The Canadian series Sort Of is a wry, thoughtful take on family and gendered labour with one of the best nonbinary characters I’ve seen on TV. My review here.
For The Guardian, I wrote about the migrant workers behind the ‘made in Australia’ label and how their winning campaign for equal rights might be instructive for other gig economy workers today.
I talked to Emma Do and Kim Lam, the writer and illustrator of Working From Home, a graphic narrative about Vietnamese outworkers in the garment industry, and Nguyet Nguyen and Beth McPherson, veteran manufacturing workers and organisers in the textile, clothing and footwear union.
Jinghua Qian, ‘I can’t apply for another grant’, Un magazine 14.2 (print, audio and digital), November 2020. Edited by Elena Gomez.
My friends keep sending me grants and opportunities. I appreciate it, I really do. It’s nice to know that people are thinking of me. But I never want to apply for a grant again. I can’t. My body recoils. It feels like taking my skin off for nothing.
We’ve all been talking a lot this year about the perverse relationship between art, money and survival. ‘Artists are in a constant state of precarity and crisis,’ I wrote in July. ‘For many of us, there’s nothing to return to, nothing to recover. The status quo is already broken. It’s an empty bowl — with a smear of racism, sexism and ableism to boot.’
In August, I followed up with an opinion piece in The Guardian about going on the dole and navigating the sadistic and absurd mutual obligations system for welfare recipients: ‘It does nothing to help people find work. It’s just a complicated, expensive way of penalising people for being poor.’ But as awful as Centrelink is, arts funding is somehow even worse. At least the dole is ongoing and not a lottery. Arts funding bodies, on the other hand, want you to craft a 10-page proposal to compete for a minuscule chance at a trickle of money. One template rejection I received this year said that only six per cent of applicants had been successful. Another rejection came to me five months after applications had closed. In both cases, the grants themselves were less than $5,000 — not even three weeks’ worth of the average weekly earnings for a full-time adult worker in Australia.1
The quick-response grants that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic were often no better. My eyes glazed over as I scanned the same buzzwords: resilience, adaptability, relief. Each time I was left confused about whether these grants were intended to provide for my welfare or to fund new projects and activities — whether they were offered as charity or investment. Each time I felt like I was handing in my CV and portfolio at the soup kitchen counter. Each time my shoulders seized, awaiting judgement, anticipating rejection. This is not relief.
For all its faults, JobSeeker is easily the most effective arts funding program in this country. Going on the dole has helped my career and my craft far more than any arts grant ever has. Knowing that the fortnightly payments will at least cover my rent is a huge relief, pulling the plug from my brimming tub of baseline anxiety. It’s also given me more intellectual and creative freedom because I’m less reliant on fitting my vision to the categories and priorities of funding bodies. I don’t have to contort my work so that it speaks to diversity instead of antiracism, inclusion instead of decolonisation, identity instead of ideology, or other bureaucratic definitions that are always just slightly misaligned with my own thinking.
Thanks to JobSeeker, I’ve done some of my best work this year. In fact, I’ve been weirdly prolific, pitching and publishing more than ever. I’m much more comfortable pitching to editors than applying for grants. Media and publishing is still subject to commercial imperatives, of course, and that comes with its own set of problems and limitations, but the grant process feels particularly alienating, disheartening and disruptive. All I ever want from the arts funding bureaucracy is time to write, and JobSeeker gives me that without getting between me and my audience. I think if more people could access the dole, and the rate were higher, it would make an enormous difference to cultural life. I would rather arts organisations fight for that than for more arts funding.
Most independent artists are already working across a range of industries in order to survive, and many rely on welfare, but often arts advocacy tends to emphasise how art is exceptional. I think it’s worth taking note of the peculiarities of making art, but we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We need to organise in solidarity with workers in education, media, publishing and other cultural industries, and even beyond. I’m not convinced that it’s useful or even truthful to focus narrowly on how artists are special when our needs are the same as those of all precarious workers — of all people.
The pandemic has generated plenty of chatter about saving the arts, but it’s also burnished the deep ambivalence many of us feel about this sector and how it operates. In the conversations I’ve had with other artists, there’s always an undercurrent of revolutionary rage. We’ve all been talking about how this year offers an opportunity to rethink this sector — what if we set it on fire and started over?
Arts funding is a cancer. Applying for it has become its own job, a job no one enjoys or wants. I’m not sure that anyone is even funding the arts, really — it feels more like art happens by accident as a decorative footnote to the work of endless applications, assessments, acquittals and evaluations. I’m sure some of these elements were once designed as accountability mechanisms, but they have grown monstrously out of control. Like the mutual obligation system for welfare recipients, the arts funding process is disproportionate and counterproductive. There are easier ways to give artists money.
I think a competition-based funding model is inherently destructive. I don’t understand why it’s accepted that in the arts, sport and entertainment industries a tiny elite should profit and everyone else should suffer in poverty for daring to try. Even under capitalism, that’s not how it works in most professions. Funding shouldn’t be a prize or an honour, it should provide a living wage so people can make art without some other source of wealth or income.
We’ve all been talking about this for such a long time and I’m so tired of it. I don’t want to tinker with this system, shifting the priorities and massaging the language. I’m not excited about heralding a new cohort of gatekeepers. I’m not interested in diversity and inclusion. I just want to overthrow capitalism already.
Ultimately, I don’t believe in meritocracy. I don’t believe in excellence. Survival is not a reward. We all deserve to have our basic needs met.
