pixelache-nyc2Pixelache 2003 NYC (live av performance on the rooftop of Gershwin Hotel. Photo by Antti Ahonen.)

(PART 1 of New Culture vs Old Structures)

Pixelache Festival was my main professional commitment for 10 years, from its inception in 2002 to year 2011. In the process of trying to establish Pixelache I learned a lot about the public funding system and below I will share some insights on how the system works – or rather how it does *not* work.

Hopefully this information will help some people to avoid banging their head against the wall as much as I did. Or hopefully they will at least choose the right wall.

Disclaimer – I’m no longer involved in the Pixelache organisation so all the thought below should be considered as my own personal views, not official statements by Pixelache.

* * *

1. THE BLACKMAILING/LOBBYING APPROACH

In year 2006 I was pretty frustrated (‘vittuuntunut’ in Finnish) with the situation of Pixelache Helsinki. It was the fifth year of Pixelache, and 12th year for me to organise events in Helsinki. Pixelache was really successful internationally – we were in the process of establishing chapters in various countries and had been invited to collaborate with many prominent events (ISEA, Doors of Perception, etc).

Unfortunately, we had not been able to get any funding for the work needed to put together the main festival in Helsinki. With great effort we had managed to scrape together money from dozens of different sources to cover some of the necessary basic costs, but there was no chance to pay anything for anyone for the actual production work. In comparison, the very first edition of Mal au Pixel (the French edition of Pixelache) received 7 times more funding than what we had in Helsinki.

In this situation I sent this email to ‘everyone’ – state art organisations, Helsinki City Cultural Office, cultural foundations and key people in Finnish media art scene. The email is in Finnish but the main point is that I made it clear that unless we received more proper financial support, the main festival would need to stop in Helsinki. This email was not just a tactical move, this was the actual reality we faced. During these years I spent most of my time abroad and only occasionally came back to Helsinki for a month or so to focus on Pixelache Helsinki planning/organising work. This had worked fine in the first couple of years but had been not been manageable (or in other words, was far too fragile and stressful) for a while already.

Luckily this ‘blackmailing approach’ worked – Pixelache finally did get some support and for the first time ever were able to hire one person to work on the production issues. Of course this one email was not enough – we had to present a convincing portfolio and have face-to-face meetings with all the funding organisations.

The main lesson here is that in the current situation, if one tries to get funding for an organisation (and not just individual projects) it is not enough just to send in applications and hope that the funding bodies would at some point recognise the significance of the activities. This will not happen. You actually need to go and meet people in the funding organisations, as well as other relevant people who might be willing to support your cause. You need to put together a document that from various perpectives argues why especially your project is worth supporting. In other words, you need to engage yourself in cultural politics.

The blackmailing approach described above is probably not the best way – it’s better to act earlier and lobby from a positive perspective. Checkpoint Helsinki managed to do this in a rather smooth way recently (see the CPH 30 year plan in Finnish).

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boxwars2

Boxwars @ Pixelache Helsinki 2008. Photo by Will Cowan.

2. ‘THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE’

In year 2008, Pixelache suddenly had a chance to get more resources. This did not happen because of something that Pixelache itself did. This happened simply because another event, Avanto festival ceased to exist.

Avanto Festival had the status as the most significant national media art festival and therefore received significantly more funding than others. This approach is quite logical – instead of giving all festivals an equal share of funding, it’s important that at least one festival has proper resources.

What is not logical (and frustrating for the organisers of other festivals) is that there is no mechanism to question the status of this one festival. The number 1 festival is the number 1 festival and that’s it. The only way the situation can change is if the dominating festival actually disappears, as in the case of Avanto. This is of course a very unlikely scenario since a steady, decent funding makes the continuation of the festival a very compelling option.

Avanto Festival is a peculiar case since it inherited its funding from another festival, MUU Media Festival (I know Avanto festival pretty well because I was involved in starting it as well). Not only did the name of the festival change, the programme focus changed as well from media art to experimental sound/cinema. And throughout the years the staff changed as well. But the funding status did not.

