How to respond to submissions to an open call? Our Pixelache Helsinki 2021 Festival 1st Open Call was one of the concerns during Spring and early Summer 2020 for Pixelache production office. A few months earlier in April, as part of that production office, I wrote a blog post about writing a letter to inspire or encourage participation and response. We were/are promoting participation in what was written as a “transdisciplinary arts festival”, with an ambition which “connects psychological, social and environmental collapse, and how we can survive it, developing resilience”.
Our next festival between 6-13th June 2021 will take place in a showcase a multi-modal public library called Oodi in Central Helsinki, Finland, hopefully as planned since February 2020. We hoped this location would attract submissions from those who might not identify as artists, other hybrid profiles, including those who would engage in the context of the library as a social, learning, leisure and/or work ‘third-space’, and multi-lingual, multi-cultural public space. This leads to the 'populated wedding cake' image towards the end, trust me. Most often as an artist, I am used to sending something to open calls. This post narrates from the other side—how we receive responses—and continues the reflective organisational & facilitation narrative of the Festival 2021 production I am hopefully involved with: A lovely occasion together!
In the past, Pixelache Network, especially via our Open Sourcing Festivals project 2012-2014, has aimed to promote open-source culture not just as content or software, but also in our organsitional practices. So that it might inspire and encourage others, learn from our experiences, challenges and dynamic approach to organisational methodology. However, most often the process or materials of an Open Call are opaque for obvious reasons. For example, sensitivity to submissions made by applicants have personal details, their proposals and productions may be non-public or in progress. However, what is semi-public is that there is often an email from the receiver to those that applied (most often to the unsuccessful), which explains numbers or figures, expressions of deliberations, regrets or congratulations, but not often revealing the process, nor an understanding of communicative concerns.
Hence, I share this post with some singularly-authored perspective, reflections and an insight, if not full transparency, to the decision-making process. It was written independently of the curatorial committee which included 6 persons: 3 invited persons, Laura Gustafsson, Tuukka Haapankorpi & Shubhangi Singh, plus from our Pixelache membership, Anastasia Artemeva, Ilpo Heikkinen, and Frida Stenbäck.
The last section of this post aims to give some guidance to the 2nd Open Call that will open at the end of the year, now set for opening on 01.12.2020, and closing 15.1.2021. If that is what you wish to read, scroll to the bottom paragraphs with title 'The Second Open Call'. If you are here just for reflective flow, carry on reading..
Success, but then interpretative work
So, arguably, our 1st Open Call was successful in that it received approximately 170 responses, thanks to local and international networks, including our own social media profiles (Twitter profile @pixelache, our Facebook group Pixelaching & page Pixelache Helsinki), partners' groups, international media art email lists (Spectre, Renewable, New Media Curating), our peers in the Finnish Media Arts Network, and numerous broad-range contemporary or interdisciplinary art social media profiles or groups which syndicate open calls.
During June 2020, a 6 person +1 facilitator committee went through the submissions. We used a combination of a custom-software content-management-system (CMS) to receive the proposals (look at our spreadsheet column categories which mirror the questions responded to), with the option to upload 1 file as PDF, JPEG, PNG format, combining 3 images.
There was no genre defined for eliciting responses. Arguably we may have accepted any type of response. We received numerous emails asking for guidance: Do we accept this or that type of art form or cultural format? We tried to respond that we were open minded. Furthermore, there was no explicit form to fill for mentioning which part of Oodi Library that was desired to use, although that would have been very helpful. Also submittors were not asked explicitly how their contribution related to the theme. That would have been really helpful also, and arguably was an oversight to the process.
Summary: The interpretative work of association, curation and meaning-making was largely our burden: All in the eyes of the reader, the viewer, the networked subject.
Our open call form on our festival webpages was custom-coded by our web admin John Fail, which meant we could set up the format as desired. Pragmatically-speaking, as a result of open call, the curatorial committee had a body of data, as deposited by submitter via the online form.
The whole was downloaded as a CSV file, that could then be uploaded into a shared online spreadsheet. The accompanying files were exported into a set of folders with the submission number and name labelled automatically, for cross-reference. Asynchronously the curatorial committee could then individually go through the 170 entries in their own time, according to their subjective interests, add initialled comments in one column, and mark if they considered it within the categories of Yes, Maybe, or No. The spreadsheet was laid out in blocks of 15 rows, with spacers labelled A-F to help ease of scroll-reading or cross-reference. The categories across the horizontal were as following, mirroring our online form entries people had filled:
| ID | YES | MAYBE | No | Curatorial Comments on: 'theme', 'site', 'do-able', 'technical', 'expenditure' | Name | Email | Phone | Address | Website | Title of Project / Process / Contribution (100 chars) | Description (1000 chars) | Biography or description of you / your group or collective (600 chars) | Online link to CV/ Portfolio (1-2 links) | First Open Call | Second Open Call | Production Status: Already produced? | Production Status: Does it need production funds to happen? (Yes, No, Maybe). If you answered Yes or Maybe, please give an indication, with as much detail as reasonable to give us an idea what is needed to make it happen. (1000 chars) |
We added these columns afterward the committee did their selective work, to suit the next steps of our production analysis:
| Social | Our Production notes -> | Genre | Oodi Location | Production dificulty | Speculated costs |
As a committee, with myself facilitating, we had planned 2 sessions synchronous as a video conference call. First to introduce each other (not everyone knew each other), and we had hoped one more to go over our responses to the individual interpretations of the submissions. It quickly became clear we needed several additional live, synchronous sessions together. Hence there were four synchronous meetings in total. The 2nd and 3rd occasions identified the consensual-agreed proposals. If 3 or more of the 6 -person committee agreed on the proposal being potentially part of the festival, then there was little debate. Where 1 or 2 of the committee desired it’s place, and 1 or more ‘Maybes’ also existed, we debated some. We recognised the need and wish to not just make selections based on consensus only, so we agreed for the 3rd occasion of meeting that we could propose submissions that we individually wished to ‘champion’, even if it didn’t gain particular common favour. Our diverse cultural and practice-based perspectives, all as residents of Helsinki, Finland, in the committee were there for a reason: to benefit from the collected subjectivities, and interpretations of what is important or relevant. Arguably, there should always be space for contributions which stand out beyond consensus.
The whole process was much longer than anticipated, and as any curatorial group knows with such cultural production labour, sometimes exhausting. The curatorial committee was very modest. However, in the process we found a lot of agreement and not so much conflict. We selected 31 ‘Yes’ submissions, and 11 ‘Maybe / To be discussed..’ cases from this whole total of the first Open Call respondees. I took responsibility to write as facilitator of the committee to all the former, and we distributed the task of contacting the later list among us, taking responsibility for the one(s) appreciated which was most appreciated by that person, or if they were already known to them.
Letters in reply
With the selection process negotiated and done, it was then necessary to write a letter to each category of status. See the three different letter variations below.
It is not so common as an applicant to be able to read the different versions of acceptance, discussion and rejection of proposals, so I share these writings as a transparency on our process. The ‘Not this time’ letter is the most straightforward. This was short, and sent to all BCC. The ‘Maybe / To be discussed..’ bundle of submissions had individual emails to open up a conversation for questions or discussion about missing information about the production. The hope might be to move them over into the ‘Yes’ category, or confirm otherwise.
As will be seen in the ‘Yes’ letter below, even acceptance was necessary to be conditional.. And the start of a production conversation.
Going ahead to the next stage of production..
We were/are selecting without a working budget, with funding applications still to be made, and also due to the exceptional circumstances of Coronavirus/COVID-19 conditions which themselves may limit our capacity to plan ahead, nevermind the global recession that it has precipitated into existence, we have to be open-minded about what and who will be able to come in the future to Pixelache Helsinki 2021 Festival.
We will make our usual annual funding applications to Finnish National and City Grants in the Autumn season, and open discussions with the relevant national cultural institutes and other foundations who have supported us in the past, especially for bringing international guests to our festival. Selected persons from certain countries or locations of residence can maybe gain support to attend from this approach, if we are lucky. Already many of these foundations from certain cultural funding networks may have their budget massively cut. For example, one potential institute supporter told me the other day that their budget for next year is cut by 75%.
Hence, we have to imagine producing a hybrid festival that mixes remote and absent presence based content. Our peers this year in festival production, locally and further afar, have had to shift their festival model to solely online or hybrid, mixing locals with international contributions from abroad.
We will explore potential co-production with our partners, and also potential to spread the value of any international participants to Pixelache Helsinki 2021 Festival with our regional neighbours, as we have in past editions of the festival.
Nested tiers of festival production
Our festival will likely be designed in ‘nested tiers’ of potential production to handle the different contingencies ahead. Imagine a sort of ‘wedding cake’ metaphor of what we can count on as a festival celebration. Firstly, what we can count on, as a foundation, is streamed and online content. It seems this foundation will be based on an 7-day curated festival audio listening programme, plus video programme, and/or live events streams where appropriate, and in the worst-case scenario of the Central Library Oodi being closed in June 2021, due to a Coronavirus public building shutdown. However, with hope that this is not the only case, we can also plan workshops, presentations, installations and interventions in Oodi for public experience and participation.
