By Eirini Dermitzaki
Art by Julia Nowak for Why Magazine
I moved to London eight years ago. I didn’t exactly know why back then. My 28-year-old younger self was fed up with the situation in the arts in Greece. It was hard to create a career. Many unpaid jobs, fewer opportunities and an art industry which seemed like a small clique with people who were mainly pleasing each other to progress. I was and probably still am a dreamer. I couldn't compromise. I wanted people to appreciate my art and not just offer me a job because I was flattering them or because I was someone’s acquaintance. This was one of the main reasons I left.
Moving to London certainly opened my horizons and through this exploration, I managed to gain new skills and discover more things about myself. All these years, London has been generous and cruel at the same time. I worked hard in order to establish myself. Distributed pizza flyers, worked in coffee shops, filmed weddings and events, worked in care homes as an art facilitator, in print shops as a designer. My curiosity for life equipped me with many tools that I used to pay the bills and through the years I managed to get better day-jobs and increase my wages.
But what about the arts? I have done many art projects most of them unpaid or voluntary but had a couple where I got paid for being a writer or playwright. After all the effort and energy I put in, I feel like I was always this close, and yet not really into the field. Like a starving person who passes outside a bakery shop smells the freshly-made goodies, and dreams that one day will have the money to afford buying one. The opportunity is there. You smell it, you can feel it but do you really have access to it? Indeed, sometimes you have. But I'll use one more food metaphor. It’s like when you are hungry and are sitting at the same table where your companion has a feast, and you are waiting to eat some of their breadcrumbs. The food looks great but you only get a tiny portion of it.
Undoubtedly, London is full of opportunities, galleries, theatres, film companies, publishers, art exhibitions, events and festivals. You spend a few minutes on social media and you feel like there is a whole world of opportunities out there waiting for you. Then you look at the pictures of some of your friends and you really admire them because they look so cool and successful. Please don’t get me wrong, this is truly amazing, but it can easily overwhelm you and push you away from the things you really want to do. But is this really an issue of lack of focus and discipline? Is this really a false comparison? Is it as simple as the moment you see a friend posting about a new music event that he is at and you feel bad because you haven’t done anything in ages?
All these years, I have met sound designers who kept working without pay in short films just to meet like-minded professionals and develop their career. I’ve met volunteers who worked in festivals to get a better understanding of the industry. Artists who exhibited their paintings in small coffee shops, local festivals and markets. Actors who performed in Fringe theatres to build a stronger portfolio. Their CVs have more pages, their portfolio is better, their websites look flashy and their credits are increasing. But are they really progressing in their career or are they trapped in a loop? How many of the people you know and I know can make a living out of their art? How many of them manage to break through? How many saw their books published or performed in feature films or in the West End? The situation reminds me of a popular Greek anecdote for actors:
-What is your profession?
-I am an actor.
-Nice! So, where is the pub that you are working in now?
Have you ever met an accountant, an engineer or a chef that runs around like a mad person to do unpaid jobs to establish him/herself? And if so, how long have they been doing this for? A friend recently asked me how many years an actor should spend doing freebies before they give up and change profession?
If you’ve reached this part of my article, then you probably feel it's all a bit depressing, but maybe it’s because it’s reflecting how I feel today. And here we go again with one more food metaphor. I feel like I am small orange and London is squeezing me with its massive hand until I give it my last drop of juice. Of course I don’t feel like that every day so probably I am less disappointed than you think.
After changing countries, working hard, trying different ways, studying and attending seminars and conferences, how come I ended up with the same conclusion and feeling the same agony as when I was living in Athens? Is it because I tried with the same attitude to solve the same problem? Shall we all blame ourselves? The bad timing, the wrong choices or our lack of skills? Or is it because we are part of a system that we preserve instead of changing? Do you think it's time to stop blaming ourselves and look at the reality? To fight for our rights, make ourselves visible and stop wasting our talent and energy? We live in a world of crisis, and as a refugee who looks at the sea dreaming of a new life, we look at London and think that one day we'll access the opportunity. But, opportunity can be a fallacy.
I probably ask more questions that I can answer. So, now that I am closing this article, I am wishing you all to be happy and fulfilled even if you don’t see your dreams coming true right now. In the case that you need advice, then I will say, express yourself through your art. Don’t do things just because you need to put something on your CV. Make choices that reflect who you are and not because they might progress your career. Hold this precious energy for something bigger and more authentic. You will need it.