Becoming a freelancer

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‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967) David Hockney

I’ve taken the plunge and decided to go freelance. It’s been a tough decision as I really enjoy so much of academic life – teaching, writing and publishing, a stimulating environment, wonderful students, inspiring colleagues and so on – but unfortunately the terrible working conditions of university employment outweigh any of these positives.

The discontent surrounding the current state and future direction of higher education is well reported – see here, here and here for summaries. I’ve been disillusioned for some time but found it too difficult to walk away after the years I’ve invested into an academic career.

The turning point was when I found myself yet again moaning about the flagrant exploitation and under-paid nature of my job to a friend over dinner. Instead of listening to me complain he asked: “What do you want your life to look like?” I started muttering something about really enjoying teaching, so doing something along those lines or maybe perhaps being a journalist. “No” he interrupted, “not what job would you like to do, what do you want your life to look like?”

This was a novel way of thinking about my work situation – all those unpaid hours in the evenings and over weekends was certainly not how I wanted my life to be. The politics in the department and brazen nepotism was an unhealthy and unpleasant environment to work in. The pressure to publish and demands of the REF meant scholarly freedom was curtailed and university life actually quashed rather than cultivated intellectual curiosity and exploration. I had a lightbulb moment and realised that this was not the life I wanted to lead, nor the habitat I would ever thrive in.

So what did I want my life to look like? I wanted a work-life balance. I wanted to write whatever I liked and publish articles that weren’t locked behind a paywall. I wanted to be in control of my time and have genuine autonomy. These realisations, coupled with more adjunct teaching misery, led to my decision to go freelance.

I’m not naive. I know how tough freelancing is and the challenges and uncertainties of self-employment. I had in fact taught a whole MA module on precarious labour (‘Creatives’: Working in the Cultural Industries) this past academic year. But I needed to get out of what was an increasingly toxic environment and try and make it on my own. I’ve done some odd writing and research freelance jobs over the past two years since I’ve finished my PhD, so it’s not entirely new to me and I’ve built up some contacts. Plus, my partner is self-employed so I’ve witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations of being a freelancer. I’m therefore not doing into this totally blind.

To summarise, the reasons I’m embarking on a freelance career are:

  • To have more control over the way I spend my time
  • To have flexibility in how and where I work (whether at home/abroad/part-time/with a family)
  • To escape the restrictive and what I feel to be unethical working conditions of academia
  • To follow my creative impulses and work on the professional and personal projects I want to – away from the pressures of the REF and citation metrics
  • To write for a wider, popular audience

I’ll be documenting how this exciting new endeavour develops and will blog about these topics in more detail over the coming months. I also plan to provide useful information for other writers/researchers/post-academics who are making the transition to freelance work.

Articles and websites that I’ve found helpful so far include:

Freelancing is both an exciting and daunting enterprise as there’s so much uncertainty but I’m already glad I’ve taken the plunge. As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca said: “It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”

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33,000 Everyday Artists nominated for a King’s Award

33kEAlogoI’m excited to announce the project I’ve been working on over the past year called 33,000 Everyday Artists at King’s College London has been nominated for a King’s Award in Innovation and Impact. It’s great that the project has received the recognition it deserves. We find out whether we’ve won in November.

Here’s some information on how the project fits the award’s criteria:

An innovative and cost effective initiative which benefits others 

33,000 Everyday Artists, a collaboration between the Cultural Institute, 64 Million Artists and researchers Dr Nick Wilson and Dr Laura Speers (CMCI), sought to recognise and realise the creative potential of all 33,000 students, staff and academics who comprise King’s. By utilising a digital artwork where participants shared their passions and hobbies, and a month of daily creative challenges, the project aimed to embed creativity in everyday work and study life. The project was inclusive by engaging all faculties, across all five campuses, and was free to participate in. The research conducted alongside the project has produced a report that addresses the individual and institutional barriers to creativity at work.

A positive impact on the university’s reputation internally or externally

By drawing attention to both the need for, and the challenges of nurturing, an everyday culture of creativity, the project has had a positive impact across many of the diverse constituent departments that comprise King’s. As one respondent put it: ‘It was great seeing the diversity of interests and passions around KCL. Everyone has a story!’ Discussions are underway with the Student Education Directorate and Organisational Development about bringing a more localised and tailored version of the initiative to specific segments of King’s. The project has also gained traction outside King’s, including coverage in the leading arts magazine Arts Professional.

