Barter and time banking

In 2013 Artquest ran a focus group with 6 artists to explore the creation of a programme to enable artists to barter their skills and services to each other, allowing them to get specialist help without the need for payments. We often undertake small pieces of primary research to test ideas for new projects, many of which don’t get off the ground. Although ultimately abandoned at the time, the focus group uncovered some useful insight into how artists work together and the place of money when working together. Much unpaid work already happens informally between friends on a favour or gift basis, and we wanted to see if this could be scaled up to allow more non-financial relationships between artists who may not know each other. Our research broadly considered time banks and specifically Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), with more-or-less complex recording methods for hours, based on trust, and speculated on the equivalence between different types of labour. Seven years later after the research we’ve still not got the resources to take it forward, but are looking at ways in which some kind of skills exchange could be built-in to our Exchange online community.

What do you need help with?

Artists whose practice is more manual were more likely to need help with computer-based tasks such as website building, documentation and editing. Artists with a more conceptual or idea-orientated practice were more likely to need access to manual skills, such as carpentry or general making.

All artists said that they mostly needed help in terms “extra hands”, and not really in completing tasks that they could not do with their own skills. They need assistance to either complete a work more quickly, or to make something bigger.

All of them also agreed that they need help with funding applications, and applications in general, including proofreading, but that this is not easy to find. As many artists experience dyslexia, some also felt they would benefit from more help with writing.

Many of these skills could be provided by non-arts professionals (editors, graphic designers, web designers etc.). However, one of the artists said they would rather work with another artist because non-arts professionals have very specific methodologies and jargon that makes it hard to articulate their need. Although the artist wants a professional result, working with other artists that are fluent in the skills he needs tend to be more sympathetic to the artistic process and an artist’s sensibility.

What skills do you want to learn yourself?

When needing a new skill, artists preferred to get help or tuition from a professional. They were happy, however, to get help from an artist with the particular skill they need if they are not looking to learn the skill themselves.

All of the artists were willing to learn skills that could form part of their practice, and were keen to be challenged in learning. Many rely on online tutorials to acquire new skills and would rather be self-sufficient, saying that it feels more in keeping with the concept of “the hand of the artist” than asking for help and relying on someone else’s methodologies, ideas and approach.

Some of the artists pointed out that they don’t always want a professional finish and are more inclined to try doing things themselves if they don’t want a polished “impersonal” finish.

Many artists have a broad skill set, although not necessarily at an expert level. Even a basic knowledge means they get a lot out of involving non-arts professionals because they can also significantly increase their skill level in a short time.

Even though they enjoy skills exchanges, most prefer to be as self-sufficient as possible – their personal relationship with the craft of making is a part of their aesthetic and practice.

Do you only share skills if you can directly exchange?

All of the artists usually only exchange skills with artists that they know and where an exchange is agreed in advance. They very seldom exchange skills with artists they don’t know, even if they have a mutual friend, because they feel exposed, fearing a demystification of their practice from that exposure.

All of the artists mainly rely on the same group of people for help. Some of these relationships were established at college / art school, creating a sense of comfort and a lack of judgment.

Some artists preferred to get help only from artists with whom there is some kind of crossover or similarity in practice.

Any skills exchange should not feel exploitative with both parties benefitting. To this end, the “need” dictates the success of the exchange, not necessarily some objective labour equivalency – for example, a day of editing could be exchanged for helping to move studio.

If they need a service or skill that cannot be provided by their usual group, they tend to find people to help via their wider network or through social networks, and would generally expect to pay for the service. Only close personal existing friends can barter without pay.

What kind of skills exchanges do you offer?

Skills exchanges are predominantly on a time equivalent basis, without further equivalency in terms of level or type of skill.

One of the artists would be willing to do more such exchanges, but had no way to communicate her complete skill set to her community and felt that she was “under used” as a potential resource.

None were keen on offering a piece of their artwork in exchange for labour, feeling it disrespectful for the time on offer.

If you have a budget, do you just pay someone?

All artists would rather pay for services. Having a budget means that they can involve professionals that are not part of the exchange economy and this increases the production level of their work as well as their ambitions. There was no distinction made between the type of projects (major solo show vs. a studio experiment) that favoured payment, and they all liked that, when paying someone, they could communicate any dissatisfaction with the work and their expectations around deadlines.

How much do you pay?

