I’m enjoying talking to people about how they (try to) make a living creatively. Recently I talked to Susanne Stauch, a product designer & goldsmith who has a diploma in collaborative product design and has studied mass customisation & open source. I’m working with her and Nadia on something called Cookies’n’Code which is all about “hacking” your life – more on this to follow, so watch this space…
The always inspiring Jon Bounds needs no introduction to anyone who’s been around cataspanglish – my chat with him for the series enabled us to get down and dirty in depth about what he’s been up to for the last few years and talk Conversational Psychogeography, Networks, Strong vs Weak Ties, creativity & cash.
Jon Bounds is without doubt one of the most creative people I have ever met. Any conversation with him throws up more concepts than you could work through in a lifetime and I’m lucky to have participated in his pantomimes performed on Twitter and sat alongside him as he’s carried out real time sentiment analysis for Civico, a company that is largely based around another of his ideas. He’s bloody hilarious too 😉
I talked to him about the issues of making a living from his own work in this skype conversation.
Jon has been working, doing anything that anyone will pay him for on the internet for about 5 or 6 years. He did a computer science degree, but decided that he didn’t like computers in the time just pre-internet – internet was on campus only as research tool and he was not taught anything about it. He became unemployed, played in bands and then did a government funded journalism course and tried writing for a living, discovered that he could do it but didn’t have the discipline to fill x number of pages a day. After that he did freelance work and worked in bars before being lucky to fall into a job with a local technical publisher right at the start of the internet boom, doing a lot of internet books. He explains that he had a lot of freedom and time to explore internet technologies, research as opposed to just messing around on the internet, at the time when internet was reaching normal people.
Birmingham: It’s Not Shit
The “famous” thing Jon did which propelled him into working and doing internet stuff for a living, as opposed to as a sideline, was a website about Birmingham with “an amusing and probably rude or offensive name which got a bit of attention. It’s called Birmingham: It’s Not Shit and is still going, coming up to 10 years as a local website and blog”. The main reason behind it was not, as he often explains, that Birmingham was getting a raw deal from the national media, but that the national media could not be very grown up when talking about things – when September 11th happened, the media on the internet died, the BBC website went down, online newspapers went down so the only place online he could have a discussion was on Popbitch.com, a celebrity gossip site, and there people could have a sensible discussion with facts and be darkly humorous and not fall into shock! horror! or default positions. That made him wonder if media could be adult, independent and without a default position. When he was made redundant he had the time to set up B:iNS and although he had done many jobs on the internet, he had nothing to show anybody, so if he wanted to get a job doing internet stuff, it was a good excuse to do something. Because of the name and stance, it got well covered which wouldn’t have happened without the shock and outrage of the local mainstream media. However he didn’t get any direct work from that straight away.
Jon fell into a technical job at a new BBC broadcast centre which opened in Birmingham, something he feels which wouldn’t of happened without the blogging. It meant he could avoid the normal route into that type of job. He “learnt loads there, mainly about how the media works and made a lot of good contacts but 4 or 5 years later the government cuts brought it to an end”. He could have tried to to get other jobs but is not really qualified to do anything, although he has done lots of stuff but has no qualifications which lead directly into a job and his computer science degree is obsolete. He hoped people would pay him for doing internet things and was lucky to get a couple of Arts Council contracts to work on the network side of things straight away, again due to the experience built up doing his own things. “… 6 years ago people knew social networks existed but nothing about them, so anyone with experience of them and who could talk coherently in a meeting could find work”, he says.
He did that for 2 or 3 years, without having to look for work, when only a few people were doing it. Sometimes there was too much and he turned down some lucrative contracts which in retrospect he feels he should have taken. He was enjoying exploring the space, it was a new space, and he knew enough technically and journalistically to “do some weird things, spending maybe 2 or 3 days a week working and the rest of the time taking what people were putting online and cutting and analysing that in different ways to see things which couldn’t have been analysed before”.
Jon was calling it “Conversational Psychogeography” but that’s now been formalised into what is called Sentiment Analysis and large media organisations will now sell it to you – and he considers it an example of how this kind of thing works: “If you want to be independent and find work and still have a bit of free time, you’ve got to stay right on the edge of what is happening with technology – the bits that are not yet viable for the big organisations to explore, because everything I’ve done over the past 6 or 7 years has been caught up, commodified. You get forced from two ends of the spectrum – the large media organisations, the web design and development companies and the PR companies push downwards into this space because they think they understand this; there’s also a groundswell of people who really don’t know what they’re doing at all, but they’ve heard about it and they set up small companies in local areas….and I can’t compete with that, I don’t have the morals to allow me to knock those (websites etc) out so quickly, I can’t compete with the pitching and process driven things that a large agency can, so anybody independent gets squeezed out of that and has to move on to another kind of centre and some people are doing that through their own ways… forming companies that can compete or drifting to education….or finding niches – the weird generalists are getting squeezed out.”
