which you’re being paid, then we dismiss all those hours you have to put in to become skilled. And research shows that these hours are definitely not wasted, as an article published at The Conversation yesterday demonstrated – although people in the creative industries struggle initially to find employment post-graduation, they go on to earn very comfortably later in their careers and report high levels of career satisfaction.

When the Government talks about unemployment, it sounds like it is imagining the worst possible version of un(der)employed people – spoiled, entitled brats. People who will avoid lifting a finger wherever possible (perhaps preferring to be “leaners”). The Government’s paradigm seems to be, “It’s easy to tell if what you’re doing is worthwhile: if it is, someone will be paying you a living wage for it.” By this mode of thinking, I was contributing more to society when I was handing out Haribo samples in the Woolies confectionery aisle than when I was writing a show about gender and identity in Australia. Lollies are an important part of a balanced diet (the very top of the pyramid, indeed), but the people ignoring me and going over to the Lindt lady instead didn’t seem to appreciate my civic duty.

What is my ideal job, anyway? Am I doing it now? I don’t know. In high school I told people my dream job was to “somehow monetize blinking”, whether in a salaried position or paid blink-by-blink. Now that I’m 28 and (only slightly) less of a smart-aleck, I would say that my ideal job is one that gives me opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose. (This Dan Pink talk really had an impact on me.) I would like enough income to be comfortable and to do the things I enjoy. I would like to feel that I am contributing to society in a way for which I am particularly equipped. That is, I would like to make full use of my strengths. You could put me in a field picking strawberries, and I guess I’d be superficially contributing to our nation’s agricultural industry, but I’d be freaking horrible at it. First of all, I’m over six feet tall, and I understand that the strawberries are quite close to the ground. But most of all, I’m physically the equivalent of a sentient noodle. There are other things that I’m much better at, and I think I could be put to better use than being shoved into any job going.

A lot of our Government’s rhetoric is underpinned by the idea that work is inherently moral. I’m not necessarily refuting that – it is an idea I’m still unpacking – and the American blood in me fervently believes in the value of hard work. But what type of work – that is what interests me. The harsh unemployment policies and their supporters are saying that any work is better than “no work”. (By the way, anyone who has been unemployed (and unpaid) for an extended period knows that it is not “no work”.) But what do we want for Australia? Do we just want a country where every single citizen (abled or otherwise) is toiling somewhere, anywhere? Personally, I want more for my country. I dream bigger for us. And I think the Government does, too, since they’ve proposed to invest billions of dollars in a Medical Research Future Fund, to make sure that Australia will “advance world leading medical research projects“. They want Australia to achieve autonomy and mastery in the medical research field, and all this in the midst of a “budget emergency“. Clearly it’s not enough for Australia’s medical bodies just to work – they must be globally competitive.

If more people in Australia were able to work towards their “dream job” (read: dream lifestyle), I have little doubt that we would have the kind of culture that other countries hold up as an example. We could be one of those smug Scandinavian countries! Do we want work satisfaction to be a peculiar benefit only afforded to a few? Or could we all dream of a job where we are employed to the best of our abilities?

I will continue to feel lucky doing work that I love. But I wonder whether it should be considered a privilege rather than a right.

BELOW: Following some dreams.