Categories
Thoughts

The Myth of the Artist

Originally posted on Christina Webber’s blog found here.

Articles were circulating during the height of the pandemic expressing concern for the future of the creative industries. Headlines warned that the cultural sector had been one of the hardest hit by Covid, and that going forward early career artists and entry-level freelancers would struggle to find work. I read those reports and thought: ‘what’s changed’? Of course, the world has changed – and I don’t wish to minimise the impact of Coronavirus both on a human level and economically – but it’s not like we were inundated with opportunities beforehand. I agree that we need to seriously consider how we remodel after the pandemic, and that many inequalities in existing systems have been brought to light by the restrictions faced by the population and the adaptations that were suddenly made possible because the majority of us were in lockdown. A greater focus on accessibility both on and offline should be born from this, allowing for improved flexibility and provision for previously overlooked audiences: those with access requirements, caring responsibilities, chronic health conditions, those unable to travel into city centres, or travel at all. The digitisation of the creative industries through virtual exhibitions, digital engagement activities, remote learning and accurate, immersive translation of ‘in-person’ experiences for those unable to physically take part – all these things were simply not seen as a priority before Covid and now we’re realising how much can be done when the issue of access is paramount. That stuff is hugely important, and great leaps have already been taken. The programme of activity now available for photographers online? The variety offered by institutions like Street Level Photoworks, who have excelled in offering material online? It’s amazing.

But what I want to focus on in this hopefully short-ish text is the need for further adjustments to be made, and to highlight the perpetuated infeasibility of ‘accessibility’ in an industry that at its foundation relies upon unpaid labour, voluntary contributions, and a system of network-based nepotism that biases those able to physically take part and take risks. There is an unwritten assumption that to be a serious photographer you need to be flexible and comfortable enough to put all your energies into something with no guarantee of pay-off. As we move forward into whatever comes next, we should be careful not to misremember a world where exhibitions were always busy, where opportunities for early-career artists (especially those without certain privileges) were bountiful and lucrative, where commissions were commonplace and where early creators felt a freedom to try and fail. The truth is, it’s tricky to be present in this industry.  It’s tricky to consistently turn up. The last 18 months should not eclipse the reality of photography in Scotland pre-2020, merely because a pandemic has seen the bigwigs struggling and the ‘art world celebrities’ are suddenly also without work.

In 2020 I launched a podcast called Finding Focus, recorded shortly before the pandemic hit the UK. As a co-founder of photography critique group Fresh Focus, I speak to a lot of early career artists. I realised talking to my peers that I was having the same kinds of conversations with multiple people and that behind the scenes most other photographers were struggling too. One of the main messages coming through was that we all felt we’d been under some illusion that to be ‘a photographer’ or ‘an artist’ you had to do this with your whole self, you had to make your sole income only from photography, and that to do otherwise or compromise your time and energy in way was a failure. We all felt a pressure to appear professional, active and engaged, and bowed to an unspoken stigma about any pursuit that wasn’t behind a camera, any part of your life that didn’t fit into a specific ‘artist’ aesthetic. Before leaving University I was told to quit my day job by a tutor who I’m sure was well-meaning, but who couldn’t see that that simply wasn’t an option for me. He believed I needed to put everything into photography to succeed. He believed I needed the freedom and flexibility of being unemployed to be able to make it taking pictures. I knew, over £1k overdrawn after paying off my degree show, that that simply wasn’t an option.

Somehow the ‘myth of the artist’ prevails today: someone comfortable, flexible, prodigious, aloof, able to take risks. That’s just not real. In a world of image-makers changing all the time – where zero hour contracts, funding applications, burnout, bloggers, baristas, residencies, pinterest and polaroids exist all at the same time – why does this fantasy survive? 

