Portrait of a Moving Image Artist in London
‘I’ve been in Scotland,’ she flipped her phone around to show me a picture. A view from a window, blue sky and trees, grass that glistened in the bright white sun. And the sea, rolling flat and wide on the horizon behind it all. I squinted at the screen, shielding my eyes from the sun overhead. It was midday, or just gone, so the light was stark and direct as it filtered through the glass ceiling above us.
Honestly, I was just glad to see her. It had been a while, and I knew she was busier than me. I always find that so intimidating, and it makes me feel ashamed of how available I am in turn. This day out was a bit of a ruse, though. I’d summoned her from the speed track circuit of her busy life, all under the false pretence of needing her help on a gardening project. Now we were actually here in the garden centre, sat in the cafe with cups of tea and a copy of The Gardeners’ World Almanac. I felt guilty and nervous. My garden didn’t even have real grass. All I wanted to do was confess: this was a set-up, a sting operation! I’m so sorry, this is half-friendly, half-work. That ambiguous split, it is both too much and not enough. I didn’t know how to say I need something from you and I anticipated her disappointment.
She hadn’t noticed me squirming in my seat, she was still telling me about Scotland.
‘It was mostly just exhausting though, running around trying to get the shots, 15 hour days. I might not even use any of it after all that!’ She laughed. When she laughed, she tilted her head back, and closed her eyes. She rubbed her hand along the side of her face, as if in despair. ‘Who cares though, and who knows if it’ll be worth it.’
She makes films, mostly. I think she’s made other things in the past, but her films are what I know best. At times they are deeply personal; these intimate windows into the tight pocket of her relationships, the way lives overlap and sprawl across the boundaries between people. At times they are so curious and external; she becomes a disembodied observer, she disappears into the camera, into the process and the story she is trying to tell us. They are never reliable; the line is blurry between fiction, drama, anecdote and real life. I don’t know if she does it on purpose, but I can never tell if she is being sincere. I get the feeling that most of the time, she’s only messing. But then her voice will magically appear behind the camera and prompt someone to recall something so vulnerable, it’s almost unbelievable.
I love her work. As a critic, I feel like that carries weight when I say it. But I mean it in an easy way too. I love her work like a fan. I am always excited when I see a new film, when I see her name on a press release or in my inbox. The first time we met, it was in this blurry fan-friend mode. I approached her after a screening, introduced myself and she smiled, nodded. She said she knew my work, loved the review I wrote of that show last month. I blushed my way through the conversation, stumbling over words as they fell out of my mouth. She was so cool and confident, at ease with herself in a way that made me relax into the interaction. It made me admire her even more.
The price sticker on the Almanac was peeling. I picked at it with my thumbnail and avoided her eyes. I said I had to ask her for a favour. It would only be a couple of questions, an easy write up. But you know what I’m like with deadlines, I’ve left it a bit late so it all feels a bit manic now. But all the same, she was the first person I had thought about asking because she has this easy way of rolling with the punches. Not that I’d be landing any punches!! It’s just that maybe I’m not sure how it’ll go and I want to speak to someone who will dance in sync as I fumble around for the right words. I could hear myself speaking, heard her agreeing, saying she was up for it, of course of course. God, everything is so embarrassing. I pulled a notebook from my bag, fished around for a pen while she sipped her tea. The garden centre mugs were short and chunky. Her mug had a botanical drawing of some root vegetables and the words HOME GROWN in big black block capitals written on the inside rim. She ran her thumb over the handle as I flipped to an empty page.
‘Wow, that’s the first question? This is actually a really difficult one to answer!’
I laughed, agreed and apologised. Because when you think about it, description is something that mostly happens externally. We don’t really describe ourselves to ourselves, we just assume that we know what’s going on. But description is so loaded, so definitive. It carries such an implicit and subtle power. I wanted to hand that power back to her and use her own words for description, so I waited for an answer all the same.
