Theatre, Performance and Employment Provocation: QMUL

My name is Selina Thompson, I’m a performance artist that lives in Birmingham – though my company is based in Leeds – and I wanted to spend sometime today talking a little bit about how the work made by artists about and from marginalised communities is valued within a system largely funded by the arts council. I use the term marginalised communities because it’s important to draw attention to the complicity of the institution of the arts council in this marginalisation. It is a government body, funded by all to create art for all, and it neglects many communities, never quite seeming able to make the changes needed to truly create an arts industry that accurately represents our society – let alone is in any kind of place where it can change it. I am going to use myself as a case study to show why I think this is and I need to make some things visible in order to begin.

This year, all going well, I am set to earn about 26k before tax and expenses. God knows how much expenses will come up to – let’s say… about a fifth of that maybe? So that leaves us post tax and expenses with… maybe 18 – 20k? This is likely to rise, as more gigs accumulate throughout the year. It is also likely to fall, if I have another breakdown – I have had one every year for as long as I have been an artist (that’s 5 years this September). The work I make is psychologically taxing – retracing the transatlantic slave trade on cargo ships, offering up my body for other people to touch and interact with over long periods of time, durational works running anywhere from 8hours to 24 – and is bound up in my autobiography – this is part of what gives my work it’s value – and there is very little currently in place within the industry to create safer, healthier conditions for creating such work – and these breakdowns are the result.

This year I am hoping to pay off the 5 grand of debt I owe – 2 grand of it my student overdraft, which the majority of my graduate peers have already eradicated, the other 3 grand, payday loans, credit cards and catalogue debt from my first year out of uni, when I was establishing myself as an artist, working three jobs, and also supporting my family (my mother was ill, and my mum, dad and sister were all unemployed).

I say this, not to elicit sympathy – I don’t need it, thank you – but so that it is clear, as clear as things can be – that becoming an artist cost me money. It didn’t just cost me like… my mental health – which it did – and it didn’t just cost me all the other sort of things we expect and actively encourage artists to give to it – especially if those artists are not

Deep breath

White, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, able bodied, not deviating from how we expect mental health to look, no more than 10 years above or below their 30s, and largely working from and for a western perspective –

There, I said it, you should have known it was coming –

But it cost me money. A lot of it. My parents didn’t have it to give me. The three jobs I worked were in a coffee shop, in a bar and in a shop – the holy trinity – but it was 2012 and so none of them could offer me more than a guaranteed 8 hours a week and my depression saw me miss a lot of shifts, as did exhaustion and ongoing, low level illness so my labour, outside of the arts couldn’t give it to me, so I got payday loans.

There is a fuck ton of shame around payday loans. I felt it, hot and heavy for most of the past five years. Still do sometimes. But fuck that shame, and fuck anyone in this room or outside of it that judges those that are placed in positions where payday loans, or loans held in place by guarantors are the only options available to them. I, like most working class people, am resourceful. And it was the only resource open to me at that time.

Many gigs when we start out are unpaid or underpaid – and if no one is being paid, someone will have to pay. It is me in my late 20s, emerging as a semi-established artist that is paying for the artistic ambition and desires of me in my early 20s. Most other artists turn to their parents.

I think it’s important when somebody speaks about money to know the perspective they are coming from and to perhaps have some insight to what experiences may have shaped their perspective – especially as a black woman who is often invited to take up space, and to speak. There is an ambiguity around black working class and black middle class visibility, which often sees the black middle class appropriate the experiences, language and culture of the black working class. I do not wish to be complicit in this. That is the story of my finances right now. I am the artistic director of a company that employs a general manager, a producer and an outreach officer, and will also employ, on a freelance basis – probably another 20 artists over the next year. My company has bought my laptop and phone, and pays for my therapy, and has paid the wages of my mum, dad and sister at times. That is where I Stand.

But you also need to know this because on reflection, whilst being my biggest source of expenditure, the arts has always, from the very day I finished my degree been my biggest source of income – I have been supported by the Arts Council from day one – so how it values work has been a big shaping force in the work that I have made, and has dictated my practice – both consciously and subconsciously more than I like to admit. I make art for the arts council to make enough money to support myself. And I apply for funding, shape my projects and ideas with this in mind. This compromise – between what I’d really like to create, and what the arts council is seeking gives a narrow, narrow veneer of stability. Just about.

