Work and experience: Reflection on loving what you do.

I was recently looking for work, and I obviously had to reflect on the experiences I bring to prospective workplaces. It was an opportunity to look back at the history of my relationship with work. I am surprised, because I found myself feeling a little regret.

I’m too old and have too many financial obligations to be interning, which is a bit of a shame because there are a stack of things I’d love to try out, if I had the chance (read: money).

Especially because I feel like I wasted my chances with gaining a varied ‘work experience’ especially when I was in school.

I have never had enough money to take a gap year, or to do internships when I was young – I’ve always had to wrangle my money – so the school-based scheme was really my only chance at connecting my skills with all the possibilities of earning.

I don’t know what it’s like here in the UK, where I grew up we get two weeks – one each year at 15 and 16 –  to spend in a workplace relevant to our careers.

My two weeks

At 15, I was studying Italian, German and Japanese. My mother (and probably my school) suggested that, with those language skills, perhaps I should be an interpreter or translator.

If I could advise my former self, I would suggest other things. However, time has passed.

So I spent a week in June at an interpreter’s office, which turned me off the idea forever. The staff were all bored, spoke Turkish to each other – a language I couldn’t understand – and no-one really guided me through the process. I read a book for most of the week. Perfect experience.

I remember being really disappointed after that experience at the the interpreter’s office;
I was completely lost as to how to use the obvious skills I had with languages and no-one in my family, (or seemingly in school), had any kind of understanding as to how to apply them either. I was also at an age where I was having a lot of difficulty expressing how I was feeling. So couldn’t really talk about it with anyone.

So I did the best thing I knew how to do: scrapped that idea and changed tack.

I picked up science, headed towards something that I knew I could ‘use’ and that has some prestige to it.
Except I’m not a scientist and I knew it.
But I didn’t talk to anyone about that disappointment or lack of direction.
Not really. So I hid those skills (including my A+ skills at English) and wobbled off into the world alone.

At 16, I was working for a crook in a fucked up situation. I was getting paid and I was on a path of self-destruction. I manipulated the week so that I did ‘work experience’ with him and spent half the week with my boyfriend.

Those two weeks were my ‘introduction to the workforce’.

I don’t regret too much about the past, but in the middle of job-hunting and reconsiderations about the nature of my ‘work’ those lost chances are a tiny sore spot.

Lessons learned

So when David McQueen recently asked his twitter followers for advice to young students about work experience, I remembered that I had a lot of them.

Here they are:

1. Do as much work experience as you can. We only had to do one week each. At one firm each week. We got paid $5 per day (which was more I’d ever earned before), but it’s not really that much of a tester – considering how different high school or even university is from working life.

I would have spent time in a fashion house, at a funeral home, in a school, at a newspaper’s office, in a factory, working for a builder or an architect, – in all kinds of places.
Give yourself some real room for real discovery and experience.And write about it. Or blog. Tweet. Make videos, or songs or whatever it is that you do to express the deeper parts of yourself. Do that whilst you’re on that journey. It will help in years to come to look back at that raw reflection and see some truth in it.

2. Play to your strengths.  Go to places not-so-obviously connected to what you ‘want’ to do, but that use your skills.

It’s much easier to love what you do when you do it well, rather than just doing what you love. Don’t worry about getting it straight away – the happy accidents or the conscious changes we make as adults are invaluable. But it would be nice if you can get a bit of a head start.

3. Think laterally. Search websites for those skills from #2. And then some based on your school reports – even the bad ones will highlight the areas you are skilled at. Even if you’re a pain-in-the-arse-class clown, you still hold the skills of holding people’s attention, managing a room full of people, being vulnerable, witty and manipulative – skills that are great for management, public speaking, loads of areas of showbiz, teaching, etc.

4. Actually speak with someone about it before and after. Really – do your best to get some support for it. It will stand you in good stead for speaking with recruiters, careers coaches, counsellors and other people there to help and support your growth.

Our careers counsellor at school was a little bit useless, so I got away with how shit it all was and possibly deserved the lost chance.

But, if you can grasp the great opportunity you have, bookend it with a few different people. Especially with someone who challenges you on your bullshit. It should be your Mum. or your Dad. But it’s also just as likely to be your older brother, or aunty, uncle, favourite teacher.

