Full Disclosure: Varjack was one of the first performers I saw when I moved to Edinburgh, but I don’t know her personally.
Review: A couple of nights ago I went to see Paula Varjack’s Show Me The Money, a show about how artists in the UK survive, either by their art or not. I’ve seen a few versions of the show now, and it’s immediately apparent that Varjack has thrown everything at it. There’s an urgency to the operation that’s struck me on each viewing, that what’s at stake is at once stark and utterly mundane; this person may or may not continue making art.
So the show begins by asking what an artist is, whether it’s even a real job – Varjack interviews Dan Simpson’s father, a cab driver, about how he would respond if his clients approached the matter of payment the way commissioning organisations did, with predictable exasperation. Maybe that’s the biggest thing to take away from Varjack’s reams of interviews – no one seems surprised that things are the way they are, that art in this country is microvalued and deteriorating, that artists often have two, three, more other jobs and still live hand to mouth. The fact that wanting to make art not only requires poverty, precarity, in many cases sacrificing a stable home life, seems a given. Varjack mentions early on that the younger artists she interviewed tended not to have a plan for the future, there was a sense that writing or creating was something one could only do for so long. One artist talked about how around the age of 35, one by one his friends stopped making art; the question of how long someone can physical or emotionally sustain that kind of lifestyle seemed to have a very concrete threshold.
Show Me The Money approaches the fraught domain of arts council funding tongue-in-cheekly, lampooning the language of application forms (‘this piece will include the excluded, whilst simultaneously being engaging for all’) and imagining council offices as a cross between heaven and the mailroom scene from The Hudsucker Proxy. Behind that, of course, is a serious point – if arts councils don’t have active connections in living, breathing scenes, their main point of contact is through a series of essay questions and budget plans that don’t necessarily align with traditional artistic skillsets.
The show is bleak viewing, and Varjack’s ability to draw desert-dry humour out of the situation is admirable. Happily, she knows the power of optimism, hope, and (more importantly) getting organised; the Manifesto for Artists in a Crumbling Arts Economy near the hour’s end focuses on the need to support your fellow artists, for honesty, bravery, compassion, empathy and a bunch of other things that reminded me of precisely why I spend my free time on this stuff.
Further reading: The Show Me The Money tumblr is an excellent resource (Varjack: “Yesterday I realised that it’s not a show I want to make, what I want is to start a movement”), and although her interviewees are not introduced by name during the show, Varjack’s full video archive is available on Varjack’s Vimeo page.
Show Me the Money ran from 9-10 August, Varjack and Simpson Presents ran from 6-13 in Banshee Labyrinth. A list of her upcoming shows is here.