tiistai 19. joulukuuta 2017

WE WANT MONEY, WE WANT POWER: NOTES ON THE FINNISH GRANT SYSTEM



Kimmo Modig: Untitled  (made in concert with the collective group show (HYPER)EMOTIONAL: YOU, EKKM, Tallinn, 2017)

DISCLAIMER: This text is way incomplete. Anyone can blow my arguments down with one puff, I imagine. I am signalling those of you who feel the way I feel. Additionally, I am interested to discuss more concrete, albeit technical changes that could take place: For example, instead of giving out grants, foundations and others could simply hire people to do artistic work or research.

Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, artists in Finland, like their colleagues in other Nordic countries, can access numerous grants that come from both private foundations and public funds. This is truly amazing and worth applauding for. I won't break down the numbers here, but the amount of open calls and money given out is staggering to say the least. Application deadlines give a rhythm to the year, a bit like seasonal work at farms. Artists post Facebook updates both when their number is called and when nothing gives. There are a bunch of deadlines in the Spring and then again come Fall. Sometimes we gather together to support each other in order to get the applications done. You can apply for anything from small 200-1000€ travel stipends to a full-time 1 to 5 years artist grant for 2300€ per month.

But here's the thing. These grants don't, in most cases, lead to a larger change in the realities of the applicants, save for a temporary fix. When your funding runs out, you're back to where you started, back to competing with people who are 20 years older or younger than you. The only thing that's equal about it is that everyone's put into equally precarious situation. And since we're talking about art, there are no objective criteria to speak of.

You could be wildly successful (as in having international museum shows that don't pay, for example) and still that would not mean you'll get funded. This highlights one part of the problem: foundations all rely on anonymous jurors who are usually renewed annually. As an applicant, you have no idea who will be deciding on your grant and what they value. I get why they do this, but I suspect if being open about the jurors would make people bribe them or otherwise corrupt the process. Foundations do offer guidelines for the applicants, but in the end it is up to the incognito reviewers to choose who they want to support. Their suggestions are then affirmed by the board, but I've never heard of them doing any changes to the lists provided by the called-in experts.

There's no way for applicants to know if what they're doing will be awarded with a grant or not. If I as a reviewer (note: I've done this job for almost all of the foundations and public councils) feel ice-skating as art is the new thing and should be buttressed above everything else, then that's what's gonna happen. And then if you're a multi-disciplinary artist, a representative of a festival, or, say, a producer working for your town's cultural office, and you choose to read this as sign of times, thus shaping your next year's application to be more responsive to the current trend of ice-skating in order to keep your project running, there will be someone else reading your pleas this time around and deciding it's time to support oil painting instead. And so it goes.

Even if you would be perfectly suited for the changing trends, the money you receive is not seed money. "Apuraha" in Finnish means literally "help money", the original idea being, I assume, that the grant helps you to do something, nudging you forward a little. But this is not how it works: you need to spend all the money you're given in a way that doesn't generate more money, and in almost all of the cases you cannot invest the money into something like real estate that would, for example, give your art organisation a more sustainable future.

The deciding bodies handing out the grants tend to emphasize two things: the money they give is meant for non-profit activities, and that it's not allotted based on social reasons (ie. the applicant is poor and needs to pay their rent). Basically, the grant system stops you from being a capitalist while keeping you living in the capitalist reality of attention economy, where you need to prove yourself and rely on ever-fleeting grants indefinitely. Secondly, why else would anyone apply for money other than socio-economic reasons?

You don't need to know economic theories by heart to understand that the only way up for the lower classes is by owning the means of your production, and/or the ability to collect rent (ie. accumulating money out of what you have already). By examining the grants system, it becomes evident how the art industrial complex works like any other of its kind: it gives people rope while keeping them under stress and tied down in their class position so they wouldn't take over or do anything to unbalance the neoliberal order and class positions. As a side product from keeping creatives in check, the art scene accumulates capital: rents to go up in neighborhoods with galleries, artists take over the functions of care work after the neoliberal regime has cut public services, and in some cases firms can culture-wash their reputation, and global tourism business attracts more clientele.

I regularly receive grants. But I shouldn't say "receive" because what happens is I take them. And when I do, someone else can't have it, just like with higher education. I can take it because I'm suitable to play the part, not too strayed from the norm, not too impossible. And through such rituals as award ceremonies and affirmation letters printed on expensive-looking paper, we are made humble. We must always tell everyone how thankful we are that we were able to recei..take the grant. As exceptional the grants system is with all the extraordinary things it has made and is making possible, it is ultimately, for most parts, not doing anything to help the core problems and inequalities in our society. Should it? Could it?

This would require a fundamental shift in thinking, and a re-positioning of the artistic work away from giving the society bonus points for being so civil as to support a handful of "special people" (ie. artists worth supporting of), towards localised, engaged work that thinks hard about sustainability and universal access to production and benefits, something which is actually taking place within some funded projects already.

It would not be easy by any means, and I don't know how it would look like, nor am I actively pursuing it apart from writing this. But then the grants system as it stands today didn't just happen one day, but was part of a larger societal change and rooted in specific ideologies. By awarding money to certain people in society for something as abstract as being artists, the grants system seemed to have followed the global trends in the West to dismantle the welfare society and replace it with a neoliberal one, in which individuals are celebrated over equal opportunities and social security. Even if the people working in these institutions giving out grants would not share such right-wing values, as they almost never do in my experience, quite the opposite-I've met some of the most kindest people working tirelessly to advance the prospect of arts & sciences and civic discussion at large-, their institutions become complicit in the bigger scheme of things.

Going to back to humility bit, it makes sense to point out that most foundations and public bodies won't pay you to review their applications. It is also deemed as an honor, or as taking one for the team. Problem is, it is not helping my team.

Paging team: We need to stop lying to ourselves this is healthy and worth the anxiety, depression and seeing colleagues drop out. We must resist being complicit in a system that is catering to the ultra-competitive anti-welfare dream society of the right. Recent events in Finnish politics, from granting the wishes of neo-nazis and collaborating with them in human rights violations to the humiliation of unemployed citizens by cutting their subsidies should make it clear to anyone that we are already in the midst of an unspoken class war.

The right simply doesn't want to label it such because for most of them, their whole idea of society is based on the idea of suppressing the dissent voices and people with random inclusion and benefits just enough so that business can go on as usual. For example, there will never be 100% employment because if there would be, the workers would have the upper hand in negotiations. When work is scarce (but not too scarce), it makes us grateful to have job in the first place. This makes us lower our standards when it comes to job benefits etc, while the exclusion of publicly funded safety nets and deteriotion of unions (sometimes of their own making) make us unwilling to go on strike. This logic is reflected in the art world, as well.

Maybe you're a liberal leftie, or Green party voter, and you don't like the sound of class war, but if you think about the way the rich are taking the money from the poor through tax and subsidies cuts, almost everywhere in the world, what other term could come close to describing our reality?

I am very glad to see there are still individuals and organisations willing to support the arts and sciences in Finland. But I believe we need to have a conversation about what the grant system adds up to, and what everyone wants. Here's my aims: I want long-term wealth and power to everyone who is being suppressed -some obviously more heavier than others- and wants to support the fight for a more just world. I don't want for anyone to live under constant stress caused by the arbitrariness of systems that decides for your fate, and by the rat race for the temporary chances held up in front of you. I don't want to gamble, I want to burn down the casino.

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