The Creative Case for The Future of Work
What role can art play in facilitating useful discussion around the Future of Work? The overwhelming quantity and variety of material out there about the Future of Work can be made more digestible through a creative illustration. Art is often used as an accessible and engaging method to work through difficult concepts. At base, art is the sharing of another perspective: a different way of looking at something.
Throughout history, artists have sought to represent, illustrate and explore the world of ‘work’ through their practice. Artists looking at contemporary and future forms of work in the here and now include Anna Witt, whose video work Unboxing the Future has been made with workers in the Toyota Factory in Japan, and Toby Lloyd whose practice involves using artistic methods and gallery spaces to host a dialogue about work, leisure and related concepts like Universal Basic Income.
Toby Lloyd: Between Eating and Sleeping 2018
There is also a sizeable amount of discourse and practice within the contemporary art world dedicated to understanding the particularities of artistic labour and the precarious condition of being an artist. Groups like W.A.G.E and Precarious Artworkers Brigade use artistic and traditional strategies to highlight the inequalities and injustices of freelance creative work and draw parallels to other forms of the exploitative gig economy and precarious work.
As demonstrated in the tradition of Utopian Socialist Literature, from William Morris and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, through to Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy, storytelling can be a powerful tool for outlining and even building the desire for better (working) futures, as well as warning against dystopian possibilities.
Dave Beech’s Art and Postcapitalism offers an overview of the history of art and work, and detailed Marxist analysis of artistic labour to illustrate why it can be an exceptional form of work. That aside, however, there is surprisingly little focus on art, either as a trending form of contemporary labour or as a tool for illustration or exploration, in current literature and conversation around the Future of Work.
There is a present opportunity, and in my opinion a need, to forge new strategies that combine contemporary analysis, future-orientated speculation, and the creative storytelling to broaden and deepen the conversation around the Future of Work. A more diverse range of voices needs to be included, with young people in particular - as the workforce of the future – taking the lead. The approach that I’m proposing with In-Situ would use Pendle as a testbed for a project that uses creative and playful methods to engage young people, workers, employers and organisations in collective co-production of a critical simulation of potential postwork futures.
Embedded Practice and Pendle
In-Situ is an arts organization with a mission to embed art into the everyday life of Pendle. This is achieved through a number of different methods and approaches, amongst them by hosting artist residencies. Through working with artists whose practices are research-based, context or site responsive, and encompass varying degrees of social engagement as part of the creative process, In-Situ aims to offer opportunities to audiences near and far to experience art that is relevant, unique and a true or authentic reflection of that place.
I was led to work in this manner through formative experiences making art in Leeds as part of the art collective Black Dogs. Our initial practice was individual, studio-based and representational, but through the specific conditions of showing our art in a city like Leeds - where the opportunities for using traditional gallery space was limited - we arrived at a practice that embraced the qualities of the unusual spaces and non-traditional audiences and publics that would experience our work.
Working with the particular qualities of a place and its people can not only make artwork more relevant for audiences but also be beneficial to the artist and practice. I have found repeatedly that with a little digging reveals that all places, no matter how marginal or unremarkable on first glance - or negative the public perception – hide their own seams of landscape, history, narratives and personalities.
Likewise, there tend to be huge, and mostly untapped skills, knowledge and resources that can be drawn upon to build the foundational infrastructure for a collective creative exploration of that place. Oftentimes it is from the most unexpected places, those left out of the dominant narrative of neoliberal progress – the postindustrial cities and the ‘crap towns’ - that the richest assets are uncovered. My projects in Stoke-On-Trent, Luton and decade-long ‘action research’ project in Bradford have taught me it’s in the cracks of uneven development where the most interesting stuff grows.
Suzanne Lacy with In-Situ Image credit: Charlotte Graham / Guzelia
In Pendle In-Situ’s position means the industrial heritage of East Lancashire is literally on the doorstep. Their base is situated within the former garage of the Smith and Nephew textiles mill in Brierfield. Artists including Suzanne Lacy have worked with In-Situ to gather oral histories about the role of the mill and textiles industry in shaping the town’s identity, including the mass migration of workers from the Indian subcontinent. The histories of Nelson and Brierfield are full of fascinating examples of people-led and grassroots workers movements from the suffragettes and the birthplace of the Independent Labour Party. These former mill-towns are now home to manufacturing and retail businesses including Barnfield Construction, and numerous independent businesses in the retail sector with neighbouring companies Boohoo and EuroGarages shining lights for the entrepreneurial approach.
