Reflections of a Grashopper

Diederik Peeters
Statement for the Flemish Theatre Intitute, 2011

Statement for Flemish Theatre Institute

written and read by Diederik Peeters

for the presentation of the 2011 field analysis by the Flemish Theatre Institute

published in etcetera #125, Courant #98 and 'INS & OUTS - A Field Analysis of the Performing Arts in Flanders' published by VTi

translated by Bart Capelle

©Jan Clays - 'Safety Instructions' Hans Bryssinck

Invited by the Flemish Theatre Institute, Diederik Peeters wrote a statement about the 'post-Fordist, immaterial cultural labourer slash jobhopper'. Peeters read this text at the presentation of the Theatre Institute's field-analysis at the RITS (Brussels) on April 4th, 2011.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

I was asked to come and make a statement here today. But why in heaven's name would they ask me? This can only be a trap, I thought. Because I'm not that big-mouthed. But when I set eyes on the publication being presented today, unfortunately the reason became clear very quickly. I am, as it happens, the typical example of the post-Fordist immaterial cultural labourer slash job-hopper who is portrayed and analysed so thoroughly in this publication. And apparently in this industry there are more and more of these individual 'performers-makers' of which I stand here in front of you as a blueprint.

I can assure you it's quite a fright to suddenly see 'a typical example' standing in the mirror in front of you. Especially since I thought I was mostly my own personal and unique self (again in accordance with the profile of this neo-liberal creative mind). Still, I am being staged here (involuntarily and without properly realising it) as the unelected spokesperson for the union of immaterial and individual artistic labourers.

'But what does it look like then, this typical example standing in that union-mirror in front of you?'

Well, I will tell you. I am mobile, flexible and above all 'available' at all times. My first answer to whichever question is that I am 'available'. (For the Flemish Theatre Institute I was available, et me voilà.) - In short, I perform and I create, now and then I try to make myself useful for colleagues in other positions, and I occasionally add in a quickie as a passer-by for TV or film, a guest lecturer, a workshop teacher or in this case an amateur of statements even. In other words I hop from one collaboration to the next, in various positions, and in the meantime - and not in the least - I have set up my own small-scale hybrid projects as well. I merrily waggle through my European backyard, and as is proper I leave a solid carbon footprint in doing so.

Just look at me standing here now, in this ridiculous capacity of 'individual typical example' and 'hybrid grasshopper'. If you really want to know how I am doing I can tell you, but you will have to keep your ears wide open. Don't worry, as you will see, I am well-behaved and extremely polite by nature. And besides I don't have anything new to tell you. Everything has already been unveiled in the outline of the Flemish landscape that is presented here today.

Anyway. First of all I can tell you that the undersigned typical example has enjoyed himself tremendously over the last few years: I have performed a lot, created a lot, travelled a lot and learned a lot - and it was damn fun.

But in the meantime this freelance 'shredder' is getting on in years and after a good 15 years of young and promising flexibility he has gradually become tired of his own 'availability'. Perhaps in the end, that's something more suitable for fresh young spring chickens. And anyhow this job-hopping is nothing more than a way of making a living in a system that demands this kind of flexibility. But in fact it substantially hinders my view on a perspective for the future. Just try and build up something while skipping back and forth from project to project. Instead of reinventing and proving myself for every project time and again, today I have the desire to sink my teeth into my work. I desire, in other words, a better balance between this damned flexibility which is demanded of me all the time, and a minimum of continuity and stability. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, today is my typical individual artist's desire. And because opportunism, as you will read in the field analysis, is also one of my typical features, of course my next question is: How to get what I typically want?

1. We've known for a long time that one of the generic complaints from those generic individual artists has something to do with the fact that he is surrounded by so many people who support or present him, for which they can fall back on the security blanket of a salary. The artist himself has to keep grass-hopping merrily from one freelance job to the next project and from one 'small' daily allowance to the next interim contract. The fact that these daily allowances and interim contracts only pay for half his labour is often considered obvious. And in the meanwhile he can enjoy the disguised patronage played with fervour by the Unemployment Office.

Regardless of the circumstances, the savings or the budget cuts, the artist is always expected to remain 'available' and 'efficient'. It goes without saying that he is expected to come up with creative solutions; to make a solo instead of a duet, to shorten rehearsal periods and to rig the lights or design the set himself if needed. It doesn't matter, as long as the quality of the result is guaranteed. At the same time, for organisations, those same budget cuts are an equally acceptable and understandable argument to justify a lesser commitment in co-production, presentation or support.

It is necessary, and it is good, that there is money for organisations which support individual artists. However, if ever less money is available for the artists themselves, this means the bill doesn't add up completely.

2. The fact that everyone around him is receiving better pay may be just a first, perhaps superficial consequence of the fact that everything surrounding the artist has been organized in a sustainable and professional way, while he himself is left standing in the precarious corner. Given all the workspaces and alternative management offices currently eager to give support in Flanders, the sustainability of this support appears guaranteed. But what about the artistic practice itself?

Right, let it be clear that these fervent supporters and supporting intermediaries have meanwhile proven their utility with flying colours. Witness therefore precisely this generic generation of thirty-somethings that is waiting in my mirror today with it's typical, specific need to stabilize, to professionalize, to optimize and to 'decentize' their work. But the implementation of these typical individual artists in all those supporting and intermediary initiatives is still mainly project-based. And just try to stabilize or 'decentize' in those circumstances.

Many of these intermediary organizations were invented ten years ago, with the idea of giving a decent boost to the beginning artist, until he or she is able to stand on his or her own legs, gathers in a collective, funds his or her own company or (best of all) constructs a structure around his or her own individual individuality. But that kind of development-model seems of little relevance today. For the government, to start with, because weaning-off big companies from the structural budget is not yet under discussion for the moment. And among the individual artists in my mirror I see few fellow-companions who still cherish the ambition of knocking up their own company surrounding their own person. In our typical artist's eyes those models look somewhat aged and yellowed, like a slightly dated inheritance. The hybridization of our practice and work processes, which are more and more based on collaborations, require new and more flexible ways of developing, producing and presenting. Furthermore, in this typical individual artistic labourer, or his colleague entrepreneur, an economic awareness rises which sets the idea of a full structure surrounding one individual in quite an absurd light.

And so the artist goes looking for other ways to gain a long-term vision, huddles together with his colleagues and tries to share overhead expenses with them. Everywhere around me, in Belgium and the whole of Europe, I see individual artists looking for a new model: no collectives, no companies, but communities of artists. Groups of individual artists whose individual works preferably show affinities. Clusters of artists which might collaborate now and then, but mostly comment on each other's work, mutually discuss their practices and throw concerns and insights about the field and the world into each other's faces.

At the present the support of individual artists is being offered (and subsidized) on a project-to-project basis, without a long-term perspective that is tuned to current practices. Policy makers, and the (intermediary) field as well, are lagging behind.

3. Yet another consequence of this distorted balance between support and practice gets on my typical artist's nerves even more. And I'm not even talking about the much-discussed 99 percent of the cultural budget which goes to art institutions, and the one percent which remains for individual artists.

No, much worse than those percentages is the fact that as an individual artist I am so damned dependant. Or at least, that I take up this dependant position all the time. My role in the performing arts industry is limited to that of supplier of services and products, and suppliers need customers. My own ideas on that industry and on the context in which these products are being conceived and consumed fall outside the authority of my supplier's role, and are therefore of little significance. Because after all, who has the money wears the pants, initiates and determines what happens. And who doesn't have money in his pockets nowadays, is forced to act or to behave as merchandise.

