Basic Income and the blurring of art and life – A Q&A with Toby Lloyd

Basic Income and the blurring of art and life – A Q&A with Toby Lloyd

Toby Lloyd is a Newcastle-based artist who’s currently working on a long term project about how art might be used to explore public attitudes towards work (paid and unpaid), how free time is valued and if Universal Basic Income could enable us to become more active citizens. One part of this project, called Between Eating and Sleeping took place inside an empty shop front in a busy high street, where Toby was working inside, painting three questions onto the wall:

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

What would you do if you had a year off?

Visitors to the shop were invited to answer these open-ended questions, with a view to starting a conversation about Basic Income in a relatable way, outside of politics and dogma.

He’ll be speaking at both of our meet-ups next month, in Glasgow on November 13th and Edinburgh on November 27th. For now, we’ve asked him some questions to find out a bit more about how he arrived at making work about Basic Income and what he’s learnt so far…

Timothea Armour, CBINS Blog Editor

Timothea: You’re using art as a tool to open a discussion. Do think was it through your work as an artist that you came to support Basic Income? 

Toby: I got interested in Basic Income through having an experience that felt a lot like what I imagine having a basic income would be like. This was when I did a 12 month live/work artist residency with my collaborator, Andrew Wilson. It was different from the usual residency format that parachutes an artist into an area for a few weeks or months to deliver a project with a community. Once this is completed, they leave and are unlikely to ever return. 

The aim of the residency we did, which was run by East Street Arts, was to achieve the opposite of this process. We were given a house to live in and use as a studio, along with a small stipend that covered our living costs (rent and bills) leaving us with some money to go towards food. There were no set targets we needed to meet, and we were allowed to take on other work and projects if we wanted to earn more money. The commitment we made by signing up to the residency was that we would live and work in the house for 12 months. Over the course of the year we become part of the community. Within 6 months we knew more people on our street than we had after living in our previous house for 4 years. 

As a way to get to know people, we did a lot of voluntary work, attended community events and council planning meetings. Activities we had not had time to do before the residency. Through this we met the active citizens in the area, got to know our local councillors by name. We discovered who were good ones and which ones would only make an appearance when an election was on the horizon. 

Having the security of a small but steady income meant we did not need to worry about money, which gave us more control over how we used our time. This freedom was extremely emancipatory as it allowed us to settle into our new home, explore the surroundings and reflect on our experiences. This gave us a much better understanding of how things worked in the area and the opportunity to find out why any changes were happening. More importantly, it made it clear to us that most of the population did not have the time access to this information which causes a multitude of inequalities. 

The residency changed the way that I make art and how I value time. A lot of the work we made during the residency did not necessarily look like art. Writing newspaper articles and organising litter picks for example. But these activities did feed into the artwork we made.

Lloyd & Wilson – Trajectory of the Everyday #3, published in local newspaper South Leeds Life, June 2015

Timothea: Do you think Basic Income could change the role of art in our society? 
I guess I’m thinking here about what we could do if we had more time, and the increasingly privileged demographics we’re seeing in art schools, and working in music, theatre… across all the arts. 

Toby: In the short-term Basic Income would give people more time and space to think and be creative, in a similar way to my and Andrew’s experience during the residency. This would be an important first step in re-evaluating what is important to us. 

I see the residency that we did as a consciousness raising experience… it gave me the time to reflect and learn. Getting to know people and understand their experiences takes time. Basic Income would give everyone more control over their time and enable them to engage in similar consciousness raising activity. One of the reasons I like the idea of Basic Income, even if it is just a thought experiment, is that it allows us to imagine what life would be like if we had more time.

I hope that in the longer-term UBI would allow for the blurring of art and life, allowing us to approach problems in more creative ways and reconstruct society to address systemic issues. This would not mean that everyone would suddenly become artists, but art would lose the elitism attached to it. Giving more people access to making art or having creative outlets, would foster a wider appreciation for the benefits of art and what it can be (not just painting and sculpture). This would also help to challenge what is understood as culture and flatten the hierarchies of high and low culture. Going to watch football and having a drink in the pub is culture and just as valuable as a trip to an art gallery or museum.  

Timothea: You talk about storytelling as an important part of how our beliefs are formed and reinforced. Have the stories and responses you’ve been gathering influenced or changed the way you’ve been working on this project? How have the answers you’ve heard compared to your expectations? 

The best part of the Between Eating and Sleeping project has been listening to people’s stories. They have told me about what factors have impacted their lives and the things that they value and give their lives meaning. The project’s three questions were every effective at getting people talking, and I found that their explanations for their responses were far more revealing than their initial answers. This made me realise how important it was for me to be present so that I could talk to people who engaged with the project. Also, because I was wearing overalls and working in the space, I was more approachable than if I had been holding a clip board with a questionnaire. 

One man came into the gallery space (which was empty shop front) enthusiastically exclaiming, “this is brilliant”. He pointed at the text I had been painting on the wall. I stood back with pride and said hello to him. “I used to be a sign writer, I did it as an apprenticeship. It’s a lost art.” Then he told me a story about working on a huge sign for Newcastle United which was so big it had to be painted on the floor and then erected on to the wall once it was dry. His boss only noticed it had a glaring typo in it once it had been finished and installed. Before I could ask him any questions he then turned and walked out of the space without enquiring about my project or the themes behind it. At first I felt I was a little deflated, but then humbled. This was one of many instances which helped me realise that an important part of the project was its ability to create a space for listening and dialogue, instead of a platform for me to present my ideas to others. 

Timothea: I thought it’d be fun to finish up by getting you to answer the three questions you ask people to answer in your project. 

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A vet, then a musician. I gave up my aspirations of being a vet when I realised that I would sometimes have to hurt animals in order to cure them, and that just giving them hugs would wouldn’t work.  

What gets you out of bed in the morning? 
I naturally get up early – I’m not good at lying in. My parents ran a pub so there was activity in the house from an early start. That doesn’t mean I’m that I am productive when I get up. I’m quite happy pottering about for hours reading and listening to music. I do find it useful to have a plan when I get up. My anxiety levels start to rise when I’m wondering around aimlessly.

What would you do if you had a year off? 
I’d do what I do now. Make art and work on projects. I’d maybe travel a bit more too and spend time with family and friends. A lot of people who I have spoken to during the project who have creative outlets have given me a similar answer. Having a year off (work) or a basic income would just mean that they could put more time towards this activity. 

Find out more about the meet-ups Toby will be speaking at in Glasgow, here and Edinburgh, here.

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