The arts council has a programme called the creative case for diversity – which essentially attempts to make it so that work from ‘diverse’ artists is celebrated and uplifted, rather than seen as a chore or responsibility – but as the arts council is primarily a talking shop and funding body, it’s key way of enforcing diversity is via rewarding or withholding money. This leads to a system with some inconsistencies – because that work is then financially worth more – but it is still essentially different and separate, and this has created a deeply problematic system.

In this system marginalised bodies are something that large institutions are rewarded money for having in their buildings or on their books

but that system does not really enable those artists from marginalised communities to truly challenge or change the nature of power within this system

or it constantly undermines those that are in a place of power to make those changes

or it ensures that those from marginalised communities that do take those positions do not have a politics that might challenge and transform these power structures

I work in a system wherein work from marginalised communities is simultaneously prized (by which I mean tokenised, made into novelty) and devalued (seen as deviant from the norm, held to a higher standard, evaluated on politics as opposed to form, content etc.)

a system wherein a company will write your name into their funding application without your consent or knowledge, before you have even begun to work together

a system wherein a programmer will tell a young artist that they do not need a young, black, female performance artist this season because they already have one (and there can be only one!)

a system wherein two black, female, freelance artists plan a diversity symposium together, then pull out of this because their ethics have been compromised by the organisation they have worked with and then two white, male, salaried directors see no issue with taking their work and implementing it without them

a system wherein white artists hire black artists to consult on their work on race, and then fire them when they say something that they do not like

a system wherein every piece of work on a programme can come from people that represent marginalised communities – but everybody on the team programming is white

a system wherein the majority of money allocated for artists from marginalised communities goes through big organisations who take a cut before any of that money reaches us to make up for deficits in their own budget

a system with a seemingly endless stream of poorly thought out development schemes THAT DO NOT PAY, directors coming in to look at your work who are asking you if you know what a rehearsal is, and requests for endless, endless provocations and panels and talks on the way in which you are marginalised (for free)

Most of the money I earn comes from the arts council, directly or indirectly.

This means that for better or worse, this is the system I negotiate when I make work.

This system/industry is incapable of valuing my work as truly equal to work made by those that are white, middle class and fit our traditional vision of health.

This system/industry values visible marginalised bodies, but does not value their critique or systemic analysis

This system/industry expects people with marginalised bodies to do extra labour – typically unpaid, to fix systemic inequality within it

This system/industry cries out, in a loud, and performative way for people from marginalised communities to become a part of it – but does not value their health and wellbeing and the potential realities of their backgrounds enough to make the changes that would make their presence in that system tenable.

This is because the system/industry I am part of is bound up in the state, a state which oppresses, marginalises and at best, fails those communities over and over again – and often – in a neoliberal model – the arts is required to do work that the state is not doing.

I wonder about my complicity in this, a lot. I’m doing a project at the moment about Missy Elliott and Teenage Girls. It would be great to just go off, do a load of research on my own and make a show. But the best way to get funding for this is to do a long research period with young, black teenage girls based around the country. Don’t get me wrong – I am excited and enthralled to get to work with young girls to make this – I think it will be fun, joyful, and make for a richer work. But I also know that I subconsciously sat down and came up with a structure that would see me work with people in the public who very little work is done with – because that is how you turn 3 months of funding into a year’s worth of funding. And I need that stability to survive with even the slightest shred of mental health. Both my parents are unemployed. There are times when they need my support, and I need to be in a place where I can give it. This strategy also guarantees venue partners – because you are doing the work that them getting their National Portfolio Funding is dependent on for a fraction of the price it would cost them to do it in house. This is not necessarily valued in how artists doing this work are paid or developed.

It’s tricky – because in many ways, these are a set of privileged problems, born out of good intentions.

But they are problems nevertheless, and problems that are taking an increasingly large psychological toll – and I see this toll impacting on the other artists of colour, usually from working class backgrounds, around me. I see them withdrawing, closing in on themselves, and into our community within a community, even when diversity funding is at a peak, because this is the only space where we feel ourselves valued, and valued as whole people, as workers with rights, as opposed to as commodities – which we fear will only ever be valued temporarily. We know that we need to survive, because we are making the work that we have been desperate to see after years of entering rooms full of what Baquiat described as ‘white walls, white wine and white people’ – but are the publicly funded arts as they stand now, the place to do it?

I’m just not sure. And that is my provocation.

Thank you for your time.

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