Questions fielded by Manuela Morgaine, the driving force behind the film and the fundraising campaign’s brave coordinator. She reflects on this human adventure and, more generally, on what the “job” of being an artist in the digital age entails.
Why resort to crowdfunding?
Ever since 1991, when I founded “Envers Compagnie,” a company for the production of films as well as radio plays, living performances, and installations, I have been thinking about the issue of arts funding.
I quickly realized that, like all the artists around me, I’d been spending more than 50% of my time looking for funds. That meant that, if I figure in years, in 22 years of artistic existence, I have spent 11 full years looking for the means to work.
This isn’t a random figure but a real measurement of the time spent doing paperwork for ten years, writing grant applications in many different domains, meeting financial partners who might be liable to invest, or traveling to find solutions in France or abroad.
This part-time job isn’t compensated for the artist who searches for the means to work, and the end result was always the same: finding just the shoestring budget that allows the project to get off the ground, pay the crew and the equipment and, once in a while, get paid a little something oneself.
And at the same time I realized people were deserting full-time art in droves.
Of all the artists I met at the Villa Medicis when I was a Prix de Rome laureate in set design in 1994—of the twenty artists who lived there with me, half stopped making art as soon as they started a family, the other half became teachers of their discipline or went into another field having nothing to do with art.
And I’m talking about recognized artists, not young creative outsiders. All this got me thinking about how to get by while not selling out on my principals or giving up on current projects. For me, not selling out meant trying to stay an artist no matter what, to be what Beckett called a “good-for-nothing-else,” not for appearance’s sake but out of personal rigor, given the daily work that goes into achieving a personal style, mastering an artistic discipline and maturing as an artist.
Ten years ago I understood that I could never reverse course, that nothing could make me renege on this choice, even if it required considerable financial sacrifices and a permanent feeling of financial insecurity. So as not to feel discouraged, I thought of patenting an invention, as Marcel Duchamp did with much gusto before me (he is the inventor of the machine that cuts sugar into cubes), and to try to make a small or large fortune out of this invention and reinvest it in my own work and, money permitting, in the work of artists I admire or whom I saw struggling.
But it’s still a utopian project and I’ve been working at it for about ten years. A patent for an invention has been filed in the Hague and will be manufactured within the year. Though I have finally finished it, the project will have taken 12 years and a great deal of out-of-pocket investment.
I never would have stumbled on crowdfunding if I hadn’t been thinking about the invention. Because patenting an invention made me reexamine my way of thinking about / producing art.
I have followed the subject closely and have since gotten interested in the way art is produced. That means I read film credits in detail and make note of financial contributions that strike me as out of the ordinary, and I also jot down the names of patrons of art exhibitions, etc. As soon as I became open to these parallel forms of funding, I also discovered the existence of crowdfunding in the US, through the arrival of the big names in France, My Major Company, then Kiss Kiss Bank Bank, which were increasingly present in film credits.
How did you navigate this democratic approach and the use of social media?
After researching different crowdfunding platforms, I stumbled upon the blog Mon artiste which had a list of them. I then went on to read the invaluable guide by Nicolas Dehorter. I then contacted Nicolas D. to ask for his advice. I told him about the various feature film and installation projects I’d been trying to produce for ten years and I asked him if he though that crowdfunding would be a good fit. We both agreed that it could only be an occasional aid, given the production costs of the two projects I had pitched to him.
Still, I thought it would be a way of devoting more energy to my work, rather than spending 50% of my time looking for solutions that wouldn’t pan out. I quickly realized that my work had to be present on social media sites. Six months ago all I had was a website www.enverscompagnie.com
But for LIGHTNING, for which Nicolas and I started a crowdfunding campaign, I had neither a Facebook page nor blog. We created a veritable network thanks to these two pages managed by Nicolas Dehorter.
Without the creation of these pages, it is possible that our crowdfunding campaign would never have succeeded—that’s how important the content and images were to Internet users and how essential it is to communicate with donors, not only through personal emails but also through an information feed which they can see is being updated daily on the web.
Donor expectations, even for a minimal investment, are maximal.
Before it even crosses their minds to pitch in, donors want to partake in an adventure they see taking shape on the web before it comes into existence. They participate mainly on the web. That’s the vital space they share with the project for however long the campaign lasts. And to this day I am amazed at how many donors continue to visit our Facebook page and blog.
It’s also a way of instantly locating future viewers or listeners. And it helps us evolve as artists, because we must be inventive from the start, before the work itself is even visible.
Why the choice of Babeldoor as a platform?
I was able to access all the existing platforms in France through the Guide du Crowdfunding by Nicolas D. What interested me about Babeldoor aside from its magical name – a door opened onto all languages – was that it was lesser-known and so I imagined it would invest more energy in the project. Also, it didn’t limit itself to supporting artists but also took on collective projects; it took an exciting ethical and societal approach. At the time I was looking for a crowdfunding platform, Babeldoor featured a fireman collecting funds to build a fire station in his remote village, a music school looking to buy a piano, travelers looking to finance a dream trip, a student looking to distribute 100 crumbles to orphans in Vietnam… Then I met Hortense Garand, the platform director and an artist herself, who had come to the same conclusion as I, and immediately convinced me that Babledoor was the right place.
