On identity and barriers in the arts
Art worker, 19 June 2021
This is a two-part interview. You can access the first part of this interview, On taking an exploitative employer up to task, here.

—How do you think your identity affects your work?
—Definitely, I think. Your circumstances, your background, definitely affects a lot of how you get around the industry: the kind of opportunities you are offered, and the kind of difficulties that you face. I've had experiences of working, where you are removed from a larger conversation because you are a minority. I wouldn't say it's outright racial discrimination. It's very subtle, like being excluded from certain high-level meetings, you're not given a bigger undertaking, for example, and there are also instances of microaggressions, like a friend smoking with an artist becomes a problem when a brown artist and a brown gallery staff smoke together.

Friends have been discriminated against, such as being told to leave because it's immediately assumed that whatever they do is criminal. For example, I have a friend who was tapping in back to the museum late at night to take something she forgot: her laptop charger. The next thing she knew, she was told not to come back to work because they have an alarm system and knew when people came back. She was fired without any process of understanding why she was there. I mean, there's a lot to get into, I don't even know where to begin. Whether it's gender, class, or race, identity definitely plays a part, for me.

In terms of access, my personal experience is that class is a very big barrier to assessing opportunities in the arts and cultural sphere. Just to share my experience, even before graduating, I worked as a security officer throughout my whole school life, because I had to self-sustain and pay for my own expenses and school fees and all that. Half of the time, I'm not able to spend time on reading, on writing, because I have to work. So there's already that disparity, but the lucky thing for me was I gamed the system because I work in security, so you do graveyard shifts where there's not really a lot of work to be done, and I can catch up with my readings. But this also means that you have a different bandwidth and capacity to approach your assignments or your group work for example. That's already one barrier for me. 

I was also from a graphic design background and that was the same problem when I was in poly, because you need to spend a lot of time and labor into the school work that you're doing, which I wasn't afforded because majority of the time I was at work. So I ended up not having a portfolio at all. I graduated with very bad results because of that, and it bleeds into your career and like working life because of your inability to produce a good portfolio during school time. You can't get employed because you don't have a portfolio. I tried to go into LASALLE to get a degree in graphic design and to rebuild a portfolio. But I realized that I'm going to fall under the same trap where I have to work and I wouldn't be able to produce a portfolio and end up with shitty grades. And at that point I couldn't find a job, that was why I was working at the gallery. I realized that maybe arts management is something that I can do because at least I can do my reading while I work, maybe do a bit of writing on my phone, and also do some assignments while I'm working. I didn't really have great grades because of the bandwidth I was afforded with my work. Maybe that could have possibly been the reason why I'm having difficulties getting jobs at institutions.
Also, there's the fact that one is not travelling abroad to study. I think this is very disturbing, that we're still valuing someone's credibility and worth based on whether they are able to obtain a Master's from a UK/US university or something. I find it challenging to speak about this because it's something that you can't prove. But hiring preferences are always towards people who have been abroad, although CV-wise, they don't necessarily have a lot of history with work. But you can get positions more easily. I've seen firsthand, particular experiences where you can see how warm some people in the institutions are towards people who have just come back from overseas.
Just as a disclaimer, I'm always sharing more about my personal lived experience not because I'm an asshole and I want to make people feel discomfort about it, or like it's some kind of poverty flex. I do have experiences with friends, who feel a bit of discomfort when I share very honestly and openly about things like this. But yeah, I just want to say that it's not to make anyone feel guilty. Like for me it's very empowering because like before this I used to be ashamed about my circumstances, you know, going to school like not having textbooks, having to share your textbooks with friends, you know, you get chided and are ridiculed. And like, for a long time, like, I was ashamed of being poor. But now that's changed, for me, I think it's great because not only is it empowering for me personally to be able to move away from that shame, but I think it opens up avenues for people to learn about the kind of experiences that I have that people might not necessarily be exposed to. So it's really coming from that space, I'm not trying to guilt trip anyone for studying abroad… That’s not the case.