‘I went through a phase of calling myself a filmmaker, but I didn’t really like it. I’m not really in that world at all, barely. I think I’m more in the world of artists, I think more like an artist than a filmmaker.’
She described it like there was a complicated, sticky difference. My reflex is to say that it feels like semantics. I call myself whatever I feel like on any given day - some days I am nothing at all. But to her, it was a difference that was worth defining.
I asked her if she thought artist was a more expansive term. She paused, thinking for a moment.
‘I think I like making exhibitions. Filmmakers do that now and then, but I think artist makes it feel like you’re more open to the possibilities of making.’
Another pause, this time longer.
‘Maybe those terms are just about the way you think about what you’re doing?’ She posed this to me as a question, but I only nodded in response. I didn’t know where she was going with this and I didn’t know how I’d answer the question if she turned it back to me. Most of the time, I try not to think about the things I do.
‘It’s not just semantics, I think these things do end up bleeding into what you do. There are methods and conventions, a way of thinking that you can apply and what emerges from it all can feel distinct. There’s a pleasure in knowing you can play with those forms.’ Maybe I tried not to think about terminology because it has only ever held me down. Maybe I just have a problem with authority and received wisdom. Maybe I just like being difficult and pretending I don’t see the boundary I am secretly hoping to cross. Whichever way I thought about it, she was right. Each discipline has a set of expectations that hold you safe and close, or give you something to fight against.
‘I think I’m more in the world of artists because I think like a weirdo,’ she laughed. ‘All artists are weirdoes. You know this, you know what I mean! Like come on, have you met them?’
She held the Almanac as we walked back to the entrance. I pulled a trolley out from the stack and wrapped my arms over the handle, leaning low across it as we wound our way through the aisles. She flipped through the pages of the Almanac, skimming and pointing out sensible flower choices as we went.
‘I’m from this small town in Yorkshire. It wasn’t a city, wasn’t rural, it was just a standard shit British town that was once something, and now it isn’t anymore.’
I asked her if she liked the town, if she was proud of it.
‘No, definitely not. I don’t think it’s about that, though. I interact with it differently because I live in London now. It’s at a distance or it’s past tense, I haven’t lived there since I was eighteen, you know? But I do always want to be specific when I say where I’m from. I’m not from any of the bigger cities nearby, I’m not from the countryside. People might not know where the town is, but that’s not the point.’
If it was past tense, maybe that was a good place to start? I didn’t know much about her life before being an artist, so I was interested in how she made her way into the job. How did it happen and where did it start?
‘Well, it’s probably the same as everyone else. I got to 6th form college and there was a really good art teacher. It’s the usual thing, right?’ She turned back to look for my response, but I had been fussing with the leaves of a parlour palm and had fallen a couple of steps behind. I caught up and agreed, it had been the same for me.
‘He was like the Cool Teacher we all agreed was good vibes. Everyone wanted to hang out and paint in the art room, it was the subject that got all the coolest school trips.’ She paused to think, casting her mind back. ‘I just used to spend a lot of time painting in the art room. Like, he was a really good teacher when I think about it properly. We understood that art was more than just painting a bunch of bottles and calling it a still life, or more than drawing funny cartoons in a sketchbook. He really made us engage with it. It’s lucky, maybe. I just landed in the right place at the right time with the right teacher who could signal the right things. He told me I should apply to art college in Leeds and do a Foundation course. So I got a bursary and moved out of home to go do that for a year.’
I paused, a question forming. I didn’t know how to word it, but she read my face and answered without making me ask.
‘I have a lot of older siblings. By the time my Mum got to me, I don’t think she cared too much about me being a doctor or a solicitor or whatever. She just let me get on with it, so I just snuck under the radar I think.’
That made sense, I told her. It was also lucky, in a way that you may or may not understand. She nodded, picked up a large plant with wide waxy red leaves. She turned it with one hand, peering round at all the sides.
