28 March 2015
‘The Maximum Wage’ is a live art show about income inequality. It is inspired by George Orwell’s idea of a limitation of incomes in his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. We talk about money a lot as a society, but usually within bounds described for us by others and ourselves. The aim of the event is to stimulate moments of clarity about money, status and how we ‘spend’ our time. With eight other artists we hope to provoke, capture, print and publish what our visitors really think about money live. All the artists have been commissioned to make new work that includes some element of publishing, all unfolding simultaneously and governed by our microclimate of production and consumption.
The centrepiece is ‘The Maximum Wage’ screen-print production line, where the public will help print ‘Orwells’ – money that can be used at the event, as well as in several Hackney businesses. Each player’s ‘wages’ will be determined by their randomly allocated status and a spin of the wheel of fortune. Earnings will be capped at Orwell’s 10:1 or Osborne’s 330:1. It is the battle of the Georges.
— From Interview with David Henningham, March 2016
LONDON – On the way to ‘The Maximum Wage’ Performance Publishing Extravaganza at St Paul’s West Hackney in Dalston, you pass the old East London and the new. There’s Ridley Road, the long-standing African Caribbean street market; Turkish kebab houses, mobile phone shops, pound shops selling plastic wares; but also hipster bars and organic bakeries; art galleries and vintage clothes shops; short-term, high-rise homeless hostels next to luxury new builds and Victorian terraced houses with million-pound price tags.
The area’s changing fortunes reflects what’s happened in London, with the polarization of wealth. The mix is lively and fascinating. A working-class area with a melting pot of cultures, it’s attracted young families and artists, and more recently, estate agents and property developers.
This is the perfect venue for ‘The Maximum Wage’. The forecourt of the Church holds a farmer’s market on Saturdays by Growing Communities, appealing to both shoppers and people trying to save money, but also well the intentioned and community-based.
Inside the venue, it’s hectic, a little ramshackle, with a DIY, handmade aesthetic. It’s as far as you can get from the white cube art gallery experience. In a commercial gallery, all is cool and quiet. There may be art on the walls, but there are rarely prices. Although the art world may be driven by money, you feel a little uncouth if you actually ask how much something is.
Here the mechanics of making and spending money are in the foreground and in your face. You’re being asked to think about wealth and value, and how these are not objective facts but constructed ideas.
People mill around the stalls and the money-printing installation (more on that later), children sit at the tables crafting collages, badges and coins, there are cake stalls, you can have your portrait done in ink. Artists in fabulous, excessive costumes encourage you to take part in performances.
The atmosphere is somewhere between a village fete, a charity fundraising event and a political rally, with a little immersive theatre thrown in. It’s not slick.
But there are a great variety of visitors, and the community life of the venue has encouraged all kinds of people through the doors. (Signs of the regular life of the hall are evident. Posters for the Girl Guides, amateur theatre groups and homeless drop-ins, groups that the hall hosts during the week, adorn the walls along with the artworks.) This is what makes Dalston such a rich mix, despite the million-pound luxury apartments that have sprouted up in the last few years.
When you speak to them, the artists are passionate, politically engaged. They reveal that under this playful performance about money, there’s a lot at stake. They’re more interested in talking to you, and finding out what you think, than in selling you their wares. Or even their ideas.
Helena Smith — Class-Based Café
Maybe it was something to do with the exquisite cakes, but I was very drawn to this stall. I spoke to Helena Smith of Eat Hackney. Helena writes about food and publishes a cookbook with locals’ favourite recipes. Funds go towards North London Action for the Homeless and the Hackney Migrant Centre.
In the class-based café, you can buy the produce with screen-printed ‘Orwells’, but you can only buy what you’ve earned, according to your job role. You might wish to buy a Luxury Exclusive Oligarch Gateaux decorated with gold leaf for 450 Orwells, but if you’re an unskilled worker, you can only afford Dull Small Cheese Biscuits made with hardly any ingredients (20 Orwells).