—The barriers are, not just time, and energy, but also the cultural capital.
—It's really rigged for me but I'm really trying because I enjoy working within the art and creative sphere. I do hope one day that we will obtain a level of UBI [Universal Basic Income] where everyone can just be provided a basic income and do things they want.
—So that's the aspiration.
—Yeah, like offloading to A.I + machines, and also at the same time reconfiguring power structures at the top. Also as a society, how we perceive value, and it's a very big undertaking, I can't begin to map out how it is going to work. And our relation to capitalism. It's a super big undertaking, looking at all that, even socialist democracies don't necessarily truly work right now. They are still testbeds.

Value towards labor is something I think a lot about because I come from a background where I'm sitting at home, maybe I spent three hours on the laptop doing work, maybe doing some reading, but then my mom comes home sweating because she's working as a cleaner, from eight to five. And I think about that, the disparity between the kind of work that I'm doing, and the kind of work that my mom is doing, and the kind of wages she gets. And like, yeah, I think a lot about value and labor.
I think it's a great question: how do we value labor? Whether we think that creative work is being valued enough. Whether it's being valued fair, whether we wish others paid more for it. And I grapple with this, because I think for a lot of us in the arts and culture industry, and this is just my opinion, we are quite privileged in the sense that we don't think about where money from the arts come from, we don't see the relationship between how we're able to sustain art as an industry is always related to other shortcomings elsewhere. I'm not a specialist in finance, but definitely, you know, like money doesn't grow on trees.
A lot of the money from art and cultural industries comes from public money. And often we don't think about what public money means. We are always hard up towards institutions for not allowing more money for the arts, having a lot of expectations or thinking so much about how grants are distributed. I think it's definitely fair, but we often don't think about whose money we are using when we're creating cultural products. We’re taking public money, so what are the kinds of responsibilities we have towards what we're doing with this money? Which is why these structures like KPI exist, to show that the programme you're doing is really beneficial to a subset of your community, for example.
I think it's fair to say that because we are not a country where money for the arts is through philanthropy or commercial giving, but I think we are steering towards that, so that the arts and culture industry can be more "sustainable" in that sense. And I'm saying that because of where I am today. It's a privilege to be where I am today, writing, reading, talking about art. I'm here because my family made sacrifices, my brother left school, my sisters left school so that they could support my mom, and I could go to school. Yeah, I often think about the kinds of value we attach to labor. A lot of discussions around precarious labor and cognitive labor always talk about how cognitive work should be valued more. But we also don't talk about the underlying networks of how all these values in labor are still attached to physical labor. I think, quite possibly, that's how finance works in the world, right? Very simply, I guess it’s similar to a company where there’s someone at the top, who is able to benefit and make a lot of money at the expense of people who are doing the physical, cheap labor at the bottom.
—Yeah, the question about the differences in value behind cognitive labor and manual labor is still quite unresolved.
—I think precarity means a lot of different things for a lot of different precarious laborers. Precarity means something different for a Grab delivery rider, as opposed to a freelance artist. And oftentimes I think we tend to forget that art as an economy doesn't exist in a vacuum, it's always sustained by other economies. Sometimes I feel like creatives, at least the ones that I'm exposed to, are romanticizing precarity too much.
—Is there a space for cultural workers to find solidarity with other workers from other industries? It seems like, on the one hand, either you're romanticizing other workers, but on the other hand, cultural workers beat ourselves up by seeing our work as very privileged and distance ourselves further from other workers. So do you think there's a space for cross-industry mass solidarity?
—Unfortunately, in Singapore, we don't have a social history of organizing. So that's definitely going to be hard to obtain. But I think a good place to start would be arts groups, arts collectives, artists who work around social work in social spheres. And maybe between those spaces we can find space for them.
—Do you think cultural work is very far from ordinary work?
—My personal take on that is that a lot of like the sentiments I've heard, there should be more money in the art. And that comes from a very privileged space. And like, you know, it should be a given that some cultural institutions should be given public money. They shouldn't have to work to find ways to finesse money out of corporations. You know, my take on that is that there's always that disconnect with where money into arts comes from, no one actually stops to think about it. I mean, people would argue, how does an industry that's not productive, that doesn't produce capital, how can it become self-sustainable? Like, that doesn't generate income. I wish I knew more about finance and the economy to try to start to unpack these things.

Read the first part of the interview here.