On value, and values

by Mary Paterson

An ink illustration of Fortune: a winged female figure holding a ship’s wheel. At her feet is a sphere; behind her, a ship and a town.

This essay is part of ongoing reflections on value, culture and permissions that the founders of SO have been exploring in conversation and dialogue.

Something Other began as a research project funded by Arts Council England in 2014. At the time of writing the funding bid, I was entering a period of personal uncertainty that made the precarious life of a freelance arts worker seem even harder than normal. I wanted something to anchor myself to: some meanings and values that would make sense of the creative world I saw around me, and my relationship to it.

(Of course, I wasn’t alone in this endeavour. Maddy Costa and I were working together at this point, soon to be joined by Diana Damian Martin. However, these reflections on value and meaning are mine.)

I don’t know what I was hoping for. A career plan, perhaps? A model of sustainable and diverse income streams? A series of milestones on the route to professional status? Whatever it was, I didn’t find it.

The focus of the original research was:

1) to find ways to define the kind of writing we were interested in – this practice that a collection of writers and artists were doing, could recognise, but could not name;

2) to find ways to collaborate with creative technologists to present this writing in experimental and exciting ways online; and

3) to find ways to make this writing a financially sustainable practice.

But SO has not found ‘solutions’ to any of these ‘problems’. Instead, what the process of SO began to teach me, and what I continue to learn, is that the value I find in writing is not the same as the values codified in structures that define, platform or monetise writing.

This essay is an attempt to think through what that means.

(Against) Definitions

At first, SO held a series of conversations with writers, artists, venues, and organisations to try to create a name for what we wanted to do. We weren’t inventing anything, but seeking to recognise what we had already been doing, and other people had been doing, for quite some time.

As we talked and gathered and gathered and talked, we realised that most people felt that defining ‘this kind of writing’ would be a form of limitation. To name something is to control it, to confine it and, in many cases, to own it. Perhaps what we are doing does not have a name because it is uncontrolled, unconfined, and unowned. Perhaps we are drawn to it precisely because it is uncontrollable, unconfinable, and unownable. It is not a product. It is not an end result. It is a process, and its value lies in the fact that it cannot be described in advance.

This was a joyous revelation, and led directly to the formation of the Writers Gatherings: semi-regular groups for writers to come together and talk about ideas, with no need for definitions or productivity.

(Against) Commercial Models

As we continued our research, we also realised that there is no attractive (to us) commercial model for what we want to do.

There are models of course – for example, there are models of cultural reviewing and cultural journalism that pay writers, and there are models of literary journals that pay the people who run them. But none of these generates a truly sustainable income for a writer. More importantly – all of them invoke a hierarchy of meaning that relies on outside forces like ticket sales, advertisers, or cultural gatekeepers.

While everyone has to interact with these hierarchies at various times, we did not want to use SO to reproduce them. We began to think that the ‘sustainable model’ we were looking for was part of the problem. How can we foster a sustainable financial model within a financial system that we don’t want to sustain?

(Against) Public Funding

There is another route for artists’ financial sustainability in the UK: to seek funding from trusts, foundations and the four permutations of the Arts Council to support individual projects, either directly or via commissions from organisations that make money this way. This type of funding is also a form of cultural gatekeeping, albeit with relatively transparent processes. Over the past 15 years in the UK these sources of funding have been negatively affected by a storm of factors including the 2008 financial crash, the Conservative government’s reign since 2010, and the impact of Brexit on links to international cultural networks. As the amount of money declines, the pressure on artists increases. We must compete with our friends and colleagues for scant resources, and we must measure the impact of our work according to centralised definitions of value.

In this cultural economy, ‘value’ needs to be measured in a countable way. There are good reasons for this – namely, accountability – but difficult consequences. Countable things include money, numbers of people, and numbers of products or things produced. Countable things can also be the scores that audience members (or students, or participants) give to an experience on a scale of 0 to 10, or 0 to 5, or 0 to anything. Crucially, all definitions of value must have a definition of the value-less – the nothing, the no-good, the zero. Research-based, speculative or unconfinable processes are difficult to account for in these terms.

More pertinent to SO’s original ACE application, we could not afford to pay creative technologists through these funding routes. Their fees were too high for the funding available, and, unlike artists, they had not internalised the expectation that they should work for free, or that they were lucky to work in this field, or that the dogged pursuit of their skills and experience was a personal indulgence. The difficult fit we had with this culture of arts funding, in other words, became even more obvious when we tried to collaborate outside the arts sector.

