When we feel stuck or unable to proceed with a creative project, it's likely because we've decided, albeit unconsciously, that we’re unwilling to change how we feel about its current form.

DISPASSION is a newsletter in which digital media researcher Evan Kleekamp practices emotional detachment.

Unused book cover mockup circa 2019.

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For those of you following these dispatches closely, I’m in the process of recording some live editing sessions where I troubleshoot the writing sample I recently shared as well as another grant I wrote a few years ago that received finalist recognition from the Andy Warhol Foundation. The goal of these videos will be to outline some basic drafting strategies and common mistakes to avert.

As a reminder, paying subscribers help support this newsletter. The videos mentioned above will only be available to paying subscribers. You can hit the subscribe button at the top of this page to become one of them.


Over the last few months, Study Hall has published some dispatches I wrote that analyze data from an economic survey we conducted last year. The survey asked the journalists, researchers, and writers (collectively, "media workers") who use Study Hall's platform to provide information about their income, debt, financial well-being, and identity, and the dispatches review the larger trends embedded in their responses.

While the findings of the most recent dispatch didn’t shock me, it did get me thinking about a specific group of media workers who freelance in addition to their full- or part-time jobs. (For those who are unfamiliar, media workers being broke, overworked, and undercompensated isn't exactly newsworthy.) These moonlighters reminded me of working artists who slave away at museums or galleries to pay their studio rent, hoping to someday quit their jobs and make art full-time. In other words, their aspirations influence their career decisions, sometimes putting them in less than ideal situations along the way.

And it’s not just the money and labor aspects of the survey that intrigue me. The project is in many ways an attempt to understand the emotions that influence our desires to pursue certain kinds of work as well as the feelings that tell us to avoid others at all costs. Precisely because jobs pinpoint our attitudes about money, labor, and emotions, they can help us understand the sometimes difficult to reconcile contradictions between art, creativity, and business. Thinking about jobs, freelancing, grants, and feelings as much as I do has left me itching to start a more nuanced conversation about how these topics affect artists. To date, nothing like Study Hall for artists exists, and I think that's largely due to a lack of information and data.


Murky as they can be, our emotions determine the types of work we perform and how we relate to that labor. They also affect who we feel comfortable working with and in what capacity we are able to collaborate. And while there are a number of ways we define work legally and bureaucratically, those frameworks don’t really tell us why we perform our chosen labor form so much as regurgitate how the government views its ideal relationship to companies and workers.

Sure, there are emotions buried within these hierarchical work structures. But their primary function is to simplify work into a rote, thoughtless process with as few interruptions as possible. Far from successful at this task, they try to make the process of hiring and firing (and negotiating) as expedient as possible — supposedly to protect workers, but primarily to protect employees. Even if they don't know it, many artists and creatives are not employees; they're contractors, sole proprietors, and small businesses. And when it comes to grants, it's expected that they conduct themselves in accordance with these frameworks, which may run counter to their creative impulses. (For example, as an artist that describes their practice as post-institutional, I still work with a number academic and nonprofit organizations.)  

To paraphrase something that whip-smart attorney Quinn Heraty told me while I was preparing the survey dispatch, the language we use to describe our work can have meaningful consequences on how that activity is perceived by others as much as it affects how we perceive ourselves. The decision to name and impute a quality to one’s labor is first and foremost an emotional decision, usually one that allows a worker to selectively attach themselves to a group of other, similar workers. Artists call themselves artists for a reason, as do reporters who refer to themselves as journalists and writers who refer to themselves as journalists. (The joke here is that we're all rounding up.) The question is why, how, in which forums, and toward what feeling these labels are meant to propel us. From there, we can begin to ask ourselves if the terms we choose fit (meaning they feel empowering), accurately describe our activity (meaning onlookers agree), and encourage curiosity about our work (meaning those onlookers feel empowered to support it).

To that end, when creative workers become aware of the emotions they hold toward work and the economic relationships that undergird them, they become able to harness them to their benefit. But to enact this change, they have to develop an ability to both attach and detach from the subjects (and titles) that capture their attention. Said differently, creatives are not immune to needing dynamic, adaptive structures for understanding and valuing their labor. We need language that accommodates our feelings — especially our feelings about our work — to help us develop and grow. Without it, we risk overemphasizing aspects of our practice that do not accurately convey who we (or our projects) are. Moreover, if we ignore the fact that we, say, hate performing the basic administrative tasks that keep studio production possible, we're not only undervaluing our work but preventing ourselves from asking for help.

