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A new exhibition in Birkenhead will display the visual art work of a range of established musicians and their wider creative endeavours. Ahead of its opening, Cath Holland speaks to an array of artists including Cerys Matthews, Richard Dawson, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables to question where the lines sit between passion, creativity and work.
At the beginning of lockdown number one, over a year ago now, it was universally expected musicians, poets, DJs, artists of all kinds get themselves on Facebook Live sharpish and entertain the masses. For free, or raise money for charity, fall into line, dance and play for us. Online performances from bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms with admittedly great acoustics were a halfway house of a live show, self-consciously awkward and frustrating on both sides, from a lack of being bodily in the present.
The pop star allure dims in such a hostage video set-up, and furlough concerts were never going to discover the next big thing. Nevertheless, we expect another Sandi Thom PR story at some point soon.
The demand and expectation for free entertainment lead, in part anyway, to the furore from creatives over the unviable and unprofitable jobs message put out by the government in the autumn. The inference that creativity not churning out fat profits isn’t worth preserving, bruised us. And yet, we’ve chewed over the issues around streaming rates for a good while, and the art vs commerce debate has rumbled on since forever. The perception and respect for the role and value of artists of all disciplines has shifted as barriers between them and their audience gradually broke down. The democratisation effect of punk must have felt a bloody great idea at the time 40 plus years ago, but the rot of why pay for something when you can get it for free is a direct descendent.
The belief that creating pretty, wonderful, amusing and enjoyable things is not work because the product is agreeable or entertaining, is ingrained. It’s not framed as work the same way conventional occupations are, and definitely not hard work, the ultimate praise and flattery for grafters. No one comes home from a day’s nine to five and announces what an easy doss of a day they’ve had at the office. It wasn’t a good look during austerity, and not while parents home schooled during lockdown, others worrying if they would have jobs to go back to or struggled on Universal Credit.
Cate le Bon – Reward Chair
But when does something become work? At what point does it become invoice-worthy? It’s a question sparked by a new exhibition at Future Yard, Birkenhead, which showcases the wider artistic endeavours of established musicians.
“It becomes work when other people get involved and need stuff off you, maybe,” says Paris-based Kate Stables, of This Is The Kit. She adds after a pause, “Or is it?” Kate quotes pop art nun Corita Kent’s famous rules from half a century ago, that you have to do everything as well as you can and the only rule is make or work. But the world has moved on – or back, depending on how we view things. In the Sister’s day an artist, especially a musician, didn’t have to justify building an economy for themselves quite as much. Partly because of the music industry’s alarming business model working for the benefit of a tiny top per cent, but also the belief system that creativity is not work and doesn’t need to be paid for.
Wearer of many hats from BBC Radio 6 Music presenter to musician to spoken word advocate, Cerys Mathews has composed the music for We Come From The Sun, an album of poetry by emerging UK poets which was released in February. She challenges the notion of creativity as an easy option. She enjoys the process and result of her own lyric writing, for example, but stresses the work and effort involved in making it how she wants it.
“I enjoy the challenge, I don’t find it easy, but I don’t think anybody finds that easy,” she says.
And by anybody, she includes members of the canon and those we view through the historical genius lens.
“Everyone used to say about Dylan Thomas, ‘He turns on the tap and it flows out of him’ and he’d be fuming, saying, ‘I really work for hours and hours and days and days, months and months on that and I’m not like a tap, I’m more like a carpenter chiseling away at a piece of wood making sculpture out of wood, you know’. But what it is with great poets like Dylan Thomas, they make it seem effortless. The idea is you practice so much that on occasion the variables line up and it can come to you, but, as Charlie Parker said, you’ve just got to practice, practice, practice and then when you’re on stage let it rip.”
Holysseus Fly – Self Portrait
And although musician Richard Dawson admits himself feeling “grateful” to gain success in his field of music he believes, like Cerys, because the process of creating an art form is not evident, it adds to the belief that it does not require work.
“You don’t see the workings of it the way you see the workings of other jobs. It probably looks easier, and the idea of it is a lot nicer than the reality.”
Other areas of the job – because that’s what it is – take effort as well. Richard says about not always realising how much it takes to put yourself out there, for public consumption. There has to be an element of steeling oneself for the response?
“Especially over the last few years, where the atmosphere with social media and everything is a lot more cynical. There’s more nastiness and it’s more acceptable to be critical of people and shoot people down. Actually, you’re giving up quite a lot by doing some sort of performance job-based work.”
Kate and Richard are both contributors to the Super Cool Drawing Machine exhibition stopping off at Future Yard, and have given pieces of art they make, away from music. Although Richard’s collage artwork is no secret – he uses it as part of his album cover art and has had pieces exhibited in galleries and bookshops – art is not what he is known for. Music is his main creative output, but the processes of both are, to him, similar.
“It all feels like the same stuff, whether it is something you’ve made out of paper or paint or that you’ve make out of the air or strung a bunch of words together. It’s all problem solving – you get a raw lump of material and you’ve just got to chip away at it. So, the early stages of a song or the early stages of a collage tend to come quite fast and then it’s the refinement process that is the slow bit; the closer you get to the finish line the slower it gets.”
