Art Not Work: A Manifesto

 

As an artist and technologist I recently gave a talk at Ull Conf (a conference about thinking different) in Killarney, Ireland. My talk was titled Art NotWork: A Manifesto. I want to convince you to make more art and do less work so I’ve shared a transcript of the talk here…

WHY AM I SHARING MY ART NOT WORK STORY?

Like so many of us I do more than one thing. Actually I do lots of things, but broadly they fall into two areas: I am a mobile technology consultant, strategist, writer, occasional entrepreneur (which I class as work), and I also make art — so I am an artist. And to be honest I struggle with doing two things that are so diametrically opposed to each other.

SO I DEVELOPED MY MANIFESTO

I needed a way to rationalise things; the two halves of what I do and who I am. I’ve been trying to create my own sense at the intersection of art and technology for at least 20 years. This manifesto is not finished, perhaps it never will be but I’d like to share it wth you.

ART NOT WORK.

A realisation
A fear
A dream
A nightmare
A call to action

Work is not enough. Not for me. Not for you. Not for the future. 
We need art in our lives.

We need it more than ever today as we face an uncertain future. A future in which Work might not exist. You’ll need art when the revolution happens!

WORK CONSTRAINS US

Sitting at a desk with appropriate equipment. Wearing reasonably sensible clothes. Researching, talking, agreeing, reaching consensus. Using technology, and for many of us hastening the pace of technological change.

ART FREES US

Smearing paint around the place and inhaling a little glue. My art, which might be mixed media assemblage, or extensive use of post-it-notes and sharpies, or graffiti canvases exploring the monotony of internet culture, or a video parody of startup founders, or standing on a stage convincing people to make art — Art is a way for me to think about the pace of technological change; to share ideas with others, to enable my audience to experience something new or unexpected. Whatever our art (contemporary art, theatre, film, literature, music or games) art enables us to think about the world today, and the world we want to live in tomorrow.

Work is: Meeting a brief, Delivering.
And in line with today’s trends it’s ‘the cult of done’. It’s minimum viable.
You meet the brief someone else has set, then you stop.

Art is: Exploring, Thinking, Playing, Trying, Making, Loving, Caring, Laughing, Crying, Laughing some more, Challenging, Arresting. Art doesn’t stop.

Making art is about thinking. Thinking wider, deeper; thinking more. Thinking different. Work constrains how we think. And tells us when we can stop.

WE’VE BEEN EDUCATED NOT TO THINK, BUT TO WORK

From our first day at school. If we study and get our qualifications there are great rewards; we may get to do ‘important work’ — perhaps in technology or business; perhaps work that will shape the future. But to ‘be able’ to undertake that ‘important work’, most of us have studied the accepted rules and processes at University or Business School. Work for so many of us is formulaic; we gather data (about what’s happened in the past to make decisions about what to do in the future), we draw diagrams and charts that back up a hypothesis so we don’t have to personally develop an opinion. We work within the rules so we don’t break anything.

Art School on the other hand ‘teaches you’ to unlearn the rules; that there are no formulas through which to create. There is no right or wrong; and that art is not created through consensus.

There are not enough artists shaping the future, for my liking.

Our focus on work without space for art and critical thinking puts us in a dangerous position. We live in interesting times; new opportunities are being developed at lighting pace but we are less and less able to make sense of where we are headed. ‘Futurologists’ (a rapidly growing breed) are predicting all sorts of outcomes; but the one that we all really need to think hard about now is this:

50% (A lot) of (HUMAN) WORK WILL NOT BE REQUIRED IN 20 YEARS (OR SOONER)

Manual Work — well you may say ‘fair game’; the robots will do it more cheaply. You might believe that is a good thing. You may believe that with better education, manual workers can find intellectual work instead. But these experts predict that this decline is not limited to manual work. And of course we all know they’re right. Intellectual work can be done by algorithms.

WILL YOUR JOB EXIST IN 20 YEARS?

Or will you be redundant?

ACTUALLY, A LOT OF WORK IS BEING MADE REDUNDANT TODAY

Taxi driversHotel staffSupermarket Checkout AssistantsRetail AssistantsFactory WorkersFarmersJournalists.

What about the next wave?
Delivery driversNursesTeachersScientists?