‘But on my Foundation, they told me I should apply to Goldsmiths. I applied to the Slade and Glasgow too, but I think I knew I wanted to go to London.’ She raised the red waxy plant up to me with raised eyebrows, I shook my head.
‘When I had my interview at Goldsmiths, I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was really difficult. Now, looking back, I know they’re kind of well known for that. So it wasn’t bad bad. But I think I’m a masochist. I think I wanted them more because they challenged me. It’s like when you fancy the person who’s awful to you, but on an institutional level.’
I snorted at that. When I looked over at her, she was blushing a bit, and I felt like the joke was mostly funny because it was partially true. At the very least, that was the way I understood it.
‘When I got to Goldsmiths, it was…’ she trailed off, trying to find the right words. ‘I just didn’t like it really. I hated the first two years and I thought about leaving all the time. I don’t really know why I didn’t leave. Maybe I was just being stubborn, maybe I knew it’d get better. But it did. I started to like it in my third year.’
I asked her what changed and she pursed her lips, tilted her head to the side.
‘I’m not sure, I think something just clicked. All of a sudden I got it. Like a switch flipped and I just knew: this is what this is, this is how I talk about it. I was making the kind of work everyone makes at art school, you know.’ She waved her hand in a circle as she described it to me, like this was parody or cliche.
‘These films with shots of my Mum’s house, about class and being Asian, just being fascinated by the quality of that, and like grottiness - terrible stuff!’
I told her it didn’t sound terrible, but she shook her head and assured me that it sort of was. But it was a useful kind of badness, the kind of badness that was instructive, that gave her a surface to scramble and flex against.
‘But once it clicked, it was like everything made sense and I started to have a really good time with it. It was like I realised I could have fun or give myself permission to do stuff - oh.’ She came to a halt next to some orchids, twentysomething of them all bundled onto a table in their plastic wrapping. ‘D’you know what it was - I realised I didn’t care anymore.’
I nodded, because I remember when the switch flipped for me too. It was like the lights all came on and I could finally see the dark room I’d be stumbling about in, the shape of all the things I’d been bashing into without realising.
‘Maybe I’d just figured out how to please myself and the people who were marking my work. You know that balance, through means that maybe were both palatable and horrific. But it was a click. It was like I could see how this all worked, I could see how to get through it and I started understanding things. It sounds cynical, I don’t remember it being cynical at the time. But I just understood what I wanted to be doing, what I wanted to be making, and how I needed to go about it all. Maybe it’s also that I stopped asking myself Why.’
Calling it a click, a flipped switch epiphany, maybe that is vague and unhelpful if you’re still waiting for it to happen to you. But it isn’t a specific thing. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re not trying to make it happen. It’s the kind of thing that happens despite you, or because you’re not looking for it. It is peripheral or contextual, abstract. Like saying, the girls that get it, get it. The girls that don’t, don’t.
‘Then, when I graduated, I didn’t really know what to do. It was like as soon as I found my feet, I was thrown into a brand new situation that I had to adapt to. I didn’t really know what to do with my degree show work. It was good, I think? It got some nice feedback, but I didn’t do much with it, like I didn’t even document it. I don’t think I knew what I should’ve been doing with it, you know?’
I murmured in agreement, because I also didn’t know what people should be doing with their degree show work.
‘What I did know was that I did want to stay in London. So I got a job doing ticket sales at Tate, and I just didn’t think about making anything for a while. It was like that part of my brain got put on pause while I figured out how to exist in the real world as a real adult. I don’t think I’d have been able to make anything during that time, even if I wanted to. I just had to put my head down and find my feet, work hard. I tried to get a better job, and I went on secondment in the public program department at Tate. From there, I got a traineeship at ArtAngel. It was or two years, just working with artists on social engagement and participatory stuff.’
