The @southbankcentre is a venue well known for its performances – from opera to spoken word. But it’s also a space where many people – especially freelancers – come with their laptops to work on their projects because of the free wifi.
If you can’t afford an office or broadband, then it’s the place to go in central London. Mix many freelancers all in the same space, delicious coffee and terrace overlooking the Thames, and you create an environment that stimulates conversation and that’s why there are so many different groups who meet up there on a range of issues.
It’s where our group meets and it’s where we met Edwin Mingard, an artist filmmaker who makes narrative and documentary film who often produces “work with small groups of friends, or in a community setting, for artistic reasons: I want to celebrate and make visible the joy of the filmmaking process itself, and explore its value as a tool for individual and social change”.
Like Edwin, almost a third of people who took part in our research want to do work that they enjoy and that they are good at. This was defined as meaningful work that fulfils young people professionally.
Around one in eight want to feel more autonomous and see it as the precondition for meeting their basic needs and “want to learn practical skills so they can become independent of the system”.
You’re involved in Satellite Films. How did that come about?
I’m involved in a lot of different things and that’s just one part of it. I’d been working freelance for about 5-6 years, depending on whether you count part-time work.
I guess I’d put off starting a structure as long as I could. I was involved in other structures, sitting on the boards of community interest companies and helping set up organisations and networks, which are still ongoing.
It became necessary and useful to organise the production of work – to have a formal structure and from the point it became useful to the point I actually did it took about four years.
I kept putting it off until the last minute. I set that up with a few other people to, in a way, keep doing things we’d always been doing before and to act as a springboard for things we’d always wanted to do but had never got round doing.
You said that took four years to set up the organisations. What were the steps from being a freelancer to the point where you are now, where you’ve got that structure?
I guess at a point which was five years ago, I was getting work which wasn’t feasible to take on by myself. There were a few people applying for grants as a loosely defined collective and we had to channel our money around our individual bank accounts.
For logistics, if you’re working in film you need a lot of equipment and insurance. It was basically obvious you needed a company structure.
We would do it through different organisations we already were involved in, like community interest companies or people I know who had organisations and I would put money through them. I guess that became a bit silly and I knew for a long time, that should have happened.
I imagine whether you’re getting work with people or setting up a structure, trust is really important. The kind of people that you’ve been involved with – were they pre-existing friends or just random people working in your sector? How did you come to meet them?
Stuff like that is very fluid. Networks are quite often larger than most people even realise. The utility of somebody’s skill or interests might be of value in five years’ time. People think on quite a short time scale planning stuff like that. If I know, for example, somebody working in theatre, maybe in 10 years’ time it will be really useful to me.
There’s no way to predict that, so you can’t see those things as strictly transactional relationships in the first place. Because it’s about an ethos and a shared set of values but it’s also a way of living.
I think you just become friends with those people anyway, you share so many things. And then, if you need something or if they need you, it’s quite easy to bring them in, I think.
You talk about using those networks to help you and help them make a living. How about in terms of mutual support to cope with making a living?
All of that is true. I remember living in a shared space and seeing people’s different attitudes to sharing in that way. I don’t really know why, but that was my attitude from the start.
Maybe it was the way I was introduced to it by people – that you need maximum cooperation, maximum sharing of ideas and information at all times.
There’s no advantage to having it any other way. There’s not only no advantage, but the opposite – it’s a pretty depressing way to live and work.
But I remember seeing other people who would hear about an organisation doing really great stuff, or some grant funding and keep that really quiet because the guy in the studio next to you might be in competition with you. Those people never really seemed to get on and do that many things or if they did, it definitely didn’t feel like something they had the capacity to do.
I would find I was by no means unique in that respect. People around me were all the same, if I heard about something I would tell everyone I knew who it might be of use to, because it’s my general outlook on life.
Thinking about it, the advantage of that is that you’re never an individual in that work, you’re part of an ecosystem. If the ecosystem does better, you do better too. That’s probably why it works.
I imagine for those people that didn’t share a coping strategy might be due to their insecurities about not getting work. Do you think that the approach you’ve taken not only helped you cope by having that ecosystem that you can call upon and people being able to call upon you, but also helping you cope emotionally, like when there aren’t jobs coming through or when you’re overwhelmed? Does that help as well?
I think you need to always stick to that strategy. I think the people who behaved in that way undoubtedly had the same problem. If you put the finance ahead of your more ultimate goals, it will just never work. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with some money, but you’ll never achieve what you want to achieve.
I think when your money comes from public funding, until you’ve been working for a very long time, which I haven’t, you’re not dealing with risk, you’re dealing with uncertainty, which is a completely different thing.
I don’t think you can weigh those things one by one. You need a strategy as a reasonable way to work. You can’t be assessing every time. You just have this strategy.
I just started out that thinking I could only do the things I wanted to do if I really went for them. It wasn’t like a plan B or a backup strategy. I wasn’t trying to mitigate risk, because if you do those things, there’s always going to be people who are going for the things you want and they’ll get them and you won’t.
Are you saying by that, that before you went down the freelance route, in an uncertain world, you had internalised it and prepared yourself for that?
I think so. It was never really an option for me to get a PAYE job I think because of factors outside of my control and the way I was introduced to the world of work. It was always going to be like that.
I had a period when I left school, when I didn’t go to university straight away. I lived at home for a bit then lived with some friends. There was a little bit of a safety net there that I probably wouldn’t have had if I had entered freelancing much later. Uncertainty can really be moulded in a certain way.
Whereas if you’ve worked in PAYE jobs, leaving school to go to university and then 5-10 years later, when the economy nosedived, and I realised I would need to go freelancing, it would have been much much harder.
Is it that doing it much later, you would have become more risk averse through getting older?
I don’t know if it’s getting older per se, because I think if you had been working like that your whole life, you would have still had quite an open attitude to risk and uncertainty. I think that it’s more to do with your general life experience and what specifically that experience is.
I know people who work for big companies, who are unhappy with their job, but who have specific skill sets. I wonder all the time, why they don’t start smaller projects themselves and just leave their job, because they’re so talented and they’re so underpaid.
They think it’s better to have a constant but steady stream of money that you can live on, than it is to take on something much bigger like jumping ship. I think that even if they got fired, they would still not do that. It’s like a mental block.
I wouldn’t say that attitude is any worse. It’s perhaps a disadvantage in an economic crisis, and maybe in other times, it’s an advantage.
Edwin is an artist filmmaker. He makes narrative and documentary film, using animation, non-linear and experimental film techniques, as well as installation and artists’ film. He often produces work with small groups of friends, or in a community setting, for artistic reasons: he wants to celebrate and make visible the joy of the filmmaking process itself, and explore its value as a tool for individual and social change.
His work has been shown in high-profile venues, basements, friends’ living rooms, and in national and international festivals.
It is made with equipment found in junk shops and attics, alongside DIY and high-end electronics, re-inventing techniques learned from books and shared between friends.
He works using processes designed to enable diverse groups of people to make films together, and to explore wider questions around the use of moving image technologies. Part of this is political – it’s about ownership of the image, building an aesthetic that’s genuinely open to anyone. But equally, it is about the joy of open-ended creativity and experimentation.