Monday, January 10, 2011

Should artists clean windows for money?

Today I began a conversation with Rich White.
As the cuts to art funding begin to have massive impacts on the arts, lots of companies, groups and spaces are being forced to close down. Artists will feel the cuts from many sides; companies that previously employed me as a freelance artist have had some of, and in some cases all of their funding cut. Some have had to close their doors. Some of the projects which I thought were in the pipeline did not get their one off arts council funding and so have not gone ahead. Additionally, many artists are employed in education settings, and major cuts to H.E. establishments are having a knock-on effect as the number of hours available for freelance Lecturers dry up. This means paid work for artists is disappearing from all sides.
I struck really lucky in the summer, and secured (what I hope is) a permanent position at a University as a Lecturer in Fine Art, and though I do worry about how I will manage to keep my practice going, I feel that it was very good timing.
I worry about how other artists I know, who do not have secure positions like mine, will survive.
One artist whose work, and approach I particularly admire, Rich White, recently put out a call and email, asking if anyone out there has any freelance work for someone of his skills.
On facebook it purely said:
Rich White:
is back and looking for work. Anyone have any jobs for me?
Funnily enough I had meant to get in touch with Rich anyway, about an event I want to put on in Stoke. The event would be called 'Modes of Practice in an Age of Austerity' - and I wanted to invite Rich (as the idea and title come as a result of the piece he delivered at the Interrogation conference - State of Practice - click here for piece) and Emily Speed (whose A-N blog on 'Getting Paid' is also a major inspiration) I have invited them to come and give a talk, with focus on professionalism, and also on a sort of a code of ethics; - it could be tempting during these times to accept less than fairly paid 'opportunities', and for commissioners to start to exploit artists. I have noticed even more 'exhibition opportunities' than ever asking for a submission fee; and though I understand that spaces are strapped for cash, I am not sure that they should be passing on the costs to the artists whose work they ultimately rely on to keep their programmes afloat. I don't know what the answer is, but we need to discuss it.
The event will involve the two presentations by Emily and Rich, and then a 'manifesto' writing exercise - working with the artists that are there to write our own code of practice/manifesto, to guide us through these tough times, and to help support each other - which brings me back to Rich's call.
I think it shows a very enterprising mind to let people know that you are available, and it got me thinking...
During these times, how do we as artists ensure that we don't get exploited? How do we negotiate with commissioners? How do we stick to our guns even when there is much needed cash on the table?
In order to instigate a conversation around these themes in the run up to the event I decided to make Rich an offer:
I said:
Rich, in response to your message asking if anyone has any jobs for you, I seriously want to offer you the job of cleaning my windows.
I live in a small terraced house in Stoke-on-Trent. I have basically seven windows, although some of them have four panes of glass. I can supply soap, ladder, bucket, squegee and sponge.
What do you thin...k?
I am interested in exploring with you the possibilities offered by the times we are in, money is tight all round, so what does this mean for artists and art commissioners?
I will wait and see where all this might lead...check back here for Rich's response...
Rich has answered my message today (11/1/11)...
He has taken care to make sure he covers a number of issues which this proposition raises within his response.
Rich White:

I've been trying to decide on what my first question should be as I realise that the question I ask would indicate an initial priority (which is something I want to avoid straight away).
So, my questions are (in no particular order):
- Are yo...u proposing that the window cleaning is a kind of Beuysian Social Sculpture happening?
- If we don't already believe it, can we convince ourselves (and others) that this would be an artwork?
- Are you aware that you could get someone from Stoke to do it much cheaper and sooner?
- How much are you offering?
and someone called Rob White (Rich's brother?) has also added:
Salary £40k pa + Benefits: Free Overalls Provided.
So, the conversation is on!
Now how to respond?
I said:

Glad to hear yo...u have no initial priorities, or at least do not wish them to be overt at this stage.
In response to your questions, in no particular order
- I wouldn't like to propose that the window cleaning is a kind of Beuysian Social Sculpture happening yet, as in many ways I think that may be determined by the process of this conversation. I do think myself that any everyday activity can become artwork, depending on the way it is framed and the artists intention.
- I think I already believe that the window cleaning is an artwork, but wonder what other conditions would be necessary to convince others of the same. Could this be something to do with the process of cleaning the windows, how the cleaning of the windows is documented, or perhaps how both you and I approach the activity?
- I could get someone from Stoke to clean my windows and it would probably be achieved sooner and be cheaper, but it was you that asked if anyone had a job for you - and I like your work, so I thought, if I can afford to get you to clean my windows (which do need cleaning) then it would be sort of like killing two birds with one stone. I have also been thinking about the act of commissioning artists, or providing artists with 'opportunities.' Many of the 'opportunities' that are being advertised lately don't really look much like the sort of thing that anyone would want to do - not trying to put you off the windows - but I suppose it is a question of thinking what makes us choose to go for something, or what puts us off.
- How much would you charge? How much seems reasonable for this activity? What would persuade you that it is a good idea?
Rich said:

- I think keeping our conceptual options open is good. I agree that everyday activities can be artworks, what I am unsure of is whether such a work fits in with my current practice. Would it be too much of a shift from my current direction...? Not that that is necessarily a problem. Many artists make very diverse works, whilst others stick to a very rigid path. I don't consider myself a 'rigid path' artist, however I like development and progression, and seeing a story of work evolve. I fear that suddenly 'performing' a window cleaning (if that's what this leads to) would appear odd amongst my other work. Basically, is it 'me'? And if it isn't, can it be made 'mine'? Which leads us into the second section...
- Conditions: I'm always wary of art that seems fitted into something for the sake of it. I remember back at university seeing a bunch of students wandering around with sketchbooks looking for some kind of inspiration (I think they'd been set a task). It had just stopped raining and we were under a glass canopy that extended out from the library entrance. One of the students looked up at the glass, which had little rivulets of water trickling over it, and said 'hmmm, water on glass, what could that mean?' to which I thought 'that it's been raining?'
This is the kind of thing I try to avoid. Finding an interesting thing (the pleasant pattern of water running down a slightly tilted pane of glass) and then deciding what it could mean as an artwork. For me the reason has to come first: What is it that I want to say? Then, what is the best way to say it? So for me, being presented with cleaning windows (possibly as an artwork?) and then trying to think through what it could be about is the reverse of how I normally work. In some sense. To you the impetus seemed to come from my call for jobs and the current financial climate, so maybe you felt that the act of commissioning me to clean windows was the fitting medium to express your thoughts. In which case I'm just a material and you are the artist?
- What makes me choose an opportunity? If it is interesting and relevant, if it in some way helps me to progress or develop, if it pays properly. What puts me off? When it doesn't pay properly. Will window cleaning (however it ends up being performed or documented or enacted) be interesting, relevant and progressive?
- Day return fare to Stoke: £50
Subsistence: £15
Fee: £150
TOTAL: £215

