Transforming creative work in a digital age

Aside from the obvious assertions that people throw easily around noting that we all have to work, and that work will (has?) consume over one-third of our lives, have you really thought about what work means to you, in the digital age?  Have you thought about what skills and knowledge will you require to adapt to less permanent, more mobile, less tactile, more virtual careers.

Certainly from my memories of my grandfather who worked most of his life in a brewery, the way we work has changed from his day.  He went to work at 7am, had a beer, did his job, had lunch, had a beer after work and came home.  This was a five day a week routine, Monday to Friday.  No weekends, no overtime.  No email to be checked at home after dinner, no Skype meetings late at night.  And the beer he made was sold only in the state of New South Wales, Australia.  There was no export, no time difference, no globalisation, just localisation.  This was a full-time job; there were no casual positions, fractional working or contract labour.


From the experiences of creative industries workers, what has work become? Over the last decade, the arts in a number of major economies have consistently experienced reduced recurrent funding, increased reliance on either philanthropic donations or business/commercial income and pressure to survive in an increasingly self-centred and entrepreneurial world.   Both government and philanthropic funding bodies, through grant allocation processes and compliance regimes, have sought to impose ‘for-profit’ practices on the arts and cultural sector in order to seek or continue public funding or to comply with broader cross-sector industry policy shifts within the economy (Johanson 2008).  This has resulted in direct government intervention in the management and practices of the organisation (Weisbrod 1997, pp. 543-5) and the emergence of threats to the organisational mission through the application of ‘coercive… pressures’ (Dolnicar, Irvine & Lazarevski 2008, p. 11) and the drifting of organisational missions (Dalton & Green 2005).  It can be argued that these outcomes may lead to an improvement of the ongoing viability of the organisation, but at what cost?  And how do these changes impact on the role of the worker and the work they do?


In a major report commissioned by the Australia Council for Arts entitled ‘Don’t give up your day job’ by Michael Throsby and Virginia Hollister (2003), there were a number of interesting observations about the nature of creative work in Australia, which included the inability of some artists to undertake professional development due to the pressures of money and time (or more specifically the lack of money arising from financial returns of their creative work) and that over half the artists in Australia earned less than A$7000 (around £4500) per annum from their artistic practice.  These relatively low income figures, shifting impermanence of careers and lack of opportunity to develop have been debated consistently through research studies over the last decade (Bennett 2009; Bilton 2007; Comunian, Faggian & Li 2010).


So, what has become of arts and cultural work in this new digital environment?  Rather than getting into a long commentary on the philosophical debates around some of the data and research, I thought I would just comment on my observations, made through my own practice and experiences both teaching arts practitioners and working myself in the field.


1.Work is transitory

Full-time work is becoming rarer.  Contracts are shorter; workers are becoming self-sufficient managing their own pensions, insurance and businesses.  Portfolio careers are becoming the norm, where arts workers have a variety of jobs (some arts related, others not) to support themselves and aggregate income.  The notion of career development within a job or single employer has shifted markedly, with career leaps frequently happening due to changes in employment between organisations rather than within.  Managing time, presenting a professional image online and reacting quickly to opportunity are hallmarks of this kind of employment.  The use of Linked-in, Facebook or Twitter as business cards for your practice require thought about your professional persona, the image you want to present and how these personas connect with each other.  Transitory work also means you need to be willing to develop and learn skills quickly and be able to apply them without too much practice, which means building into your career time ongoing and regular practice, rehearsal and professional development, led and often paid for by yourself.


2. Work is trans-global

Working in your home city or your home country is not necessarily mandatory.  Arts work as it moves to digital environments, or is facilitated by rapidly improving digital communications has moved to using concepts such as virtual studios, cloud collaborations, virtual meetings, technology integrated practice and user generated content sharing.  This makes work trans-global.  A photographer in Sydney can take photos in Berlin, share them on a blog or Flickr and exhibit them anywhere in the world he likes (see my good friend Alex Pekar’s exhibition entitled ‘Abandoned Berlin’ at the Archetype Gallery in Sydney if you are there


Trans-global work might mean that as an artist I move my practice to where the professional work might be.  This presents challenges in terms of integration, ‘breaking’ into a scene or adapting to changes in language, law or culture.  Whilst work becomes trans-global the attitude to migration (outside the EU) is changing rapidly.  Just ask an Aussie trying to work in the UK!


