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  • Madeline Shann

On UBI, Access, and the Role of Art

In this post I am going to argue for a Universal Basic Income for the arts, from my perspective as a maker and performer. UBI for everybody everywhere, as a protection against poverty, inequality, bullshit jobs, automation, environmental destruction, overwork, and unemployment as a social ill, is an idea whose time has come, which I strongly support and you can read more about it here: https://www.basicincome.org.uk/about_us

If we can unite and coordinate the struggle across all sectors, then good. Lets.

But if that moment is not here yet then we should not wait; we should lead.


A time when the theatre industry is on its knees may seem like a strange moment for this demand, but we need it now more than ever. Coronavirus has shown how vulnerable those of us living project-to-project, hand-to-mouth are. Our work is as crucial as ever, but we can no longer rely on traditional models of “productivity” for our income.


I do not expect much from the Tories, a party whose Coronavirus response has been to both achieve an utterly grotesque death-toll and tank the economy. A party gleefully forcing people back to work - many to their deaths - in their desperation to kick people off government support schemes and pursue their beloved Herd Immunity strategy.

I do not expect much from any of our leaders in fact; all capitalists despise UBI because it shows their omnicidal pyramid scheme up for what it is.

But, we must not pre-emptively accept defeat. The money the government holds is our money (just one more time in all-caps in case you missed it: THE MONEY THE GOVERNMENT HOLDS IS OUR MONEY) and there is enough of it to go around. If we decide that we want it to be spent on our survival and wellbeing, instead of building more prisons and bailing out airlines, then I’d say we have a pretty good case.


A basic income needs to be - should always have been - the minimum demand for our working conditions in the arts industry to begin with. So whatever happens, even with no investment or bailout, whatever little money there is, we should demand an equitable redistribution of that wealth. Otherwise we simply stand motionless and watch while wealth becomes further concentrated where it is already and the rest of us are left with nothing.

How we achieve this is the next challenge. But for now, let’s just nail on exactly why we must.


Freelancers in the arts are some of the most talented and hardworking people out there, and yet my whole career, I have watched us being ripped off.

There are some clear examples of the kind of exploitation that keeps the sector running. After a few years working in theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe - arguably the most important event in the theatre calendar - begins to look less like magic, and more like a trick; a sleight of hand where venues, restaurants and landlords make bank from the work, time, financial investment (and in many cases depleted mental health) of literally thousands of artists, most of whom walk away with less than nothing.


But the grift is not always so stark. Exploitation of freelancers and artists is normalised. I was warned by multiple people upon graduating with my drama degree that I should expect to work for free as creator and performer for 6 years before starting to get enough paid work to support myself.

“No one does this for the money, hahaha”.

It is widely understood that this the best a massive industry can do and is an appropriate test of brilliance, ambition and commitment.


Art is an expensive sector to participate in. It is expensive to see shows, it is expensive to travel for meetings, workshops, jobs and auditions, it is expensive both to take the time to do your own admin AND to have someone else do it for you. It is expensive to up-skill and develop your practice and for dancers and circus artists especially it is expensive to consistently train. In addition to this, freelancers across dance, theatre, circus and music, do an obscene amount of unpaid work. Yes, the Arts Council officially insists on proper wages on the projects they fund, and that’s great, but in reality, the squeeze on Arts Council funds and scarcity of match-funding means that everybody has to do more with less. Work required around and between “project activity” is mandatory in order to make anything happen at all, but it is undervalued, so unpaid work becomes unavoidable. Feel your jaw hit the floor the first time you watch someone else itemise and charge for all the work you have had to do for free just to get things off the ground. It is unrealistic to think that independent project leaders can commonly charge for that kind of labour and still make a £15k grant go around.

Yet somehow, despite so much investment going in, so little seems to come back to us.


We should have starting pushing for a basic income years ago instead of indulging the myth that it’s no big deal to support yourself with another job. This is bullshit in principle because there is no justification for paying trained and qualified specialists so badly that they have to earn the rest of their crust elsewhere, but it is also bullshit in practice. I played along with this myth because it felt like a massive admission of failure not to; some people are successful enough to not need second jobs, some people get in with a good temp agency or a great side hustle. So who is going to stand up and say that not only are they not able to make a living from art, they can’t even get a bar job?

But for crying out loud, of course it’s not easy to just pick up a part-time job, let alone pick one up for a few months, drop it to participate in a project, and then beg it back off your old boss? Or just magically buck a nationwide trend by managing to land new jobs over and over again, unencumbered by application lead-times, a CV that screams “commitment issues”, and losing your time, energy and availability for artistic opportunities.

