Published January 2021
Jenny Brady is an artist filmmaker based in Dublin, exploring ideas around speech, translation and communication. Her films have been shown in many different contexts including recent presentations with LUX, Projections at the New York Film Festival, BFMAF, MUBI, Kurzfilmtage, EMAF, IMMA and IFI. She was co-curator of PLASTIK Festival of Artists’ Moving Image and is a studio member at TBG+S.
Jamie Crewe is a beautiful bronze figure with a polished cocotte’s head. They grew up in the Peak District and are now settled in Glasgow. They have presented five solo exhibitions and been involved in many group shows and projects, and they hope to do more.
Shama Khanna is an independent curator, writer and educator from London via Nairobi. Khanna is the founder of Flatness, a long-running platform for artists’ moving image and network culture decentring unjust narratives of the arts and normalcy from the margins of the online. Khanna has curated numerous artists’ projects and commissions both independently and as part of collaborations with a range of organisations from Vilnius to Vancouver. Currently Khanna is a Trustee of not/nowhere art workers’ co-operative and a Visiting Lecturer in Curating Contemporary Art at Royal College of Art, London. As a writer they have contributed to Afterall, NANG, Art Monthly, Art Agenda, The White Review, Tongues and Aorist (co-edited with seven other writers).
Jenny Brady: For me, finding the right audience is really about finding the right platform. It’s hard to predict how and where the work will land but finding organisations who are sympathetic to the concerns of the work is a good place to start. Often, with the right organisation comes the right audience. If we’re talking about the immediate term, it’s worth considering the kinds of audiences and viewing contexts that COVID-19 presents. It seems like this has largely fallen into two brackets — those being the online exhibition or the online film festival. Traditionally, these are audiences with different viewing behaviours, and you could tentatively suggest that the film festival goer is a relatively committed one, but it’s hard to know with an online experience.
I think, perhaps, it’s more useful to think about the second part of this question — which is to consider what an artist wants from an online audience, and an online presentation more generally. Given the surfeit of online offerings, I think it’s critical to question how and why it’s necessary for the work to exist in this way. We don’t really need more content. So, what is the work ‘doing’ online? And, in what way does an online presentation challenge the work itself? I think this could be generative for the artist and enrich the experience for the viewer.
Jamie Crewe: I don’t know how to find an audience. I felt I didn’t have an audience for many years, and I am still a bit surprised that anyone takes an interest in what I do. I maintained a practice through this by trying to build a spine or core to my work that can survive obscurity. This meant making work that rewarded me first.
This risks being solipsistic. It has also allowed me to develop what is distinctive, rigorous, and personally enjoyable about my practice. Audiences I have now respond to these qualities.
I encourage artists to build spines for their work. Online this could be done through a thoughtful website, an email mail out or TinyLetter, or a social media practice (maybe you post certain kinds of videos, or compose certain kinds of Instagram stories, or get very creative with image descriptions). Whatever you do will benefit from a kind of dedication — do what you like, and get deeper into it, and let it transform you.
There’s no guarantee that an audience will come to this — in fact I think you must make peace with the possibility of no audience and no appreciation — but if an audience does come, you will be more equipped to share.
Shama Khanna: One of the most effective ways of reaching a wide audience is having your work shown in festivals which are mostly all online at the moment. Do your research and find a festival that suits the sensibility of your work (i.e. short form, essay, documentary etc.). Additionally, play the long game of contacting and building up relationships with curators with online platforms whose work you engage with – with their agreement, keep them updated with new work.
Networking via social media can be a good way of signposting your practice, but it’s not the best way of representing your practice itself. Think of it as a fast way for people to get in touch with you and a way of keeping your followers updated but unless your work addresses this aspect of culture (e.g. branding; digital intimacy; internet addiction; selfie-culture), or you consider yourself to be an Instagram artist, then a constant presence isn’t necessary.
In many cases Instagram, FB and Vimeo have replaced artist websites which is a shame as there is more freedom to play with formats on your own site. If you can find a designer whose work you like to make a simple to update but distinctive template for you that you can have fun with creatively framing your work, you can trust your viewer will respond to your openness.
Jenny Brady: There’s potential for your work to have greater reach through online presentation, but with that comes a certain duty of care to those audiences, which may include d/Deaf and blind people and people with hearing and vision loss. Making the work as accessible as possible (within the means available to you) is an important consideration for this kind of presentation. For me, this accessibility question has thrown up really useful questions around the legibility of my own work, but it’s also become an incredibly rich site for experimentation.