3.Work is trans-discipline

Some of the skills of work are now free from disciplinarily or specific industry contexts.  Whether it be demonstrated through graduate attributes (see the Greenwich Graduate Initiative for examples of this kind of approach (, transferable skills or professional practice sets, some of the skills of work are now transferable between contexts, generic and applicable to a variety of levels of work.  Covering skills such problem solving, information technology, social media, collaboration, content generation and research (inquiry), trans-disciplinary skills support both the transience and the trans-global nature of modern work.  McWilliam, Hearn and Haseman (2008) identifies a number of trans-disciplinary spaces within creative industries practice including;

–          Technology, which includes the use and application of new devices, software platforms and new media

–          a social/human component, which includes how we interface with each other and technology, how we do business, how we engage with each other and the environment and the ways in which we regulate activity

–          a content component – how we innovate content such as performance, design, look, feel, roles we play (McWilliam, Hearn & Haseman 2008)


I would add to that a cultural component about interacting and engaging with the culture around us, an emotional component centring on how we react to situations, how we build and sustain relationships and how we chose to act as a professional and finally a creative component, supporting the development of new ideas, problem solving, critical thinking, inquiry and curiosity and analysis.


4. Work is transformative

When my grandfather worked, the transformations that occurred in his work practice were in the creation and mashing of raw materials into something completed different (hops, wheat, malt and water into beer).  I am not sure how much of his life was transformed by his practice.  As arts professionals, there is a blurry line between what we do as artists, what we live as artists and what we passionately want to share as artists.  The notion of work simply to earn an income or to mark time between 9am until 5pm is in some instances dated.  Work transforms who we are, the way we live our lives and the way we engage with other aspects of our everyday existence.  My wife often will interrupt a conversation and say ‘Peter, stop using your teacher voice!’  But for me the practice of teaching signifies in a number of ways who I am.  Being a teacher has had a transformative effect on my relationships, my values and my personality.  The same can be said for my arts practice.  I took a long time to have the confidence to call myself an artist, even though I had been engaged in creative practice for decades. But the on-going impact of my creative practice on my professional identity, the way I worked and the way I developed myself in terms of education was too big to ignore by dismissing arts as ‘dabbling’.


Mezirow (1997) in a seminal article about transformative learning argues that transformations can occur within the frames of reference we operate in (work for example) and encourage is to be more ‘inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective, and integrative of experience.’  The transformative nature of work shouldn’t be underestimated, and once again, integrating it with the changes occurring from trans-globalism, trans-disciplinarily and transience the new world of digital work within e-workplaces, e-commuting, e-learning and e-collaborative space is looking less and less like the brewery floor in the 1950s.


Work is more than a site where money is earned in exchange for activity or labour.  Work harnesses creativity, originality, learning, expression, research, desire and passion.  Work can facilitate the mode and spaces of living you choose.  Work can develop, challenge, evaluate and apply new knowledge and skills.  Work can shape our professional image and transform our confidence, our interactions and our relationships.  The work we do today probably won’t be the same as the work we do in 10 years time.  The days of going home with chalk dust all over my clothes is long gone, technology has shaped and changed the way I engage with materials, talk with colleagues and find stuff out. What makes the process interesting and perhaps fun is having the scaffold of skills that you allow you to adapt, to build and to innovate and invent yourself.


NOTE: If you are interested in these kinds of discussions and issues, or just interested in employer engagement, then you should consider attending the University of Greenwich ‘Employer Engagement in a Digital Age’ conference on the 4th July 2012 at the Maritime Greenwich campus in London.  For more information you can check out the website 


Bennett, D. 2009, ‘Careers in dance: Beyond performance to the real world of work’, Journal of Dance Education, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 27-34.

Bilton, C. 2007, Management and creativity: From creative industries to creative management, Wiley-Blackwell.

Comunian, R., Faggian, A. & Li, Q.C. 2010, ‘Unrewarded careers in the creative class: The strange case of bohemian graduates’, Papers in Regional Science, vol. 89, no. 2, pp. 389-410.

Dalton, B. & Green, J. 2005, Sweet charity and filthy lucre: the social construction of nonprofit business venturing in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – CACOM Working Paper no 72, Centre for Australian Community Organisations and Management – Univeristy of Technology, Sydney.

Dolnicar, S., Irvine, H. & Lazarevski, K. 2008, ‘Mission or money? Competitive challenges facing public sector nonprofit organisations in an institutionalised environment’, International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 107.

Johanson, K. 2008, ‘How Australian industry policy shaped cultural policy’, International Journal of Culutral Policy, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 139-48.

McWilliam, E., Hearn, G. & Haseman, B. 2008, ‘Transdisciplinarity for creative futures: what barriers and opportunities?’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 247-53.

