For All Its Faults: conceptualising an unionised arts movement and the privilege of choice

– Timmah Ball

In a light filled Victorian shopfront in South Melbourne a group of artists and allies initiated by Nina Ross and Stephen Palmer meet to workshop the possibilities of unionising an industry riddled with exploitation. I’ve never been to the Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW) despite having lived south of the river and worked for south-eastern councils in community arts roles, which reveals the way Melbourne’s art ecology explicitly orientates itself to the inner north and west. These geographies become important in the context of housing and wage insecurity, a topic that emerges quickly as the group begins to discuss the possibilities of new ways of practising. 

Without focusing on the tension of gentrification on stolen land (as it is only reasonable to acknowledge that addressing land rights, property laws and reparations are more urgent than the needs of non-Indigenous artists or as poet Evelyn Araluen writes ‘Maybe one day we might have money enough to push my people out of Redfern or Waterloo. Maybe if we become rich, we can buy stolen land on my Country) one of the most persistent challenges of maintaining an arts practice is low wages and increased rents. As another participant commented in cities like Berlin permanent rentals are accessible to artists who can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to make plans when you’re constantly moving. 

Artistic development is grounded in the permanency of home providing space to think, create and foster emotional and social stability through physical structure and familiarity. In Australian cities permanent living arrangements are increasingly inaccessible to white middle classes in professional vocations. For artists moving between share houses for short and unpredictable periods of time is normal. But as these experiences are disseminated in everything from media reports on millennial avocado indulgences to public panels on arts divestment the narrative of pushing creative types out of the inner city and into housing stress can also wear thin. The argument of locational displacement re: gentrification feels like an irresponsible position when evaluating other localities for home and creative practice is also possible. Sitting in the generous South Melbourne space, warm, flexible and large, the idea of de-centring arts infrastructure and neighbourhoods from the inner north and into other areas feels hopeful. 

South Melbourne is an expensive suburb only 2km from the city but it’s disconnection from the established hubs allows me to imagine what an arts industry dispersed across geographies could look and feel like. In places like Melbourne it’s difficult to attract people to the south as both practising artists and audiences, to suggest moving further to the outer suburbs and regional towns is ripe with contention. But as competition for housing, infrastructure, environmental conservation and open space intensifies I wonder how long we can debate the desire to live and work in densely populated inner urban areas. Would imagining an alternative be more realistic and productive? Is it something already beginning in places like Castlemaine and are these changes equally complicit within process of re-colonisation if emerging creative communities (predominately white) moving to these towns displace Aboriginal or newly arrived migrant residents already there? 

In 2017 I wrote an essay called Whose Land is it? which angrily untangled the voice of artists within Melbourne’s housing crisis whose concerns were centred on proximity to galleries, café’s and creative culture. I often question what the role of this mode of writing is and whether I’m unintentionally disenfranchising myself from a wider community that is also an ally. And beyond my caustic tone shouldn’t I be fighting for change in more meaningful ways, advocacy work, volunteering, abandoning writing completely in the pursuit of senior roles in urban planning and policy with decision-making powers? It’s hard to know whether any of us are ever doing the right thing when we’re living in a landscape of social and environmental uncertainty. As Nina hands me a falafel wrap during the lunch break she seems genuinely irritated when I mockingly refer to artists who talk about their work as somehow key to climate adaptation. People whose deep investment in their practice somehow supplants the context in which they’re living and working in, where the constant onslaught of innovative festivals and events disguises the realities of humanities moral and environmental demise. But as we also discuss whether art is anything other then risk, pain, indulgence, unpaid labour and exhaustion I’m reminded that I chose to be here, a choice that many don’t have. A choice, which increasingly feels more like a privilege. 

After writing the essay on housing I began re-tracing the issues to see if things were changing. In certain circumstances they were but a report from the Victorian Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Summit held on 5 April 2019 suggested otherwise. The summit also involved a workshop, which identified a range of issues and challenges, including:

 1. Racism in the private rental market is a pernicious factor undermining the housing aspirations of Aboriginal people in Victoria every day. 

