12ø is a collective based in London. With the 6th edition of 30/30, their popular yearly month-long online project, finished just over a month ago, I had the pleasure to chat with its current members Eva Duerden, Kelly Lloyd and Lou Macnamara. We talked about all things art – making, funding, audiences, the impact of COVID-19, changes and hopes for the sector… Enjoy!
Valentina: What was your resolution for 2020?
Kelly: I don’t think we had one for 12ø, did we?
Eva: You know when you have your academic year diary and then it’s weird to have your new year’s resolution because it’s like “my life starts in September!”. I feel like that’s how it works for our Arts Council bids… So, if we had a resolution it was probably to update things.
Lou: We started 2020 working on the Backend London event. We were kind of in the middle of organising that last session of the series. We also did the editing session and the Liverpool conference. Oh, and also we started January working on this project with Bella Milroy, which is now on pause but will continue in the future. We got to go to Chesterfield which was fun!
Kelly: I think we did make a resolution: doing more fieldtrips!
Lou: Yeah that’s true!
V: How have things changed for you in the last few months?
E: Well if our resolution was to do more fieldtrips… now that is not really possible!
I think that, particularly over 30/30, this period has changed how we work. It’s like that we have a better perspective of the rules that we have given ourselves. It’s a bit more leeway – okay we’re three people, it’s okay if it’s not perfect. We’ve never claimed to be polished so why starting now while there is a pandemic?
K: Yeah, that came out of a fairly consistent conversation through Backend around re-defining professionalism, in terms of being more kind to ourselves but also the people we decide to work with.
L: But weirdly on the other side of things, our projects happened to be lined up in a way that we ran 30/30, a massive online art project that people can do from home, in April during the lockdown. Our schedule in that sense didn’t change. This year we had five times the number of participants from previous times and Artquest offered us some funding to support it. So it was kind of good timing that 30/30 was then. The feedback that we got was that it meant a lot to a lot of people.
V: Let’s carry on talking about 30/30. Being this the 6th year of the project, how was it and has anything changed from the previous editions? Also, has COVID made any difference to it?
E: The bones of 30/30 didn’t change. The way it works it’s that you make a thing, you send it to us, and you do that every day for 30 days. It’s basic enough that it’s quite mouldable. But thanks to Artquest this year we were able to actually pay people and have other people’s perspectives on the work that was being contributed through the everyday picks. We wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise.
L: Eva is now the only person who was in 12ø when 30/30 first started and it was entirely manual then. People emailed the works and Eva ticked them off the list. Each year we’ve had a technologically improvement… I remember when we first introduced a digital a submission form, and now we have got to the stage that we have a custom-built website where people can submit their work and that automatically goes into a feed which puts people out if they don’t submit by midnight. It feels like our technological capability has increased just enough each year to handle the increasing number of participants.
K: This was my first 30/30 but one of the things I heard Lou and Eva speak about regularly was that Artquest’s support made it possible for the registration to be free for everyone. So, in addition to the jump in the amount of people who registered, there was also a different population of participants. That changed how we administer it as it was for a different audience, which involved different technical questions and concerns.
V: In what way was the audience different?
L: 30/30 participants generally come from that 12ø audience that we’ve built over the years. Usually they are our peers, people closer to our age or people doing a lot of online stuff already, digital artists and recent graduates. This year that has broadened out much more. There were a lot more participants who were older and less old, and more people who weren’t as comfortable or used to work online that we’d normally have. Bella, our number one 30/30 fan, gave us also a really nice forth warning as we were chatting to her just before lockdown started. Since she often has to spend a lot time at home, she thought that 30/30 will have meant a lot to a lot more people this year and she was very right! One review from my friend Georgia was: “Thank you for helping me remember what day today is!”.
V: What is your idea around the relationship between artist and audience, and how does a project like 30/30 challenge that?