I frowned as I asked her to remind me what ArtAngel did. It was the kind of organisation that I knew of (vaguely) but never really paid much attention to. She shifted her weight and said they’re just a commissioning body, sometimes they put art in strange or unusual places. I nodded, signalling for her to continue.
‘Well that was bad at the beginning too.’
We laughed at the funny pattern. Maybe everything is bad at the beginning, before you’ve eased into the pace and rhythm, before you’ve got a grip and figured out how it all works.
‘I remember thinking it was awful, honestly! The person who was meant to be managing me left, just loads of things all in the first year. The second year was a bit better. Maybe I just got into the swing of things, but I also got to commission a piece of work which was nice. I don’t know, I don’t know. I just did the two years and came out the other end wanting to make work again. So maybe it was about that more than anything else.’
I scrunched up my nose, a silent laugh as I exhaled. But she was quite serious.
‘Well, I just felt like I had to go and do an MA to get back into the right headspace for making work. I felt like I wanted a bit more time in that I know what I’m doing when I’m making mode, and I felt like I knew more about what I needed and wanted to do. I think it was the right time to kickstart my practice and come back to making. A friend of mine ran a DIY space so I linked up with them to do some performances. I had some other friends who worked at a music venue kind of gig space in Dalston, I did some screenings there. A friend of mine from the Ticketing team at Tate ran a performance night at a pub they worked at, so I did something there.’
I asked her how it felt to be making work again after so long. Wouldn’t it have felt strange? Like stretching out muscles you’ve not used in ages. Wouldn’t that feel sore or stiff?
‘I think I probably did overthink it, but I kind of had to get it done? Like it was all just whatever bits were available and possible to work on between full time work. It all ended up being just enough to pull together in a portfolio, so it served a purpose.’
I didn’t have to ask this question, I know she went back to Goldsmiths to do her MA. I also knew that she taught there now. It must be interesting, to have such a prolonged relationship with an art school like that. To always return, at these different and formative points in your life. I don’t know if that necessarily means you love, like or even approve of the institution. I just think the world works in this way, London as a city works in this way. Some stuff happens on the edges, but for the most part, the bulk of an industry exists within these hefty institutions. If we want to make any money or achieve any kind of stability, we have to enter into them in some form.
‘I mean, it’s a kind of open joke. Not the funny ha-ha kind of joke, it’s a horrible joke to be honest. But it’s funny how people end up teaching at the art school they studied at. At Goldsmiths, it must be like 60 or 70% of the department? I don’t know what that’s about. Maybe there’s something about approval and authority, maybe it’s the family structure - nepotism and sociability and all of that. It’s just funny because it’s so self-congratulatory for the people employing you. Like, we created you, and we did such a good job that you’re qualified to work here and create other people for us.’
I wanted to ask her if that was insular, if that closed loop system rubbed off on the kind of teaching that happened in these art schools. I wanted to ask her if she thought it made all the London schools feel like they had distinct flavours, characteristics and philosophies. Because I guess schools of thought are made somehow in some way. Maybe it’s just as simple as that - nepotism. I wanted to ask her all of that, but she was rummaging through boxes of tulip bulbs, her head disappearing into the depths of the shelf they were all stacked up on. The longer I thought about it, the more it felt like a question I could answer myself, like a question I didn’t really want to speak aloud and claim as a thought that belonged to me. It felt like conspiracy theory and galaxy brain moment in a strange and frivolous way, the kind of question I wanted to hold onto for a little bit longer.
Instead, I asked her how teaching was going. She popped back out from the tulip stack and rolled her eyes.
‘Well, you know about the strikes. So as well as it could be going I guess.’
I nodded as she thought about how to say this next bit. I told her it was an open question, I didn’t really know how the strikes and the disputes were going. She sighed.
‘As well as teaching, I’m also a union rep now. So I teach 0.6 hours a week, just shy of two and a half days. The union work pays for an extra 0.1 on top of that, but it’s often more. It wouldn’t usually be as much as it is, but we’re in dispute at the moment. I don’t mind it so much because it’s good and meaningful.’
