María Palacios Cruz

How many employees are in the organisation? Notes from a conversation on producing artists’ moving image

***

A preamble 

“I am making a 16mm film. I understand that in order to use a tripod in Central Park, I need a special permit.” 

“That's correct,” the girl at the information desk said. “You can pay your fee and get your permit at the third office down the hall.” 

“Oh, I didn't know there was a fee.” 

“Oh, yes, all commercial photographers must pay a fee.” 

“But I am not a commercial photographer.” 

“Amateurs don't need permits, as long as they do not use a tripod, clutter the walks or frighten the animals in the zoo.” 

“But I have to use a tripod for these shots.” 

“What kind of films are these?” 

“I suppose you could call them experimental.” 

“About what kind of experiments?” 

“They are not about experiments. They are themselves experiments - experiments with the form of film itself.” 

“Whom do you work for?” 

“For nobody. That is, I work for myself.” 

“Then it is a hobby?” 

“Well, not exactly. The films are shown at universities and other places.” 

“Then they are educational documentaries?” 

“Well, no. They are certainly not documentaries. Or rather, they are documentaries of the interior, in a sense. And they are educational only in the sense that art is always educational.” 

“What did you say?” 

Thus begins Maya Deren’s ‘Magic is New,’ published in Mademoiselle in January 1946.[1]  The scene doesn’t stop there—Deren is sent on to the educational department, where a similar conversation at cross-purposes unfolds… Deren and the girl at the desk simply cannot understand one another and Deren refuses to make any concessions to her position and beliefs. When asked about the subject of her films, she replies that they are ‘about the inner experiences of a human being.’ When the city officer retorts, ‘What is the story about?’ Deren responds ‘I believe that cinema, being a visual medium should discover its own, visual integrity—in cinematic terms.’ After she’s somehow managed to fill in the questionnaire and is about to leave, she’s called back: ‘Miss Deren, do they wear… normal clothes?’ ‘Yes, everything will be quite normal’, she assures them. 

I recalled this scene as I listened again recently to a conversation that took place in September between representatives of five production structures that work with artists’ film in Europe: Leonardo Bigazzi (Lo schermo dell’arte, Florence[2]), Mason Leaver-Yap (KW Production Series, Berlin[3]), Marie Logie (Auguste Orts, Brussels), Anže Peršin (Stenar Projects, Lisbon[4]) and Reem Shilleh and Mohanad Yaqubi (Subversive Film, Brussels/Ramallah[5]). I chaired the conversation, which had been convened by Rebecca Jane Arthur (On & For Production & Distribution). 

Whilst the exchange between Maya Deren and the unnamed city clerks would appear to take us back to a different time and place, it will be painfully and comically recognisable to anyone who has tried to secure funding or permissions for an artist’s film production. Deren keeps falling between the cracks of language, of conventions, of forms and regulations. During our conversation, we recounted similar experiences. We spoke of mutability and adaptability; of the necessity to assume different personas depending on the interlocutor—unlike Deren, who famously played several roles in Meshes of the Afternoon, but was unable to speak the city clerk’s language when trying to secure a filming permit. Mason Leaver-Yap described production as opportunism where the differences between the values of the stakeholders and the values of the work need not be unbridgeable.  

We spoke about the space between ‘film’ and ‘art’ modes of practice and production that we inhabit and some expressed a radical desire to think beyond both film and art. 

The conversation, which took place on Zoom—with participants speaking from Brussels, Florence, Glasgow, Lisbon and London—revolved around the idea of ‘production models.’ Deren had also attempted to establish and promote a model for independent film production—albeit one of complete independence. The filmmaker as producer, as distributor, as curator, as exhibitor—as everything. She used friends and non-professional actors, interesting landscapes and locales (‘naturally lit, and all free for the asking’[6]). She operated within a no-budget mode—revindicated the freedom of the filmmaker as amateur (from the Latin amator, ‘lover’). This romantic image of the artist—penniless, alone, hungry, sacrificing everything for art’s sake—perdures and its legacy is problematic for contemporary artists seeking sustainable models of practice. The enduring confusion of love and labour that Hollis Frampton alludes to in his notorious letter ‘For Love and Honor’ (1973)[7]  continues to throw artists and cultural workers into a position of precariousness. In his letter to the Curator of Film at MoMA who had offered to show Frampton’s work at the museum without any financial reward, Frampton describes his living conditions as a ‘standard of living that most other American working people hold in automatic contempt.’ Frampton goes on to deconstruct the myth of art for ‘love and honor,’ detailing all the expenses that artists incur in the production of their work (labs, equipment, raw stock, etc.). Furthermore, he points out that the MoMA curator is being paid—to show films by artists who are not—and so are the projectionist, the guards, everyone else who works in the museum. Deren, too, haunts Frampton’s letter: ‘Well Maya Deren, for one, died young, in circumstances of genuine need.’[8] 

