Episode 4: Visualising the Economy | The Netherlands
Today we explore the work of Ben Maier, an artist and a photography student at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, Netherlands.
In the autumn of 2021, under the coordination of the organisations Creative Court in the Hague, Het Geluid in Maastricht and H401 in Amsterdam, Ben was selected to take part in a pan-European project, “Amplify: Make the Future of Europe Yours,” as a participant representing the Netherlands. Amplify, a project led by Culture Action Europe and co-funded by the European Parliament, aims at gathering the ideas and concerns of underrepresented voices within the cultural sector to take into the fold of EU-level decision making. Partnering with organisations across 12 European countries, Amplify asked participants to bring ideas, proposals, recommendations, and concerns about the vision of culture for the Future of Europe.
Alongside 10 other student artists, Ben proposed his art project focusing on the gig economy, an issue that he is interested in from an economic perspective, but also has a personal stake in the matter, as he is currently a delivery rider for UberEats and Deliveroo. Mostly Ben’s work is focusing on the aftermath of neoliberalism. As he has a background in economics, as an artist he calls himself a “visual economist” and works around themes that clash with ethical values in our society.
Tell me about the gig economy and why you are interested in it
Ben: It’s a new part of our economy. It started around 10 years ago when platforms started popping up, such as Fiverr…It was a very interesting start that we are able to connect with each other in a worldwide scheme. This kind of economy developed. We have around 30 million workers in Europe that identify as “gig workers” or “platform workers.”
When starting my studies I also found myself within this economy…I thought it was a nice job alongside studying, so I could study and work on the side. Soon after I started I realised that this job has a few problems.
How do you connect this issue to your work as an artist?
Ben: Two years ago I started filming and taking photographs of what I was doing. My project is focused on the labour conditions of food delivery riders. (Food delivery is a flagship branch of the gig economy.) In my opinion, I’m neither an employee nor a freelancer; I’m somewhere in between. I don’t really have an employer who tells me what to do, but I don’t have the freedom freelancers do. The whole work is focusing on these issues and the precarity of the income because the income is not secured.
For the work, [Entitled: I deliver your food; you treat me like s***. The precarious situation of gig-economy workers”], I proposed to make a personal diary in the form of photographs, together with spoken word and sound. The end result is a video that shows an image slideshow that narrates the daily struggles of a food delivery rider which is very much invisible to someone who orders food. The only interaction we have is when I ring the doorbell and give the food and then I say ‘Enjoy your food.’
The audio voice accompanying the image slideshow is a computer-generated voice with a human touch. This has a specific reason. I want the algorithm to be present in the work and this voice represents the algorithm.
In his exploration of how the gig economy affects those working in it, Ben says he first turned the camera to himself to give a sense of his surroundings and experience as a gig worker. But he also began to reach out to other workers, since the situation often happens that other riders are waiting at the same restaurants until the food they need to deliver is ready. On a day to day basis, he would approach fellow riders and ask questions like “Do you think of yourself as a freelancer or an employee?” He says this was a nice opening to exchange and dig deeper into people’s experiences. Usually, the conversation between riders focuses on if it’s a busy day or not. Ben explains that if it’s a busy day, workers get paid more and if it’s not busy they will probably end up going home. He says these interactions were an important part of his research because who better than actual people steeped in the gig economy to tell him about the problems, struggles and challenges. Ben also tried to reach out to the companies themselves but found it near impossible to get in touch with anyone. However, he found that there is a lot of discourse currently happening about the gig economy, which further fueled him in creating his artwork.
Ben has created other works that interact with the concept of how economic interests take precedence over the lived experiences of people. In a collaborative project called, “I miss you, home,” he examined the housing crisis, by following students that couldn’t find affordable housing and began squatting instead. He also addressed policymakers with this project, calling for there to be a bigger contribution to the conversation that is happening in wider society. He is also currently working on a project about extractivism, reflecting on what humans are doing to the planet and investigating extractivism as an economic necessity because of a societal dependency on natural resources.
You mentioned your ethical values and how they sometimes clash when you are examining the field of economics through artistic practice. How does this show up for you?