At the same time, the art market has heavily relied on opacity to make the cash flow churn — emotional transparency is not the norm. Many artists unconsciously mimic these market conditions, unwittingly silencing the most compelling parts of their practice lest they appear too commercialized, too public, and therefore unable to satisfy the scarcity requirements typically upheld in the private art market. Many have been incorrectly told that precarity will attract the support of agents, gallerists, curators, collectors, and other benefactors in search of artists who are easy to control and therefore malleable enough for the market. Others suffer from the delusion that they must become terminally unique — so unlike others that it’s difficult for them to survive — to achieve success.

What goes unmentioned about these mindsets is that each can make you an unattractive collaborator. Creatives who appear self-centered, feedback-averse, and in need of constant micromanagement can inadvertently sabotage opportunities to work alongside talented peers. Moreover, when you ask these attention-starved artists what success actually looks like, they can only describe it in abstract terms and fantasies. It quickly becomes clear that they don't exactly know what they're talking about.

The same principles apply to grants. You don't want the reviewers scanning your application to see you as tethered to a particular narrative about your work that demonstrates little awareness of others in your field and the conditions they experience. Being self-aware isn't enough; you have to show that you care and having feelings about other workers, too. You also need the receipts to back up these emotional claims, whether that be in your work itself or in the materials you generate to describe the motivations behind it. Ignoring these implicit qualifications — rarely do grant applications stipulate these requests — will not only bomb your application, it will create a lasting negative impression about you and your practice.


The good news is the solution to this conundrum is simple: group work.

Working with others and taking on contract gigs is a great preamble to learning how to craft a grant, which, as a proposal, shares many features with a contract. Working with others to devise a plan — even if it's just something you orally agree to — forces you to be honest about the amount of work the project requires, why it's worth your efforts, and who will be responsible for various deliverables. Once you put your plan on paper, it becomes much easier to see if the idea is actually viable.

Here, I can use myself as an example: I started at Study Hall as a freelance contractor, and though I'm now full-time I’m still expected to continue freelancing so I can keep tabs on what’s happening in the broader labor market and keep my creative juices flowing. This polyamorous working model suits my frequently changing interests, but it also stems from economic necessity. In my estimation, the best way to keep work, and therefore money, coming in is to have multiple income streams. And the best way to keep multiple income streams is to have many, diverse collaborators with whom you are able to move between roles, sharing power in different configurations.

Maintaining both forms of work has clarified the value of my creative activity simply because I have less time for unpaid work. It also encourages me to try new projects outside of my comfort zone and keeps me from pigeonholing my interests to what others perceive as my use or value or even the limits of my creativity.

Because my freelance gigs usually sit somewhere between research, grantwriting, operations and management consulting, publication design, and fundraising, I'm always learning something new. I also have to constantly update the language I use to describe the value I bring to my collaborators and clients. Cumulatively, I refer to my work as intellectual property development; I’m interested in helping people transform work they’ve already made into future, derivative works and maximizing the value ($$$) of their creative labor. But it took me a long time to feel comfortable making these claims. It wasn't until I had a few successful group projects under my belt that I began to really see where I could best leverage my skills, helping myself and others along the way.

Print test for Andrea Abi-Karam's VILLAINY (2021), cover designed by NOR Research Studio.

To all this I would add that working with other creatives quickly taught me that being broke had a lot more to do with my own choices (studying poetry) and attachments (perfectionism) than the market being difficult. I assume this may sound unfair to some readers, and I want to make it clear that I’m not saying it’s easy to make money. I’m saying I was able to see how I was making the path toward financial stability more difficult for myself, in part because I was not researching how money figured into my career. The tunnel vision that allowed me to write at length during grad school turned into a writing block once I graduated because I no longer had the safety net that enabled me to consider, say, teaching at a college a tenable possibility. Instead, I had to think about how I was going to support myself, which included keeping an inventory of my skills, availability, accomplishments, and career goals. This became much easier after I routinely conducted these inventories for clients. By working with them, I learned how to help myself.

Now, as I’m trying to break these old habits and tendencies, it’s become clear that I not only enjoy working in groups but that group work tends to be mutually beneficial and the most expedient way to accomplish a task. Because my work at NOR — not to mention the massive community project that is Study Hall — often requires introducing similar changes with my clients and their practices, it’s become quite affirming to see others come to similar conclusions. In these scenarios, I often find myself trying to locate a concept through which my clients can practice detachment, which usually means exploring something foreign to us both together. We each end up learning something and benefit from having another perspective aside from our own to test ideas against. We also let go of many unconscious assumptions in the process.


From these experiences, I’ve started joking among my friends that people should let go of the artist label and consider themselves practitioners: professionals (meaning people in service of others) engaged in a lifelong, always changing practice. Like Heraty suggests, I think that professionalization is a powerful choice — one that gives artists more autonomy over their daily life than, say, being completely dependent on an agent or gallerist. The decision to call oneself a practitioner or professional as opposed to a worker (or vice versa) can be extremely potent in some contexts. It’s all about knowing what the label communicates. But it’s also about being open to new configurations of work and creativity that might involve the input of collaborators you previously hadn’t considered.

