The Creative Industry Forces Us to Gamble With Our Time

I am tired of blaming myself for the hours that I have wasted on misguided ideas and rejected projects in an industry that is built on speculative labour.

Sander Meisner, The Elastic Perspective, 2014
Sander Meisner, The Elastic Perspective, 2014. Courtesy the artist

I have never been good at timekeeping. I arrive late and out of breath to meetings and parties alike; last week, I was turned away at a theatre where no latecomers were to be admitted. Even when I don’t have a plan to stick to, time often seems to be running away from me. I plan to read a book but end up dawdling over dinner; I click between tabs, and remember messages left unanswered even as I compose new ones. Social media is an easy distraction, where a few minutes snatched at various points in the day can quickly add up to hours spent scrolling. 

I have been thinking lately of how we “spend” time, whether on work or its avoidance. What exactly are we paying for, and how do we judge the value of our time? I think of the days that I have lost to idle indecision, oversleeping or pure laziness. On other occasions, I am more deliberate in the time that I choose to waste. Why did I browse through photographs of an old acquaintance while I was on deadline, or place items in an online shopping basket only to discard the contents shortly after? Everything is on-demand; everything feels disposable. Procrastination is seen as the enemy, but it has never been easier to be distracted. 

In the digital age there is an ever-growing drive towards efficiency, and with it comes guilt. Sometimes, I feel like I’m clocking in and out of my own life, but it is increasingly difficult to distinguish where the boundary lies between being on and being off. In particular, creative pursuits can be challenging to quantify in standard metrics of productivity. Rarely does the investment of more time equate to an improved final outcome, as frustrating as this disconnect can be. Most artists, musicians or writers will be familiar with the fruitless hours spent on a piece that refuses to take shape, and which must finally be scrapped and started all over again. If only things were as linear as we are typically led to believe in childhood. 

“In the digital age there is an ever-growing drive towards efficiency, and with it comes guilt”

I will naturally blame myself for the hours that I have misspent, but it is frequently down to external forces that we find ourselves out of pocket when it comes to the investment of our time. Much of the creative industry is built around speculative labour; on pitches, grant applications and competitions. We apply ourselves in the hope of a greater reward, but—even for the most talented or savvy among us—the occasions that we will see this gamble pay off are few and far between. Like a set of keys that can’t be found when leaving the house, the path to success cannot be planned for or anticipated, and it certainly cannot be rushed. With the fierce competition that is rife in the overcrowded worlds of art and design, the odds are stacked against us. 

Felicity Hammond, a British artist and photographer, recently brought the ugly side of this system out into the open. She had been commissioned by Unseen Amsterdam to produce a body of work, but was left in the lurch when they declared bankruptcy this month. In an Instagram post, which has since been shared hundreds of times, she wrote: “This is me, 12 days after giving birth, back in the studio finishing off a project that I will never be paid for.” Hammond described the recklessness of the photo fair and the fee that had never materialized, which accounted for a quarter of her annual income. She wrote of invoices that she had been promised were on the verge of being paid, but which had never come through. 

For Hammond, even the assurance of a commission from an established photography fair was not enough to protect her from the financial insecurity that endlessly tips the scales in the creative industry. Inevitably, it is the poor and the disempowered who must pay the price for this imbalance, while companies can simply shake off their liabilities and debts to reform under a new name. Hammond described how she felt robbed of the hours that she could have spent recovering, resting and making the most of the first weeks of her daughter’s life. “I cannot afford to spend any more time and energy dealing with your organisation,” she wrote in an open letter to Unseen, published last week. It is a sentiment that encapsulates the situation of so many others working within the art world under these precarious conditions. Their most valuable resource is their time, precisely because it is so easily lost, wasted or abused. 

When even the promise of guaranteed work is rendered as insubstantial as a paper bag in the rain, what hope do the rest of us have? Earlier this week, Hammond posted a welcome update on her situation. Unseen Amsterdam has recently been acquired by Art Rotterdam, and the new owners are keen to make amends with Hammond and the artistic community who had amplified her story. It is good news: she will be paid for her work, albeit months late and following the stress of an immensely public dispute. But how many others would have had the confidence to step forward and speak up? And how many are left behind? 

“Inevitably, it is the poor and the disempowered who must pay the price for the imbalances of the creative industry”

It is an important question to consider as more people than ever go freelance. Young people between the age of sixteen and twenty-four are one of the fastest-growing groups of self-employed workers in the UK, up by seventy-four per cent from 2001 to 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics. For artists, the flexibility of self-employment can often outweigh the costs of greater instability, leaving them with the ability to take on a variety of jobs, commissions and casual labour to make ends meet. 

My path has taken me in unexpected directions, and I have learned to accept the diversions and dead-ends. I have wasted time on applications that would later be rejected, and on jobs that I was ill-suited to. There is an often-held view that our career trajectory ought to be linear, and that one step should lead to the next. It is a misconception that can create stigma around changing direction, or moving into a new field entirely, as if we must accept our lot rather than risk returning to zero. To make real progress, we need to stop placing the blame solely on ourselves when we waste time. More often than not, the cause can be traced far beyond us alone. When I am at my lowest ebb, I try to remind myself it is via a circuitous route that a new idea is arrived at.

Are We There Yet is a fortnightly column by Louise Benson. Top image © Sander Meisner