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Manifesto chat with Bea

Following on from our chat with Ailie Rutherford last week, we decided we like asking questions and having a snoop on your behalf, so this week we’ve got another lil interview for you. We spoke to Beatrix Livesey-Stephens about the work she’s doing for NEoN: Beatrix is working on a Manifesto for Digital Arts Work Placements, and way back in May she emailed us to ask if we could participate in the research towards it. While we weren’t able to contribute, we were interested in the work she was doing and wanted to chat to her about it, what it involves, and how it’s going. So here you go! More behind the scenes content! Here’s Bea’s answers to our lil questions!

TWP: Hello! who are you, what do you do generally, and what do you do at NEoN?

Hiya! I’m Bea, and I’m just about to go into my last year of my undergraduate Linguistics degree at the University of Aberdeen. I’m a freelance journalist, and I do a lot of disability and accessibility stuff too. I was commissioned by NEoN to create a highly inclusive best-practice Manifesto for Digital Arts Work Placements that can inform best practice across the digital arts creative and cultural sector. This was one of the commissions for the ReGrowing Digital Arts research project with Dr Michael Pierre Johnson. The Manifesto is now done (apart from a few stylistic tweaks) and I recently had my co-evaluation with Bilyana Palankasova and Nathan Jones, who had other commissions as part of the ReGrowing Digital Arts project. I’m looking forward to the showcase in August.

TWP: Tell us about the process of researching your digital arts work placements manifesto! How are you going about it, what are you looking into? Is this a question about ~methodology? Maybe! But we don’t know what methodology means lmao

Ah god, so the research was all over the place for this one. I was meant to do a roundtable but then everyone showed up at different times so I ended up just talking to everyone individually over the course of a week. I interviewed some current employees of NEoN, and a former NEoN volunteer who’s now a game dev and works with the Biome Collective. I also interviewed the lovely folks at Game Assist. Aside from interviews, I did an absolute ton of self-reflection about the good, bad, and ugly work and volunteering I’ve done in order to formulate my eleven manifesto points. In that respect, creating the manifesto was kind of therapeutic for me, especially in terms of what I want future conditions of labour and the future of work to be. There’s also a sources and suggestereading page at the end of the manifesto if you want to find out more

TWP: What are you hoping to find answers to with your research? What questions are you asking?

I had some set questions that I asked my research participants. These were about the difference between paid and unpaid work, combatting “unpaid labour culture” especially in the arts, supporting underrepresented and marginalised groups such as people from working-class backgrounds and people of colour, and NEoN’s engagement with higher education institutions. Everyone said really similar things, which drove the Manifesto in a clear direction. I haven’t figured this out yet, but I really want to find what the difference between paid and unpaid work is. In the Manifesto I said that one of the main differences between which work should be paid is the element of responsibility, especially responsibility for whether an initiative succeeds or fails. I stand by this, but I don’t think it’s that simple. When creating the Manifesto, the approach I took to “best-practice” was to have big theoretical guidelines that had some room for interpretation when an organisation puts them into practice. That said, you either follow a guideline or you don’t follow it.

I raise a few questions within the Manifesto itself, such as the extent to which volunteer work is ethical, and how an organisation like NEoN could take steps to ensure volunteering is a two-way street, in that NEoN supports volunteers and compensates them for their work in a way other than money, such as providing them with references and training opportunities that are applicable to future employment. It could be argued that the arts economy cannot survive without unpaid labour in the form of its volunteers, but what does that say about the arts economy?

I also say a ton about rest, so much so that the idea of labour and rest as two separate entities has its own two manifesto points, points ten and eleven. Something I really struggle with as a disabled person is knowing that I don’t have to work every single second, and internalising the fact that I am entitled to rest even if I haven’t managed to do much one day. There’s a prevailing notion that creative work is less work than the average office job, because it’s fun. And it’s true that creative work is very often really fun, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need a rest from creative work. The “creative work is so FUN!!!” mindset leads to creatives burning out, and if you burn out, you can’t do creative work. You can’t pour from an empty cup. The final Manifesto point is “Rest is a human right,” which is so applicable to all areas of work. Honestly, all the Manifesto points are, but I like to thinks that those who are looking at doing a placement in digital arts really need to hear them.

TWP: Why do you think this is an important topic to look into?