I asked her a vague question about what made the work so good and meaningful. It was clumsy, and I thought it sounded a bit sarcastic, but she nodded.
‘I’m just learning loads from a small group of union officers who are brilliant and fierce. It’s mostly just refreshing to be able to work with a group of people with such integrity and actually push back on these fucked up managerial decisions. So I don’t really mind those hours.’
But it must be heavy, the responsibility of such high stakes. Like it’s people’s livelihoods at the end of the day, isn’t it? Doesn’t that psych you out!? Doesn’t that get to you?
‘I guess, but it’s also motivating. It’s affirming work because it means something. Teaching is great, yeah, but sometimes you can also feel like,’ she sighed, shrugging her shoulders in exasperation. ‘There are so many problems with art school. Like, how much time have you got? The list never ends. So you do end up asking yourself what am I complicit in? The same with being an artist, right? Doing something solid like union work, it’s basic and real, a lot more direct than all those sticky art world things. It has a purpose and in that, it makes it all feel a bit simpler.’
I told her that it all made sense, but I knew I wasn’t tough enough to hold my nerve in tense moments like that. The kinds of jobs that say Able to work well under pressure or Able to keep up in a fast paced environment just aren’t for me. I admired her calm confidence and the way it was being put to good use.
We shuffled through the open air nursery in almost silence. Occasionally one of us would point to a pot of something flowering, something leafy. The other would murmur their approval, but we’d move on without stopping to place anything in the trolley.
I wanted to ask her to say more about that sticky guilt of being complicit in weird shady art world things. I didn’t quite know how to word it so I just asked her to tell me more about working at ArtAngel.
‘Looking back at it, it was just totally mental,’ she laughed. ‘It was like the heart of the art world, a very blurry line between things. And like - you’ve got to understand the system you’re in, it was good for that. But I went in totally naive. I just thought, yeah, I like Steve McQueen, this’ll be fine. But I was 22 and conversations in the office would just make me spin, hanging around celebrities -’
She turned to me as if expecting my agreement. I had to admit to her that I didn’t really know much about that kind of art world. The rich or glamorous side where there’s money and champagne and arms dealers. It was all a bit opaque to me, from the outside. While I was sometimes curious, I got the feeling that I should be glad that I didn’t have to deal with it.
‘The model that ArtAngel have, it’s one a lot of galleries use now, that the Arts Council want everyone to take on. I think they kind of pioneered that whole public private partnership model. It’s all the same patrons, the same people and whatever. But at ArtAngel, maybe because they were quite a small team it felt a bit more intimate? I just didn’t clock it while I was there. I thought I was politicised, but I didn’t really have the frame of reference and I didn’t realise it was something I could take a stance on. Like the Zabludowiczs would send Christmas cards with pictures of them all on the front, like they were the Kardashians or something, and I just didn’t-’ she registered my face, my eyes wide and my mouth hanging open in shock. ‘Yeah, exactly. Don’t even. It wasn’t enough to leave, I just rode out the rest of the traineeship and went to do the MA.’
I was still taken aback by the idea of getting an office Christmas card from an arms dealer, still laughing at how the art world is a shit sitcom. But I asked about how it felt, to look back and clock all this mad shit after the fact.
‘At the time, there was more criticism around hedge funds, the banks and big finance. It was around the time of the financial collapse, so the big controversies were around that and the bankers that created that,’ she waved her hand, ‘subprime mortgage fiasco. It was different set of terms, but the way it all operates is the same.’
I guess you don’t see the pattern until you take a step back. Sometimes I get the feeling I’m too involved in the different waves of anger that sweep through the art world’s public discourse. I wondered what the next big set of controversies would be. What direction would anger and politically righteous outrage take next? Are we still mostly focusing on the arms dealers, or was that soooo 2019? Maybe it’s about the oil companies and the guys responsible for climate crisis? God, I just wished they’d all disappear. Vanish and leave their money on the table for the rest of us. That these big and serious problems moved in cycles, like trends or moods, felt very depressing and pointless.
