What do artists, community leaders, innovators, homemakers, and free thinkers have in common?
Answer: They are all often at some time classified by the government as unemployed or not in full-time employment - and have to deal with the stigma, and bureaucracy, these terms invoke.
They are all, however, ‘productive bodies’. Be that the fundamental productivity of giving birth to future generations and raising them, providing the glue that holds communities together through organising or participating in events and groups, helping those less fortunate, or innovators changing the way we think about the world.
I thought a lot about this when Sophie Jerram and I (as public art programme Letting Space) were working with Tao Wells on the development of his project The Beneficiary’s Office. That work in turn has inspired Mark Harvey to create Productive Bodies, a group performance work we are producing March 12-16 in City Gallery Wellington and the streets of Wellington.
Looking around at my friends and neighbourhood, I realised that so many people I knew not in full-time employment were doing work for the ‘public good’. They juggle the search for work with community and creative work that feeds them, and in turn us.
For Productive Bodies we are gathering together people for information evenings on Wednesday February 22 and 29 (8pm, Toi Poneke, 61-69 Abel Smith Street, Wellington). All are welcome: artists, those between jobs and redundant civil servants - we will talk with Mark Harvey about our experiences. If you identify with any of what I talk about above, we’d really love to see you there.
Why do we mention redundant civil servants? Putting aside for the moment that we have seen thousands made redundant in Wellington in the last two years, and that the public service is such a significant part of Wellington’s urban landscape, the civil service is the infrastructure and administration that allows everyone else to scurry around being productive.
The work of a public servant has been often driven by a sense of doing public good. To be relieved of such a post must be for many difficult. This is a fragile time. You are less likely to consider yourself ‘unemployed’ as ‘between jobs’, ‘looking for the best offer’, ‘working on contract’, or ‘taking a break’ (as Tao encouraged people to consider).
Vulnerability is heightened by the fact that of all classes of workers public servants may have held some sort of job security. The public service may now be full of short term contracts but it’s arguably still a different ballgame to the self-made entrepreneur, freelance writer or artist, for whom there has never been a sense of a secure future.
With this work Mark Harvey and Letting Space wants to involve a rich mix of people who have different ideas of what job security, productivity and ‘community service’ mean. Community Service is the name of the series our current Letting Space projects are all running under. Should civil and community service be treated so different?
We all serve. We are all productive bodies in having and raising children, bringing our communities together, advocating for change and experimenting with different ways of doing things. Artists meanwhile need to be better publicly recognised as not isolated self-interested cells but vital contributors – change agents. Many of the great projects of our country have come from people who have had the time to re-imagine and reinvent beyond being worker bees.
We are not alone in thinking this way. We’re also looking forward to bringing together with Mark as part of the project academic and former MP Marilyn Waring and economist Susan Guthrie for a discussion at the Arts Festival Club during the week of the performances. Guthrie has worked a lot in new thinking around issues of income inequality and productivity. Waring is a highly regarded and generous thinker and gifted communicator on looking at alternative economic models for valuing GDP and people’s productive work.
In a recent interview from Canada I read with Waring this weekend she makes direct links between civil and unpaid community service.
“In the mainstream, any movement has always been toward the "market." That is, there continues to be the assumption that the only way in which work can be visible or valuable is if you treat it as if it were a market commodity or a market service and you attribute a value to it. That approach is anathema to me. As somebody on the front line of making policy, the information I need is what women do with their time.
“I can give you a very good example. In Alberta, you've gone through a rough period where government services have been cut and the responsibility for continuing to carry out a lot of services hasn't devolved to the private sector, but to the "community." We know that "community" is usually mom or daughter or aunty or neighbour or some other woman who already works 16 to 18 hours a day. Sometimes she's in the paid work force; sometimes not.
“There's been no investigation in Alberta into whether quality care or quality servicing can go on in this devolution. There's no investigation about the training or the time available to these people. They are just supposed to take over. The most important question is not what is the value of the work they are doing, but do they have time to do it? What inputs do they need to be able to do the work adequately?”
We’d love as many people as possible to join us on what should be a very interesting and fun journey. See you on February 22 or 29 if you’re keen.
To register or ask questions give us a bell at firstname.lastname@example.org.