Why I am not doing the ice-bucket challenge – the missionary position

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Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I got stopped in the street on Chapel walk in Sheffield by an earnest young man collecting to fund “missionary work” for an organisation whose name I cannot remember. I gave him a small amount of money and conceded that is was for “a good cause”. I didn’t really know what “missionary work” was but imagined some sort of dedicated priest with a dog-collar and bare arms digging trenches for fresh water supplies, surrounded by happy, dark-skinned children. That was the image of “missionaries” that I knew from popular media because, at that time, I didn’t understand what the word meant in this context.

I suppose it sticks with me because even then I was a very skeptical person, although at the time I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that didn’t seem quite right. What I know now is that “missionary work” is organising ernest young people to collect money on the streets of metropolitan cities from misguided and confused teenagers.

These days I have a strict policy of not signing anything or giving any money to anyone in the street (unless they are undoubtedly destitute) or at the door. I am always polite but will not entertain “chuggers” (charity muggers).

If you’re on social media, I’m sure you have seen the “Ice-Bucket Challenge” viral that is going around, raising money for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research (known in the UK as motor-neurone disease (MND)). I’m not one for jumping on any bandwagons, particularly ones that involve getting wet or cold, but I’m not unsympathetic.

Finally, I got nominated for the Ice-bucket challenge and decided to look into it before committing myself to an act of self-humiliation.

Viral Thread published a blog post about the 2013 accounts of the ALS charity. The President and CEO has a salary of $339,475.00 and more than 50% of there income goes on administration and promotion with only 27% going on research.

I realise that any major charity is a corporate business, and getting anything done costs money, but a quarter of a million pounds for the boss? You’re paying that.

The image at the top of this post has persisted as a viral for way longer than it should, despite being thoroughly debunked. This viral has nothing to do with charity fundraising, but it is a good example of looking before you leap. I am not going to name and shame but a real friend (not just a Facebook spook) shared the photo attached to the story about how the famous Matador Torero Alvaro Múnera was suddenly racked with regret about what he had done and broke down in front of this bull.

Actually, it’s all just a part of the show and this matador is actually mocking the bull, but taken out of context it looks like a moment of remorse. Múnera did eventually become an animal rights activist but the real story is very different. Also, according to snopes.com the matador pictured is not actually Múnera at all.

Remember that “Kony 2012” video? Well, I watched it but never shared it because it just didn’t feel right and I am very self-satisfied that I turned out to be correct, although that episode with the Invisible Children’s co-founder Jason Russell, getting naked in the street was an unexpected bonus. If you’re going to lose it, you might as well go off the deep end. At least that will get some TV coverage. The video is quite long but it’s worth a look, as well as some of their others which look more like music videos than charity begging videos.

I haven’t looked at their accounts but looking at the videos, a lot of Invisible Children’s funds seem to go towards parties for impressionable twenty-somethings.

So here is the dilemma, I accept that these charities do raise money for the causes they claim to, but it seems a disproportionate amount of it goes to executives and administrators, and in the case of Invisible Children, media producers. Maybe I should get in on this. I wonder if any of them need a timelapse specialist?

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, much of my supporting material has been garnered from websites and that is a notoriously unreliable source, but isn’t that how you found out about the ice-bucket challenge?

However, another example of something that I am deeply mistrustful of is the sponsor-a-child kind of thing that pays for children’s education in third world countries, but not based upon my own experience nor my internet “research”.

My mother has been sponsoring children in Africa for at least 20 years and occasionally receives a hand-written letter from her sponsored child. She is a retired teacher with 30 years’ experience in primary state schools in the UK, and in her field she could be considered an expert witness. Only a few months ago she expressed to me the concern that the written work that the sponsored children send her never improves, and she is experienced enough to know. This is as far as I go with this thread because it is outside my expertise, but the question remains, if these children are genuinely being educated, why does their work never improve?

I believe that many charities are not charities at all, at least not in the way most of us assume, they are simply regulated pyramid schemes that pay a dividend to good causes. Some of them are simply scams to skim an income off other people’s naivety, rather like those TV evangelists, soliciting donations simply in order to continue their “missionary work”, otherwise known as screwing you.

Other detractors of the ice-bucket challenge have accused participants of mere narcissism but, as a social media junky, that doesn’t bother me at all.