I had slowed to a halt in front of all the bird baths and fountains. She walked past, hovering over a stone basin with flourished carvings in little leafy patterns. I drew in a breath, paused a beat, then asked her how she felt about all of that: the money and the sticky bits.
‘I don’t know, not really. Like I guess I know how I feel about it, but I get that it’s sticky. Everyone does things differently, I have my own boundaries and ethics but it can feel too precarious to say how it’ll be tomorrow. But I don’t understand the implicit rules of the game and how to behave around all of that. I don’t feel comfortable in that sort of art world.’
I nodded, because it’s easy to say this thing is bad, easy to agree with eating billionaires. It’s harder to pin down exactly why the bad things make you uncomfortable, and harder still to articulate the shape of the problem when you don’t know what it looks like from the inside.
‘I don’t get invited to the big expensive posh dinners, you know? Not that that bothers me, really. Like, I am a bit envious, because I love dinner, but - ah. You know what I mean. You notice where you’re situated and you can drive yourself mad by observing how you’re being read and where you fit in. I guess there’s no harm in noticing, as long as you don’t let it consume you.’
I told her I don’t get invited to the big posh dinners either, that I don’t even understand what function they serve in the art world machine. Was it just about who was invited to the party? Who was in with the in-crowd?
‘Kinda, it must be. The idea that things happen by chance in the art world isn’t always the case. Maybe sometimes it does, but I get the feeling it’s never quite that simple. The big lie everyone buys into is: if you work hard and keep making things, they’ll come to you. Most people who become successful, yeah maybe they do work hard, but it’s not really about that. Their success relies on a network of people who are happy to advocate for them. Without that, it’s really difficult and it’s probably not going to happen.’
I told her I found that depressing too. She sighed out a sad laugh and agreed. We turned away from the stacks of bird baths and headed back the way we came, towards the lobby and the sliding doors. How do you even make that all happen? Do artists have to embody the spirit of Silicone Valley start up CEOs, trying to get big investors to buy into the idea of their work? Was the art world just Dragon’s Den on turbo mode?
‘I think it’s mostly about confidence.’ She looked at me quickly to clarify, ‘Not in that way, but more implicit and unspoken, or maybe just subconscious. There’s a code of conduct around middle-class-ness, a kind of etiquette that’s understood, about how to behave with each other or around the visible presence of other people’s money. The system is so fucked in all the usual ways: race, gender, class, all of that. But you can make it work for you, as long as you don’t make people nervous about it. It’s not out of reach entirely, it’s just a closed system and there are some people who get it.’
I raised my eyebrow and as if she was anticipating my questions, she continued.
‘I don’t mean to imply that I know how to play it, I definitely don’t. I just mean that it’s worth remembering that the market isn’t necessarily there to support the best art in a naive or uninvolved way.’
How do you play the system when you don’t get it? Like a reflex, I wanted to know if it was possible to fall through spaces with good luck and good vibes. Is it possible to put in the cheat codes by just keysmashing and seeing what happens? And is it possible to make it work without that system?
‘You can make other ways work for you, or at least I’d like to hope so! You can opt out and create other networks that gradually just have to be noticed and engaged with. There are other centres of gravity, I guess.’
She stopped at a revolving stand and flipped through the seed packets at eye level. She picked out a couple and held them up to me for my approval. I took the tomato seeds from her hand: San Marzano, Gardener’s Delight, Golden Boy. The packet of Golden Boy seeds had a fat, dewy tomato sprawled out across it from edge to edge. There was a pendulous water droplet sliding down its curved side, refracting light across its yellow orange airbrushed skin. I flipped it round to show her and she laughed.
‘So sensual, isn’t it?’
