Artist Ary Jansen on why she deep-fried student debt

Last month Auckland artist Ary Jansen held the Young Left Losers Party, a three-day installation / performance / pop-up kiosk modelled after a fish ‘n’ chips shop. She and her friends deep-fried Student Loan accounts and Work and Income New Zealand (welfare) letters, along with some other debt-repping paraphernalia, on behalf of those who came by.

Here’s Ary on why she staged the work:

I’ve been involved with a political collective called Accompany since the start of 2014. Being involved with the collective, as well as getting increasingly frustrated about New Zealand’s government, specifically in election year, inspired me to become more politically motivated and to make politically motivated art. Election night (September 20) was crushingly depressing and left a lot of my friends and I questioning what more we can do to change people’s minds and to get people thinking about politics in New Zealand. I spent a few weeks trying to make political art but it turned out demoralising rather than inspiring – for example writing child poverty statistics outside wealthy primary schools and childcare centers in chalk.

I got thinking about how the best thing to do at this time was to bring like-minded people together to talk about their situations under the National government, why they need to change and how to change things. I also felt that, although there are people who are far more disadvantaged by this government than me (for example those being evicted from state homes all over New Zealand), being young, in debt and/or broke is an experience that I feel confident to speak about without being possibly exploitative or voyeuristic. I got thinking about the Young Nats Ball, the celebration of wealth and excess – of being advantaged by a right wing government – and wanted to have a tongue-in-cheek ‘celebration’ of being disadvantaged.

I think what frustrates me the most about the debt people find themselves in New Zealand is the extreme inequality created by student loans and a punitive work and income [welfare] system. The generation above us – the baby boomers – went to university for free, and it’s this generation that’s in power now, increasing student loans and telling us to just ‘get a job’. These days it’s only students from very wealthy families who can go to university debt-free, advantaging them for the rest of their lives while the rest are disadvantaged by their debt. If that’s not inequality I don’t know what it is.

I come from a very privileged position of being supported by a middle class family and I acknowledge that this has benefited me greatly in countless ways. I don’t think you can truly understand poverty without living it, but I do think you can recognise your privilege and care for people who are disadvantaged by their situations. This is exactly what the government refuses to do. It was also these baby boomers who lived in an era where state housing and benefits were readily available; the government was supportive of people in need, rather than punitive. For example, [Cabinet Minister] Paula Bennett was on the Domestic Purposes Benefit when she was 19, and now she’s made benefit ‘reforms’, forcing those with families to care for into part-time work. [Prime Minister] John Key grew up in government housing and now, under his government, state housing is being demolished and the neighbourhoods are being gentrified. It honestly seems sadistic that these people lack empathy for those in similar situations to those they were in when they were young.

It was mostly my friends who came to the Young Left Losers Party, probably due to the reach of my promotion, but that was great because all of them have been, or are, in a situation of having a student loan, being on the unemployment or sickness benefit and/or working for minimum wage. I was happy that most of the people who came through weren’t from art school backgrounds, as it’s very important to me that my work reaches an audience beyond the very gentrified and academic art world, and I think this has been the failure of some of my previous works.

I think that humour is a great way to help people access an artwork and, as cynicism is ingrained in New Zealand culture, part of this work’s success outside of the [art world] was its cynicism. I was quite bemused and amused that the work made it onto the Paul Henry show and not in the least bit surprised by his [condescending] response. He completely missed that it’s pretty hard for a young person with little experience to get a job in this economy, that some people are too physically or mentally ill to work, that minimum wage is barely enough to support yourself on, let alone pay off your debts, and that working on top of studying is pretty tough and still not enough. I think he missed the point because he was confronted by the fact that the work was against his own beliefs and so he refused to engage with it.

One of my friends is being forced by Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) to do a hospitality course where she and her course-mates are degraded and patronised. She has an under-the-table hospitality job one day a week because the benefit isn’t enough to live off, so she’s being taught skills that she already has but can’t tell them, and she can’t leave the course because they’ll cut her benefit! She says, “It’s incredibly demoralizing to have to justify your mere existence to a system as callous as WINZ.” This is someone who is very creatively productive.

Other people I know have been on the sickness benefit for mental illness, including anxiety disorders, depression and bi-polar. These people have gone to WINZ for financial support because they’re unable to work, but found themselves grilled by case workers about their mental health, bringing them to tears and triggering panic attacks. The reality of the system is that case workers at WINZ are not trained to work with people who are mentally ill, but are employed to try to push people who are too ill to work into employment.

One of my friends from university is studying while caring for her mother who’s on the sickness benefit. They live [in West Auckland] and rely on public transport because they don’t have a car. She’s had to deal with WINZ randomly cutting her mother’s benefit a few times, which they heavily rely on to make ends meet. On top of the stress of studying and taking long train-trips in and out of town to university she’s had to organise meetings with WINZ, which are often at inconvenient times and are hard for her and her mother to get to. Her mother is dependent on her and physically unable to work, but WINZ keeps trying to cut her benefit as a way of forcing her into employment.

Another friend was working a part-time hospitality job on top of studying and at the start of one of her shifts her boss told her that a workmate she was close to had committed suicide. They didn’t let her leave but told her to put an apron on and get to work. She quit on the spot, and had to try to make ends meet on top of her grief and the stress of studying.

Images below from the Young Left Losers Party.

Ary Jansen is studying Visual Arts the Auckland University of Technology. She also plays guitar in a band called Team Ugly and works part time making burgers and chips. Find her on Tumblr.