Elliot Hutchinson has three roles within music: at nighttime he is a renowned live DJ and also presents shows on Liverpool’s Melodic Distraction community radio station; by day he is to be found in the city’s Dig Vinyl record shop. I put to him that, from the outside, all three could be viewed as a total dream, hanging around behind the counter all day talking about music and selling records, dealing with his chosen medium 24/7.
“It’s an enjoyable job, but there’s also a lot of hard work,” he says of his role in the shop. “Because we sell second-hand records there is a lot of cleaning. I go out and buy huge collections and there’s a lot of graft involved, manual work in order to get our stock to the standard in which we want to sell it. There’s hours of prepping, cleaning editing, repairing sleeves.”
Haiku Salut – Cabinet of Future Ghosts
Dorcas Sebuyange is a multidisciplinary artist who works in theatre, music and writing. All three disciplines became work for her at different stages. But the transformation of it ultimately came down to time and money.
“Spending more time in each field and getting paid for that time,” she says simply. “In the first few years it never really felt like work to be honest, and I wouldn’t class it as ‘working’ either, when receiving ‘work’ I would find myself saying things like, ‘I got an opportunity’.”
As it became possible for her to make a living out of what she loved doing, because she enjoyed it so much she found her work-life balance out of kilter. It began to dawn on her that that she wasn’t living out her life to the full because she was too busy working.
“I had to realise that, that whole time I was getting these amazing opportunities, I was in fact working. Your job, no matter how much you love it, is still a job. Right now, I’m trying to find ways to continue working while allowing space to take it easy and be prudent rather than strive to be busy. Working hard can look like lots of different things, a lot good comes from it, but it can also wear you out.”
Musicians and poets and DJs aren’t hands-on life-savers, but there is a valuable role played in areas of mental health, building and maintaining a sense of kinship and community. It cuts both ways; for the creators themselves and audience. Elliot’s activities from day job upwards bring their own rewards and feed into one another.
When lockdown first happened, he says, practicalities prevented him from live-streaming from home. But he did have his records.
“When I was able to do radio again it was like I had a fresh outlook on my own music, there was a lot of value I’d forgotten about. So, the first few radio shows I did I thought of them more as a concept, I was missing that element of performance. The radio show I was doing beforehand was literally gathering a load of records and playing them on the radio, but I had more idea of what I was doing after lockdown.”
Kate has pinhole photography in the Super Cool Drawing Machine exhibition, which she describes as “the most primitive photography there is”. She makes the cardboard box camera herself, photographs can take from five seconds to five hours to take, and she develops them herself. She enjoys taking photos on tour, the patience it requires is an antidote to the sometimes frenetic activity on the road.
“I like the pace, not only because it slows you down in terms of taking the photograph, but in terms of developing it as well. Being in a dark room and having to put it through the different chemical processes is so soothing, and when you’re taking the photograph you have to sit still. It’s nice and liberating, in these days of taking loads of digital pictures on phones. I really like that it makes you sit still and shut up.”
This Is The Kit – Self Portrait
Richard appreciates the difference between what he does and the role of key workers keeping essential services going. But him making music is important to him and those who consume it. “You have to approach it with the seriousness of work and give it its due. At the same time, you’re not going in to look after patients all day long. I don’t save people’s lives; you’re not offering support as a counsellor or putting out fires. You’ve got to keep both in mind. It’s deadly serious, the most important work, and at the same time it’s also completely frivolous.
“There’s an inner voice questioning, ‘Is this of worth’,” he continues. “I think it’s a healthy thing to always question why, is this of worth and what value is it. Personally, I take it too far, beat myself up about that whereas it’s a lot of energy down the drain when I could be making more work. But on the other hand, it’s probably quite healthy too, keep yourself in check.”
The notion of hard work is difficult to define. Measuring it is impossible, especially when we look at different disciplines. In the conventional sense a manual labourer may physically work harder than a writer or composer when measured by the amounts of calories burnt and size of loads carried, but the mind carries burdens too. I joke to Kate the coffee industry has a lot to do with the pressure to insist loudly how hard we are all working, marketing to us that we need the caffeine hit to keep us going ’cause we’re on our knees with exhaustion otherwise.
“Everyone wants to communicate with the outside world how hard they’re working and how difficult it is, to feel validated for what they do or don’t do,” says Kate.
“And that’s a shame – you get people saying, ‘Artists, what a bunch of slackers’ and you get other people who say, ‘Oh, working for the man’. I think it’s such a waste of time, this judgement. I’d like it if people we’re more open-minded about what is work and what deserves respect because it all deserves respect, all human endeavour. We’re industrious beings, humans, and it’s alright whatever you choose to do.”
Respect is the key factor here, and our emotional reliance on the products of the creative industries and individuals. The adage that musicians (for this, read artists of all disciplines) and sex workers have much in common in that everyone wants what you do but no one wants to pay for it, has never been more true. We’d better start valuing what we get from creativity and provide with it and do it pretty damn fast. Everyone wanted justice for the fictional Fatima having a cyber career forced on her after years of pain preparing her nonexistent body for ballet, but the real issue is how we demand it for ourselves.
Super Cool Drawing Machine is showing at Future Yard from 15th to 18th July.
Feature image: Richard Dawson – Tomb of the Wizard