L: Generally, our projects are not aimed at an audience as such. We don’t do exhibitions. Most of our audiences are artists and practitioners or people working in the arts. What we do is to talk to our wider community of people doing stuff a bit like us. Backend is not aimed at an audience to come and look at something, it’s about asking people to get involved, participate and take action. And so is 30/30 by asking artists to do stuff.
V: So, is it that artists and practitioners are asked to think beyond the traditional structure of artist-audience / maker-viewer?
K: Yeah both 30/30 and Backend are similar in terms of them being like vessels. People from a lot of different places and with a lot of different interests can come in and find structure within. For example, even if each of the Backend events had an overarching concern, it was a welcoming place for people to come with their individual interests as community members and cultural workers. I feel like that by asking them to do something, some kind of hole is created… There is this quote by Michael Warner that says:
“A public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself. It is autotelic; it exists only as the end for which books are published, shows broadcast, Web sites posted, speeches delivered, opinions produced. It exists by virtue of being addressed.”
So our audience creates itself through us essentially addressing them; and they create themselves into a public that then feeds us because they are all here in response to our address.
E: I feel really bad because I can’t remember the last time I thought about the audience…
K: It’s really difficult to figure out who your audience actually is vs who you think they are, and who you hope they are, which are entirely different things…
L: When you are a small organisation it’s quite delusional to think your audience is beyond your community/your followers. It’s like when you are a small independent film maker, most of the people who watch your films are probably other people who make films or share an interest on that topic of the film. If you reach other people outside of that circle it’s kind of by chance. Unless you are the Tate, most of the time you speak to people who are within your community. With 12ø we actively aim for that audience which we create structure for.
V: I guess this obsession for ‘reaching out’ to an audience is also tied to funding requirements, but it can be really detached from what an organisation actually does.
L: It also feels patronising to me. It’s like there is this neutral passive audience that we have something to impart to. It feels quite hierarchical somehow… And I think that’s why it’s uncomfortable to use the Arts Council’s terms.
E: ‘Audience’ sounds like someone who is watching and is separate from you. Whilst in our projects the people that we interact with have an active part in them. I can’t think of something we’ve done where it was like “hey, come here and look at this! We don’t want to know what you want…”. There is always some kind of overlap.
L: I think there are concentric circles coming out from that… For example, with Backend we had these events and then a part of that was also to publish an article online. So, there were the really engaged people who came to the event, but also people who saw the article online, gave some feedback, read it, took it to their organisation and share it with people.
V: I don’t want to ask another question about audience, but I guess it is… can you tell me more about Bad Reviews?
E: It’s been like we get picks in reviews when we don’t hear anything for months and then all of sudden, we get loads! The reason why we started them was because we believe people should be able to give a bad review without being scared of the repercussions for it.
L: We did a podcast with The White Pube two years ago called ‘Work’ (you can listen to it here). That was a stage when they were really popular with their audience for calling out shitty behaviours in the arts, but if they’d ever critiqued anything that wasn’t a massive institutions some of their audience would turn around and be like “no you are not allowed to criticise the small people!”. Basically, these people didn’t like having any criticism turned on them as it had always to be like this idea of punching up at big and untouchable institutions. We were just chatting with The White Pube on how we both thought this was bullshit and how giving criticism was instead very generous. We thought it didn’t happen anywhere near enough in the artist-led scene because it’s so cliquey and it’s so about getting a leg up as an artist and being like “oh this artist-led group had me in their show!” “I have them in my show with my collective!” “we’ll all become artists with very long CVs and we will be very big and successful!”. That kind of culture means that it’s so hard to have any kind of criticism to their faces because people are all friends and scared to burn bridges. So Bad Reviews came up with it while we were chatting on that podcast. We wanted people to be able to criticise us anonymously like Eva said but also other small art organisations to follow us, take that on or do something similar.
During Backend a lot of the discussions had been about this topic – how to receive criticism, how to learn from it, how to not shit on the person doing it or how to try to be nice to them and not to have a “okay fix all our problems then!” kind of attitude and avoid other bad ways to handle criticism.
