The Passion Industries

by Sophie Hope, Louise Owen

On Saturday 13 October 2012, the RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture was judged in Manchester (winner: Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Laboratory).  In anticipation, the Wednesday before, the BBC devoted an edition of its flagship arts programme The Culture Show to architecture.  It offered a review of the shortlisted buildings and reports on Building Design’s counter-award The Carbuncle Cup and the phenomenon of ‘self-building’ new homes privately (a practice, unsurprisingly, attracting substantial governmental support).  It concluded with a segment on new projects initiated by young architects in city spaces.  Reporter Oliver Wainwright noted: “In this recession the current generation of graduates is taking advantage of the glut of empty spaces to try out new ways of working”.[1]  Along with their creators’ relative youth, the chosen projects shared a basis in ‘pop-up’, ‘flexible’ or ‘found’ models of creation.  Many were located in some of the poorest parts of east London.  And many of the early projects conceived and produced by these self-starting young architects were built by people working for free.

As The Culture Show reported, Assemble’s Folly for a Flyover, a pop-up ‘house’ for culture set up beneath the A12, “was handbuilt by volunteers using reclaimed local materials”.[2]  Practice’s art-bar Frank’s Café installed on the top of a car park in Peckham was “put together by an army of volunteers in just twenty-five days”.[3]  Given the small budgets and volunteerism of their realization, the reporter wondered whether these experiments represented a new, recession-specific, turn in architectural practice.  It was a desire for creative control, however, that is represented in the comments of Practice’s Paloma Gormley, who reflected nostalgically on the creation of Frank’s Café as “This island, above the city and beyond all bureaucracy and beyond normal rules”.[4]  And, of entering the field during a recession, Holly Lewis of We Made That insisted: “You don’t do it [cultural work] because you can make a fast buck, but you do it because you’re passionate about doing that, and if you do that, and you can do it during a recession, then you can certainly survive into the future, so I’m optimistic”.[5]

Notwithstanding the innovation it attributed to these practices, this edition of The Culture Show set up a predictable scenario: fabulous success (accolades awarded to high-profile architects) and lamentable failure (the ‘carbuncles’) as ingredients of a competitive culture pushing the desirability of private property ownership and DIY (the example of ‘non architects’-turned-home-builders).  And around the edges of this world of somewhat more established security were young architects, joining a host of other artists and cultural workers in their experimental use of ‘found’ materials.  Their work was not represented as motivated by aspirations to achieve the stature of figures like Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid, also featured in the programme.  But it was without question shown to be fuelled by a desire for freedom and a love of work in the arts and the ‘creative industries’ – a passion.

This cultural commonplace was the prompt for The Passion Industries, a day-long symposium staged at Birkbeck College, University of London in June 2012.  In organising this event, we wanted to examine some of the historical bases of the narrative of work in the arts as ‘passion’, and the conditions in which people are able, and often required, to pursue such work now.  It departed from the premise that becoming a cultural worker appears to offer an existence of relative freedom and autonomy, but that such freedom is frequently achieved at the price of conditions of deep economic insecurity and unpredictability.  The event joined a debate in which there are already many participants, from grassroots organizers to journalists, artists and scholars, whose work demonstrates the systemic aspects of (self)-reliance on free or unpaid labour.  Describing the slog of working in the ‘creative industries’ - as New Labour re-branded the cultural sector[6] – in terms of ‘passion’ is ubiquitous to the point of commonsense.  For what could be more natural than thinking about work, which offers little in the way of financial reward, and is prompted in the first instance by love, as a passion – an enthusiasm, a fascination, an obsession?  The speakers examined a number of ways in which a reliance on a ‘passion’ for work is sustained, looking in particular at the interplay between emotional commitment, industrial practice and ‘productivity’.  Broderick Chow discussed the affinity between forms of twentieth century actor training requiring such commitments, and the emergence of the ‘science’ of management in the same period.  Elyssa Livergant explored the forms of social relations and practice established in the theatre workshop (an exploratory forum for the creation of new work) and the uses of the workshop in twenty-first century freelance artist development.  And, attending to a troubling and seldom addressed aspect of arts practice, Anne-Marie Quigg presented her findings regarding the high incidence of bullying in the arts, and the all-too-frequent deployment of the label ‘artist’ as an excuse for intimidation and harassment in the workplace.