Try to properly analyse it. Don’t just fill in the form (any kid can do that, jeez) – but speak to them. Tell them your expectations, hopes and fears about the job/role/experience beforehand. And then again afterwards.

Then use that to create a bit of a plan of attack for the next time you do it. Because, if you’re doing #1, you’ll do it again.

5. Be strategic. Have a plan of attack. Really think through what you’re looking to understand about a workplace. Use the chats from #3.

It’s not always easy or appropriate to ask questions, so be as observant as you can about things like time, goals, visions, accomplishments and relationships:

How do people organise their time? How do they treat each other? What are the ways in which they celebrate success? How do they speak about their expectations.

6. Don’t do the work experience where you already work. Even if my ‘job’ wasn’t shady-as-fuck, I would suggest this. You already know how that job works. For all the reasons above – this is a chance to really research and uncover the good, teh bad and the ugly about a role.

Good luck!

Speaking up: the personal, professional and principles

I’ve been less ranty on here than I used to. I’ve been saving a lot of my diatribes for twitter.
It seems to be the place where i’m getting the bulk of my intellectual discussion lately, although it’s not always ideal. 140ch, even carried over a few tweets can get really confusing when you’re trying to debate someone or actually discuss things. It’s some kind of glitchy forum . However, it’s still the medium of choice for me for some serious brain food.Somehow I came to follow David McQueen. He’s an amazing man – involved in youth education, business mentoring and empowering people to really do what they do and be amazing. From what I can tell from his twitter output, he’s involved in a range of really interesting, worthwhile and actually helpful ventures, mostly talking to people and encrouaging them. And his #SundayReads are always impressive and provocative.

He’s also a tall, black man with 2 daughters, a gorgeous wife he’s been married to for 18 years and incredibly invested in seeing change around education, agency, race and principled people. I know this because, with measure, he didn’t deny his personal effect within his professional adventures.

That’s probably how he ended up in my timeline (I follow some pretty rad people, you know).

For example, he didn’t pretend that it didn’t effect him when Travyon Martin’s killer was acquitted, he didn’t pretend that the media blow-out wasn’t influential during the Woolwich murder of a (white) British soldier and the ensuing EDL can-can, and he posted an opinion which I respected about Mos Def’s intense video undergoing the Guantanamo Bay force-feeding regime (which I personally related to and valued the discussion, having done an artwork about the audio torture on those same detainees).

This was the scope of a professional life of a man living in London, with the connected joy and connected prejudice.

Anyway, about a month ago, David announced that he was going to set up a separate twitter account for his more-personal musings, rantings, humour and introspections. And keep his David McQueen account for professional discussion.

And it’s probably the right decision.

Because his clients don’t necessarily want to acknowledge that issues of race, poverty, education, homophobia, religious extremism, media sluttery (my words, not his) influence the business of running businesses or educating young people.

But I continue to nag on him for it.

Because –  to my mind –  culture and privilege and media and bigotry do effect the world of business owners. I like hearing that a successful, powerful man invested in education, with great results, is affected by these things, but continues to educate children, empower people with businesses and talk to people daily about how to overcome obstacles in achieving what they desire: regardless, because, despite and in spite of.

They’re real things that happen.

And for me, it enacts the business of doing what you need to do in order to contribute to the world, without pretending that you’re not in that world.

So what is the political balance between personal and professional?

I retch at the industrialist idea of a person solely being a unit of labour, a denial of the social or personal effects on their work and vice versa.

I do believe they’re interwoven – with the best and worst aspects of those effects (see under Roman Polanski, Catholic Priests, etc)

I have to acknowledge that I have a privileged position in this.  I was raised by women who kept reminding me that the personal is political. I’m also white, middle-class and really don’t struggle (except financially).

When I go on about something, I’m not expected to be speaking for all of ‘my people’ and if it affects my professional capacity, it’s unlikely I would have wanted to work with those people anyway.

And I’m not married with children, so my opinions about the world don’t effect my husband’s or my children’s lives. I don’t have corporate responsibility or institutional ties.
And even if I did – as an artist, writer and creative business owner, it’s also kind of expected that I might be outspoken.It reminded me about the criticisms of Barack Obama during the Zimmerman acquittal (and other recent changes to American life that were influenced by race). He was criticised for denying his race. For acting as though he was separate from it when calling for calm or whatever. For separating his personal priciples from that of the Head of State. The suggestion was that to deny that the political was also personal, was, to some people, also a crime against other persons.

