Friday, March 31, 2017

The questions I should have asked before giving my writing away for nothing

END CAPITALISM - oh yes!
It seemed innocent - someone I've known for a long time asked if I'd write a poem in response to a artist's print. The project involved many writers, mostly working in the commercial world. At the end, there'd be an exhibition.

'There's no money in it I'm afraid.'. And that was fine because we'd worked together and I trust him.

I spent time with the print and it grew on me. The other night I went to a London gallery for the exhibition opening - prints and texts hung alongside one another.

I know nothing about the commercial side of the art world. I no longer expect to make money from poetry. Once I could, as a by-product, through residencies or running workshops. But I've learned to live frugally and now my income comes from teaching an Open University course and renting a room on Airbnb.

So I was taken aback to see my poem, printed on nice paper on a letterpress machine (in garamond, for those of you interested), framed and on sale for £150. This was the sum the gallery felt made it 'accessible' to buy!

LIVING IN THE FOREST 
My first feeling was the absurdity of seeing this piece of paper smaller than A4 in a frame. I'd imagined it was going to be a creative exercise, the typesetting and hand-printing. But there it was, really just a piece of paper in a largish frame.

The friend who invited me to take part was as surprised as me that these texts were going to be on sale to the public. I'd been told I could buy it myself for that price (!!!) to cover the cost of printing, framing and exhibiting. Surely this small thing in its very ordinary frame couldn't have eaten up £150? That would support me for a week.

I looked at it and realised everyone along the way - the printer, the framer, the gallery (in one way or another) was getting something out of this exercise. Even some of the other writers were using it for marketing their companies.

What had I been thinking? Well and truly duped, I hadn't been told it would be sold to the public, I hadn't been told more than one copy was printed, I had to fight for a complimentary copy of the catalogue.

The next morning emails pinged to and fro, entering the absurder uses of language, how people seek to justify themselves, muddying the waters.

I went to the allotment, spoke to friends, I went to PigHog at Grand Central and introduced the wonderful poetry of Janet Sutherland and Mandy Pannett - quiet, considered, thought-provoking. Before I went to PigHog, I read the email that had really set me on fire and replied, "You cannot sell my work."

Oh, I was flattered to be asked and how dangerous is that? It meant I didn't ask questions. Yes, I was out of the habit, out of the loop, out of the world. Yes, I've been living in a kind of forest of my own off Lewes Road - foraging for work and not paying attention to the rules of the city. But - foolish old woman - I was dazzled to be asked.

Questions I should have asked

Who is funding this project and how? What commission does the gallery receive from the artists' work? Where is the agreement over how my work will be used? Will more than one copy be printed and if so, why? Will I receive a complimentary copy of the catalogue? What does the gallery get out of it?
Picasso jug in Cardiff Museum
What made me sweat as I walked up Trafalgar Street to Grand Central for the poetry last night was the gallery's remarkable unwillingness to explain the economics of this exercise - exactly what the printing and framing had cost and the costs of the exhibition. And no-one, it seemed, was interested in engaging with writers' rights in the chain of artistic production. It was the gallery throwing the word 'exploitation' into an email when I had asked in very polite and restrained terms for facts that made me see red and see the tactics I'd been bombarded with on Facebook.

Yes, these were Trump tactics - bluster, confuse, refuse to answer.

Saddest of all, I really like the artist whose work I was linked with. She's talented, interesting and aware.

I will not give my work away again. If I am asked, I will reply, "Find me someone to repair my car for nothing."

But it has  helped me understand artists friends' reluctance to engage with the gallery system and why artists are setting up their own.

The Before I Die wall was in Brighton for the Sick festival. There have been more than 2,000 in 70 countries. The original wall was made in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang.