ANNE: And the hallmarks of both those organisations is that they’re not regularly funded. You have to have the right ethos in the first place, of course, but it’s more possible to be flexible and artist-centred if you don’t have the strictures that regular funding can impose.
Our recent Q&A with Liam Slevin recently touched on this. Unfortunately, the way that funding works at the moment, it seems you can’t have both. I don’t see why you shouldn’t have both, but…
JM: Why do you think that regular funding changes organisations?
EC: Because you have all sorts of targets, don’t you?
JM: You have to put in a business plan. Why can’t you write a business plan that centres on remaining experimental, on putting trust in people?
EC: Because with that trust, there’s also risk.
ANNE: You’re right, it’s about risk: you have to have the right governance model, and risk needs to be managed. You can’t do something totally open-ended, because the outputs and outcomes are harder, or impossible, to measure. So you get tied up in knots. I think it’s possible for a very clever organisation, with enough clout with Arts Council England – as in, they’re important enough to ACE to not be at risk of de-funding – to do things their own way as far as possible. But most organisations are effectively at the end of a piece of a string.
If you look at organisations which have transitioned from unfunded or project-funded to regularly-funded, one obvious change that they share is the often massive increase in the number of staff members. And then you have to report on everything, and that reporting is a job in itself. A lot of activity is gauged around how it can be reported against.
EC: Funders are also less likely to want to fund you to do something that might fail, because it has to be reported against.
ANNE: Yes, that’s true. If people were enabled to at least embrace the possibility of failure, it follows that they might have better ideas in the first place. And then if they failed, they’d have a better chance of how to fix it. Rather than start with something so timid that it can’t fail.
JM: And something that’s being duplicated by several other organisations at the same time. I don’t know why you can’t trust people based on their track record and past experience. If they’ve run all sorts of incredible projects in the past, why isn’t that enough?
EC: It’s something that Dan Goodman says: you have to start from scratch every time.
ANNE: To go back to the question, from working with organisations, I imagine in some senses it throws into contrast what you’re doing from an artist-led point of view. Have you had instances, working with organisations, where you’ve felt the benefits of working as an artist-centred structure?
JM: A hundred per cent.
EC: Working with organisations is so slow! It sucks all the fun out of it. And then there’s always this expectation to grow, do more, expand. We found that a lot of the time, the larger the institution, the more boring it becomes.
JM: Things could happen so quickly in our flat, that was what kept it exciting. It was so snappy. A lot of the people we’ve worked with in institutions are overworked themselves and don’t have time for us. They just end up saying no, no, no to everything we ask!
EC: With Now That’s What I Call Art 3 in Middlesbrough, The Auxiliary didn’t really have the time either — but the difference was that they just let us get on with it.
ANNE: That refers back to something you said before, about trust. That seems like the key word to me: they trusted you to do what you said you were going to do.
EC: Yeah, definitely. There is a lot more red tape with larger institutions, too. We’ve had to put barriers in front of work, do endless risk assessments…
ANNE: It changes your stance, as well, doesn’t it, how you approach doing something in the first place. If you’re more stiff and guarded from the start, it’s going to colour the project.
EC: Yeah. And then you get into this kind of treadmill. Sometimes we think to ourselves, we want to go back to doing fun things that are really ad hoc.
JM: A conversation we’ve had on and off for several years is about space; about whether we want to get a space. We’ve gone back and forth, but I think the answer is no, really, as we’ve seen the toll it takes, having to get funding, staffing, it takes all the fun out of it. It works much better for us to partner with people with spaces, work together for a while, part ways, and then do something else.
EC: We’re parasites!
ANNE: The parasitic model is a good one. And it means you can be defined by the sum of your parts: you can shift shape accordingly.
EC: Yeah, which is nice, because it means we can experiment, and then reflect back and think, well, we won’t do that again, or to go back and work in a different way.
ANNE: More recently, you’ve worked closely with System (Dan Goodman) on what has quickly become a well-known and liked format for an exhibition series, Now That’s What I Call Art, an ‘open invitation’ show, with two editions in Newcastle, and one in Middlesbrough. Can you say something, first, about how and why you created this?
EC: A lot of it was down to Dan, to be honest. Dan was invited by NCA and then asked us to join him.
JM: I remember, I was in Gallagher & Turner, and he’d just had a meeting about it, and turned up at the gallery and said, will you help with this?
Then we got together, the three of us, and chatted about how it might work.
EC: Now That’s What I Call Art is Dan’s agenda.
JM: But talking about being experimental, it was so exciting, the first one, because it was experimental. Out of the three of us, that first time, I was the most scared. I had a hard time giving up control, not knowing what work was going to turn up. I was worried it was going to look like a car boot sale! Looking back, that’s so funny, because I quite like car boot sales.
EC: I like car boot sales more than galleries.
ANNE: Well, you get more visitors.
JM: We planned six install days but we had to cancel the last three because it filled up so quickly, and it was just crazy. All of us were there for all of the install days, and it was just constantly busy.
EC: We didn’t know who was going to turn up or when. But it was so nice to meet so many people. A lot of the people, it was their first piece of work they’d ever shown anywhere. That feels like the root of the project, and it’s what’s exciting about it.
JM: Yes, we met so many people. People were hanging around, helping each other to put up their work.
EC: But then we changed it slightly so that we didn’t collapse trying to put it all up.
ANNE: Is this a format you’ll continue to work with — and develop further?
JM: Yes, there’s another one planned, but we can’t say anything more about that yet!
The last exhibition had some good events accompanying it too. There was a crit, an event with Artists’ Union England, and Jess Roper from a-n came to talk about the Structurally F_cked report.
We might try going for Arts Council support for the next show. We might also try to include other venues. We think for the next one we’ll shake up the format a little, too, so that it keeps it interesting for us: we’ll add a new factor to the experiment.
ANNE: You could introduce other elements which play on the bring-your-own format: a film night, karaoke…
JM: Dan loves karaoke!
ANNE: Well, you can have that one for free! Anyway, you’re both artists. How do you balance the needs of your own practices with those of your collaborative work as the Spaghetti Factory? Is it a juggling act, or do you find that the two complement each other?
EC: I haven’t made any of my own work this year so far, because I’ve been working on Spaghetti Factory projects, alongside working four days a week in my day job, which is very frustrating, and I don’t really like the situation, but at the same time it’s better to be busy.
JM: You made the box for RePUBlic Gallery.
EC: Oh yeah. I made one thing this year!
It is hard, but I don’t resent Spaghetti Factory work.
JM: I feel the same. I find it really hard to find the time to make work. Admin really sucks me in. I like working with a-n, but it takes some of my time.
EC: You have it worse, to be honest. I’m a bit crap with Spaghetti Factory. A lot of the work is admin, and I think I’m a bit rubbish at that. I just make the posters!