What Drives Us? Thoughts on Festival Sustainability

SOPHIE LE-PHAT HO & KATJA MELZER

ABSTRACT: The idea of addressing the issue of festival sustainability came up during the preparations for The HTMlles 11 | ZÉR0 FUTUR{E}, in Montreal – a city of festivals. As part of the festival programming, a forum was created which gathered local and international festival professionals. A second forum took place one year later during the CYNETART festival in Dresden 2015, bringing in more critical voices and personal perspectives.

 

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX (Montreal) 2014. 

Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX (Montreal) 2014.

 

Festivals are interesting creatures. They usually emerge from, with and for a specific community and help to build it. Because they are usually meant to be recurrent, with time, festivals become bigger and institutionalize. Sometimes, they disappear. Often, they disappear because they are underfunded, lose relevance, and/or because organizers leave the field due to often precarious working conditions. Within the current non-profit art world festival organizers need to be very creative to assure the survival of these initiatives while also constantly questioning their mandate or raison-d’être.

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Photo: The HTMlles 11, Studio XX, 2014.

About The HTMlles: Feminist Festival of Media Arts + Digital Culture

The idea of addressing the issue of festival sustainability came up during the preparations for The HTMlles 11 | ZÉR0 FUTUR{E}. The HTMlles is a feminist media arts festival, founded in 1997 in Montreal – a city of festivals. All year-round, visitors and Montrealers have the opportunity to attend over 100 different festivals presenting music, theatre, comedy, food and more. The cultural scene is quite dense and in certain areas highly competitive; public and private funds are limited as is the attention of audiences. Working on the concept for the HTMlles’ 11th edition in 2014, various questions arose concerning the current and future relevance of the festival mandate, new ways to reach out to different audiences while staying pertinent for the community, working conditions of staff and volunteers, strategic partnerships and many more.

As part of the festival programming, a forum was created which gathered local and international festival professionals. In a public roundtable discussion and internal workshop sessions, strategies towards a long-term impact of cultural work, as well as best-practices and their possible implementation in different geopolitical contexts were presented and discussed.

In terms of The HTMlles, we shared our concerns around the competitive context for festivals, the lack of appropriate resources, the expectation from funders to make money, and the pressure on human resources to produce a major festival almost from scratch every two years. The HTMlles was founded by Studio XX, a feminist artist-run centre focused on technological exploration, creation and critical reflection. From its origins in the 90s, as a gathering of women web artists who wanted to exchange IRL, The HTMlles became a more ambitious new media art festival of which the funding and organizational structure gradually detached itself from Studio XX (different grants and budgets from the operational funding of the centre; different staff hired on contract). These changes had their benefits (seemingly growth and development, artistic freedom) but also their limits or drawbacks, namely the exhaustion that came with building a new infrastructure for each edition. We realized that The HTMlles historically served as a catalyst for Studio XX in terms of experimentation, presentation and visibility. Namely, the previous edition implemented a new model that addressed competition and scarcity of resources: the festival partnered with other feminist artist-run centres as well as research centres in order to bring different feminist communities together but also to mutualize resources. However, these outcomes were short lived since the festival team was not permanent. Moreover, given overlapping responsibilities, tensions would systematically occur between the permanent and the contractual staff.

Following the collective reflection and skillsharing that took place during the work sessions of the forum in Montreal, we came up with a series of recommendations to make The HTMlles a more sustainable endeavour. Essentially, we proposed that the permanent team of Studio XX be responsible for organizing the festival in order to assure continuity and sustainable development. Given the systemic precarity of cultural workers, this would entail cutting down on other projects in order to integrate the festival into the workflow. We also identified which event formats and which partnerships were successful (both artistically and professionally) and therefore worth pursuing and fostering. The upcoming 12th edition was organized taking all our recommendations into consideration. We shall soon see the results and reassess the new strategies as the next edition takes place in November 2016.

About the Online Publication

The first forum which took place during The HTMlles 11, in 2014 in Montreal, sparked an interest in continuing the exchange while opening it up to additional professionals working and experimenting with new formats. A second forum took place one year later during the CYNETART festival in Dresden 2015, bringing in more critical voices and personal perspectives.

CYNETART 2015 | TMA Hellerau, Festspielhaus Hellgrau. Photo: © David Pinzer, David Pinzer Fotografie, http:// www.david-pinzer.de

CYNETART 2015 | TMA Hellerau, Festspielhaus Hellgrau. Photo: © David Pinzer, David Pinzer Fotografie, http://www.david-pinzer.de

This online publication seeks to shed light on the topic of “festival sustainability” following a very hands-on approach. Festival organizers, curators and independent cultural workers share their daily-work experiences and ideas to develop sustainable structures in the areas of funding, organization, community outreach and socio-political context. Acknowledging that festivals run on different models, grassroots collectives were invited along with more institutionalized organizations to share their approaches towards sustainable cultural work.

Although not everyone who participated in the meetings contributed to this present publication; many of the thoughts and ideas that have been expressed in a formal or informal way found their way into it. While focusing on festivals, the texts can be seen as part of a larger discussion around cultural sustainability, hopefully encouraging more engaging future debates.