Film Review: The Great Hip Hop Hoax

HipHopHoax

Director: Jeanie Finlay (2013)

The Great Hip Hop Hoax follows a rap duo from Dundee in Scotland who fabricate an elaborate story to secure a record deal. Following a humiliating audition in London where the pair are laughed at by a panel of judges for being Scottish rappers, they become more determined to make their dream come true. Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain reinvent themselves as brash and outlandish Silibil N’ Brains, who hail from California. As soon as the rappers fake American accents their fortunes turn. Booking agents, promoters and even music executives are soon duped by the pretence. Quickly touted as the ‘next big thing’, they land a contract with Sony, but the audacious masquerade and constant fear of being exposed as frauds takes its toll on the rappers. The film documents the astonishing true story of the duo’s rise to fame, their downfall, and the personal toll of the deception.

The film is made up of confessional interviews with the two rappers, as well as music industry personnel, close loved ones who were in on the hoax and others implicated in their web of lies. Intermingled with the unfolding narrative is shaky amateur footage shot by the rappers themselves, which captures the outlandish exploits of the pair following their first advance from Sony. In addition, stylised animation is deployed as a visual means to reconstruct the past. The animation also captures the two-dimensional nature of their rap characters.

At the heart of the story is the contentious issue of authenticity. To be taken seriously, the rappers feel the need to pretend they are from where the culture originates, the USA. Although substantial research on hip hop to date has emerged from the USA, there has been a shift in the last decade recognising hip hop as a global music. Tony Mitchell’s edited book Global Noise: Rap and Hip Hop Outside the USA (2001) arguably signalled the emergence of a body of scholarly work on rap, known as global hip hop studies (Alim et al., 2009). Since then, studies of localised hip hop scenes have been carried out all over the world recognising and celebrating the culture as a meaningful medium of expression and affiliation for youth. However, in the case of the music industry, it seems rap is only authentic if it is American and based on conventional, almost stereotypical, tropes of hip hop. As Gavin states in the film, “It has nothing to do with how good you are. If you want to get on a label, you have to be marketable.” Herein lies the tension between what is deemed ‘authentic’ and what ‘sells’.

For a music that holds ‘being true to oneself’ (Harkness, 2012) as a fundamental tenet of “keepin’ it real”, rappers who fabricate personas and live a lie portraying themselves as American, might immediately seem inauthentic. However, the documentary conveys the complex and often paradoxical nature of authenticity. If these two Scottish rappers wanted nothing more than to be hip hop stars, then perhaps we can understand them as ‘being true’ to that ideal. The contested and messy way in which authenticity can be interpreted and practised is what makes it such a highly charged issue in hip hop (Pennycook, 1997).

The essentialist debate of whether rappers are only considered authentic if they are from where the culture originates and fit the characteristics of the ‘original’ participants i.e. black, working-class and urban (Harkness, 2012) is not just limited to hip hop. There are similar debates in other genres, for instance country music (Peterson, 1997), blues (Grazian, 2003), punk (Williams, 2006) and dance music (Thornton, 1995). Furthermore, as the world becomes increasingly globalised and governed by capitalism, different music and cultural forms will continue to be appropriated and adopted in unlikely places across the globe, making questions of authenticity ever more salient.

Aside from the complicated questions raised about identity and authenticity, the story is also about friendship. Rather than experiencing a sense of condemnation or disapproval towards the main protagonists, the viewer feels sympathy for the young pair who were prepared to go to any length to reach their dreams, ultimately costing them their friendship. The interviews with Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd featured in the documentary had to be shot separately as they were not on speaking terms. The film is thus not just an entertaining account of rappers taking on the British music industry but a moving morality tale about friendship too.

The documentary will not solely be of interest to hip hop fans, but also to audiences interested in popular music or the music industry as the film provides a provocative insight into the way in which the artist-management system functions. Artists have a better chance of success with a well-known manager; though quite often have to relinquish rights to the label, perhaps unwittingly precipitating their downfall. The documentary will also appeal to scholars of authenticity because of the questions it raises concerning what constitutes the ‘real’ and ‘fake’, and the role of commercialisation in music.

The actual deception took place in 2004 leaving the inevitable question at the end of the film that if, ten years on, the pair would be able to ‘make it’ as Scottish rappers today. Although we are now living in a different cultural landscape, which celebrates hybridised and localised manifestations of hip hop, the documentary highlights the crippling power of the music 3 industry. As long as it continues to exercise a controlling influence, in effect the music industry functions as the gatekeeper of authenticity.

Works Cited

Alim, H., Ibrahim, A., Pennycook, A. (eds.) (2009). Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language. London & New York: Routledge.

Grazian, D. (2003). Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Harkness, R. (2012). True School: Situational Authenticity in Chicago’s Hip Hop Underground. Cultural Sociology. 6(3) 283-298.

