Operating alongside my in-depth look at my own commute, I am undertaking a series of interviews with my co-workers at the Barbican looking at their commutes too.
In keeping with my overall approach to this period of research, these commuting interviews will be expansive, using the commute as a take-off point for thinking about our labour for the Barbican alongside our other creative practices, speculating at potential crossovers that could be developed.
K A R E N R E E V E S C O M M U T I N G I N T E R V I E W
S: Could you say who are you and that?
K: Yeah, I have nothing to hide, my name is Karen Jennifer Reeves.
S: Do you have a formal arts education?
K: Yes, I did GCSEs at school, then A-Level Fine Art and Media Studies at college. And then on from that I did a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design at the same college. That was the kind of course where you do a range of pathways and then you specialise, so I specialised in Multimedia and Animation. Following that I had a bit of a time out from education. And then I got accepted onto a BA Hons Fashion and Textile Design with Enterprise in Portsmouth, and completed that in 3 years. So a quite typically formal education in the arts, although that was against the norm of my social upbringing. I was the first child in my family to go to university.
S: Were your parents supportive of your decision?
K: Very, yes. My parents have been incredibly supportive, and I’m quite lucky for that. I’ve always been someone who is quite academic, but it’s always felt a little at odds with my situation, but they’ve been very supportive of that, definitely. If it was something I wanted they’ve always stood by it, and did what they could to push it.
S: So have you worked in arts infrastructure before working at The Barbican?
L: Yeah yeah, on several occasions. I guess my first significant position, after I graduated from uni, I worked for a private art gallery that was an online gallery that then started a pop-up space. I started by volunteering and then I was quickly employed to be a gallery assistant at the pop-up gallery, that was held in the Cabot Circus shopping centre in Bristol. I worked there for 3 months. Prior to that I’d started volunteering at The Cube Microplex Cinema. At the time they’d just started fundraising to buy the building, so I was part of the team that started the development for that. So that was working through ideas and programmes of how they were going to fundraise to buy the building off the landlord. It was a really massive project. So it was quite incredible to be part of that, even in a small way, as it was only for a few months.
Then following that I worked for Spike Island. I worked on the Bloomberg New Contemporaries Exhibition as a volunteer. Even though some of the artforms were quite challenging, especially as an invigilator, I would have to consistently speak about the artwork. You’re talking about new graduates, so there was consistently a topic of ‘how is this art?’. But for me, I really enjoyed that debate. You would be defending an artwork that might not be your favourite, you know? So you have to be trying to defend it.
S: Were you allowed to say that you personally didn’t like something?
K: Yeah yeah, actually Spike Island were really receptive of that as an institution. They were like ‘we put up this work, but its up to people to take their own views on it’. Obviously they didn’t want you to say ‘I think this is shit’, so you got the impression that as long as you had somewhat of a positive slant, as long as you could say ‘I maybe don’t agree with this section because of this but I think this’ then they were okay with it. They accepted your opinion as long as you could explain it and have a reasonable rationale. And that you weren’t portraying it as the only opinion, you were portraying it as yours. It was actually quite freeing. It meant that those visitors who maybe didn’t know as much about artwork, and found it difficult to access, could then say ‘what do you think?’, I was able to break it down in a more obtainable way. And that my opinion was able to be voiced, that I wasn’t dictated to by the organisation. Its something that looking back on, I hadn’t realised was quite important actually.
S: Okay, anywhere else?
K: When I moved to London I’d just won an internship to work for the fashion designer Jane Bowler and essentially became studio manager. But that was very different to gallery work, very craft based, very hands on, very practical. But then becoming about managing the team, focusing on development of what we were producing. The designer would also teach in universities across the UK, so when she was there she would be structuring us and working directly with us. But when she wasn’t there it was up to us to be maintaining that level and be on top of the development of the pieces and work to the schedule for everything to be ready for Fashion Week. So when she wasn’t there it would be up to me to be making sure that the scheme was together. So that was really quite different because it was a lot more unstructured and a lot more responsibility. But also I gained that over a period, I became studio manager after 7 or 8 months, taking over from who was doing it before. It was a much more fluid dynamic, with a lot more trust. And I needed to be able to train new people, to be able to say ‘this is how you need to do it, this is how to cut a line that’s gonna be clean’
S: And that was all volunteering? That sounds like quite a responsible position to be unpaid. Like that’s clearly real labour. What’s your attitude towards volunteering in that sense?
