Matthew Braga explores prosperity and precarity for the artists and cultural workers whose true value will never be measured in dollars.
The Digital Economies Reader builds on the Digital Economies Lab, a year-long exploration of the wonders and anguish of making art and culture in the twenty-first century organized by Ottawa’s Artengine.
Artengine is an Ottawa-based artist-run centre that brings together artists, designers, technologists and researchers to explore the social impacts of emerging technologies through collaborative learning and production.
The Digital Economies Lab (DEL) is a year-long exploration of the wonders and anguish of making art and culture in the twenty-first century. Drawing on in-depth research, dialogue with experts, engagement with the public and media arts professionals, DEL’s residents are producing prototypes and proposals for increasing sustainability and resilience in the creative sector.
© 2020 HOLO
“Artists who lose the lottery for grants, residencies, and corporate patronage work second and third jobs to subsidize their much less lucrative art. It often feels like the only people who can afford to make art at all are the people who don’t need money at all.”
When will I feel like I’ve finally made it? It’s something I think about a lot as a writer trying to make a living off my work. There are the critical markers of success, like writing stories that have an impact, are widely read, or appear in prestigious publications. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve truly made it until I’m no longer worrying about precarity—until I feel like I’m fairly, properly, and promptly compensated for my work.
I know I’m not alone! Musicians get paid mere fractions of a cent for every stream of their songs and have to relentlessly tour and sell merch to get by. Disney is eating the film world, at the expense of independent and experimental film. The diverse, affordable, working-class neighbourhoods where artists once lived and worked—painting, sculpting, constructing, showing—are now luxury condos and high-end boutiques. Artists who lose the lottery for grants, residencies, and corporate patronage work second and third jobs to subsidize their much less lucrative art. It often feels like the only people who can afford to make art at all are the people who don’t need money at all.
Add a global pandemic to the mix, and things aren’t looking great right now for people who want to make a living making art. What will it take to help artists prosper? Is there a way forward outside capitalism? Can we—or should we—still rely on government funding, or corporate support? No one knows! Not yet. But as terrifying as that may be, there’s also excitement in the unknown, because it means we have an opportunity to conjure new, experimental, hopefully better futures into existence to replace what exists now.
“With the Digital Economies Reader we’ll be publishing short interviews with the artists involved, more information about their projects, links to stories and resources you might find interesting, and some of my own thoughts on trying to make a living as a writer.”
In January, I joined a group of artists who descended upon Ottawa to imagine what some of these futures might look like—futures more equitable and sustainable, where artmaking is more broadly valued, and where it’s possible to make a living making art. Some proposed an artists’ union that could push for better working conditions and support by leveraging the collective strength of artists across disciplines, a collective too large to ignore. Others advocated for ways to make resources, funding, knowledge, and skills more widely available and accessible—especially among artists with children, marginalized artists, and artists of colour, who often lack the same privileges, opportunities, and benefits available to their white, cisgender, heterosexual colleagues. Clearly, the business models and financial supports that have funded artmaking for decades aren’t working, or aren’t working equally, if they ever worked at all, and the artists at this workshop were eager to come up with something new—such that anyone who wants to be an artist, who wants to make art, can feel welcome, supported, and secure. The meeting, organized by the Ottawa collective Artengine, marked the start of a year-long exploration: the Digital Economies Lab (DEL).
Over the coming months, the DEL’s artists will present some of their ideas to the wider artistic community for feedback, insight and support. With the Digital Economies Reader we’ll be publishing short interviews with the artists involved, more information about their projects, links to stories and resources you might find interesting, and some of my own thoughts on trying to make a living as a writer. Running themes will include: how automation, AI, and tech-assisted tools are changing the way artists work; how universal basic income and other forms of government support might alleviate the feeling of precarity; the impact of corporate funding on who gets to make art, and the kinds of art that gets made; and why art-making isn’t valued the same as other types of work. I hope you’ll come away with a greater appreciation of the uncertainty and precarity facing today’s working artists—and optimism that things can change.
“When tales of artist struggle are rooted in the experience of individual artists or bands, the public response is often to push back and discredit, to find fault in the story or suggest the individual is not a credible spokesperson for the problem he or she is articulating…. It’s not a matter of dredging up a more appropriate poster child for the starving-artist cause. If we want to improve the lot of artists, we need to shift gears from a woe-is-the artist conversation to one about the importance of art and the need to support the creation of art at the societal level.”
“The Digital Economies Lab exists because the world was broken even before the pandemic. The motivation for bringing the Lab into being was really trying to find new models and new ways for artists to find the life of an artist to be sustainable.”
