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The Long Game

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to write this piece.

Every time I do, the situation changes.

In our daily lives we are experiencing significant social upheaval. More will come. Many of the precepts that have governed our world are fraying.

Like most of us, I have vulnerable members in my family, friendship and neighbourhood networks. I worry about them.

I’m very apprehensive about what’s coming, hoping that our governments’ approach of flattening the curve mitigates the tsunami to manageable waves.

I write this piece with all the artists and arts workers I’ve worked with in mind. They are so many, across all disciplines. They’re always in the frontline of change as they are today. I also write for those whose work I admire from afar and who continue to work despite the circumstances. In the forefront of my mind, are all the artists I’ve mentored these past years whom I’ve persuaded to stick with it just that little bit longer, convinced that through our efforts we could change things just enough to shift the dial.

There has been a vault of ideas and actions for supporting artists who have been so cruelled these last weeks. I send my appreciation to all those whose efforts are helping to improve our immediate circumstances.

It starts with the acceptance that the current system that governs the daily conditions of artists’ lives is broken.

In hope, I’m looking to the other side of all this, trying to imagine what it might look like. And I want to offer some thinking around what we might do to realise it, how might we change our behaviours and the structures that govern them.

I often work in speculative fiction, but speculative reality is much harder. In speculative fiction you can be pretty loose with the imagination. In speculative reality, there is a responsibility, obligation and duty to create something that is manifestly better than what we have.

In the language of pathology that dominates our world, our current reality is that the arts sector’s immune system is severely compromised and has been under significant stress for over a decade. Unless something is done quickly, as in now, the sector will enter palliative care. First, artists, then the rest will follow.

For a long time, we used words like sustainability to define the life of the working artist in this country. Around five years ago, we moved to a language of survival. Now we use the language of extinction. There’s nothing dramatic about this. These are facts.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has not caused this.

It’s simply brought into sharp relief the working reality of the Australian artist, a consequence of the interweaving of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy into the fabric of mainstream political and economic culture, and ultimately, civil society. It’s the Holy Trinity of neo-liberal power that divides, disturbs and alienates, and has an abiding distaste for the plurality of ideas, feelings and senses that generate and receive the arts.

Here’s the thing for artists.

In this system, you will always be fetishised, patronised and financially discriminated against. When bail-outs are proposed you will be last in line and, when they come, they will often be loaded with caveats and managerial instruction. Institutional integrity will always be privileged above the individual artist’s needs. The system is built on this value-set. It’s why direct funding to artists at state and federal government levels have sunk towards single-figure success rates over the last five years. In the mainstream of this system, you are expendable. It’s an (un)intended consequence that ignores social value and reduces all activity to the financial. It’s just how the system works.

External forces, the global pandemic, have made this reality moot.

As we navigate a way through the chaos, we will have opportunities to reset the system or create a new one. Central to both is the practical distribution of power and wealth in which the curation of the ‘social’ is primary.

A couple of ideas.


The arts sector is an excellent prism through which we can learn and observe the neo-liberal conquest of society. The system is so embedded in the arts that even those with the most noble intentions find themselves operating counter-intuitively. There are no pathways out of the system and many organisations whose task it is to provide them embody exactly the kinds of reflexes that sustain and protect the system. Endgame.

Neo-liberal power structures may be read vertically, top-down silos with clear values, hierarchies and control flows. The vertical tends to ensconce power at the top, creating elites, perceived and actual.

A variation can occur when we flip the vertical ninety degrees to the horizontal. We flatten the hierarchy but the flows of control remain. If we go one step further and create a structure that’s horizontally conceived and vertically integrated, then we make a matrix with multiple, intersecting points of power, but it’s still governed by the values of the old system. And they centre around profit.

My reading of Australia’s major cultural entities is that they operate in the interplay of these two axes: the vertical and the horizontal. Bled through these axes is the powerful virus of managerialism, that warps the structure so that no other form of thinking or action is possible. Endgame.

Rhizomatic forms of leadership are absolutely key to sharing power, which in our political system means sustaining democracy…We don’t have to invent a new system. We just amplify some of its existing, minor chords.

If we’re in agreement that this system of power is utterly disabling, especially for artists, then what we need to find is a new shape, a new way of configuring ourselves individually and institutionally.

In the arts space, I’ve been talking quietly about rhizomatic forms of leadership and organisational design. A rhizome is basically a plant stem that sends out shoots and nodes – things heading somewhere, and points for those things to go through. Rhizomatic systems are worth a look because they consolidate growth horizontally whilst also having the capacity to shoot upwards. So, their behaviour is kind of familiar. There are some good examples already in the arts around collective artistic directorates and operational models in project contexts. The Tasmania-based Big hART are quite good at the latter.