K: When you come out of a fashion and textiles degree, at that point, it felt inevitable that you would have to do that. And I was accepting towards that completely. And when I did it I felt really privileged that the person that I was working for was incredibly understanding, receptive, gave me a lot of responsibility. And was also incredibly caring and became somewhat of a mentor to me. So it enabled me, for a period of time, to be less concerned about earning money. And to me it was more like a trade agreement, like ‘I’ll give you my time, and you’re going to train me’. And I felt like that was a fair exchange. Because in other circumstances, if I was looking for that equivalent level of training I would have to pay a lot of money. So I felt it was a reasonable deal. Eventually I was unable to sustain that. If I could have been paid for that position I would be there now, even at a reasonably basic salary I would have stayed. But I was unable to be paid for that position, so I had to make that decision. And also I’d been there a few seasons and I felt that I’d got the experience that I needed to, to progress onto other things. It was the right time to focus on trying to not be working for free, because I realised that my skills were at a level meant I shouldn’t really be working for free.
It was kind of a difficult thing, because on the principle of it I think free working is wrong, but in my experience of it, because I was working to someone who is quite generous, it didn’t really feel like I needed to fight that. I felt quite respected in my position. Which is a testament to the way the business is run.
S: Okay, anywhere else?
K: Sorry! So many jobs! Okay, so when I finished working for that designer, I worked as an artist’s assistant for a couple. One was a portraiture artist, a fine artist using oil paint, and the other made fabric sculpture caricatures and then painted them with acrylic paint. So my role was to help construct the fabric sculptures, but also I supported her husband and that was more in the administrative side.
S: And that was paid?
K: Yes. That was interesting, through noticing my skill level and looking at what was available, I was like ‘this is what I think I should be being paid’ and suddenly from being paid nothing I was being paid well above minimum wage. But also, they were clearly doing quite well, the portraiture artist was very commercial and sold a lot of work, they were living off their artwork. In contrast to the designer who was still trying to find her way within the market, still trying to fund, even for herself, to live off of that business. So it was quite a contrast to work in those two environments.
S: Do you have your own creative practice?
K: It’s kinda weird, at the moment I would say no. I’d say I’m kinda in between practices. I think in my head I consider myself a fine artist, but my practice and skill has become within textiles. So at the moment I consider myself in between, because I’ve not really worked on a self-initiated project. But I have ideas in the pipeline that I’m getting more confident about and intrigued to explore. I’ve come to realise that for me a significant part of what I’m interested in is social practice – how a work sits in society, what its doing there and the impact that its having.
At the moment I volunteer and work on a social enterprise project that’s for people that have previously been addicted to drugs or alcohol. We teach them basic sewing skills, about which someone may be like ‘why?’. Well you’re teaching people how to interact with each other, but regardless of that, they are learning a new skill. And especially in our workshop, a two-hour drop-in, someone who has never sewn before might then be able to create a finished thing, a bag or pillowcase or whatever. They created that and they learned a skill by doing it. Its therefore incredibly rewarding. So I get a lot of empowerment from that kind of work.
S: That’s definitely a creative practice, don’t worry about a hierarchy thinking it isn’t.
K: No, I meant I just don’t know what you would call it. For me, its social enterprise, but its creative social enterprise. For me, that’s where I see my skills and that’s what I want to do.
S: Do you make any money from your creative practice?
K: It kinda depends. If you consider working for the Barbican as a part of my creative practice then yes. But I don’t think I would consider that as my creative practice, so I would say no. But prior to the Barbican when I was freelance working as an artist’s assistant I did make money from it, so yes, I have made money from my creative practice in the past.
S: How many hours a week do you typically work at The Barbican?
K: It literally varies every week. Because I work 21 hours a week outside of the Barbican, so I try to work at least two days inside the Barbican. The maximum I’d say is probably 18 to 20 hours. Basically I have a part-time job, and then the Barbican is my part-time job to support that part-time job. But sometimes its funny when you combine the two, you realise you’re actually doing a full-time job. I did 17.5 hours last week at the Barbican.
S: What’s your other paid job?
K: I work for a theatre school called Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and I’m a registry assistant. In that role I organise all auditions for candidates to come to the school. And I also work with current students regarding their funding, their fees and their scholarships.
S: Do you ever do anything else while you’re working at the Barbican?
K: While on-shift?
S: That includes just thinking about stuff or whatever.
K: I don’t know, I would say I do, but it’s kind of hard to define. I don’t spend 100% purely just doing the role.
S: Yeah, because that’s impossible.
K: Exactly! So yes, I do other things. I’m somebody who spends a fair bit of their time organising stuff. That’s a lot of what my other job involves, so I think while I’m at the Barbican it’s quite a good space for me to be processing thoughts. And I think I do it in a more calm way, rather than trying to put it into a set dynamic. The thoughts are out there, and then they fall into place. And these thoughts might be about the Barbican, or they might be about my personal life, or it might be about what I’m making for dinner! It’s quite a nice space to allow those prior thoughts, that you’ve started to formulate, to actually finalise.
