Recapitulating hypocrisy: work and not-work in flow

Part Gillie Kleiman’s WebRes ‘Not Working.’ Find out more here.


I am noticing already that this process, this online residency, is a kind of unfolding of itself, an opportunity to make connections between things I know and things I think, and things I have known and things I have thought before. As I have written on my own blog, I am trying to manage a tone that is personal and political and thoughtful but not scholarly. I made a plan but have already veered off, each bit of something sending me to another place. In a sense, this is becoming a kind of diary of a week, with many things missing. Nonetheless, it is both a provocation to keep thinking, and a pretty good record of my preoccupations at this moment. These texts, then, are necessarily unrefined and unedited.

Yesterday I tried really hard not to work. I had to take a work call, though, because the person just called me out of the blue, and it was something that needed sorting out. I also received WhatsApp messages about work-related matters, and had to make some work-related decisions. I did some reading for something that I consider to be work, some ongoing learning I’m doing as part of work time. I did manage not to turn my computer on. This has become a kind of rite of resistance, a way to prove to myself that my mind and body and spirit are not, on that one day, absorbed by work.

I have written about things that I do that are not work before, here, thinking mostly about a radio show (currently having a pause between series) that I have been making with my friend Marian. In this text I also write about other things I do and want to do, and share opinions. That text is part of today’s offer; a hyperlink is a knitting in.

Today I am thinking about another blogpost I have written in the past few months, a post about my own hypocrisies, which you can read here. I’m weaving this together with the radio-related post and with yesterday’s writing by focusing on this paradox I hold within myself:

An artist is a worker and should use worker-organising methods to improve their conditions (e.g. unions)

Vs

The category ‘professional artist’ should be dismantled so everyone can make stuff without it being a profession, with all the difficulty, exploitation, exclusion and creative stifling that that brings.

In attempting to create for myself a four-day week, I have had to try and become clear – albeit temporarily, provisionally – about what is work and what is not work. This is a tricky beast in both theory and practice. It also has some difficult consequences: it can easily make very spurious but dominant views about what is and isn’t worthy of such a term spin into my praxis. It makes domestic labour, so carefully, vigorously and clearly fought for as a work practice by feminists for over fifty years, occupy a non-work place in my life. It masks caring work and community work. It demands that I should decide which friends are friends and which friends are work-friends and asks that I divvy up my energies towards those people in peculiar ways.

One of the texts that really interested me when I was in the reading phase of my PhD was Work’s Intimacy by Melissa Gregg (2011). Not only does this book provide fascinating insights, based on rigorous fieldwork, of how our work gets closer and closer to us, even when we might not want it to be so, through changes in technology and culture as well as the ongoing furling of neoliberalism, but also because it records a period of time, 2007-2009, where these changes felt new and unknown, and somehow even exciting (remember getting your emails on your smartphone for the first time? I do!). In 2011, Gregg couldn’t possibly have known how this trend would continue.

Nor would she have been able to predict – at least within the scope of her research – that the gig economy would bloom so spectacularly. Performing artists are, of course, the original gig economy workers; we do gigs.  A few years ago I remember commenting that the rise and expansion of the gig economy might be helpful for artists; if more people are subject to these conditions, then there will be more attention on the particular forms of exploitation to which we are subjected, and we might be able to get better organised to resist and transform ways of working to make it so that we all live well. I have been somewhat disappointed; what I realise now is that really we should have already developed better tools for such worker organising, and there is very little there. Policies from arts-related unions and campaigning groups often focus on important but ultimately highly-specialised minutiae, like very tiny adjustment in payscales or the temperatures of rooms for this kind of rehearsal versus that kind of rehearsal. Though these are useful, and I think we each need to push in the ways we find most helpful, I wonder what it would mean to back off from these details to look at the bigger, more structural problems we experience in our places and times of work. Things aren’t working, and the pandemic has made that starker than ever; this is being well-recognised across the arts and we need to keep saying it to make sure we don’t forget.

In Gregg’s work, she demonstrates how the worker is so involved in a culturally coerced presenteeism that work encroaches upon every part of their being. This is entirely encouraged in the romanticisation of artists and arts workers: the dominant narrative of the artist is that we can’t do anything else because our hearts are artists’ hearts and we’ll get some kind of spiritual blueballs if that’s not what we do every day. I can see how that can seem like the truth sometimes, and even a rewarding place to be. It makes it seem like the rest of society has to support us, because we really have no choice, so please pity us and help us. I think that this is wildy unhelpful, and, moreover, untrue. There are many forces that make a person become an artist (including but not limited to a higher education pyramid scheme that convinces young people that they must have an undergraduate degree in something and that there is a career available to them despite it all, if they just come here and work very hard). 

We need this structure of identification in order to proceed along the lines of a worker unionising or lobbying; we need to show that there’s no way for us unless working conditions improve, because there’s nothing else that we could possibly do. I sometimes work in this way and will continue to do so, gathering together with other arts workers to improve conditions through campaigning and some version of industrial relations, trying to reshape what we’re doing to make it less harmful, even though the invocation of ‘industry’ and even ‘worker’ can have the stymying effects of having us all work in the same way, in projects or organisations that are themselves shaped by the strictures of late capitalism. It looks like we’re doing the right thing but it might be more a question of less wrong than more right.

The other option is to relinquish the role of artist, the role of arts worker, as a role in the world of work at all. That would be to soften the edges of things, to make more porous work and not-work, to let in. This does not undo the intimacy of work but frames it in new terms and textures; it lets me talk to my friend and not worry about who she is to me or what that conversation is doing work-wise but to appreciate the connection as just one thing unfolding before me that can be. This is liberty; to do the thing because it’s the thing I’m doing, not because it’s for something. As theatre director Jan Ritsema says, the way of being, as an artist, is that every day is a Sunday. 

The thing is, I don’t want this just for me. I want this for everyone. I want everyone to be able to participate as fully as they like in whatever culture suits them. (In other terms, I want some form of cultural democracy.) I don’t want to have to wrap myself in the protective armour of the title ‘artist’ in order to fight for my right to survive and do this thing; I don’t want artmaking to separate me or make me seem special or make me seem that I think I’m special. Artists aren’t special, any more than anyone else is special. We don’t deserve a better time than anyone else. I think artists do a lot – measurable and immeasurable things – to make human life what it is. One of those things is that artists always and already constitute work’s intimacy in ways alternative to our capitalist reality. It’s not enough to just not be working, because not-working, as Gregg theorises and I have attempted to describe, is already so close to working that a firewall is both futile and unnecessary. It would be better to elaborate that intimacy in a softer way, in a way where we don’t need to worry so much about it. We don’t need to feel guilty, then; we know it’s all part of a flow. To do this we need to let other people enter that flow, be part of that flow, experience that flow – and that means we need to work together to reconstitute our activities beyond work and not-work, and give ourselves the possibility of doing so.

One suggestion, about which I will write more: UBI NOW.