V: What would you like to see more and what you’d like to see less in the arts?
K: More money – less working for free – more diversity.
L: More competent men not just looking out for themselves.
E: Maybe that’s a less… I’m sure there are competent men, but there is just A LOT of men in the arts. So maybe if there was less of them, we’d be more likely to see the competent ones.
L: And the competent ones just being more collective, why has the hard work always to be done by loads of women?!
V: What changes would you like to see on an institutional level vs on a more underground one?
E: More willingness to be critical, accept criticism and actually put the work in. Self-critical not in an imposter syndrome way but as an awareness of the privilege you have and how much further that can take you. For example, when you are a curator in a small collective and you will probably end up working in an institution.
L: I think re-prioritisation as well – thinking about what we are doing and what actually is important for us and the people whom we’re supporting. It happens both at small organisations where there is little to no resources and at the biggest end, for example at places like Tate. They’d be like “there is such limited funding for this project about increasing diversity in the workforce” but there is £10m to put on this Picasso’s show. But what if we took £2m of those £10m and put them into the other project that had like £2,000?! The same happens at a smaller level when they puts all of their energy into trying to make an exhibition look like a perfect sleek gallery show which they can put up on Instagram, they have 20 people at the private view but then they don’t make the exhibition accessible. They’ve prioritised those things which they often have pressure on over everything else. I think a lot of spaces are run like that.
Also, Kelly has been a really good influence on us in terms of prioritising things like paying ourselves and being on time, which has been really important.
V: In these past months a lot of organisations have been delivering their programmes online. It’s great that there is so much content available so that for example anyone can look at a show from their bedroom. However, who are these organisations doing all of this really for?
L: There is a constant pressure to produce and to have content and never take breaks to be like “what content do we wanna do?” “why are we doing it?” “should we do less and do it better?”.
V: Yeah exactly, and because of what has been happening with COVID, this current moment feels like the perfect opportunity for organisations to slow down and reflect on things…
K: I feel also that a lot of people think that art is something that’s on a wall and something you take a picture of to put on Instagram. But art for many, me included, is also a way to be in conversation with people in the same space. I don’t need photographs of a virtual exhibition. I need to be able to go into a museum, get a latte and use a clean bathroom and be alone in public. Those are the things I need art to do for me…
If I could wish for anything that needs change the imminent topic would be diversity, then after that it would be for artists to have an honest conversation with themselves about what art is vs what community building is vs what your job is. A lot of these things get smushed together to a shitty project and things like ‘socially engaged art’. No it’s not ‘socially engaged art’, it’s just a bad political action! Or something you could have made in your studio alone… I feel that if people had some clarity around what each of these things was for, it would be helpful all around. We can then from there prioritise the things that actually need money, like the things that are political, or the things that are in our studio and are philosophical.
L: Totally, I think ‘art’ is a really unhelpful umbrella term sometimes – we are using this term to refer to really different things that often just resolve in bad smushing. But then sometimes it’s a useful term because I don’t know if everything we do is art, it’s more like what we wanna do at the time, and it’s useful for getting funding. We are able to play that system more than anything else, but in general a broader term is not actually helpful.
V: This is a good moment to ask you a question about how you operate. How do you organise and practically function as a collective?
E: We meet every Sunday…which hasn’t been the case lately. It’s weird as we did have a structure before the lockdown but a change in the structure is not necessarily a bad thing. I feel also that the structure always changes when a new person joins as there is always a flexibility of how we are gonna work together. When Lou started, we used to meet once a month, and you were like “this is not enough…”
L: But you and Jacob also lived together so I was like “I don’t live with you! We have to meet more regularly” – ah-ah!
The way we work also changes around the projects. We technically meet once a week but as soon as something is going on, we tend to meet more for that. If for example our Sunday meeting is taken up by a meeting with somebody else, then we need more time to do our organisation regular admin stuff.
V: You got Arts Council funding, but do you also do a lot of unpaid things?
