by Anna Ochmann

In July 1999 I received my diploma of graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts. The feeling of happiness mixed with the overwhelming exhaustion, my pride resulting from graduating from Cracovian artistic academy was coupled with the feeling of hopelessness – what should I do now?  The very good grade on my diploma somehow tasted like a hospital drip.

A few month later. A train from ‘university’ Krakow to home Zabrze. In my head I feel an explosion, and suddenly I find myself surrounded with blobs of dirt with freckles of dry chewing gum. All shades of grey mixed in organic forms of floor-cloth traces.  The stench is worst though. Nauseous… The stench of multilayered, many-day dirt – dust brought on passengers’ boots, and, most of all, the ingredients of sandwiches pompously called hamburgers, so popular in the ‘new’ Poland (the one after 1989), that were dropped on the floor. The smell of pickled gherkins, onion, ketchup… I hold fast to a leg of 2nd class carriage seat, which is padded with faded pleather. I cannot stand up without a splitting headache. My body said enough – in the last few months I slept too little and worked too much…

It was  time that I come back to with a reflection – how distant the university life, the discussions about the ‘essence of beauty’ or ‘the experience and symbolism of light in the Middle Ages’ were from the reality of my professional life then and later. First, still as a student, for advertising agencies, and later as a freelancer.

Freelancer.  A word that was new in Poland at that time, and perhaps still is. A word that sounds strange. Marked with a stigma of something ominous. The word that I loved for the feeling of freedom, independence, challenge. The word I hated for insecurity, temporariness, a kind of wobbliness. I can remember both the tears when I wasn’t paid for many days of my work (the times of unwritten contracts) and the wings I got when the stand I had designed drew attention of crowds at an international fair. The frustration caused by long days over concept drawings, over the drawing board, sharpening the pencils (the computers were yet to come), the smell, one of its kind, of putty rubber, but also the salary handed over in a thick blue envelope (I didn’t have my bank account back then). I remember my first negotiations, the first fair stand, designed by me from scratch for the fair in Dresden (Germany), as well as the long hours spent on sticking up square metres of foil, as it arrived too late (with a bunch of randomly found helpers, virtually grabbed from the street). The attempts to organise their work, explaining to them their duties, the race with time. And painstaking punching the 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 – to get the contact details for the owners. Then waking them up with the call from a phone box to beg them to lend us their plastic figures for 4 days of the fair, as ours hadn’t arrived…

I can also remember my first trip to Brussels. Cultural differences at work (most of all the language – the first thing I’ve 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. Further paintings sold.

The university had not prepared me for all that. Neither to deal with clients nor for teamwork. Nor for the ability to assess the value of my work or selling my skills. Nor to cope with stress and overwork, with working under pressure (including time pressure). Nor were we 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 go back to 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 a young woman for this kind of work in a globalised world. Work in the creative and culture sectors – which, by definition, are without any limits or borders, and, at the same time, are heavily set within these borders when it comes to culture. And, most of all, how can one prepare her to work as a freelancer?