The question of labour relations was central, too, to our discussion. Anže Peršin explained that the more pressing ideological question for him—more so than the political content or inclination of a film—is that of the labour relations in the production, especially when the project is ideologically charged, as is often the case with the films that Stenar produces. There is a discrepancy if we are unable to translate the idea(l)s within our work models—a discrepancy perhaps best summed up in the difference between ‘making political films’ and ‘making films politically’ that Jean-Luc Godard outlined in his 1970 manifesto ‘What is to be done?’[9] 

Levels of funding for the moving image in the visual arts are generally lower than that provided by traditional film funds and mechanisms. Too often, they don’t necessarily correspond to the project description. It is not easy to operate in the in-between of artists’ film—for instance, how to pay everyone a living wage when working with institutions that finance differently? How to operate ethically within production models that are informed by the funder? 

***

The objective of our discussion was to contrast production models for artists’ film, but there was a reluctance to name them so. Instead, many spoke of ‘ways’, ‘reactions’ and ‘opportunities’—responses to specific situations that could not necessarily be replicated, the implicit question of sustainability was ever-present.  

The five ‘organisations’—Auguste Orts, KW Production Series, Lo schermo dell’arte, Stenar Projects and Subversive Film—represent a range of positions between public and private funding, ‘film’ and ‘art’, projects that are ‘curator-led’ and others that are ‘artist-led’, structures that are securely subsidised and others more precariously reliant on production income. All five were originally set-up in a response to a lack, and have continued to evolve and shape themselves to address needs and opportunities.  

Leonardo Bigazzi gave the example of the Artists’ Film Italia Recovery Fund,[10]  directed at artists in Italy and financed through crowd-funding earlier this year. He insisted that he doesn’t think that crowd-funding constitutes necessarily as a model for artists’ moving image, and that the fund was a response to a very specific situation of emergency in Italy at the time. 

For Mason Leaver-Yap, there is no ‘model’ at the heart of the KW Production Series; there is opportunity that is either taken or not taken. They outlined the format of the series, modelled on a previous project—the Walker Moving Image Commissions—that Leaver-Yap had developed as well.[11]  The KW Production Series is time-limited (3 years) and entirely funded by private partners: Outset Germany_Switzerland and Julia Stoschek Collection. Rather than a ‘model’ per se, it appears to be an ‘experiment’ in transplanting a US philanthropic paradigm to continental Europe and Leaver-Yap was very upfront—and self-aware—about the neo-liberal nature of its set-up.  

Subversive Film, which is not even a legally registered organisation, is the most resistant to being pigeonholed. A collective that Reem Shilleh described as a ‘research and production body that works very specifically with archive material and particularly with militant cinema, and cinema produced during revolutionary times’, they alternatively apply for funding as individuals, as a collective (when applying for funding from art institutions, the collective behaves as the ‘artist’) or via other structures such as Idioms Film, a more traditionally structured film production company Mohanad Yaqubi also co-founded. Shilleh and Yaqubi spoke of the urgency of much of their work and how transgressing conventions (such as those imposed by funding bodies) is a necessity for artists in general, but more specifically for those working in the Palestinian context. As Shilleh explained, Palestinians grow up without a sense of a strong connection to a state; with a sense that it’s ‘ok’ to cross lines. 