In the philosophical context, a lot of work has been done by a couple of very smart blokes called Deleuze and Guattari. They’re big fans of the rhizome. As they write in their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus, it’s because of its interconnectedness with “semiotic chains, organisations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” What I like about the rhizomatic model is its nod to the natural world and its reflection of our ways of being in that world. It’s also very practical. At this critical juncture, it actually describes what is happening in terms of organising, mobilising and activating civil society. It also reflects best the medium we use to do a lot of that, the internet. It’s a bit messy, it’s relational, it’s very human(e), it grows in a way that is tentacular.

Rhizomatic forms of leadership are absolutely key to sharing power, which in our political system means sustaining democracy. Which is good. We don’t have to invent a new system. We just amplify some of its existing, minor chords.

The second idea is a little less abstract.


It starts with the acceptance that the current system that governs the daily conditions of artists’ lives is broken. This pre-exists the Pandemic and, in my experience, is agreed upon by much of the sector but rarely admitted in public. It’s in plain view, now, however.

The precarity of the artist’s economic life has been widely documented and evidenced. Artists have been on the precipice of social changes wrought by neo-liberalism. What has become clear is that if artists don’t act, sing, dance, perform, paint, sculpt, play, compose, write, light, design, illustrate, process, build, edit – all the doing-verbs of the arts – then millions of people do not make a living. Arts-makers are a source of so much labour. And that labour feeds so much other labour. All human activity is interconnected, and its value lies in its sociality not in productivity. Productivity is first and foremost relational, the financial is a consequence.

Arts-makers are a source of so much labour. And that labour feeds so much other labour.

We can assume that whatever is negatively affecting us in this system is negatively affecting other workers in their version of it. Our problems are shared, and the solution needs to be universal. So rather than constructing an economic model that works for the so-called arts ‘industry’ (many would say such a model does not exist) perhaps we need a model that takes all of us into account.

I propose that the arts sector, as a whole, advocates for a Universal Basic Income. It’s an idea that has gained global currency over the last decade and significantly in the last weeks. At its heart is the financial accommodation of all citizens. There are many variations on its implementation and many interpretations of its value.

Australia had a singular and positive experience of the UBI in 2009, when the Rudd Government dropped almost $1,000 into the bank account of every Australian of age, to mitigate the effects of the GFC. UBI principles are implicit in the social safety nets of Northern European countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. A few years ago, Finland and The Netherlands tested the waters of a UBI whilst Scotland toyed with a pilot project. What can be drawn from these examples is that a UBI is best customised to the concrete conditions of the society and the economy at its service, and any implementation needs be mindful of immediate circumstances: in this case, a global pandemic.

I propose that the arts sector, as a whole, advocates for a Universal Basic Income.

The lived experience of the arts sector’s primary producers – artists – provides significant evidence that a UBI structured into the nation’s taxation system and social services could significantly mitigate the suffering they now endure in the time of the coronavirus. Much of the current discourse is of artists and arts workers falling off a cliff and there being no safety net to break their fall. The government’s ad hoc, piecemeal response to the desperate plight of workers is as good an argument as any for the establishment of a UBI.

In 2017, I was commissioned to write on the effects of the UBI on the Australian arts sector. In it, for reasons restated in this essay, I proposed that the arts sector would be an excellent candidate for a pilot scheme. Nothing I wrote then has dated. Much of the inequity built into Australia’s arts sector would dissolve. Much of the inequity built into Australian society would be substantially mitigated. Solve the problems of the Australian arts sector and you can solve many problems of inequity in Australian society.

Today we have an opportunity to mobilise. This Open Letter to the Commonwealth Government and National Cabinet calls for the introduction of a Liveable Income Guarantee as a matter of urgency in the context of the Covid-19 Pandemic. It specifically identifies the removal of all conditionality and mutual obligation and to unify payments without prejudice to higher ones. Its intention and carriage are a demonstration of the rhizomatic forms of leadership I was talking to earlier, the idea percolates horizontally and then shoots upward.

This idea is a first step to a UBI.

Alongside the creation of beauty, the exercise of imagination and inspired acts of provocation, the lived experience of artists can make another contribution to Australian civil society, telling it like it is to initiate material social change for all.

4 responses to “The Long Game

  1. Mmm …

    Don’t think for a second that Shonky’s Wage Subsidy scheme is in the interests of the common good.

    He’s just aware of the growing rumblings across Australian society that politicians and public servants should be having a pay cut like everyone else and is hoping to head it off.

    Taking one for the team is not in Shonky’s DNA

    1. Who is Shonky?

      The Wage Subsidy scheme will benefit around 6 million workers – how is this not in the interests of the common good?

  2. David, what ARE you smoking? It’s name is “welfare”, it comes with “conditions” and promotes “laziness” and “apathy”. All words that are hardly conducive to a thriving arts sector …

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