ON EXPOSURE 3/3 - Why not.
👀 Welcome to the upside down of the creative industry
This is a letter of The (Im)posture — the newsletter from Julien Posture. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing
It is time to end our journey in the strange lands of exposure. During this trip, I tried to understand what it is, where it comes from, and how it relates to cultural, social and economic aspects of the creative industry. Our first stop was looking at the history of visibility, and how thanks to new media, a new type of social relation emerged. Some people were seen by many others that they did not see themselves at a unprecedented scale. We saw how this quantitative asymmetry between seer and seen turned into a form of capital in our media saturated society. Sociologists like Nathalie Heinich and Pierre Bourdieu helped us shed some light on how the capital of visibility can sometimes be turned into other forms of capital, such as economic, in the right conditions. Yet, while some clients might want us to believe that exposure is a mere matter of numbers (the more you’re exposed, the more money you make), looking at the quality of exposure was more important than its quantity when it comes to convertibility into economic capital. I concluded that first essay by nuancing the definitions of visibility and exposure as such : “while visibility carries the potential to be turned into value, but doesn’t not necessarily needs to be, exposure is always a value proposition, even when it actually can not, realistically, be turned into value.”
The second essay dealt with labour. It’s important to realize that exposure is not an isolated phenomenon, an anomaly in the system as it’s often portrayed. Exposure is part of how the system is designed and therefore we need to look to understand it in the context of labour evolution over the past decades, both in and outside of the creative industry. We saw how “venture labour” in the 90s brought forth an attitude of risk taking to employment, situating employees, especially in tech, as entrepreneurs with stakes in the success of failure of their employers’s company. For actual freelancers, this romanticization of uncertainty got rebranded as “risk” and “investment”, framed by a personal ethos of adventurousness and visionary spirit. In the creative industry, this took the form of what Kuehn and Corrigan called “hope labour”, “un- or under-compensated work carried out in the present, often for experience or exposure, in the hope that future employment opportunities may follow”. Mobilizing romantic ideologies around creative work, the creative industry requires creatives to constantly work on “side projects” which are meant to be self-initiated but also driven by market viability. In this context, working for exposure becomes a natural next step that seems to make perfect sense for workers already used to hope labour.
After spending two essays setting the table, it is now time to sink our teeth in the meat of our discussion. Why, after all, is it a bad idea to work for exposure ?
One of the most beautiful things about being a creative is community. Since I started working as an illustrator, I’m constantly surprised by the ways individual, seemingly isolated, freelancers manage to organize, meet up, and create solidarity networks. I’ve experienced here in Montreal through the Illustration Québec community, in training session on intellectual property or “chillustrations”, our monthly happy hours. I’ve also experienced it when I went to New York a while back, and reached out to illustrators I had never met before, with the strange certainty that respecting each other’s work was enough to ask to spend hours chatting together, and it was. I’ve also found community online, through the DMs and emails we send each other after reading a heartfelt post on IG, or the shared experience of relating to Litebox scathing tweets or attending one of Illustration Open Office Hours sessions. I may have learned more about the importance of unionizing and organizing as a freelance creative that I would have in an employee position. Because as freelancers, unionizing is not a pre-established structure that we can join, it’s a daily practice of solidarity and care.
Free labour in general, acts as an informal gatekeeping practice. I mentioned in last essay how accepting hope labour involves a certain amount of privilege and existing capital which excludes already marginalized populations from accessing the creative industry. When the budget and the conditions of work are so outrageous that only the most privileged creatives can afford/justify participating to a project, free labour divides and isolates. But this choice shouldn’t always fall on the individual’s shoulders. This is what exposure does to creatives, it tells us “at the end of the day, it’s your choice”. But this shouldn’t be about individual choice, this should be about collective care and solidarity.
Exposure fragments this potential for solidarity. It offers to rise above the rest of our “competitors”, be seen more than others, no matter the cost. I may decide to work for exposure just this one time, as an exception, thinking that this won’t have any negative effect on me or others, it’s my choice, my problem. Yet, clients benefit from an infinite pool of such individual exceptions. In a capitalist economy, driven my maximizing profit, one rarely goes back to paying decent wages after tasting free labour. Seeing that this has worked once, the next step will be to ask another creative to work for exposure for another project, knowing that for them this might be an exception, and so on and so forth. And just like this exposure erodes the chain of solidarity creatives could build.
The upside down
Exposure offers usually go like this : Someone contacts you with a project they’re working on, maybe for a good cause, maybe not. They have everything set, the design team has ideated and iterated, the printers are warming up their printers, the distributors are ready to distribute, they just need an amazing illustrator to give a unique look to the project. They don’t have a budget, unfortunately, but because they paid everyone else involved in the project, it sure is going to be a success and get the illustration under a lot of eyes. The project will be sent to a lot of people so, a lot of good exposure that will undoubtedly, eventually, somehow turn into more work for you, the illustrator. It’s pure logic. Except it isn’t. Without illustrations, the project is so far a bunch of hyped up professionals, designers, printers, distributors, whatevers, really excited by a project that has no shape but mood-boards and briefs and ideas. Nothing really… visible. We could argue that exposure comes from the number of followers or the size of the audience a client has, but in the end, exposure can only exist thanks to artists work. Without visuals, the project would be invisible, and therefore impossible to expose.
This might be the biggest flex of exposure logic, it offers illustrators to work in exchange of something they are the only one able to generate. And you may have noticed, this is exactly how capitalism functions as well. Capitalists appropriate the labour of workers in order to create products they can then sell them for a profit. Exposure logic is a mean to alienate creatives from their work, undermining its value in one moment (”it’s just a few, simple, drawings”) while reselling it for a profit the next (”it will be distributed everywhere”). In this paradigm, we are meant to forget that in reality, we are the ones producing the core value of this industry.