Mezirow, J. 1997, ‘Transformative learning: Theory to practice’, New directions for adult and continuing education, vol. 1997, no. 74, pp. 5-12.

Throsby, D. & Hollister, V. 2003, Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: an Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia, Australia Council for the Arts.

Weisbrod, B.A. 1997, ‘The Future of the Nonprofit Sector: Its Entwining Private Enterprise and Goverment’, Journal of Policy Analysis and Government, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 541-55.


Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it




















Learning can be a strange process.  I was recently at a session that explored issues around student satisfaction.  This is a phrase that has many meanings, and many people arguing over those many meanings.  Spending the day listening to experts, students, student experts and expert students I was struck by a few thoughts that about the notion of satisfaction, which for universities is such a key and critical concept and arguably for students and potential students will be a key factor in deciding which university to attend.  Very early on in the day I was struck with the word itself.  Satisfaction seems such a neutral word to describe what is often an emotional, personal and collaborative journey like university.  It doesn’t engage with the highs and lows of learning.  It just says ‘I am satisfied’.  You can be satisfied and be happy and/or unhappy.  In some ways it’s a cop-out word.  It’s like answering OK when someone asks how you are.  Often as we progress through our career and engage in professional practice we get things done to a point where we are satisfied or whether others are satisfied with what we do.  In some ways, this description ‘satisfactory’ strips away the emotional and attitudinal connections that can occur through successful or unsuccessful attempts at practice.
Experiential learning represents a wider spectrum of emotion and experience than simply satisfaction or service can explain.  Learning can be a fun process, which we sometimes forget.  New things, new people and new experiences can engage the senses, encourage the mind to explore and allow you to find the humour and the funny stuff in what we do.  Never mind the reward (good grades?) or punishment (bad grades?), we engage in learning because it is fun, enjoyable, interesting and most of all, transformational.  I sometimes feel that I have done a lot of my qualifications because I ‘had to’.  That behavioural motivation does not always, on the surface, make learning seem fun. But through teaching, practice, interaction and yes, sometimes even assessment, I had fun.  I enjoyed the process and practice of learning.  How does a university or survey measure this? How do we as learners feed this kind of experience back to the university, to our peers, to our teachers and to our friends?  How does our institution support and nurture this kind of learning environment? And finally, how can we take this creative and fun practice out into the work force, into our daily lives and our professional practice?  There is a lot of questions and there and not a lot of answers I know!


There is a movement in higher education called ‘edupunk’ which has been popularised by one of my fave education academics, Stephen Downes.  Edupunk applies the principles of punk (rebellion, do-it-yourself attitudes and thinking independently) to higher education.    Whilst it is a fairly incomplete theoretical approach (did punk have any lasting social impact asks one critic?) it does challenge the notions of satisfaction and positions learning as a sometimes down and dirty emotional process.

‘It’s about a culture, a way of thinking, a philosophy. It’s about DIY. Lego is edupunk. Chalk is edupunk. A bunch of kids exploring a junkyard is edupunk. A kid dismantling a CD player to see what makes it tick is edupunk.’ 

D’Arcy Norman

Matching the fun, the rebellion and the collaborative processes is a darker, more traumatic space of learning.  As kids, we learn through experience, and that experience isn’t always positive.  So, when I was growing up, red was my favour colour.  I liked red cordial, strawberries and red candy.  I noticed that when you heated up a spoon it went red.  You can imagine the next step.  A trip to casualty, some horrible tasting burn cream and only eating things that were mushed (red or otherwise) for weeks. I learnt through a traumatic experience.

One of my favourite writers on adult education is Stephen Brookfield.  He writes about the dark side of learning.  But by dark side he doesn’t see learning as a solely negative endeavour (ie: the only way to work out a spoon is hot is to taste it).  He argues that the transition from these emotional and visceral experiences to a realisation about learning is where the ‘fun’ or more realistically the positive experiences can occur. For example, he talks about a negative learning experience such as ‘impostership’.  This is where that by admitting that you don’t know something about your job, you feel you are an imposter as a professional.  We can all think of times we have felt like this.  And by acting on that feeling, by initiating learning, finding knowledge through consultation or collaboration or doing something and seeing if it works, we can use the negative space to generate positive outcomes.  Alternately, by becoming a student an adult learner may also feel an imposter because they feel they have no right being a learner because it’s an admission that they don’t know something.  This is a traumatic space to start learning, but the realisation can be facilitated by learning can lead to more than just satisfaction.  Pride in achievement, or by reading the works of ‘experts’ feeling their views and perspectives evolve, be challenged, reinforced and then confident enough to share them with others or write their own.