But most importantly, I want to rally against any one-size-fits-all model. Something that Heraty said during our discussion that didn’t make it into the dispatch is that some people are really good at starting and running businesses while others make for savvy employees. The preferences lurking underneath the distinction between types of work and ways of labeling work illuminate our emotional needs: Do we like having someone telling us what to do? Do we want someone else to be responsible for our success? Do we need want to frequently make decisions that could drastically impact our livelihood? Are we comfortable working with others and asking for help? The trick is to avoid thinking about what our work life should look like and to turn our attention to what working structure would best fit and benefit our temperament. Once we accept that aspects of our personality do not and will not change, we can incorporate them into our larger practice and build our productivity around them.  


The thing about creative commodities is that they require a lot of time and labor. To recuperate that time and labor, artists must be willing to attach a price tag to the objects they make or the services they offer. This will ultimately mean letting someone else own or have at least partial control over what they make; the thing that was ours will have to be given away.

But creatives frequently struggle not only to accept this condition, which is assumed in others fields; they also avoid having a conversation about money, the most common vehicle for sharing power, altogether. Such avoidance can become a major hindrance when putting together a project grant, which may require applicants to provide a budget outlining how they will spend the funds or work in a partnership. In my experience, many artists wait to draft their budgets until they’ve completed other, seemingly more important application components like the project description. What these applicants don't expect is that the budget is often a more convincing means to relay the exact nature of your expertise — it can even help you convince yourself.

Since the best grants combine emotional, logical, and aesthetic appeals to enable reviewers to clearly envision their project and its stakes, they also intimate if and how the work might be transformed. But if your application's appeal skews too far in one direction — say, by making broad emotional appeals that have no factual basis — then it will quickly be shunted to the rejection pile. The same is true about how you describe its final form: you want to describe the core of the project, the part that is coherent enough to survive and improve through several transformations; not that part that you are most attached to.

Most people are quite comfortable making emotional appeals: “this bad thing is happening, here’s why we should help”; “only a few versions of this thing exist, here’s why we should preserve them and make more.” But when it comes to the logistical questions that need to be answered for the application to move forward — “how much money will this cost?”; “why you of all people?” — they can find themselves suddenly frozen and speechless. The truth is these logistical questions, especially ones about money, are surprisingly emotional. For that reason, they often contain the skeleton key that can unlock a project's transformative potential.

To close, detachment means being able to have multiple, sometimes contradictory identities and being able to move fluidly between them. As far as the scope of this newsletter project is concerned, detachment is also about recognizing and valuing the artistic, creative, and entrepreneurial parts of ourselves as plural and dynamic. It means no longer denying that art is a business and that artists should be supporting themselves by commercializing their work.

Detachment can also mean training ourselves to realize that when we feel stuck or unable to proceed with a creative project, it's likely because we've decided, albeit unconsciously, that we're unwilling to change how we feel about its current form. But without the willingness to change, our projects will no doubt fizzle before reaching a ripened stage.

So, yes, our feelings are inseparable from our needs; they're the body sending messages to itself. The weird thing about grants and similar applications is that they somehow telegraph this emotional information, even when we try to suppress it. Uncomfortable as it may seem, the best thing we can do is be honest — at least to ourselves.


In the videos I’ll publish in the next few weeks, which are exclusive to paying subscribers, I’ll explain how the emotional issues I gloss above figure into the decisions about scope, scale, and purpose in grants and project proposals. For those who are unfamiliar, scope is how we address the boundaries the project falls within; scale describes the project’s size, particularly the amount of money it will require and the number of people it will affect; and purpose will describe the group of people it’s meant to serve and how the project hopes to benefit them. Embedded in this exercise is the act of switching media forms, and revisiting the same concepts with different audiences and perspectives in mind. Hopefully, I can demonstrate how creatives can unfreeze themselves and regain the language they need to breathe vitality back into their projects.

More soon!


The goal for this newsletter project is to demystify how funding bodies review grants and to demonstrate how grants can be useful tools for structuring projects in need of funding. There are plenty of reasons to seek other avenues for funding your creative projects, and I’ll mention them when relevant. But for the purposes of this cycle, I’m going to focus on grants, especially because they illuminate some inequity that has long plagued arts funding.

On a closing note, thanks to everyone who has subscribed. There is much to say about the decision to maintain a small business — let alone a research-based, self-funded art practice — but your support is the most invigorating part. Please feel free to email me (evan@nor.la) or use this anonymous Google form if you have any questions.