It’s quite possible that I am excessively suspicious, but not everything is as it seems and you should be very wary of anything shared on Facebook. If you do decide to participate, maybe you should just donate to the UK MND charity, after examining their accounts. The Independent newspaper has very kindly published details:

Otherwise, you might want to consider that half of your donation has contributed to someone in the US being able to buy a Bentley.

New Bank of X Get Rich Rich Quick Pyramid Networking Scheme – The Next Temptation

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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.


The New Bank of X Pyramid of Wealth at Access Space Sheffield UK, November 2013.

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.

Pilvi Takala: Breaching Experiments at Site Gallery, Sheffield UK.

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.

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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.

New Bank of X Get Rich Rich Quick Pyramid Networking Scheme – Day 4 – topping out

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In the words of Sigmund Freud “The more you ignore me, the closer I get”.

Despite being a techie, I’m generally a late adopter and I realise I’m very late to the party as far as laser-cutting is concerned. It’s been around for many years, and is now quite affordable. Access Space got a laser cutter in their Refab Space a couple of years ago, but I must admit I’ve ignored it until now. Not because I’m not interested, but my head is just too full of other stuff. What’s more I didn’t really have anything that I specifically wanted to make.

Until now (video to follow).

I don’t mind admitting my installation is not as visually pleasing as I would normally like. I imagined it much more pyramid-y and less pile-y, but that is the risk of doing something without have done it before.

It’s strangely satisfying irony that I have made something that is very reminiscent of the kind of random-shit-kicked-through-a-gallery-door-and-then-post-rationalised that I am usually very critical of. Or have I over-rationalised that?

I don’t think of myself as a conceptual artist, where the idea is what the art is all about and the object is only there to reference the idea, but I think I have made a conceptual work.



John Moseley of Access Space / Refab Space with an Egyptian Coke bottle containing sand from Giza.

The one thing I did not expect to happen is that I wouldn’t get enough junk to make a decent pyramid, even a small one. The world is awash with unwanted items, but I just couldn’t get my hands on them at the right time. I think I failed to communicate the idea enough during the build and, consequently, the audience was confused until I explained it. However, the time I spent doing this has had some interesting fall out. More about that soon.

I must say huge thanks to Access Space for allowing me to indulge my ill-advised conceptual ellipsis, and particularly to John Moseley whose practical help and technical advice enabled me to produce the manufactured bits. The Refab Space is a place where you can get your hands on a CNC laser-cutter and CNC router, with support, for a very small cost.

The build is officially over, but I think I’ll try to make it a bit more pyramid-y before it comes down on Saturday 9th November.

I also have lots of timelapse video which will be edited at some point.

New Bank of X Get Rich Rich Quick Pyramid Networking Scheme – Day 3 – Topless in Giza

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Day three was the day I had to get on top of the laser cutting. This requires making the guide files with the well-endowed and open-source Inkscape. Unfortunately, I have (almost) never used Inkscape. John Moseley at Access Space gave me a brief crash course, but on day three I was on my own to get the cutting files ready so that the top section can be cut and assembled to my deadline of Friday 5pm.

Also, despite getting more junk today, it’s nowhere near enough to make even a small pyramid, so day four looks lie it will be a desperate, skip-raiding scroungeathon.

With lots of visitors today, It took me most of the day to work out the basics and didn’t get anything finished until after 4pm.

It’s a very fiddly process and I rarely work in 3D so it took so careful thinking about in order to conceive how it would fit together. John Moseley made a very elegant prototype, and I was going to try to reproduce his version just for the practice, but I was running out of time so I decided to vary the method in order to make things simpler for myself.

John’s design comprised three different sections whereas I have attempted to make a single asymmetric face that will jigsaw into each other, with a row of pegs on the bottom of each to slot into a square base.

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Anyway, it got late in the day and there was a bit of a queue for the laser cutter so it didn’t get cut on day three. Fingers crossed for the last day.

However, as it was 31st October, I decided to clear the space and install something temporary and appropriate to the date. So here is my little ancient-Egyptian-art-world-halloween-market-rigging-in-joke. Offers invited.

New Bank of X Get Rich Rich Quick Pyramid Networking Scheme – Day 2 – Infrastructure


Hand-cut mock-up of the top section.

I’m sure even the Pharaohs had moments of self-doubt.

