It’s taken me a while, but I really feel I need to finish of this little project before I move on with anything else. This blog post is rather long and rambling but worth it, honest.
I would be the first to admit that the installation itself was a bit of a failure, although a few people did like it. In my mind’s eye, I could see a strangle beautiful, perfectly proportioned pyramid made from other people’s junk. However, I misjudged the amount of junk I would need, bearing in mind I would need to pick and choose, and ran out of time at the end. Just as well I had the acrylic top stone.
As a result, I think the message was lost to a certain extent. The point of the pyramid is a satire on the many disguised pyramidal financial models that are all around us.
Artist Pilvi Takala’s show at Site Gallery, Sheffield UK (14 September – 10 November 2012) was one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking and humorous exhibitions I have seen in years. What’s more, she managed to achieve something very rare, which is to perpetrate highly provocative and satirical interventions without them being cynical.
As part of the show, she gave a performance lecture entitled “Money Making Strategies That WORK” (3 November 2012) where she talked about various get-rich-quick schemes and techniques, including neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). She also showed a number of examples of business models and practices at various points along the aspiration spectrum, from psychological re-orientation techniques all the way to downright charlatanism.
One of the business models she talked about was what her brother does for a living. He is a professional gambler. I don’t know if he exists or not, or if he was just an invention for the sake of art, but the description of his lifestyle and his approach to gambling was entirely plausible.
She illustrated this section with a pyramid diagram showing a large lower section of habitual losers, a small middle section of loser-winners and a very small top section of professional winners. The interesting thing about what she said was that the largest section of regular losers were mostly consensual losers who enjoy gambling as entertainment. Perversely, gambling embodies an honesty of exploitation that is absent in other pyramids.
So, why am I talking about Pilvi Takala? Well, I’ve known about pyramid selling schemes since the 1970s, and sometimes inadvertently partaken, although we’ll come back to that later. Anyway, Takala’s illustrations in the “Money Making Strategies That WORK” lecture were extremely revealing and, although she said some of the proponents of the various schemes claim things like networking marketing are not pyramid schemes, they are all still pyramids.
It’s rare that I get so enthusiastic about a work of contemporary fine art, but the set-up for this performance was a stroke of genius. I wish I had thought of it myself. The event was advertised at the admission price of £10, but you could claim twice that back if you weren’t satisfied. Ordinarily, I would never ever pay £10 to see performance art, it is almost universally disappointing, but the humour in this prompted me to pay up, go along, and not claim my money back.
She had prompted an ethical response. You could easily come away with £10 more than you went in with, but would you? That proposal endured as a fitting backdrop to the ethical questions posed by the behaviour of some of the people she talked about. During the following Q&A she admitted to having used NLP, and claimed to have used it in order to gain a flat. However, her deadpan delivery was difficult to fathom and I left the event unsure about how much of what she said she believed to be true. I strongly recommend seeing her work if you can.
Anyway, in way of a disambiguation, networking and network marketing are not the same thing although they are both largely pyramids. Networking, that is going to meetings in the hope of meeting potential clients, does work for some people, generally people selling basic and universal services such as accountancy and legal services. However, my own experience of networking events is much less promising and I cannot identify a single paid job that came as a result of meeting someone at a networking event.
I am self-employed and used to go to a lot of networking events in order to try to attract new business. I went to a networking breakfast once where one particular woman was very keen to meet me, only for me to find out she was running another networking event and was trying to recruit me for that.
These days I don’t go to networking events except as a purely social activity.
Let me be clear about this, I do not object to paid-for networking events but I appeal to anyone who does go to them to be as ruthless with that activity as you would be about any other part of your business, and do not let yourself be sold the lifestyle. Many of these networking events keep flying on the fumes of aspiration.
A friend paid a few hundred pounds for a year’s membership of one of the largest networking organisations, whose terms of membership REQUIRE members to attend the weekly breakfast meetings. After a year of this, and only a few hundred pounds in identifiable income, it was time to do the maths (my figures here are very conservative).
If you attend a two hour meeting once a week for say, forty weeks of the year, that’s 80 hours of your time, and at £40 per hour (a modest rate for self-employed professionals, covering all their own tax, national insurance, travel etc etc), that’s £3,200 worth of your time, plus the original membership fee.
With only a few hundred pounds of identifiable income, your’e actually losing money. In fact, unless you are making at least double your outgoings it’s simply not worth getting out of bed for. If you’re going to get up early and put in an extra couple of hours before your full day’s work, your time would be better spent learning new skills, developing existing ones, editing your contacts list, courtesy-calling clients, or maybe even writing long, rambling, critical blog posts.
Or maybe just get more sleep.
However, some people are making money out of these regularly organised networking events. The organisers. The contributing members are the losers and it’s just another pyramid.
