Artists at Work

I spent much of last week on a film set gaining work insight for The Work Project. There’s so much perspective to share, but I’m under threat of beheading or some such nastiness if I mention publicly anything about the thing I was an extra in before it’s broadcasted, so you’ll have to wait until the autumn for that particular piece!

In amongst the chaos and the cables, the Directors, Assistant Directors and the Third Assistant Directors, I got into conversation with one of the other ‘background artists’, by exclaiming out loud:

It’s hard to see this as art.

We agreed that given the number of people involved, each taking charge of a process and the cynically commercialised aims of the piece, it was hard to see it as anything other than a production line, akin to that of a factory. It defies logic – television and film are traditionally seen as art forms in their output, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily are. Equally, that doesn’t mean that artists aren’t contributing to them. The same can be said for any line of work.

Thinking on the subject as I drifted through the relentlessly long days, there came a point where I noticed that many of the other extras around me took their craft seriously. When asked to cheer, they were waving hats, miming expressive conversations, punching the air wildly – they were in character, expressing themselves as much as the big name actors in the main shot, albeit for far less financial reward.

I concluded that art is finding the freedom to express yourself.

Looking around me, everyone on that set had some level of freedom of expression (albeit within parameters) and those who chose to, took it. They were contributing small pockets of art to the overall production. Even within a process-led environment, where the output isn’t specifically ground breaking or creative, it’s possible to be an artist at work.

As my woollen suit and stuck-on moustache started to itch increasingly and I personally felt uninspired to contribute art to the circumstance in anything other than a subversive way, I thought of my friend Doug Shaw. I was lucky enough to speak with Doug at various Workplace conferences across Europe earlier this year.

I remembered him asking a crowd of professionals who of them was an artist. Very few put their hands up. Doug’s premise is that we are all artists – naturally creative in our own way, we’re just taught that unless we’re specifically talented in what’s classed as an artistic subject at school, we’re not artists. It’s a great point. Whatever we do in our lives, we have the opportunity to express ourselves in that, no matter how small that freedom of expression may be.

Within the confines of being an extra on a tightly controlled set, those background artists took the freedom to express themselves artistically and made a contribution that improved the outcome of the filming as a result. Sometimes, the freedom to be an artist already exists – the permission comes from within oneself.

When I’m in London I like to visit Kaffeine, a small coffee shop on Great Titchfield Street. It’s a great place that sees creating the perfect cup of coffee as an art form. On its website, it says of its Baristas:

They are continuously in pursuit of perfecting the art of espresso making.

Kaffeine provides its people with the freedom to express themselves in the art of something as seemingly simple as making a cup of coffee. They are artists at work.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at someone else’s house when the mail was delivered. The post person had taken the time to get to know everyone on their round and stopped for a quick chat about the new puppy at the house I was at, sharing knowledge and a recommendation of a local vet. That wasn’t in the job description – she had taken the freedom to express herself within the parameters of her role delivering mail, adding art to it. A stark contrast to my own post being delivered every day without so much as a reciprocated good morning.

The artistic licence we give ourselves can be pronounced. I spend my days enjoying mixing with those who act as artisans blurring the unnecessary boundaries to demonstrate the art of work, through words, pictures and actions (follow @SimonHeath1, @Workessence and @DougShaw1 on Twitter as a starting point – there are many, many more). Equally, it can be the tiniest thing – the way we stack a pallet, deliver customer service or manage a team.

No matter how small, or how restricted, we all have an opportunity to express ourselves artistically in (if not through) our work if we choose to. It may not be art in the traditional definition, but in our own way we are all artists at work.

What are you going to do to express yourself today?