Michelle O'Brien

Labour of love in Berlin: An ongoing research project


This month I was awarded a Master of Arts (Creative Media) with Distinction from University of Brighton, based on the research topic A creative calling: Migrant creatives and the labour of love in Berlin. My thesis studies foreign creative labourers living and working in Berlin, as indicative of labourers in creative cities around the world. The dissertation explores the meanings of Berlin to migrant creative labourers and the ways in which ‘labour of love’ influences work- and lifestyles in a global creative city. A huge thank you to the 200+ Berlin-based migrant creative labourers who completed my research survey with such passionate and insightful responses. Without you this project would not have been possible. I plan to continue and expand on this research very soon – labour practices in the creative industries are an important and under-examined topic. More info on the thesis and findings can be found in the abstract below.


A creative calling: Migrant creatives and the labour of love in Berlin is a study of foreign creative labourers living and working in Berlin, as indicative of labourers in creative cities around the world. The central research questions of this dissertation, “What is the meaning of Berlin to migrant creative labourers?” and “How does ‘labour of love’ influence workstyles in a global creative city?” are addressed through analysis of survey data from over 200 migrant creatives in Berlin.

The dissertation uses the theoretical framework of social constructionism and a combined research approach of qualitative and quantitative data analysis to examine themes including the socio-spatial work-styles of migrant creatives, negotiations of mobility, relations to place, creative city as ‘base’ and how ‘labour of love’ influences their work-styles and lives.

Firstly representations of Berlin as a creative city are examined, drawing on Maile & Griffiths’ psychosocial imaginary of Berlin (2012) and its representation as a global creative city. New mobility patterns are analysed as well as motivations for migration beyond traditional notions of nationhood (Saunders, 2010; Wang, 2004).

Literature surrounding relations to place and creative locales is reviewed, including Castells’ Network Society (1996), Sassen’s studies of creative subculture territorialisation (2004, 2001) and Lange’s work on the socio-spatial strategies of culturepreneurs (2006a, 2006b). Evolving workstyles of creative labourers are analysed (Cohen, 2012), the ‘labour of love’ theory is discussed in relation to exploitative creative labour practices (Menger, 1999) and McRobbie’s writings on creative labourer as personification of increasingly inescapable work structures (2010) are applied. An analysis of survey data places Berlin’s migrant creatives in the context of new forms of migration and mobility patterns across borders; history and representations of Berlin as a creative city; blurry lines between paid and unpaid labour; and negotiations of socio-spatial workstyles whilst pursuing a ‘labour of love’.

What emerges is a web of personalised and individualised navigations through working life at the forefront of new creative labour praxis. Findings reveal migrant creatives to be highly educated, multi-skilled and entrepreneurial, and drawn to creative cities like Berlin by existential motivations including the search for a more fulfilling, ‘creative’ life. However, romanticised representations of working as a creative labourer in Berlin often differ from the practical and financial realities of working life in the global creative city.

The creative ‘labour of love’ is revealed as a site of struggle, comprised of under-employment and under-payment, high levels of competition for poorly paid jobs, exploitative working conditions, inadequate support networks or financial safety nets and limited cultural integration. In negotiating such challenges, migrant creatives often using the creative city as ‘base’ or anchorage point while continuing to work internationally. While Berlin remains ‘Mecca’ for an international creative class, questions remain on how rewarding or sustainable the creative ‘labour of love’ is in the global creative city. Final discussion includes implications of the study in the wider field as well as ideas for further research.

Read the full thesis here

 Image: 25-metre high mural ‘Die Umarmung’ (2009) painted by Madrid’s Boa Mistura urban art collective on the side of the East Side Hotel, Friedrichshain. Photograph: Matthias Haker Photography (2010), reproduced with permission from the artist.




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