“Creatives during the pandemic” is a personal project to give creators space to fully show their experience and struggles during the Covid pandemic. It consists of a series of interviews from Berlin’s creative scene.
Jeremy Knowles is a lens-based artist from London, currently working in Berlin. In today’s interview, we talk about the financial aspects of the pandemic, the differences between London and Berlin as well as behind the scenes of Jeremy´s newest exhibition “Neukölln Stories“.
Q. Hello, thank you for being here. Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Sure, I lived in Berlin for nearly 5 years. I’ve moved in 2016. I´ve moved the day after the results of the referendum in the UK – it was a coincidence. I was actually expecting them to remain in the European Union. I moved about a year after graduating from University in London. I studied Fine Art Photography there at the University of Arts.
I came here not really knowing what I wanted to do, but I just had the feeling, that something will kind of come up. After about a year of really struggling – like I came here with nothing – I began working as a photographer, which is not really how I trained. I was trained as an artist, who used the camera. I was not trained to be a commercial photographer. But I realized that I had the tool, that I can use to make money and just applied that to commercial or freelance work.
I began working immediately as a freelancer here in Berlin and as a portrait photographer. Initially, I was doing that for free. I spent about three months working for free and then began charging about 30 euros per session and then doubled that, and then I doubled that again. I kind of built from there. I knew, that I was trying to enter a world in which I did not have the experience yet, so I just began working for as little as possible to grow a portfolio. And after a year I started teaching and working with children. And that is more or less how my freelance work has developed since then. It’s about 50% teaching and 50% working as a photographer in some way – either commercially with private clients or doing fashion editorials. But that’s all my paid work to fuel my work as an artist for which I don’t get paid most of the time. Maybe I sell a piece once a year and that’s fine. For me, it is not a business yet. I am treating it as a business, but it does not give me income.
Q. You mentioned that you moved here from London. What in your opinion are the hardships for an artist in Berlin compared to London?
I was in London for 4-5 years. I was there to study and stayed for about 2 years after graduating. I didn’t feel very connected to the city. I heard this a lot from people who moved away. That they felt like they did not play a role within the city and I think I felt that way, too. Money is such an important factor in London, that it’ll hit you quite hard if you don’t have it. It is really hard to just enjoy life. It’s such a struggle. Everything is so expensive. And, I mean, Berlin is catching up now with rent, but London still has very high rental prices. The living cost as well. I did not earn enough money to enjoy life there.
After I left university I felt very disenchanted by the art world. My university experience left me feeling like I did not really have a part in it. It was only after moving to Berlin, that I could imagine having a role here as an artist, because there are so many of them. And everyone is like me – everyone is broke. There is some cool, experimental stuff going on.
There is no exclusivity like there was in London. It is something that is often not told. Or it was not told to me, but I really felt it. This elitism, really. In Berlin, I always thought, that people are just people. There is no celebrity culture like there is in London. And I think it’s one of Berlins strongest points.
Q. That’s interesting. I wouldn’t think, that there is so much difference in the community culture in London. What do you think would have to change to fix this issue with elitism? Where people are not even given a chance, because of a lack of financial support?
I don’t know. I mean, Berlin has figured it out somehow. What I realized about Berlin is, that people, who connect to the city, are people who value their free time. And I think it takes a certain kind of person to really excel living in London. And that person might be someone, who drives from having a very busy and hectic schedule, very full and fast-paced lifestyle. And I like that sometimes, but it’s only when I can choose it. But here I have the choice to really take a step back, because the living cost is relatively low. So I can stop and take some time for projects, if I choose to do so. Berlins strongest point is, that people have more time to do things, that they want. Whereas in London – there is simply no choice. You have to work seven days a week in order to fuel and fund your passion.
Q. That sounds very harsh.
Some of my friends are very successful artists. One of them is working as a studio artist for another artist. Someone who is, like it or not, paying people at their studio to just produce their work. You can do that, if you get to a certain level. So she works for this artist, producing his work every single day in order to have a lifestyle through which she can make her own work and I think that’s ridiculous.
Q. Let us talk about some of your work, especially in the time of the pandemic and the restrictions. Did your artistic process had to change during this year?
Short answer: no. My practice is one, that would be difficult to be affected by the pandemic. My work is often made out in the city, in the streets. It mainly involves exploring and documenting cities on foot, so actually, when the lockdown happened, it was a really great time for my work. All of my paid work disappeared. All gone. 100%. All of my teaching work for the next 6 months disappeared. All shoots had been cancelled. So I had a lot of time and one of the things I could do was walking around by myself. I was doing that every day for about 2 months and that really propelled my work forward. I’ve been riding off of that wave ever since. Since April, May I have been keeping the motivation going.
Q. So your paid work completely disappeared. How did you survive the last couple of months? I just cannot imagine the stress in that situation. That happening to you and on the other hand, you are having a great time with your artistic work. How did you balance those feelings?
It was a real dichotomy at that time. Because as you said, it was hard to balance the feeling of freedom, I suppose, with a lot of stress and financial worry. The worry about the actual pandemic and getting sick wasn’t really a concern of mine.