We took the seeds up to the till, abandoning the empty trolley. I asked her how it worked for her. She was doing alright, showing in all these places and making all this stuff. She was recognisably An Artist. She must be making it work for her., somehow.
‘Well, I’ve not had great luck approaching galleries. Sometimes I apply for things like residencies or bits of funding. It can be hit and miss. I got some Elephant Trust funding, but the last thing I applied to - a residency - I didn’t get. So sometimes I feel like it’s best to take a step back and see what comes your way.’
I admitted that I think being an artist is sometimes a bit like dating, or more accurately, like flirting. It’s not always smart to put all your cards on the table, not always best to state your availability right off the bat. Sometimes you need to act aloof, treat em mean to keep em keen, or pretend that you’re busy when you’re actually just at home on a Friday night. I laughed as I said it, because I don’t think it’s entirely true. Maybe it says more about my romantic life than anything fundamental or universal about the art world.
‘I think there’s a bit of that though. Mostly it’s about working with what you’ve got. Like… If I’m lucky, I’ll get a commission or a decent sized project, and it’ll be enough money to develop something. If it’s a residency or a medium sized budget, it’ll be enough to start something that I can apply for more money to finish, maybe carry it over elsewhere and hold onto it. If it’s small then I can use it to develop something I’ve already got, or test something out and be a bit looser with it. That’s all it is. Just flipping it into something that’s useful for you or figuring out how to go about doing something you actually want to do with it. For me, it’s about using little bits of money to give myself time to sit and figure out what the work actually is.’
I knew it was a personal question, but I got the feeling she wasn’t one to feel awkward in being transparent about money.
‘The last few years it’s been a pretty equal split between teaching and artist income. I think I made £28,887 last year? Teaching was £18,000 and the rest came from commissions and shows, maybe talks and workshops and stuff like that. This year the balance is a bit all over the place, because my teaching income has gone up and I’m working on a few commissions I’ve already been paid for.’
I reacted to that last bit, stepping back abruptly in surprise. I told her that was an absolutely insane way to experience earning money. I don’t know why I was so surprised because sometimes it’s how I experience getting paid for projects. I think I just wanted to voice my distaste for it. I always find myself resenting the work if I’m paid for it upfront, which is funny because you would think it’d be an ideal system.
‘I know, don’t ask me. I don’t get it either. It’s because-’ she broke off into a hushed tone, almost a whisper. ‘You know all those big prestigious touring shows? They only pay like £250, £300. The British Art Show was £250 to show existing work. Jarman was £300. It does add up when they travel to all the different venues, but- oh, well. You know. Even if you show existing work, it still ends up being so much administrative labour.’
I handed the tomato seeds to the woman at the counter. She scanned them through and pointed over at the card machine. As I pulled out my phone to pay, I turned back round to ask if there was any way to make income more stable. She nodded.
‘You know Lux?’
My turn to nod. Lux was an artists' moving image agency, acting as a hybrid kind of archive, distributor and collection all in one. I wasn’t really sure what they did in practice, but I think that vague grip gave them wriggle room in quite a useful way.
‘They’re great because the work gets to circulate. If your work goes in a show for around a month, you get £300, it’s £50-70 for a screening. They’re helpful in making it all feel standard-ish, they do a lot of the admin and dissemination. And then at the end of the year you get royalties for whatever work has been out and about.’
It sounded nice, hands off, easy. It also sounded like the kind of organisation that was sorely needed in an industry that mostly feels like the Wild Wild West. I didn’t know if I was just a bit of a stiff, but as she was speaking I got lost in the dream of this smooth frictionless model. All I really ever dreamed of was stability; regulation and centralising things through an organisation feels like the art world equivalent of Big Government. But when the alternative is this Wild Wild West, Big Government starts to look pretty radical.
