Labour day 2024 speech:
We need a stronger professional narrative

Below are the speech notes for the Labour day speech I was invited to deliver on behalf of visual artists, designers, and architects, representing the two trade unions, FAOD (Union of Architects and Designers) and the Visual Artists’ Association (BKF), along with Art Hub Copenhagen and Copenhagen Architecture Festival. The theme was ‘Work life without boundaries’ with a specific focus on the precarious working conditions faced by many in the creative fields.

Recently, I finally started creating the website for my small one-person business. It took me nearly a year to get to this point, because I know how it affects me to articulate openly what I believe I can contribute with. What I am professionally worth.

A website demands that I become concrete, specific, and easily understandable to all those who are unfamiliar with my expertise. And honestly, that’s quite anxiety-inducing.

It initiates the perpetual inner dialogue that questions everything: “What have I actually contributed ever?”, “Does what I have done previously even relate to the field of design?”, “Am I even a real designer?”, “Should I just stop calling myself that and call myself something else?” etc.

It’s incredibly difficult because what exactly am I selling? Is it expertise? Is it just my personality I’m selling? Or something entirely different?

And that’s how it actually is most of the time. Not just when I’m creating a website.

It feels as though I’m not just selling what I can do to clients, but also selling it to myself time and again. Even in informal and social situations when asked what I do, I often end up saying, “Well, I’m not really sure!”

Yes, sometimes when I talk about what I can do, I almost say, “Despite being a designer, I can still…”.

It’s a bit messed up!

Ironically, for much of my professional life, I’ve done nothing but explain the value of design to others. I’ve trained, taught, and given countless presentations on the value of design in terms of innovation, business, and larger societal challenges. It’s not a problem for me to articulate what the broad field of design can achieve, but when it comes to my own specific expertise in design, I always fall short.

This duality is something many of us in the creative fields struggle with. We can be quite grandiose when extolling the virtues of our disciplines, as long as we are surrounded by like-minded individuals. But when it hits our personal worth, it becomes harder.

It reminds me a bit of the stereotype of the young man in a high-school context who acts smart to cover up an all-consuming inner insecurity. And I actually think many of us feel this way. Do you recognize that?

I sometimes joke that it’s as if the design profession suffers from a collective inferiority complex. And I actually think that’s a bit of a shame. Or rather, I think it’s a bit silly. Because, in fact, there is no reason for us to feel this way! On the contrary!

And yes, sorry, I might be getting a bit carried away (although that doesn’t mean that the all-consuming insecurity isn’t still raging within me), but what we, artists, designers, and architects, can do is needed more than ever. And that’s why I’m happy that we are gathered here today. Because even though our disciplines may seem very different on the surface, there are fundamental aspects of our approaches that bind us together and where we truly create value.

Artists and designers have a unique ability, a talent and a professionalism to make decisions and shape things at times when they know they don’t know everything that could be known.

They have the courage to bring things into the world out of pure curiosity about whether it might be the answer. “Could this be what evokes and brings us closer to what we want?” Whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, a performance, a chair, a company, a policy or something else doesn’t matter much.

That’s our superpower: that we can identify space, opportunity or a story, that has not yet been opened or told. We can tell that story, shape it, propose something that wasn’t there before

Here we differ from almost all other professions, because we dare to embrace the complex, the dilemma-filled and the paradoxical and shape something from it. And if there’s anything the world needs today, it’s someone who can give shape to time, imagination, emotions, needs, actions and doubt. Someone who can shape the complex world we live in. Because the complexity is greater than ever: climate crisis, biodiversity crises, well-being crises, geopolitical tensions you name it.

It’s all about the fact that the world is more unpredictable and ambiguous than ever. And here we can do something that no one else can. We can shape solutions to those challenges that we can not calculate our way out off.

Therefore, it is important that we are gathered across the creative fields today on Labour day, because we need to organize ourselves and create a real professional political voice, narrative and tradition.

A narrative that speaks of the value we create. That speaks of working conditions, salary, leadership and influence. The narrative – we all need it, as we go around in our precarious and endless attempts to understand what we can and what value we contribute with.

The one we can rely on – as a common backbone – that compensates for the collective inferiority complex we carry around. We are worth more than that. And it is a collective responsibility.

I dream of  more artists, designers, and architects joining professional political organizations. I dream about that we are better at supporting and developing the political talents we have within our profession. And that we support them and empower them to go out and speak and negotiate on our behalf.

I dream that we create major professional political events where we don’t talk about creative processes, material choices or all the other wonderful and nerdy things we usually talk about. But where we talk about working conditions for our colleagues. It requires that we dare to enter the political arena and rise above our professional expertise, even though it may seem scary, boring or even irrelevant.

Because it’s not, when you have to negotiate salaries, compete with the amateur who took a weekend course in design or once again spend most of your grant application explaining your obvious value creation.

There are already organizations and communities to start in. But we all need to remember to show up, cheer, shout and create noise about the great misconception that art, design, and architecture are nice to have and not need to have.

We have always been the ones who create what lasts and what shapes our culture and ultimately our collective identity as human beings.

What we can do is worth more! And it is a collective responsibility that each of us knows that and that the world around us also knows it!

 

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We need a stronger professional narrative" with a friend:

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