I think the ‘shiny’ side of social media fuels the fire; confirming for many that the photography industry is full of competent, successful, happy and commercially savvy individuals who are solely making pictures. Scrolling through my feed I see artists with elaborate exhibitions, carefully considered behind-the-scenes shots of studios and work-in-progress, frames in bubble wrap, and desks draped in sunlight. Is this why the myth of ‘the artist’ persists ? The photographers on my feed don’t sweat, or cry, or stand behind a till. I mean they do, of course, but we don’t see it. And when we don’t see it, we don’t feel like we can talk about it. Considering that social media is the primary way a lot of early photographers network, and for many this may be the only space available to interact with their peers, it can take years to learn that actually you’re not the only one working three jobs, or with kids, or caring for a relative, or battling with your health, or struggling. The merging of professional and personal in online avenues creates an auto-biographical grey area, perpetuating the idea that ‘real’ photographers are worry-less, don’t falter, and don’t compromise. We crave professionalism and so we edit. But what does that achieve, really? We need to reclaim this space.  What exists beneath the surface of Instagram feeds and exhibition catalogues is an art world full of multi-faceted individuals with a range of commitments, skills, priorities, backgrounds and careers. Artists that stack shelves, that campaign, that breast feed, that drive trucks, that answer phones, that regularly, repeatedly, get rejected. For some reason all these brilliant bits get blurred out. Both institutions and practitioners are complicit in this bizarre performance. And in ‘real life’ too – it’s easy to assume that the photographers speaking at events and giving masterclasses don’t also have part-time jobs or other commitments because even if they do it somehow still feels taboo to talk about that. We’re encouraged to discuss our successes and not to linger on the hard graft, or the lucky breaks, or the undeniable privilege that got us there. Only once in my life has someone asked at one of these talks ‘where did the money come from?’ and I was ecstatic.

We have a whole generation of artists putting their best faces forward online on the off chance someone might notice them, see their cultivated professionalism and productivity, and invite them to do paid work. Indignation is muted because everyone wants to make a good impression. Nobody wants to challenge anything for fear of  burning a bridge, digital or otherwise, and everyone remains friends. Facebook friends. Nobody wants to be the first person to point out it’s not really working, especially minority groups, for fear of being branded ungrateful or problematic. It’s uncomfortable and it self-perpetuates – we all believe we’re the only one that hasn’t ‘made it’ yet.

It’s not all about money and it shouldn’t be all about money and yet calling it an industry does assume someone is getting paid. I didn’t pay the contributors to my podcast, but I was very clear with them about that. I didn’t make a penny from this, I never expected to. It wasn’t a profit-making enterprise. But equally, this was only possible because at the time I’d lost all my work. I had nothing else to do so I seized something I wanted to exist and squeezed it into the world. And that’s what I mean about access – when nobody gets paid, we’re instead relying on time. It’s either or. You’ve either got money or you’ve got time. Being ‘an artist’ requires both. How can we talk about accessibility without pointing out what a barrier that is?

Who is making money here? Voluntary roles that are necessary for Festivals and Galleries to operate are advertised as exclusive positions or ‘invaluable opportunities’ for which you have to carefully apply. Invaluable opportunities. All this language is doing is  reinforcing the idea that being picked to work for free is a privilege. I’m not saying that these aren’t meaningful experiences but there seems to exist this idea that if you enjoy doing something and care about it you shouldn’t expect to be paid. Again, I didn’t pay my podcast participants. It’s not definitively exploitative to seek voluntary support. But it’s important these relationships are considered as such – as relationships with a give and take – as opposed to an essential part of a business surviving. If an industry doesn’t work without its volunteers it’s not really working. We have to consider the financial machine behind a lot of these institutions as businesses, and recognise where the money is going, because someone is getting paid. At some point a value judgement has been made which acknowledges the vast appetite in early-career artists and understands it’s not necessary to pay these positions because there will always be those able to do this for free. What’s accessible about that? Those with financial support, those with allowances, those who have been able to put the unpaid time aside – everyone with the flexibility and opportunity and privilege to do so will. And all those people that face barriers here: those with access requirements, with caring responsibilities, those who are unwell, those unable to travel – what about them? Accessibility isn’t just about allowing people to view work. It’s about participation too. There are still so many obstacles in place that make taking part, or taking part for very long, impossible. The system acknowledges that there’s an appetite, and takes advantage of it.

