Earlier this year I wrote a shorter text as part of an assignment for my master studies in Choreography at DOCH, in which we were asked to have a bit of a rant about a trend or phenomena that we find problematic within the dance and/or choreography field. I decided to write about a less glamorous aspect of the otherwise so often romanticized lifestyle of the nomadic artist, namely, how this position in particular affects parents and female artists.
I have had endless discussion upon this subject with other female artists who like myself are in their mid 30’s and are to become, or already are parents. It seems to me that my women colleagues’ anxiety is often circulating around how to manage both parenthood and working as artists, which often comes down to the paradox of the necessity for both geographical flexibility and geographical stability. I’m curious about what happens when the choice of being a travelling artist starts to feel like less of a choice and more like a condition that one has to accept, in order to keep on working as an artist. Why and who does these ‘conditions’ become a constraint to? What are the effects? and in contrast to this, can we think of alternative ways in which the constraints can be turned into conditions that enables?
Travelling the globe is today projected as an essential part of how artists are supposed to work and live. This often arises from the motivation of a continuous search for meaningful new encounters that in itself lays the foundation for artistic creation. Here I refer to the concept of nomadism primarily in relation to the movement from one point to another in a physical landscape. One can of course expand on the concept of nomadism through thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattarri, but I would like to stick to this rather simple definition for now, and to speak from some hands-on everyday lived situations and examples that I think many artists may find familiar.
A non-addressed issue
I searched for written material in the form of articles, writings and/or stories dealing with the particular relationship between working within the international performance art scene and being a parent, but found almost nothing. There are quite substantial writings on nomadic living and travelling the world as a family, including how to do successful home-schooling, living from a backpack and so on, but hardly anything on the specific situation of being a parent and working within the international performing art scene. Most material is either written by or addressed to people who are interested in pursuing a nomadic lifestyle as a practise in itself. Maybe this combination is not very common? or the artists that do pursue this kind of living, ironically, are too busy to write about it. Another, perhaps more likely conclusion I make from it, is that since this topic is so seldom addressed it is not seen as related to topics which otherwise circulate in the critique of the nomadic lifestyle of the artist such as modes of production, individualism/emancipation and working conditions.
Many of my artist friends and colleagues have started to openly express a sense of obligation rather than desire towards adapting the nomadic lifestyle as an artist. Roaming between festivals, biennales, residencies and artistic labs, being an international artist has become equivalent with being a successful artist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge that this is an important ingredient in order to situate and contextualise one’s artistic work through diverse encounters, cultures, frameworks and platforms which the artist might not be able to access or address locally, but at the same time, with the risk of sounding a bit contradictive, I also believe we as artists may be ready to dissociate from the notion of the nomadic artist as equal to being a ‘successful’ artist, and how having an impact on the world, might also be as radical as staying in the same place.
A female symptom?
I believe that the issue of quitting travelling often becomes a bigger concern for female artists and suspect one of it’s reasons is as simple as this: during pregnancy, a mother becomes dependant on our stately run healthcare systems (unless one has private healthcare insurance, but I allow myself to freely presume that the majority of freelance artists don’t). This requires a permanent address as well as accredited amount of either occupational time, or amount of taxes paid in the country that you wish to claim stately support from. With drastic changes of parenthood comes a different kind of both voluntary and involuntary dependency upon other people and social security systems like healthcare and childcare. Having access to this kind of support often conflicts with the ambition of being a flexible nomadic artist that can live and work anywhere and preferable, anytime. Parenthood is just one example that I am applying here as it is one that I can personally speak from, but circumstances like illness or simply the need to settle down and being in one place for a longer amount of time, are of course also common reasons to why some artist choose to distance themselves from the nomadic lifestyle. This is however, often the first situation female artists encounter where the nomadic lifestyle clashes with logistics of parenthood through law regulations of social security systems. This becomes a harsh reminder that the liberation of women still is connected to state support and welfare systems established over a century ago, but that still operates on the premise that one needs to satisfy its regulations, i.e. living, working and being registered at a fixed address. If not, one has to find alternative means, which often requires not just a highly individual position, but also certain sustainable social and economic conditions.
This may be a conscious act, a wish or desire for a stateless ideal, but the risk is that it does so through neoliberal values and affects in particular women’s positions, thus contributing to gender inequalities.
