Malcolm Whittaker is an independent artist based in Sydney.
This is a free-thinking, free-speaking, free-typing, personal-purge on the slightly saucy idea of #illshowyoumine. The idea of #illshowyoumine was originally instigated as a rant by London-based artist Bryony Kimmings, and has been bastardized and championed here by Melbourne artist Alex Desebrock, I believe, in the wake of heated discussions at the Live Art Camp at Arts House in November 2014.
A purge from the purgatory of being an independent artist, masochist that I am. I am not even going to proof read this text but just submit a first draft to Alex, because I am not getting paid to do this and WOE is me!…
It is a purgatory of my own choosing and making, within the established culture and infrastructure of our Australian arts ecology that I grew to be a part of. As such, I feel a slight resistance to this whole initiative, an insecurity brought about by it feeling a little whiney. There is no democratic right to being successful in a vocation of your choosing. It is entirely unsustainable for everyone with and without an arts degree to expect to make a living from this lark, just as it is for everyone who wants to be a high-school teacher to secure a full-time teaching gig. There aren’t the schools out there. It’s supply and demand and economic rationalism and all that. Where would the money come from to pay EVERYONE exactly what everyone DESERVES to be paid for the rather fanciful life choice of becoming an artist? Where does the small amount that does exist to pay the SELECT FEW come from??
The vocational desire for artists towards their practice means that the arts community that supports one another also competes with one another for the limited opportunities and MONEY that is out there.
With arts practice having a value that cannot be quantified or qualified, this is probably where a part of the difficulty stems from in negotiating fees.
There is a certain strength that can be gained from a dialogue and transparency in these issues. How do we value, in a fiscal sense and otherwise, what we do as artists?
Personally, I tend to try and take the figure of $1,100p/w as an award for myself. That covers all the labor, both physical and mental, at my end, and all the joy (or whatever) my work brings for whoever can be rallied to attend it. All other expenses in realizing the work should also be covered and should not have to come out of that figure. When expenses start to come out of that figure then what we have is more of a passionate hobby, the epitome of which is the pyramid-scheme that is a fringe festival where everything is off the artist’s back. Not having expenses come out of the figure (whatever it might be), unfortunately, is a privileged position for most. It is a privilege that is worked hard for by both those who have it, and for those who don’t have it. However unrealistic it might be for artists to have a successful practice, in the sense that it is their primary way of making a living, this principle should at least be understood and considered by everyone that each individual artist works with on their project (including the presenter).
In 2014 I was one of those who (mostly) had this privilege. I was one of the SELECT FEW who attained a decent share of MONEY available in my field of performance. I have stubbornly always refused to take up any other job that wasn’t to do with my art practice, and as such I was on and off Centrelink benefits from when I finished undergraduate studies in 2007 until the end of 2012, and lived a pretty degenerate lifestyle in this time. In the 2014 financial year this stubbornness, in a sense, PAID OFF, and I lived like a KING (compared to most of my colleagues)
I earned about $60,000-odd in the 2013-2014 financial year, and about $40,000-odd in 2014 . Selected presentations of work in 2014 included Ignoramus Anonymous at State Library NSW, Waverley Council Library, The Festival of Live Art at Arts House (Melbourne), The Sonic Social Performance Space program at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney) and The Wheeler Centre (Melbourne); My Best Friend with Performance Space in Sydney, with Field Theory in Melbourne and at Junction Arts Festival in Launceston; Jumping the Shark Fantastic at Campbelltown Arts Centre, BINGO Unit with Team MESS and Country Arts South Australia and Trojans with Team MESS for the Tiny Stadiums Festival. I was also employed for one session as a part-time lecturer at the University of Wollongong’s School of Creative Arts and paid the Australian Postgraduate Award for six months of Phd research, before taking a leave of absence to focus on back-to-back projects. Further monies were also brought in through working on a performance project at Art Gallery NSW, a development at Arts House & HotHouse Theatre (Albury), and a few workshop stipends and writing projects for publication. Most of my travel expenses were covered for these ventures. I pushed my luck with some friends’ hospitality in Melbourne, which accumulated to a week or two across the year, and per diems weren’t always to an award standard, but I was never out of pocket on project expenses.
Given this context (and my own insecurities), “showing you mine” feels a little like bragging. It shouldn’t. 2014 was a freak-ish year, and it also included being underpaid for necessary labor on a number of projects and having to underpay collaborators and producers on a number of troubling occasions. I also had engaged in uncovered travel for work outside of funded projects (which hopefully will pay off some day) and did some pro bono consultancy work (for the love of it). The projects I was paid more for subsidized the work I was paid less (or nothing) for, and some of these projects the development was not paid for in any way and so I was being paid for in back-pay now for when there wasn’t money back then. That’s how I treated it. It’s a full-time gig without a full-time wage, and in 2014 many projects took place simultaneously and concurrently. I am not sure I will ever see times as good as 2014 again. Nothing can be relied upon.
I see the researching, teaching and writing ventures I undertake as much a part of my art practice as the making and presenting of my work. This allowed a crazily good year as an artist, bringing in the income I did. Looking at these figures now this is even more than $1,100p/w, which of course can rarely be paid as a wage and a large amount of the income I am discussing is negotiated project fees, but for which I use this weekly wage as how I value my labor, which is often accumulative and as aforementioned sometimes includes back-paying myself in the good times when there is a budget.
In 2015 I have one confirmed project that will pay (a bit). I am back on the Australian Postgraduate Award payments that continue to support the pushing of my luck that I do under the guise of art (under the further guise of ‘research’). This award thankfully continues the novelty of something akin to a “wage” that I mistakenly got used to last year.
All this work unavoidably involves traveling, which means being away from home and family. My partner understands this, our kittens probably less so, but that doesn’t make it any less gruelling.
All this compiles towards a neurosis that it is no wonder I drink so much. I think perhaps I was drunk when I decided to pursue this dream, which sometimes comes true, but even then it means only more work. Willy Wonka lied at the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Getting to where you want just brings the labor of unknown unknowns into play, and brings up necessary questions of sustainability.
Still, I have made my bed and am happy to lie in it. I wouldn’t change what I do for work (or play or life, as these are increasingly blurry), even if I have started trying to take Mondays off drinking (unless there is an opening). What I would change, and it is something that is attainable, is a culture shift in how this area of valuing the arts is discussed and treated. How come it is easier though to imagine a zombie apocalypse than it is a complete culture shift? How do we embrace the elusive value of these arts in a world that is ideologically opposed to what they represent?
I ride a bike everywhere it is realistic to do so, even borrowing one when I am touring or whatever. After raging one day about those pesky drivers who believe the road is their’s alone, another cyclist friend encouraged me to see myself as an activist through my riding for all our riding. The ‘a-word’ was a little romantic for my liking, but it has a point. Living any sort of marginalized or misunderstood or underappreciated lifestyle or venture requires pointed activism to climb or overthrow the horizontal hierarchies around it. Even if those ventures are possibly seen as a little “middle class”, like being an ‘artist’ or cyclist (although part of the issue taken with cycling is probably more a systemic stigmatism of it being “lower class”).
I started writing this as a digression from other work, my ‘real work’, and not sure towards what end this slightly stream of consciousness writing served. Maybe it is actually my real work though, and maybe it is a form of (bad) activism at the same time? I am not sure what will be gained through this writing or this initiative, but there is certainly a value in the endeavor and the space for discussion that it hopefully provokes into providing.