On the horizon is Pendle hill and the surrounding rural villages of Fence, Barley and Roughlee that earned their living from agriculture and now the hospitality and tourist industry including Michelin Star pubs and hotels. In the small town of Barnoldswick, Rolls Royce, Silentnight and aforementioned Hope Technology bike manufacturers have their base.
In-Situ is not alone as the only arts organization in the borough – Higherford Mill in Barrowford is a former mill complex that houses a variety of artists and makers from leather goods manufacturers to painters, printmakers and photographers. In the wider East Lancashire area there are a host of arts organizations with a similar socially-driven practice and commitment to embedded ways of working including Mid-Pennine Arts who have been commissioning social practice since they invited Welfare State international over from Bradford in the early 70s. The wider network for this practice includes community cohesion organisations such as Building Bridges.
It is in fact the scale and the relatively ‘cut off’ position of Pendle that makes it such fertile ground for a project looking at the Future of Work. In a small area of just over 90,000 people there exists an incredible diversity of backgrounds, business, organization, industry and landscape rural and urban. It posses human and natural resources that would make it a perfect setting for future forms of work: if people are going to be working from home in the future why not do it somewhere cheap, with easy access to the countryside and potential for your own off-grid wind-powered energy system?
Most importantly the willingness of people to work together and in partnership – from grassroots volunteer groups to Burnley Football in the Community charity, the DWP, Lancashire Adult Learning, and the CEO of the council – means that projects, including arts-based ones such as those delivered by In-Situ, have a potential to take hold in the every day of Pendle and have meaningful impact for those that live, work and play there.
My approach to exploring the Future of Work is in Pendle is through the creation of a videogame co-produced with its people. In the videogame the player creates a link between present-day and potential futures, gathering information about work that may help them shape a brighter reality for themselves and humanity.
Andy Abbott, Dreamwork: Pendle Trailer 2020
The content for the game – the scenes, settings, characters and dialogue – are developed through creative sessions that I run with young people, workers, the economically inactive, businesses and organisations. I have trialled and tested similar ‘verbatim videogame’ methods in a previous project called Lutopia, made with the people of Luton as part of their City of Culture bid pilot programme. This game was played on VR headsets and acted as a postwork future or Universal Basic Income simulation for the town.
For me, there are a number of benefits to co-producing an artwork in this way. As someone who was not brought up around art or going to galleries, I have always been sceptical of privileging the artist’s voice above others. I try not to assume that I know more about the subject of my art than the audience who may experience it. I find an effective way to ensure this is through a level of co-creation resulting in a polyphony of voices greater than my own. Likewise, I find that a more diverse range of voices gives the project more depth, especially when those are representative of people heard least often. I also enjoy the element of chance that working with people brings to a project, forcing me to respond to the process rather than stick to a preconceived outcome.
Although I prefer not to judge my art projects by them, there are also potential benefits to those who participate in the co-creation process. As discussed above, engaging in conversations and thinking around The Future of Work can build confidence and improve literacy around present-day work. It may help people to make more informed decisions about what they choose to do for work, or what training and education they undertake. This could benefit those furthest away from the job market, the long term unemployed or economically inactive, as well as young people still in education.
As such I am working in partnership with local schools and colleges, Burnley Football in the Community and the DWP to identify participants who will both bring interesting perspectives to the project and for whom the process of taking part will have some tangible benefit. An unintended outcome of the research has been content for a short-course around the past, present and future of work in Pendle. This course may be delivered in parallel to the development of the videogame, which would have the added benefit of broadening the funding streams available to sustain the project in the mid and long term.
This is Part Two of a four-part article. Part One can be found >>> here <<<
Part Three, in which Andy addresses some of the challenges and opportunities of distanced and remote methods of engagement and the use of digital tools will be published here on 4th Oct 2020.