Ideally artists would pay according to the Arts Council England (PDF) [or a-n / Artists Union England] guidelines but are rarely able to, even on funded projects. All artists try to pay minimum wage, but that is not always possible on longer projects. This usually attracts a flat fee.

One artist said that she uses the daily rate requested, and then negotiates where necessary, sometimes offering a part money / part labour exchange to make up the shortfall.

All agreed that younger artists are exploited as a free work force, and that this practice has become institutionalised. Younger artists feel that they are gaining experience and creating networks, but this kind of exchange is considered definitely unfair.

They had all, however, participated in this exploitation at some point when the ambitions of their project exceed their budget and because this exploitation is socially acceptable. They accept free help, particularly from interns or students, but favoured informal short-term or low-level help from fellow studio artists or friends.

There was no agreement as to how often they paid for skills and services, varying from 20% to 80% of the time, and mostly reflective of their career status or level.

Do you learn skills from these exchanges?

Most agreed that they don’t learn new skills during exchanges, but might improve any existing basic skills they already have. Sometimes this improvement is enough to accomplish the same task independently in the future.

What else do you get from these exchanges?

Artists reported an increased sense of community and a discussion amongst equals as additional positive benefits. It also keeps their business and practice more private while being gratifying to help others achieve their vision. It is also inspiring, and can lead to new ways of working or looking at things.

Do you consider skills exchanges as a collaboration?

No matter how much another artist or professional contributes to the work, regardless of monetary exchange, the work remains solely the artist’s intellectual and material property unless otherwise negotiated or agreed before. Even if a piece is entirely made by someone else and sold, it would be up to the artist’s discretion to give a portion of the money to the maker. This is in no way implicit.

Any expectations around attribution or crediting had to be agreed prior to the exchange occurring. In general, unless agreed, there is no need to credit this help explicitly even where no monetary exchange was made.

Similarly, artists agreed that when they were helping someone else they only wanted to be credited if their contribution was relevant to their practice to avoid confusion over authorship. If not, they were satisfied with a “thank you”. Making this acknowledgment publicly is not necessary if there was a time/skill exchange being made.

Do the skills need to be equivalent?

In practice, the demand dictates the value of the exchange, despite some arguments about equivalency. Outside of an exchange a day of editing is worth more money than stretching canvases, but ultimately the demand was an equaliser and a token of respect and goodwill. This is likely due to the fact that most such exchanges are between friends.

How could exchanges be structured in a programme?

6 out of the 7 artists agreed that a formal time bank system would be more efficient and successful than a straight barter system, where an exchange is completed by two people in need of a match in skills.

The artist who disagreed claimed that an important part of an exchange is the sense of community and ability to foster a relationship with another artist, not simply a means to an end. An indirect exchange also means that no one is held directly accountable.

Could this be a programme, and how might it work?

The final part of the session concentrated on discussing the possibilities, problems and solutions of an artist-based, predominantly online time bank.

An online system, social network or website, should have self-selected or anonymous usernames, but require a detailed application, photograph and proof of address. New members would have to vouched for by 2 existing members. Since exchanges will happen in real life, the safety of members is paramount.

Profiles should be as detailed as possible to avoid time wasting.

A nominal subscription fee (e.g. £10 for 6 months) could cover administration costs.

Similar to AirBNB, each member would have an availability calendar to be control of their availability, thus avoiding being approached when they are unavailable.

It should run on a points system, with one point being equal to one hour. Each new member should initially gain 10 points before they can spend their credits. An agreed ratio should be maintained, such as in torrent sharing websites. An member who knows they will need a lot of help can accrue points credit in advance, but can only have a deficit of 16 points. The hours invested are validated by the artist for whom the services are rendered.

Members list all their skills on a profile under main categories and subcategories, with a 1-5 rating to specify their skill level. Categories and availability should be searchable, e.g. search for photo editing skills, specifically colour grading, to be available next Thursday.

Once you find a profile with the skill you need, you message the artist directly with a detailed request. The member being approached is then at liberty to accept or decline, or request more information.

There should be a forum for members to raise issues and a weekly bulletin of skills sought, new members, or highlighting skills you are looking for that have been added. It should begin as a beta / test site to address unforeseen problems that arise.

Students would not be permitted to join, because they already have resources available.

