On work-life balance and fair compensation for artistic labour
Artist, 22 April 2021
—How has it been since coming back from Chicago two years ago?
—It was okay. My student visa was running out. So I applied for a job at a local print workshop and I got the job. So I decided, you know, I will move back and get a job... make some money. I mean, there's always a pressure for me... there should be some money making endeavour.

—Did you not give yourself the space or even think of giving yourself time to like, "Okay, I'm going to use the year or two after graduating to focus on my practice", or was it that you graduated and needed to make money?
—I think for me there's a little bit of social pressure, but not really. And also kind of a personal thing where with my parents they're like, "okay, you have until graduation." They'll pay for stuff till out of uni. So after that, try to be as self-reliant as you can. Yeah, so like financially independent. I actually graduated in 2018, and then I worked at a factory doing screen-printing in Chicago. And I crowdfunded my own studio practice, trying to go into production pottery. So it's very factory focused, related to craft and technical work. It was okay that studio practice, but I decided to try a full-time job.
—So tell me about your hours at the print workshop?
—It's a very good work-life balance. We start at 8 and end at 5, Monday through Friday. And it's very physical technical labor. But there are labor laws for manual labor, physical labor and artisan labor.
—Yeah. It's like 40 something hours. And there's a certain pay grade too. Above a certain pay grade, it doesn't count.
—You mentioned that there's a lot of work-life balance—what does that look like?
—You get the time after work to pursue your own things. After 5, you're basically free to do whatever you want. Just have to wake up early enough to get to work at 8 the next day.

—But do you have the energy?
—That's the most difficult part. The physical energy is quite difficult, because you're physically very tired; you're standing up eight hours a day. So after 5, when I do ceramics, is also quite physical. And sometimes you don't feel like doing it. But for a while before COVID, when I first started at the print workshop, I rented a studio space and I would go there every day and try to do something. It's very slow, like really, really slow. The pace is something I struggle with because I like to have a lot of time and then do a lot in that amount of time. Now I can only do a little bit at a time. Yeah, now you only have like maybe two or three hours in a day or less.
—You set up a studio at home right?
—Yeah, recently. I didn't want to go to the rented studio because you have to travel there, get to work, clean up, and travel back. So I chanced upon a kiln that I co-bought with a friend. I recently finished just one piece and it took me like four months.
—Is it an ambitious piece?
—If you got the tools and equipment you can finish it in a few days. But for me it's almost like one week of work per month. So it's four months of work, but it's actually closer to like four weeks of work; four months of working one or two hours a day.

—How does that make you feel?
—Kind of struggling to balance: you're trying to make work, but you're also trying to work. And for me, going to work is also part of training or practice because it exposes you to printmaking, which is a technical medium that's kind of interesting to explore also.

—Does it feed you creatively? Or challenges you? Are you finding it fulfilling? And then does it feed back to your practice?
—It's very hard to say cos I haven't really been very focused on making work. I only set up my studio in December last year. So it's been a few months, and I've only been working on this project so far. And everything's still in the testing phases. Everything I do is very technical based. Like with ceramics, I'm still figuring out kilns, glazes, clays. It does feed some ideas and creativity mostly through looking at other artists' work in the shows and of some of the things being made. But the work itself, not really.

—So I heard you have a show coming out. Is this where the work is intended to be shown?
—Yes, that's where the work is supposed to be. I hope it will make it there. It's in the finishing stages. It has to dry; not crack. Go into the kiln, fire once; not crack. Come out of the kiln, be glazed, fire again; and not crack. [note: the work didn’t make it]

—There are so many artists or people who have practices that are also holding down full-time jobs. And yeah, they do still continue practicing. But for some reason they also get glossed over a lot more often. They're not as visible.
—I think the biggest challenge for holding down a full-time job and practicing is really about the time and energy: that you can't expect to be making like 5 or 10 works a year. You really need a lot of dedication, and I've seen some people hold full-time jobs and really push. It's a lot of dedication, and a lot of energy. Being a full-time artist has its benefits in terms of being able to work through ideas at a much faster pace.

For me, there was this thing about getting a full time job, because maybe it could possibly sponsor a studio that collaborates with artists. And you don't have to worry about financially surviving off of it. A lot of people take it as a full-time job right, and then you have to make money off the production of work or you have to get funding from grants or funding from distributions. And sometimes that may limit the kinds of work you make if things are determined by sales, or things are determined by how much the artist can pay you. It's something that I'm thinking about: in what way can I provide technical opportunities to younger artists that will boost their work at low costs to them.

About technical labor, I think acknowledgement will be helpful. You know, there are artists who make stuff on their own, and others who love to collaborate with people. It's just part of the whole ecosystem—art making, art production.
—Why do you want to collaborate?
—I'm not really that creative a person. Who knows why I'm in the arts. It's not to say I'm not creative—I do enjoy really tinkering with things. If anything, I should go to engineering school. It's nice to do the production without thinking about the work; I don't have to think about 'why this color?', 'why this shape?', 'why this drawing?'. Someone just comes with the drawing and says "Make it like this", and then you have to figure out how to make it. The ideas are there and you're able to give input as a creative person with artistic training—like, "maybe go bigger", "maybe this material will push the idea further", or "maybe this technique will be closer to what you want".
The execution of the idea is the fun part, and that's why I like it. It's exciting to see the end goal we achieve. About collaboration: in the general public, they're like, "the artists made this thing!” But no, the artist maybe just drew like a scribble and sent it to a guy and then just like, "make that". It's rarely mentioned, like who printed Edvard Munch's lithograph? Maybe it's in the history books, but it's not out there. When you're an individual collaborating with artists, how much do you charge them for your labor? How do you justify labor costs and production costs? What is the value of labor in terms of compensation?
—Yeah, so how do you navigate that?
—My friends back in the US are artists but they also do technical labor, and they understand that this is what it costs, so if I can't pay you, then maybe I can't do the project. There's a mutual understanding. How you navigate this is like on a person-to-person basis but there's an understanding about the industry or the people and fair compensation. There's this whole thing going around about minimum wage and fair compensation for your time and labour. And sometimes, maybe in Singapore, sometimes people go "I can do this somewhere else for cheaper, I can do this in China". We can fabricate a lot of things by sending emails to China. Maybe for younger artists there's better understanding especially in the US where all the younger artists are involved in the technical side.

Everyone understands what everyone else is struggling with, there are conversations about it, about being underpaid for your labour. Like when maybe a school wants you to do a one-day workshop, what's the fair compensation for that? How much do you ask for? 
—For me, I don't actually know. I've had people ask me how I actually calculate the curator's fee and I'll be honest, I actually don't know. I don't know what's the best way to do it: Is it by the hour? How do you negotiate if the scope of a project changes?
—There's no set way I guess. I know there are some artists in the US who talk about that. Like even with selling an artwork, a lot of things are based on perceived value or art market value. But why? If I am a young artist and this thing took me 200 hours to make, it's going to cost as much as a Do Ho Suh work or something. But that's because it's justified by the labor costs—and not like you have to underpay yourself. I mean, maybe it won't sell...
As some younger artists are choosing to represent themselves, they'd be like, "This work is worth this much because of these reasons" or "this is how I calculate the price of my artwork". There are even some professors who talk about this: the price of your artwork should be the cost of the production at least x3, so that you'll be able to make that work three times over with the money. Some people will say: if I'm paying myself $15 an hour that is the time costs, there's production costs, and there's a creative value or just a multiplier. Yeah, there have been conversations about how you price work and also how you value your own labour also as a collaborator.