L: Mostly unpaid, we did a really bad job at budgeting. I think it’s because of the pressure of what we think Arts Council wanna hear. We basically get a nominal project management fee for the entire year programme, so for a year and a half work we might get only £300. But with 30/30 this year as we had the Artquest funding we were able to pay ourselves a small rate which was nice. Even if it did not quite match up with the amount of work we were doing, it was still better than getting zero pounds.
K: One of the reasons why Artquest gave us money was to funnel money to artists in this time of need. So, it made sense to pay ourselves because we are also artists that also need money right now.
We had a conversation about getting paid for a lecture we had at John Moores University in Liverpool. If previously, for example, Lou gave a lecture, obviously Lou would be paid for her time; but then with Backend there were questions around what it means to be paid for something that ultimately belongs to a lot of people. How do you pay yourself as it’s you who put the labour; but also, how do you put money back into the pot tocreate other opportunities? Or even, how do you pay other people who are involved? How do you create opportunities past the initial funding? We are still trying to figure that out…
So yeah, we are mostly unpaid, but I feel like we also want to recognise our own labour. I feel like a tagline for this collective is ‘who can self-sacrifice first’. I’m trying to get us to not be so self-sacrificial… I think that it’s not about being paid a certain amount of money and commensurate that with the amount of time you put in, which is impossible. It’s more about recognising that somebody is working really hard and they are doing that instead of doing the things they need to do to pay rent.
L: What gets so complicated is to try to match up the theory of what we want with the practicality of what we have. When you do have some funding but it’s not even enough to cover all the amount of time for the work that you’ve done or all the people involved, then how does that work? Or how do you square your theory with your practice?
V: We’ve already talked about Backend a bit, but I wanted to ask you a bit more about it. What are your ideas behind it? And what have the highlights of the project been so far?
E: Backend came around at the same time as Bad Reviews. We got to a point where we realised there wasn’t much time to be asking ourselves questions like: are we doing this in the right way? Are we happy like we did it? Are we happy about how we are working together? As we said before there was always that pressure of being productive – “next project”, “next project”, “next project”… We wanted to do something about that and then we realised it would have been useful to develop some guidelines specifically for artist-led organisations.
There are plenty of resources that already exist for institutions but nothing that recognises the systemic issues within smaller organisations (that we knew of). A lot of the time small organisations do things for free, for their mates or for ‘the good of art’, and they probably are ultimately very successful on the back of other people’s work. That means that they are less self-critical and there is not the space to be accountable to anything. We thought it would have been good to have conversations with other people on what we do wrong and how we can take more responsibility.
L: We recognised that, ourselves included, we are all pretty much doing front-end stuff with limited resources. So, it made more sense to share the process of building guidelines and holding each other accountable. Because if there is not a paid role to do that, then let’s do it together and inform each other on what we are doing!
E: Yeah, a lot of these collectives, not all of them, but a lot, become like a mimic of bigger institutions. They started very small, all grassroots and DIY and then higher and polished and clean etc, and that’s fine, but there is never a good point to be self-critical.
L: Also, there is often the assumption that being DIY and small automatically means a radical alternative to institutions when so often they replicate the exact same thing. So how do we actively try to challenge those?
E: Doing the big professional thing properly often means subscribing to really damaging unhealthy practices. We went to New York a couple of years ago and there was a collective that we knew they used to put on a lot of shows for other artists and friends. Then when they got a show in New York they took their own work and they didn’t take any by the artists they’d been supporting. With Backend we wanted to put together some guide that would help you as an organisation and an individual to question yourself: “Is that actually right?” – “Probably not! Maybe don’t do that” “Do this instead!”.
K: I think that another important part of Backend for me was to have these conversations locally, and to not just drop into a place and be like “let’s talk about it!”. We instead knew that conversation has already been happening locally, and that there are people there who are more equipped to speak about that topic as well as larger issues. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and ignore that these conversations have been going on. With gaining Arts Council funding Backend was just another way to set up a space for other people. To do the research to figure out who the main facilitators could be, and where and when should it happen, and then to funnel money to them.