Mitchell, T. (2001). Global Noise: Rap and Hip-hop Outside the USA. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2007). Language, Localization, and the Real: Hip-Hop and the Global Spread of Authenticity. Journal of Language, Identity & Education 6(2) 101-115.

Peterson, R. A. (1997). Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Williams, J. (2006). Authentic Identities: Straightedge Subculture, Music and the Internet. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 25(2) 173-200.

Thorton, S. (1996). Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: University Press of New England.

Grayson Perry’s ‘Who Are You?’

[Written in December 2014 for 53 Million Artists Blog]

Grayson Perry: Who Are You?

“The most beautiful and complex artwork that we can make is our identity” – Grayson Perry

Who Are You?, Grayson Perry’s brilliant three-part series on Channel 4 explores individual, family and tribal identity in modern Britain. In each episode we see him meet various people and groups undergoing change or a crisis in their identity. He then captures this in a portrait in wide-ranging mediums including paintings, sculptures and tapestries, which are now currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Linking creativity to identity is a fascinating notion in contemporary society. Take the social media platform Facebook. The way you select, edit and adjust images and text to portray your life is arguably a creative project. As the quote by Perry at the beginning suggests, your identity is a complex artwork, which is made manifest through such digital tools as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr and so on. You’re constantly making creative decisions in how you present yourself online.

This raises the question of how much of your identity do you display? Which part of you are you expressing, or not expressing? Since recently getting into creative writing, I’ve rediscovered or perhaps found for the first time a different and new part of me that I’m enjoying exploring. It’s been rewarding and fun re-imagining myself with this new interest in my life and trying to develop my aptitude in this area.

For me, the Grayson Perry TV show was communicating something about identity and creativity and the present moment. Identity is not just about the past (where do I come from and how did I get here?), nor solely about the future (where am I going?), but about the present. This is where creativity fits in.

Creativity is all about being present in the moment. Doing something right here and now. Getting absorbed in an idea or a project. Rather than creativity escaping the present, it makes us face it head on. Creativity is about embracing the present moment, reimagining yourself and being playful. This brings about renewal and a source of nourishment for us.

Spending time doing something you wouldn’t normally do allows a space for experimentation; you don’t have to conform or meet expectations. You’re not trying to achieve anything, you’re just being. This is very liberating and rejuvenating. And is a path full of discovery.

Furthermore, opening up a playful and creative space in your life gives you the opportunity to break habits. Some habits can be good in that they allow you to get things done quickly and more efficiently as you’ve honed them over time. However, often habits belong to a certain chapter of your life and can be out of date. Being creative allows you to be or do something new. The way we have constructed our lives and daily routines might need a bit of a shake up and require updating. Break free of the chains of your routine for a while. If it doesn’t work, so what? You still had fun being playful.

As Grayson Perry said in this interview, “I think the artists who will go down in history are the ones who in some way respond to the moment they’re in.” This can be interpreted as artists who say something meaningful about their time and place will be the ones who are remembered. However, it could also mean artists who act in the present moment they find themselves in will be the ones in the history books. If this is the case, we all ought to seize the moment and explore our identities through art and creativity.

Why you should write morning pages

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I first came across Morning Pages when reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron but have since discovered it’s quite a well-known technique that helps with gaining perspective, getting direction and taking action in relation to creativity and life more generally.

Quite simply, Morning Pages are three pages of handwritten, stream of conscious writing first thing in the morning. In Cameron’s own words, “There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages – they are not high art. They are not even ‘writing’. They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind – and they are for your eyes only.” The important thing is you do it everyday.

The idea is you don’t focus on whether your writing is good or bad, or even coherent, you just have a ‘brain-dump’ of whatever is going on inside your head. This isn’t a method just for writers but for anyone – entrepreneurs as well as artists have reaped the benefit of this daily practice.

I’ve been doing morning pages for nearly three months now. At first I didn’t really understand the point of them and also found it extremely hard to fit in to my daily schedule. However, after making it a priority and realising it was not ideal to do over breakfast while chatting to my partner, but first thing when I sit at my desk away from distractions, I now see the hugely transformative power it has and I couldn’t ever imagine not writing them.

So why are morning pages so great? Well, here are three reasons for starters:

Firstly, it’s private. It’s an opportunity to get down on paper and outside your head the circling thoughts or concerns troubling you. It’s a place where I’ve developed my own voice and can hear my ‘true’ thoughts and feelings about issues outside the well-meaning input of friends and family. Because you don’t censor yourself, it’s an opportunity to really explore your goals and ideas, follow intuition, and also have a record of your thinking and development of them over time.