Ryan Stec and Remco Volmer are the Artistic and Managing Directors of Artenngine, an Ottawa-based non-profit center for art and technology and initiators of the Digital Economies Lab (DEL). Ryan is an artist, producer and designer working in both research and production, and a PhD candidate at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, Carleton University. Remco is a researcher, producer and collaborator; a graduate of Utrecht University of Art’s Creative Media program, his practice is focused on technologically mediated collective experiences.
“It’s like a very long marathon that we’re running, but we need to shift the world from right-place, right-time privilege to, ‘if you work and you are passionate, you get access and you can achieve success,’ right?”
Jeremy Bailey is a Toronto-based self-proclaimed “Famous New Media Artist” and Head of Experience at FreshBooks. Bailey believes that technology done right empowers us all to be famous, and he has taken that positivity and channeled into the Lean Artist program, a project he initiated to catalyze artistic imagination by drawing on strategies and models from the startup world. Along with Jen Hunter, Jeremy served on the DEL steering committee, and helped shape the program undertaken by its residents.
“If there’s one good thing to come out of this year’s global pandemic, it’s that a lot of people are suddenly talking about universal basic income. What was once a relatively fringe concept is now very much mainstream.”
As a short-term measure, governments have been putting money into people’s pocket (in Canada, for example, more than 8 million people have applied to receive $2,000 each month through the CERB program). The schemes haven’t always been perfect, but they’ve offered a lifeline for many—especially precarious workers, freelancers, artists, and creative types, for whom steady, well-paying work is elusive at the best of times. It’s not hard to imagine what life might be like if governments did this all the time.
If there’s one good thing to come out of this year’s global pandemic, it’s that a lot of people are suddenly talking about universal basic income (UBI). What was once a relatively fringe concept is now very much mainstream. Is it any surprise people are looking for new means of support? The pandemic has upended our jobs, our social circles, the niceties of daily life. Everyone knows someone who’s been laid off, or who’s struggled to find work. Maybe that someone is you. It’s clearer than ever that the support systems so many people rely on to make a living are far more fragile than they appear.
At the same time, we’ve been witnessing social unrest on a scale not witnessed in years. People across America and other parts of the world have turned outrage over the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota cop into widespread protests against police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism. The possibility of defunding and abolishing the police has taken hold like never before. If you want to talk about how we fund a guaranteed income for all—along with access to housing and mental health support—the disproportionate amount of money cities spend on police is a pretty good place to start. For people who spend their lives making art, UBI has an important advantage over the traditional supports of residencies, patrons, philanthropies, and grants. Adopting UBI doesn’t just benefit artists. It could lift everyone out of poverty. Everyone wins.
“A guaranteed income could help level the playing field for Black and Indigenous artists, whose practices are often overlooked and ignored by white-run institutions and funders.”
A guaranteed income could decouple the necessities required to live—food, housing, healthcare—from the work that artists do to make a living, much of it entirely unrelated to the work of artmaking itself. Artists could make art without—or in opposition to—the pressures of the market, without worrying about what will sell or appeal to donors, grantmakers, gallery owners and brands. It could help level the playing field for Black and Indigenous artists, whose practices are often overlooked and ignored by white-run institutions and funders. And as much as it feels like artmaking has never looked so precarious, it also feels like there’s never been a better moment to push for new supports and safety nets that not only help us recover, but set us up to thrive.
“The institutions that have undergirded the existing system are contracting or disintegrating. Professors are becoming adjuncts. Employees are becoming independent contractors (or unpaid interns). Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.”
“I think a lot of artists have this problem—the constant switching between a wealth of admin work, survival work, activist work, creative work and homework. It’s not the biggest problem we have, but it is definitely an annoying one that is also very much woven into people’s socioeconomic status.”
SWINTAK is an interdisciplinary artist, educator and context-maker based in Montreal. Her past projects often involve large-scale installations built onsite and somehow integrated with the surrounding context. Examples include moving an entire house by hand without the aid of machinery, constructing the most banal roller coaster ever made, and attempting to give a shed consciousness.
“Whenever it is possible, I try to make space by having computer and phone free times. Sure, I might be hard to reach, but most things can wait. Having the time to percolate is so easily overlooked, yet it has such great value.”
Karen Barad Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007)
“As industries across the board line up for bailouts, it is time to assert culture as an essential industry and map out a role for the arts that would have seemed unimaginable weeks ago. A new Federal Art Project probably wouldn’t be devoted to mural painting, but it could offer an alternative to a flailing market and channel artworks into public collections. Museums, now supported through tax-deductible donations, could receive more direct public funding in exchange for offering free admission. Private markets and philanthropy will be changed on the other side of this pandemic, so it is time once again to envision what art looks like as a public good.”