Guidelines or frequently asked questions would include:

  • Crediting the help you get, where appropriate
  • Working out the likely time required for the task, including a list of reasonable time scales for a variety of jobs
  • Explanation of skill levels
  • Paying for materials costs
  • Transport required to a place of work, and how to include travel time
  • Making a suitably detailed request and profile

What would be the benefits of such a programme?

The programme would empower younger artists, those usually exploited in the current system, by equalising and acknowledging their investment and showing a proven track-record of their experience. While an artist at the beginning of their career might not find the resource as useful as an established artist working towards a big project, these younger artists could gain experience with more established artists on their own terms.

A time bank can ensure work is shared equably around the network, and a calendar would facilitate time management. This enables asymmetrical working patterns when not a direct, concurrent exchange. Artists get, and give, the work they need when they are able.

Reflecting on how artists define their own skills and needs will help define and identify your own.

What problems might this programme encounter?

The main problem would be ensuring honesty about the time spent on a job, with the potential to abusing the system. Some artists will find having to invest time before getting any back a problem too.

Further research available

Stephanie Diamond / Listings Project (NYC)

Artist project Time/Bank founded by artists Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle for e-flux.

A critical voice

Two artists who were unable to join the group sent a separate response critical of the idea of a mutual time bank for artists:

“Much of this is based on a Marxist critique of alternatives to money and has been outlined extensively online.

To boil it down, we don’t think replacing one currency with another solves anything because it doesn’t address unequal distribution. Time seems like a more ‘natural’ unit than money superficially, but that ignores the disparate levels of access to skills and resources, not to mention biological differences, that produce different capacities for productivity per hour.

Moreover, we’re not sure how radical the system really is: informal networks of mutual support and labour exchange exist all the time. We ask friends and family to do things for us in exchange for a variety of things from social favours to financial support. These informal gestures exist within formal monetary systems and do not offer a real alternative to them. To reiterate: non-monetary support is available only under certain conditions (like a grandmother who does childcare for her children and is only able to do so because she is a citizen of a country with adequate pensions for older people and does not need to work). We are able to exchange skills because we can bank on previous training and knowledge and therefore preserve existing structures of inequality.

If we ignore these already embedded differences we end up with a system that does not intend to offer a real and authentic solution but only serves as a liberal simulation for those who are able to enjoy it. It is also not clear why formalising these informal structures – i.e. forming a time bank to quantify social exchange – is beneficial or desirable. This is a problem faced by many employers today – how to quantify post-Fordist immaterial labour. Solving the problem for them (by treating time as the direct source of wealth while ignoring the inequalities inherent to labour) only enhances the exploitation of the workers.

The problem with money is that it is both a universal commodity (i.e. the equivalent of all forms of labour and all other goods and services) and a commodity in its own right (one that could be sold for more or less money than could be accumulated or saved). Removing it will only deal with the first issue (the universal exchange) which is not that problematic in its own right but leaves the second intact. If people are able to ‘bank’ on time –  invest it, accumulate it, come together with other people to share time resources etc. – you will have the exact same problem of inequality. Some people will accumulate enough to use it spectacularly, beyond the means of production available to most.

If you are not trying to resolve the problem of inequality, we are not entirely sure why we should avoid money, because the exchange of art related activities does not replace rent and food, so people would still need to work. But in more practical terms, you haven’t really given us that much information about what you are planning, so it’s hard to say what the problems might be: it would be good to know whether anyone could join up or whether the joining up is limited to artists, for example. This raises interesting questions, which have also hindered the progress of movements for artist unionisation, like how do you define who is an artist.

However, the main issue remains the quantification of skills. Is one hour of woodwork equivalent to one hour of admin? Are these things determined democratically or by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market?

We don’t see why you couldn’t resolve at least some of these issues, but some are more fundamental and perhaps not your concern here. We are happy to continue the debate if you do want to answer some of these questions, but otherwise just hope this is helpful.”

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About the author

Russell Martin

Russell is a graduate of The Glasgow School of Art who has lived in London since 1998. Initially working in gallery education, his self-initiated projects include workshops, residencies, peer mentoring, artist-led galleries, radio programmes, and a series of interdisciplinary arts social events. Russell is director of Artquest, a member of the board at Block 336 and City and Guilds of London Art School, and an advisor for PRAKSIS, an artist residency in Oslo.

By Russell Martin
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