Secondly, recording thoughts and feelings first thing in the morning means Morning Pages function as a ‘brain sweep’ to clear your mind before you start the day. Like clearing out a cupboard, it sweeps away clutter and dirt on a regular basis. As such, it has been argued it boosts your productivity during the day.

Thirdly, the act of externalising thoughts helps you put things into perspective, which is therapeutic but also helps in problem-solving or generating insights on certain matters. As Eckhart Tolle said, “we can only change what we are conscious of”. Morning pages can thus help you devise and reflect on goals and actions.

If writing longhand or carrying around a notepad doesn’t appeal to you, there’s a popular webapp called 750 words that you can try out for a trial period for free. It’s exactly the same principle of Morning Pages (3 pages) but in digital form.

Give it a go. Who knows how useful you’ll find it and where it may take you. Though it comes with a warning – this lady transformed her life so much from writing morning pages she got divorced, lost weight and revitalised her career!

Fear and Creativity

[Written for 53 Million Artists Blog in December 2014]

creativity head

“Creativity is something you practice, not just a talent you’re are born with.”  –Harvard Business Review

Fear is the great enemy of creativity. We’re afraid to make mistakes. We’re afraid of not being good. We’re afraid of being laughed at and humiliated. There are numerous reasons why we procrastinate or don’t engage in creative practice that stem from fear.

To combat creative paralysis, it helps to think in terms of creativity as a process and as a practice. As Twyla Tharp has written in her book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use It for Life, creativity is the product of routine and continuous effort. Ideas surrounding the lone genius whose creativity comes naturally to them, or the notion of a Eureka moment, are myths that feed fears and stifle our creativity.

But being creative on a regular basis, whether we regard ourselves as ‘creative’ types or not, brings so much to our lives. On a personal level, creativity can gives us fulfilment and purpose instead of frustration or a lingering emptiness. Creativity has practical benefits too, such as improving our problem-solving skills and making us more adaptable and flexible in our thinking.

Many of the most famous inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists and artists have admitted to ‘failing’ disastrously but continued regardless with their ideas or vision. The great filmmaker Woody Allen said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Similarly, in Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting GoShaun McNiff writes,

“When asked for advice on painting, Claude Monet told people not to fear mistakes. The discipline of art requires constant experimentation, wherein errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for experimentation. The mistake is outside the intended course of action, and it may present something that we never saw before, something unexpected and contradictory, something that may be put to use.”

An alternative to the fear of failing discourse is to replace it with ‘experimenting’. Try and enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing how something will turn out – our own creative expression is one of the few places left in capitalist western society where our efforts don’t rely on output, profit or success.

Embracing uncertainty can actually be liberating rather than fear-inducing. In 53 Million Artists’ interview with musician Fred Deakin, he said that it is precisely the “sense of possibility” that keeps him going as an artist. He went on to articulate, “The nice thing about art is that it always surprises you. Although you can bring systematic thinking to it and you can bring structure to it, at the heart of it is a leap into the unknown.”

The creative process is a chance to open a space of play and indulge your curiosity. As Fred Deakin astutely conveyed, “It’s a nice place to flex your leap-into-the void muscle and enjoy that dialogue with the unknown”.

However, this requires regular practice and consistent effort as our inner critic and rational side dislikes not being in control.

To help overcome our fear and enjoy creativity on a frequent basis, we can follow the advice of Susan Ann Darly who wrote in the Huffington Post:

From this day forward:

  • Hear and acknowledge the applause of a job well done.
  • Feel good about the effort put forth – not the end result.
  • Feel the joy and gratitude in the ability to use your creativity.
  • Have the courage to show up for it every day of your life

…and the humility to fall to your knees in its presence.

Overcome your fear today and reclaim your creative confidence. Take action to simply play and enjoy the process without thinking of the outcome. After all, what have you got to lose? As Vincent van Gogh said, “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”

What does the Tinchy Stryder and Chuckle Brother single tell us about creative collaborations?

[Written in October 2014 for 53 Million Artists Blog]

The recently unveiled collaboration between Tinchy Stryder and The Chuckle Brothers has gone viral in less than a week, clocking up over a million hits on YouTube. One of the reasons that it has gone viral is the unlikely nature of the collaboration – a young grime artist from East London rapping with a geriatric duo who made ChuckleVision, a children’s comedy TV show.

According to the video description, Tinchy met The Chuckle Brothers while filming for Celeb Juice and really hit it off so decided to record something in the studio. The resulting song, ‘To Me, To You (Bruv)’ was released through the online youth broadcasting platform SBTV with all proceeds going to charity.

