Image by ReVerse Butcher
Azja Kulpińska and Timmah Ball’s zine, Wild Tongue vol. 2, is an investigation of the struggles, joys and privileges of life as a creative practitioner. The zine is a collection of writing and visual art from local and international creative practitioners who reveal the often invisible processes of surviving as artists under neoliberalism: excessive amounts of unpaid labour, mental health struggles, coping with rejection.
To promote the launch of the zine taking place this Saturday, The Lifted Brow is sharing the editorial of Wild Tongue Vol. 2, written by Azja Kulpińska.
It’s March 2018 and I attend the Next Wave festival program launch. As one of the Next Wave Kickstart program recipients I’m excited to finally see the developed artistic concepts of my fellow Kickstarters and many other artists all come together. It’s been a great privilege to witness them evolve, shift and mature over the last year. I feel elated to see the placard with the description of the project Timmah and I have been working hard on displayed amongst so many other brilliant creators and their ideas. The event itself is what one would expect from a leading arts festival’s program launch: enthusiastic speeches, scrumptious food, decadent cocktails adorned with flowers, festival tote bags to carry the hard copy of the program and, needless to say, a DJ set to save everyone from the agony of small talk. Delighted to see a few fellow artists and writers I’ve been meaning to catch up with for ages, but our busy schedules got in the way, I do manage to have a brief conversation to each of them despite the loud music in the echoey space. One of them brings up her recent mental health struggles, another one talks about her need to move away from the arts scene and prioritise family and friendships, yet another casually mentions being the most stressed she’s ever been in her life and I think the last one says that she’s exhausted and needs to go home, but I can’t be sure – we stand too close to the speakers. On the way home a close friend who also attended the launch remarks that they’ve observed a few people looking like they were about to cry, ‘but maybe I’ve just been projecting my own feelings’.
A throwback to June 2017, second intensive for the Kickstart program. Timmah and I convene at the café at Footscray Community Arts Centre to talk about the presentation on our Next Wave zine project we’re due to give later in the afternoon. We both have a feeling of inadequacy for our project in the context of a major arts festival. We’ve been feeling a strange push to deliver a sexy arts event filled with inner city hipsters where look and social capital is what counts the most and art is secondary. As introverts in our 30s we generally dread such events. Throughout the intensives we also became painfully aware of our ineptitude at playing the creative entrepreneurship game: panic-striken by the idea of networking, repulsed by funding from ethically dubious sources, with boring social media profiles. At that café we hold back tears and express careful hope that our years-long friendship survives this project. A few hours later during the presentation in front of our fellow Kickstarters and the Next Wave staff the tears finally come out as we talk about our struggles with the arts industry, feeling under constant pressure to deliver, juggling our day jobs (which we both find meaningful) with our arts practice and the impact this has on our mental health. This is what we want to focus on in our project. The room falls completely silent, all eyes are on us and I feel held by that response. There is a lot of resonance amongst our peers and people feel it’s important and necessary to have a discussion about all the less visible and less glamorous aspects of having an arts practice. One of the Next Wave staff mentions a recent Victoria University study on labour conditions in the Australian arts and entertainment industry, which found that:
- 44% of industry workers reported moderate to severe anxiety. This is ten times higher than the prevalence of anxiety in the general population.
- An indicator of depression suggested levels in arts and entertainment industry workers may be as much as five times higher than the general population.
- Australian Entertainment Industry Workers experience suicidal ideation 5-7 times more than the general population and 2-3 times more over a lifetime.
- Suicide planning for Australian Entertainment Industry workers is 4-5 times more than general population.
Isn’t it nice when academic research legitimates your feelings? We walk out of the second intensive feeling vulnerable, but with a new sense of direction for this project. What you’re about to read are the reflections from local and international artists and writers on the challenges and privilege of having an arts practice. They are brave, brutally honest, raw, vulnerable, witty, outraged, hilarious, sarcastic, analytical and depressing. At one point we deliberate on whether it’s ethical to release such a sorrow-fest into the world. Won’t it just put emerging artists off ever considering a career in the arts? Do we have a responsibility to instill hope in our readers? We quickly decide that sadly our submissions are a pretty accurate reflection of people’s experiences of being artists and writers under neoliberalism and in fact it would be unethical to conceal them or dilute them with forced optimism. This zine will not provide answers on how to survive the arts industry: you will not learn how to deal with rejection or how to maintain good mental health while constantly having to compete with your peers for limited opportunities. And you will definitely not learn the art of networking. But if you’re frustrated at the precarious labour conditions in the arts, tired of being asked to work for exposure again, if you’d rather cooperate than compete, if you fear that if you don’t play into the industry’s expectation of what kind of art you should be making given a particular aspect of your identity your art will go unnoticed, if you know that so many others have more social capital or are better placed to accept another unpaid internship, if you were one of the people holding back tears at the Next Wave festival launch you might feel a bit less alone.
Throughout the process of putting this publication together we endeavoured to create a working environment congruent with our values. To start with, we wanted to make sure the contributors and everyone else involved in the project gets paid properly and in a timely manner, within 3 days of submission (isn’t following up on unpaid invoices every freelancer’s pet peeve?). We also informed the contributors that the fee we can afford to pay is $100 per submission and asked them to consider how much effort they want to put into their pieces to make sure they’re remunerated accordingly. Later down the track we received an unexpected grant we did not apply for from New South Wales, which meant we could commission NSW-based writers to contribute to our publication. Given that our contacts in NSW are limited and long story short we were able to offer three NSW-based writers from Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement (honestly, look these folks up – they’re doing some amazing and much needed work!) $500 each for their submissions. Unsurprisingly, we noticed a stark difference in the amount of effort, detail and nuance put into these pieces in comparison to the ones valued at $100. Think of all the brilliant works of art that will never be born as their creators are forced to focus their energy on the activities that will pay their bills.
During the process we also called ourselves and each other out numerous times on the way we internalised the low monetary value of artistic labour as opposed to the value of other types of labour involved in our project. We had to remind ourselves that challenging the harmful notion that artists can work without being adequately rewarded, because, you know we all love what we do, is the whole point of this project. That being said, at the time of writing these words we are still unsure whether we will have enough money left in our budget to pay ourselves for hours of admin and creative labour put into this project. But perhaps self-exploitation and being one’s own worst boss is a topic for another zine. On a more positive note, at the time of writing these words Timmah and I still consider each other good friends.
The launch of 'Wild Tongue Vol.2' is on Saturday, May 19th, 2pm–4pm at the Southbank Library at Boyd Community Hub.
Azja Kulpińska is an immigrant from Poland currently based in Narrm on the land of the Kulin Nations. Azja is a writer, zine-maker, Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner and community mental health worker. Azja is a co-founder of Wild Tongue zine. The latest edition of Wild Tongue, which focuses on critiquing the mainstream arts industry, has just been launched at Next Wave Festival 2018. www.wildtonguezine.org.au