It’s also a way of supporting one another, a sort of “I scratch your back you scratch mine” logic which was exhilarating from day one and which will undoubtedly continue.
Was it easy for you to define what kind of reward you’d offer?
Yes, it was fairly easy given the experience of Nicolas Dehorter and Hortense Garand, who guided me. After a few weeks spent exchanging ideas, we had quickly defined what kinds of rewards would be appropriate and realistic.
Having contributed to several campaigns myself, the reward is often never sent… I had to be sure that I would be able to offer an invitation to a premiere slated for no more than a month after the collection, so that the donors would have the patience to wait for the film’s release, the posters, the DVD. And we also immediately drew up a special list of credits which we published on Babeldoor, Facebook and on the LIGHTNING blog with the names of all the donors. So a few days after the campaign ended, they were already feeling like members of the film’s family and I think it’s important to react quickly when the campaign is over, given the deadlines we give donors, who have to invest before a certain date.
The reciprocity of the relationship is one of the cornerstones of crowdfunding.
What surprised you?
Above all the lack of giving by kith and kin; it’s quite disconcerting and depressing at first. You’re sure that at least the closest circle who received the appeal for funds will react because they’re family, friends and professionals who should, it seems to you, be enthusiastic about your efforts. With the exception of five donors, this analysis turned out to be extremely naïve. It was a humbling and thought-provoking lesson to learn. My greatest surprise was the boundless generosity of strangers or of people who contributed out of friendship with one of the film’s characters—so it took even more humility to accept that the donations didn’t come from the places you would expect, and not to resent all those whom you think of as being the closest to you, and therefore eager to support you. To understand that they’re there for you in other ways. That the campaign isn’t intended for them above all the others.
What lessons did you come away with?
The call for donations is quite particular in a crowdfunding campaign and I see a great limitation in contacting only the first circle, often defined by the platform coordinators as the most important.
I don’t think it’s the most important. It must be informed if it is to inform its network in turn, but Facebook or the blog, as well as some of the film’s characters brought us the lion’s share of our donors. You have to get at least two or three collaborators from the project’s team involved. Fundraising can’t be the sole responsibility of the director, musician, adventurer or project founder. It will have little impact unless it is supported by those who actively participated in the adventure, or who will be able to participate.
Three of the film’s participants got very involved in setting up a network to find donors. My producer Mathieu Bompoint of Mezzanine Films, the character of Symeon played by Michaël Jasmin, and the character of Saturn played by William de Carvalho. Without them and their networks, which had a far wider and more diverse reach than my own, without their emails and reminders, I could never have managed.
All along there was a feeling of “awkwardness” as though I were personally begging to realize my desires. Even though being an artist, when you devote your life to it, is an existential question. It’s difficult to make others understand that an artist who doesn’t work, doesn’t exist. This isn’t a hobby, but a commitment to try and give meaning to another vision of the world. That it requires tireless searching and that the world as it is doesn’t suffice. That there have always been drawings on the cave walls, gestures, representations, a share of reverie to balance out the nightmares imposed on a daily basis by all of the disasters we behold.
Since I constantly felt “awkward” about asking for money for my crowdfunding campaign, I hired Nicolas Dehorter as a blogger / coordinator and the emails always came from him. But again I felt like we weren’t succeeding, despite all the preliminary work that went into the emails, despite emphasizing the necessity of the campaign, and its urgency. We reached only a tiny portion of our donors. And I wondered throughout the 90 days of fundraising, with all the energy they took, if it wouldn’t have been a good idea to have promoters in the press and radio, or even a public event to kick off the campaign and make it credible in the eyes of all those we solicited.
Having succeeded in finding three donors in a matter of minutes, by merely posting an update on the Facebook page of FIP Radio, I realized that a personal mass email is limiting and too personal, even when it is sent to a blogger’s contacts, via newsletter to the contacts of the site itself, or to all the project’s participants.
This “too private” aspect is the only negative I’ve taken away from crowdfunding. For that reason—even though the campaign on Babeldoor was successful thanks to the continuing energy of all—if I had to do it all over again, it’s obvious I would make the campaign public by soliciting the press and mainly I’d like the opportunity to reach out to companies, patrons and angel investors in addition to private donors.
In that sense, I think crowdfunding’s future is a promising one, and far beyond the arts world. If it manages to become commonplace and to draw on new contacts in the business world, if it is also recognized as a public good by the government, if it becomes a part of the social landscape and no longer a spare tire for projects that are out in the cold.
If it surrounds itself with very active financial partners even as it continues making its appeal to the all of us.
If making small donations becomes a reflex. If each One feels he is a piece of us All and that his gesture, however small, counts immeasurably.
Will this change your relationship to the audience or your position as an artist?
It has already changed my thinking about production considerably. My relationship to the public has also changed because I have been in contact with virtual viewers for months and I promise them the moon. This Moon which will emerge, my feature LIGHTNING, which will be released in Paris in late 2013 after a tour of foreign festivals, I sketch it day after day in the hopes it will keep me safe from an eclipse.
I’m convinced that creative energy must now be accompanied by the energy to find one’s own means of production, independence being the guarantor of an authentic creation and an ability to push limits.
Coming up with solutions and new possibilities remains the most exhilarating part.