When will get scared about this? When will we take a stand?
AND WHAT WILL THE NEXT GENERATION DO? My daughter is 2 years old so in 20 years she may have been to University and be about to embark some sort of career. But in what, exactly?

EDUCATION IS PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION FOR WORK-AS-WE-KNOW-IT

But how will they cope in 20 years time when there is less work? When work is ‘not as we know it’ — but that the education system was too slow to keep up?

How ‘expert’ or intellectual will her generation need to be to find work, and their place in society? And how will her generation gain experience in their profession if the ‘early career’ level jobs can be automated?

WE MUST THINK HARD ABOUT WHETHER A WORLD WITHOUT WORK IS WHAT WE WANT.

Many see good in this vision. You may believe that paying everyone the same “universal wage” to do nothing is a good thing. I believe people will feel they have lost something. Opportunity. Choice. And if one of the ‘jobs to be done’ of employment (of work) is to give people purpose and satisfaction, what fills that void?

The world will have transformed over night but no one will have put anything in place to help people adapt. Whilst jobs will be lost, others will be created, but they’ll require different skills. Will governments be able to support this rapid shift?

THIS ISN’T JUST HAPPENING TO US. WE ARE ALL HELPING TO CREATE THIS FUTURE.

For many of us our work, is helping to bring about this vision. Those of us who work in technology are hastening the pace of change. At the same time, we are so preoccupied with work that we don’t think enough about the future we are creating.

SOME HOLD THE VIEW THAT INSTEAD OF WORKING, WE WILL MAKE ART.

Whilst I’m advocating we make more art now, that’s because I don’t want us to sleep walk into a world in which there’s absolutely nothing else to do.Art, in that vision of the future is the pacifier; the thing that stops the people from revolting. Indeed art is safe from disruption as long as it’s irrelevent. If you look closely, the people building AI and driverless flying cars, aren’t talking about art at all. Maybe they think art is just a frivolous activity, escapism, rendered safe as it’s unimportant.

SO WILL MAKING ART ALTER OUR COURSE?

If art becomes something that more of us do with increasing satisfaction and impact; It could help to shape the future. It should not just be technology and technologists that shape the future for everyone. We need balance and I believe that balancing force is art.

In our work in flux, Art will be an important force in challenging the new power structures. And by this I don’t mean new governments, I mean that new unelected corporations hold way more power than nation states. It is not the governments we elect (or don’t) that are driving this; that are in control.

PEOPLE WHO CHALLENGE TECHNOLOGICAL ‘ADVANCEMENT’ ARE LABELLED LAGGARDS.

The socialist vision of the sharing economy couldn’t be farther from the intent of many ‘sharing economy businesses’; the new middle men; squeezing the working classes. The gig economy — another innocuous term to describe the abolition of workers’ rights. But challenge them and you’ll be accused of being old fashioned, of not understanding innovation rather than being seen as an intellectual thinker, challenging a future they might like help to design better.

There is an opportunity to get involved and help create a future world you want to live in; but only if we start thinking; questioning, challenging.

WE MUST CHALLENGE OURSELVES: IS THIS WHAT WE REALLY WANT?

We should make space to think; hear the arguments; envision the future as it’s been described. We should imagine ourselves in it; what we’ll be doing, how we’ll live; how our children will live.

Art offers us the space to think.

I urge you: make more time in your life for art. Challenge yourself. Through art, we can discuss, debate, and question. For the benefit of future generations, start now. Go see more films, read more books, see more plays, wear amazing fashion you might not normally wear, listen to music you’ve never heard of, write, share, cry, laugh, love, play, explore, imagine, dream, and above all else, question.

Make Art. Not Work.
Because Work is not Art, and Work is not enough.

Dreams & Motivations: How should we feel about Entrepreneurs?

My recent work exploring startup culture draws from my experience in this area; and several of my recent pieces of work are specifically about the dreams and motivations of entrepreneurs when setting up a business (specifically in my experience, technology businesses).  I want to delve a little deeper into this to explain my work. I created 2 pieces that focus on entrepreneurship: “Build The App” and “Personal Backlog”. Both use humble post-it notes to ‘brainstorm’ a series of imagined tasks that entrepreneurs might undertakes.

