Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Showing you the money: a commission from/conversation with Paula Varjack

There was a plan that Paula and I would publish this writing simultaneously: her on the terrific blog Show Me the Money connected to her performance of the same name, all of which I explain further down, and me here (which isn't as obvious as it might seem), but on the day she posted I was on a very delayed train home from Norwich and time has been running away with itself ever since. I'm as grateful to Paula for the lengthy email conversation we had about the ethics of me doing this writing (some of which extracted below) as I was for the commission. Writing this made me aware of just how much of a stranglehold certain capitalist beliefs have over my brain: I have so much work to do to sort myself out.

The quandary

18/12/2015: From Paula
I have been thinking it would be really great to have some critical writing on this preview I have in March: a genuine critical reflection from someone well-versed in the forms and content I am exploring. I haven't budgeted for this but could afford 100-200 pounds. Would that be fair?

30/12/2015: From Maddy
I've been involved in quite a few conversations over the past year to do with the ethics of artists asking/paying for writers to write about their work. Most people I encounter have a much bigger problem with it than I do - !!! - and yet, my initial reaction to your email was: for you to pay me to review your work would be inethical. So that was weird. I think I might feel most comfortable doing [something interview-based], rather than a review. And, at the risk of sounding greedy, is £200 OK?

31/12/2015: From Paula
To be honest, before I first contacted you I would not have considered approaching anyone in this way. But I was advised that it was important for the future of the show to have some critical writing on it, and as a one-off preview of a work by an emerging artist this was very unlikely to happen. Finding a mid-point that seems ethical for both of us is a good idea. Maybe an interview-based work is that. As the money would be coming out of my own pocket, it would help me a lot for it to be 150.

3/1/2016: From Maddy
Your email was super useful: that thing about how bloody hard it is for emerging artists to get their work written about – or even seen – is so true, and usually I'm the first to advocate the culture shift that makes critical dialogue possible within the making (as I type this, I realise how far removed I am from my own idealism). In terms of actual cash, I'm really fine with £150. I don't know if you've had a thought about where it should be published. Will talk to Exeunt about publishing there.

4/1/2016: From Paula
The Exeunt thing was a bit of a trigger, as much as I would love to be featured in Exeunt, paying for it really didn't feel right. I need the writing, there is not a market for reviewing a one-off preview by an emerging artist, I am making a piece against unpaid work, I don't want you to work for free. My idea is to pay you to write something to be published on both of our blogs that explores this quandary.

The 'review'

My first encounter with Paula Varjack is in spring 2015, at an industry gathering at Ovalhouse in London dedicated to questions of artist development. Paula's presentation is one of the high points: it gets across everything dubious about scratch culture (the expectation that artists show work in an early stage, for little or no pay), juxtaposing criticism and provocation with a witty powerpoint display that brings laughs with its lightness of touch. In that 15 minutes, I decide Paula is **interesting**. Translation: next time she's performing, I want to be there.

That impulse is confirmed when I start reading the companion blog to her new work, Show Me the Money. Part-diary, part-resources log, part-political commentary, it uses newspaper articles, photographs and links to other people's writing (there's some spitfire material from Scottee) to contextualise and open up Paula's argument: that art is work, graft and craft, and the people who make it should be paid accordingly. In doing so, the blog transforms the show from a single event to an ongoing, far-reaching discussion. This, I like.

So I arrive at Rich Mix for the preview performance of the show itself with heightened anticipation. But whatever I'm expecting, I'm soon surprised, and charmed, by two things: firstly, Paula's framing confession that most of the choices she has made in life have been guided by money and a desire for security, because I've done that too (and loathe myself for it). Secondly, it turns out she's not 24 or 28, as I'd thought, but 37. 37! If you don't appreciate how delightful this is, then clearly you're not yet the wrong side of 35. I'm so far the wrong side I'm almost 41.

Age is a subtle strand in Show Me the Money, as it might be coming from an “emerging”, “early career” artist who confutes the simplistic assumptions attached to that labels. When making it, Paula travelled the UK interviewing other artists about their relationships to money, security, ambition and place; people at various stages of a career, working across multiple disciplines, some of whom are comfortable, some surviving, some barely scraping by. Their voices are useful: what could feel self-absorbed, as Paula describes her shift from behind-the-scenes producer to on-the-stage performance artist, becomes instead a portrait of an industry. And she uses the film footage conscientiously, not to confirm everything she thinks but to interrogate it, complicate it and expand it. There's a piquant section in which she intercuts Scottee, fulminating on the lack of transparency in theatre-venue finances, with some candid quotes from Annabel Turpin, chief executive at ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, explaining why that lack of transparency might be necessary.