DEL Pitch: An Anti-Airbnb Experience
“Our project looks at the way artists have changed radically over the last couple of decades while funding and distribution has remained the same, but by taking a different approach or ideology. We are looking at a system that provides expression to be at the frontier—elements of randomness—and take away from the super-curated feelings that run today’s world.”
The perception of an artist is one that is weird when dissected. People often overlook the arts when these are experts in their own craft, and a lot of people have daily interactions with a creative output. Our project looks at the way artists have changed radically over the last couple of decades while funding and distribution has remained the same, but by taking a different approach or ideology. We are looking at a system that provides expression to be at the frontier—elements of randomness—and take away from the super-curated feelings that run today’s world. This ensures that a multitude of artists, curators, and other engagements in the arts can be more natural. By providing everything from knowledge circles to “anti-Airbnb” experiences that derive from random encounters, we hope to stimulate conversation and ideas on how artists can work in the future.
Kofi Oduro & SWINTAK
01 – Reference
Roughness, randomness, the uncurated: these aren’t bad things as inspiration can be drawn from anything. Art doesn’t need to be inspired from the same artists, the same ideologies, or even the same region. It can be mustered from the simplest of sources—like the way your bed squeaks at night, the way your water faucet still drips, no matter how tightly you turn the knob. This is what this image represents: the notion that there is more than one way to appreciate art, and that maybe that is the approach funding and distribution should take.
02 – Collaboration
Even during uncertain times there are rays of light and brightness, as long as we look at what is right and guided.
03 – Preview
The ideas are there, they are brimming. We have what we want to do, we’ve tested it out in small settings and have asked questions. But even with work, it is still in the prototyping stage; hence an incomplete planet. At the same time, with the brightness of the image, we believe in the idea and what it stands for. Potentially, it can be used to achieve long term goals, case studies and other factors. Ideas are only a small gesture, but a small gesture can make sparks.
“When will audiences return to live events and cultural institutions? And with limits on crowd sizes, how can anybody budget for a venue they can only fill to one-third capacity? Maybe digital alternatives will replace the live arts, but will people pay for the virtual experiences they’re currently enjoying for free? As arts leaders debate these questions, a picture is emerging in which the micro and the local are as likely to succeed as the grandiose and the institutional, and the virtual will flesh out the actual. The economics, however, remain murky.”
“Back in the day, you found an artist randomly, watching MuchMusic, or MTV, or on the radio. Since we’re not engaging with these formats, and everything is curated for us, it’s hard for some artists to get discoverability.”
Kofi Oduro’s artistic practice is an observation of the world around us, which he then inserts into artwork for others to relate to or disagree with. Through videography, poetry and creative coding, he tries to highlight the realms of human performance and the human mind in different scenarios. These situations can be described as social, internal, or even biological, which we face in our everyday lives.
“I hope that in the longer-term UBI would allow for the blurring of art and life, allowing us to approach problems in more creative ways and reconstruct society to address systemic issues. This would not mean that everyone would suddenly become artists, but art would lose the elitism attached to it. Giving more people access to making art or having creative outlets, would foster a wider appreciation for the benefits of art and what it can be (not just painting and sculpture). This would also help to challenge what is understood as culture and flatten the hierarchies of high and low culture. Going to watch football and having a drink in the pub is culture and just as valuable as a trip to an art gallery or museum.”
DEL Pitch: Artists as ‘Alternative Consultants’
“After a big storm or fire, fungi and bacteria move in and liberate resources from the destruction so that new growth might emerge. Following COVID, how might artists and other creators be recruited into the process of decomposing the debris following the pandemic and quarantine to support new models to emerge?”
COVID-19 is revealing the fractures in the systems intended to support us. We will see considerable institutional failure in the coming months and years. After a big storm or fire, fungi and bacteria move in and liberate resources from the destruction so that new growth might emerge. Following COVID, how might artists and other creators be recruited into the process of decomposing the debris following the pandemic and quarantine to support new models to emerge? Networks of cultural production differ in form and intention from media, manufacturing, supply, and other global systems. However, by superimposing creators and their structures of production onto other systems experiencing stress and collapse new sources of value can emerge, be synthesized, and support a new cycle of emergence. One job of the artist is to see the world. By imagining artists as ‘alternative consultants’ other sectors can better see the aftermath of the pandemic on their traditional activities and imagine paths forward outside of habitual and often ossified routines.
01 – Reference
The phrase “stop watering dead plants” serves as a reminder and a gesture toward grieving in the work. Decay is not immoral. Regeneration requires loss.
02 – Collaboration
This work is being expanded through New Not Normal, a crowd-sourced emotional map of responses to COVID-19.
03 – Preview
Working with a company in Halifax we have secured our first opportunity to practice this approach in an authentic setting.
“The alternative consultant is in there to examine unexamined sources of value. And value not necessarily in an economic sense. There are raw materials present in organizations with a long history that are likely not seen. But there are absolutely routines that become ossified over time that also need interrupting.”
