[You can listen to this article here.]
Okay, so I've made my call for us as the creative precariat to get systemic... but what does this mean for us at a practical level? Who are the Systems Creatives? What do they need to do? ...and why is this new professional identity sorely needed within the current creative gig economy?
Well (as featured in the previous post), a lot of what Guy Standing's precariat class describes is the result of complex systems shaping and shifting over time. As our economic landscape has been transformed at the whims of 'seemingly' unrelated phenomena, a whole swathe of people within the working class have been left behind thinking about what they were told they could become, what they want to do with their lives, and feeling angry that all of that no longer stands in front of them. Standing's neologism of the precariat class is the fruits of his ability for astute systemic observation of the wider world and all those who dwell within it ...and it does a damn good job at describing that which currently blights the freelance creative community. We're returning to Standing here not just to double down on our acknowledgement of the precariat, but also to consider his ideas on a meta-level - the process he has used to arrive at the definition of a new socioeconomic class is referred to as Systems Thinking. A methodology more commonly adopted within analytical and strategic circles, Systems Thinking is exactly what I believe the creative community should be utilising when it comes to dealing with the job insecurity and identity insecurity within the creative jobs landscape. A systems mindset isn't just something that can be used to diagnose - it can also be used to react to that which has been diagnosed.
At the most fundamental level Systems Thinking requires us to accept that everything is interconnected. There's nothing new-agey going on here though - we're talking about connectivity analogous with physical/chemical/biological systems... nothing supernatural.
"Essentially, everything is reliant upon something else for survival. Humans need food, air, and water to sustain our bodies, and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Everything needs something else, often a complex array of other things, to survive. Inanimate objects are also reliant on other things: a chair needs a tree to grow to provide its wood, and a cell phone needs electricity distribution to power it. So, when we say ‘everything is interconnected’ from a systems thinking perspective, we are defining a fundamental principle of life. From this, we can shift the way we see the world, from a linear, structured 'mechanical worldview' to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops." Leyla Acaroglu, 2017.
The tools of Systems Thinking allows us to somewhat decode the relationship between all things tangible and intangible, and in doing so we can better position ourselves within that web of complexity and operate more effectively within it. ...and that's exactly who the Systems Creatives are. Practitioners who understand not just WHAT they do - but HOW, and most importantly WHY. So in order to become a Systems Creative we need to come face to face with those ingredients. For us to effectively pin down our WHY, and I mean really pin it down, we must think systemically about our professional purpose and identity. The perfect place to start is to look beyond what we do as creatives; to look past our disciplines, skillsets, and practical workflows. The reason that this is an important first step to make is that a professional identity solely driven by your WHAT runs the risk of limiting you to opportunities of the past; opportunities associated with those traditional disciplinary descriptors; opportunities that are dramatically shrinking in numbers. Your WHY on the other hand opens doors for you. It will enable you to take your abilities and skills into new exciting contexts and places, allowing your creativity to serve new broader purposes. And most importantly, it'll help us realise that just because we're working in places and for purposes that we didn't expect, it doesn't mean we've not become who we wanted to be. After all, our WHY doesn't have to change our WHAT - moreover it has the power to give our skills a new broader purpose.
As we work on pinning down our WHY and rewriting our professional identity, we must not merely reflect in an individualistic and insular way, as this only takes us to the outer boundaries of ourselves - which is a great start! - but there's a whole world outside of those city limits, and like it or not, everything on the other side of those walls is part of this system that we need to acknowledge as Systems Creatives; it's all part of the system that is us. So, what else out there shapes our WHY? People. Society. Ideas. Needs. Our environment. Our friends. Our enemies. The zeitgeist. Pandemics. Pollution. Trends. The economy. Basic assumptions. New discoveries. Quite literally... everything. ...and we really need to be listening to as much of it as we possibly can. Not out of mere interest, but as an ardent and firm acknowledgement that it is an entangled part of our professional identities. In doing this we can forge a high-fidelity WHY which features a much broader world view - and with that - comes more opportunities.
However, when we zoom out this far we begin to enter some quite daunting and profound territories. The sheer scale of all that can be considered in the assessment of the systems we're a part of is... unfathomable. But even just acknowledging this takes us a good distance down a very valuable path. The phenomenon that leaves EVERYTHING in our world inextricably connected and entangled is known as intra-action. Established and quantumly expanded upon by feminist physicist Karan Barad, Intra-action provides us with a new way to think beyond simple, linear cause and effect. It gives us "a whole new way to consider our relationship with each other, with matter, with materials, with nature, and with discourses."