The Henningham Family — ‘The Maximum Wage’ print production line
How do you earn Orwells? You can take part in the screen-print production line. In one corner a screen-printing table with two stations is set up to print the money, red for 50p and blue for 20p.
It’s Ping and David Henningham’s event, and they’re orchestrating the print production line with much energy, disappearing backstage occasionally to appear in another costume, from a blue two-piece suit to silver catsuits reminiscent of the robot in Metropolis.
We all pull straws to choose a role – a Governor, a Clerk, two Skilled Workers and four Unskilled Workers.
Naturally, the Governor earns the most Orwells and the Unskilled Workers the least. I pull a straw for Unskilled Worker (story of my life) and we’re lead behind the stage curtains to dress up for our roles. Behind the stage curtain, blow up mattresses are propped against the wall, a stark reminder of the church hall’s role as a shelter for the homeless one night a week.
Unskilled Workers get to wear a fetching plastic apron, plastic cap, plastic arm covers, plastic shoe covers and face mask. I cannot lie, dressed like this I feel like one of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Maybe this is the point. The Governor gets a corporate-looking suit.
We troop out and begin our production line. The screen-printed money is placed on an ingenious wooden conveyor belt that blows hot air and dries the ink. At the other end, the Governor sits and signs the money.
Our governor spins a wheel to decide whether we will be paid our wages in a ratio capped at 10 to 1 (as proposed by Orwell in ‘The Lion and The Unicorn’) or 330 to 1, which is how it stands currently in our economy. Curses – our wheel spin lands on 330 to 1. Just like in real life, the high earners win again.
Ladies of the Press ‘Maximum Life’ Zine
I speak with Ana Čavić of Ladies of the Press, who along with Renée O’Drobinak forms this performance-publishing duo. They are glorious in pink suits, pink wigs and black and white shoes. They carry tablets and look like hyper-real Estate Agents. They always dress up for their work in live publishing projects. Ana confesses she’s a little nervous, as they produce something new and bespoke for each event, so it’s always the first time they have ever done it.
Today they’re publishing a satirical zine, Maximum Life, interviewing and photographing people for imaginary lifestyle magazine covers. People have a choice of Maximum Woman, Maximum Man; Career; Travel; Home, Bride; Food and Property.
Ana talks about how every level of society is targeted through lifestyle magazines. We’re all meant to be aspirational and to express ourselves through objects. They encourage us to always be wanting more.
But we’re so inundated with idealised, Photoshopped images, that maybe we’ve become numb to the aggressive way we’re being manipulated. Although, the duo researched real magazines for source images, they found that they didn’t need to heighten or exaggerate the sourced pictures for satirical effect, as every image was already exaggerated.
I’m inexorably drawn to the girly pink and gold magazine cover of Maximum Woman. Renée takes the photo, and with lightning speed, Ana adds some gold bling, gold butterflies and a golden pineapple. These magazine covers are compiled into the zine at the end of the day, printed and given out for people to take home.
The interviews with people and their real desires and concerns undercut the glossy lifestyle images, and it’s fun seeing how the process of image manipulation works. It’s an impressive feat of live, collaborative publishing.
At the end of the day, I chat with a lady called Cicely, who has been filming all day. She also volunteers at St Paul’s during the week, when the hall hosts homeless people for one night. She tells me that many churches in the area provide shelter for the homeless for a night every week, so there is always somewhere to go.
Some of the people who use the shelter during the week have visited ‘The Maximum Wage’ event today, she said they enjoyed it, enjoyed the chance to talk and take part. “How long have you volunteered?” “Eight years.” “Have you noticed it getting busier recently?” “Oh yes. It used to be maybe 50 people a night. The last couple of years, it’s more like 100.”
In the microclimate of production and consumption at ‘The Maximum Wage’, Julie Rafalski invited people to select a piece of commonwealth pie.
Initially, given the title, I’d thought it would be something to do with history of empire and colonisation, but it turned out it was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s theories of abundance and commonwealth. We could choose one slice from a selection of ‘pies’, each corresponding to a particular theme such as – ‘What You Really Want to Study’, ‘Do More With Less’, ‘Worldwide and Equally’ and ‘Universal Basic Income’.
