commissined text for Low Profile publication
'Here's To Another Ten', published by ICIA, 2013
for 'Bring The Dead Back To Life' anthology,
For 'Don't Look Back', Platform gallery 10th anniversary
for 'The Earth Not A Globe' exhibition catalogue,
Rokeby Gallery, London, 2009
Selected online texts and videos*
'AGAIN, A TIME MACHINE: FROM DISTRIBUTION TO ARCHIVE'
Published by Book Works, 2012
Edited by Jane Rolo & Gavin Everall
Designed by James Langdon
ISBN 978 1 906012 40 3
Anthology of selected contributions gathered throughout the international touring project 'Again A Time Machine' responding to the questions Why Distribute? Why Archive?
Featuring: A Estante, An Endless Supply, AND, Banner Repeater, Claire Makhlouf Carter, Eastside Projects, Maria Fusco, Dora García, Melissa Gronlund, Sam Hasler, Stewart Home, Ian Hunt, Jonathan Monk, Apexa Patel, Mark Pawson, Bridget Penney, Pil & Galia Kollectiv, Plastique Fantastique, Sarah Pierce, Laure Prouvost and Rory Macbeth, Publish And Be Damned, John Russell, Slavs and Tatars, Spike Island, Barry Sykes, The Serving Library, The Showroom, Torpedo, Ubuweb, Marina Vischmidt, McKenzie Wark, White Columns and X Marks the Bökship.
'A PRO BONO PRACTICE'
Hello. My Name is Barry Sykes and I'm an artist, works on paper, ad-hoc sculptures, process-based interventions, that sort of thing. And my reading today is entitled An Apology, An Excuse, An Explanation.
I'd first like to say thank you to Marie-Anne McQuay of Spike Island, Maria Fusco of The Happy Hypocrite and Book Works for the opportunity to do this.
Maybe I should start with the apology. I don't think I'm really meant to be up here. I've not published anything; I'm not working with any of the publishers present today. I haven't made an artist's book for years. To be quite honest I don't even read books that often. I'm just a visitor but have somehow made it up on stage.
Let me briefly explain how I think this happened. About a month ago I saw an advert for a paid role asking people to sit in this gallery reading out loud from a new book of short stories by Dora García as part of this current exhibition Again, A Time Machine. Knowing I was going to be in Bristol this weekend to attend the fair I applied to take part then thought no more about it. When I got a confirmation email a few weeks later saying I was all booked in for the event today I admit I skimmed the rest of the details.
Then, when the email reminder came through a few days ago – and I read all of this one – it immediately became clear what had happened. As is no doubt evident to you all, today those reading have been replaced with a different proposition; for contributors to the fair to read out from their own publications, this time without a fee, to be recorded for Spike Island and The Happy Hypocrite – as the invite said, ‘To deliver a short essay, ideally your own'.
So, I guess my excuse for being up here, is that through the generosity of the curators, unbeknownst to me, I've been allowed to sidestep into this opportunity to contribute alongside the others.Now, I've written and delivered a number of presentations in recent years, many of which I could have just used for today.
There's one about my personal finances, one about pretending to work as a part-time policeman, one about
a planetarium, one about always being mistaken for someone else, one was the imaginary transcript of an unmade film of a monologue delivered on a nudist beach, one was a set of questions about how to really fail on an artist's residency, and many years ago I even read out an little known JG Ballard short story surrounded by ten taxidermised polar bears right here in this gallery.
But all those were ideally written or recited for a specific moment, they don't really have a link to what's going on here today and besides they're all much too long for the ten minutes we've each been allotted onstage today. So I've had to come up with something new.
Of course when I realised what was expected of me I could have just said, ‘Oh, my mistake, I didn't realise that was the deal, I'm not sure I've got anything appropriate' but I knew I didn't want to turn down the
chance to do something for Spike or Book Works. So the only option was to use the last few days to come
up with something completely from scratch. Which might make my text the newest, or the least thought out.
In fact if I stumble at all it's because I may be reading my edits and annotations from the margins.
