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In the belly of the beast

Literary Landscapes is a monthly column by Indra Wussow, a writer, translator and director of the Sylt Foundation.

I cannot count the incidents in which I was gently forced or encouraged to do what in our art world is called ‘a labour of love’. If I calculate all these labours of love, I surely deserve a place on Mount Olympus of the worst-paid experts. A labour of love is writing reviews for books that otherwise would not be discussed, or writing a foreword for a colleague’s new volume of essays. It can amount to free curatorial advice for a dedicated but financially vulnerable institution or offering my networking skills to promote careers. I have become a tireless labourer whose energy and passion is triggered by the noble cause and limitless artistic freedom – yet without any economic sustainability. If I was the only one, I could simply scrutinise my obvious lack of negotiating skills; scrutinise my reluctance to enter the ‘power game’. But this is beyond just me and is common practice in the arts industry. 
     I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My day to shine happened when, as a 13-year old, I turned our annual school bazaar into a profitable business that allowed us to go on a class trip. What has happened all these years since, that these qualities seem to have evaporated? Like so many of my colleagues, I have become compliant with a system that needs us to pay/barter our artistic work/experience for audience or visibility. 
     Linguist Noam Chomsky wrote that it is important to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them, as, unless justification for them can be given, ‘they are illegitimate and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom, which includes political power, ownership and management.’ His strong words echoed and I decided to enter the belly of the beast. I wanted to learn from the professionals, from what we artists sometimes mockingly call the ‘capitalist world’. I enrolled in a nine-month post-graduate course on innovation. We were taught three approaches to enhance innovation and creativity from famous professors from three American Ivy League universities.  

Minnette Vari, Sentinel II

I still remember my first webinar. Used to sitting at my desk and reflecting, writing and re-writing, this experience came rather like a tsunami. The tutor talked fast, too loud. Another tutor was online in between. It was like sitting in a beehive, the constant messaging in the chat and in the Q&A box adding to my confusion. 
     Most of my life, I have been what I would call a free radical. I believe in what Rudolf Rocker calls free associations, which can form favourable conditions for social justice, harmony, and freedom and allow people to come together freely. These innovative approaches could be of enormous value in modernising the arts sector. Still, I also understand my role in representing the arts – to discuss how the different values and experiences of the art world can enliven the business world. Especially when it comes to the much-needed systemic changes that lie ahead of us and must include business practices, too. To explore, for example, how a sustainable bartering economy might work. Many artists survive in their niche. What would happen if we were to develop this idea/model further out of strength and not out of missing opportunities in the market – together with the market? 
     Small institutions often boast the most significant creative potential and yet they often grapple due to the hegemony of the big players. These are often state-funded institutions that dominate through their finances, contacts, and their overall visibility. A small entity working with volunteers and little funding is smashed in this unequal battle, with most of its projects happening out of the public eye. I wonder how this field could become more democratic. This is not only about money. It is about the capacity to share knowledge and contacts, to cooperate and honour each other. 

Already in 1992, David Orr recognised the plain fact that the planet does not need more successful people. That it desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities often have little to do with current business practices. To look into the subject of change through the lens of business, was a major challenge for me. The supremacy of shareholder value feels wrong. The Design Thinking module offered an incredibly shallow definition of empathy and Nespresso became a case study to learn innovation in a time in which we need to invest in zero-waste practices. 
     Yet, it was interesting to work together with my fellow students on business opportunities and I witnessed how many innovations there are that will lead to a much better and more resource-saving enterprise. That there could be something called ‘conscious capitalism’ that might engage all players more ethically and caringly. But still, my valid question of how these two worlds could connect remained unanswered until I learned about the innovation method of SIT.
     ‘Systematic Inventive Thinking’ was co-developed by Jacob Goldenberg, my professor from Columbia University. After the noise of the Design Thinking module, this innovation method was such a quiet but powerful tool that hones reflection rather than a frenzy of boundless idea generation. SIT equips us with five thinking patterns that enable the generation of new ideas and problem-solving from the inside of what SIT calls the ‘closed world’, whose limitations enable us to arrive at solutions that are innovative and seemingly simple as they are based on factors that exist in this system. In applying SIT to different projects, problems in the arts are fascinating and Goldenberg’s book Inside the Box, co-authored with Drew Boyd, has become a major companion on my journey for new ways to modernise our industry. 
     A dialogue among us small players about how to transform the landscape with our enormous creative power while being recognised for our own expertise and excellence is the first step towards innovation. I have learnt that there is so much more potential inside of us than we are made believe.

‘Inside the Box’ book give-away:
Win a copy of Inside the Box by Jacob Goldenberg and Drew Boyd, the book mentioned in Indra Wussow’s column this month. To win, email competitions@creativefeel.co.za with the answer to the following question: What is the innovation method in the book Inside the Box called?

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