There was a fucking recession and an unemployment crisis! There were foodbanks, DWP suicides and I, Daniel Blake, and yet we all maintained this charade that on top of freelancers having no paid holiday, sick leave, or pension, it was perfectly fair and reasonable to shut us out for weeks or months at a time without pay. What was actually happening was that we were subsidising the arts industry with free labour or with huge cuts to our quality of life.


I saw responses to the #theatrepaysme hashtag and I honestly just wanted to be sick. It is simply the data representation of exploitation, and without wanting to project onto other people's choices, it feels like culture of compromising our self-worth has been created because we love what we do. I know that in such a competitive and atomised field we feel too vulnerable to coordinate to withhold our labour, and yet I find it very difficult to believe that any of these people would have chased up an ad for a job working 40 hours a week with an annual turnover of 6k. In an alternate universe where we are better organised, we would all down tools and refuse to make another minute of work before this is rectified. It used to make me proud to say that for every £1 spent on art, £3 are returned into the economy, but looking at the state of freelancers’ pay, it's hard to see exchanges like this as anything other than wage theft.


Theatre is not making anybody guillotine-level rich at our expense, which is good, and in my opinion our unions have done a good job of securing respectable minimum rates for us. But a minimum rate isn’t much good if you’re only sporadically awarded the opportunity to earn it. The income inequality is wrong, and this disparity is not reflective of a difference in hard work, commitment, talent, motivation, creativity, or entrepreneurship. Most freelancers are not doing less work; they are doing more unpaid work. If we cannot keep our workers out of poverty, then the system is broken and we need to create a better one.


From the beginning many freelancers have been coached not to value our work and ourselves, and told that we are lucky to be allowed to work in the arts at all, that it is above all things a meritocracy, and that playing musical chairs with paid employment was all part of the fun.

We should never have supported this position in the first place, and now thanks to Coronavirus we could not even if we wanted to. So now it is finally time to reckon with what we are worth, to the nation and to the industry.

We have to struggle with the internalised capitalist logic and warped respectability politics that creating art is secondary in importance to creating wealth; meaning that big name commercial money-spinning shows are valid, and payroll staff with desks are valid, and that the rest of us, reliant on funding, are chancers and parasites.

Theatre, dance, circus, community art, comedy, live art, visual art, music, TV and film are part of an ecology, we all have a role to play and we constantly influence and break new ground for each other. Freelancers are part of that ecology as much as anybody else, and we should be paid and protected as such.


Another reason why securing UBI for the arts is paramount is the question of access.


In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, leaders fell over each other to ask what they can do to support black artists. There are lots of issues to do with hiring, casting, commissioning, and deep structural and systemic problems of embedded racism and inequality which I won’t go into here, they have been covered brilliantly in many places including here: https://www.thewhitepube.co.uk/riots and here https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/opinion/diversity-of-all-kinds-must-not-be-an-afterthought

However, as long as there is no minimum income floor, the entire sector is rigged against basically every demographic other than well-connected rich white men. A career in the arts is an endurance test against a privilege algorithm.


“Are you taken seriously? Y/N” “Are people interested in hearing your stories? Y/N” “Do current leaders and gatekeepers personally feel comfortable around you? Y/N” “Is there consensus that the lives of people like you matter? Y/N”, “Do you have childcare obligations? Y/N” “Do you have underlying health conditions? Y/N” “Are there plenty of parts for people who look like you? Y/N”

Race, class, gender, all of those filters are repeatedly popping up in that algorithm, and in a field like ours where the question is not merely between promotion or stasis, but between paid employment and unpaid unemployment, UBI is survival.

Even if, like me, you prepared from the start to eschew your other needs, knuckle down and sacrifice basically everything in order to be an artist, the algorithm is likely to eventually kick you out.

Maybe you’d have to be unlucky to get picked off in the first two years. Maybe you can survive the first five, but the filters crop up again and again, and if you don’t accrue a certain floor of security, it doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.

It gets harder because many of your allies with whom you have these barriers in common get sick of being undervalued and leave, to prioritise making a decent living elsewhere.

It gets harder because your friends with “proper jobs” are doing things you can’t afford to do.

It gets harder because you keep having to ask for favours from people who at this point have done you a lot of favours already (lifts, loans, spare rooms), and you don’t have much to return the favour with.

It gets harder not to internalise the accumulated weight of rejections and perceived failures when you regularly return to square one.

And it gets harder because it is exhausting to be broke. The constant sense of threat, the endless calculations, the obsessive, unhealthy little life-hacks to save food money, the pit-of-the-stomach drop when something unexpected goes out of your bank account, being utterly at the mercy of the dystopian rental market, the guilt, the shame, the pressure, the limitations on your options, the inability to ever just relax.

I cannot stress enough; an income floor - a basic layer of protection between you and disaster inbetween jobs - is what ALL RICH PEOPLE ALREADY HAVE. When “Are you sure you can really afford this? Y/N” appears in the algorithm, it is never going to catch them out.

