Is a Universal Basic Income the answer to an increasingly insecure and divided society? It’s Basic Income, edited by Amy Downes and Stewart Lansley, shares research and insights from a variety of nations providing a comprehensive guide to the impact this innovative idea could have on work, welfare and inequality in the 21st century.
Fellowship of Citizens is London-based artist Saemundur Thor Helgason’s first solo exhibition in London. The exhibition formally launches the interest group Félag Borgara, or Fellowship of Citizens, founded by the artist in Reykjavik last year which aims to lobby for basic income in Iceland through apolitical means. The exhibition includes a new short film called Wilma written and directed by Hawk Bjorgvinsson and co-produced by the interest group, sculptures made in collaboration with Icelandic photographer Berlaug Petra Garðarsdóttir, a banner print of the lottery ticket made in collaboration with Anna Mikkola and a text written by Nick Srnicek.
Rebecca Edwards: Universal Basic Income looks differently at creativity as being simply a luxury for many working people. Is this liberation in creative or imaginative roles a good thing?
Saemundur Thor Helgason: Yes, absolutely. I think there’s a certain misconception of what we consider work to be or mean, or if there is no job description then the role isn’t validated as being work. Basic income acknowledges the complexities and nuances of various types of activities and how they contribute to a society at large.
RE: Amy, what do you think about the importance of creative roles in society?
Amy Downes: For me, I think this is one of the strongest arguments in support of basic income. It seems that as a society we often take culture for granted and the massive importance it plays in a successful and happy everyday life. A basic income gives people the opportunity to pursue culturally significant and interesting work rather than work which simply pays a salary.
There are confounded ideas in society about what work is and also why it’s important to work in the first place. This idea of work has become outdated, and is based on one particular way of looking at one morally good way of living, and this idea that you can value a person based purely on what they’re bringing in financially. A basic income would value people doing all kinds of socially helpful work like caring, thus reducing healthcare costs, and would allow people to look differently at how they spend time.
STH: You can consider everyone as being a worker, everyone is bringing some colour to society and I think a basic income could reduce the frustration of people who don’t fit into the wage labour formula. I think art is a good example of a profession that does not fit into this because a job where you get paid a salary for being an artist doesn’t exist; it’s often teaching but never the activity itself. Or as Amy said, you need to make work which sells, and then your decisions for making are based on a speculative financial payment.
AD: I think that the festishisation of work is something we’re being forced to address now because there aren’t enough skills based jobs. We can’t deny the fact we have created the ability to automate so many of these jobs which ultimately leaves people feeling inadequate and that they need to look for charity to support themselves. I think this is one of the reasons basic income has grown an interest because people are realising there aren’t enough jobs to go around anymore and that something has to happen to change it.
STH: A lot of these types of jobs are just there to cover this outdated idea of work, which is kind of work for work’s sake.
AD: There’s an interesting chapter in the book about that written by Olivia Hanks who talks about bullshit jobs; work that’s created to give someone something to do which isn’t necessarily needed.
STH: Like security guards for example. I think if there was less frustration in society we wouldn’t need as many. In a broader perspective it all goes hand in hand with a lot of the jobs we have now which would be made redundant.
RE: But what about this idea of essential work, work which happens daily but is never paid, like parenting. Would these roles become more recognised in light of a universal basic income?
AD: Yes, I think they’d become more valued and I think the greatest benefit would be for women who are the ones doing most of the unpaid essential work in society, mainly in the home. It would give an economic freedom which tends to be lacking, as well as giving people the freedom to do more of that work which they don’t have time for at the moment. With childcare costs being so high people are forced to go out to work instead of looking after their children. Also caring for the elderly, something which other countries model differently. In the Western world we pay for elderly people to be looked after often in a really substandard way. A universal basic income would not only give people the freedom to choose that work but it would also make it more visible and recognised as a valuable work; again questioning the idea of what is means to work.
STH: In a way it’s looking at hourly pay, and how this can stop mattering if you are doing something you like to do.
AD: Nick writes about this in his essay you commissioned for the exhibition. This idea that we need to recognise that purely by existing, purely by being people in a community, we are all contributing. We can look at this in terms of economic value, or more broadly, but that’s the missing piece at the moment which people don’t think about.