- Hallo again Rich, I agree that suddenly performing a window cleaning, in a straight way would seem at odds with your recent works. To me, your approach seems to be to excavate local, (to the site you are working in) historical stories, and then to respond sculpturally; making a temporary intervention. There seems to be something performative about the installation of your works, due to their public sites, but am I right in thinking that this is not of primary concern to you? I do think that to simply come and clean my windows would not fit with how you work, and also I would question it as a viable art work, if that is all there was to it. So how could the cleaning of my windows be made somehow into your work if at all? That is I suppose an important concern here. What conditions would need to be introduced to create a situation where the cleaning of my windows (if that is indeed what you end up doing) could be seen as a viable part of your ongoing practice?
- You said the reason has to come first - the thing that you want to say...and then the thinking of the best way to say it comes after. For me, the thing that wants to be said is something around the value of artist's activity; paying someone adequately for their time, and for the piece of work that they do; and the idea of critiquing opportunities. You are right that the impetus to offer you this 'opportunity' came from your call for jobs - but also I suppose, thinking about my own work as an artist. There is a real blur for me within my work, and in the projects/situations which I am involved in or set up as to what is my work, and what is project management or curation. I have also noticed that quite a few of the things I do involve (to varying degrees) getting other people to do things; try out new or unfamiliar ways of working, looking or walking. I think that in these cases I may provide a situation/framework or activity which creates a space for other people and artists to create something - but I do not think that means that everything they do within that becomes my work, or that I am the artist and them the materials in that situation (I am thinking about There is Beauty in the City and Interrogation for example.)
- In many ways I was most interested as a result of your call to have this conversation around how we choose to respond positively to an opportunity. I think it is interesting that you can be put off by an opportunity not paying properly, yet I know from previous conversations that not all of the opportunities that you accept are paid. The things that attract you are good pay - and here I have asked you for how much you would charge - I think that seems fair. But you also require it to help you to develop or progress as well - and this is going to be the difficulty. How do we make this relevant? I agree that it certainly needs to be. Something that I wondered: my thoughts around these sorts of things generally feed into my practice and outputs - what relationship to your physical practice does your critical thinking have (i.e. State of Practice essay). Is it purely around a personal code of ethics/way of working, or does it feed in in any other ways?
by the way...what if the window cleaning wasnt my house windows but somewhere else?
Rich has replied today: 24/01/2010 - you can also see that I am attempting to file my tax return...
Rich said:
There is a performative aspect to my installations, and this is something I have proposed in a recent application (so maybe window cleaning as an artwork is not too much of a stretch?) but my use of this aspect is as a way of developing the... work as I interact with passers-by whilst I build. The things I build are usually deliberately unusual so people are compelled to ask questions, and I'd like to use these questions to help guide the work, gauge reactions etc. Would people question a person cleaning windows? Maybe, if he was being filmed and/or continuously photographed? So that's were I have to develop the work - I don't want to just clean the windows, it has to create something as well.
I think we can probably agree that the reason for this project is the situation that artists have been faced with following the financial measures implemented by the government. I want to address these issues through my work - as I discussed in 'State Of Practice' - and make works which draw attention to how art and artists are (or are not) valued.
Being put off by opportunities not paying properly is a recent development - I decided last year that I shouldn't do shows for free anymore. This was in-part a small protest - a stance against the exploitation of artists. It is also about being professional, about being taken seriously.
My critical/theoretical thinking goes hand-in-hand with my practice - as I imagine it does for many artists. It guides my work. The things I think about, am interested in, and want to communicate all feed in to my practice. The more I think about the window cleaning the more it becomes part of my practice - it insinuates itself into my ideas. Maybe this what we could work with?
Whose windows do want me to clean? Are you starting a business? Or are you thinking that the location of the windows could be important?
I replied:
hallo Rich, glad to hear that the window cleaning is leaking into your thinking...
I wonder if there is a way of drawing attention to the activity that you are working on, without it having to be continually filmed/photographed? a sign which... states the rate of pay for example?

I think the windows being cleaned could be important actually.
it would be good if I could commission you to go and clean the windows of the dept for culture media and sport or something...since they say they are so strapped for cash and are slashing funding to the arts from all sides, perhaps new work for artists in the UK could involve cleaning windows after all?
Rich said 28/01/11:
I think documentation would be important, but it's not necessarily the thing that makes it a work. Signs are interesting, and a sign that states the rather confounding rate of pay could look quite intriguing.
When you mentioned cleaning the of the DCMS the first thing I thought was 'what if I paint over the windows?' Possibly in white like the old Nuclear War survival suggestion. Then I thought that clarity is what is required (not blindness) so maybe paint the windows over first - as an aggressive gesture - and then clean them afterwards, but adding some kind of poignancy to whole process? Not sure how?
and I replied 01/02/11:
I wonder how far you could get with cleaning the windows of the DCMS, let alone painting them.
I think in many ways the idea of artists(YOU) being commissioned by the private sector (ME) which is what is being called for is quite pertinent. ...The DCMS will benefit from privately funded art works as the country will still be cultural - especially if artists start to fund and support other artists, or artists accept bad/no pay and still make work - we are again making the DCMS look good out of our hard graft, without them having to invest in us. So for you to go and clean their windows would be you making them look good. by the way - the money I propose to use to pay you will come from my tax rebate.
I added on 07/02/11
by the way Rich, Glen says if you end up doing this, he would be happy to come down and document the activity - what do you think?