Despite the undoubted howls of denial from its adherents, network marketing (aka multi-level marketing) is another one of the hidden pyramids because it still relies upon recruiting other people in order to skim enough off your “downstream” to make it worthwhile. With many of these schemes it is not possible to make enough money to justify the time it takes up, and this is where most people mislead themselves, by not costing their own time. If you are currently engaged in one of these network marketing schemes, it would be prudent to see how the cost of your time works out compared with the soon to be generously increased £7 per hour UK minimum wage.
Conclusion (stay with me)
And now I get to the bit that no-one wants to hear. The creative industries are almost universally pyramids, where by far the majority of participants are losers. Here is an example of this kind of grotesque manipulation that is so widespread in the creative industries. The musician Whitey is a lot further up the food chain than me, and has a bit of clout, but have a look at his response to being asked to work for nothing.
If you get the “there’s no room in the budget for music” line, then the best response should be “I guess you need to revise the budget”.
The Big Lie is that “It will lead to other things”.
Sure it will lead to other things, it will lead to more unpaid work.
However, as a few friends have pointed out, it’s a very nuanced area, and some of the unpaid / voluntary activities are both worthwhile and productive. This is true and I actively participate and contribute to many unpaid events myself. I contribute both time and money to Access Space, which is a charity providing an open access media and arts lab in Sheffield, UK. When work commitments allow, I also help out with event production and promotion, although there are other volunteers who give much more time than me, and more regularly. An organisation like Access Space provides a service that cannot be valued by price, but by worth. Something that those on the right simply do not understand.
Another organisation I contribute to is Sheffield Live! community radio station. It’s not viable as a commercial business but provides a broad range of training and cultural benefits that are also impossible to put a price on.
Tony Benn expresses his opinions much better than I can about the poisonous, aspirational, entrepreneurial bullshit culture that is universal in the UK these days. This video is worth watching all the way through, but he sums up, referring to the ethos of Thatcher’s Britain as “you measured the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Having said all this, the real point is a rather uncomfortable truth about the creative industries. Ask yourself how many animators does the world need? How many photographers? How many timelapse video specialists?
Not many. When I see those grotesque, animated geriatrics in the Wonga adverts, I don’t know which I hate more, the company itself or the creative team that created the ads. I wonder if they got students to animate it promising them more work in the future whilst pushing stop gap loans at them.
Or that crude orange turd in the EDF Energy adverts? I wonder how many professional animators it took to enliven a couple of 3D blobs with eyes on?
It doesn’t even fucking blink! I have done some animation, although I do not consider myself to be an animator, but anyone will tell you that you can enhance even the most basic of animated characters with a few human-like twitches. I think it was just done on the cheap, probably by an unpaid intern.
Actually, there is only a very small sector in the creative industries that is making a decent living at all, and most of us are just kidding ourselves. I have repeated The Big Lie myself but we would better off accepting that most of our creative endeavours may have worth, but have no price.
The only people I know who are doing well in the creative industries (thanks to their own hard work) are working for those companies with money to burn, such as Google and Ebay, or those at the very top of music industry working on tours that cost £60,000 a week on live production. But it’s not the creative content where the money is, it’s in operational roles.
A colleague who works on international touring music shows, and has often tried to sell me that dream of making content for those big LED stage screens, once called me to see if I could find him some students that I know through my HE teaching that he could pay “a few quid” on some animated sequences. If there is not enough money to pay professionals then it is yet another pyramid.
The fine art industry is particularly bad. Recently, I saw an open call for an art show. There was a small submission fee for “administration”, but no fees for the exhibiting artists, and you had to deliver your own work. I realise this exhibition was probably being run on a shoestring, but why should the administrator get paid when artists don’t? What’s more, if you have to deliver your own work, but don’t receive a fee, it is actually costing you.
You can put it on your CV, I guess, but my CV is as long as your arm and it never leads to anything.
I make no apology for sharing this video once again, Harlan Ellison tearing a strip off the cannibalistic media industries.
Recently, someone approached me recently asking me to shoot and edit a video of an event. I believe the organisers were unpaid too, and so I was tempted. However, they went on to flatter me that the experience would be good for me. I often shoot and edit events for nothing but I’m a little too old to be sold that lie, and by the same token, at my age I am already rich beyond measure. Experience will not pay me for repairs, consumables, travel or any losses that I might make. In this instance, the lack of fee was not the problem, but I’ve heard that bullshit too often to be taken in.
If you choose to get into a creative profession because it appeals to you, then go ahead and take your chances. But let’s not kid ourselves, and let’s not swallow, or regurgitate, The Big Lie.
If you’re going to work for nothing, then do your own work for nothing and don’t let yourself become a loser. Alternatively, be very choosy who you work for. Many creative organisations have a small number of paid staff supported by hordes of volunteers and unpaid creatives that prop up the paid workers, and it will never lead to anything except more of the same.
All that said, you always have the classic, socialist method of direct action at your disposal.
The withdrawal of labour.