But is this unfair pressure on someone to be 100% accountable all the time, whilst I am as C-grade as it comes on the same scale? And if so, whose responsibility is it? How do artists marry the similar fine line between professional practice and their capacity to challenge authority.

Does this not just set up a sliding scale (and/or slippery slope) of behaviour in a public life heirarchy – a disconnection between what you do and how you feel?

Or do we just need to accept that this is the nature of contemporary times and multiple egos, where we have the need and skill to distance ourselves from others in a variety of ways and that there’s nothing actually wrong with that.

on the line

Last week I helped out at a friend’s winery by joining the bottling production line team for a day.

Boy it was tough work – lifting bottles of wine off the line and into a box isn’t easy work (esp, with bad sleep, no breakfast and no coffee). And it’s not particularly taxing on the brain either, but with all that head space, I was able to do some thinking and I found the experience to be beneficial relating to two aspects of ‘things I like to think about’.

Firstly, I’m into structure. Rhythm, buildings, systems, grids – you name it and I find it fascinating. In fact I believe that humans have a deep-seated need for structure and it’s the stuff that keeps us going.

And this was confirmed for me again last week, on the ‘line’. I found that the work wasn’t too hard once you got into a rhythm – the line would clunk, bottles clink, you’d lift, two at a time, box sorted, closed, onto the tap line, etc, etc – you had to concentrate a little, but mostly it was about having a groove on. And the hard stuff came when you got out of that rhythm – you’d miss a bottle, the box would be all skewiff, the noise and the mundane nature of the job would get to you and it would all get a bit frustrating – the zen-ness of it all was firmly entrenched in going with a rhythm.

I also realised how beautiful stacks of things are – I want to make a production line of red bottles or red lollies, or something, ‘cos when they’re all together, clunking, and moving, it’s like ballet.

Secondly, in the middle of lifting, boxing, bottling the different varieties and brands of wines, I realised how important a process it was, as a marketing./comms type person. I love coming up with great ideas and a lovely, personal package just looks gorgeous, but if it takes an extra person or 12 people in the production/manufacture/packaging of the thing (like one of the lines actually did!), then financially and practically, it’s questionable (not to mention a right, royal pain in the arse).

The other thing I learnt, in the thick of things, was exactly how much waste and/or produce there really is to make some very simple things. Plastic to wrap palettes of cartons in, plastic to wrap a load of bottles in, distilled, pure water to flush out the lines (and straight down the drain), paper to wrap more paper – it’s incredible! And I was part of a very small, lean system – I’m scared to think about the reality of a monstrous organisation.

I think that anyone in the communications industry really needs to spend time on the production line – a brand manager in charge of FMCGs? go hang out in the cannery for a while, designer for 5 blades of razory goodness? how about you hang out with the peeps that put the things together. Even if it’s just for a day, having empathy for not just the process involved but for the people who do your dirty work is surely valuable! I certainly learned a tonne of priceless stuff (and got some nasty cardboard cuts in the process).

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The artist and employment

Boy this topic is a hot one for me at the moment! After seeing the Fay Incorporated show at Toilet Gallery (above image, thanks to Feltbug) last week (see here for more info), I’ve been thinking about “Artist as Labourer”, and then of course there is my own process of looking for work in this crazy country.

Since leaving art school in Australia, I have been pretty lucky to be working (mostly) in the arts. I worked at a gallery during my degree, briefly spent some time working in a record store (and if that isn’t cultivating rock’n’roll artistic tendencies, i don’t know what will), did some teaching and then worked at a National Visual Arts organisation for a few years, in a variety of roles and of course non-paid work running Project. All the while collecting a little pile of skills that are easily transferrable and being able to use my knowledge about the arts.

And since I’ve been in London, I’ve had a few ‘interesting’ experiences with working here and both of them have taught me a thing or two about myself and about being an artist. And the complicated relationship between work and artistic practice that I find myself rubbing up against every once in a while, ie. how much am I worth?

cooking as part of the installation of entropy at platform. not on minimum wage.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been working in a kitchen, for minimum wage and suffice to say, this sucks. i can do it OK, but i’m not actually very equipped to deal with the stress that’s in a kitchen. give me 5 deadlines, an artwork that’s not working, an email inbox a mile long or a grant application to do overnight and i’m fine. However, none of those skills really apply for very long in a busy kitchen, day after day. Or perhaps i’m just a wooss (howeverthefuck you spell it). and as a result, i quit. i know my mum won’t be very pleased to read this, but hey, she’ll deal with it.