So, all the speakers are providing content, to be recorded, so it must have some quantifiable value.
But as I said before, as far as I know, today's readings are delivered by us all without payment or artist's
fee. We all knew this and have gladly taken part.
For a while now I've had an idea, or tactic, that I've wanted to try out and perhaps this is the best place to launch it. As I'm sure many of you will recognise, it's often the case that as an artist you want to contribute something but there is no fee. You are quite free to walk away but your curiosity or ambition won't let you.
I should say that I know Book Works and Spike Island in particular are both dedicated to supporting artists' ideas and careers and to be quite honest they're both organisations I'd like to work with in the future, I know they're trying to do the most with the money they have. And of course it was my choice to write something completely new – the classic over-delivering artist. In fact I think the decision
to contribute or not is one of the important freedoms you have as an artist. It is your right to decide yourself whether you do or you don't take part, but also your responsibility.
So, here's my tactic, let me explain. Every time I willingly accept an invitation to provide some sort of content for a project (be it text, documentation, or a concrete object, any activity) where some people are being paid but I am not, let's say for organisations with a reasonable turnover, funding, or more than one paid employee; every time I decide I can shoulder the time, energy and expense myself and still give it my all, I will call it my PRO BONO work.
Just as an architect, accountant or lawyer might offer to undertake certain projects for cash-strapped organisations for no fee, because they decide they want to give something back, they can just about afford it, it makes them feel good and it looks good for their reputation, I will do the same. Pro Bono, from the Latin pro bono publico or ‘for the public good', defined as ‘professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service'.
From now on I will list these projects on my CV and website as normal but next to them will be the two words ‘Pro Bono', a proud declaration that they were performed under these circumstances. If you yourselves are artists then no doubt you have also willingly accepted these types of offers in the past, I'm sure with all the enthusiasm and energy you would for the times when you're paid for your work, but how to tell them apart? When I list today under my talks and presentations I will label it Pro Bono, as I now will for every other project under similar conditions. If you want, please feel free to do so too.
PRO BONO POSTSCRIPT:
On the day, my presentation got a slightly nervous reaction from the audience. A few gasps and chuckles of recognition in the right places and happily a number of people coming up to me afterwards saying they knew exactly what I was talking about. The organisers seemed awkwardly appreciative, one even jokingly pressing a ten pound note into my hand, which of course I refused as that kind of fund raising was not my objective. Sometime afterwards I received an email from Book Works that began ‘Hello Barry … we really liked your work and wanted to ask if you'd be willing to let us republish the text in a book we are working on that documents and extends the Again, A Time Machine exhibition..'. Fantastic! ‘We can't offer a fee but ...'. Okaaay. Now, based on the stance outlined in my presentation I couldn't really let that go unquestioned, so felt empowered to ask Book Works a series of questions about why there was no fee and on the financial situation of the whole publication, to which they kindly provided frank and thorough answers; in short, there are small fees
for the main contributors, none for brief pieces like mine and a very modest budget for the entire project.
Of course I'm aware Book Works are a non-profit organisation, running on limited resources, in a tough climate for the arts, but as that is the case for the whole of the non-commercial artworld in the UK should that really rule out the chance of earning a living, even pocket money, for your efforts? My concern is how all these arts organisations are trying to generate as much output as possible with even more modest means and the buck often stopping with the plucky, ambitious artist eager for exposure and willing to take the delayed gratification. And I feel like every time someone accepts or doesn't feel they can question conditions such as these it gets much harder for anyone else to expect any better, and gives no encouragement to arts organisations to make a change. So what am I doing still contributing? Well if I'm honest, I'm as conflicted by the payoffs between exposure, enthusiasm, in-kind support and cold, hard cash as the next artist. On balance I was convinced I should say yes and take the hit twice as alongside respecting Book Works and liking the project as a whole I'd crucially been allowed to put my case across. Am I right, am I wrong, maybe you have an opinion? Needless to say, this contribution will also unfortunately have to be designated Pro Bono. Ah well.
© Barry Sykes 2012