- INPUT FROM CONVERSATIONS
Conversation with performers
The day after my lecture we organised a conversation between performers and tried to position the questions from the lecture in their individual and professional lives.
About fifteen artists were present during this conversation. All of them had worked as performers, while some also had other professional roles. One person describes herself as ‘dancer, artistic director, editor, choreographer, producer and board member union’ and added ‘this becomes complicated’.
Many spoke about the stress they felt as freelancers. The constant insecurity makes dance a precarious career path, even in Finland, which has a good grant system (in comparison to other countries). People are aware that there are labour laws but find it hard to think about safety in the context of the performing arts. Someone asks: ‘What are are unsafe working conditions in our field?’
There is a feeling that the field of the performing arts operates according to other logics, with hidden networks and informal rules.
A couple of performers shared very personal stories. One gave an example of body shaming during her dance education and spoke about how in society she feels looked down upon when mentioning that she is a dancer, because she doesn’t have a normative dance body. Some performers mention how being hard on yourself and on your body is something that feels like it just comes with the profession, and how this relation to one’s own body actually opens the door for other people (sometimes choreographers) to treat them badly. One dancer asked, “How do I explore my boundaries without hurting myself?”
Performers talk about witnessing situations in which their colleagues are treated badly. It is hard to intervene when you are low on the hierarchical ladder, so you become a bystander who doesn’t intervene. Sometimes this might be because you that you are not allowed (or that it is not your place) to speak up. There is often no transparency or introduction at the beginning of a project that gives you guidelines to understand your position. One performer says that it is also a matter of energy: you need emotional energy to dare to address the problem as a bystander. Sometimes projects can turn into emotional and explosive dramas and this is draining.
For many performers it is not clear where they can go to when they encounter psychological hazards in the field. Someone asks: ‘Where to go when you become the target of bullying in a company?’
There is a willingness to change certain behavioural patterns in the field. Someone says: ‘We need tools for dealing with conflict respectfully. How do we listen to different voices?’. Someone else says that even having this kind of peer-to-peer conversation is rare, but needed. It helps to listen to each other, to listen to people in similar situations, even if you don’t directly work with one another. Someone says: ‘How can we feel empowered instead of building up walls in order to survive?’
A structural problem that everyone agrees on is how to handle the life/work balance in the artistic field. Are there tools for this? Workshops?
Conversation with makers/people in charge
The second day, makers and people in charge were invited. About 25 people attended this meeting. Some worked in institutions, others in collectives, and some had mixed roles being both choreographers and performers. Many artists working in the freelance field are also their own producers.
One choreographer said: ‘When you are leading a creative process, it is hard to also be busy with how each individual feels.’ A returning question revolved around “priority”, especially when there is never enough time. What is given priority in an artistic project: artistic process or group dynamic?’ People expressed a collective need for tools to distinguish the social versus the professional aspects of the artistic work.
‘I used to be afraid of conflict, but it’s inevitable in an artistic creation’, said one younger choreographer. Questions that are formulated by the group were: How to be together in disagreement? How to build a code of conduct? What could guidelines for co-production look like? How do you reach everyone inside a project? What are tools for dialogue during a creative process?
One issue that was extensively discussed was alcohol and drugs abuse in a professional context. According to Finnish law it is illegal to be drunk when you work, but people mentioned several situations where their colleagues were either drunk or hungover. Someone said: ‘It is hard to bring it up, because often you are close to the person or you know that this person is going through something and you don’t want to make it worse. There also seems to be an image of “the romantic destructive artist” (often male) that is more often accepted rather than questioned.’
Several freelancers pointed towards a wide gap between people who work in institutions and people who struggle with finding their own funding for small projects. Agreements around co-productions for freelancers creates tension and competition in the field. People who work in the institutions were listening, but admitted that it is really difficult to be transparent about all facets of things like budgets, because different projects are not always so easy to compare. There was critique of the bigger institutions not always taking up responsibility for issues in the field. Someone said: ‘Many institutions say “we are open for dialogue”, but in reality they are not. Then they are surprised when they hear about problems in the field and wonder: why did no one say anything?’
Someone who works with production said: ‘I end up in the position as mediator when issues arrive in the freelance field, but I have never been trained for it.’ There seems to be a lack of competence to deal with complicated interpersonal dynamics.
One artistic director mentioned that since the 80’s, the Finnish dance scene always needed to fight for national agency (a higher dance education was not established until 1983). Women had to fight hard to build up structures. This generation often works differently from the younger generation. There are intergenerational challenges when it comes to working models (hierarchical vs democratic models).
Conversation with everyone
On the last day, everyone was invited, and around 10 people came. Most had attended the lecture or one of the other conversations.
Someone said: ‘Because of (unspoken) hierarchies in the field, abuse of power happens easily. We need to understand how we all contribute to bad working conditions. Everyone needs to be committed to change. How to empower everyone in the field?’
There seems to be a lack of clarity about who is responsible when: What is the responsibility of the employer versus the employee? How to balance this responsibility?
Some admitted that they might not have enough tools or even experience to face issues of accountability. We spoke about taking responsibility versus outsourcing responsibility. In many contexts there seems to be no clear protocol about procedures. Many expressed a need for outside structures to support people who want to speak up.
One person who teaches dance in a school mentioned that specific tools are also needed for an educational context.
Issues of group dynamics were raised again. Someone pointed out that different individuals (in an artistic project) have different needs: ‘How can we be supportive towards these differences without drowning in “emotional labour”? How to set boundaries when you are the type of person who easily takes up the caretaking role?’
We spoke about different economic statuses, resources and roles versus the efforts put into projects. Some said: ‘We should not take the financial status of people or even the institutional status for granted. Money seems to be a taboo-topic, while solidarity is needed. Where do we find support from colleagues?’
Working conditions for freelancers in the institutional context need to be drastically improved. A director of a festival wanted to think about the role of festivals they are organising. Especially bigger institutions should be an example of putting standards higher.
How do we nourish the relations between institutions and the freelance field? How do we redefine professional ethics in the performing arts?
There was an idea to adapt tools from the commercial field (e.g. tools for startups) to the art field.