Need To Earn: A Basic Income Artwork

An unexpected commission…

A colleague of mine gave me a little man and asked me to do something with him… something reflecting my personality.

 

What?

Well, that automatically threw me into a tailspin – I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do, since I couldn’t even figure out what I was supposed to be “about”!

Need To Earn, 2016. Watercolour and acrylic on wood.
Need To Earn, 2016. Watercolour and acrylic on wood.

 

I was pleased that she asked me, but I sat down in a bit of a funk and wondered what I was going to do. I had ideas on the back burner for Foreign Exchange, which I’d been telling my friend about, but with so many ongoing projects in the other pockets of my life, I’d not gotten around to them… and they couldn’t be attached to this anyway. This was supposed to reflect me somehow, and that was the problem. I carried this little guy around in my handbag for months.

 

Basic Income

Meanwhile, I was reading about money, income and inequality. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I knew what I was thinking about, and that I had to start working on the commission. For some time I’d been reading articles on the idea of basic income, or universal basic income (UBI): the concept that a country’s citizens could be paid a flat rate of income by the government, not linked to work or means testing.

It appealed to me as a tool for feminism because it has the potential to transform the lives of women who perform unpaid and therefore undervalued labour in the home. Breaking the link between income and value would transform the way we think about work and about each other.

Income and value/money and morality

Money and morality have a sticky relationship, thanks in part to lingering Victorian ideology. We can hold two opposing thoughts in our heads:

a. that those who are poorer than us have made themselves that way by being immoral wastrels and vagabonds who would rather buy fags and booze with their benefits than get jobs.

b. that those who are richer than us have made themselves that way by the amoral pursuit of Mammon and would sell their own grandmothers for a profit (or by inheriting their parents’ riches, thus being both undeserving and corrupted).

We’re not comfortable with the very rich or the very poor, but we don’t seem (as a whole) to like the idea of UBI because it means giving money to people who don’t deserve it. Even if we all got the same amount, something about not earning… it feels immoral.

Still, having to rely on a paycheque to prove your worth in the world is cracked, in my view. No human being should have to prove their worth or their right to live based on how much they earn.

This is the story of an art commission about universal basic income and equality - Need To Earn by Lee Devonish

What is a mother’s labour worth?

Your mother earned nothing by giving birth to you, but that act could never be remunerated. I still have a lot of reading to do around the subject before I write anything at length, but as a starting point… here I am.

To start with, I’ve found Inventing The Future: Postcapitalism And A World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Any recommendations?

 


Postparoxysmal 1

Postparoxysmal 1

As its name suggests, this piece was the product of the aftermath of a fight.

Postparoxysmal 1 - watercolour on paper painting by Lee Devonish, 2014

 

The story

Not long married, my husband and I had – to put it mildly – a bit of an explosive disagreement, which fortunately was resolved before too long. It made a longer lasting mark on his already permanently scowling face, though, and somehow his hair had managed to whip itself up into a whirlwind – it seemed to be the outward expression of what was going on in his head.

It was so ridiculous that it broke the tension and made me laugh.

 

Of course, that didn’t go down very well, but neither did taking his picture and threatening to paint him. I did it anyway.

I liked the space after the paroxysm – a minute after a storm that makes you think, “what just happened?” and wonder whether it was real, or whether you imagined it… and wonder whether it will happen again.

At the time, I was struggling to find time and space to make any new work, after moving to Lancashire and being newly married, so watercolour seemed to be the medium that worked best for my life at the time. I started to experiment with writing in paint, and this led to my handwriting prints, which led to this painting.

The words

Why the speech bubble? I had to include it. The text element is more of an indication of my interest in graphic novels and the crossover between drawing and writing than an actual quotation, although the words were chosen carefully to reflect his character.

The words act as his portrait as much as the image does.

Click on the picture to read the story behind Postparoxysmal 1 - watercolour on paper painting by Lee Devonish, 2014

 

It’s a part of our family now, so although it has been exhibited, I’ll never sell it. I’ve made this piece available as a postcard print on Zazzle.


Use Him

Use Him – soap sculpture installation, 2013

Use Him was a work that was intentionally… well, slippery.

I’d hoped to make use of the sculptures I’d produced for my BA degree show in 2012, and I’d envisioned making a video of my soap and wax casts being used – washed away or melted.

Soapy serendipity

Whilst I was studying and working at Goldsmiths almost a year later, it occurred to me that I finally had the perfect circumstances to mount the project. I decided to put my soap man into one of the female toilets, and see if anyone would use him.

 

Use Him, soap sculpture by Lee Devonish
Cast soap sculpture installation, 2013

Feminism and fun.

It was about the usual things – feminism, objectification, looking, function – but I wanted it to be fun. It was simple, and I hoped it would be effective; however, I worried that it would be too simple, and be seen as too literal, too obvious.  Still, I wanted to do it in that way – in public but in private, with the willing or unwilling participation of the women using the lavatory.

The participatory aspect would make his wastage more meaningful than if I had filmed him on my own. Also, it would raise a debate over exclusion and the female gaze – the male students and members of staff were only allowed to view the photographs that were exhibited in the gallery space.

It may have been an entirely new experience for them to be excluded from such an event by their gender.

I was always there, or so it seemed, working on some days in one department and studying for my MA in another, so I could take a photograph of the soap’s disintegration each day. I realised after a few weeks that I’d tied myself in to a somewhat onerous task, wandering the dimmed corridors of the Richard Hoggatt building with no-one else around.

Unexpected interactions

What I hadn’t expected was the vocal reactions he provoked.

I wandered into the strangest conversations in the toilets – most people spoke freely to whoever was nearby, and as they didn’t know that I had made him and put him there, I was able to find out what they really thought about my work. Unsurprisingly, some women hated him.

He did become rather slimy and repulsive close to the end, so it was to be expected. What I hadn’t expected was how provocative it was to some.

 

Use Him - Day 1. Cast soap sculpture installed in women's toilets, Richard Hoggatt building, Goldsmiths UoL.
Cast soap sculpture installed in women’s toilets, Richard Hoggatt building, Goldsmiths UoL. 2013.

The fresh audience

One of the cleaners was positively incensed by his presence.

She swore and ranted, and was more angry than I’d ever seen anyone become thanks to a piece of art. This actually made me fairly happy – I’d expected a much more blasé response all around. This did cause me to think about the division between the art ennui sufferers and the art uneducated – is it better to know less if it mean you feel more strongly?

Another woman was raving about it when I walked in – she was saying to her friend that it was the best thing she’d ever seen at Goldsmiths. Naturally, that’s the one review I choose to recall most often! By the way, I did tell both women that I was the one who made it… but only after I’d got a piece of their minds.

Taken, then stolen…

The sculpture was actually removed from the loos on the third day of the exhibition/installation – I panicked, as I thought it had been stolen, but it turned out to have been removed by the security guards, probably on the complaints of the cleaners.

I retrieved him and put him into a different toilet for a few days whilst I smoothed things out, and by day 5 he was back in his old place.

Still, he came to a similar end on day 29. He disappeared and I never saw him again – I wondered if he was done in by the cleaners, but I hoped that he had been stolen instead. I’d be happy if he ended his days in some student’s shower, scaring the flatmates and hopefully, actually being used.

 

You can see all of the pictures here at http://usehim.tumblr.com/

Use Him was a soap sculpture installed in a women's toilet at Goldsmiths in 2013.


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