We’re not playing any more

Ceramic trophy (2019) Laurence Epps. Part of ‘Accolade’

This squished, slumped ceramic trophy has been on my shelf since September. It may or may not contain gold bullion. The artist made hundreds and put gold in some (and pewter in others). If I pick up my trophy and shake it, it rattles. There’s definitely something in there. But to find out I’d need to destroy the artwork. So what will it be – art or the prospect of gold?

Artists have been playing around with wealth, success and value for some time. In 2014, Michael Sailstorfer buried £10,000 worth of gold under the sand of a Folkestone beach. “Some people will get lucky, some people will not get lucky – and that’s life.” said the work’s commissioner Lewis Briggs, of the hundreds that descended, spades in hand, to try their luck.

‘Folkestone Digs’ (2014) Michael Sailstorfer. Photo: Stuart Wilson

But while ‘Folkestone Digs’ raised questions around our pursuit of wealth, around the value of art as art, the questions were whimsical, the mood playful. Looking back now, through the dark prisms of global pandemic and civil uprising, it feels like ‘Folkestone Digs’ in its playfulness and ‘leave it to chance’ premise might have shrugged and washed its hands of the issues it raised. Perhaps there’s an allegory there too…

Back to my torn and squashed ceramic trophy – which may or may not contain gold. I bought it from the artist Laurence Epps. It was part of his 2019 work, ‘Accolade’, which presented scores of individually unique, slumped or wonky trophies on a rotating conveyor belt, like dishes of sushi for customers to choose from. Playfully again, ‘Accolade’ used a means-testing questionnaire to calculate a personally adjusted price for each customer, to account for life’s unfairness. The questionnaire asked what school the customer went to, whether they had a long term health condition, where they shopped, and so on. The specially designed algorithm (developed with a leading statistician) determined that I should pay £25. Because life isn’t just luck, as Briggs suggested in 2014 – it’s where you start from and what hits you along the way.

‘Accolade’ (2019) Laurence Epps

Fast forward to spring 2020 and the world convulses under the shock of Covid-19. But long before the virus jumped species sometime in Autumn 2019, it was clear that our global economic system was failing all but a privileged few. In 2008 a handful of speculators delivered a financial crash like no other, joyriding in ‘markets’ as illusory as the hallucinations of a tripping teenager. By 2015, 70 million people were unable to find work and the world’s richest 1% owned more than the other 99% put together. And all the while our race for this unequal economic growth has been bringing our planet to the brink of ecological catastrophe from which it may already be too late to step back.

Covid-19 has done no more than lay bare how much trouble we were already in – how brittle and inadequate our systems are to meet the basic needs of 8 million of us, on a planet whose ability to sustain life is fast running out.

What use are artists in the face of such a crisis? Well, it helps to remember that creativity is just a way of thinking the new at a time when that’s exactly what we need to do.

Cut to the #ArtistSupportPledge initiative, by artist Matthew Burrows. It looks like a typical example of the entrepreneurialism and inventiveness of artists. And it is. But it is also much more. Listen to Matthew Burrows speak, as I did last week during ‘CVAN presents…Independent Artists and Practitioners’ – one of Contemporary Visual Arts Network’s excellent webinar series – and it’s blindingly clear why the world needs artists right now.

For anyone who hasn’t come across #ArtistSupportPledge, the scheme invites artists to put works on sale online, for no more than £200 a piece. Artists buy from one another and the public can also buy. The #ArtistSupportPledge requires that, once an artist reaches £1000 turnover from sales of work, they have a responsibility to buy a work from another artist on the scheme. It’s fast and it works: since March 26th the scheme has generated more than £30m in worldwide sales.

Artist Matthew Burrows, the creative mind behind #ArtistSupportPledge

Why does this artist initiative matter? During his CVAN webinar Burrows spoke at length about the culture and economics behind #ArtistSupportPledge. In a simple line drawing he set out the shape of the current economic system – wide at the top, narrow at the bottom. The problem, he suggested, is that you need an awful lot of people at the bottom whose efforts support a very few at the top. Just as the Instagram algorithm favours popularity, a tall curve causes polarisation between rich and poor.

Alongside the tall curve, in a sort of rapid prototyping exercise, Burrows placed some alternative shapes. A completely flat horizontal line doesn’t work either, he argues, because it doesn’t excite or drive us as human beings. Instead Burrows proposes a series of small curves, with a much smaller gap between those who do well and those who do not. The curves represent ‘micro-seasons’ in time, too, with the opportunity for more people to move between ‘doing well’ and ‘doing less well’ points on the curve many times during their lives – and with less catastrophic consequences to being at the bottom sometimes.

This is the model Burrows had in mind when he created #ArtistSupportPledge almost overnight, using what he had to hand. It’s a ‘pay it forward’ model of the kind that has gained traction during the Covid-19 crisis. It includes other tools too, to boost those at the bottom of the curve, and it’s worth listening to the CVAN webinar for more on these (see link below). Crucially, the model is based on a culture of community and welcome, replicating what the artist sees as our fundamentally generous motivations.

As the clamour grows for necessary systemic change, we need our most creative minds at the centre of public discourse, not sidelined as recreational beautifiers. Artists aren’t playing any more (perhaps they never were). No, they’re helping us to think the new – as we must now do.

As for my rattling clay trophy, I won’t be breaking it. Its dented form tells me so much more of value than a lump of gold could.

Matt Burrow’s talk for Contemporary Visual Arts Network is available on the CVAN website here.

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