Sometimes when one of my curiosities goes on display at a gallery the curator will ask the dreaded question “How much is it on sale for?” Maybe it’s the look of fear in my eyes, or the head scratch and mumbled “dunno”, but usually they will quickly jump in with “Just price it something crazy if you don’t want to sell it.”
Which is what I do, mostly because I don’t feel comfortable selling the ‘art’ I have made. It is a huge stretch for me to even label my curiosities as ‘art’, let alone try and sell it as such. I think it’s because I’m still figuring all this art stuff out. But really, that is a statement sprinkled with a decent coating of imposter syndrome.
But the worth of a curiosity is not something I consider when making this stuff. When I left full-time employment to become an engineering monk, I went out of my way to make things that were not products. Objects that were deliberately engineered not to have a commercial value… Now to turn around and to try and put a value on it? Well that’s a difficult question.
Often I’m focused on the quest, the challenge of turning an idea into a physical thing. Actually it reminds of this great Nick Cave quote from the movie 20,000 Days on Earth:
All of our days are numbered. We cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all. Because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it. Sometimes this idea can be the smallest idea in the world a little flame that hunch over and cup with your hand and pray that it will not be extinguished by the storm that howls about it. If you can hold onto that flame great things can be constructed around it. That are massive and powerful and world changing all held up by the tiniest of ideas.
The ideas I have rattling around for curiosities are fragile. If I stopped to worry about the worth of an idea or what someone would be willing to pay for one, they wouldn’t become a reality. That little flame of an idea would be extinguished before it even got out of my head.
The cost on the other hand is something I do spend a bit of time thinking about. In many ways it is part of the challenge. How can I turn an idea into a reality with the resources I have at hand? If an idea seems expensive, it won’t deter me, but beckon me as a challenge. Those bursts of inspiration that help you find a way without corrupting an idea? That stuff is fun.
That sense of ‘fun’, and my former life as a software engineer has left me with some quirky habits. I’m fairly meticulous when it comes to record keeping. I love a good spreadsheet on how much I have spent on parts, I even record how much time is spent on different activities. I mean, I even have a timer going now. Recording the time expended writing these words down. All to try and maximise output, with less wasted time idle.
Photo of a Space Program Tie Clip by American Artist Tom Sachs
So with all this data I was already collecting, I figured I could turn towards a simple cost equation to help value my work.
cost = (sum of material costs) + (hourly rate * time spent building the thing)
When starting out, I suffered massively from guilt. It felt like I was exploiting privilege to waste materials and indulgently explore my own curiosity. In many ways I was wilfully debasing raw materials. That is to say, if I tried to sell a curiosity I wouldn’t find someone who would pay for the cost of the raw materials. Let alone paying me for the time I had spent making the thing. I had taken things and turned them into something of lesser value by touching and combining them. Simply put:
value < (sum of material costs)
The only thing that offset this destruction in value was the knowledge I shared here. Figuring out technological solutions and sharing them for the benefit of others? The thousands of people that have found an answer on this website? Each of those interactions has a tiny slice of value, the time they save? The problems they fix? I’m unable to put a dollar value on it and quantify how much that is, but I hope it offsets the value that can be destroyed by a curiosity.
Somewhere along the way I started earning little bags of revenue. A bit of ‘techno art consulting’ - helping others realise their own projects, throw in a couple of small commissions and grants. It got to the point where I was able to fund the materials for the next project without dipping into savings. By building things, and publishing my discoveries, I had managed to reach the stage where:
value = (sum of material costs)
But the real tricky part to the cost element is the hourly rate. NAVA, The National Association for the Visual Arts has a great document suggesting minimum industry rates for artists. They think an entry level fee for an emerging self-employed new media artist should be around $52 an hour. Naturally, these rates go up if your profile increases and you become a more established artist.
If I’m lucky enough to land a bit of funding to develop the next curiosity, it will be a fixed bag of money. Enough to cover the cost of materials, with a little leftover for a salary component. However, the time I spend on a project won’t be fixed, I will spend as much time as I have available to realise an idea. I don’t want to be idle, and I don’t want an idea compromised because of an expected hourly rate. That would be the antithesis of what I set out to achieve when I started down this monastic engineering journey.
If you have made it thus far, and are looking for me to get down to brass tacks. Alight, here we go: the highest ‘value’ for my time spent exploring a curiosity is $10.44 an hour. This is a fair bit less than the legislated minimum wage in Australia of $18.29 an hour. But you know what? It’s enough for me keep going for now. To keep the lights on in my monastery and hunch over these ideas and protect them from the storm outside. The only way I’m going to find out if they might be worth anything is to keep going and let them weather with time. Experiment to see if they get filtered out by history. Or maybe I’m blinded by naivety and the financial realities of our society will catch up with me. Until then though? I have got stuff to make and ideas to explore.
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