Organizing Creative Labour

In conversation with Tim Maughan

In this conversation Tim Maughan chats with us about digital infrastructure, the role of organized labour in the creative landscape, and the DEL project Artwork_Local404. Join us, as we discuss technology and capitalism, the benefits of organizing, and what form collective action might take. Maughan also talks about how we need to rethink many of the platforms of tools of the digital world as public infrastructure: this may change how we understand what the government could do with them.

Fresh from the Digital Economies Lab, Artwork_Local404 is an effort to introduce organized labour to the creative landscape. In this chat, Tim Maughan shares his thoughts on digital infrastructure, the possibilities for actualizing equity through solidarity, and the role Artwork_Local404 could take in mobilizing collective action. Drawing upon his experience as a journalist and author, Maughan describes the reductive nature of journalism and the limitless breath of fiction; moreover, Maughan addresses the nexus where fiction and non-fiction merge into the powerful polemic of “what if?!” That is the essence of art and that is the hope that inspires the fight for a better future. Not only does Maughan share his views on the pitfalls the project faces by repurposing digital tools, but the project’s great propensity for powerful change if we just modified our thinking around the concepts of community, the state, and digital infrastructure. Furthermore, Maughan warns of the dangers of othering the state and suggests, in turn, holding ourselves accountable to the fact that we are the state. Rather than distancing the creative landscape from the state for fear of falling into the capitalist fold, we should disrupt capitalism by wielding the organized power of the state and regulate digital infrastructure. Maughan provides an example he and his wife frequently ponders: what if we broke up Twitter and gave it to libraries to run, like a mesh network of Twitters? Packed with the woes of digital burnout, “commitment creep,” and the dystopian realities induced by unregulated capitalism, this conversation confronts the upward and downward trajectories of creating real change. Join us as we discuss the impacts of digital labour, withholding labour, and creative solidarity with one of the creators of Artwork_Local404.






Tim Maughan (@timmaughan)

tim maughan books


Artwork_Local404 COLLABORATORS:

Izzie Colpitts Campbell 

Lee Jones

Emmanuel Madan « Undefine

Produced by the Artengine Stream Team:

Mikke Gordon aka Seiiizi

Ryan Stec

Kimberly Sunstrum


Editorial Assistant

Erin Galt


Production Design Consultation

Leslie Marshall/MAVNetwork

Post-Production Support: Chris Ikonomopoulos

DEL Theme Music by Mikki Gordon aka Seiiizi

Artengine’s Digital Economies Lab brought together a diverse group of artists, designers and other creatives to rethink the infrastructure of cultural production in the 21st century.

Funding for the Digital Economies Lab was received through the Canada Council for the Arts Digital Strategies Fund.

“Unions, to me, are about solidarity and creating a presence that is greater than one person. The idea that somebody has your back, if that makes sense…The idea that if someone messes with you, they’re messing with more than one person. That’s what a union is about, really, in an old school labour sense. I think we wanted to create that. At least I did.”

"That’s not the state to me, the state is us. If something is owned by the state, it means it’s owned by us."

The Union and the Arts

Ryan Stec

We’re here to talk a bit about how the Digital Economies Lab and some of the thinking and work that’s happened around this research laboratory here at Artengine. You have been involved with a small group as you engage the idea of organized labor in relation to the creative domain. I guess, let’s start with a simple question of, what drew you to this idea of a union and the creative industries or the artistic world? What brought you around those two ideas?

Tim Maughan

The thing I kept hearing people saying was that there was a lack of transparency in how much money they should be making as artists. 


They’d often find themselves in shows or performances or whatever and they were asked how much they expected to be paid by clients rather than being given a figure.At the same time, they suspected or found out later even that other people they were working with were getting paid more than them or in some cases getting paid less than them. 


That inequality felt wrong to them.


It was the thing that kept coming out the most that first morning, if I remember. I think I literally just stood up or put my hand up in one of the sessions and said, “It sounds like what you need’s a union, because that’s what unions are for.”


The State is Us

Ryan Stec

I want to go back to the question of the state and government because I think it’s something interesting that comes up around the idea of organized labor within this creative context. 


In some ways, pushing for where does it make perhaps more sense for the state to be involved in these things…is it this impetus towards and this desire towards organized labor? Does it come from the fact that we have both a weakened state and an over-powerful corporate structure?

Tim Maughan

Yeah, very much so.

Ryan Stec

We need a stronger state as well, or? I wonder if you guys thought about the different roles there.

Tim Maughan

Yeah, a little bit. I think one of my own personal bugbears is we talk about community a lot and we don’t talk about the state. To me, I like to believe that the two are the same thing. Community seems like a nebulous term a lot of the time and it’s used in ways that are used by corporations a lot. Disney use the term ‘community’ constantly. What they mean is ‘customers’ and what they mean is ‘audience.’ ‘Consumers’ is what they mean but they use ‘community’ as a fill-in for that. The Star Wars ‘community, the Marvel ‘community’ expects that we are addressing needs to consumers and you’re selling products to consumers. 


But I like the idea of the state being a community. The two can interact and be the same thing at times. Also, neoliberalism has demonized the state into being this very much top down thing, the same way corporations are a top down thing. That’s not the state to me, the state is us. If something is owned by the state, it means it’s owned by us. 


I got very upset today. I saw a story on the BBC about, back in the UK, one in four people questioned during the pandemic thought that too many people were getting welfare payments because they’re out of work. They interviewed a bunch of young women, it turned out, who had claimed unemployment benefit, for the first time, during the pandemic and they were ashamed of doing it. They put off doing it to the last minute until they were really desperate for money in order to do it. That is your money. It’s money that you’ve paid in. They’re getting 400 quid a month. These people were paying more than that in taxes a month, I’m sure they were, and national insurance payments and such like that. It’s your money. It’s there for you. It’s assigned for you to use in these situations.


We’ve broken that relationship so that the state is part of the Other or part of the domination of us rather than it being the community that we’re in.  Like you said, this caring community, a state that’s built around care and responsibility for each other.


Ryan Stec

It was towards this idea of collective care. I wonder, is it a reaction to just the way technology is being used or is there something inherent in technology which requires us, especially those steeped in the practice of creating with it, of needing something else to offset it?

Tim Maughan

There is something inherent in technology, I do think. To some extent, there is certainly something inherent in capitalism and you can’t separate the two. The crux of my kind of personal worldview is that you can’t separate technology from capitalism. I’d like to be able to but the technology we use–we build and we’ve entrapped ourselves in, for want of a better word, or we’ve committed to in certain ways–is fundamentally just an extension of capital. That’s what it exists to do.


One of the things that I’m very obsessed with at the moment especially around this issue is this solidarity in withholding labor to a certain extent.  I’m trying to find a smart way of describing it at the moment and the best I’ve come up with is this idea of ‘Commitment Creep’. 


This idea of ‘feature creep’, which we talk about with software where something like Photoshop has so many features added to it constantly or your phone has so many features added to it constantly that it becomes unusable or bogged down or slow and whatnot. I feel like this is happening to artists. We are being asked to commit to different types of work in order to continue to be working artists.

Interspecies Communication

Cheryl L’Hirondelle presents the process and ideas behind her new work Nipawiwin Akikodjiwan: Pimizi ohci, shown for the first time as part of our Entanglements exhibition. The work is a immersive AV installation about (and with) the eels and their challenges in the context of our local hydroelectric dam on the Ottawa River. L’Hirondelle discusses how her relationship with the falls evolved as she discovered the existence of eel ladders designed to help the endangered animals on their journey through the river.