That second tier would allow us to curate a festival including festival participants as contributors-in-presence, those who are Helsinki-based residents and Finns. Then would be a third layer being Nordic-Baltic contributors (which is the contemporary ‘restriction/quarantine-free’ travel zone to Finland, with exception of Sweden currently). The fourth tier would be Schengen-zone residents in Europe, and then lastly other international guests.
Due to all the contingencies with regards to travel and presence-based activities, as well an uncertain funding context for 2021, then we anticipate not being able to confirm or make festival-participation contracts with the Festival Open Call participants until late January or February 2021.
The Second Open Call
This 2nd Open Call opens on the 1st of December 2020, and closes 15th January 2021. It will be likely the last chance to offer something to the festival in June 2021. It is after we have made our funding applications and around the time we learn about our basic funding for the festival, so you will not be seeking production funding from us, nor reserve a particular physical place in the venue. See it more as a late intervention, whereby we can’t guarantee your body will be able to accompany your contribution into the programme, but we may be able take in some more interventions into our plans..
Into the theme of #Burn____, a response to the letter from the ‘Other Side’ #onlife2020, one which none of us could have imagined. It may be, for example, a letter, spoken word, an act, a video clip, a podcast, a sound work, a gasp, a rant, a loving serenade, a song, a seat somewhere, a slip into public space, a book mark, a period of silence even.. The future is, indeed, unwritten.
1st PART OF EMAIL RESPONDING TO OPEN CALL SUBMISSIONS
Choose ONE of the Following Statements:
** Y DECISION: Acceptance to next stage of festival production process **
** M DECISION: Questions / Maybe, to be discussed **
** N DECISION: Unfortunately not this time **
Thank you for your submission to the Pixelache Helsinki 2021 Festival 1st Open Call!
We much appreciate your interest in our festival, especially when there are many distractions, actions and concerns in your locality this Spring→Summer.
Apologies if you have been waiting overly long for feedback, or indeed didn’t get a message on submission (we learned later there was a bug in our CMS form, and it seems no-one got a receipt notice).
Our curatorial committee worked in June to go through our submissions, and we have come to the above decision on your submission.
2nd PART OF EMAIL (VARIABLE)
** Y DECISION: Acceptance to next stage of festival production process **
Your proposal was seen positively by the Festival curatorial committee, and we would like to proceed to the next stage of the festival production process.
We (Pixelache production office) seek your consent to potentially share your submission details with our funders, relevant cultural institutions and production partners.
We (Pixelache production office) currently have no confirmed working budget yet for next year, and we make our funding applications this upcoming autumn for next year. Typically we know basic results by late January each year. Furthermore, beyond our annual activity funds, which are more or less guaranteed, we need to apply for additional foundation or cultural institute support. We may see the potential to share the production of your work with a trusted Helsinki or Finland-based partner. We will let you know if such potential emerges.
We (Pixelache production office) will write and send you a ‘Letter of Intent’ by mid-August 2020 (or earlier if especially requested) , which can be used to assist any travel or production support on your side, at your locality.
We (Pixelache production office) will enter a discussion process with producers at Central Library Oodi about how your work can be located spatially and temporary in the Festival week of 6-13th June 2021.
Our conversation will develop over the next 6 months. All going well with funding decisions, we will be able to confirm your participation, and make a festival contract in January or mid-February 2021, latest. If you are based in Finland, or the work does not need production funds, it may indeed be sooner.
For now, I send my best wishes & hope for the best in cooperation!
** M DECISION: Questions / Maybe, to be discussed **
The curatorial committee appreciated your contribution to the 1st Open Call deadline, and you caught the curiosity or interest of some of the committee.
I took responsibility on behalf of the group, to write to you, to ask you a few questions..
QUESTION Y etc
** N DECISION: Unfortunately not this time.. **
After careful consideration of your proposal, of its relation to the festival theme, and/or production issues, the curatorial committee agreed not to proceed with your proposal for Pixelache 2021 Festival.
If it is the only one you have submitted (rather than two), you are welcome to apply to the 2nd Open Call deadline, with a different proposal.
Best wishes in further endeavors and good luck!
3rd PART OF EMAIL CLOSING THE RESPONSE
On behalf of the curatorial committee, I send my best regards and wishes in these challenging but adventurous times.
Image credit: Thanks to Pete & Gareth for consenting to share this image of their wedding cake, which was made by @meeshi21 (2016).