Punchcard Economy

Rates for the Job – reflections on the Time and Motion symposium at RCA

Mar 09 2014 · by Sam Meech

image courtesy of Inari Wishiki - volunteer minimum wage machine demonstrator

image courtesy of Inari Wishiki – volunteer minimum wage machine demonstrator

On Wednesday I spoke about the Punchcard Economy project as part of the Time and Motion Symposium at the Royal College of Art. The event presented a variety of perspectives on work and time, and featured artists, researchers and curators involved in the show, as well as keynote presentations and summative reflections from other invited speakers.

I began my own presentation with some simple maths regarding my role as a paid speaker. I was speaking for 10 mins, for a fee of £75, as agreed via email (travel and accommodation to be covered by organisers). On the face of it, that’s not a bad deal at all – in fact it equates to a whopping £450 an hour. However, if we consider that the travel and event itself took up a whole day (away from other paid work), and we spread that £75 across an 8 hour day, then I was earning £9.37 ph. Now factor in the time it took me to prepare my presentation (absurdly over four hours, but lets call it four) then my hourly rate sinks to £6.25 – just below the £6.31 minimum wage. Suddenly the economics don’t look that great.


Of course this cold analysis ignores the fact that I was there of my own volition, happy and pleased and privileged to be sharing the project. As Mike Stubbs said in his opening address, it is a privilege to be an artist and to be able to be engaged in something you love. However the basic maths do reflect an all too common relationship of the artist being put in a tight position in order to showcase (or create) their work in the context of a larger (publicly funded) organisation. I could have gone into more detail, having cash-flowed the travel myself, to highlight my point, but in short the risk lies largely with the artists and speakers, whilst the institutions can easily claim the reward.

It’s a cynical way of looking at a symposium, but my point, as expressed through my presentation, was that in order to make work we often place ourselves in precarious situations, with the backing, or at the insistence of larger organisations. The making of the Punchcard Economy knitted banner was a great opportunity to create a piece of work for exhibition, but it soon became an unwieldy beast due to my inexperience of working with the medium and the costs involved. I finished the work on time (though not on budget), but any protective shell of irony had long since worn away as I worked 16 hour days to complete the banner alongside juggling other freelance projects. I had become a victim of my own inexperience / naiveté / ambition / sense of perspective (delete as appropriate). But for an artist that is often the case.

Artists are often driven to try something new and different that exposes them to risk, starting from scratch each time. I usually work with video, and before August 2013 I had never knitted on a machine, but 3 months later I was creating a giant banner with nearly 2 million stitches.  Its a willingness shared by artists to explore and be ambitious. As a result, artists can find it difficult to budget time and costs – we lack the experience and anyway our idealism and desires override our sense of perspective for new challenges.

As Ellie Harrison touched on in her presentation, ‘self exploitation’ is common if you love what you do. You’ll do it till it’s no longer healthy, you’ll work longer, and put yourself at more risk, because it’s your idea and its what dream of. Its really hard to bring self discipline into that mix, so we cant complain too much when once again we’ve found ourselves working too long for too little, but at least its our own mistake to make.

Inari Wishiki - volunteer minimum wage machine demonstrator - artists image

Inari Wishiki – volunteer minimum wage machine demonstrator – artists image

Artist Inari Wihiski also talked about his work, presenting a number of experiments involving ‘free’ labour or exchange of goods and services. One of the most interesting was his performance / intervention with an exhibit in the show  – volunteer minimum wage machine demonstrator – in which he worked ‘uncontracted’ as a volunteer gallery attendant, demonstrating the artwork ‘Minimum Wage Machine’ by Blake Fall-Conroy, whilst collecting a fee from the work and thus earning paid status (he earned £8.82 over 4 hours). It’s a clever joke – a semi-lucrative self-exploitation that takes advantage of the artwork by taking it at face value. Of course not all works will offer such a ‘generous’ economic reward such as spilling coins. It could also be the case that Inari’s satire has perhaps been trumped by FACT itself.

As the Time & Motion exhibition winds down, ironically the gallery is seemingly becoming more reliant on free labour, in this case calling for volunteers to support ( or supplant?) the role of the paid gallery attendant. The arts are incredibly competitive, and the lowest on the ladder are always more at risk of exploitation. In fairness to FACT, times are very tough for arts organisations, who are having to radically reassess how they operate, and FACT are not the only arts institution in the city to do this (Bluecoat have relied heavily on volunteers since there relaunch) but this move is not without significance. It creates a model that is hard to revert, and also sets a tone for what is acceptable within any arts hierarchy.

In her reflections on the day, curator Helen Kaplinsky highlighted on the precariousness of our industry, saying “art is one of the dodgiest economies … there is very little security”. We need to be careful that all of us, individually but especially institutionally, can adapt to the changes and opportunities in new working economies, without eroding the welfare of those who support us. For organisations, that means operating in a sustainable way, top to bottom (or bottom to top). For freelancers, that means looking out for  ourselves (and in by extension our peers), though I suspect we are going to find it increasingly challenging not to make the same mistakes.