JENNY PICKETT & JULIEN OTTAVI
ABSTRACT: Why organise a digital arts festival today? Why a festival? What difficulties and differences separate a well funded commercial festival from an underfunded and non-commercial festival? What are their perspectives on art, curatorial themes, publics and politics? What part do political aesthetic choices play and how can we change the perspectives of cultural policies?
A festival is a moment that, historically defined, celebrates a community or people having a common interest or a common religion. It’s an event that comes to break the repetition and rigorous aspects of daily life.
The monstrosity of this paradox between event and repetition announces, perhaps, another kind of thinking, an impossible thinking: the impossible event (there must be resemblance to the past which cancels the singularity of the event) and the only possible event (since any event in order to be event worthy of its name must be singular and non-resembling).1
We are facing this paradox in such a way that the very survival of some festivals becomes a generator of debate, obliging its main actors (organisers, curators, artists) to write articles, organise meetings, seminars and debates about development and sustainability. Rather than focusing only on organising our festivals and establishing networks of curators and artists, we are seeking answers by expanding our networks of festivals, with the aim of finding solutions to the shared difficulties we face.
Why organise a digital arts festival today? Why a festival? What difficulties and differences separate a well funded commercial festival and an underfunded and non-commercial festival? What are their perspectives on art, curatorial themes, publics and politics? What part do political aesthetic choices play and how can we change the perspectives of cultural policies?
A festival to celebrate the diversity of digital art : a question or a reality?
Among the networks of DIY (do it yourself) medium-sized festivals, the reasons to organise are varied and many. Such events hold in common a passion for contemporary artistic trends and research as well as personal and local cultural enrichment. For the purposes of this article we will focus on the experiences of organisers and artists in the digital arts.
Electropixel Festival in Nantes was created in 2010 by APO33, an artist run organisation founded in 1997. The festival aims to create a space to celebrate a wide community of artists, across different genres of artistic practices linked to the use of electronics and digital production tools. The festival also promotes art that uses Free Libre Open Source technologies but not exclusively like festivals such as Piksel in Bergen, Norway. However, Piksel is a good role model for Electropixel, with its perspective of the festival as a hub and artistic lab open to the public. Electropixel attempts to respond to an increase in demand from local and international digital and electronic arts communities for punctual diffusion and a meeting point in Nantes. Many such events and festivals produced by APO33 have been based on a “call for proposals” which allows more people to participate, brings about new ideas, and creates a space for young and emerging artists to diffuse their work and participate in the event. Electropixel festival has been a challenge for APO33 as an art collective: to organise an event hosting 40 to 50 artists on a very limited budget, and often with limited time.
The repetition in history: the David & Goliath of digital art festivals
The Argument that the public wants kitsch is dishonest; the argument that it needs relaxation, at least incomplete. The need for the bad, illusory, deceptive things is generated by the all-powerful propaganda apparatus; but the need for relaxation, to the extent that it really – and today with justification – exists, is itself also a product of a circumstance that absorbs people’s strength and time in a such a fashion that they are no longer capable of other things.2
During the last few years we have been confronted as organisers by the inequality between well-funded popular digital art festivals and underfunded non-commercial digital art festivals. This is often related to a certain cultural/political vision, with the view that “art is entertainment” and/or a product of instant gratification to be consumed. As expressed by Adorno, this way of seeing art is dishonest and absorbs people’s strength and time in the same way that watching a Hollywood blockbuster does, or absorbing continuous television flows, or drinking up pop music at the local night club. Digital art is being split into two main categories: the outsized “spectacle” with big screens, large scale video mapping, club DJs, VJs and electronica in addition to snappy interactive gaming designs. Alternatively there are a number of artists experimenting with the digital through the misuse of technologies or hacking, repurposing and questioning the relation to communities, environment, interactivity, art and other niche genres.
These approaches to curation and medium frequently cross over, however there tends to be a reluctance from the larger festivals to take risks on critical content and lesser known artists or artists whose work is not perceived as easily marketable to sponsors and the general public. Having received funding for the first two editions of Electropixel Festival from “DiCream CNC – emergent festival fund” which only supports festivals for a maximum of two years, Electropixel has since faced problems securing annual funding, yet the passion from artists and the appetite of the public to discover these art forms has been a driving factor in the festival’s continuation to date.
Cultural policies, giant events and mass cultural consumption paradigms
It can be difficult for smaller festivals to survive, defending their values and maintaining long term relationships with artists in a climate that favours the phenomenon of large audiences gathered for a throwaway Instagram moment and a quick click on the thumbs up of social media for the validation of cultural policies.
This is where it gets tricky: elected representatives across the globe help and support large “commercially successful” events to varying degrees with public funding, facilitating their continued development. Often this serves the “happy people will vote for me” idea of arts and culture and disguises weak policies and vision of the arts in general.
Electropixel 2016 was the first time, in 6 years, that our locally elected cultural representatives attended the festival, which was both surprising and unexpected. They were interested in the artistic content of Electropixel Festival: to discover the artists’ works and exchange with us. They understood the importance of such a festival in the city and the community. Whether this translates into sustainable funding dedicated to the festival remains to be seen. APO33’s general activities do receive annual funding from local, regional and national bodies. The festival represents a punctual moment to unite a broader public and artists in a single “summer event”.
Is funding the only solution for this kind of festival to survive? Over the years, we have tested the different possibilities available, outside of our main funding system: administration, political seduction and the expertise of micro-budget management. What we found was often worse and very difficult to achieve: philanthropy and sponsorship for art and culture in France is very poor, not very well educated about emerging arts and absolutely stingy with regard to the “non-profit” and non commercial. With the aim of showcasing and adding credibility to their products, most of this private funding goes towards popular mass cultural events (often already well funded and sustainable), where art and culture is a vehicle to deliver branded pens and caps, and if you are a lucky a couple of hundred euros towards advertising. For a festival like Electropixel this is a dead end; few sponsors are interested in digital art, new music, or anything that is challenging for the public. In the case of philanthropists, culture is dictated by whims and desires of those few moneyed peoples; their individual interest in art offers a narrow market-oriented vision. Philanthropists also demand that artists and organisations fill out more complicated forms than those required to receive public funding in order to receive tax breaks.
Having tested crowdfunding a couple of times, launching campaigns to fund the festival with fans and supporters, we found that relying on the public coming to our events is not a viable option to support the festival. The same is is true of higher entrance fees; it does not bring in enough to cover artist fees, travel, logistics, housing, communication and food.
Diversity seldom forms part of digital art festival objectives, whose selections of certain types of entertainment works to create a hegemony of digital art aesthetics (white and male). In 2013 Female Pressure, an international network of female artists in the fields of electronic music and digital arts founded by Electric Indigo, produced a report on some of the world’s most well attended digital arts and electronic music festivals, laying bare the dire state of female inclusion – at just 8,4% – in shaping cultural aesthetics.3 Today it is imperative that we bring the politicians and arts funding bodies to understand the need to promote greater diversity across the digital arts, by both the artists being represented and spaces afforded to different visions and scales of art and events. Supporting equally those “more challenging” festivals that are taking risks with new artists and more critical or challenging works provides vital spaces for artists to hone their practices and for the public to contemplate and demystify the fast changing technological world in which we live. Even if those festivals are working at different levels and with totally different visions of the digital future, art and of organisations, it is important that “decision makers and leaders” understand the need for alternative places for artists, debates, diffusion and audiences to coexist.
1 Leonard Lawlor, 2014, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/derrida/
2 Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, 1931; p. 133, University of California Press.
3 Female Pressure report: http://www.femalepressure.net/PDFs/fempressreport-03-2013.pdf