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Easy Riders: A Look Inside the Gig Economy

The cast of Easy Riders are all gig workers themselves. Photo by Eugene Hyland

The cast of Easy Riders are all gig workers themselves. Photo by Eugene Hyland

The recent lockdown in Melbourne has once again been particularly brutal for artists and performers, including those performing right here at Trades Hall.

Easy Riders, produced by experimental theatre company APHIDS and housed in Solidarity Hall, has a clear message for the audience: the future of work is already here, but many of us don’t get to see it. Written and produced in collaboration with a group of gig economy workers, Easy Riders wants you to see inside the black box of convenience and what it is doing to the workers inside. 

“It’s a work that is really looking at the idea of labour and workers’ rights in the digital age.” says Eugenia Lim, Lead Artist on the project. “It’s experimental theatre, in the sense that there’s spoken text, there’s movement, there’s an electric bike, and it all unfolds in a reimagined working space.”

An Eight-Hour Day

“The passage of time and the exhaustion from working, from physical labour, is a part of the work,” says Eugenia. “We’re really keen for those layers of the performance to be open to people, and to notice what the work is doing to the performers.”

The play is performed over an eight-hour period. Yes, you read that right. The same cast of actors perform the show on a loop over that period, and a new audience comes in to watch each hour. The result, if you’re looking for it, is a fraying at the edges of the performance. Endurance is tested, movements become laboured. 

“We’re looking at gig work and gig workers, but also it’s about how if you just scratch the surface there’s so many layers that can be traced back to a very serious imbalance of power. 

“Silicon Valley’s brand of capitalism very much shapes our bodies, behaviours and perceptions of time.”

Photo by Bryony Jackson

Photo by Bryony Jackson

The conditions in the theatre, at least, are very safe. The same cannot be said for the working conditions in the wider gig economy. When workers are pushed to the limit on our roads, the result can be fatal. The very opening of the show gives a stark reminder of this fact. 

“We want to start off by saying some important names,” says a lone performer on the stage in front of you as you are getting settled in your seat. 

“Here we are in Trades Hall, a home for workers’ rights. Upstairs, there is a workers’ museum where there is a pair of shoes for every worker who has been killed at work. Their deaths are remembered. 

“We would like to dedicate this performance to some of our colleagues killed in our workplace, the streets of our cities and suburbs: Xiaojun Chen, Bijoy Paul, Chow Khai Shien, Dede Fredy, Ik Wong.”

The performers in the show, who also collaborated in its writing and production, are gig economy workers themselves. They are cleaners, delivery riders, and rideshare drivers. So when these names are spoken it is with the solemn knowledge that it could just as easily have been them. 

Urgent Art for Urgent Times

APHIDS’ motto and guiding principle is “urgent art for urgent times.” The urgency is palpable in the frenetic pace and harsh realities of Easy Riders.  

“Five or six years ago, like all of us, I became aware of Uber arriving in Australia,” says Eugenia. “I downloaded the app and there was this strange convenience that no one seemed to be thinking too critically about. 

“As it became more ubiquitous, I started to wonder who was benefiting from these platforms. It definitely wasn’t the workers, it was the tech-bros in Silicon Valley. It was almost like a neo-feudalist system springing up right under our noses and I felt really uncomfortable about that.”

That was when she started collaborating with on-demand workers to make art. In 2019 she worked on a project called On Demand, which was more video-based. The script and the text the audience read on screen came solely from the lived experience of workers. Easy Riders, by contrast, lends itself more to the physicality of the theatre and live performance. The collaborative process, and even the collaborators, from On Demand followed Eugenia to this new project. 

“All we had at the beginning was a sense of unease. There wasn’t anything like a polished script or a clear vision,” says Eugenia. 

“From there, we went through these intensive creative development periods with the gig workers we collaborated with. Talking to them, moving with them, and seeing what comes out of it. That all fed back into the script, and that’s how we reached the final product. We shaped it as artists, but the foundation is very much the realities of workers.” 

The arts is its own gig economy

Through the collaboration process, Eugenia began to see the ways that workers in all industries are starting to be sucked into the gig economy. 

“I definitely see a shift towards a gig economy model in the arts industry right now. 

“Uncertainty and scarcity are becoming more and more part of the lived experience of being an artist, especially in Australia. We have a very market-driven approach to art here, where art is only valued in economic terms. I think that’s a real fallacy.

“The gig economy is only going to become baked into more and more parts of the economy. Artists have a bit of room and space to think and talk about these issues, so I think we should be doing that. We need to be talking and thinking about the kind of society we want to live in.”

Eugenia doesn’t consider herself an activist. At least, not in the traditional sense. We’re more than happy to have her on the team, though.  

“The reason I’ve chosen art as a medium to think through politics is that there’s this interesting space where you can invite many different audiences and people from different backgrounds into a shared space in a way that politics can struggle to do. 

“It’s about finding solidarity across difference, which art can do very well.

“Sometimes it's ambiguous. We don’t have all the answers, we don’t have a roadmap, but art creates an imaginative space where we think about an alternative way of living or being in a society. Capitalism doesn’t leave a lot of room for that kind of imagination. We have to make space for it ourselves.”

Support for the arts through these difficult times is incredibly important for artists but also for us as a community. Easy Riders has had to be rescheduled due to recent lockdowns and restrictions in Melbourne. As a result, ticket sales are uncertain at this time. Keep an eye on APHIDS’ website for updates or subscribe to Megaphone Journal and we’ll keep you in the loop! 

The recent lockdown in Melbourne has once again been particularly brutal for artists and performers, including those performing right here at Trades Hall.