Another negative reflective experience is the notion of ‘lost innocence’, where we as learners come to learning to seek answers and leave finding ways to ask the right questions.  He offers an example of a learner who explains this lost innocence;

When I came to this university at some level I thought I was going to find the truth….There was the feeling that if truth didn’t reside in the heads of you guys – or on the library shelves – then it couldn’t be found anywhere. Then I got here and the first I heard from you all were things like ‘it’s more important to ask the right questions than find the right answers’…But after a bit I got what you all meant and I started to be a bit more sceptical about things I read and aware of clichés, things like that. Now while this was happening one part of me was saying this is really good, you’re getting more sophisticated; you’re looking beyond the surface. But another part of me was annoyed about what was happening. I used to get up in the morning thinking that life was black and white, good and bad, that there were always answers to problems. Now I say to myself ‘it all depends on how you look at things’ …’ Brookfield, S. 1994, ‘Tales from the dark side: A phenomenography of adult critical reflection’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 203-16.


Going back to Edupunk and DIY education, perhaps part of this interaction between fun and challenge leads to us to the ability to take control of our learning.  Not relying on a person in a ‘brightly lit fluorescent room’ to tell us what to think, how to think and then to check that we have expressed it correctly (or ‘learnt’ it) as the sole way of teaching, learning and assessing.  Not accepting that satisfaction is the ultimate outcome of learning.  These concepts are harder to measure immediately.  They are even harder to compare and share, because they don’t exist in a dichotomous space.  They are part of a bigger picture of learning.  It is the type of learning that learning by experience encourages. The things we do and things we have done construct the things we know and helps us identify and perhaps rectify the things we don’t.  And this kind of process isn’t about being satisfied; it is about being engaged, amused, challenged, angered, empowered and recognised.



street art flowers

Sometimes we can get caught up in trying to find ever more complex reasons for why something happens.  We use bigger words; we divide concepts up into smaller and smaller fields, fracturing them beyond recognition.  Are we missing the simplicity that can inform some of our most profound moments of learning?

Recently I have written a lot about the levels of higher education here in the UK.  These levels talk about the types of skills and knowledge that is required of learners at a specific point in their higher education.  The offer verbs that can be used by people writing HE programmes and by students being assessed in those programmes to describe the type of learning that may be occurring.  There is an increasing complexity as we progress through a programme.  For example at level 4 (first year undergraduate) you may simply know something, at level 6 you may need to apply and analyse something and when you reach level 7 (Masters level) you will need to be able to critically evaluate, share and apply that thing to new circumstances.  One of the criticisms of these levels is that there is an assumption that the more complex the processes, the higher the level of learning that may be occurring.     

But is higher level learning that can evolve from simpler tasks?  Aside from the zen implications (!) the completion of what might appear simple or ‘easy’ tasks, or the learning of knowledge that others might think straightforward can lead to higher level learning.  Identifying simplicity in something, finding the ideas, the theories and the practice that make it simple, and make it work can be a very critical and evaluative process.

Of course, being me, there is a music example.  This year in a moment of sheer kitsch and fun I went to Eurovision in Dusseldorf, Germany.  Now, Australian readers amongst you clearly understand why anyone would want to go to Eurovision, but it is not a universally acknowledged major tourist attraction.  It is, however, one of the most watched TV events in Europe year.  The songs themselves are usually criticised for their tacky lyrics and melodramatic euro-pop stylings.  But the funny thing is they sell records, people vote, even people with more high-brow music tastes find joy in them.  I have spent the last two days listening to Eurovision songs as background music for some difficult writing I had to do and found myself thinking critically about the way the song was written and produced.  What makes them catchy and have that hook?  Those of you seeking song-writing glory can rest assured that I don’t the answer, but what I did hear is simplicity; easy to sing lyrics, memorable chord changes and relatively sparse simple arrangements. 

I am not going to argue that complexity is bad.  There is much to be said for the ability to see new solutions to problems through complexity.  Complexity also develops the ability to be flexible and responsive in the face of ever changing environments.  Complexity supports multi-tasking, inter-discipline thinking and creativity.  There is however something to be said for being able to see the simplicity in concepts, the beauty of a simple idea or the learning that can come from doing a simple thing very well and sharing it with others.  In a world where knowledge is being constructed, reproduced and opinionated at an ever increasing pace, and where markets, practices and expertise are shattering into micro-fragments in order to find a competitive advantage or to differentiate oneself, being able to seek and find simplicity, and to be able to explain and contextualise that simplicity within your own practice, your learning and education or just to share it is something we should perhaps do more often.