LEARNING FROM LOUSY PAY
How many people do you know that are "working on this project right now"? Since you stumbled upon this essay let’s assume an awful lot. If someone reads about architecture and its cultural implications one is likely part of (or at least interested in) what is called the creative or cultural class. People belonging to this group are connected with one another and "use their expertise and skills to generate new ideas, new technologies, and new creative content"Jack Self | Café Society | Real Review | Issue 3 | 2017 | 10. And because generating ideas is their profession chances are, they also have some for their own endeavors and constantly look around what other likeminded people are doing. They visit openings, attend dinner parties, browse bookshops, scroll through social media feeds and surf the web to keep up with how amazing everyone else is doing with their enterprise while one’s own is still, well, rather a sort of project.
However, as opposed to following other people’s accomplishments founding a successful business actually demands dedication, hard work and often sacrifice. This ordinarily can be attested to all industries. But where the cultural industries are rather an exception is that this devotion is not only expected of the cultural founder fulfilling his own dreams but also of the cultural worker as an employee. Young professionals working as designers are usually paid a lot less compared to someone with corresponding qualifications working as an engineer—or even nothing at all. Recently even a rather prominent institution has proven to fail to avoid being sucked into a case of this questionable business mentality and thus resurrected a simple question among cultural workers: what for?
The Serpentine Galleries in London claim to be "championing the possibilities of new ideas in contemporary art since opening in 1970"Serpentine Galleries | About | 2018 | serpentinegalleries.org/about. And indeed, there is no denying „the Serpentine has presented pioneering exhibitions for almost half a century, showing a wide range of work from emerging practitioners to the most internationally recognized artists of our time, providing a place for them to experiment and an open platform for them to be seen and heard"Serpentine Galleries | About | 2018 | serpentinegalleries.org/about. Besides the amazingly talented roster of artists, admission at the Serpentine is free and it’s located in Kensington Gardens which was initially created as a private royal playground and later opened to the public.Serpentine Galleries | Visit | 2017 | serpentinegalleries.org/visit Basically, the whole thing is a publicly funded cultural and social success story and a recreational haven for the people in the heart of a city that is notorious for its unabated obedience to economic forces that often brutally crush down on its inhabitants with an almost unbearable force.
However, as Goethe already said through the voice of his Götz von Berlichingen „Where there is much light, the shadow is deep"Johann Wolfgang von Goethe | Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand | 1749 | Translated by the author.. And such a deep shadow, unfortunately, was recently also cast related to the cultural lighthouse that is the Serpentine Galleries. Far away from the glowing epicenter of free education, knowledge transfer, equality, and artistic freedom of speech and criticism all working together towards a conscious and thus more responsible society a tiny but meaningful mark was discovered on its until recently spotless reputation. The prestigious designer Adam Nathaniel Furman had revealed in a whistleblowing manner that Japanese architecture Studio Junya, Ishigami+Associates, commissioned to build the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion, hires unpaid interns. A leaked e-mail from aforementioned studio to an internship applicant setting out controversial terms sparked outrage followed by a heated debate first among Furman’s Instagram audienceAdam Nathaniel Furman | Post on Instagram | 2019 and later by the readership of a popular design blog that published an article about the issueIndia Block | Architects who don’t pay interns “shouldn’t be given prestigious commissions” says the designer who revealed Ishigami internships | 2019.
However, in order to judge the situation correctly, it is essential to realize the cultural difference between Britain’s and Japan’s understanding of a mentor-protégé relationship. While the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) requires their chartered practices to pay all staff, including freelancers and students, at least minimum wageRIBA Policy on Pay and Conditions | 2016 the Architectural Institute of Japan (AIJ), as of now, has not released a similar policy. Both of these positions stem from long-lasting cultural developments and stand in their own right. Only, as in this case, when our globalized economy initiates an exchange between the two systems, their differences become apparent and each contributor has to perceive the differing conditions before evaluating if a compromise is bearable.
While the Serpentine Galleries were not the once initiating controversial working terms themselves, they nevertheless contacted the architect in order to rectify the situationElla Jessel | Serpentine Pavilion architect under fire over unpaid interns | 2019 and later reported that they “do not allow any unpaid internships or positions on any project at the Serpentine”India Block | Serpentine Gallery tells Junya Ishigami to pay all staff working on this year's pavilion | 2019 and that the architecture practice had confirmed to abide by this rule. But as this singular case was to some extent cleared up in a satisfying manner for the largely western readership, the row in the blogs comment section had already taken off. When reading along, it becomes obvious the supposed news comes to no surprise for most architects and other creative workers. Everyone’s seemingly already preoccupied with an opinion which can be considered proof that such working conditions are not exceptional but rather conventional. Some are outraged while others defend the mechanisms, yet all agree it's true that monetary compensation for architecture beginners is usually rather low. This in itself is an alarming circumstance because it suggests that we have collectively come to accept a labour market of inequality.
Not paying interns may sound like a bagatelle but it can also be interpreted as a symptom of an ill profession. Of course, the reasons why even some of the most prestigious, globally operating architecture firms can't or don't want to pay their interns are numerous and often interwoven into complex systems that are difficult to grasp. But clearly, a fundamental problem is that cultural work in general often is not rewarded accordingly to its labour value. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union (EU), 8.4 million people worked in the cultural sectors in 2016.