When people declare determinedly: “Fuck it! We should just make art anyway!” as a response to the apparent death of funding after Coronavirus, who exactly is “we”? Not all of us can afford the luxury of perseverance when there’s bills to pay.

However wonderful the arts sector is, nobody should have to pay to play. If we want an industry which is representative and not dominated by privilege, if we are serious about dismantling structural inequality, if we have even a modicum of respect for workers, then everybody should be working with some basic financial security. We deserve a decent standard of living.


The last thing I want to say is about the role of art.


A lot of freelancers in this conversation, looking around for how to survive, are talking about going commercial or corporate, one commentator in The Stage said the sector needs to learn to “talk Tory” (I’m not even going to link, sorry. Google it if you want). Again, I don't want to cast aspersions on other people’s choices but as an anti-capitalist artist, I would frankly sooner die.

I am in the arts to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I am here to create social change. Art in my view is a sanctuary from capitalism and rebellion against it. I am not interested in allowing my creativity to be exploited for the benefit of business, treating humans only as consumers. I do not want to convince you to buy anything. If anything I want to convince you to stop buying things.


It is precisely because of “Talking Tory”, because of commodification, because of neoliberal ideology and budget cuts and an obsession with attacking the population’s wellbeing at every opportunity that we feel we have to discuss and justify art in terms of the market. That we have to obsess about its material, quantifiable outcomes and forget about its role as cultural lifeblood, a reason to stay alive, historically both weapon and shield in the face of fascism, tyranny, colonisation and despair. Immeasurable things like creating solidarity, providing space to celebrate, grieve, to dream, to invent, to remember, to return to yourself, to grow, giving form to feeling, making alternatives seem possible. Communion, bonding, awakening, nourishing, healing.

What is that translated into Tory? I’m not fluent but I’m pretty sure it’s: “Zero pounds and zero pence.”

(And we in the sector can insist that we appreciate the value of art and artists, but we’ve clearly internalised the maths-chat enough that we're cool with freelancers making 1/5th of what we pay the salaried office staff.)


We cannot allow the market or the establishment to determine who gets to make work and what kind of work they get to make, or to have even the slightest opportunity at co-opting our creativity.


Regardless of what kind of work we make, we must all immediately reckon with the fact that we are living in a new era, a multilateral global crisis point, and I would argue that we have a responsibility, we have work to do in this moment.

Whether we as a species can withstand the rising tide of fascism (due to accelerate with the November US election and our betrothal to the United States post-Brexit), environmental collapse and geopolitical destabilisation, whether we can hold onto our humanity, whether we can work together, will depend on the emotional and psychological preparation we do now. That’s our job.


Mobilising masses for the current wave of the Black Lives Matter movement was made possible through lived experience and spectacular organisation, but the bold solutions which come next - defunding the police, reforming the criminal justice system, dismantling every arena of white supremacy; this critical understanding of the problem, this awakeness to the system of racial subjugation and its relationship with other interlocking imperialist, patriarchal, capitalist systems, is thanks to intellectual groundwork and theorising, to academia and art. It is thanks to analysing and questioning and radical, impossible dreaming, and that is what art is for.


"One never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one, that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change.”[…]“If one does not engage in the ongoing work, when such a moment arises, we cannot take advantage of the opportunities for change

- Angela Davis (interview with Democracy Now https://www.democracynow.org/2020/6/12/angela_davis_historic_moment )


If making art - especially challenging art - becomes financially prohibitive, then who will share their dreaming and their stories? Who will frame the past, interrogate the present, predict the future? Whose experiences will we discuss and what lens will we perceive them through? Who will have the motivation or even the ability to bring diverse perspective and challenge the hegemony?


Without a basic income, we let the algorithm filter out the less-advantaged in our community. We allow the pressures of inequality, of structural racism, genderism, ableism, classism, be amplified within our scenes while continuing to privilege people who already hold power and cultural capital and can afford to lose money. We discourage art which is new, wild, unfamiliar, difficult, niche. We will say the same things, in minimally divergent ways, over and over and over again, oblivious to how they fail to articulate the breadth of human experience, or to prepare us for the rapidly, radically changing “new normals” that approach us.


No, UBI alone would not be a silver bullet which solves all the problems in our field. But in order to equalise opportunities as much as possible and bring forth crucial art into the world, we must remove the financial barriers to people participating in the first place. We must remove the demand that artistic risk necessitates personal financial risk.


For the whole world, a basic income is a long-overdue measure, and freelancers in the arts cannot wait any longer. We must lead the way, and turn our talents - our bravery, our boldness, our imagination - to the task of securing a basic income for the arts.


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