So, you can basically change everything about a festival – name, content, artistic directors – and no one will question your funding status. This is great if you happen to be the number 1 festival, but not fair for the others.

The main lesson here is… that this system sucks. The funding system should have some kind of mechanism that gives new organisations at least some kind of chance to challenge the dominant players. And it’s not a problem if this challenge is difficult – the cultural scene is and should be very competitive. But the current reality is that the system supports a monopoly of existing organisations.

* * *

So – Pixelache got lucky. We made a pitch to become the main media art festival in Finland and get the funding position of Avanto, and this indeed happened.

Before this, we had a meeting where we discussed whether Pixelache was ready to take this step. My personal concern was that this step would fundamentally alter the position of Pixelache. So far we had still been a very small player in the scene and the members of the core crew could take the liberty to freely follow their own interests. By taking the position of the main media arts festival, this would no longer be the case. We would need to take into account the development of the whole media art scene, both nationally and internationally. And while we would be the lucky organisation getting a decent amount of funding, there would be many others out there who would not. And we should maybe take these organisations into account somehow.

In the meeting we decided that Pixelache was ready for this shift. I tried to look for meeting notes but unfortunately could not find any, and it’s very likely that we didn’t write down anything. And I’m not sure whether any fundamental change in the organisation took place.

Without diving into speculation about the details of all this, the point that I wanted to make is that the transition from an informal project to something more stable and structured is not an easy one. Does the focus of the organisation need to change at this point – from following the personal interests of the core group to serving a larger community? What kind of compromises can be made at this point? What does it mean if some people will start earning a salary of the activities, and some not? These are not simple questions and it’s understandable that many projects prefer to avoid facing these. (The fable of the Chicken and the Pig comes to mind – it’s a bit strange and brutal metaphor, but also easy to remember).

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3. ‘GET ORGANISED OR VANISH’

The final stop to visit is year 2009, when the re-structuring process of Arts Council of Finland started and the fate of Finnish media art was uncertain.

The basic message from the administration was that we (organisations in Finland labeled as ‘media art’) should get organised, or this whole category might disappear from the repertoire of the Arts Council of Finland (these days known as the Art Promotion Centre Finland) and thus the organisations in this field would loose their funding. This ‘threat’ did not seem very strange since around the same time the fate of this field had become uncertain in other countries as well.

This situation highlights a key gap between the independent culture scene and funding organisations -

From the perspective of the people who work in the public arts administration, it is essential that a cultural field has some kind of mechanism for self-reflection – some method for evaluating the activities and guiding the development of the field. The organisations and people who work in the field need to drive its development, not people who work in the public arts/culture administration. If administrators would have to make essential decisions just on their own, this could easily be seen simply as corruption – administrators giving money to their own pet projects without any expertise or advice from any recognised source.

In the established arts/culture the development of specific disciplines is driven by various institutions such as the Information Centres for Dance & Theatre, various associations and unions (such as Artists’ Association of Finland), the Art Promotion Centre Finland & other funding organisations and of course many other ones: museums, educational institutions, archives, theatres, galleries, etc.

The key question is how should the new independent scenes organise themselves? The existing examples of unions, associations and centres don’t seem like the right solution. It is also not very easy to answer the question who is your peer? Educational institutions define this for traditional arts/culture – you graduate as a visual artist, theatre director, graphic designer, etc. In new culture the educational backgrounds of people are mostly irrelevant. It is also difficult to predict which scenes are here to stay and which ones are just very temporary trends. Guerrilla gardening, maker culture, open knowledge – how important keywords are these in 10 years time?

The fact that the new culture is not likely to get organised in a similar way as the traditional scenes should also be seen as a challenge for funding organisations. In what ways could the funding organisations reach out and better support new culture?

In a very simplified form, the story of Finnish media art organisations is a positive example. Instead of starting a centre, a flat network structure was established. This was convincing enough to keep media art category in the funding system, the funding was even increased the following year. So the lesson here is that even a light network structure might be enough to keep a certain scene together and give enough credibility towards the funders.

To be continued in following blog postings!