Work — I’ve had enough and not nearly enough

About working too much and being tired and stressed all the time. Wondering if there is something that could be done about it? Could we work in the field we love and not be tired all the time? Or is this a conspiracy, a well working one, pushing artists and cultural workers to choose proper jobs and discontinue the practice of art once and for all?

Last two weeks I spent in a marvelous and amazing residency in Wales. It wasn’t wonderful only because of the fantastic landscape, but mostly because of the walking, drawing, writing, reading, eating and sleeping — the calm and the peace. I went to bed early, slept peacefully for at least 8 hours and felt productive and up to my tasks, instead of the usual pressure and squeezing it actually felt enjoyable to produce. Two nights before leaving back home I started grinding my teeth in my sleep again, waking up with deep cavities inside my cheeks and jammed jaw muscles. All this is something I want to change, but I don’t know how. I know something should be done, but I don’t know what. For a person who is as problem-solving orientated as I am, this is actually causing more anxiety.

Are we talking about this enough? Or do we think we are protecting ourselves by keeping quiet? As even if this text is based on my own experience, I know we are many. Too many. Actually, I do not know many people in arts who are not burn out or haven’t been at some point or are heading towards it. How did it become like this? Why talented, professional young artists, curators, and researchers are so often thinking about other options and other jobs, and is there really no other way to solve this?

Years ago, when I was younger and working as an artist, instead of this artist-researcher-curator evolution has made me, I did not yet find the situation so bad. I didn’t have much money, but somehow, I thought that things will somehow work out, my situation would stabilize and I would be able to influence things. Now, when I am older, and would actually need more time and space to be productive and to recover from previous projects, I am in the situation where yearly doing at least two biggish shows each year from the scratch, meaning there is nothing, no space, no money, no nothing when we start, on top of the other things we do, for me meaning my research and my own art and own curatorial projects. And politics.

My calendar year starts nowadays from autumn with the grant applications, which I write about 20–40 yearly, and get maybe 4–5 grants for the projects. As there is no funding for my in-between-practice, or even if it would be fully curatorial there still wouldn’t be, so I mostly apply funding for projects and other people, even now when my contract is ending and I actually have no idea how to pay my rent in the future. And it is not about writing applications as such — that I actually kind of enjoy and find it as a good tool for thinking and developing projects, but it is the unconcious fear of not getting validiation for own ideas and thinking. Even if one pretends to be better than that, being rejected is never meaningless. It is impossible not to compere own ideas to those that are funded, which then leads to feeling both failed and cheap.

The year continues with chasing locations and dealing with bureaucracy, facing same problems year after year with nothing changing or evolving, writing exhibition texts and press releases, putting up exhibitions, and ends in the end of July into a total collapse. Then there is about a month for getting our shit together and for the planning process before another application season starts. One can’t really take time of or go to a holiday when tired, as no-one else will do your project for you meanwhile you are having a much needed break

All this location hunting and dealing with urban planning, funding, art politics, endless emails, phone calls and failures, have made us “experts”, and we are quite wanted writers and speakers in different situations and contexts. This opportunity to share knowledge and ideas is important, but it is also time consuming, and often unpaid work. And too slowly does it lead to anything changing.

Still, in the middle of all this, we do consider ourselves lucky. We are able to do what we love (to excessive amounts, I would say), and for the past three years, I have been working as a researcher and doctoral candidate, being paid for what I do. It has been amazing, but as the situation is so unusual and the job more or less unstructured and there is no one to tell me when I’ve done enough or well enough, I feel that there is all the time a need to prove that I am doing enough. Maybe compensating my luck of actually being paid, and it has led me to work all the time to get this tangled situation of my projects and research done.

And it is not only about the money. Insecurity with both own life and projects is exhausting, but it is more than the money issue that makes us tired. It is also the explaining oneself all the time, from strangers to friends and family. Sheltering oneself. To explain the “nonproductive” work one is doing, the “noncommercial” art one is working with, the research, the importance of culture in general, to people who willingly consume the outcomes of what once experimental but do not want to find the experiments.

The field itself seems so divided, that even the place where I did my master’s degree and where I am now doing my PhD has somehow during the past four years evolved into something I hardly recognize and where I barely feel at home.

But working is fun, I am not saying that. I am more or less capable of choosing the people I work with, and I love them and working with them. But knowing the conditions we are all working in, I am also all the time worried if I am asking too much or if there is too much work consider the small or no existing compensation. I wish there would be more money, but I am not going to be the one saying we should never work without money, as I would. Too often. Just because I am too curious to say no, and I see this as an essential part of my practice. Part of the process of still, at least sometimes, enjoying art and what we do. Like pretending it still is a game or a play.

But it shouldn’t be so that we who are curious and willing to put our time and effort into art and trying to change the scene to better (whatever that means to different people) should be punished for doing that, as now it seems that the most ambitious projects are the most difficult ones for the people realizing them. Before you get funding, you need to work for free for years and after that funding is “secured” (maybe, at some level, for some actors: there is a need for some kind of system to fund semi-institutionalized factors for to keep them going) for a few years and after that, you are expected to again work for free. There is no end to it. And if no one else seems to see the value of our work, how long do we ourselves see it valuable? So much groundbreaking knowledge and capacity is lost when this system keeps wearing people and collectives out.

Worst is, that I cannot see the situation changing. And even if I love what I do and find it important and know that I am good at it, I am not sure how long it is possible to continue working like this? And I am aware that I need rest, I do holidays, I do exercise, I do (try) to sleep, I eat healthily, I do meet my family and friends, just not as much as I’d like to. I know how to prevent burnout, in theory, but it takes a lot of work to prevent it happening, and so I am not sure if it is helping.

In a very weird way especially the independent art world seems to have adopted the neoliberal idea of a person as a constantly working and producing machine — machine who should, on the other hand, be super sensitive all the time and on the other hand super tolerant and immune to the world and exhaustion. We should be taking care of each other, but is it possible in a situation where everyone seems to be hiding their weaknesses like wounded animals pretend to be healthy, trying to avoid getting eaten? Is it a gender thing? Is it about overcompensating? Is it about too eagerly trying to catch every given opportunity? Is everyone as tired as I am?

Should I even say out loud that I am tired? Am I breaking some kind of rule here? I feel like we shouldn’t complain. We should never complain as it is our own choice. We have decided to work in this field and we volunteer for excessive amounts of work and projects. But is it really voluntary if everyone seems to be doing it?

We are lucky for doing what we love, being able to practice art. But this way of practicing it is making me love it less and less all the time. I feel that for to be important and good, art should at some level be like a play, something serious and playful at the same time (and we all know what all work and no play does), but keeping up the playfulness in these conditions means again more work, work that seems to be coming heavier all the time. How could we make our work a bit lighter?

Artists, art critic, curator and feminist working for a better world and PhD about the uncanny, everyday and community in Aalto University