They generated a gross value added (GVA) of 192 billion Euros and an estimated turnover of 465 billion Euros. That means comparatively speaking 3.7 % of all employed people are responsible for 2.7 % of the EU’s total GVA and only 1.7 % of the union’s total turnoverEuropean Commission | Eurostat | ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/culture/data/database. These figures demonstrate that there are more people working in the cultural sectors in the EU than there is money being earned to pay a decent salary. And frankly it's easy to identify at least one of the two reasons for this: there is a ubiquitous understanding that a loaf of bread has a more substantial value compared to an oil painting because undernourishment currently is a severe threat to more than a tenth of the world's populationFAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO | The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018. Building climate resilience for food security and nutrition | FAO | 2018 | 20 while cases of frustration or even physical problems resulting from a lack of inspiration are pretty much unheard of. Our minds are simply much more resilient to the absence of inspiration than our bodies to the absence of nutrition which is why we can very well spare enjoying arts as opposed to not eating. As a consequence, only a certain amount of money is poured into the cultural and creative industries. And since everyone demands their share while the money is being passed down in the hierarchy of people involved there is barely if any left when it reaches the bottom. Thus, rookies and especially interns often have a hard time making a living. This is problematic because it means people with an affluent background have an advantage to join the industries which thwarts the common ambition to work towards a more equal society.
While the causal chain for the investing side of the bargain is rather logical and follows the principle that greater value is attributed to something that is of greater basic necessity the perspective of the receiving cultural worker is more complex than usually mentioned. The typical legitimization for both employers and employees is that part of the compensation is experience instead of money. The fact that other industries apparently can afford to offer both money and experience simultaneously is mostly negated. This could be a sign that the people claiming to be willing to work for the experience and portfolio boost actually doubt their own behaviour when excepting the aforementioned conditions. But if it's neither monetary pay nor knowledge nor a nice name in the CV, then what makes a young graduate spend long days at someone else's studio working on that someone's dream for free?
An answer to this question might be found in the psyche of cultural workers. If we think of the cultural worker as someone who can idealistically be compared to the present-day concept of an artist we can say that one expresses oneself in a chosen medium by applying one’s imagination and methods to the same in order to create original ideas and manifestations thereof that may have an aesthetic value. This loose definition contains two core attributes that are not exclusive to, but most commonly found in cultural enterprises: the work created is an expression of the self of the artist and at least part of the value created is purely concerned with the aesthetics of the work. Both of these factors are difficult to put a price on because they are immaterial and their perception is extremely subjective, and, to make things worse, they both might not even be of any interest to the client altogether. Creating an opus in the sense of a work of art or even an oeuvre is expected as the self- expression of the fine artist and the primary reason for one’s remuneration. Most designers, however, are usually first and foremost expected to deliver functionality, which is their primary reason to get paid, and the opus is demanded as a freebie. This suggests that there is just as much intrinsic motivation expected of the designer as of the fine artist. Ironically the formers waiver of compensation makes one’s work somehow an even greater sacrifice to the creation of art for its own sake instead of wealth.
From this vantage point, architecture plays an exceptional role among the different submarkets of the cultural industries. None of the others is as consumptive when it comes to material, space, time and therefore money while the design part also here is seldomly paid for properly. Thus, the proportion of general cash flow and compensation for artistic expression is worse than in any other of the submarkets. Especially the immobility of sites and buildings exacerbates the price situation enormously in some areas of the world. While most products and even labour are duplicable and mobile, a site is always unique and can't be moved. The architect is a dominant figure in an extremely sumptuous market, but his pay cheque is disproportionate to his high responsibilities and temporal investment in making things not only work but also look good. This imbalance suggests that the architect either longs for a wealthier future if one delivers time and time again or idealistic reasons are at play. Instinctively one can imagine the latter being the actual cause when having spoken to a few architects. Many students first encounter and perceive architecture as an applied art form. Their designs at university are often experimental and the fact that they won't ever be built allows them even greater freedom. However, when taking their first job they have to start over learning about their profession. This time with actual rules and regulations, physicality and properties of building components, an affected social and natural environment, the economy, money, or lack thereof, and a client involved. While all this needs to be handled with priority, most architects refuse to neglect why they chose their studies in the first place. And that is designing. The architect is, as every artist trying to live off their work, trapped between the extrinsically motivating expectations towards him and the intrinsically motivating vanity to create something of immaterial value and perhaps beauty by giving it a soul with conceptual ideas and meticulous details.
As mentioned above the Serpentine case comes to no surprise and certainly, the institution cannot be blamed for it. But the case can serve as a reference in the discussion of work and wage in the economy in general, in the cultural industries only, or axiomatically in one's own personal desires. If the individual reflects one’s own situation within bespoke context, chances are that a better understanding results in a more conscious use of one's own resources. Ideally, everything is just fine the way it is. More likely though, the individual will come to realize that something could be improved. And it doesn't have to be more wage. It can also be the cognition that we are apparently monetarily so well off that we can actually afford to do unpaid, intrinsically motivated, creative work after 6 p.m. for our own pleasure. Thus, we can immediately stop complaining about overtime. If the realization of the circumstances of these hours causes frustration, however, the goal could be to allocate them to something that really fulfills us—a different job, more time with the family, hobbies, or social engagement. Vanity in the context of being an inner desire to do good work even if it is not compensated monetarily strangely almost has a positive connotation. If we recognize the voluntariness in our design work, we might also be able to go one step further and transform our acts of vanity into acts of nobleness.