The 2017 iteration of Belfast’s now annual Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics will once again offer a platform for vital learning, exploration and consideration, elements that have seemed absent from the general discourse during the last 12 months. Its slate, however, also features an event that serves to empower and connect the very people who often deliver the kind of artistic output upon which many a festival is built.
Comm(on) is an afternoon programme of discussion and connection aimed at freelancers. It is the brainchild of Adam Turkington, owner of Seedhead Arts, a Belfast-based arts organisation providing services in training, events management and consultancy.
For Turkington, whose past endeavours included the successful and ever resilient Belfast Culture Night, the decision to facilitate something that promotes unity of purpose to freelancers – disjointed by the very nature of their occupation – has felt like a necessity for some time now.
‘There’s not really a union, not a lot of collective thinking,’ he says. ‘This [Comm(on)] is an idea I’ve been gestating for three or four years. I’ve been freelance for six years and I became aware very quickly that there is a different mindset that you find yourself in.’
His hope is to attract attendees from outside the creative arena, underlining the fact that Comm(on) is far from exclusive to those earning their living in the arts: ‘It applies to people who are freelance, regardless… I want there to be a degree of cross-pollination and a bit of solidarity.’
A concrete example of the challenges faced presented itself last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget scrapping a Conservative Party manifesto pledge to avoid increasing National Insurance contributions for self-employed people. While the consequent media furore centred on the calculations behind such measures (these have since been reversed by the Chancellor), the decision goes beyond politics, reaching into the real lives of many.
In highlighting the fallout from the government’s plans, Turkington points out that there is no obvious ‘go-to person’ to advocate for the myriad sole traders likely to be hit by the proposals. ‘There’s an issue around isolation and an issue around representation.’
He continues: ‘I have news agencies contacting me about who to talk with on this. If that was any other section of society having an extra tax put on them, you would very clearly have somebody there to represent them and step up to say: “This is bad for our sector because...” That lack of representation has a real knock-on effect.’
Yet, in spite of the difficulties inherent to the existence, Turkington discerns a change in the landscape: ‘There’s been a huge spike in freelancing. People are leaving jobs, following their dreams and doing what they love – paying the bills and being successful.’ Modernity has contributed to this, he suggests, emphasising the ease with any enterprise might currently operate.
‘It’s easier to get connected now, it’s easier to get information. You can run a successful business from your bedroom now. You couldn’t do that 10 years ago.’
Equally, he takes the view that contemporary life has, for many consumers of goods and services, moved to a place where quality trumps expedience. He believes that ‘Humanity’s fixation with convenience has peaked and people are starting to value doing things a little bit better, paying a bit more to appreciate craftsmanship.’
Nevertheless, Northern Ireland remains a place with a somewhat fixed impression of employment, stunting the growth of the independent industries. ‘I find that society is set up so that you must either be a business or a charity,’ says Turkington. ‘People think my business is a charity because it has “Arts” in its name. There’s no framework for processing the concept that there are all these people out there who are freelancers.’
What, then, is the ultimate aim of Comm(on)? Its aspirations are fairly straightforward, he says. ‘The number one outcome is networking, there’s no two ways about it. I want people to come away feeling like they have an advantage and have improved their ability to make money and come up with better projects and better things.
A free event, there may well be scope to develop it further, to build a plan that can offer targeted support for the freelance sector. Turkington’s idea starts here. ‘Ideally I would like to be in a position where people would come away thinking that it was something they would pay for in the future, because they could see it was good for them to meet all these people and that there is commonality there, whether or not we’re in the same business.’
Comm(on) will take place from 2-5pm on Wednesday, March 22 at the Black Box, Belfast, as part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics. To register your attendance click here.