Jerrold McGrath explores how culture can play a more active role in complex systems challenges such as economic inequality, climate change, decolonization, and artificial intelligence. Following several years as a cultural consultant in the Japanese automotive industry, he served as the director of innovation at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, program director at Artscape Launchpad and continues to work with organizations and projects that span sectors and geographies.
“I have my consultancy, and to be honest, I’m sick of it. I shudder every time I say the word consultant, and so the opportunity to sort of play around with that, to turn my own dying consultancy into that is really exciting to me.”
David Cayley & Charles Taylor The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (2005)
“Although some institutions have introduced diversity initiatives, progress seems slow and tied up to arts funding structures that are temporary and one directional—ultimately serving the institutions rather than the ethnic minorities they seek to engage. Organisations may gain funding by appealing to funders’ diversity agendas, but their engagement with ethnic minority communities and artists is rarely sustainable or lasting, leaving creatives feeling exploited and perhaps further marginalised.”
“In 2018, Christie’s auctioned its first piece of AI-generated art—a vaguely eighteenth century-looking portrait—which, according to The Verge, was created with ‘borrowed code’ and wrapped in an alluring but ultimately misleading narrative of a self-determined computer creating art.”
I’ve been watching an increasing number of artists experiment with machine learning in all kinds of interesting ways. The writer Robin Sloan has been writing a novel with suggestions from an algorithm trained on old sci-fi and fantasy novels—a word here, a phrase there, curated fragments plucked from the ether, generated based on what Sloan has written so far. The musician Holly Herndon created her most recent album using musical contributions from a machine learning algorithm trained on a choir of Herndon and her collaborators, resulting in a haunting digital feedback loop that resembles their voices but is a performer all its own. And for days, earlier this Spring, I couldn’t stop thinking about the work of artist Cyril Diagne: a prototype of an app that functioned, essentially, as a copy-paste button for the physical world. Diagne took a picture of a dress on a wall, pointed their phone at a laptop, and the dress magically, almost immediately, lept to the digital canvas on the laptop’s screen.
But there are other experiments that give me pause. OpenAI recently introduced Jukebox, a machine learning algorithm that generates new songs in the style of popular artists—from the Pet Shop Boys to Nicki Minaj—after being trained on libraries of their music (there are some unnerving examples, but a lot of bad ones as well). A musician and machine learning developer offered a thoughtfully detailed critique. In 2018, Christie’s auctioned its first piece of AI-generated art—a vaguely eighteenth century-looking portrait—which, according to The Verge, was created with “borrowed code” and wrapped in an alluring but ultimately misleading narrative of a self-determined computer creating art. The ethically fraught world of deep fakes looms large, and work that incorporates image and facial recognition algorithms—and all their inherent biases towards race and gender, embedded by those who trained them—have so far presented the biggest concerns of them all.
“It’s tempting to think algorithms and automation could help level the playing field in a world that is already uneven … freeing overworked and underpaid artists to pursue the aspects of their art that are most enjoyable, creative, or personally fulfilling.”
Creatively, there’s an abundance of potential uses. But that doesn’t mean moral or ethical considerations can be ignored. I know that it won’t be long before machine learning algorithms enter the realm of the mundane, and are just another tool in the toolbox to help artists create more quickly, effectively, efficiently than performing the dull or repetitive tasks we could scarcely imagine automating before. It’s tempting to think this could help level the playing field in a world that is already uneven, especially when you have artists competing against other, more privileged artists with more money, more time, more comfortable living situations—freeing overworked and underpaid artists to pursue the aspects of their art that are most enjoyable, creative, or personally fulfilling. But at the same time, I think we have to be skeptical of the way these tools might be used to devalue artists, or exploit others.
It’s encouraging to see how both Sloan and Herndon have tried to account for this—Sloan, by acting as a curator and interpreter of the algorithm’s output, and Herndon, by only feeding the algorithm data derived from consenting collaborators. If these tools are to be part of the discussion around artist prosperity, artists can’t lose sight of the fact that the tech companies and communities that develop these tools have different imperatives than artists do. The way artists use them should be different, too.
“I still dream of making enough money from selling a novel every two or three years to not have to do anything else, but looking at the publishing market that’d involve me having to produce such mediocre work that it’d make the whole venture completely pointless.”
Tim Maughan is an author and journalist using both fiction and non-fiction to explore issues around cities, class, culture, technology, and the future. His work regularly appears on the BBC, New Scientist, and Vice/Motherboard. His debut novel INFINITE DETAIL was published by FSG in 2019 and was picked by The Guardian as the best science fiction and fantasy book of the year.
Astra Taylor “Against Activism” (Mar 2016)