Personal Backlog, Katie Lips, 2016

Personal Backlog, Katie Lips, 2016

In “Personal Backlog” the focus is on the things that an individual might do, or feel the need to do when starting a business, especially one with lofty ambitions or Moon Shot to give it its trendy new term.  In ‘shooting for the moon’, a business owner might feel they need to become super human - not just to be a strong leader, but to be all things to all people in order to grow something from an idea into a successful business that impacts the lives of many. And there are plenty of places to turn to for help and support; from coaching and mentoring to professional development, to spiritual (mindful), dietary and fitness regimes. Plus then there are leadership tips explained and sold by articles with titles such as ‘the top 10 habits of successful people’ and so on. As someone who has set up businesses, I can absolutely recognise a desire to ‘be prepared’ a sort of clearing the decks of untidy debris, I can also empathise with a desire to ‘become a better person’ and have myself successfully achieved dramatic transformations (for example in career focus or fitness and weight loss).  I recognise that many entrepreneurs just want to be good, or great at what they do and to succeed and to do that they want to prepare themselves. On this level, my work explores those honest ambitions and genuine if perhaps innocent or naive ways of achieving preparedness. 

The manifestation of that exploration, in my identification of ‘the things a person might do’, or ‘things that an entrepreneur might be sold in order to achieve success’, took me down an additional route.  There is now a giant ecosystem of supporting characters who sell to entrepreneurs. The startup ecosystem contains all sort of services aiming to capitalise on the entrepreneur’s dream. “Personal Backlog” looks at useful things you might do to be prepared and manage a busy workload, silly things you might think you need to do to be ‘healthy’ (which goes hand in hand with ‘successful’ nowadays), and other less tangible things you might do that fall into the ‘fairy dust’ category to create ultimate self belief.

The backlog is the list of things yet to be done; and it’s a well used software engineering / management concept. A key point in this work is that there’s a lot to do, and that entrepreneurs, whilst on the one hand feel that drive and ambition, are faced with the notion that they have to become a super human to succeed. I hope that this piece of work inspires viewers with the idea that entrepreneurs are ambitious and driven, whilst also asking them to question whether they really need to change anything about themselves. Focussing on a desire to self improve might not get the job done, actually. 

 

Build The App, Katie Lips 2016

Build The App, Katie Lips 2016

In Build The App, the backlog is more organised and some of the post-it note user stories are even given ’story points’ and priority ordering - the Agile methodology in action. I also layer in the story over time, with comments, and notes and complete status as tasks get done. The story this piece tells, I hope, is that of the dreams and enthusiasm of a founding team in the early days of business startup. It shows a series of tasks they might undertake (and this is based heavily on my experience of working within and setting up my own businesses). Some of the things are easy and fun like choosing an office space, deciding on how to decorate it, defining a brand, or hiring excellent people. Other tasks are more vital to the business’ success and arguably require deeper work; defining the Financial Plan; creating a business plan and pitch deck, and securing partnerships and investment. There are a lot of dependencies; and whilst many startups need to undertake similar tasks, many also fall into the same traps. There’s always a Catch 22 situation - a business could launch a product, prove an idea, grow a customer base and not need funding; or it could chase the money at the expense of developing a product. Where to spend finite resources is a key challenge for bootstrappers. “Build The App” is only one of over 200 tasks; and with this I aim to highlight that often a really great product is seen as less important that developing an investment story, or getting caught up in the fun of a new business. I aim to share a fondness for people with ideas and their lofty ambitions; and to portray the ultra broad skills set and ability to multitask that’s required to “make it”.

I’ve seen an increasing amount of art recently that goes some way to explore technology and business; and even startups. It’s easy to look from the outside in and show how odd this world is. It’s also easy to question the desire of entrepreneurs who want to make money at any cost; other pieces I’ve made recently also do that.  But with these pieces I want to explore the balance; the personal quest of an entrepreneur who craves success (just like us artists do) and the hoops they are coerced into jumping through to get there. Startup culture itself then, not just entrepreneurs as individuals, is responsible for extolling some of the myths and mysticism. Is there a way to do this or a formula that will work? No. Is there a type of person that you need to be? Of course not. Are entrepreneurs all egotistical sociopaths or are they also rather vulnerable as they put themselves in an exposed position as they shoot for the moon? Maybe.