Claire Rosslyn Wilson shares some strategies for living between places and developing international networks as a creative freelancer.
We are living in a world where distances are shrinking and there is a belief that it is possible to work from anywhere. A PwC report that interviewed 10,000 workers in China, India, Germany, the UK and the USA found that one-fifth of employees see themselves working virtually, with the ability to log on from any location within the next 10 years. One-third of employers will soon be hiring staff on a more ad-hoc basis, encouraging the growth in portfolio careers and freelancer workers. Freelance writers seem eminently suited to a more nomadic lifestyle given the potential flexibility of their work, but what exactly does it entail working from locations anywhere in the world?
Why do it?
Aside from the more evident reasons for travelling and writing – such as doing a residency or researching a specific project or article – why bother setting yourself up in a new country when it’s hard enough making a living as a freelancer in your own context?
Perhaps the strongest motivation I’ve had for living and working in different places has been the desire to challenge my perspectives and assumptions. Getting to know a different culture has a way of questioning certainties, which can be both difficult and rewarding. These experiences of adapting to different cultures have given me endless ideas for my writing, which is my more selfish reason for doing it.
Art writer and editor C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia believes that writing between places gives you a chance to see things with diverse outlooks and come up with new ideas as a result. She feels like her continual travel between Italy and Vietnam feeds ‘inspiration with different, challenging food for thought.’ She observes that travel is not just a physical experience, but something that is done in the mind. ‘It is not only about changing places and seeing different things, it is also about the state of mind, perhaps of freedom, as well as the flexibility that one will develop by living with different cultures all the time,’ she says. ‘It also encourages comparative thinking, and opens up your views on everything.’
Photographer, filmmaker and writer Timothy Syrota was first drawn to travel in Myanmar in 1997 from curiosity as well as a passion for travel and adventure. He backpacked around the country taking photos and making extensive notes, not necessarily thinking about a specific project or output. Fast forward 20 years and he’s still working on creative and commissioned work related to Myanmar.
Setting out to work internationally is sometimes a matter of chance, curiosity and the willingness to just see where it leads you. It can be difficult to know where the projects will lead before you go or what opportunities will emerge. But starting out in a new place can be a matter of letting your interest guide you and keeping your eyes open when you get there.
Take your time
Sometimes opportunities as a writer come from unexpected places. Because of the (mainly) non-writing work I was doing in Thailand and Singapore, I developed networks and experience that now help me to get paid writing work. Starting off as an international writer mightn’t just mean writing for overseas publications, it can also mean looking internationally and getting to know the creative ecology in another place, not just what magazines they sell.
Timothy believes that developing a speciality in a certain area is helpful. For example, he has worked on several long-term projects such as reporting on bare-knuckle boxing on the Thai-Myanmar border and documenting the lives of migrant children on the border. Creative projects such as these didn’t necessarily have a fixed output, but they have led to several awards and other opportunities. In addition, by building the relationship with the communities there, Tim has built friendships through trust that enable him to become involved in the community in a way that a reporter coming in for an article with a quick deadline can’t. Through focusing his work on migrant and refugee issues on the Thai-Myanmar border Timothy has built up a vast body of work that is unique, which helps him stand out. But all this takes time.
Estelle Cohenny-Vallier, an artist from France who now lives in Chiang Mai, also points to the importance of taking your time when settling into a new place. She observes that ‘maybe [when you arrive] you’re not going to do art straight away – just be where your are, learn about the place. This is what is going to make a difference to you when you are networking with people. They’ll know whether you are doing that genuinely or if you’re just doing it to get something on your CV.’ If you don’t have the time to dedicate to getting to know a new locality in such depth, then there are other great options to travel and write, such as residencies that are designed for shorter stays. Being upfront about your intention and your reasons for travelling are important.
Mai has some practical advice about how to make the most of online resources when developing your interests across borders, especially if you have limited time. ‘While you are “stuck” in your particular reality, read a lot, take advantage of what our social media world is giving nowadays to make direct contact with people and forge relationships, open your mind up to new stimuli and expand your views,’ she says. Then when you can ‘go meet these people in their actual places, go visit those scenes that you read about or you have developed a particular interest in’.
Don’t be afraid to ask
While working in an organisation in Singapore that developed international arts projects, one thing I noticed was that putting together a project involving people from different countries didn’t necessarily have to be that difficult. Many projects were developed from personal relationships. It’s an organic process that you might find anywhere in the creative world, but in this case they happen to be living in different countries.
But how do you find the right people to collaborate with in the first place? Sometimes it’s simply a matter of reaching out and approaching someone whose work you admire. As Mai observes, ‘You will be surprised of the way people around the world respond to you, the networks that you can create for yourself, and the welcomes that you might find once you can visit a place.’
In fact, being between places can actually put you in a unique position of being able to connect people through your experience of knowing both places. Mai highlights the possibilities of this situation when she notes that ‘you meet different people in different scenes, you might meet ones that you would have never met elsewhere, you can also facilitate contact between people in those two different cities and perhaps be a catalyst for further development as well.’ But as with any relationship, this process of making connections can’t be rushed.
Maintaining links from a distance
Developing international projects doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to spend years in a country. In some cases it might involve regularly returning to a place, keeping in touch in between. It might also mean taking advantage of technology to develop an online dialogue, like artists Varsha Nair and Lena Eriksson do between Bangkok and Basel in their organically evolving Monday 2 Monday project.
Developing international projects and networks does require a certain amount of flexible thinking in terms of how projects are developed and perhaps also in the way we think about borders. Although it is now easier to travel between places (depending on what passport you hold) there can still be the tendency to define people according to where they live.
There are also practical challenges, such as finding a place to work or keeping up with what is going on in each place. As artist Jun Yang who lives between Vienna, Taipei and Yokohama says, ‘you are never there. Nobody counts on you being there, so don’t expect people calling if you want to join dinner or go to the cinema, because they don’t think you are in town.’ Living between places means that it takes more effort to keep in touch with people and that the extra communication will probably be up to you.
However, the challenge working internationally presents is outweighed by the positives – the opportunity to see things from multiple outlooks, the change in your worldview this inevitably provokes, the chance to meet interesting people you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to meet and the inspiration this provides for your work. Developing an internationally focused practice is perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but it may be easier than it once used to be.
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Claire Rosslyn Wilson
Claire Rosslyn Wilson is a poet and nonfiction writer. She is a regular writer for Art Radar and Culture360 and has co-written a book on Freelancing in the Creative Industries (Oxford University Press). She’s had her poems published in various Australian journals and she writes short poems about the everyday objects around us at http://clairerosslynwilson.com/ You can also follow her thoughts @clairerosslyn