Category Archives: Contributor Articles

Mistaking Your Arm for a Branch: What Sloths Can Teach Us About the Labour Market

Shortly after I graduated university, the economy fainted. My generation represents perhaps a first wave of grads whose expectations of higher learning did not include the new labour realities being constructed by a gathering storm of complex, interwoven, global financial dramas. Work in culture and the non-profit sector is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in public spending and policy. As a result, I’m “job promiscuous” – moving from opportunity to contract to organization – continuously looking for meaningful work and resisting the erosion of decent work that seems so characteristic of this time. In watching job postings over the last seven years, I’ve noticed the language and character of job descriptions radically shift, especially with respect to professional positions in my field.

Increasingly, labour is characterized by short term, contract, part time situations “subject to renewal” without the safety nets of health benefits, union membership, flexible schedules, training, professional development or even a posted salary. This is a hyper competitive job market that demands work experience specifically tailored to precise job qualifications, usually a Masters degree or higher, multiple internships, focused and ongoing volunteerism, and sometimes additional languages. Specialized credentials or memberships, often not widely recognized or even created as moneymaking schemes from supposed professional organizations for specific skills, are on the rise. Who would agree (and pay) to obtain these kinds of micro credentials, when reading a candidate’s resume or having a brief conversation could quickly ascertain competency? The expectation seems to be that you come to the job fully qualified and exactly qualified to do a specialized job. This discourages people from other disciplines or backgrounds from applying and bringing in outside ideas or slightly mismatched experience, which can add diversity and risk to the workplace. It also takes responsibility off an employer to train you or be flexible in how they integrate or interpret your skills. Jobs that have multiple interviews with weird psychological tactics, overly lengthy interview processes and tests, or ask for project ideas and free work like making a power point presentation or logo used to be the mark of a scam. With decent positions so scarce, young people are actually falling for this stuff. This is why labour got organized in the first place – to protect workers from having their ideas and time stolen.

Recruiters and HR managers often skim dozens of resumes looking for exact fits between posted qualifications and work experience in an effort to process hundreds of applications. This kind of correlating is about expediency. I’ve watched job descriptions being drafted at many institutions. Often, employers are listing their dreams – an accountant that will also do marketing, a grant writer with corporate connections and a background in volunteer management or an outreach coordinator who will launch a comprehensive social media plan, trouble shoot the website, give tours in French and maintain a database, all while building new community contacts. These postings reflect institutional fantasies of solving multiple in-house problems in one position in an effort to economize, rather than properly remunerate several employees and offer them a focused portfolio that plays to their strengths. In a job market over-saturated with capable, educated candidates, the scary thing is, they will actually find people who check multiple boxes as job seekers scramble to amass any certification or experience to get hired, regardless of how exploitative or crooked the means. Entry-level arts administrators that can’t find work out of school are now entering MBA programs to gain an edge. Many are also using the tried and true tactic of “creative lying”. Take a quick, covert tour of your connections on LinkedIn and tell me you can’t find clusters of pages padded with whimsical elaboration, particularly from profiles with little real job experience.

Candidates with tons of skills should be prioritized, I won’t argue that. These unicorns exist and can add much to organizations. What I’m advocating though, is a return to testing out promising, but less conventionally trained candidates, people from outside your industry, people who are self taught and self employed, people whose story is just a little bit offbeat or people who have designed their own path either because they didn’t have the resources or advantages of education or who have actively rejected it to explore alternatives. I’m also advocating a realistic appraisal of what employers are actually offering and a caution that as workers, if we accept the demands of this narrow job market, we should acknowledge that we are actively shaping labour. In many cases, this will not work in our favour.

The way students approach their time at school is becoming ruthlessly pragmatic. This is natural; education is expensive. I wanted my education to be cost effective. I didn’t believe as one professor suggested, that “Wasting time can be subversive.” Students know there’s not much cake out there, and can limit their experience to courses and activities most likely to be careerist. What many are missing by succumbing to this kind of tunnel vision is that the kinds of skills that can assist you most in this new labour scenario are best built through experimentation, risk taking, play, failure and tons of hard work – precisely the activities being avoided in an effort to just “get a degree and get out in four years.”

Managing to stay consistently employed in the field I’m trained in is the secret young people interested in art careers would most love to pry from me. In many ways, my educational experience was typical – I went to class, I had work study jobs, I amassed debt that would colour my decisions and curtail my options for years to come. But I also put on my own shows, applied for grants, started countless short lived clubs, asked cool people for jobs, wrote for the student paper, turned my flat into a gallery, became a board member, started an art crawl, grew a garden, did inadvisable things, made mistakes, volunteered and stayed up all night. In short, I had a big life outside school and those experiments created my network, gave me work experience, paid my rent and humbled me ahead of graduating. My connections and projects got me hired. My degree was a bonus.