I started out the year in a bad financial place. I finished 2019 by going away to India and I came back to Berlin ready to build my way up from my other job. I am not afraid to work hard to get back to a good place. I was doing well and then March happened… I could see all the progress I made, just getting my head down, not partying and trying to save money. When the pandemic hit I still did not have much money at all. I was possibly in the minus or just slightly over. That was really stressful.
I was able to get the 5000 euro financial support for Corona. I remember when I saw it in my bank I actually cried (laughs). Because I could not believe that it happened. So I forgot about money for 3 months. And then the money ran out, ’cause how long can you survive on one payment? You need to pay your rent, you need to cover your bills. And as I was already in a bad place when it happened, it did not last very long. Since then I had not any support from the government and I’ve been struggling quite a lot with my money. I had a little bit of teaching come back in the summer. I went away for some teaching projects, like summer camps. But they were few and far between – maybe one in a month. I think the financial struggle this year has been THE hardship for me.
Q. That is actually making me angry, you know. Comparing to the support that bigger companies got this year… People are suffering quite hard this year, especially in the creative space and no big media is covering their stories. We are not talking about pure entertainment here – those are real people, whose existences are in danger now!
That’s what I meant in the very beginning by „everything seems normal“. People are wearing masks right now and certain shops are closed. Even in the summer, when those things weren’t as obvious… the city feels normal. There aren’t any tourists, but people are out and about and you don’t feel the struggle and the pressure and the anxiety of so many people. But it is absolutely there. I think it’s not being discussed.
I talk to people all the time. People who are running out of money. Who have run out of money and don’t know how to afford the rent or food. I experienced it 2 weeks ago. I ran out of money. I went to a supermarket to buy groceries and my card got rejected. I´ve never been in that situation before. Ever. And I didn’t know what to say. I was so apologetic to the cashier. I could not believe, that as an adult, I am in this situation, where I’ve been working so hard to live in this new country for nearly 5 years and now I can’t even afford to eat.
Q. I can imagine, that it must be very frustrating, especially when you get to a certain age. I am actually in a similar situation. Fortunately, I have family here, so I moved in with them, but it’s hard as an adult to not be able to provide for oneself.
Yes, I feel that so many people had to make that decision and it is absolutely life-changing. I think it will continue for some time.
Q. Your newest exhibition „Neukölln Stories“ is currently on-going. Can you tell me about the inspiration for this project and what was behind your decision in choosing Neukölln?
I applied for this project and was accepted somewhere in June, based on the fact that I was living in Neukölln. I lived there for around a year at that point. The project was organized by an artist collective in Berlin to find ways to discuss change within different neighbourhoods in the city. I was brought into a team of 7 artists. The format of the project was that each artist would choose one shop in Neukölln and represent it through their art.
There were 6 artists, who were given this task. My job was to connect them. I sometimes have this role within certain groups or residencies, because my work is very much about finding little moments, little surprises within the city, that usually people don’t see, when they are walking around. My usual way would be to just begin walking. I found where the locations were on the map and planned a route to walk between them all.
This was when I had a lot of time here in Berlin, I still wasn’t working. So we spent days walking between these spaces. Some days it took me 5-6 hours to walk, because it was all over Neukölln, down to Rudow. I felt, that it was an opportunity to do something different, because when I’m doing a project or residency – that’s really the time to experiment. So I tried to flip it around a bit and instead of walking between the places, I decided to select points within Neukölln and those were the points, where I just stand still and see what I can discover from that spot. For me, it was more of a creative challenge and to see what came out of that process. And the result was within this exhibition. Nine photographs that were taken at night within these specific points in Neukölln on the map.
The series is not like a groundbreaking investigation of something within the area, but it is an accurate story of these quiet moments. Places that usually don’t get a lot of air time – little graveyards or street corners – just very normal places. The series was about exploring, giving space for these places for once. It was very interesting. And it was good to have this project in the background for this time. Something to keep me focused.
Q. And do you have currently other projects, that you are working on?
Yeah, I got quite a lot (laughs). It’s just that I never experienced this before, where I have so little money, but so many on-going projects. When I moved to Berlin I had this mantra that I will say yes to every opportunity. Maybe I went a little too far, but I don’t think I could ever say no to an opportunity and possibly regret it, so I always say yes no matter what and try to move things around in my life and make that opportunity happen.
At the moment I still have this exhibition in Neukölln, I also have an online exhibition with my gallery in London, who represent me. I´m taking part in a collaborative project in Friedrichshain with a company called Kulturschöpfer. They own a gallery called the Green Hill Gallery and I was part of their residency program last year and I coordinate some of their events at the moment. Because they were completely shut down by the lockdown, they had a lot of resources and time to put into a last-minute project. So I take part in this project with 4 other artists. Its a short term project, that will probably come out as an exhibition.
I am also taking part in an international project between Berlin and Kaliningrad, Russia. At the end of October, I had 6 days of intense workshops in the city, which took place with the same amount of people from Kaliningrad. A lot of Zoom calls, which is the way of the world right now. That project is coming out at an art festival in Kaliningrad at the end of December. The project is called Common Ground and it is connecting the kids, that I teach photography in Berlin, with a class in Kaliningrad, which is being taught design.
Disclaimer: The opinions shared in the interview are those of the guest and do not necessarily reflect the position of the author. All images belong to Jeremy Knowles .