To be… A Freelancer

Words: Anna Ochmann

In July 1999 I graduated the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. My feeling of happiness was mixed with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. My pride on having manage to graduate from the Academy was coupled with a feeling of hopelessness – what should I do now?  The very good grade on my diploma somehow tasted like a hospital drip.

A few months before. The train from my ‘university’ town of Cracow to my home in Zabrze. In my head I feel an explosion, and suddenly I find myself surrounded by blobs of dirt with specks of dry chewing gum. All shades of grey mixed with organic forms of traces of floor-cloth.  The stench is the worst though. I feel nauseous… The stench of multi-layered dirt on the floor – dust trodden in on passengers’ boots, and, most of all, the ingredients of sandwiches pompously called hamburgers, which were so popular in the ‘new’ Poland (the one after 1989). The smell of pickled gherkins, onion and ketchup… I hold tightly onto the leg of the 2nd class carriage seat, which is padded faded leather. I cannot get up because my head is splitting. My body is saying ‘enough’ – in the last few months I have slept too little and worked too much…

This was a time that I come back to thinking how distant university life is. The discussions we had about the ‘essence of beauty’ or ‘the experience and symbolism of light in the Middle Ages’ were far from the reality of my professional life at that time and even now. First, working for advertising agencies when I was still a student, and later as a freelancer.

Freelancer.  A word that was new in Poland at that time, and is perhaps still not fully understood. A word that sounds strange. Marked with a stigma of something ominous. A word that I loved for the feeling of freedom, independence and challenge. A word I hated for its sense of insecurity, temporariness, a kind of wobbliness. I can remember both the tears I shed when I wasn’t paid for my work (it was the times of unwritten contracts) and the wings I felt when the stand I had designed drew the attention of crowds at an international fair. The frustration caused by long days over concept drawings bent over the drawing board, sharpening pencils (computers were yet to come). The distinctive smell of soft rubber, but also the wages handed over in a thick blue envelope (I didn’t have a bank account then). I remember my first negotiations, the first fair stand, designed by me from scratch for a fair in Dresden (Germany), as well as the long hours spent sticking up square metres of foil, as it arrived too late (with a bunch of randomly found helpers, who I grabbed from the street). My attempts to organise their work, explaining what they had to do, the race against time. And painstakingly punching air bubbles in the foil with a pin. And then circling the city in the middle of the night to find shop windows with mannequins and looking for contact details for the owners. Then waking them up with a call from a phone box to beg them to lend us their plastic figures for the 4 days of the fair, as ours hadn’t arrived…

I can also remember my first trip to Brussels especially the cultural differences at work. Most of all I remember the language. The first thing I learnt is how difficult it is to express your ideas precisely in a foreign language, especially when talking to people who are not native speakers. The satisfaction from my first presentation. Selling more paintings.

The university had not prepared me for all that. Not how to deal with clients or how to do teamwork. It had not given me the ability to assess the value of my work or taught me how to sell my skills. I did not know how to cope with stress and overwork or how to work under pressure or to a deadline. We were not taught about intellectual property or copyright law. Still I know I studied at the best time possible, at the best university, and I had the best teachers, and great, inspiring colleagues. I still remember Art Theory, Sculpting classes, Drawing classes, or long discussions about art, sitting in a cafe and sipping one cup of tea for five hours.

Writing this short text I am wondering if and how one can prepare young women for work in the creative and culture sectors in a globalised world. Work which, by definition, has no limits or borders, but, at the same time, is strongly culture-bound. And, most of all, how can they be prepared to work as freelancers?