As my profile gets bigger (it’s still very small and I am still not earning a living as an artist) I am being asked to have work or take part in events in places that have problematic histories and are currently problematic. So I want to be transparent about the things I consider when being asked to work in these spaces. I fully support people who make a different decision to mine, but this is my process of reasoning:
1. What effect will I have if I choose to boycott this space versus what effect can I have if I choose to work in this space?
I am not a famous or well-known person, if I choose to boycott a space not many people will hear about it. There will be no publicity on the reasons I have boycotted that space and it will not affect that space in the slightest.
However, this is not reason enough for me to take the job. I also ask myself what conversations can I have in that space? If I am told nothing is off the table and that I can openly criticise the institution whilst inhabiting, then at this point in my career I can do more to highlight the issues with the space than if I boycott it.
If I am told I have to stick to a certain narrative or I can not speak out about the things I think that institution needs to change then I will boycott.
2. Who is hiring me and what are their intentions?
Museums generally in the UK tend to be full of very problematic and stolen artefacts that need to be repatriated and I will always state my opinion on that. There are now more and more great curators working in museums today on changing museum culture and bringing in activists to curate exhibitions or be on panels. All of this work is putting pressure on these museums to actually represent the communities they stand in and acknowledge the violence that their historic collections are rooted in. This kind of work is at present the only way I see museums changing for the better, by allowing activists to take over the spaces and change the culture.
A really amazing example of an exhibition that worked with activists to change museum culture by reflecting on the problematics of their own collection was 'The past is now' which took place in Birmingham Museum in 2017. And more recently an exhibition a piece of my work is in We Are Birmingham which was curated by activists from Don't Settle.
Bringing marginalised conversations into these mainstream places is important work and I am proud to be a part of it.
3. Will I grow as an artist?
This is the most cynical question I have to ask myself. Unfortunately we aren’t living in luxury automated communism and most of us need to work and earn to survive, I am no exception. I am a disabled, chronically ill, low income artist with a very small platform and very little capacity to grow that platform. I need mainstream publicity and paid work to both grow my platform and the work I would like to put into the world, whilst having a sustainable career. I currently have to depend on my parents to survive who are in their 60’s and still working pretty intense shift work because they have a sick adult daughter who can’t earn full-time anymore and often needs to pay privately for neurosurgeries that I can’t get in the UK. I don't want them to have to work for the rest of their lives because I was never able to earn enough money to live independently. I am putting this information in because I want to highlight the financial privilege that goes along with boycotting paid work. I foresee this final reason being the one people understand the least but it’s an extremely important one because it highlights the reality of living and working as a sick person on low income.
On a final note, for those of us who are already marginalised and have certain political beliefs we often have to negotiate certain institutions and systems which are already stacked against us and uphold cultures of oppression in order to work to change that culture by having radical conversations in those spaces.