I don’t understand why it’s easier to get paid to administer arts funding than to make art. I don’t understand most of the jobs that exist in this society — they seem to bear no relation to the world that I live in or what it needs. They bear no relation to what I understand as value or a life worth living. Capitalism devalues so much work that’s important and necessary while creating jobs that just tick boxes and move money around. I think that might be the most dystopian thing in this hellscape. We live in a time when no one needs to be hungry, homeless or overworked. It should be possible for all of us to thrive. I want a radical redistribution of time and resources, a reimagining of labour and value. I want to unravel this tangle of art, money and survival so that the next time we talk about this, it’s an entirely different conversation.
1. For May 2020, full-time adult average weekly earnings in Australia were $1,713.90. See: ‘Average Weekly Earnings, Australia,’ Australian Bureau of Statistics, 15 August 2020.
Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer living in Melbourne, on the land of the Kulin Nations. Ey has written on desire, resistance and diaspora for Overland, Meanjin, Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian.
Jinghua Qian, ‘It doesn’t work like that’, Victorian Council of Social Service, 16 July 2020. Edited by Miriam Sved. Commissioned for the VCOSS #MyCorona series.
This is not your typical unemployment story. My experience is a little unusual. But maybe that’s precisely the point: the Covid-19 response from both state and federal governments makes certain assumptions about how we work, and a lot of us just don’t work that way.
I’m a writer. But often writing doesn’t really pay, or rather, the type of writing that’s worth doing tends to pay poorly, slowly, and irregularly, if at all. Writing is both a vocation and a profession but it’s often not a job in a recognisable way. You cobble together a living out of various odds and ends while trying to build a career, and if there happens to be overlap between your life’s work and the things you get paid for, then you consider yourself lucky.
I’ve been lucky. Over the last decade, I’ve had jobs ranging from call centre operator to head of news at a well-regarded international media outlet. I’ve also drawn freelance income from writing, editing, public speaking, performing, radio and podcast making, producing events, transcribing, and proofreading. And I’ve done a lot of unpaid work in arts and activism, both for myself and for the world I want. I’m used to keeping lots of plates spinning.
Before the pandemic properly hit Australia, I was working at an online media outlet as a writer and editor on a fixed-term contract. I left that job in early March to become a full-time freelancer. A week later, the country went into lockdown. The arts sector (my main client) was totally devastated as theatres, galleries, cinemas and music venues closed. Media outlets also started slashing their budgets and shedding staff.
I was terrified. I was supposed to be building my freelance business but instead it seemed like the entire industry was collapsing. Plus, maybe the world was ending. I kept seeing petitions calling for more government support for the arts, which I dutifully signed, but it felt like holding a placard in a tornado. I was reeling from shock and glued to the news, too struck with grief and uncertainty to apply for any of the grants or relief funds that started to pop up. I also didn’t know how to answer the question of how much income I’d lost because I’d only just started.
But I was still writing, still pitching, still numbly hustling away. There were the weeks where everyone only wanted Covid-related content, and then suddenly everyone wanted to read about something else. I struggled to come up with ideas; almost everything seemed in poor taste for this crisis.
When I did get work, it was beset by all the predictable freelance problems: by mid-May, I was still waiting on payment for work completed in March. For some commissions, I spent more time chasing payment and wrangling paperwork than I’d spent doing (and being paid for) the work itself. As a freelancer, I usually have few rights and no leverage to negotiate, though salaried staff aren’t necessarily faring much better – a few of my articles are stuck in limbo because the companies are going through layoffs.
It seemed like I’d chosen a terrible time to leave my job, but there were also benefits to joining the teeming ranks of the unemployed during a global pandemic. So many mutual aid groups sprang up. Newspapers that are ordinarily devoted to vilifying welfare recipients softened their stance. The federal government doubled the payment that jobseekers receive. On the one hand, it made me feel sick to see how politicians and media commentators divided up the deserving and undeserving poor, but on the other, it showed me what a critical mass can achieve. What a testament to the power of the collective! It only took a pandemic for people to see that social security is just as its name implies – an essential feature of a safe and healthy society.
Eventually, I managed to get on the dole, which I probably wouldn’t have been eligible for under the normal rules. It was still a frustrating process – no one would advise me on whether I was supposed to apply for Jobseeker or Jobkeeper, and most of the available information didn’t make sense for sole traders – but overall it seemed less punitive and humiliating than the usual Centrelink experience.
I was already a union member with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance – which suspended fees for members who requested it – and in March I also joined the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union. It feels like there’s an opportunity now to turn some of the lessons of the pandemic into real change.
So much of the emergency response from state and federal governments seems to misunderstand the ongoing precarity that many of us are in. Writers are far from the only ones for whom the pandemic just pours fuel onto the pre-existing problems of capitalism today, but the crisis has made it very obvious just how unsustainable the arts and media industries are, even as people consume more news, music, television and film than ever.
As Jacinda Woodhead – then editor of long-running literary journal Overland –wrote last year, the Australia Council for the Arts funding system fosters a ‘disposable arts culture’ focused on the new and shiny. As a result, artists are in a constant state of precarity and crisis.
That means that for many of us, there’s nothing to return to, nothing to recover. The status quo is already broken. It’s an empty bowl – with a smear of racism, sexism and ableism to boot.
In May, Naomi Riddle, editor of online arts platform Running Dog, wrote:
The arts community, then, continues on in a state of unending precarity. But a consequence of this tenuousness is a refusal to reckon with its decades-long reliance on government subsidies, philanthropic donations and corporate sponsorship. […] Is it any wonder that when some of us hear the phrase ‘art sector’ combined with ‘unprecedented times’, we find ourselves without the capacity or the belief or the will or the desire to invest whole-heartedly in ‘saving’ it?
It feels like a cliché at this point to say that a reckoning is long overdue, but it’s true. The way things were – it wasn’t working. I’m not sure I have anything cogent and concise to say about my hopes for the months ahead, because I can only whisper, naively, sheepishly: What if we never go back?