And then there’s the crazy experience I had when applying for work with an architecture practice:

I went for an admin position in an architects’ office (“with high street clients”) and was offered the job, if i could dye my hair all one colour and take out my facial piercing [For those who don’t know what I look like, I have blonde and black hair, with a lip ring, but I scrub up alright]. I’ve had ‘funny hair’ and piercings for most of my adult life and I’ve never been asked to do that before. It was quite a strange experience. And I’ll tell you why it was strange and had a process all of its own – I’m outta my comfort zone. If i was at home, I would a) probably not being applying for admin (having moved a little further than entry level now, although not by heaps) and b) I know the lay of the land and I would easily be able to know (from experience) that it wasn’t necessary to look a certain way in order to do my job.

I had thought to myself – If I owned a punk nightclub or a DIY art gallery, which had loads of punks, skins, tattooed people with funny hair and piercings as my main clients, and i was looking for staff. Would i say to an applicant who had straight blonde hair, perfectly done neutral make up and corporate clothes “you’re great for the job, I like you and what you’ve done, but do you think you could cut and dye your hair, get a tattoo and maybe get a few piercings?” ? I knew that the answer would be no. And that the answer would be no. In fact I felt like asking them whether they had asked their African secretary if she would change her colour because the clients wouldn’t like it, but decided not to stoop to pettiness. Although I was glad to hear when I told my mum about it, at the end of it all she said “by ‘one colour’ [as in the hair colour], can it be all blue?” Ha!!

Which brings me to the point of this post:

Being an artist is not a consolation.

So many artists I know are staffing the kitchens, bars and dining halls of countries around the world unnecessarily and I’ve decided, invoking the spirit of the spoilt brat (which I’m not usually) that this is no longer applicable to me.

I (like all my other artistic brothers and sisters) am a creative, intelligent, resourceful, organised and talented person and as an artist, can bring so much to an organisation in terms of perspective, lateral thinking, creative solutions and attention to the audience , no matter what country I’m in. And it’s time I actually begin to push that. In fact, if you’re an artist in a similar position, it’s time you start to do that too. I’m a little bit over the artist-as-cheap-labour routine and you should too.

I moved to the UK to soak up the depth of cultural experience here. I’ve got artwork on the go, I’ve got exhbitions planned here and an opportunity to see and learn so much creative stuff, to actually get involved and make a difference. Fuck wasting that on a shitty grill and/or a small minded corporate firm.

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oh, the paperwork

Part of the inspiration for setting up this blog was an piece by Gregory Pryor in a publication called Artists Talk, published by west space.. It was a copy of his diary over a week and notations of all the things he had to do as an artist, especially in the week leading up to a residency in Queensland. He mentioned the paperwork. Now I’m mentioning the paperwork. Outside of my almost-full-time job, I am the chairperson for Project Contemporary Artspace and a practising artist and this week, i’m working on 5 grant applications. For those that understand – yes 5! For those that don’t, here’s a breakdown of my life, otherwise known as a timetable.

This week –
work – 30 hours.
commute – 20 hours
ministry grant – 4 hours
wollongong city council small grant cat 1. – 3 hours
wollongong city council small grant cat 2. – 1 hour
wollongong city gallery residency – 3 hours
liminal personae content – 1 hour
project fundraiser trivia night – 5 hours

Total work: 66 hours
Total pay: 30 hours

Next week
work – 30 hours
commute – 15 hours
wollongong city council small grant cat 1. – 4 hours
wollongong city council small grant cat 2. – 1 hour
wollongong city gallery residency – 3 hours
rent reduction submission to council – 2 hours
liminal personae content – 4 hours
project fundraiser trivia night – 2 hours

Total work: 61 hours
Total pay: 30 hours

That’s 2 week’s worth of unpaid work, in order to possibly get some more money, in order to create more unpaid work – either for the gallery or myself! Does any other profession produce that much paper work, unpaid, in order to get more unpaid work? Possibly the unemployed…

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