How is this going to change? How can practitioners and institutions engineer a different path for young photographers, for those who face barriers in whatever format between their pictures and a platform? I keep coming back to the idea of changing the perception of what an artist is. Proving that often interesting photographic work often comes from individuals with a diverse remit; with multiple priorities of which ‘making art’ is but one dimension. 

So I return to my initial point: to say that the creative industries are ‘in trouble’ seems to be stating the obvious. If we were looking at this as any other business or commercial entity that can’t afford to pay all its staff it would seem outrageous. It’s unfair to assume that making work is dependent on having the time, space and money to work for free and this shouldn’t be all we see. I’m a huge believer in advocacy, in making things happen, in doing things yourself and I don’t want to shovel all of the blame on the galleries, festivals and competitions that likely believe they are doing their best to support practitioners. We’re all complicit in perpetuating the myth of the artist, and it’s a wider issue of course when we start to thinka bout editing our personas online. But let’s talk about this stuff! We can change the way exhibiting photography works, and lockdown has already kickstarted some of that: more paid online commissions, more flexibility in blended on/offline events programming, transparency on where money is going, transparency too on how you get your work seen, or which publications pay contributors, on which galleries commission new work, shared storage for those without space to store materials, an accessibility officer in every institution, listening events with recent graduates and start-ups to see what support is needed in a fast-evolving climate, low-cost equipment hire, low-cost studio spaces, community-building, more paid reviewers, more paid opportunities in general, and fundamentally more space for failure. Not only can we shed the idea that artists are privileged prodigies who sit all day waiting for inspiration to strike but it also makes the work accessible and available to so many more contributors. Those who can only afford to dedicate a day or an hour at a time to making photographs. We are curating an idea of success that just isn’t realistic. Unless we start to acknowledge the problems we’ve always had, pre-Covid as well as now, we can’t enable real change going forward.

By Christina Webber

Categories
Thoughts

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues songs

The title is poignant, a lyric from the band Song: Ohia in a song called Blue Chicago Moon. Fronted by the late Jason Molina who passed prematurely due to alcoholism, the song like many of those sung by him, is deeply seeded with pain and anguish. It’s a seeming pain of a man who maybe could not fit into the world coming up against its increasing modernity, individualism, free marketisms or ill gotten ways. That in itself is a speculation as to know exactly what went through Molina’s head is impossible.

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues song. This lyric stands out and could be applied to the many voices through the ages that cried out in need of help, in warning, or in pain, repeating the bringing to attention a problem at hand. Those that hear the shouts are very often more willing to suggest its a cry of “wolf” than a true warning. It seems particularly fitting in explaining for the recent unsettling existential dread that seems to hang over us. If the Covid-19 pandemic was a fire alarm regarding our changing world, the latest IPCC report on climate change is the fire in the front room. It is more or less around us, the sickness if you will, whilst those in the know continue to sing the same blues song. Are we to continue ignoring it?

I have struggled recently with this seeming existential dread as some have termed it climate anxiety. I think applying such a label is not helpful and narrows focus to climate change and inaction solely, when in reality it’s a combination of many things, at least in my own case.

For example, I seek out philosophy likely to negate my lack of spirituality, but my lack of spirituality feeds my seeking out nihilism and existentialism in philosophy. The political structures of neoliberalism enforcing a culture of individualism, reinforced particularly in the Anglosphere to the point of stressing ownership of property or a home, and the competitiveness of you against others, reduces the sense of community and belonging.

This combination of commonplace belief systems already weighs heavy on many, specifically a lack of spirituality and neoliberalism, which restricts support, economically, socially and therefore fundamentally mentally. It already places many individuals in a position of apparent futility, broken or unmotivated to begin with, existing and occupied by their black mirrors. Couple this with the inaction over climate change, therefore current and coming disasters (even with dramatic action tomorrow) and you have recipe for a generational anxiety or angst, not solely climate related anxiety.

The so called “climate anxiety” is much deeper, it has many structural causes within culture, society and the economy. But some of us continue to Sing the same blues song, whether about climate, politics, economics, society which seems to fall on increasingly deaf ears, with those around us becoming passive and uninterested. The use of general labels introduces categorisation and therefore grouping of individuals reducing scope for collective action for the totality of our problems. Our song should be loud and in every wording so that is understood by many and not reduced to a few.

