List of Wants by Rachael Clerke
How are people working in the arts expected to know what they want and what they can ask for, what if we actually just… told each other?
If you would rather listen to the text below, an audio version is available here.
In March 2021 I wrote a list of fourteen things I wanted, put it on a new page on my website, and pressed send on this flippant tweet.
My list included, amongst other things, ‘earn enough money to pay tax’ (I didn’t, but I almost did), ‘have serious conversations about housing with art organisations in Bristol’ (I did and continue to), and ‘find collaborators to experiment with to make music’ (I didn’t). It was somewhere between a manifesto and an ask - a mix of things that would only happen if someone came and offered them to me, and personal reminders to push for or get help with a project or a way of working.
In response, many people wrote their own lists and tweeted them or uploaded them to their websites. They listed novels they wanted published, future employment dreams and new ways of working. It was a small moment of asking playing out on the internet. It felt good, and unusual to ask for what we want, outside the constraints of an application form or an invitation from an institution. Empowering. A bit bratty.
I had been thinking about the expectation of clairvoyance in the art world. About how, as an independent artist, it was (I felt) expected of me to know how things work, and what I could and could not ask for. And how I, in turn, expected both my artist-collaborators and people working in institutions to know what I wanted; what I wanted from them, what I wanted to do next and where I wanted my work to be shown.
But how are we supposed to know all this? Is it in our body language, a certain look in our eyes, the way we sign off our emails? What if we actually just… told each other?
There are of course many reasons why we don’t ask. I often think that if I ask I will be seen as difficult, or demanding. Or that I should already know. It can feel embarrassing to ask a ‘stupid question’ or to ask for more money than someone is able to pay you. It feels impolite; pushy; amateurish. And this kind of asking is often in total contrast to a social media presence where we tell the world we are succeeding, we have all that we need and look what we’re doing with it! In this context, asking can feel a lot like failing.
But the not asking is exhausting. It results in threads of 16 emails before learning that there is no fee. Or no one meeting you when you get to the venue. Or just the drudgery of endless, quiet, solo plugging away at something when the person who could help you is Right There. I know this because I do these things all the time.
I’d like to see an art world where we got better at pinning our colours to the mast. Where more of us refuse to buy into a sector based on clairvoyance and unspoken & obscure hierarchies. I think this has to start with asking for what we want. Below are a few questions that may be helpful if you are interested in writing your own list of wants, but really - there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. It’s just a list.
Who are you asking?
For my list of wants I split this into three different categories - things I was asking for from people in power (funding, opportunities, relationships); things I was asking my wider artist community for (these were generally kinds of people I wanted to meet, or shout outs for new collaborations), and things I was asking myself for (manifestations!). It felt good that different parts of the list could speak to different people, and that it could also be a place for setting intentions/accountability.
What do you need?
Think about your material needs and ask for them. You might not know who you are asking with this one (probably a combination of powerful people, your peers and yourself). This can be revealing, and you shouldn’t disclose anything you’re not comfortable with publishing, but a move towards greater transparency around artist livelihoods is essential if we are going to move towards a more equitable sector. See the Industria/a-n ‘Structurally F-cked’ report for more context on this.
What do you want to do that no one knows you want to do?
These are usually new things that you’ve never done before! Maybe a niggle that won’t go away; something you want to try out but for whatever reason haven’t had the chance to. My original list also included a few things I hadn’t realised I wanted until I sat down and wrote it. Put these things on the list to make them more likely to happen!
The most obvious things.
For me these are projects that I want to tour, or things that need funding to develop. In my mind they are blatantly obvious because I spend a lot of my time trying to make them happen. But this is not the stuff I ever post on instagram, or even really tell people about (because it’s boring), and it is possible - and even likely - that no one knows about them.
Where are you going to publish this?
This step is not essential - it can still be good to write a list of wants even if no one is ever going to see it. But putting it out there into the world will bring all sorts of interesting conversations, and hopefully some external fulfilment of your wants. Put it on your website/tweet it/email someone a link to a google doc/print it and send it to 100 people. Embrace your bratty moment!
My 2023 list of wants is here. I’d love to see your list if you make one.
Rachael Clerke is a Bristol-based artist working across many mediums. They make artworks that sit somewhere on the edge of live art and community infrastructure; playful experiments about what real life might look like if we were less concerned with what real life 'should' look like.