This is also a complete reversal of the usual way value is being measured in the creative industry. As any illustrator know, we charge a licence fee to clients based on the territory of diffusion, the period of use and the number and type of supports the image will be used on. The more these parameters increase (unlimited territory, use in perpetuity or total buy-outs) the more the work will be worth. In the upside down of exposure logic, the more an image is used and circulate, the more willing we should be to give it away for free. If the rest of the year your clients know that the more they use your image, the more they’ll have to pay, there is no reason for suddenly thinking the exact opposite.
Yet the creative industry is ripe with such momentarily reversals of logics. Think of the way all year long, illustrators send their portfolios to get noticed by art directors, who will then contact them to offer them to get published in cool magazines in exchange for money. Yet, once a year, competitions would have us do this exact same thing - sending our work to be seen by art directors - but this time for a fee. Brilliant. But this is a topic for another letter, for now, let’s keep on dismantling exposure by diving deeper in another logical flaw, convertibility.
One of the most common argument against exposure is that it’s impossible to pay rent with it. But what does that mean exactly ?
Remember Pierre Bourdieu’s insight, building upon Marx’s notion of economic capital, that there are other sorts of capitals, such as cultural, social, and according to Nathalie Heinich, visibility. For Bourdieu, a core aspect of the relation between different forms of capital is that each can be converted to another one, more or less easily, and with more or less loss of value. Economic capital is the easiest to convert because our economic system relies on a quantitative, measurable abstraction, money. So economic capital can give easy access to spheres of social and cultural capital, such as fancy school degrees or attending operas, galas and other elitist cultural spaces. The conversion of other types of capital to economic capital is a bit trickier :
“More precisely, cultural capital, whose diffuse, continuous transmission within the family escapes observation and control (so that the educational system seems to award its honors solely to natural qualities) and which is increasingly tending to attain full efficacy, at least on the labor market, only when validated by the educational system, i.e., converted into a capital of qualifications, is subject to a more disguised but more risky transmission than economic capital.”
These other forms of capital then, require a sort of cultural exchange counter, just like when you try to convert USD to CAD. For cultural capital, this can take the form of degrees and other qualifications, but here you can imagine how riskier it is to hope to convert a degree in economic capital. This takes other forms of capital to support it, you might need social capital in the form of business contact from your parents, or economic capital in the form of a free apartment lent by a rich aunt while you look for a job. On the other hand, if your degree is from another country, it might get troublesome to get it recognized, because there’s a lack of exchange equivalency across countries. When it comes to visibility, convertibility is even more complex.
As Huyen Dinh illustrated in the above image, we can’t write a check with the number of likes we got on a post. And that’s because we’re lacking exchange counters for this kind of capital. looks and likes are not what economist call a “medium of exchange”, a socially accepted item used to exchange goods and services. The key term here is “socially accepted”, because for anything to be used as currency, we need a broad number of people, but also institutions, to jointly subscribe to its value. For such conversion of value to work, we also need technologies to insure the tracking of value in a sage and consistent way. Cryptocurrency for example, has been able to create a new way to exchange goods and services thanks to blockchain technology. On the other hand, visibility, especially online, doesn’t have any of these social and technological structures in place for its conversion.
I mentioned in the first essay that the lack of technological means to insure that proper credit and easy tracking back to the author of an image is a major obstacle to turning visibility into economic capital. If I decide to work for exposure, there is no effective way for me to know who saw my work, in what context, with what credit, etc. Working for exposure is not an economic transaction, it’s a gamble. A clear example of this is what happened in the past few weeks with Instagram and its announced (and subsequently withdrawn) changes. Artists who have built an audience on Instagram were suddenly faced with the realization that IG could, at any moment, become something else entirely, or even shut down. If that was to happen, the said audience, sometimes hundreds of thousands of followers, would disappear overnight. This made it clear that building an audience on a for-profit platform looks more like borrowing than owning visibility. And that in the absence of exchange counters for visibility, exposure is worthless.
Dying of exposure
Exposure is anything but an unexpected, abnormal and uncomfortable stick in the cogs of the creative industry. It is part of it. Not because it should, but because it stems from our history, the history of being seen by those we don’t see, the history of labour in a neoliberal societies, and the history of competing against one another in an unregulated market. In order to dismantle the practice of exposure, we need to understand where it comes from, how it’s being sustained, and what it does to us as a community.
As a discourse, exposure maintains the underlying assumption that illustrators are always in desperate need of work and would do anything to get more. This doesn’t need to be the narrative that defines us. The nature of exposure is relational, is posits that one element is bright and radiating and the other one dark and dull, in need of exposure. Never forget that artists and their work are the bright element of the creative industry, we are the ones shining light on any project, giving value to any product, event, text and without our work, everything shuts down. Some will try to flip the script on the value of arts in the creative industry and have us believe that we should be grateful for the opportunity to be seen, when since the beginning, they reach out to us because they are the ones in desperate need of exposure.
If you enjoy receiving this newsletter in your inbox, please consider going to the paid version. The paid version is exactly the same as the free one. This is because I believe paying for someone’s creative work shouldn’t be about paywalling readers but about “payspringboarding” writers. If you agree and can afford it, you can switch to the paying version here.
You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram. This letter is the start of a conversation, don’t hesitate to share it to someone who might like it, or to like or comment below.