This conversation with the film footage gives the show a documentary feel, but Paula's deftness with multimedia disrupts that easy classification, and introduces a whole lot of fun. The dread inspired by Arts Council England is cheerfully conveyed through a youtube montage of office scenes and an electro-pop funding application. She adopts Iggy Pop as her alternative god, paying worship by paying royalties. But while all this activity gives the show brightness, sadness prickles beneath its surface, that to work from a place of love should also be so difficult and limiting. Among Paula's pantheon of inspirations is an uncle who carves wooden birds: she always admired him for following his passion, but eventually noticed the sacrifices he made for the sake of art. What will that sacrifice mean for her? Not having children? Having to leave London, her home?

Following the argument, I'm intermittently torn. Part of me is sympathetic; part of me wonders whether these questions about sacrifice are indulgent. One of the people Paula interviews is Dennis, who works as a cleaner at Rich Mix, and in another building: between the two, he has a 70-hour week with one day off. He does this because he hates the insecurity of not having a regular paycheck and not having savings in the bank for every eventuality. On the blog, Paula points out that the dichotomy between “cleaner” and “artist” is a false one: many people she knows finance their art work through cleaning jobs. But is making art arduous in the same way that cleaning is arduous? Why worry about artists' survival when so many people are barely getting by? (And that's just thinking about the working classes of the UK, who are thriving compared with refugees attempting to live here.) Might the access to making art and the platform it brings be privilege enough?

The 'interview'

The word privilege crops up a lot in Show Me the Money, and Paula is upfront about her own. Background, education and a modicum of financial security made her decision to become an artist possible: she owns her flat in London, having bought it back when she was a salaried employee and prices weren't astronomical; her parents enabled her to study at university; even now, her family could help her if she were ever desperate. She shares this information willingly, and would gladly give more: during a Q&A section, we're invited to ask for any further detail we want. This leads straight into what is, for me, the highpoint of the show: a ferociously delivered, meticulous breakdown of the costs of making it. Every penny is accounted for, including what she's paying for this piece. I love it, because no one publicises their finances in this way, and that secrecy creates the conditions for pay disparity and prevents the general public knowing what it actually takes to get a performance work on the stage.

And yet, at the end of the budget breakdown, Paula glares at the audience confrontationally, as though affronted that we've had the temerity to want to know this stuff. It confirms a nagging sensation I've had throughout the show, of being in some way chastised. If artists have a problematic relationship with money, she says, it's down to three things: precarity, anxiety, and in particular, a lack of transparency. It's easy to get the impression that everyone working as an artist in the UK is supporting themselves fine – but dig deeper and all the hidden support systems emerge. This person is financed by their partner, that person has savings backed up, this person owns their own home, that person supplements their art career with other jobs. But I'm confused: not all of these are privileges, and even if they are, how blameful are they?

It's the main thing I want to talk to her about when we meet a few days after the performance. The note of confrontation at the end of the budget breakdown was, she admits, a mistake: “While I was in it, I was thinking that energy doesn't make sense. It came out of the fact that when I did a scratch at Battersea Arts Centre, one guy was really angry and gave me a feedback form that was all black spiky capital letters; on the back he had a whole list of questions, like how much was your grant, how much did you pay for dah dah dah. To be honest, I was kind of traumatised by it, because his main attack was that the show hadn't been developed enough – but it was a scratch!”

As for the things I'm hearing her classify as privileges, there's something I'm misunderstanding. “I know a lot of people that seem to just be surviving on this, and I was really upset about that: what am I doing wrong? But then when people admit, oh, of course I'm not surviving on it either, that's not really about privilege: that's about people not being honest about having other income streams. The fact that we as a community are not being honest enough makes me feel really angry, and that's something I think is bigger than the artistic community.

If I'm really crude and reductive about it, there's a thing that's ironic looking at the American ideal, the Dream, and English cynicism. One side basically says: everything is a meritocracy, it doesn't matter where you come from, you just have to work hard enough and you can fulfil the dream. And the other says: it doesn't matter what you do, everything is decided, and anyone who has ever achieved anything is only there because they've got it all laid out. Both are really unhelpful. It's good to be aware that people do have privilege and access that other people don't have – but so many people have said to me that they won't apply, for instance, for public funding because they don't have any ways in. But if you don't even apply! Both are not useful attitudes to have.”

