Posts tagged: who are we writing for?
At the very end of my Deveron Arts fellowship/residency in 2011, I conceptualized and organized a two day arts writing symposium called Who Are We Writing For? in the town of Huntly, Aberdeenshire (UK). As an intimate platform for invited arts writers, artists, and curators, WAWWF? brought together peers from across the UK, Western Europe, and North America to come together and meet face to face through a series of programmed activities centered around Roman Signer and Ross Sinclair, both of whom were premiering new works in Huntly. WAWWF? ranks as a professional project on par with any one of the articles I have ever written and any one of the public exhibitions I have ever curated. It is a framework that I will continue as the question at the head and heart of the symposium is, of course, a perpetual question any one of us in this profession will ask ourselves.
However, it is not often arts writers get together to talk about our profession in any formal capacity. I have only noted one other symposium that focused on arts writing specifically, and that was by Maria Fusco during her time as the inaugural arts writer in residence at Whitechapel called Who is this who is coming? It was Maria who told me about the symposium after I invited her to WAWWF?, as the world of arts writers in the English language is just that small.
WAWWF? left me charged with a new direction in my own professional goals as an arts writer. Admittedly, I had started my fellowship burnt out about what I had been writing, namely, hustling non stop for five years writing for anyone and everyone from my base in Edmonton. I had reached the point where I resented most unsolicited queries, not that a lot of my resentment wasn’t unwarranted: On an average week, I was solicited by numerous guilt trips if not outright demands via email and even in person that ranged from pity to psychosis on why I should be writing about their shows. I maybe wrote one to two reviews a week for the weekly, a handful per season (if I was lucky) for the magazines, and whatever I had the energy for on my art blog, Prairie Artsters. In 2008, I received a one year city grant to pay emerging writers to contribute to Prairie Artsters with the idea to generate a legion of voices. Some of them wrote for a while, but no one really stuck with it. I can’t blame them. Freelance writing is rough. By the end of my time in Edmonton, I made most of my freelance fees covering exhibitions outside of the region as I just wasn’t getting enough paying local work to cover my basic living costs.
The same holds true today in Vancouver, though the context has changed; the majority of my writing on the local arts scene is work I do for next to nothing. I write to engage with subjects that matter to and challenge me, and I do it still because I approach my writing as a practice, and so, one must practice.
In Edmonton, I wrote because it was expected of me, and I no longer remembered how to stop. The couple hundred dollars I raked in every month for the thousands of words I submitted to the local weekly was a mutual gesture to have a local voice and a local presence. But the situation of working as a full time freelance writer was on a downward spiral. As just the tip of the iceberg, I recall a local peer of mine asking me to do him a “favor” by coming into his gallery to review a show that the city paper failed to contextualize properly. I told him plainly that if he wants commissioned writing, he should commission my writing. (He never commissioned my writing). Another incident involved a different local peer of the same generation trying to undercut my writing fee by a third relative to the standard amount they had been issuing to my national peers. (I got the full amount in the end, but not without wading through the bullshit). I applied for endless local jobs in the arts to supplement my writing, but no organization was willing to hire me out of their conflict of interest worries. I felt I was being demanded of and simultaneously unsupported by the same group of people. I left deflated, and over the course of my time away, I knew I was leaving Edmonton as there was just too much baggage from ten years of freelance to carry forward.
So fast forward to January 2012. I am living and writing in Vancouver and I get a message from someone I know in Edmonton saying how she has been reading about Who Are We Writing For? and how great the idea is as she’s also been thinking about similar things. She asks me if I could share some of my insights about hosting the symposium and if I was interested in attending something similar if she organized one in Edmonton. The full transcript is here. This is the last thing I hear:
This is the last I hear of her “weekend forum” until this weekend, when I am blindsided this morning by seeing something posted about a “Who Are We Writing For?” symposium happening in Edmonton out of XXXX. Shock is only one of the things I was feeling. In that moment I still held onto a shred of hope as I looked through their website thinking they would have the human decency of at least acknowledging my efforts of the same name and frame. But nope. No credit was given anywhere to the original WAWWF? symposium.
My shock turned disappointment has now formed into a blinding light of rage. I did not know I was still capable of feeling this angry, but I know now in myself that this feeling is tied to a feeling of being shamelessly used. I don’t mind not being invited to my own idea, as I have already been there. I support growing the dialogue between writers, but not like this. If they genuinely had their own unique idea, then that is not clear. If they had just wanted WAWWF? to happen in Edmonton, you hire me to produce it. Writing is already one of the primary byproducts of an invisible labour force (in and out of the art world), and to be made further invisible by one of your own supposed peers is inexplicably vile and contemptuous. The organizer and host gallery are equally responsible for this irresponsibility, and as a first step, I can only make a pledge to myself to never write about either of them or their future activities ever again. As an arts writer, I am setting standards for who I am writing for and whom I am writing about.
May 20 Amendment: I write this to keep track of our accountability to each other as writers and cultural producers. We work in ideas, and ideas must be shared to be realized. This incident is not rare, unfortunately, and I am writing this as an open letter to suggest we start demanding transparency in how we deal and are dealt with in our precarious profession. The exchange of ideas cannot stop, but this is a good a place as any in the blogosphere to begin developing further strategies in how we can share ideas in a respectful and productive manner.