The people who are looking at doing placements in digital arts are very likely to be students (although not always, which is something else I go into detail in in the Manifesto). As a student myself, I can tell you firsthand that we’re all terrified. This terror means that students are just getting more and more desperate to be paid for their work, and being paid for anything that’s creative is like gold dust. A strong set of guidelines for how to treat volunteers and those who are doing work placements is so important in order to keep volunteers and interns from being exploited, and to actively help them thrive, especially now. As someone who’s done a ton of volunteer work in the past, I can tell you that it’s very easy for a volunteer to exploit themself in the name of getting experience, especially if you don’t actually have someone who’s overseeing you. Honestly, people need to be told they’re doing enough, because right now all anyone is hearing from their own brain is “you’re not doing enough,” due to the competitiveness of...everything.

TWP: How has it been going? Where are you at with it now?

So the Manifesto is now done apart from a few stylistic things like adding this sentence I had a brainwave over a few days ago, doing some more pretty colour-coding, and fixing a bug I found in the middle of the co-evaluation. One of the requirements was for it to function as an adaptable knowledge repository that would grow and change as NEoN moves forward. The opportunity posted on NEoN’s website suggested that the Manifesto be interactive and game-based, so right from the get-go I considered using Twine, and stuck with it. I also considered using the Ren’Py engine, but this proved to be a little complex. However, I’m now teaching myself Ren’Py to make a game based on the Manifesto, called “can i talk to you about rest,” which will hopefully be continued as part of the Self Care Jam, a research collaboration between the University of Nottingham and the National Videogame Museum. I’m really excited to see where it goes, and I’ll definitely keep you and NEoN updated. Creating the Manifesto has been such a great experience for me in reevaluating my own work practices and recognising the value of my labour. I hope to carry the manifesto points with me in all my future work.

TWP: What are you hoping this research will do? What are you looking forward to as an outcome, or end goal?

I hope that the Manifesto sets NEoN apart as an organisation who set a great example for the treatment of volunteers and interns. I firmly believe that if everyone is given the support they need, and if asking for help is framed as a strength rather than a weakness, the organisation thrives and people are happy at work. I want other organisations to adopt my points, I want to feel like I have lain the groundwork for healthy work within the creative industries. That’s the outcome or end goal really, I want people to feel that they’re being treated fairly and know that they’re being treated fairly. The Manifesto is a big step for NEoN in terms of transparency, as there’s this etheralness that often comes with digital arts organisation that’s actually really alienating - like an organisation is playing hard-to-get - and I’m so glad that NEoN’s trying to dismantle that. One of the main things I want anxious students to know is that there isn’t a binary switch between being “unqualified” and being “qualified” - whatever opportunity you want to go for, please go for it. Job requirements are mainly a wishlist, and learning on the job is what creative arts is all about. I’m really happy that NEoN are approaching my Manifesto with the desire to adapt and change it as they grow and gain new insights, and I hope I’m there to see it.

TWP: Tell us more about the manifesto itself!

There are eleven points in total which I sort of squeezed out of my brain through my evaluations with myself and my research with the interview participants. They range for treating volunteers ethically, to support within a placement, to dismantling discrimination, to the importance of rest. There’s a plain text version, a plain text summary, a summary within the Twine version, and the big Twine version. I wanted to make sure the Manifesto was accessible in every way possible, which included producing summaries, since the full Manifesto is very long. The Twine version will be available on soon, I’m so excited for it to finally be released.

TWP: How do you think your research/manifesto will impact the way NEoN will work in future? What changes do you hope to see, and what changes do you think are non-negotiable (n simply must happen or BUST!)?

Ideally I really want NEoN to start implementing all the guidelines as soon as possible, and I know they’re already doing a lot of what’s already in the Manifesto, but hopefully it helps to make the conscious choice of following the guidelines, and NEoN can see what works for them and their contractors. The crux of the Manifesto is to open the digital arts industry to as many groups and as many people as possible, so I hope that they take onboard how life-changing flexible work can be, especially for disabled people, and how important it is to have things like travel expenses covered, since that can make or break whether someone is able to take on an opportunity. If anything, I want the Manifesto to hold NEoN accountable now that someone has written a best-practice guide of what they could be doing to make the experience of volunteering and placements enriching, fulfilling, and useful for all parties involved, with no burnout. 

Image Credit: A screengrab from the Manifesto for Digital Arts Work Placements.

Text by Gabrielle de la Puente, The White Pube

NEoN are working with The White Pube as part of its Wired Women* programme. They are writing responses on the different public outcomes of the programme. Find out more here.