The question of funding seems to be key to the issue of ‘models’—where money comes from determines the shape of the production. Whilst the KW Production Series and Lo schermo dell’arte exist in the much more unregulated and elastic field of the visual arts, Stenar Projects and Auguste Orts need to replicate an ‘industrial’ film mode—with conventions of budgeting, insurance, health & safety—because of the funding they receive. Also, the level of public funding organisations receive (or not) reveals national differences rather than a deliberate strategy. Though Stenar Projects is a private company, public funding is its primary source of income. This contrasts with the structural funding that Auguste Orts receives and which does not exist in Portugal.  

For Marie Logie, the fact that Auguste Orts does not need to fund the totality of their own salaries out of their productions means that she can spend more time seeking out partnerships, advocating, and building up networks—such as On & For. This was reflected in the preparatory research produced by the On & For team ahead of the discussion, which drew on responses to a questionnaire that was circulated to the participants. This text borrows its title from one of the questions in the questionnaire.[12] 

***

Do numbers tell different stories than words?


Looking at the ‘pie charts' ahead of the discussion I had learnt that: 

  • Of those surveyed, Auguste Orts has completed the largest number of productions. (It is also the longest running.) 
  • Auguste Orts, Stenar Projects and Subversive Film produce a variety of short, mid-length and feature films whilst KW Production Series has never produced a feature and Lo schermo dell’arte has overwhelmingly supported the production of short films. This appears to signify a divide between those that operate with film funding and therefore work with the more conventional form of the feature and the two commissioning structures more identified with the visual arts whose preference is for shorter forms which are more suited for gallery presentation. 
  • The budget figures provided by Auguste Orts, Stenar Projects and Subversive Film are higher than those given by KW Production series and Lo schermo dell’arte. The budgets for feature films are consistent across Auguste Orts, Stenar Projects and Subversive Film (between €163.000 and €175.000). The budget for shorts is also more comparable (between Subversive Film’s €5,000 and Auguste Orts’ €20,000). Budgets for mid-length films appear to be more revealing of the art/film funding gap with the largest difference (from €10,000 to €43,000). Subversive Film figures look ‘art-like’ for the shorter works and ‘film-like’ for the features.[13] 
  • Auguste Orts and Stenar Projects appear to be the two most comparable organisations across many fields: from the point of view of average budget per project, the producer’s fee (around 10%), the number of employees involved in production in the organisation (3 part-time for Auguste Orts, 2 full-time for Stenar Projects). The main difference between them is in funding—whereas Stenar Projects is a private company, Auguste Orts receives structural funding from the Flemish government, and whilst Stenar Projects relies heavily on grants from national film funds for their productions (70%), Auguste Orts has a more diversified income stream for their productions.  
  •  Of those surveyed, Auguste Orts has completed the largest number of productions. (It is also the longest running.)
  • Auguste Orts, Stenar Projects and Subversive Film produce a variety of short, mid-length and feature films whilst KW Production Series has never produced a feature and Lo schermo dell’arte has overwhelmingly supported the production of short films. This appears to signify a divide between those that operate with film funding and therefore work with the more conventional form of the feature and the two commissioning structures more identified with the visual arts whose preference is for shorter forms which are more suited for gallery presentation.
  • The budget figures provided by Auguste Orts, Stenar Projects and Subversive Film are higher than those given by KW Production series and Lo schermo dell’arte. The budgets for feature films are consistent across Auguste Orts, Stenar Projects and Subversive Film (between €163.000 and €175.000). The budget for shorts is also more comparable (between Subversive Film’s €5,000 and Auguste Orts’s €20,000). Budgets for mid-length films appear to be more revealing of the art/film funding gap with the largest difference (from €10,000 to €43,000). Subversive Film figures look “art-like” for the shorter works and “film-like” for the features.
  • Auguste Orts and Stenar Projects appear to be the two most comparable organisations across many fields: from the point of view of average budget per project, the producer’s fee (around 10%), the number of employees involved in production in the organization (3 part-time for Auguste Orts, 2 full-time for Stenar Projects). The main difference between them is in funding—whereas Stenar Projects is a private company, Auguste Orts receives structural funding from the Flemish government, and whilst Stenar Projects relies heavily on grants from national film funds for their productions (70%), Auguste Orts has a more diversified income stream for their productions.

***

If ‘labour relations’—who gets paid and who doesn’t and how much—was one of the principal threads of a discussion that largely revolved around ethics, the other main subject was ‘transparency’.  