L: Yeah there were people whom we already knew, and we were talking to, who were doing a lot of this work unpaid. Each Backend session was developed with three or four contributors who then were able to pay those people who were having these conversations already and expand their work.
V: So, was it a way for people to meet as well and share ideas?
E: Yeah to share ideas. We wanted to gather different people in a room and get them to think about things. A lot of them were people from collectives or artists who want to see a certain thing change or want to be better at it. The facilitators were there to prompt or poke the conversation and get paid for their expertise.
L: Yes, and beyond being paid, they were also often on a panel with no planned outcome… During the event notes were taken and projected on a google doc live, so everybody could see them written up and use them as references for the future. We wanted people to join forces about specific issues, so we tried to focus on tangible actions.
E: Yeah there are these events we often go to which are all into this mode of being cathartic – “It’s all ACE’s fault!” or “It’s all the university’s fault!”. That might be true, but it also separates you as an organisation from having any responsibility. Is there anything we can actually do about that? Other than creating campaigns, what specific actions can we create here?
L: Yeah, and how we can support each other? One of the things that came out in the Liverpool event was about what happens if you wanna call out local organisations. It’s too scary because to do so as an individual because it will jeopardise so much of you. So how can you call on a network of other people to help you with that? Or in Glasgow a lot of the conversation was about when you’ve got a space – do you need to be constantly programming all the time? Do you need to be 100% front-end? Maybe you can take time to reflect instead and let other people use your space with no strings attached, as without them being an item of your programme. How can we share resources?
V: We talked about the constant pressure of having to make and produce culture – whatever that means. So finally, I wanted to ask you, how do you see that happening in the future?
L: I feel like a big step for me was realising that nobody gives a shit if we don’t constantly turn out and produce stuff, nobody even notices. There was a point when we took a step back to think about stuff and start write a new programme and I saw someone at an event and he was like “How is 12ø?” and my answer was “We have been quiet for a few months” – he hadn’t even noticed. It was such a relieving moment! Nobody cares! The pressure is self-imposed. We’re still doing a fuck load of work but at least we can use that time more effectively to explore things we want to explore, to work with artists in a way that we think is healthier and sustainable and to build relationships rather than just produce.
K: I feel like in my individual art practice the sweet spot in making art is when you don’t feel like you’re driving it. But when it kind of has its own logic and it proves itself useful enough that it needs to continue to exist. I don’t have a kid, but I assume it’s like when you have a kid and you think “oh look at them go out in the world!”.
We had an opportunity to continue 30/30 beyond April but we chose not to for a number of reasons. I really appreciated that this project has its own logic, its own boundaries and its own reasons why it exists. It can be like a really good meal that you eat, and you feel nourished and then you can move on with your life. As opposed to being like “oh that’s nice I need to eat it every day for the rest of my life… and then you start to hate it”.
I would like art to be that thing where it’s possible to allow some breathing room. And it’s not necessarily something you make; it’s rather a condition you set up in which you see how it accumulates value in the word,and you try to honour it, as opposed to consume it.
L: I just have a really unhealthy relationship with food ah-ah-ah If I like a meal, I would eat it every day and also eat so much that I have to lay down!
K: I told you it’s just like that one bad falafel that ruins you for the rest of the season. And you were like “I have no idea of what you’re talking about!”.
E: 12ø started because I wanted to make things I wish already existed. It’s not just about doing the things but also doing them right. It’s not just front facing thing that matters, but also the processes, learning better habits or better ways to do things and practicing that.
L: I guess that’s what being in a collective is like, sharing an idea and having other being able to be like “no” “that’s a terrible idea” or “that bit of it is alright, let’s keep that bit but not that other bit”- being editors for each other.
 Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2002. Print. 67.
Images: graphic design by Eva Duerden.