Although there are jokes abounding on the internet about potential future collaborations with Rosie and Jim or the cast of Saved By The Bell and other 90s TV icons, there is something quite distinctive about the creative energy produced in putting together two unlikely collaborators.

We tend to be drawn to the image of the lone genius who brings insight or a particular kind of creative flair to the world. However, research has shown that the lone genius is a myth and instead it’s partnerships or groups that generate breakthroughs.

In Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (2008), Dr Keith Sawyer, lists 7 key characteristics of effective creative teams. These are:

  1. Innovation Emerges Over Time – no single actor comes up with everything, every person contributes something.
  2. Successful Collaborative Teams Practice Deep Listening – most people spend too much time planning their own actions and not enough time listening and observing others.
  3. Team Members Build on Their Collaborators’ Ideas – when teams practice deep listening, each new idea is an extension of the ideas that have come before.
  4. Only Afterwards Does the Meaning of Each Idea Become Clear – creative actions take on meaning later.
  5. Surprising Questions Emerge – transformative creativity occurs when groups think in new ways.
  6. Innovation is Inefficient – Improvise rather than evaluate and judge. Improvised innovation makes more mistakes and has as many misses as hits. But the hits can be phenomenal and thus make up for the efficiency and failures.
  7. Innovation Emerges from the Bottom Up – Improvisational performances are self-organizing.

As we can see, the Tinchy Stryder and Chuckle Brothers collaboration embodies many of Sawyer’s characteristics of successful creative teams. Perhaps one of the reasons the artists kept the partnership a secret is because of the tendency of people to judge and shoot down ideas rather than see them through. As Sawyer notes, when you take risks and improvise, it can lead to phenomenal hits.

Book manuscript submitted!

 

I’m very pleased to announce that this week I submitted my book manuscript entitled Hip-Hop Authenticity and the London Scene. The book is based on my PhD research which looked at the struggles artists in the London hip-hop scene negotiate in order to ‘keep it real’.

The book is published with Routledge and if all goes smoothly will be out at the end of the year (2016). You can pre-order it on Amazon here.

This blurb tells you a bit more about the book:

This book explores the highly-valued, and often highly-charged, ideal of authenticity in hip-hop — what it is, why it is important, and how it affects the day-to-day life of rap artists. By analyzing the practices, identities, and struggles that shape the lives of rappers in the London scene, the study exposes the strategies and tactics that hip-hop practitioners engage in to negotiate authenticity on an everyday basis. In-depth interviews and fieldwork provide insight into the nature of authenticity in global hip-hop, and the dynamics of cultural appropriation, globalization, marketization, and digitization through a combined set of ethnographic, theoretical, and cultural analysis.

The volume provides a much-needed intervention in popular music debates where authenticity is predominantly theorized as either essentialist or socially constructivist in nature. Based on an empirically-driven analysis, Speers redefines authenticity as an emergent human capacity, produced through situated practices, in a changing world. This advances the discussion in the field beyond static, discursive, or imagined notions of authenticity, which has considerable implications beyond the case study of London. Despite growing attention to authenticity in popular music, this book is the first to offer a comprehensive theoretical model explaining the reflexive approaches hip-hop artists adopt to ‘live out’ authenticity in everyday life.

 

Researching 33,000 Everyday Artists

img_1704-e1443526844632I’m currently a researcher for an exciting initiative called ‘33,000 Everyday Artists‘ based at King’s College London and funded by the King’s Cultural Institute.

I wrote this blog piece for the 33,000 Everyday Artists ‘digital artwork‘ about the research side of the project:

Is it possible to embed ‘an everyday culture of creativity’ in a huge institution like King’s? Two researchers from the department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries are finding out.

33,000 Everyday Artists is a project led by Jo Hunter and David Micklem from 64 Million Artists. They have one ambition: to recognize and realize the creative potential of every person in this country. Jo and David are resident at King’s for 7 months to harness and celebrate the 33,000 students, staff and academics who make up the five campuses of King’s.

This exciting experiment about bringing change to the culture of King’s presents an interesting research case study. It raises all sorts of important questions such as: How can we develop a space for play? Who gives permission for it? What would need to change (at the level of the institution – i.e. procedures, rules, norms etc.)? Would it be different in different parts of the university?

The research element of the project is in two phases – the first of which ran from September to December 2015. This explored the already existing culture of King’s, what the features of an everyday culture of creativity might include, and the process that it is required to get such an ambitious initiative off the ground.

The second phase, running from January to March 2016, is questioning how and in what ways creativity and a play space can be developed and embedded in an institution such as King’s.

To read more about the research focus of this experiment, you can follow the ‘sketchbook’ research blog here: https://sketchbookeverydayartists.wordpress.com/