Living Creatively – Vicki Guy

By Viki Guy

I am a freelance noob who has chosen London as their battlefield. London is forever spewing out platforms, opportunities, artists and willing audiences making it a fantastic place to be, but it is also painfully expensive, frequenting the top ranks in many expensive cities in the world lists.

In beginning my adventure as a freelance dance artist in London the first thing that strikes me is how the marshmallows can I afford to live here with one of the lowest paid professions? It seems culturally standard in our industry, although morally questionable, that freshly graduated noobs like myself should expect to work for free, since we have all that hope and passion to drive us. At the risk of seeming politically quiescent, I have opted to share a room and rent with two fellow freelance buddies to keep down costs in attempt to preserve that passion for unpaid work.

For generations artists have faced this challenge, calling on their creativity to magic up unconventional lifestyles and living situations that allow their money-work and art-work to coincide harmoniously. If this conjures some dreamy idealist imagery of artists creating havoc in warehouses, lets discuss what options are available these days and how they score on complimenting or complicating artistic endeavors.

One option is to live in a housing co-op. Co-operative living offers a lot more than cheap rent, but a sustainable future and freedom to create a world that supports it’s residents, provided the residents are willing and ready. I visited David at Sanford co-operative and was immediately greeted with pride and enthusiasm to flaunt what co-operative living can achieve.

Sanford Walk is London’s oldest purpose built co-operative, transformed in 1973 from a derelict wasteland into a street of 14 houses and a block of flats. It sits as oasis in between a railway line and more average looking South London flats, brimming with greenery, on-going projects and community spirit. Tenants pass each other with knowing smiles and waves and David tells me that this is his favourite thing about living here; the feeling in the air is that together they are part of something special.

Although co-operative living scores high in the price stakes, Sanford residents paying only £200 a month for a beautiful flat and shared garden, the main financial plus is that rent paid goes back into the co-op’s bank account for their own pursuits, not the unknown pursuits of a private landlord. Members meet at regular intervals to decide how to spend their cash by voluntary democracy, meaning it is the prerogative of the members to suggest projects, vote or turn up to the meetings and be part of the discussions. The money can go towards anything to enhance the life of Sanford and its residents from refurbishing the kitchens to putting on a gig, building a bike shed to running a pottery workshop. A lot of the money and effort has gone towards making the site energy efficient and self sufficient, boasting a wood pellet boiler and vegetable and herb garden.

The archive of resources boosts Sanford’s score in the environment stakes. With a rehearsal room in the car park, dodgy piano, projector, performance space, pizza oven, leftover wood, bike workshop… possibilities are endless. What better way to get equipment for a project than share the cost and use with others? A bold percentage of members are artists in some vein and are keen for exciting things to happen on their turf, by becoming a tenant you intrinsically join a network of like-minded folk who you may or may not like to collaborate with or share your work alongside at one of the co-op’s events.

Exclusivity is a bit of an unavoidable issue. Because so far sounds great right? Who wouldn’t want to live here (probably lots of people but you know what I mean)? To secure a spot you’ll have go against 30 applicants a month by means of one very personal application form and two interviews.

But this is to join London’s longest standing co-op that have been building said archive of equipment and projects and community spirit and so on since ‘73, so of course there is a long history of homegrown value and reputability to consider into the selection process, so you’ve got to be lucky to get a slice. Alternatively start your own co-op!!!!!!! This will be high in the effort stakes. Some busy freelancers may prefer not to have to consider their living situation as another project to dedicate time and thought, but efforts are grandly rewarded; offering stability but also freedom, as once a co-operative is set-up the bank account / entity itself becomes the landlord and members can come and go.

I’ll be looking at a range of living situations in this blog series and scoring them on a completely biased perspective. But co-operative living seems a sound option in lifestyle, economic and political value… anybody want to get started with me?

My choice of affordable housing was, until recently, to room share with two other girl friends. Then along came the nightmare landlord with his cream and gold villain outfits, mid (to floor) length beard and own copy of the key at regular intervals to check on things. With only one of us being on the contract, I suppose it is illegal that the other two be sharing the room and rent, but it is also surely illegal for landlords to walk into people’s bedrooms to check on things. So after a fun run of constant sleepovers and unclaimed mess it was time for me to find another way to survive in London.

Then by way of luck I found the wonderful opportunity on Gumtree offered by a human I will refer to as Catfish from here on. Catfish (would like to remain anonymous) has bought a boat in need of work and has offered a free room on the boat in exchange for some DIY help. Currently the boat has no water, no electricity, no heat and no security so the work is plentiful. But I still can’t resist giving a top score of 10/10 for environment, because although you can’t wake up, plug in and scour the internet for auditions and funding opportunities, you instead wake up, hear the birds, see the water and have to use your creative brain literally to figure out how your living situation can progress today.

Before I go on I should explain the logic in my scoring methods for the various living situations I’ve been looking at. All categories relate to my life as a noobie freelancer and prospective opportunities to be a happy freelancer, for example ‘collaboration’ represents the collaborative opportunities that a living situation might present and ‘environment’ refers to how fruitful an environment is for creative practice.

So my calculation after visiting Sanford co-op was: PRICE 7/10 + COLLAB 8/10 + ENVIRONMENT 10/10 + FREEDOM 9/10 + STABILITY 10/10 – EFFORT* 6/10 = 38/50 X 2 = 76%

Work exchange on boat: PRICE 10/10 + COLLAB 10/10 + ENVIRONMENT 10/10 + FREEDOM 10/10 + STABILITY 1/10 – EFFORT* 10/10 = 31/50 X 2 = 62%

*assuming effort as negative.

I wanted to let you know this because I feel I’ve given skewed scores for the boat, which has ended up with a fairly high score for reasons out of context with the way I assigned the categories.  Collaboratively and environmentally, there is not the time or space to begin prancing about flashdance style while my drummer boyfriend does his thing, but between three novice boaters trying to fix and live on a broken boat there is plenty of opportunity to exercise collaboration and consider what it means to be a good member of the team.

In terms of freedom, commitments to Catfish include regular portions of my time to be negotiated with the sporadic flow of rehearsals, waitressing shifts etc. for the length of the stay, so I can’t pack up and leave for a three-week job in Dresden (wishful thinking) and come back to the boat. So no freedom in the sense of flexibility. But with a continuous cruiser license we must move our mooring every two weeks, so although we are restricted by the rules of the river, there is a genuine sense of freedom that comes with movement and independence. We are in each space for a short time then take the experience with us elsewhere, we belong to no area. However, this presents some postal issues.

Price = effort for the boat. The days spent working on the boat could otherwise be days spent working towards rent, but boat work is rewarded with new skills and as someone interested in alternative (/cheap) ways of living these are skills I much appreciate. Part of freelance living, as I have figured so far, is learning how to manage unpaid time. Even if I am one day being paid to dance and not waitress, I imagine myself fumbling around my own or a friends unfunded projects and interests and I suppose that is a part of nurturing creativity, or just giving time to the direction you’d like to go as a person. It is definitely a choice to make this boat part of my unpaid time, and instead of supporting my freelance life I feel more like I’m practicing the skills in a new way. Working with people, building an environment to be comfortable in, putting in some effort to see what I learn, moving with the wind.