On Shame and Failure

Obstacles – part of Green is Big recent paintings series

Shame and Failure

It’s Friday night. I am not hungry. I am not drinking. I didn’t slept last night. I have had a good day talking with three fellow artists and thinkers. But I have spent the day putting a brave face and keeping going despite.

I sit in front of the telly, with my laptop, trying to write a clever shout of anger into the faceworld. It has a good dose of self pity, aren’t I broke, what if you reapplied for your jobs every six weeks or three months, this is fucked, touring doesn’t work, most venues offer obscenely shit fees, a commission does not mean a grand, the power imbalance in the arts and particularly when it comes to funding is obscenely of kilter, why do programmers think its ok to simply ignore communication for months on end,,,, …. I write it and it definitely says- This is mega fucked up and I am angry in case you didn’t get that. I close my computer, watch some shit telly about cross-breed dogs. I cry! I cry because the dogs are too cute and I need one. I NEED a dog. NOW!

I open my computer, I delete the the post on facebook. I go to bed. I don’t sleep, again.

It’s Saturday morning. I get up not having slept. My thoughts are full of anxiety. Nothing different so far, this has been going on for months, since last day of our Autumn tour which finished in mid November 2017.

I begin to feel angry with myself for not posting the facebook post. What angers me is the fact that actually talking about failure or my difficulty is shameful. I feel ashamed for not having got the funding I set out to get. I already feel ashamed knowing I will have to go to the board to tell them this. I feel ashamed at failing to get the money. I feel ashamed at not knowing how to play the system because playing the system is what every damn successful bugger is doing. I feel ashamed at being too honest, i.e not playing the game, not fitting, not ticking the boxes that I think are set out to privilege one group over another. Why the hell can’t be about making good work? This is all my fault. I am not successful. It pains me to write this, it pains me to say it.

Aware of all that, I am recognising that my privilege to moan about failure is a very capitalist trait and as a young commie I am thinking I must be able to cross that boundary and move on. But that is not how it works.

Shame and failure are very connected. They are for me ,anyway.

I came to this country on a full scholarship in 1999. My first solo exhibition sold out entirely, every single drawing. That was when I was 16. I got a first class honors degree in London for which I paid myself ( It took me five years rather than three to complete, I worked my little ass off. At points I had three part time jobs as I was doing my degree. I deferred my degree twice to work, so I can save the fees, then £8000 a year because as a non European, or overseas student I was not allowed a loan, thank f**k for that!) My first performance piece was called Defferal to celebrate the fact that I made it against all odds.

In 2014 I found myself performing our* award winning Near Gone in Ukraine to be told by a high level diplomat that I was a Failed Strategic Import!

  • Failed- lack of success, non-success, non-fulfilment, abortion, miscarriage, defeat, frustration, collapse, foundering, misfiring, coming to nothing, falling through
  • Strategic- planned, calculated, deliberate;
  • Import- bring (goods or services) into a country from abroad for sale. “supermarkets may no longer import cheap jeans from Bulgaria” **

At that point, I was rather reminded that my success (whatever the hell that means) was somewhere long ago, when I was young, because people are obsessed with youth anyway, we fetishise youth, far away, before it got tricky, when I was living in the capital, before I put on weight, when I could sleep, when I wasn’t really aware of capitalism and the rat race, maybe about ten years ago.

Ten year ago I would have been 26. I look at the 26 years olds around me and I recognise just how far ahead of me they are and how many light years ahead they are of my then 26 year old self. But then again, I didn’t have the privilege of having English as my mother tongue, neither did I have mum and dad cover the bills when I couldn’t. I was an immigrant. I remain an immigrant, only older.

Of late I have been thinking and looking back at where I went wrong.

  • I didn’t take a full time job being a picture framer
  • I didn’t take a full time job in a posh furniture shop, even though Marco Pierre White himself basically dragged me to his friend’s shop on the Chelsea road where I spent years selling obscenely expensive pieces (pieces of frickin furniture)
  • I was once late to a press night at the Gate Theatre
  • I left London
  • I said no to designing a feature film (because it was six months of unpaid work)
  • I designed a lot of shows for shit money, or no money for years, to build my portfolio
  • I told people what I genuinely thought of their work, when they asked
  • I didn’t get a British passport
  • I never shagged anyone to further my career

All the above decisions were based on my idea that I could make it. I could make it against all odds. The romantic notion of coming from humble background and working my ass off was going to overcome my socio-economic background, my Balkan heritage of enslavement and definitely overcome being an immigrant expected to clean toilets.

I began to occupy the space of the other. I arrived at that space slowly and consistently. But never did I think that occupying that space will have such an effect on my mental health and on my sustainability. Ten years ago, there was no facebook or twitter, there was email and phone calls and meeting people in person. That is how I got the work.

Back to shame. My lack of success makes me feel very ashamed. I feel ashamed to talk about failure. My failure.

I know what you are thinking- who cares anyway. Well, the only person that cares is me. I care. Which is why I am ashamed.

I feel ashamed to ask for fees that I know I frickin well deserve.

I feel ashamed to ask for royalties on design jobs because that is seen as greedy.

I feel ashamed to be bought tea, I must offer first.

I feel ashamed when fellow compatriots, i.e. Bulgarians happen to serve me in a cafe.

I feel ashamed to tell my work colleague I haven’t got us a gig here, or here, or here.

I feel ashamed when I start the sentence We didn’t get…

I feel ashamed when talking about my failure to my colleague

I feel ashamed when talking about my failure to my partner

I live in capitalism and I know that success is everything in this capitalist world. I particularly love my socialist liberal friends with hefty salaries “fighting it”. We are conditioned to compete, with each other, all the time. I was reminded of this the other day when talking to a fellow artist. She began to refer to me as her competitor. That made me feel extremely uncomfortable. What an idiot I was thinking I was talking to a friend. I guess I make that mistake all the bloody time.

Shame! My shame! To say- I am not ok! I am not OK, this is not ok, because I feel like a failure. I feel like a failure because as an independent artist is a really hard to build sustainability, and it is very easy to fall between the cracks. The cracks between the priorities of someone else.

A failure to keep going, going, going, gone. A failure to hold my nerve.

A failure for admitting I am failing. I am failing and I am fast falling.

Because failure is sooooo unsexy, so uncool. So, that is me for the rest of eternity- un freekin shaggable (not literally!)

*our – Two Destination Language

** The bit about the cheap Bulgarian jeans genuinely came up online when I googled the meaning of import