Ben: Especially as artists we are living precariously because our income is not stable. I think this is one of my main inspirations. Artists really do work a lot, but really don’t get fair pay or often are used by others for free labour, which I don’t think is a fair situation. Also, when I look at our society, especially the distribution of wealth, it is very unequal. In my opinion, it would be good if we create more equality regarding income.
Rabiaâ Benlahbib is the founder and director of Creative Court, an organisation that works at the interface of arts and global justice based in the Hague. Creative Court develops both research-based art, arts-based research projects and educational projects. One of Creative Court’s main goals is to stimulate empathy and reflection. They work from the notion that the arts can contribute to the crucial quality that we need for a peaceful world. They are also trying to visualise what a new world could look like working through and from creative methodologies.
Creative Court works with The Royal Academy of Art as an educational partner, mainly for the Bachelor of photography and the master of photography and society departments. When beginning the Amplify project, Rabiaa and Creative Court’s collaborators took time to think about how to translate underrepresented voices into projects that inform policymakers across Europe. In doing so, they thought it was important to include emerging artists because they represent the future and have connections to societies in ways that organisations may not necessarily have. Rabiaa made a pitch about the project to the Bachelor of photography class and 5 students’ proposals, including Ben’s, were selected.
What was some of the thinking around how to connect artist projects to policy change actions?
Rabiaâ: For me personally, it’s not an aim to create change through the project itself, but it is an aim to create awareness and engagement so that the people who experience the projects can decide for themselves what to do. Sometimes they actually take action in one way or another.
What are some of the calls to action or changes you hope to evoke through your artwork?
Ben: I believe that the main problem is the taxonomy of the gig economy workers, this “freelancer” or “employee” distinction. I believe we don’t fit in either category. My main call to action would be that policymakers should question if there is another category that would benefit the gig economy more. I also think about the task allocations, assessments and payments that are silently done by an algorithm. The workers don’t have transparency over this. For example, if you are an employer somewhere, you have a contract. It tells you how much you earn, what your bonuses are, etc. In this economy, it’s not like that. It’s all done behind closed doors. So I would also suggest there needs to be some law enforcement about more transparency.
How do you think using artistic practices or interventions plays a role in communicating to decision-makers?
Ben: Since I work a lot with economy issues I can see that everything is hidden behind numbers and reports, which are usually very hard to read or can be a bit dry or boring. It’s not something you would read on a Sunday evening. I think the power of artistic practice is to make problems, issues, or themes visible. With my skills as a photographer, I can make them visual for people, I can make them relate to the issues. I can visually describe them in an easier form, compared to economic reports. But then I can also make them question these problems. For policymakers, it’s the same. They also know these problems in numbers. They can relate emotionally to these issues they are already discussing. I think it’s important to also present them with a different way of looking at topics they already know about.
What is a hope or motivation you have for the future of how arts and culture shape our society?
Ben: Our society is at a very high pace. Things are changing very fast and I think artists are generally great at reflecting on what’s happening in the moment. I think we as a society should sometimes take a step back and see what’s actually happening. Artists are there with artworks and critical voices. We can say, for example, the gig economy is a great opportunity, but as it is working now it’s not as good as it could be. I see a big chance of reflecting artists to shape human conditions into a transformative act or solution to form a society in a more humane and fair equal way.
Rabiaâ says that art can create a sense of safety for people to open their minds on a cognitive level, but also in their hearts. She says it’s important to make a societal change that is felt, a sustainable change. It’s not about making changes that in a few years revert back to how they are now. She says more valuable for people to feel the sense of why it’s important to fight for values such as equality.
Rabiaâ: Through the arts, we can create new visions for the future and contribute to the mindset that is necessary to live and design such a future. Many of these ideas will be fictional and won’t be realistic, but I do feel that these are important because the artists are not necessarily the ones who come up with solutions, but they help create a certain mindset from which the solutions can sprout.
The exhibition featuring Ben’s work along with 10 other artists will open on Europe Day, the 9th of May 2022 at the closing event for the Amplify project. You can find out how to tune into the Amplify live stream to see the full, digital exhibition on the Culture Action Europe website.