Things have been very difficult the last year or more and it’s been hard for him to find enough work to survive on. He claims that he’s not very good at networking in a money sense and feels that many things that he and his contemporaries came up with have not just been co-opted, but stolen by companies and organisations with no recompense. “We have a culture of getting ideas out there…all those things we worked on dissipated and diluted by, capitalism, essentially.” That becomes disheartening so made a decision that he no longer cares, that the battle for this social technology revolution has been lost. Since then he has split professional and personal interests a lot more and will do uninteresting things for money, but the interesting stuff he does now has almost no commercial potential, moving back into the esoteric arty world of literature or publishing.
Consequently he doesn’t expect to make money from writing/publishing. He and a partner are writing a book on the English seaside and needed to travel around the coast of England and Wales, but couldn’t afford to, so crowdfunded it and raised just enough to cover costs. That would’ve been impossible without their knowledge of networks and the media coverage they got comes from knowledge of how media works. He is worried that lots of people think that funding in the age of austerity is going to come from individuals, because that is finite both in money and trust. Projects that get funded are usually from people with demonstrable experience and networks. The ability for people to live from their artistic or research practice is being really squeezed and although he and his contemporaries had the the possibility to do that for 5 or 6 years, he doesn’t think people in the future will have that.
How do thinkers get space to think?
“How do (the brightest) thinkers get space to think without the commercial pressures?”, Jon asks. Historically it has only has been for academics but that’s only one type of thinking and there is huge pressure in academia to produce tangible monetary results. If you look for advice from any government agency, the advice is always how to bend your will to where the money is coming from, how to expand, create growth.
He created a social enterprise 4 years ago to use social media professionals and train them to train young people rather than teaching teachers a syllabus because, “this moves so fast that you can’t teach it unless you are doing it”. The interest was always there, but never the money. The enterprise has been shuttered and there are now other people selling that model now but they are not social media people, but have spotted a gap in the training market.
He considers that a big network is needed to enable support to have creative space. Some people in the UK & US have chosen to live on as little as possible to have that space, as artists always have. The problem he sees then is the disconnect between them and those their ideas might affect – if it’s all outsider, how does it influence the inside, the “normal” people? The danger is again: ideas splitting off from commerce, splitting off from reality, he considers there are huge problems with that.
A good example of a network supporting creative work is that of Birmingham industrialists called the Lunar Society who gave a monthly stipend to Joseph Priestley. He isolated oxygen among other things. Jon wonders if there is an internet or crowdfunding model for “mini-Priestleys”. He would love the idea of a trickle down capitalism rewarding people that have ideas but that doesn’t exist, so he asks is there a kind of trickle up internet socialism? Perhaps, for a few people, but how many people could that sustain?
It’s the Network
Jon claims that for any freelancer it’s who you know that is really important and it’s a cliché because it’s completely true and in his opinion if you are artistically or morally driven, your network needs to larger still as the possibilities are reduced. The network is also important to him as it’s part of what he’s interested in. He feels that It’s necessary not just to have a network but to understand how networks function, especially if you need funding or social capital. Things can travel incredibly quickly through weak tie networks but it’s the strong tie networks which actually help you. “The network is essentially all we’ve got”, he says.
I asked Jon about the recent internet legislation battles. He considers that every piece of legislation which controls the free network is worrying – it is the free exchange of ideas that help it, and the idea that you don’t need to ask to do something with those ideas. While these pieces of legislation are often well intentioned, there’s a knock on effect that people sometimes don’t realise. He doesn’t disagree with copyright per se, but thinks anything that is heavy handed and can shut down a network will be abused by large corporations and large organisations. He is particularly interested in fair parody legislation especially with reference to politics.
He has got networks from prior work but the more artistic networks have come first through the internet, but then offline meeting with those people A lot of the network is from around Birmingham which he says seems incongruous with the idea of the global village and interconnected networks – but it is from building trust offline. There was a time just pre-recession where there were a lot of spaces where you could organise things for free – it’s not the cost as much as the risk, if you’re organising something with people you don’t really know who is going to take the risk of hiring a venue or finding sponsors, selling tickets and collecting money? Easily accessible third spaces were incredibly important and Jon genuinely believes that meeting physically strengthens ties.