Pascal Gielen writes about this paradox in his essay from the book Life Between Borders, questioning to what extent nomadism really can be a strong enough strategy for true change, due to its strong emphasis on the individual: ‘the individuals because of their highly individual position are too weak to develop ‘sufficient strengths to accumulate any appreciable political influence’. … ‘If nomadism is to succeed as an artistic strategy in a political sense it needs to be ‘communist’: which is to say stateless, and in particular case a form of statelessness that arises ‘precisely because it is nomadic’.
Settling down and becoming dependent
When my daughter was born, I was actively working and touring, but quite quickly the logistic obstacles of having a toddler as part of my team was too difficult to navigate in order for everyone involved to feel happy and satisfied. Planning and organising as a freelance artist with a toddler was overwhelming and became almost in itself the means of my artistic work (and life), and I therefore decided to permanently settle down in Stockholm, thus drastically reduce my travelling and involvement in artistic projects abroad.
This decision to ‘settle down’ was perceived by some people as a gesture of leaving the arts scene for a while, but ironically, it was the opposite for me. It was an initiative that I realised I had to do in order to continue working as an artist.
It became evident that in my new role as a parent, there were two roads to follow, either becoming wealthy enough to maintain a lifestyle without support from others, or, becoming a superwoman with excellent entrepreneur skills of merging my life and work into compatible unseparated entities. None of them were an option for me, firstly, because I was pretty broke already, and secondly because I simply don’t aspire to be superwoman. I needed to become dependent in order to be independent enough to continue working and to maintain some kind of artistic autonomy. This I can in retrospective say, I believe was the best thing I could have done, for my career, my health and my family. What I want to point at here is the paradox of contemporary autonomy, in which the desire to live independently and autonomously from capitalist exploitation and values, easily can transform one to become the ultimate subject for that same exploitation through ones attempts to self-organize and remain in self-control.
A few thoughts to finish off with… or maybe to start something new
My concern is that the celebration of the ‘new nomadic lifestyle’ becomes just yet another movement towards an individualised society that affects all artists, but in particular women who wish to become parents. The struggle however of being a parent whilst simultaneously trying to combine a nomadic lifestyle, should not lead to the misconception that women must sacrifice the pleasures of motherhood for the sake of a ‘career’. Instead I think we should point towards this struggle as a reflection of values of a former era where masculinist hierarchies determine what constitutes ‘value’ and ‘success’ today.
After having lived in one place for almost three years now and relying on a supportive network of healthcare, nursery, my local housing association, my neighbours, my parents etc., in order to maintain my work as an artist whilst at the same time being a parent, I experience many diverse encounters locally, if not more, than I did as a freelancing artist on a more and more hegemonic European art scene. Consequently, I question the nomadic lifestyle as to what extent it really connects with ideas of new encounters, diversity and cultural immersion, or merely produces the illusion of it?
Rather than thinking that we need to abandon from the nomadic artistic lifestyle, or sacrifice our careers for the sake of parenthood, perhaps we can think of the artists as capable of proposing possibilities of equality, social justice and consciousness from within the aesthetic domain, detached to whether you are an artist who operates internationally, locally or in-between.
Sara Lindström, February 2018
Kunst, Bojana. Artist at work, proximity of art and capitalism. Winchester, Zero books, 2015.
Rand, S and Felty, H. Life between Borders: The nomadic lifestyle of Curators and Artists. New York: apexart, 2013.
Rodda, Matt. On the nomadic identity of migrating lifestyles. Review of Rand, s and Felty, H. Life between Borders: The nomadic lifestyle of Curators and Artists. New York: apexart, 2013.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizohphrenia. trans. B. Massumi. London: The Athlone Press. 1988.
Panel Podcast. ‘Life between Borders’ conference with Melissa Chiu, Sebastien Sanz de Santamaria, Niels van Tomme, Steven Rand, and Heather Felty, Brooklyn New York, 12 April 2014, 4–6 pm.http://cabinetmagazine.org/events/chiu_sanzdesantamaria_vantomme_rand_felty_borders.php
Cashdan, Marina. You Can Be a Mother and Still Be a Successful Artist. Artsy.net, 24 August, 2016. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-why-motherhood-won-t-hinder-your-career-as-an-artist