Paula has this dual outlook because her early years were split between London and Washington (her father is British, her mother Ghanaian); she's also pretty clued up about economics because, as it emerges during the show, her father worked for the International Monetary Fund. What this background hasn't given her, however, is much direct contact with the British class system, its entrenchments and resentments. “I thought I had an understanding of it: I don't have an understanding at all. At all. Having that realisation when making a show on this topic was terrifying, but maybe it's also a gift. For me, literally everyone is on exactly the same level, and because I genuinely don't judge anyone, I think I was able to have conversations with very different people, people who would offend each other if I allowed them to be in the same space.”

And yet, what was that nagging feeling I had of being chastised during the show if not a feeling of being in some way judged? After we speak in person, I email Paula a frank breakdown of my own privileges – the university education, the house I own, the husband with the full-time job and salary and pension, the nest-egg savings, all of which make it possible for me to take on commissions like this one – and the equivocal feelings I have about them, especially set against my upbringing, with working-class, poor, immigrant parents. I want the conversation about privilege to be open to such equivocations and confusions, I tell her. But the more we talk, the more I realise that what I'm actually doing is performing the outrage of the privileged at having their privilege called out. Paula isn't judging me. I'm judging myself.

To ask whether art is as arduous as cleaning, or whether we should care about artists' survival when there are refugees to worry about, is typical of a class-based, capitalist mindset that classifies and judges, too. Paula is attempting to dismantle this by asking her audiences to think about “the human cost” of making art: the “time and energy and effort” involved. Hence the emphasis on transparency – or, as she phrases it within the show, “full disclosure”. And she's doing that in a context specifically resistant to such disclosure. “Obviously England is not the only culture where people are not fully open about money, but there is a very particular awkwardness and anxiety about money here. I asked everyone [I interviewed] what their salary was, and what their outgoing payments were, and most of the time that question was incredibly awkward. You could tell they didn't really want to answer – or when they answered, they seemed OK, but afterwards they'd contact me and ask please can you not put in how much my house is worth, or the fact that I own a flat. Especially in London: no one wants to admit they own a flat in London any more.”

Is there even a relationship between these financial figures and an understanding of the “human cost” of making art? Arguably, yes – because of the connection between precarity and anxiety. Anxiety is one of the key human costs of working in the arts: I know this because I live it. Since making the switch from a relationship with writing about theatre/performance that was fundamentally journalistic to a relationship that attempts to exist within art's own frameworks, my salary has steadily dropped; I don't yet know what I earned in the financial year that just ended, but in 2014-15 it was less than £10,000. What Paula anticipated to be a half- to full-day job has taken me at least 22 hours, if not more, stretched over six weeks. I juggle commissions with being a mum, and worry constantly that I'm neither working hard enough nor present enough for my kids. It's a privilege to do this work. It's also self-exploitation.

The point of unity

We could, of course, give up. I could stop writing, Paula could stop performing, we could all get regular jobs. Except maybe it's not that simple. In another striking sequence in the show, one of Paula's interviewees, writer/performer Femi Martin, talks about trying to get a job outside of the arts and meeting only rejection. “That's the ironic thing,” says Paula, “even if you get to a certain point where you think, this was a nice idea but enough now – which I'm very much feeling – it's not so easy, because suddenly you're in a situation where no one wants to fucking hire you any more.”

Instead of giving up, Paula argues, our impulse should be to fight. “Artists are actually in service: even if we're making something that is escapist or experimental, we are in service to society and we can do things that the media can't. I really strongly believe that austerity [as a solution] is a lie, and there's a lot of economists who agree with me on this, and having a conversation that says it's the NHS or the Arts Council is the wrong fucking conversation. First of all, the amount of money that the arts get in the overall budget of local councils is so tiny. And every business sector gets support: the arms industry gets support, the automobile industry gets support, most businesses get some form of support – and they get much more support.

I wanted to make a show about a national question, which is: how do we value art and what is the human cost of art and what does paying for the arts and funding for the arts say about how our society values art and artists? I think art is really valuable for society.” It is that fundamental belief which drives her to call for better pay, and me to join my voice with hers. Is it inethical for her to pay me to write about her work, when there is so little space within the media where this can happen, and so few paid opportunities? Is that the right question to ask?

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