The flags at the New Europeans site are spaced roughly ten metres apart all along the wall. They have proved to be quite troublesome over the past few weeks. For reasons that will soon become clear, the whole thing brings to mind a contrast with a previous era (spanning, let’s say, 1950s to 1980s). It was a time when you could basically draw enough income from the state and live cheaply enough to be able to pursue creative things without needing to apply for funding or have your work subsumed in an institutional framework.
More specifically, it brings to mind Manchester in the 1970s and 80s, when the city’s young bohemians flocked to the now-demolished Hulme Crescents, to live for almost nothing in an environment that evoked the poetically bleak landscape of Iggy and Bowie’s Berlin. A series of fanzines issued from the place and a record company made Hulme its home, as did a host of writers, artists and musicians, all attracted to the semi-autonomous environment. And what emerged was one of the most original, progressive and rebellious periods of cultural production that the city and the country ever experienced.
The same goes for London at the time. If you read The Colour of Memory, a novel by Geoff Dyer set in 1980s Brixton, you will encounter a society that was enjoying the last days of creative work without top down control. None of the characters make any money and they live in an occasionally hostile environment but it still seems like a distant paradise compared to today. Unemployment benefit and social housing supply were clearly sufficient for the lackadaisical yet gifted narrator (based on the author) to go about enjoying his life, rebelling against a conventional lifestyle but doing little harm and (in the case of the author) eventually becoming a successful writer of an incredibly eclectic series of work (this doesn’t ruin the ending).
Free of anyone telling them how to do their work, artists in both places, and many other post-industrial European cities were capable of rebelling in a way that is totally denied to the present day artist, who needs to apply for funding or justify their work to someone above them. Whereas artists are now commissioned to rebel (a complete conflict in terms), their autonomy afforded them the chance to actually do it. It must’ve been pretty special.
Back to the flags… About two months ago the original plain white flags were changed to incorporate the thin gold and silver thermal blankets that have lately come to be associated with refugees arriving from the treacherous voyage to the Greek island of Lesbos. After about a week in which they bathed the wall in a bittersweet gold and silver light, these refugee flags quickly began to transition from symbolically ripped to downright tatty. So, a few weeks ago we decided to take the flags down, with the aim of replacing them with something we had yet to define.
Knowing how long it would take to come up with an idea and execute it, and with other things to do, replacing the flags fell by the wayside. In the meantime, there was a growing clamour from above to put some new flags up. This was fair enough, it’s a good platform to express something and a couple of weeks had passed since the gold and silver flags had been removed. FabCity was about to open, so the idea was to have Europe by People flags along the wall. But unless we could decorate the flags ourselves, it felt like something we weren’t employed to do.
So we did the replacement to our own design. This is how long each step in the process took:
– Removing the flag poles: 2 people, 2 hours (4 hours)
– Separating each flag from each flag pole: 1 person, 3 hours (3 hours)
– Remove the gold and silver blanket remnants (since there was still a lot remaining and the tape was pretty sticky): 3 people, 1 hour (3 hours).
– Coming up with an idea, 2 people (and 1 extra, two of us dipped in and out) 4 hours (12 hours)
– Buy materials to redecorate the white flags (onto which the blankets had been stuck): 1 person, 1 hour (1 hour)
– Apply our chosen design: 2 people, 2 hours (4 hours)
– Reattach the flags: 2 people, 2 hours (4 hours)
Total: 31 hours of work (more than whole week’s worth of work for one of the team members)
The reason for the list is because it illustrates the disconnect between how simple the job sounds (“replace the flags”) and the hidden work that goes into it, a disconnect that wouldn’t matter if you were working for yourself. The list is a least possible scenario. As anyone working in creative work will attest, coming up with ideas involves a whole lot of sitting around seemingly doing nothing. And this highlights the problem with subsuming a creative process in an institutional framework. In most work these days the sanctioning of a project frequently requires details of each step in its process, with reference to the number of people, time and resources needed. This may just about work for administrative work (although even there people ought to be left alone). It doesn’t work in a creative context.
But increasingly this is what happens in the two principal ways of making a living as an artist: asking for funding or working creatively within an institutional framework. If you have to justify how long it takes to do everything, and if you are constantly having to justify the value of your work, you are diminishing the very value of that work, because you are not actually doing your work. It is for this reason that most dictatorships eventually fail. People are so preoccupied with what those above them will think of what they are doing that they do as little as possible, or they do nothing, this being the easiest way of avoiding questions.
If we’re not going to return to an economic model where artists can survive without having to seek money, there should at least be sufficient trust in the idea that they are working as much as they can and that, if something isn’t being done, it’s because there is insufficient time and there are other priorities. Sure, some people goof off and take their responsibilities for granted, but on the whole, when left to themselves and given enough time, space and money, people employed in useful or interesting work tend to do it.
This returns things to Hulme, and the admittedly rose-tinted reflection on a bygone era. In Hulme, people were being creative without anyone above telling them to be so. If ever there was an example of the virtue of anarchy, it’s there, where so much interesting culture emerged from a space where no one was in charge.This idea of having to explain everything would be completely alien to them.
For a much more eloquent discussion of the above issue read David Graeber’s essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”