2. Aboriginal organisations are excluded from state planning of the housing system. 

3. Many northern suburbs of Melbourne where Aboriginal people have a long-standing connection (Fitzroy, Preston, Northcote, Thornbury, Reservoir, Bundoora) have become unaffordable. 

4. Family members in social housing, not on the lease when the head tenant dies, often find themselves homeless.

I don’t feel that I can add anything meaningful to these well-documented facts, facts that resurface in a cycle of guilt, confusion, dread and disillusionment. Point 3 is the most obvious reminder that non-Indigenous artists are not the primary victims of gentrification. But it is difficult to know when access to safe, long-term, affordable housing for Aboriginal people will ever feel resolved in this city. 

It’s easy to become obsessed with these infinite concerns, when I’m reminded during lunch that I was engaged to reflect on this workshop as a paid writer at a NAVA approved rate. Conscious of avoiding the exploitation that we’re here to critique Nina and Stephen encourage me to write something in proportion to the rate of pay I’m receiving, $1 per word. I appreciate their generosity but am left wondering what I can say in 1,104 words, anxiously aware that every word that I write is worth a $1. I consider switching to poetry, utilising the sparseness of verse to expose the themes I want to address seems more economical.  

As I devise an approach I realise that I have 152 words left if I stick to the parameters of the paid agreement. It’s impossible to address the gravitas of these problems within the remunerable word count but these restrictions begin to resemble the frameworks of creative practice where resources are scarce, leaving the practitioner with the choice to either dilute their work in some way. Or deliver what they desire without being suitably compensated, leading to the primary issue rife within the industry ‘unpaid labour’ and the myriad of consequences, which follow, mental health, stress and burnout. As I write I’m unsure which direction I’ll choose, writing within the paid word limit feels like an opportunity to document or even politicise the need or aspiration for some sort of standard working wage for artists/creative/writers. But pushing deeper is also attractive, even if it bleeds into my personal time, which in other industries would be conceptualised as overtime and formally recorded in HR systems as time in lieu or double pay. 

It’s impossible to compare creative practice to other careers; if anything the sharp differences highlight the absurdity of framing the arts as a legitimate industry or career pathway. When I think of my experiences working in the built environment sector and friends in mainstream careers, 80k salaries that slide into six-figure packages are obtainable overtime. We occasionally talk of long hours and difficult work place politics, but these pressures permeate the arts industry with equal force, exasperated by the fundamental variance that artists are never appropriately renumerated (in certain circumstances not paid at all) for long hours and managing complex personal dynamics. But given the perverse and frightening direction that all industries under capitalism are moving towards is there value in considering art as something outside of the realm of conventional work? In the recent book Caceral Capitalism author Jackie Wang describes the nightmarish cycle of job insecurity and unlimited credit access rampant in the US. She writes ‘without a revolution or a social movement to overturn or counter the direction of the debt economy and techno-capitalism, we might be catapulted into a future where our lives are disciplined and determined by our dependency on credit.’ (2018). If art practice (excluding the commercial art market) already exists outside of industry could this be the vehicle or revolution to change the menacing impact of capitalism?  

Conceptualising art as a social movement, activism or critique is laden with elitism, naiveté, and exclusion triggering a suite of other problems, which are beyond the scope of an essay written under fair pay and working conditions. But as Chris Kraus writes in Where Art Belongs ‘for all its faults, the art world remains the last frontier for the desire to live differently.’ (2011) And she is right, for all its faults we continue because there is no other mode of work that enables us to live differently, to feel separate from the repetitive oppressive entrapment of mainstream work and life under capitalism. But as we begin to conceptualise change and even consider unionising for standard wages and reasonable working hours, how do we support those who are left behind in our desire to live differently.  

Timmah Ball is a non-fiction writer whose work is influenced by working across urban planning, zine making, and other creative forms. She grew up in Birrarung-ga /Melbourne but her heritage is Ballardong Noongar from Western Australia on her mother’s side. In 2016, she won the Westerly Magazine Patricia Hackett Prize and has written for a range of publications including Cordite, Un Magazine, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, The Griffith Review, Going Down Swinging and other anthologies.