S: Yeah, same for me. Okay, is there any aspect of your job at The Barbican that helps your creative practice?
K: That’s an interesting question. Yes. I think it’s quite a far removed one, I think its more about audience participation, understanding how people react with artwork. Its quite a profound thing because I think unless you work in a gallery you wouldn’t have that understanding of the way that people, when presented directly with an artwork, without any limitations, how they react. Very, very interesting. Because you automatically go ‘why are they doing that? Why are they touching that?’ All these things come up and they’re so illogical, but to them its not. And to you as someone in the artworld, you expect someone to behave by meticulous constraints. But actually when you’re placed in that environment, its quite eye-opening how people respond to that.
S: Do you get any support for your creative practice from peers/co-workers at The Barbican?
K: I would say yes on a small level. I would say in terms of advice, definitely. I get a lot of advice in support of my practice. For example I’ve been able to speak about things that I’ve been considering doing that I haven’t formalised and they have then advised me on different things to look into, different areas to research, in fields that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
S: Alright cool, besides more money, what kinds of assistances would help your creative practice?
K: I think definitely having space to be able to practice and leave it be for a bit. I don’t have a studio space, and I know you can seek it and it can become an option, but in London it is quite an expensive thing. Where I live I have a decent amount of space, but its definitely not somewhere where I can leave a project open to just return to. So I think that would be something that would make quite a difference.
But also a lot of it for me is self-doubt. I could almost happily sacrifice all that for, not necessarily group support, but just that knowledge that other people are in a similar circumstance to you. Which you do get at the Barbican, but I think that maybe we don’t really unite in the same way. We’re there primarily for that role, in that position, and you don’t really have the opportunity to do stuff outside of it. So I guess even if its just being a witness to other people doing stuff that is outside of that, I think that’s quite an empowering thing. Being able to recognise that you’re not alone with that. Because its such a diverse pool of people from different artistic backgrounds at the Barbican, and they’re in that mid-point of their careers, almost a kind of break point – you’ve done uni, what do you do next? And I think to see that is a really powerful thing. Even if you’re doing it yourself anyway, to see someone else, its sounds horrible, but to see someone else struggling but doing it, you know? I don’t know how the Barbican does it, but it somehow manages to negate that.
S: So do you think it would be possible for us, as a peer-group, to set up some structure that could address that?
K: Yeah, definitely! I don’t really know how… But I think all it needs is for someone to say ‘I’m interested in this, are you?’ It can be a little as that.
S: Do you take the same travel route to The Barbican every day?
K: No, it varies a lot. My main route, on my bike, is to follow the back streets behind the Arsenal stadium. Then I cross the Holloway Road. At that point, rather than turning left down Holloway Road, I cross over and go down Liverpool Road. Liverpool Road is great, because it means you miss Highbury Corner and all that congestion, and you miss all the traffic lights on Holloway Road. But its on a slight incline, and when you’re not an avid cyclist, it can really hit you hard! Then you get to Angel Station, and then I aim towards the canals. I go down Graham Street, which is where you gain the joy after having done Liverpool Road. You go downhill and you go fast! Then I go past Moorfield Eye Hospital, past the Tescos, and then left into the Barbican. It always takes 25 to 30 minutes. Its a really really easy route, and its really nice.
When its colder, I’m lucky that I have a really easy Tube line. That would be a 10 minute walk from my house to Holloway Road, then the Piccadilly Line to Kings Cross and then the Circle Line or Hammersmith and City Line to the Barbican. That way becomes a bit dominant when its winter.
S: What do you do while you’re commuting?
K: When I’m cycling, generally I’m focused on the cycling! If its a bit tougher it will be thinking about pushing harder or trying to go faster. But when I’m on the tube I deliberately download the news onto my phone from the Guardian, and then when I’m on the tube I can read the news. I used to listen to 6 Music but I’ve allowed my phone to get so out of date that the app won’t upload. So I now tend to just focus my tube journey on reading the news. Which has actually been quite a nice thing. I used to always listen to music, which I loved, and I will admit I do miss a lot, but now I feel a lot more culturally aware and a lot more engaged, which is quite nice. Whereas before I could sometimes go like 4 days without knowing what had happened in the world. So now its quite nice that pretty much every day I know what’s going on.
S: Could I come on your commute with you one day?
K: Of course! I’d like that, that would be really nice.
S: Which would you prefer, on a bike or the tube?
K: It would be much easier not on a bike, but I would kinda rather bikes because I feel like its way more fun.
S: Okay, I’ll try and source a bike…