Shoehorning your way into opportunity will become increasingly necessary, but there’s more than one way to go about it. Learn to talk convincingly about your work. Explain how your skills are desirable and transferable. Hone your writing skills. Start your own projects, don’t wait for institutional recognition or official vetting. Insist on your value and find people who respond to you. Have fun – social activity keeps stress low. Get rejected and get over it. Hop some fences. Have some ethics.

When you do get a solid job, spread wealth and spread power. If you’re a manager, promote capable employees, negotiate raises when deserved, offer recognition and new opportunities, connect people, share resources and information, support interesting and struggling initiatives. Nominate exceptional people for awards or internal opportunities. Be a space maker and give employees some agency to direct their own jobs and organize themselves. Grant employees time off to pursue personal projects or great opportunities, particularly travel. Stand up for labour protections within your own workplace. Resist the urge to replicate power structures you may have worked under.

Being successful in this bonkers economy requires continual improvisation and often, sacrifice. I explain my patchy CV by describing myself as a parachutist. Weathering long periods of unemployment taught me how to plan for scarcity. Moving a lot helped to build a national network. A trim lifestyle has kept me mentally and materially uncluttered and appreciative of what I have. Creating side hustle enabled me to quit unrewarding jobs while learning business skills. Using any resource at hand demonstrated how extensive and committed my community is. Holding out has been professionally worth it.

Douglas Adams is responsible for circulating the following entertaining, though completely disproved “fact”: young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees. This is supposed to illustrate how stupid sloths are, which is unfair in addition to being untrue, because their diet makes them sluggish and their eyesight is poor. Regardless, it’s a useful thing to be able to recognize an opportunity (the branch) from a non-opportunity (a body part). In navigating your education and later, the work world, keep this wisdom from the animal kingdom in mind: If you reach for something that closely resembles, but not altogether represents what you want, you may find yourself grabbing your own arm. You may shortly find yourself eaten by eagles.


How an Enormous Foam Cowboy Hat Might Create a Bike Friendly Town or an artist’s perspective on making change

Our Weapon For Truth

Melbourne SlutWalk

The documentary, Slut Nation, which accompanies the exhibition in the Helen Christou and Main Gallery, is a testament to the power of citizen journalism by providing an alternate and more accurate narrative of public protests. At first the images included in the exhibition seem to reflect what the ‘Slut Walk’ protest looked like from the ground level. However, as shown in the film, within the crowd of people holding placards and chanting in unison, was a separate ‘force’ trying to alter the message from one of gender-equality and violence against women, to frivolous and confusing statements about sexuality and self-expression. These attempts to weaken the legitimacy and influence of public protest are not new. Usually they are uncovered in the form of masked and police-boot wearing thugs trying to encourage people to smash stuff. However this time it came in the form of bright and flashy costumed individuals distracting the media with their outlandish signage and theatrical movement throughout the crowd. These distractions worked in many ways and leading newspaper and television outlets across the country used images of these individuals to represent, inaccurately, the crowd’s messaging.

The tactics used by police and law enforcement agencies, in an attempt to manipulate the public perception of street protests, is becoming a well-known fact. Activists everywhere are educating themselves on the characteristics of this type of sabotage and are arming themselves with a powerful weapon of truth… their cameras. Because the media can’t seem to stop themselves from focusing on this distracting behavior, and contributing to the misrepresentation, we need to start telling the stories in the way they should be told. The transition of how stories and truth are being generated and shared has been exciting to watch. Technology has created a more inclusive and diverse ‘soap box’, encouraging people everywhere to find their voice (be it visual, audio or lyrical) in order to speak out. The streets are where people, within a democratic society, have the right to gather and bring awareness or spread a message. Those in positions who consider street protests to be a threat to their idea of social order will continue to try and disrupt it, but will be met with a growing number of individuals armed and ready to ‘out’ them as provocateurs. Artist, Wendy Coburn, has become an example for me that finding the truth isn’t hard when done with conviction… and a camera.

How an Enormous Foam Cowboy Hat Might Create a Bike Friendly Town or an artist’s perspective on making change

When I need to get somewhere, I bike. Cycling is the default way I move through space, keep appointments and transfer stuff. It’s faster than walking, I never have to look for parking and my calves are so defined I’ve fallen over trying to remove “skinny” jeans. Cycling is cheap, healthy and fun and I’ve adjusted my life to make bike transportation comfortable, preferable and practical for the majority of my daily needs.  Merrily, I’ve lived in places with excellent infrastructure that supports this, or at least in places that have passable public transit when the going gets tough.