It’s very common for artists to question their own motivation. For me, Day 2 was such a day, and I also got a bit distracted by Grayson Perry.

He didn’t call in, although I bet he’s got some junk to spare, but friends kept telling me about his series of Reith lectures so I thought I’d give it a whirl. You can listen online or download:

He’s a great speaker but I’m not sure if it helped or not. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just the fringe of the fringe.

Anyway, having got a lot further with the construction than I thought I would on day one, on day two I feel I am short of junk. I’m not really worried about that, the world is awash with unwanted, underused and unvalued items so I am sure I can improvise nearer the finish time. More importantly, I need to get the bit of it finished that I can’t do entirely for myself, and that’s the laser-cut penthouse donation box.

I used to be a professional computer programmer, but that was in the 90s, and although I’ve used algebra and trigonometry more than most since my school days, I still felt a bit rusty when it came to calculating angles and distances. Like most ungrateful children, it’’s only in my middle years that I begin to appreciate my institutional education.

Fortunately, Pythagoras has not abandoned me and the calculations were actually quite easy, although I did double-check everything.

Here is an adapted comparison chart I found on Wikipedia (Creative Commons, original here.).

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After calculating the dimensions of the top section, I decided to make a hand-cut, cardboard mock-up in order to test it out (above) and, in the spirit of recycling, reusing and repurposing, managed to skip-raid some waste cardboard from the Showroom Cinema’s bin store.

My calculations seem to be correct, although I think my tolerances are not exactly on a par with the ancients, but It’s close enough for me to get away with it. In Egypt, I think I might have been better employed in ceremonial event-planning rather than surveying the monumental architecture. Also, the building of The Great Pyramid pre-dates photography by about 4.5 thousand years and is estimated to have taken between 10 and 20 years to complete, but wouldn’t that have been a time-lapse project to die for? Perhaps literally.

New Bank of X Get Rich Rich Quick Pyramid Networking Scheme – Day 1 – Research & Design


A typical pyramid builder’s notebook.

After some deliberation, I decided to adopt the widely reported and studied proportions of the Great Pyramid of Khufu / Cheops at Giza in Egypt.

Why? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Seriously, there is a great deal of documentation of that pyramid, and its dimensions embody an approximate relationship with the Golden Ratio, which is nice.

Actually, it’s not all that accurate.

Phi, the Golden Ratio, is 1.618 (to three decimal places), but the ratio of the one side of the Great Pyramid to its height is 1.573. It’s pretty close, I suppose, but I thought I’d make mine a little closer. To be fair on the unnamed architects of ancient Egypt, it it is much harder to align 5.9 million tonnes of rock within a square base, accurate to within a few minutes of error, so I think it’s not really fair to criticise.

Fundamentally, the size of my pyramid is dictated by the size of the space available within Access Space’s foyer, and I finalised my base dimensions on 150cm square which will fit within the space, whilst letting the door open and without being a safety hazard. Not things the Pharaohs had to worry about.

I studied technical drawing at school, and this required the construction of angles using nothing more than a pair of compasses and a straight-edged rule. Drawing an accurate square with right angles was a trivial affair. Unfortunately, there was not enough space around the base of the pyramid to perform the geometric shenanigans required to construct an accurate square. Consequently, without a template, I had to use a bit of trial and error in order to establish the square base.

Again, the deserts of ancient Egypt were not so limiting in working space.

Also, this project has no funding attached to it, other than all the in-kind help I am getting. This is another problem the Pharaohs didn’t have to worry about. They owned everything and, as they were divinely endowed, funding was not really a problem.


My total spend on the project, so far.

Anyway, seeing as my pyramid is neither destined to protect the body of a king on his journey into the afterlife, nor being used as an orgone accumulator, I think I’ll be able to get away with approximately correct proportions.

Anyway, a base length of 150cm means a vertical height of 92.7cm. I would have preferred it to be higher, but this will make the top-section / donation box easily accessible for people of most heights.

The next question is: how big should I make the perspex donation box? I did think 1/14th of the vertical height would be symbolically coherent, but that would make it only 6.62cm high with a base length of 10.7cm, and that would make it a rather apologetic as opposed to threatening gesture. So I decided on 1/3rd of the vertical height, resulting in a base length of 50cm.

Stay tuned for more detail and some examples of junk as it materialises.