For ages I have worked as both a dance artist and a waitress. And for ages I have separated my being a dance artist and my being a waitress into different categories, different functions, in my head and in my life. When doing the dance bit, I do many things: sit at home or in cafes, check emails, write emails, tweet, think about stuff, write about stuff, write applications, dance in studios, dance at home, occasionally do classes, occasionally teach classes, make up some yoga, watch other people’s shows. It’s lovely. It’s frustrating. You get it.
When doing the waitressing bit, it is nothing like that. Recently, I watched this video with Laverne Cox talking to bell hooks about being a black trans woman in New York and working in a restaurant and getting paid very little and being treated like shit and having no rights and that being the old days and now she is finally free. I realised that I had also felt like that at some point but also how far from this my experience of working in a restaurant had come and how that is probably a combination of me being a white, cisgender, middle class person and working over a long period of time for a company who are by no means perfect but are very organised, pay me on time and recently supported me efficiently and totally when I reported a case of misogyny from a colleague.
In fact, I am beginning to think that this categorical separation of the work I do as an artist and the work I do as a waitress is somehow arbitrary and reproduces this neoliberal hierarchy which says doing art is freedom and self-respect and goodness and doing ‘low-skill’ work is imprisonment and humiliation and unworthiness. Bizarrely, I can think of many more times in artistic projects where I have felt imprisoned, humiliated and unworthy than when I’ve been doing my restaurant job; that is, doing what I know how to do, relatively skilfully, knowing I can have a half-hour break without feeling guilty and knowing that when I finish at 6pm, I can clock off and meet a friend for coffee, totally free of work issues. I actually relax.
What if we began to talk about all our different kinds of work as part of the same picture – or at least somehow relevant to each other? There is a sort of arrogance in the art world that our work is better than everyone else’s and I’m not convinced that isn’t because we’re largely a middle class bunch whose activities are administrated by salary-earners who don’t want to hear about what you do at the weekends to earn your beans.
I want to be able to talk about all the kinds of work I do without it being sort of ‘bad taste’ to enthuse about wage-work. For example, I want to talk about how the kind of camaraderie, humour and empathy which develops between colleagues under the conditions of wage-work (which – revelation! – are not necessarily oppressive) might be achieved through establishing clearer and more ethical working relations and parameters in our artistic work. Enough with isolation and insecurity. Independent dance art’s default mode of silent competitiveness, resentfulness and self-sacrifice is wearing me down. It’s wearing us all down. Let’s organise.