Harry Josephine Giles: ‘I woke up and the arts was gone.’


Award-winning writer and performer Harry Josephine Giles on the swift and crushing blow the current pandemic has delivered to the arts, and the politics of ever seeing it alive again.

Non-binary white person with brown hair, colourful vest top holding a cup and saucer

Harry Josephine Giles. Photograph: Rich Dyson.

Harry Josephine Giles’ galvanizing work typically occurs ‘in the crunchy places where performance and politics get muddled up’ with the aim of ‘driving a wedge into political moments and give the public space to feel and think and to act and react.’ A purpose which is arguably needed now more than ever, and one which is disastrously lost to the extraordinary impact of the unfolding crisis.

Hailing from Orkney, Giles now resides in Edinburgh, where they co-founded the spoken word events series Inky Fingers and co-directs the live art platform Anatomy. In these last couple of weeks, they have witnessed Scotland’s cultural capital disintegrate.

“Most of my artist friends lost all their work, many without any cancellation fees, as did precariously-employed staff in areas like front of house, who are also often artists. The entire industrial sector is gone, and in six months we have no idea how much of it will come back, or how many organisations will be bankrupt or otherwise simply gone, or even if there will be medical, social and economic conditions for anything to come back to.”

Giles immediately wrote a chilling blog post in reaction to this and to arts organisations rushing to get their content online.

“I was a little bit taken aback by the initial reaction of ‘we’ve got everything online, we’ve got to immediately give everybody, all of the content. There must be a saturation point.”

When it comes to alternative methods of sharing their art, Giles feels that solely using cameras to deliver art doesn’t allow for the artists intent to be fully realised.

“All of the public activity my life is built around stopped. Meeting in a physical space and sharing our art in physical space is a huge part of my life – I’m a performer, that’s what I do – and I can’t do that. It’s a different thing to make a film or to do a live stream, so I’ve been removed from this huge part of my life.”

Whilst it’s been encouraging to see many festivals and similar events popping up online,  Giles is looking for something bigger.

“I’m looking for a larger collective body – a hub where everybody can go and support each other and, ideally, it would be nice for people to be able to be supported financially through that.”

When it comes to the current financial protections being offered to artists and the self-employed, many are falling through the gap.

“It’s all dependent on profit, as everything always is, so there’s no kind of safety net in place for people in the arts who perhaps aren’t earning a lot of money or who’ve just started up and they’re not yet making substantial profits. There is a political ideology, a fight to preserve normality as much as possible. It’s to prop up the economic system that already exists and prevent any kind of reorganisation of that system.

It’s about keeping business alive. People falling through the cracks recently are freelancers and people with irregular work patterns, zero-hours contracts, all kinds of casualised or precarious work who are further for forced into a bad situation. So rather than using the crisis as a moment to restructure things and bring more equality to people, it actually deepens economic inequality.”

Considering more effective means by which the government can support freelancers and artists, Giles backs the Universal Basic Income model.

“It would be much simpler, and much cheaper to hand everyone in the country £2000, than to go through this current system. But they don’t want to do that because that would be a fundamental economic restructure, that would admit that the ideological project that we’ve been under is false. The government doesn’t operate in the interests of what’s best for people. Giving people that money gives them power – but it changes the power structure. If you give people something like Universal Basic Income, it’s very hard to take it away after the pandemic because they’ve seen how good it is.”

Giles is “increasingly sceptical of what art can actually achieve” on an individual basis. Rather, they believe that artists can exert power collectively, to alter the structure of the arts.

“I want to unionise the artists, set up mutual aid networks and workers cooperatives in the arts, I want to change the funding structure so that artists are centred rather than administration. For me, it’s treating my work in the arts as a worker and organising on the basis of worker power that excites me.”

When it comes to breaching the void between arts organisations and arts workers themselves, Giles is still unsure of how to manage that.

“I don’t think that any project funding within a state such as we’re currently in is ever going to work purely in the interests of arts workers, because that’s not what it’s for. I wouldn’t expect a business to do that and I wouldn’t expect the funding bodies to do that. Collaboration is possible and changing things and working together is possible – but I always assume there is a tension of interests and that I’m going to have to push in some way.”

When it comes to the general consensus among artists around funding structures, Giles feels that there is a perpetual frustration felt by artists regarding their incomes.

“I don’t know any artists that aren’t always raging at the system – who don’t feel the inequality and the unfairness. I don’t know that people always diagnose the source of the problem or diagnose the solution in the right way.”

The arts sector has rushed to diversify in this crisis, and Giles warns that we mustn’t forget that diversity existed before – such as within the disabled community – where access and challenging the status quo is the norm.

“Many are talking about diversity at the moment and doing very public diversity where they’re making sure the right people are on posters. They love taking the aesthetic from the people who were cool and on the margins and making it mainstream: like you see an aesthetic from disabled artists from five years ago cropping up in a National Theatre production; and yet they have no connection to disability. Everyone’s live streaming, writing emotional blogs about isolation – everything disabled artists and people have been doing for years and have actual expertise in. That’s typical of the arts.”

They are eager to encourage artists to connect and to organise for the collective good.

“Nobody’s coming to save us, it’s only the people who make work themselves, who can make it better. A union is one way of doing that; a mutual aid network is another way of doing that. Workers cooperatives is another. If you want a better living situation, it’s only going to happen if you make it yourself.”

As for how art can aid us in times of crisis, Giles feels that art is a process by which we understand ourselves and our world.

“Creativity is how we live our own times. People are always living through crisis, it’s not that we weren’t in crisis before – it’s just that everyone else has joined us in crisis. We make art to understand the world, to understand in times of crisis and we make art in times of peace – we never don’t make art. Making art isn’t the problem – the problem is getting paid.”

Harry Josephine Giles instigated ‘Not Going Back To Normal’ a project to create a radical disabled artists manifesto – which is currently accepting submissions (it is a paid opportunity). Created in partnership with Sasha Saben Callaghan, commissioned collectively by Arika, Artlink, CCA, Collective, DCA, Glasgow School of Art Exhibitions, Project Ability and the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, and funded by Creative Scotland and Engage.

The article is published as part of the Diverse Critics programme, delivered in partnership with Creative Scotland and The Skinny.