And, as the presentations and experiences shared at The Passion Industries confirmed, careers in the arts are often out of bounds to those who cannot afford to carry out the numerous unpaid internships that mark the precarious passage to employment, including access to networks of contacts.  Kim Allen and Jocey Quinn presented their research into issues of ‘exclusion’, ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ in higher education work placements in the ‘creative industries’.  They asked: how does a person’s gender, ‘race’ and class identity affect their capacity to negotiate institutional circumstances as a student, even before entering an industry in which temporary contracts or freelance work are prevalent?  The projects featured on The Culture Show, for example, were substantial (if low-budget) initiatives, involving many partners, sponsors and resources.  The show did not offer any insight into how their graduate creators were able to assemble them, thus covering over the question of who is positioned to intervene ‘creatively’ into the cityscape, in their ‘free time’ or otherwise.  (A brief side-note on the use of leisure time for work: The Passion Industries symposium, which attracted no charge, had a waiting list days in advance, but on the day itself, an unexpectedly sunny Saturday, a number of those prospective attenders reassuringly chose to claim their weekend.)

In that sense, The Passion Industries raised the matter of ‘self-exploitation’.  There is something inspiring about people just getting on with it, experimenting with their chosen practices and working collectively to make stuff and have fun in the process.  This becomes a problem, however, when passionate acts of creativity are exploited as free labour from which other (paid) people benefit, and when those acts, pursued in a person’s spare time, become a strategic CV-building exercise, and a presumed, informal, and thus mysterious pre-requisite for entry into employment.  And what happens when your passion becomes your profession?  How long does it take for passion to drain away, when, for example, self-organised, mutually beneficial acts become compromised responses to a client’s brief?

The Passion Industries reflected on these issues, and in particular our collective complicity as teachers, students, graduates and arts workers in perpetuating some of these conditions.  The ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘normal rules’ from which autonomous artistic practice supposedly offers escape are institutional realities that many of us have to negotiate in order to survive.  We were left with the questions: what kind of work in the arts is education promising?  How do we acknowledge and challenge constraints of class and institution, and abusive behaviour within ‘creative’ contexts?  What methods can we share to address the conditions of work across these sectors?

The Passion Industries was a free workshop for students, teachers, researchers and cultural workers on Saturday 23 June 2012, 10-5pm. The event was organised by Sophie Hope (Department of Media and Cultural Studies) and Louise Owen (Department of English and Humanities), Birkbeck College with support from the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre.

Speakers: 

Broderick Chow discussed the links between the professionalisation of actor training, systems of actor training, and practices of 'self-management' in workplaces within and outside the theatre industry.

Elyssa Livergant considered play and friendship as crucial to the functioning of performance labour markets, focusing in particular on the example of peer-to-peer professional development opportunities.

Anne-Marie Quigg presented the findings from her research into bullying in the arts and practical aspects of dealing with bullying in the work place.

Kim Allen and Jocey Quinn discussed their research into issues of exclusion, equality and diversity in higher education work placements in the creative and cultural industries.

 

For more information go to:

http://passionindustries.tumblr.com/

or contact:

s.hope@bbk.ac.uk

l.owen@bbk.ac.uk


[1] BBC, The Culture Show, Episode 13 (2012-13), 10 October 2012.  Available until 17/10/12 at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01nbry3/The_Culture_Show_2012_2013_Episode_13/> [accessed11 October 2012]

[2] BBC, The Culture Show.

[3] BBC, The Culture Show.

[4] BBC, The Culture Show.

[5] BBC, The Culture Show.

[6] Nicholas Garnham, ‘From cultural to creative industries: an analysis of the “creative industries” approach to arts and media policy making in the United Kingdom’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 11, 1 (2005): 15-29 (p. 15).

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First published: 21 January, 2013

Category: Activism, Culture, Economy, Education, Employment & Welfare, Labour movement

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