And I confess: me too, as a motivated and self-made travelling salesman, I try to sell my handbags to the first programmer who comes along. Time and again I find myself back in that needy, begging and dependant position, even towards the people and structures who support me. Because that support is, as I've already said, project-based and without long-term guarantees. Nota bene pressurized by the great need of moving up (ah, those young spring chickens!), naturally it is up to the organizations to choose which artists they will work with, and not the other way round. True 'mutual and joint consultation' between artist and organization is of course out of the question within this balance of power.

So you'd better watch your step, not tread on anyone's toes and be damn careful! But how to be innovative in this position? I mean, just try and play the pain in the neck, let alone the fool, in that position. You might be kicked out on the street. In this manure, politeness and carefulness grow into blown-up caricatures of themselves. And again I confess: I am gradually becoming tame and completely lax by my own polite carefulness. And even worse, it starts to scare and frighten me!

And so I try out my most ferocious mug, and again face the frightened fool standing in front of me. With my finger raised I fling the following towards him: 'Stop playing the damned travelling door-to-door salesman so arduously! Stop that endless fishing for the grace and approval of all those artistic directors and curators! Rectify that distorted balance between artists and their support yourself! Don't grumpily wallow in that dependant beggar's role, and take back the helm and the initiative! Lazy bones! Miserable slacker! Wring organizations into an affiliation with yourself, that is different from the one in which you're just a product-provider! Lay claim to your own old-fashioned autonomy, dammit! And how? Get organised! Stop dutifully conforming to the support that's been invented and provided for you, and knock up your own 'intermediary' organization, instead of submissively staying dependant on the existing ones!'

4. A remark which thoroughly gets on my typical nerves is that individual artists are deemed too individualistic or too chaotic to organize themselves. Coming from a programmer or a producer, of course this remark sounds to my typical immaterial labourer's ears as condescending paternalism. Because the real cause of this difficulty of organizing is exactly that same distorted balance between artist and structure. Firstly I can tell you it requires some organizational talent to organise all that fragmented job-hopping. And secondly it is quite obvious that organisations are better at organizing than individual artists - that is the reason of existence after all, of those organizations, and that's what their employees are paid for. Organisations get organized, they consult in consulting organs and they network in networks. And of course they only do it for the well-being of the artist, all this organizing. But he wants to be involved in it personally - at least as a co-initiator for instance.

Which fool is fool enough to organize individual and individualistic artists? That could only be the artist himself. So again I put on my ferocious mug and call out to myself: 'Get organized, Peeters! Join forces with like- or unlike-minded colleagues, share the costs of administrative or production collaborators and free yourself from that wretched beggar's role! And if no organizational format can be found in the Flemish Arts Decree that responds to your needs or desires, then just invent the sort of structure you need yourself, dammit. Create clubs, huddle together and reclaim the role of initiating engine of the field!'

5. Right. By now my time is up. The fact that I'm standing here - am allowed to stand here - might be a sign of a change of mentality in the surroundings of that artist, who is as disorganized as he is individual; he is being involved in the debate and that means he is starting to be dragged out of that tight straitjacket of mere product- or service-provider.

Before I forget: if I understand correctly, the fact that the one percent needs to become ten again, is clear to everyone and has actually been taken care of already. Please guarantee as well that this won't be skimped on during the upcoming round of economy measures, if not we'll be left and with a field of skimped structures and skinned support for individual artists.

Other than that, all suggestions for policy-making have been listed neatly in the field analysis which is being presented here. And today I would like to use my individual, opportunistic artist's finger to underline the following from it.

Dare to support new organizational models. Offer those precarious individual artists the possibility to hatch new models of collaboration, allowing them to stabilize their practice on the one hand, and to be flexible enough to correspond to the way they work nowadays on the other hand. Open up and broaden the definition of projects in your Decree, and while you're at it: why not that of structures as well? Experiment with a structural project or a project-based structure which can at least guarantee the administrative and production support of individual artists in the longer run. And in this manner create a new, healthier balance between artist-run and other organisations.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your attention.



Beursschouwburg, Sarma Salon@Batard, Brussels (BE)


RITS, presentatie veldanalyse VTi