On each slice was text expanding on the concept, giving participants the opportunity to ‘consume’ ideas and alternative theories to the rhetoric of austerity and nation-hood. I chose a slice from the ‘Fellowship of Thought’ that read:
Based on the fact that there is an abundance of resources in the world (and not a scarcity), the earning your right to live mentality becomes obsolete. Unemployment becomes not a negative, but a simple fact in a society where people can be freed from a necessity to work to live… Some can engage in hobby activities or become socially engaged while others might invest or make game-changing discoveries that could potentially benefit entire populations…
It was only midday and this particular pie was diminishing rapidly but, Julie told us, “there was another one in the oven”.
Sophie Herxheimer’s stall invited participants to have their stories illustrated, the running title being ‘What were you doing when they told you to earn a living?’
Looking at the half-dozen pages of ink illustrations already hanging up to dry when we arrived, the stories were much broader; they illustrated what people were focusing on right now, how they liked to spend their time and their aspirations and struggles.
Throughout the day there seemed to be a permanent queue of people waiting for their stories to be collected and captured in ink. I was fortunate to be just in time as I would be Sophie’s last client of the day. Conscious that she’d been working for five hours straight, I felt reluctant to bombard her with a series of questions whilst she had the mentally- and artistically-taxing task of condensing what I cared to tell her about my life-at-this-point into a one-page illustration. I also didn’t know how to start, feeling awkward about being simultaneously the interviewee and interviewer.
However, Sophie was evidently a skilled story-gatherer, and coaxed enough out of me to interpret my favourite painting which she asked me to describe, “that’s you hiding being the tree”, and crack jokes about how we should swap jobs and the appallingness of full-time poets (Sophie is also a poet). It felt like a combination of micro-psychoanalysis and a speed ink-painting masterclass, and I got to take home a copy of an illustration that summed up what I’d been preoccupied with for the past five years.
Between visiting these exhibits, I also added a couple of ideas on how to live with less to the ‘Top tips from thrifty types’ display board. My favorite tips were ‘Embrace the lentil’ and the catchy, paradoxical advice (given we were asked to think about how to save it), ‘Don’t let money rule your life’.
I spoke to Julie Rafalski again at the end of the day about basic income, a seemingly radical and idealistic idea, but one with a long history. Versions of Universal Basic Income (UBI) have been implemented in various locations and in various forms, such as the US Income Maintenance Experiments in the 1960s and 70s, and, more recently in Namibia and India.
Now, UBI is increasingly gaining prominence on both the left and the right for multiple reasons including technological advances threatening to make many types of jobs redundant and as a way of alleviating poverty. It will be trialled in various cities in Finland and the Netherlands, and the idea is being seriously considered in Canada and France. There’s also increasing support for UBI here in the UK: It’s long been part of the Green Party’s policy and Labour are apparently considering it too.
As well as basic income, Julie and I talked about the financial difficulties of living in London, but also the benefits of staying here: the community, the opportunities, the work. Looking at the half-empty pies remaining on the table, Julie pointed out that some participants had taken the alternative option of writing their own ideas and hopes for a commonwealth on plain, blank pies. I also asked her what the most popular idea had been, and it was the central, biggest pie, ‘Abundance’, which had disappeared.
Initially, I had mixed feelings about the venue, muddied by own childhood memories of church halls and village fêtes. Also, how brilliant (albeit dicey and likely short-lived) would it be to see a satirical zine set up in front of a large publishing house or an Orwellian-money production line on the corner of a skyscraping bank? On learning more about the venue, however, I changed my mind. I only wish it had been bigger so that even more people would have encountered it. Yet the event embodied the ‘think global, act local’ principle and perhaps what I considered initially to be a weakness was in fact just one of its many strengths.
Photo credit: Wei Xun, Katherine Dike & Anne Black, 2016.