All of this changed when I moved to a certain regional centre in BC’s interior. Characterized by industry and spread along two rivers like hastily buttered bread, my new home could be described as bike tepid. There are three major recreational paths, designed around existing features rather than specifically for bikes and to take advantage of long, flat stretches and scenery around the rivers. These are routes for leisure rides, shared with other users and frequently interrupted by highway or busy street crossings, herds of families or awkward transitions into suburbs, often emptying onto narrow rural roads with no shoulder and high speed limits.

Getting around town is a clunky experience. 2012 saw an unprecedented spike in pedestrian and bike related injuries and deaths. The city has designed some wider, multiuse lanes to extend bike paths through neighborhoods without having to put in bike lanes, which could be costly or can’t be managed. This has encouraged cyclists to ride on sidewalks generally, especially where no alternative exists or in high traffic areas. Naturally, this angers pedestrians. In a place where sidewalks frequently disappear and it’s normal to be honked at in the middle of the street on a walk light, it’s not surprising peds resent the additional intrusion. Urban construction zones often make no effort to redirect foot or bike traffic because it’s a blind spot. If everyone drives, other users become invisible. The dominant mode of vehicle traffic then designs the ways we’re able to get around. This perpetuates the impossibility of options by creating a cycle of stasis:

A. There aren’t enough cycle commuters to warrant the creation of bike lanes, bike racks or bike shelters. Designated routes for cyclists prevent car/bike interaction. There are purpose built recreation areas for cyclists. Numbers don’t support increasing bus service routes or frequency.

B. Cyclists who might commute don’t because of safety risks, driver aggression or structural roadblocks that physically prevent access or make access dangerous. Cyclists use available means of locking their bikes including places that are inconvenient, in the way of other users or at a higher risk of theft. Designated multi use lanes are for leisure and not commuter focused. Drivers are unused to cyclist space margins or cycling hand signals because they see them so infrequently. Purpose built recreation areas are designed for mountain bikers, who often drive to trailheads. Bus routes are infrequent and inconvenient and are under-accessed.

Essentially, the situation will not improve because bike, bus or pedestrian-centric design is reactive – it responds to need, which is absent. This absence is caused by design.  If there are sidewalks and crosswalks, people will use them. If there are bike lanes, they will fill. If the bus can get you somewhere cheaper and faster, a percentage of people will access them. What I’m talking about is simply the creation of options, not the reversal of current urban design or expensive revisions. This is a space for activism, the promotion of change through effort. This is my blueprint for change:

Research existing bike and pedestrian advocacy groups and potentially join one.

Attend bike specific events like Bike to Work Week, Critical Mass or Fun Rides.

Start a midnight bike ride with friends. Be creative with illumination. Make visibility fun.

Talk to city counsillors. Get a better idea of current sustainability plans.

Document and sketch instances of unfriendly design. Use this information to stage actions that play with and draw attention to deficiencies.

Research collision information and frequency. Fact check and revise theories. Inspect personal prejudices to build a stronger, more informed case for simple solutions to specific problems.

Promote human powered and mass transit at work.

Interview drivers and understand their perspectives.

Create a cycling/walking map of how to access dangerous places or get through busy intersections. Describe and draw safer routes or illustrate the absurd lengths required to get to a specific place safely. Make this publicly available.

Have an art show!

Screenprint “I AM TRAFFIC” t-shirts.

Create a “space margin shield” for my bike. Attach a sculptural hoop around my bike that makes the amount of space I need to be safely passed visible.

Create an enormous cowboy hat out of lightweight material to fit over my bike helmet. Create amusing spectacle to increase visibility, avoid getting hit while making left turns.

Use children as human shields. Who’s going to hit a kid on training wheels?!

Clearly, I’m kidding about the last point. Successful activism requires a variety of approaches, enacted with a certain frequency, at a certain scale. Activism requires that you see yourself as having an ability to influence your surroundings and collaborate with others who have sometimes wildly different values. It demands an understanding of systems and networks and how to access them. Real change typically occurs at a threshold where consensus about a thoroughly researched and clearly articulated issue is promoted vigorously by a large or influential enough group and supports connections through several strategies varying in legality or force. It usually gains traction when solutions proposed by its resolution or evolution benefits many or marginalized people and has additional benefits or cost saving options for other demographics.

Interestingly, arts organizing and arts education developed many of these skills for me. Art strategies are activist strategies, or can be, especially with respect to creating visual attention and approaching complex, layered problems. Activist efforts without artistic components are missing a highly effective, critical tool. It might takes years of lobbying before bike lanes are common in my town, but nobody is going to ignore that giant cowboy hat…


Mistaking Your Arm for a Branch: What Sloths Can Teach Us About the Labour Market