By Anonymous

Categories
Questions

What is Terrorism?

Terrorism is without a doubt one of the most elusive and contentious terms in the political lexicon, and the question “what is terrorism?” is situated at the centre of most discourse on terrorism. The existence of multiple definitions of terrorism highlights the indefinite answer to this question and reveals the profound influence of power dynamics in the application of such labels. In many ways, the meaning and significance of terrorism is constructed and determined by the subjective viewpoint of whoever defines it at any given time, which fluctuates depending on the socio-political conditions in which they live, as well as their frame of reference.

Why does this matter?

Terrorism’s lack of comprehensive meaning has not only hindered the possibility for a more analytical and dispassionate approach, but its apparent malleability as a concept has created a vacuity for actors (state and non-state alike) to define what terrorism is according to their unique political and tactical involvements in both the international and internal arena. 

In this way, government bodies and associated terrorism academics are selective about what constitutes terrorism, producing terrorist activity and publicity in a way that functions to serve Western state interests. As Saul (2006) duly states, “the more confused a concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation”.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD), for example, defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by non-state actors to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation”. The GTD, which is maintained by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, notably excludes the significant violence and terrorism that is committed by governments and state militaries, reflecting the selective processes, social biases and power-relations associated with specific interpretations of terrorism.

State-terrorism and the Contra War

Taking a more analytical approach highlights the bias and subjectivity rooted in mainstream perceptions of terrorism supported by Western states and exposes the harmful implications of such a narrow, restrictive conceptualisation of terrorism.

To use a historical example, the Contra War in Nicaragua under the Reagan administration (1981 -1989) is a prime example of U.S. control over the labelling of state-terrorism, which was alternatively defined as “internal defence” and “counter-insurgency” for the purpose of containing the spread of communism. The Contras were a U.S.-sponsored paramilitary group who were armed, trained, and financed by the U.S. to combat the revolutionary left-wing Frente Sandinista Liberación Nationale (FSLN) guerrillas, using tactics such as murder, rape, mutilation, kidnapping, and destruction. 

This supposed U.S. counterinsurgency was described euphemistically by the government as “coercive diplomacy”, yet if terrorism is indeed defined as “the threat or actual use of illegal force and violence”, then why are these acts not labelled as such when committed by the state? Accordingly, Richards states, “one danger is that if terrorism is not so clearly defined, the powers of the state may extend very far indeed”.

During this time, the Reagan administration was involved in a propaganda campaign in an attempt to portray the Contras in a positive light, while covertly funding and encouraging them to use terrorist tactics. This labelling (or non-labelling) of terrorism by the state functioned to align with state-endorsed definitions of terrorism, and these state-sponsored acts of terrorism are described by Chomsky as “a form of low-intensity conflict that states undertake when they find it convenient to engage in war without being held accountable for their actions”. This served to legitimise the actions of U.S. state-sponsored groups and undermine the civilian population and victims of terrorism in Latin America, as well as grant the U.S. acquiescence and detach the state from explicate acts of terrorism. 

What implications does this have for wider society?

Despite the West being the main source of terrorism in recent years, it has managed to deflect the terrorist indictment onto its victims, through construction of semantics that serve its ends, which is largely supported by opinion forming circles (namely the mass media). The Western model of terrorism views the West as an innocent target and victim of terrorism and maintains the view that it only responds to others’ use of violence.

It is clear that power dynamics and subjectivity are heavily entrenched in the usage of the term terrorism. It is frequently used as a pejorative epithet, and its subjective usage has become a notable impediment to achieving a universal definition of the term. The termsterrorism and terrorist hold intrinsically negative connotations and are laden with condemnation that is usually applied to one’s adversaries, seeking to delegitimise their political motives. Hence, the decision to label an organisation or individual as terrorist is an inherently partisan undertaking — definitions of terrorism are entirely dependent on who defines them, who controls these definitions, and why such definitions are used.