I took the receipt and we trudged back out to the car park. I was parked nearby, and I asked her if she wanted a lift back to the station. She shook her head and gestured at her bike, chained up to the trolley bay. We fell silent for a moment, I fiddled with the seed packets in my hand. Just as the silence became unbearable, I blurted out one fine question. What does she dream of, for the art world. If she had one wish, what would it be?
‘Get rid of prizes, put in wages.’
She spoke so definitely, voice like a protest placard or slogan. It made me chuckle because the union strategy meetings were rubbing off, this was a wish that had a solid sense of its own identity. It was less dream, more demand. I was glad for it though, because dreams can only get you so far.
I asked her what putting in wages would end up looking like, and she shrugged.
‘I’m not too sure how it should work in practice. This is so on the fly. But like, what if everyone just got a wage. I don’t know what it’s called, because there’s a proper name for it, isn’t there?’
I nodded, asked if she meant Universal Basic Income. She shrugged again.
‘Maybe that, but I know it’s not perfect. There are problems with it, right?’
Now it was my turn to shrug. I didn’t know the problems off by heart, but I felt sure I was only a twitter thread away from being schooled on them. The practicalities of UBI didn’t really feel like the point of what her wish was trying to accomplish.
‘Maybe it’d just be better to have like an artist’s cash machine and everyone just has a special card? God, I don’t know! I don’t know how it would work, and I especially don’t want to do that whole thing - because I don’t think artists need special access to housing or anything. I know there’s a bit of a thing about that now, but it’s not like artists need special privileges in society, not like there needs to be some elevated scheme for us. It’s just-’ she leaned in close and spoke in a hushed tone, like she was telling me a big parting secret. ‘There’s this thing - rather than being given money to do your work, you’re meant to get on and just do the work. Out of passion or love for the craft or whatever. And then maybe they’ll give you money as a little treat if you do a good job and they like you.’
I stepped back to think about it, and she was right. It felt like a silly and obviously flawed system.
‘It’s demoralising and we don’t need the same people getting the same prizes all the time. Like, at the moment, once you get on the prize carousel it’s cushty, the shows and money just circulate amongst the same people. So once you’re in, you’re in. But there’s a real crisis! If all these universities are turning to more precarious labour, precarious contracts, if there’s really the uberification of learning then artists won’t be able to rely on teaching as a stable second income. The same thing is happening in galleries, where artists work as art handlers or install technicians or invigilators. The wages are so low anyway, add all that precariousness in and it just makes things so unworkable. It’s no way to live. I don’t know the future will hold, what the possibilities will be for sustaining a career unless you’re already rich. Not that that would be a new problem.’
She sighed. I sighed. We both stared at the ground between us.
‘It’s small group of people anyway, it’s just going to keep getting smaller, I guess.’
I drove off with the three packets of tomato seeds sitting on the dashboard in front of me. As I turned the corner onto the main road, they slid across to the other side, in front of the passenger seat. I leaned all the way across to retrieve them when I stopped at the traffic lights, but they just slid back when I turned at the next roundabout. I left them to skim across the textured surface, making little hushed sounds like feet against a carpeted floor.
When I got home, I fished an old ice cream tub out of the recycling bin. The cardboard pint sized kind, like a tall container, not the see through plastic ones that are shallow and wide. I ran back outside to fill it with soil from my neighbour’s front garden. She had flowering tulips lining the wall between us. I stood at the kitchen sink and planted two seeds from each packet. I pressed my index finger into the soil six times, in a neat ring. With precision and care, I picked the seeds out of the packets, intent on not dropping a single one. They stuck to the pads of my fingers and I had to roll them off with my thumb. I folded the soil back and sealed the seeds into their very own discrete pockets. The packet said I should see little green shoots in about three to five days. I was so impatient; with myself as I wrote our conversation into a slick feature, and with the seeds as they unfurled in the woody soil, invisible and mysterious. By the time the feature was out, one shoot had finally sprouted. I sent her a photo of the shoot, rather than a link to the article.
🤩🌱🤩🌱 - 4.23pm