Precarity, Permissions, Privilege

In short, I realised that we cannot foster a sustainable model for our writing practice within a financial system we don’t want to sustain, and we cannot remould our work to fit a financial system that has other priorities. What, then, is left for us to do?

There are two options available. The first is to leverage other people’s languages of value in order to make some money while trying to resist the imperatives of the organisations that are giving it to us, and to whom we have to prove our worth. This is a situation familiar to everyone who has a job. The second is to opt out of the languages of value altogether, or to invent our own. The freedom of this second option is heavily dependent on other privileges – on having other forms of income, and a surplus of what is colloquially known as ‘spare time’.

Since that initial research grant ran out, we have been funding SO through a mixture of these two approaches, depending on what is possible for the three of us and our collaborators at any one time. Sometimes we are commissioned or funded to do a specific piece of work, and this enables us to carve out time from our other commitments. Mostly, we use our paying jobs to subsidise the time we spend on SO.

It is extremely awkward to be in this position.

It is awkward to have to bend your ideas to the language of people who need to measure art in countable ways. (For this reason, we only apply for funding when we think we can genuinely do what the funders are looking for, and we do not create projects simply in response to funders’ priorities.)

It is also awkward to explain to people that we have no money.

No money to pay writers.

No money to pay for a venue.

No money to pay ourselves, even for the time we dedicate to generating money.

This is awkward because we have to ask people to do things for free, and it is also awkward also because our culture aligns money with value. When we don’t have any money, it feels like we don’t have any value. Perhaps we are just hobbyists. Perhaps we are just egoists. Perhaps we are just people with too much privilege and too much time on our hands. A third option raises its unfriendly head: why not give up altogether?

Where do these critical voices come from?

They come from the thrum of the wider culture, which pretends that being in demand from capitalism is more important than being in conversation with life. They come from a capitalist system that is deliberately and strategically silent about the relationships between money and possibility – including a cultural sector that relies on individual privilege to keep wages low and funding scant and competitive.

This individual privilege is naturalised through silence and shame. Individuals are heavily encouraged not to mention the financial or social privileges they have received, whether as intentional as a private school education or as casual as a good word from a friend, whether as inescapable as skin colour or as contingent as a salaried job. Individuals are encouraged to stay silent, as if their situation is unusual, as if they are the only ones to benefit from inequities, as if the whole system is in fact fair and they are the only individual who has fallen through the cracks of its rigour.

But the system is not fair.

Structural differences marked in terms of race, class, age, gender, family background, disability, and location structure the cultural sector, just as they structure the whole of the UK, and are indeed the structuring principles of capitalism. So why should we feel shame that the value of our work as SO is not linked to money? Why should we feel shame that the things we value about SO cannot be easily counted in capitalist systems? Why should we be embarrassed that we have decided to pool the resources that our privileges afford us, to do something that we find meaningful and creative and ripe with value?

We start to think like this and we are buoyed with optimism! We are bursting with ideas and opportunities! There are conversations to be had, curiosities to be pursued, questions to be asked – an infinite, generative resource of thinking and sharing, with no output, no end point, no limits!

But then another problem, the biggest problem, arrives.

Hopes and Dreams

The biggest problem we face in terms of SO, its value and its sustainability, is that the rate of our ideas and our excitement far outstrips our capacities in terms of time or money. Things move more slowly than we like. We wonder what it is all for. We wonder if we are the right people to be doing this. We are overwhelmed by the rest of our lives, and we become cynical about our talents and abilities.

And yet, and yet, and yet ….

And yet, we move away from SO into other circles and we come back together and we realise that SO is the space, the idea, the proposition that we have been searching for. People tell us that SO is a space (an idea, a proposition) that they want to return to, or be a part of. We reflect on the work that we have read, watched, listened to as part of SO and we feel proud and grateful. We remember the conversations we have had as part of SO, the relationships that have been nurtured, the ideas that have been explored, and we feel energised and invigorated.

We think about the things we value – collaborating, listening, thinking, experimenting – and all the indescribable things that are generated in their midst.

And so we return, aware of our privileges and our shortcomings, aware of our pressures and our problems. We return to the doing and the making and the thinking and the feeling. We return to our own epiphanies and compromises of value, our undefined processes, our uncontrollable ideas, our wild and evolving selves and things and others.

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