August 2015, Wheeler Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
6 July 2015, Melbourne Exhibition Centre, Melbourne, Australia
Justin Heazlewood (aka The Bedroom Philosopher) is the author of Funemployed (Affirm, 2014), a magnificent book on the struggle to make a living in the arts. He delivered this to the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia national conference.
Hey thanks. Thanks for having me here this morning. It's sort of taken me back to my uni days. Already I've heard the word 'disseminate', and 'module' this morning and I am having a small anxiety attack as we speak and I will have to have an extension of some kind.
Just on life.
How many uni students does it take to change a light bulb?
When’s it due in?
Three uni students walk into a bar ...
And the last ticket on the laughs train [toot toot] to Comedysville ...
Your HECS debt ...
Great. If you found that funny, we’re going to be great friends. If you didn’t find that so funny, you may have to leave immediately.
I haven’t seen this many academics in the one room ... since my last gig, actually. I started a band in Canberra, sort of matching educational policy to the songs of AC/DC, I dunno if you guys heard of us, Acca-dacca-demia? We were sort of well known for a while.
We had some hits: ‘It’s a long way to the office if you want to re-enrol’
You Took Me All Night Long (Ode to my media ethics essay)
Information Superhighway to Hell
So I’m originally from Tasmania but I did university in Canberra. And there’s a saying, you can take the man out of Tasmania, and then it’s just ‘Tasia’.
I grew up in Burnie, sort of a small town, and when I got to Canberra, you know, whne you come from Tasmania, Canberra’s sort of like New York with roundabouts.
And I remember my first day , I did Professional Writing and I think I had Journalism as my first lecture. Just this pretty surly lecturer, just kind of screaming at us about theimportance of deadlines, 'if you hand your assignment in five minutes late, doesn't matter, instant fail! No excuses, we tend to get a lot of dead of dead grandmothers round exam time.' That was her exact quote on the first day of university. So I'm just sitting there, with this image of these nans, just sort of piled up, cardigans and glasses askew, this unncessary slaughter.
If you look at journalistic grammar, and the safety of grandparents, there is a connection there because if you take the sentence 'Let's eat nan,' for example, and you put the comma in the correct place, the sentence is, "Let's eat, nan'. But if you ignore that comma it just becomes 'Let's eat nan. [pauses] Oh no, I've eaten my grandma'
Bad gramma is bad for gramma.
H'yeh. It's an illness.
So as far as the actual degree went. The core creative writing subject was great.It made me write, that was pretty much why I was there I think. We were told how to pursue work as a freelance writer – but looking back in retrospect , having tried to make a career out of this, I find it bemusing that in three years nobody told how to write an invoice or to fill out a tax statement, or that you're really running your own small business.
But they certainly found time for subjects like Culture, Identity and Post coloniality. Oh please, can I sign up to that one.
In media studies we watched Road Runner for its narrative structure. You know they say it's best not to over analyse things. So given my epic 9 cotnact hours a week, I basically assignedmyself my own side degree. Cutting my teeth on a spachelor of arts in the school of soft knocks.
I joined the theatre society where I starred in Psycho Beach Party where I was told I’d have to pash another boy on stage. I was like, 'yeah alright ... now it's starting to feel like uni'.
I wrote for the uni magazine Curio, mostly so I could scam free CDs and do an interview with Powderfinger that I still need to type up. Is that too late?
I started my own band, The Harmonica Lewsinskis. Yeah, people had heard of us but never seen us.
So between the shy Asian students and sports science hoons blaring Shania Twain I sort of had room to swing my freelance sword and develop my sense of innovation, arguably the most important attribute to an artistic career. Even if I couldn’t write an invoice. I guess that okay.
And I graduated, and I guess I found that BA sort of stood for bar attendant, and I got a job as a bar attendant. As far as how I became an artist, I sort of had to make it up as I went along. And a lot of what I learned, I put into my book Funemployed: Life as an artist in Australia, which I'll probably be flogging at the end of this talk.
So perhaps we'll go to the next slide if I may.
I know how much you like Venn diagrams.
At their best our universities are the finishing schools for our soul, shaping skill sets and ideologies and fostering the kind of intelligence you want leaked all over this wide brown country of ours.
I should have thought about my metaphors.
At their worst universities are expensive daycare centres for trainee alcoholics , with resepct – one big snooze button for adulthood.
As a student I sometimes felt I was too naïve to learn, while my lecturers were too jaded to teach.
In the words of captain Picard, however, there is a way to “engage.”
They say the average Gen Z student will have fifteen jobs in their lifetime. Perhaps course outlines and the way we package university degrees should take this into account. And I'd just like to propose the patented Justin Heazlewood 'Variety pack' (shows Kellogs pack) approach to education. So maybe Corn flakes could be Law. Coco Pops could be Arts. Sustain could be Business ... 'you gotta sustain yourself in life. Justin, you know, you gotta be able to afford a house', Special K, that'd probably be medicine. Maybe women's medicine?
Just go on to the next graphic here, how an artist spends their time.
I've become a professional artist. A lot of thinking, a lot of worrying, not a lot of maths. Some bitching, we are living in a very hyper competitive world, networking, not working, it's all there.
Students have to face a complex and uncertain future – yes, uncertain whether they’ll end up primary or high school teachers.
It is a complex world though, no doubt. Complex in the way that in World War I & II, there were like literal minefields for people to wade through. Today, students are faced with like metaphorical minefields - oh man! - take the situation of thirty philosophy graduates all going for the same advertising job. Oh what a minefield. Or the irony of being a qualified engineer from Sudan, with a career driving one.
Despite the desperate pleas of my family and Centrelink to simmer down and 'find a nice office job for the love of God Justin' - I’ve established a career as a writer slash comedian slash wrists. 14 years and counting ... my credit card debt.
Last year I released my book Funemployed, it was my own personal PHD crash course self-help tell-all. You’re not alone, was the takehome message – the arts are a satellite industry and we’re all but orbiting the same sun.
If I knew at uni what I know now, I’d be one of those creepy mature age students answering every question. No one likes them. Uni for me was about time richness, it was aboutexperimentation. Having the space to fail. Sometimes not knowing what you’re doing, is the best way to learn.
Thank you for having me. I'd like to leave you now with a video called 'I Don't Know What I'm Doing With My Life'. It's about not knowing what I'm doing with my life.
Video from 11:12
You can hire Justin for conferences, debates, MC roles through Speaking Out agency.
Justin Heazlewood's depressingly uplifting arts bible, Funemployed features the thoughts on working in the arts from many of Australia's creative luminaries. You can buy it here.