To use an example that’s quite concrete, if we look at the huge rise in automation which comes out of the increase in start-up businesses often based in Silicon Valley, there’s a risk that those companies could end up having a huge majority of worldwide wealth as they have the capabilities of creating the machine to do much of this labour we’ve spoken about.
Looking at an individual’s contribution to those companies is really interesting because, for example, the UK educates people in universities and schools in a state-supported way who learn skills to go and work for companies which build these machines. In a way society has enabled this to happen.
RE: What about the idea that a universal basic income would simply enable more of a capacity to consume?
STH: I don’t think people will consume more; they would treat their money as carefully as they do now. Of course, there might be more time for consuming, but there would also be more time for things that people are interested in.
AD: It’s linked to this idea of risk that basic income could result in inflation, but if inflation is due to pumping more money into an economy then surely buying and using things is a result of this too. Basic income doesn’t suggest putting any new money into the system, it’s a redistribution of what is already there. In reality, people wouldn’t be consuming more but enjoying more time to do things that are valuable to themselves indirect of wealth. I think a basic income would also encourage a four-day working week, job sharing and reduced working hours which would be good for the environment. So not only do I think we’d consume less, we’d also protect the environment and create less waste.
RE: I think depression, mental health and general wellbeing would also improve.
AD: Crime rates too. In trials of basic income, you see general satisfaction amongst people increase meaning a decrease in crime, alongside educational success increasing and healthcare costs decreasing.
RE: Saemundur what’s next for the interest group and the lottery; how do you see this operating in the future?
STH: The next thing for the interest group is to finance the golden artwork, and once this is approved by the authorities in Iceland as being the prize for the lottery, we will start the lottery campaign which will include radio commercials recognising all citizens as artists. The lottery is called “artists lottery” but it’s approaching everyone as though they are artists.
Once we start selling tickets, the money will go into producing more projects which in turn will go into producing more material for campaigning for the next lottery draw, and so on.
In the long term, I haven’t really thought – we’re just going to see how it works, if it works at all, and see if people show interest in the project. The idea is that it becomes a self-financing production because it’s quite hard to get funding for projects, especially those that are unusual.
RE: Amy where do you see the debate around basic income going?
AD: I don’t think it’s going away; I certainly think that its on the up at the very least. The debate around basic income will serve as a way of creating a focal point or tool for people to funnel dissatisfaction with the current system. Basic income is very likely to provide a starting point for a re-think of our current economic model. We’re at a point, and I never thought I’d say this, where I think we will have something which represents a basic income within our lifetimes.
In the immediate future, the rise of automation, the loss of jobs, and what we do with that – whether we relax, or see it as allowing us more leisure time – we are certainly going to see more discussion about basic income or another model that sees the redistribution of wealth and a rethinking of the current capitalist model.
Rebecca Edwards, curator, arebyte Gallery.
Saemundur Thor Helgason is an Icelandic artist based in London. He is co-founder of HARD-CORE, an Amsterdam and London based art organisation developing algorithmic curatorial methods since 2011, and Cosmos Carl, an online platform that only hosts hyperlinks provided by artists and curators. Recent exhibitions and events include; A guiding dog for blind dog, Centre for Contemporary Art FUTURA, Prague, Czech Republic (2018), Silicon Dreams with HARD-CORE at Harbinger, Reykjavik, Iceland (2018), SuperFetish S/S at Goethe Institut, Beijing, China (2016), Not in the Berlin Biennale at 9th Berlin Biennale (2016) and ÁVÖXTUN % Rate of Return at Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland (2016)
Amy Downes is co-founder of Work till Late design studio and communications consultancy. Her interest in the topic of Basic Income stems from her time studying philosophy and social justice welfare at University College London. She is the co-editor of It’s Basic Income: The Global Debate which was published in March 2018 with Policy Press. She is currently based in London.
Rebecca Edwards is curator of arebyte Gallery. The gallery’s focus for 2018 is themed Islands, looking at the idea of dislocation and association of space from both physical and theoretical aspects. In 2017 Rebecca ran the hotel generation series of exhibitions, and this year is running a young artist development programme of the same name. Recent and upcoming projects include Nøtel by Lawrence Lek and Kode9 (2018), The Green and Pleasant Land by Max Colson (2017), I’d Rather be Shopping by Louise Ashcroft (2017) and Virtual Choreography by Rosana Antolí (2016). She won the NEON Curatorial Award in December 2015.