Open Call: Material Conditions 2

Nine years ago Proboscis commissioned a series of bookleteer publications called Material Conditions, inviting creative practitioners to respond – however they wished – to the question of what are the material conditions for being creative now? In 2011 we were just beginning to feel the first bites of “austerity” that the ruling UK Coalition government was starting to implement, on top of more than two years of cuts and changes caused by the 2008 financial crisis and its subsequent fallout.

Nine years later, we have witnessed the impact of austerity and related policies adversely affect civil society and people in numerous ways. Many egregious examples are set out in the 2019 report of the UN Special Rapporteur (Philip Alston) and documented elsewhere in cases such as the “Windrush Generation’s” terrible experiences of the “Hostile Environment”, the increasing number of deaths (especially suicides) of people with disabilities denied state benefits by being wrongfully assessed as “able” to work (often when demonstrably incapacitated or even with terminal conditions), or those “sanctioned” from receiving benefits for minor infringements or justifiably missed interviews. The sheer number of appeals the government loses in such cases (up to 80% in some areas) reveals the nature of this ideological assault.

Beyond this, there are social and cultural shifts that have occurred too. The increasing intolerance against people from abroad who have made their lives here; the growing confidence of explicit racism and hate for ‘difference’ of all kinds. The worrying advance of populist and nationalist tendencies and agendas, as well as the abandonment of the UK’s established role in Europe for an incoherent future of false promises and jingoistic hyperbole.

And in the past few months, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen a right-wing ‘Conservative’ government forced to adopt state-led interventionist policies of a type that they ridiculed in an election just a few months previously. Even then, their management of the situation has been haphazard at best, disingenuous and deceitful at worst, as well as incompetent and irresponsible in practice.

Over the past couple of months I have been contemplating how to respond to the pandemic and what Proboscis can do in our own small way. My first instinct was to act immediately, but then the potential of slowing down, of taking stock, of not being reactive but proactive took hold. Our daily lives, ways of working and methods of engagement have been drastically altered in the past few months, and the longer term outlook is that this will continue – not merely in direct response of the pandemic, but in concert with all the other forces, such as climate change impacts, which are just beginning to be felt. We are not going back to ‘normal’, no matter how much we may try or wish to. There is only going forwards and choosing to make a different future.

So what, in 2020, are the material conditions for being a responsible creative practitioner? How do we continue to make work that is socially, culturally and politically relevant? What adaptations – to modes, methods, materials, tools and venues – will we need to make as we move forwards? For many, being a creative practitioner is not just a career choice to earn an income but a vocation, a calling. How do we adapt to the changing circumstances and keep faith, keep true to our calling, foster hope in darkening times?

Viral Commissioning & Open Call

Over the past 25 years I have commissioned hundreds of different people to make pieces for publication – sometimes essays and articles, sometimes visual artworks, sometimes hybrid ‘projects’. I have always tried to commission pieces from new people and not to rely on a ‘pool’ of existing contributors. However, my reach is limited – my networks grow slowly and fitfully, a process that requires an ongoing diligence for developing new contacts and making new relationships.

So I have been pondering alternative ways to broaden out who participates and can use this platform to share their voice and perspective. This is more vital than ever given all the pressures described above and recent events around the world. Forces of oppression are visible everywhere, unleashed and egged on by would-be authoritarian regimes, revelling in the chaos and using the distractions for their own nefarious purposes.

One potential route is to adopt a ‘viral’ commissioning model, whereby I initiate a sequence of commissions and then invite those contributors to nominate and broker an exchange with a further person from their own networks to commission, who then nominates a further person and so on (with the aim that nominees ought not have previously been commissioned by Proboscis or bookleteer).

Another way is to adopt the ‘open call’ method and ask people to self-submit a publication on bookleteer and then to review and select from whatever is proposed to add to the series.

For Materials Conditions 2 I propose to utilise both methods.

The proviso is that Proboscis no longer has the ability to remunerate contributors financially. We stopped receiving grant funding for such activities from Arts Council England in 2012; bookleteer operates as a self-publishing platform that doesn’t charge users for its services (except for physical print-on-demand options) and its (minimal) running costs are covered by Proboscis from our income on other projects. I remain loathe to tie this activity into the agendas of funding organisations like ACE in exchange for (often inadequate) grant monies, so will explore alternative strategies for rewarding contributors.

Revisiting the Periodical

One option might be to initiate a new version of the Periodical – our former monthly subscription service (2012-15) which posted out selected bookleteer publications that had been professionally printed and bound using our print on demand service. Instead of remuneration, selected authors (who had already self-published on bookleteer) received 25 copies of their printed publication each.

A monthly service would be unfeasible now, both economically and practically. However, a twice or possibly three times a year posting out of selected publications could be viable.

It might also be a suitable way to develop a community around the Material Conditions 2 series – people who are invested reciprocally both as participating authors and members of an audience for the ideas and experiences of others.

If any of these possibilities interests you – contributing to the series or subscribing to a new version of the Periodical – please leave a comment to this post or respond via Twitter or on bookleteer’s Facebook page.

No rush: let’s do things slowly, with care and consideration.