The pie charts were an attempt at transparency too; but there are limits to what numbers and charts can tell, especially when simple questions can be interpreted so differently from divergent positions and cultural practices. The resulting analysis does not account for differences in language—such as the differentiated roles of curator, commissioner and producer that can overlap but not always.  

The diversity of money sources for Auguste Orts’ productions can be read as a reflection of the diversity of their projects (shorts, long form, documentary, experimental, animation, music, video installations…). Structural funding allows the organisation to spend time seeking diversified sources of income but, as Marie Logie pointed out, cultivating so many networks and partnerships also represents a significant time investment. Many of these partnerships were already in place, even before the organisation began. Founded by four artists (Herman Asselberghs, Sven Augustijnen, Manon de Boer and Anouk de Clercq), each already well-known and established, Auguste Orts didn’t have to start from zero—Logie had access to the four artists’ address books from the beginning. 

An underlying question in our discussion on transparency was that of honesty; how to be honest to all the partners involved, the funders, the audience, the artists, the works themselves? How to negotiate the ethical difficulties in relationship to ownership, to rights, to living wages?  

For Leaver-Yap, the ethics of ownership have been a sticking point since the beginning of KW Production Series. Whilst it had been more straightforward at the Walker, in the sense that it’s a museum with a collection, KW is not a collecting institution and because the Production Series is financed by private money, the private funders expect something in return. Outset expect an edition of the work that they can gift to a national institution (which for all six works is going to be Museum Abteiberg). Another edition goes into the Julia Stoschek Collection. This has proved to be a very complex conversation to have with potential artists, and which occasionally constrained artists’ trust in the project. 

Logie spoke about Auguste Orts’ model of openness and commitment to transparency. Wages are openly discussed, information is open to the whole crew, there’s no hierarchical secrecy. She pointed out that this results in a shared responsibility with the artist—who has ideas and desires but is also aware of the restrictions of budget. Leonardo Bigazzi described clarity and transparency as a strategy, pointing out that there shouldn’t be a hierarchy in which someone is being paid and someone isn’t.  

***

As we were momentarily brought together, in spite of travel restrictions and local lockdowns, many reflected on the working conditions of the past year. For some, working transnationally, lockdown hadn’t yet had such a big impact on their work, which was already remote. Others pointed out that continuing to produce ‘online’ (with international partners) has become more difficult, slowed down now that everything and everyone was online, and more demanding in terms of time and effort. 

There were varying degrees of optimism and pessimism. Optimism about the potential of resilience of the moving image, pessimism about the reliance on public funding at a time when budget priorities will necessarily lie elsewhere. Successful streaming experiences had demonstrated the moving image’s capacity to move beyond the limits of an exhibition space in order to reach larger audiences than a contemporary art exhibition. On the other hand, this shift online risked endangering established streams of income such as distribution and exhibition. Working with museums and galleries, which have been able to re-open more quickly and effectively than cinemas, has prevented the distribution systems for artists’ moving image from collapsing completely.   

In a time when the industrial mode of production is in crisis, the relative ‘smallness’ advocated by Deren decades ago would appear to be a strength. As she wrote, ‘Cameras do not make films; film-makers make films. Improve your films not by adding more equipment and personnel but by using what you have to its fullest capacity. The most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both. Make sure you do use them.’[14]

Our smallness is our strength but also our weakness. Artists’ film can more easily fall through the cracks—both positively and negatively. Smallness might guarantee survival, but does it also decimate any hope of sustainability? Are we, as a sector, being pushed towards further marginalisation?  

As with so much this year, these are not problems created by the pandemic—but rather conditions that were already present and have been intensified and brought to the surface by these recent disruptions. The conversation had been planned long before the pandemic hit, at a time when On & For wanted to rethink itself for the future. The issues at stake are of course larger than On & For itself, but the motivations and ideas that have driven On & For since its beginnings—the importance of building networks, the dissemination and sharing of knowledge and experience, the visibility of artists’ film production as a professional field with a common language—are as pressing now as they were back in 2014, if not more. 

María Palacios Cruz is a film curator, writer and educator based in London. She is course leader for the Film Curating course at Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola in San Sebastián and was previously Deputy Director of LUX, the UK agency for artists’ moving imag