On being used to being underpaid
18 January 2021
—So maybe let’s start by talking about wages…
—Yeah, wages for young arts graduates are very baffling for me. I'm feeling very stuck. I was looking to apply for jobs with a fine arts degree. And it just seems like a dead end. There are a lot of new jobs, a lot of low-wage jobs in the job portal. I don't know if it's the algorithm feeding it to me. So what can you really do with a fine arts degree? It seems that most of the jobs are out-of-bounds except for manual labor, low wage jobs. I really couldn't find another job.

—Perhaps for fine arts graduates who are looking towards freelance labor, the question of wages doesn't apply too much? Do you think they should be thinking about regular wages or should they be thinking about a freelance career?
—Being freelance really wouldn't sustain my expenses if I wait for shows lah. And also figuring out that the shows do not are never going to appear. It was really a shock for me when I met a senior artist for lunch and I asked him what the artist fees were like. For a long time, I didn't want to ask what institutions were paying, but when I found out it was a huge shock because at the back of my head I was still banking on the thought that maybe when I'm in my 40s commissions will pay off and give me savings. Some of the fees were really shocking.
—What were some of the fees actually, if you're comfortable saying?
—If I recalled correctly... $500 if you are showing old work, no recontextualizing, just deliver your old work for the biennale. $1500 for a reinterpretation of an old work. For the commissioning of new work, $2000, which could take up to six months.
—Oh wow.
—Scary, right? Six months.
—So that was a big bomb for me. And this was at the biennale level leh. At that point, I went to look for a job straight away. I had to look at the job portal and really think seriously. There's not going to be a career in the arts.
—Right, as in a career that can sustain you? Yeah, because you're not only receiving that lump sum of money, you have to parcel that money across time too.
—Then there's I mean, the other scary thing when you compare production budget with your artist fee. It’s so ridiculous when they can still afford you $10-20,000 for production fee.
—Which really shows how much labor is devalued whereas objects are fetishized. That's why artists are doing creative accounting.
—The better practice would have been to not have this split between production budget and artist fee, where you received a lump sum and then you decide what you want to do with the money. Can you imagine if you called a contractor, “eh I want to make cupboard for kitchen, I want the cupboard materials to be $10,000. And then you can pay yourself $200. But I want the work to be worth $10,000.”
—Maybe that's a problem, also that we are so used to…
—...being underpaid?
—Yeah, yeah (laughs).
—The productive thing to do, which I hope to do, is to figure out this document that would reveal from an honest perspective to let fresh graduates know this is the current state of  payment, so you don't wait for... “oh, my big break is gonna come.” “And people are doing well up there.” There are some older, full-time artists and they are doing okay, because we assume that they do some institutional shows and are able to get by.
—A lot of how people get by is through existing support, like family support. Current paying practices are even more harmful for people who are disadvantaged, in that they don't even need to play the game and they are out of the game already.
—And then they think that is meritocracy, “it's just my work is not good enough.” “So I did not manage to clinch this artist fee that I imagine everyone else is getting.”