Because of intra-action, everything in, around, and outside your work life is making and unmaking your creative practice. Who you are isn’t just what you do - it’s what you believe in, the behaviour of others, the state of your environment, the resources available to you, the conversation you had earlier, the Black Lives Matter march you took part in, an illness that suddenly strikes a family member, a recently cancelled flight, the dog you saw at the park yesterday, the slightly off yoghurt you ate but didn't finish, and so so much more.
"We are, and will always be, inside phenomena. We can never look at, or listen to the world from the outside, although the outside is always part of any phenomenon that we make. What is essential for thinking about [musical] creativity in terms of quantum theory is that we recognise the importance of locatedness and specificity. Making a piece of music draws on all available resources, perhaps in a way that we had not previously recognised, and this making process ‘cuts’ into the world, leaving traces that affirm that for all we might want to think that listening to music is a matter of personal taste, music ‘musics’ us." Matthew Lovett, 2019.
Once you've secured a better understanding of the wider systems at play, and have folded them into your WHY - your next step is all about application. Your creativity can be a valid prescription in many more places than the context in which you originally discovered your passion; just because you discovered your love of live music through a life-changing concert doesn't mean that that is the only world in which your passions can exist and thrive. The same goes for the rest of the creative community.
For example - let’s look at Paraguay’s Landfill Orchestra. A project born of people with the same passionate WHAT as many other musicians around the world. Only the intra-activity of them and their social status and the harrowing environmental conditions in the slums of Cateura brings about a profound diffractive emergence - where their WHAT is driven by an immensely valuable and meaningful WHY - a WHY that spotlights issues in our environment, champions the notion of a circular economy, provides novel approaches to alternative design and engineering, celebrates new ways to create sound, and presents new avenues for impoverished members of our global population to learn and express themselves.
The breadth from this intra-activity is abundantly clear. ...but even this example only begins to scratch the surface in the grand scheme of this universal interconnectedness! A broader grassroots acknowledgement of intra-action will push creative vocational configurations into new realms, and deeper depths. And within these depths lies the true potential of the Systems Creatives. Now, we've covered a lot of ground here - growing beyond our insular and individualistic WHAT to our external and empathetic WHY - and this shift in perspective can feel like a daunting thing to bring into our professional life. This zooming out from the micro, to the macro, to the cosmos (or should I say zooming into the quantum!) of our practice seems like a full-time ordeal in itself... but it doesn't have to be. It's not an intensive 6-week workout, or an obsessive 12-week diet, or some get rich quick scheme - it's a lifestyle change - one that accrues and reaps in the long term because intra-action is constantly making and unmaking all that we need to observe and consider. The systems that surround us are in a constant state of flux, and any time we stop to assess that which we are a part of, we're merely taking a snapshot of an ever-fluid topology; an ever-changing landscape. So whatever you do, don't bank on a start and stop intervention here. When I began to apply a systems-concerned perspective to my own creative practice I started to think more deeply about the way that I make, and why, and as a result, I’ve begun to consider a lot more than I used to as part of the planning and design processes for any of my projects. At this intersection in my own practice, I began to materialise this new way of planning and designing creative work through the cards that form Making Sense. Drawing on some of the founding principles of Systems Thinking, I have brought into the fray a set of categorical ingredients that we as creatives from all backgrounds can use to signpost the relevant inter-disciplinary and inter-contextual ingredients that can drive the planning and design of our creative work with the wider system of opportunity in mind. ...and although these card too are just a snapshot of an ever-changing topology, I'd still like to share with you the holiday photos of the trip that I took - just so we don't have to resort to any 'wish you were here' postcards... because I truly believe that they can help us wear many hats, take stock of our surrounding creative environment, and consider all angles - allowing our creative projects-in-waiting to be the best they can possibly be.
[IMAGE: The 5 card categories that form Making Sense® acknowledge many of the fundamental ingredients that shape broader creative work and get you to consider them as part of an intra-active design process.]
...and although there is no perfect system for acknowledging all that makes and unmakes you - simply increasing how much you acknowledge within the design of your practical work and professional identity is a damn sight better than making something and expecting everyone to jump on it or consume it without question. It’s the practical action that we need to take in response to our reality as the creative precariat.
Don’t get me wrong - artistic expression is still important and still very much relevant within the wider system that we need to now consider, but it does not and cannot exist outside of the wider system as an exclusive prime directive for our practice, no matter how much we may want it to. Intra-action will indiscriminately make sure that the world will make and unmake you, and make and unmake the things that you make. But when you begin to fold into your practice an acknowledgement of the wider system you exist within, you'll find out very quickly that you too hold the power to make and unmake the world.
Making Sense is coming soon to Kickstarter. You can find the latest updates for this project here.