The realisation that self-interests and strategic objectives of the state are entangled in mainstream conceptions of terrorism is of paramount importance, and there are countless modern-day parallels to the above example of the Contra War. Most interpretations of what terrorism is are produced by and for the dominant, rendering both victims of state-terrorism and oppressed communities powerless in the construction of alternative discourses. 

The powerful (namely the state) are arguably the most responsible for actions of political violence, but if they maintain purchase on foreign policies and intellectual resources that shape and establish dominant discourses on terrorism, they will do so in their own favour, which affects wider society in both explicit and covert ways. 



References

  • Chomsky, N. (2003) Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Global Terrorism Database (2018) Available at: https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd
  • Greene, A. (2017) “Defining Terrorism: One Size Fits All?” in International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 66 (2). pp. 411-440.
  • Richards, A. (2013) Conceptualising Terrorism. London: UEL Research Repository.

By Molly Wallace

Categories
Discussions

The Exposure to Excess Information

The current environment socially, economically and politically is dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its onset, the people of every country on Earth have had to adapt in one way or another, adhering to rules likely restricting their freedoms, adopt habits, take a hit mentally and economically, or begin a form of conspiracy mongering and resistance that, in many cases, was met with the breaking of relationships and societal shunning.

It is the latter aspects that is most contentious, that is the conspiracy mongering of and resistance to vaccination and compliance to rules. Some believe that that the virus is not real, or is a cover for the effects of 5G technology, is a means of control through the vaccination with government and corporation pulling the levers, with endless other variations. Others are resistant to the compliance of rules, particularly in the United States, due to the barriers to liberty that these apparently symbolise, and therefore resist otherwise through non-adherence. Both seem equally destructive especially in the harmful forms of protest many individuals in these beliefs utilise.

For argument’s sake, however, could it be information that is the problem here? The access to the Internet, an endless stream on everything anyone could ever think of, is both humanity’s likely greatest achievement, but also in many cases its literal downfall. Look to the use of the Internet by major corporations – more or less, monopolies controlling whole portions of the UI and content presentation on the of the Internet (think Facebook and Google) – effectively handing tools to dictators, amongst other nefarious players, to do as they please turning the masses into followers. But for argument’s sake, is it the individuals fault or the corporation and its leadership? The human brain is not built for the extensiveness of information the Internet holds, and the human condition leads to the taking of the path of least resistance in many cases. If told X and X seems to fit into individual A’s perspective or understanding of reality, then A is going to take X as true, especially if the supplemental information suggests X is the reason why Y and Z occur or exist or what have you.

The point is the extent and breadth of information at users’ disposal allows the taking of a narrative, one that fits their world view, their reality. The overexposure to information through the media and Internet exasperates this as if, if there is something not fully understood, the individual can withdraw and retract in their niche corner of the informational realm in which they are reinforced and reassured by others as to whether or not their reality is true, which effectively acts as an echo chamber of anonymous agreement.

The reason this is being addressed is that in the case of vaccinations, not one but two (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) have been found to cause blood clots in some patients, to the extent that some medical regulators are now advising warnings on the vaccines. This is fuel to the fire of conspiracy. But it’s the current climate of continued coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought this to everyone’s attention. The counting of daily deaths, the progress of vaccination trials, everything is under a lens day-in, day-out. Many simple medications have had catastrophic impacts on individuals. Penicillin, an antibiotic, is often used to treat all sorts of illnesses, however, it is estimated that as much as 2% of the UK population are allergic and therefore could die on taking it. That’s a potential 1,333,000 people. However, there are no resistances (or at least if there are any they are not significant) to the use of antibiotics, penicillin in particular. There are no conspiracies surrounding them and someone visiting their doctor regarding an ailment will happily redeem their prescription and take their antibiotic with no questions asked.

These scenarios leave questions to be asked of what is the over-exposure of information doing to cause this apparent cognitive dissonance, in adherence and acceptance. Is it the sources of information, the reinforcement of one’s peers in world view, a true belief in liberty, fact in some cases, political leaning, a misunderstanding or incapability in understanding?

by Maurizio J Liberante