I also think it’s important to put a financial value on your participation in online exhibitions, in as much as you would with a physical exhibition or film festival. If we’re looking at a protracted period of disruption to public programming, we need to consider how artists and filmmakers can sustain themselves through this.
Jamie Crewe: I think it’s really important to be aware of the platforms we use for hosting moving image work. I’ve used YouTube for the past few years because Vimeo started restricting access to my content unless I purchased and maintained a paying subscription. However, YouTube has its own challenges: poor compression, algorithmic hell, ads, a culture of monetisation, and corporate ethos. I’m not happy with these options: I would like to host my work on a decentralised platform, and to keep it away from capitalist venture. I don’t know if such a platform exists.
I share my work online because I feel a commitment to horizontality and accessibility: I don’t want to keep things I make behind paywalls, hidden in collections, or accessible only through mechanisms of esteem and institution. I would like to have this approach reflected holistically in the way my work is made, hosted, and presented.
I encourage artists to be conscious of their principles and think about how these can be embodied throughout the conception, production, and dissemination of work. I’d encourage them to think honestly and gently about where their principles might bend, and where they won’t.
Shama Khanna: At the moment internet fatigue is a real issue. Teasers or episodic releases of longer works may be a way of overcoming this. Time-limited screening windows create more of an event around the work and are effective in focusing attention. The internet can also be a distracted space so encouraging viewers to wear headphones, dim the lights or ditch their mobiles in another room can help counter this. I have enjoyed co-ordinating small screening parties with friends making time to discuss thoughts together afterwards.
In terms of framing the work, try and put yourself in the viewer’s seat to make them as comfortable as possible: gather and proofread all your materials so that background information or any content warnings are accessible and the viewer has an idea of how long the work is before it begins. Consider accessibility issues for people with impaired vision or hearing who may for example need audio description or closed captions to access the work.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, always double-check your tech! Ensure that sound levels are consistent as, from the viewer’s position, not being able to hear or needing to adjust the volume more than once can be off-putting. Equally, bear in mind that the strength of the viewer’s internet connection might be unreliable, especially if the viewer is accessing the work on the move through a portable device, so save your super hi-res files for better screening conditions in the future.
Jenny Brady: I think we really need to invest in this notion of encounter — of staging an encounter online — given where we find ourselves. For many people, the migration of cultural activity online, combined with an (over)abundance of online offerings has led to a flattening of that experience. Finding ways to at least partially reset this dynamic is the challenge. Otherwise, presenting work online can sort of feel like sending it into the abyss.
This is why context really matters. Showing films online presents a unique opportunity to quite literally situate the work in relation to other ideas, material and discourses that can allow the work to extend itself in new directions. It’s a chance to rethink the work for yourself, make some bold editorial decisions and bring other voices into the conversation.
Compensating for this flattened experience is more challenging. I think it’s something we’ll all be figuring out for some time. But, in the interim, I feel like there are some simple ways to help activate that experience for the viewer. Simple viewing or listening notes with suggested lighting and sound conditions, for example, can generate more intentional viewing and a more embodied experience.
Jamie Crewe: I think the staging of an online viewing experience can be approached as sensitively as that of an installed viewing experience. Considerations needed for this are both spatial and contextual: for example, what colour is the background the video plays upon? Is the background a single or a tiled image? Does the video fill the page, or sit as an object? Does the page tell the viewer anything about the work? Does information sit above, below, or on top of the video? How can an audience interact with the content?
My videos are unlisted on YouTube, meaning they are publicly viewable, but only by following a link. I embed these videos on my website, meaning that most views come via my website, where I have set up a context for understanding them, and where a level of investment is required to find them (accessing my website, clicking through from the ‘Entrance’ page to the ‘Home’ page, then ‘Selected Work’, then a specific work out of many). I find this strikes a good balance between horizontal accessibility and a certain kind of care that I think my work (and everyone’s work) deserves. I turn off commenting on my videos.
I would encourage artists to explore art platforms that are specifically conceived for online contexts, and approach these contexts with creativity and thought — I like flatness.eu a lot in this regard.
Shama Khanna: Curators spend much of their time working out the best way to frame and contextualise the works in their care. My aim with Flatness, for example is for viewers to engage with the work on its own terms without the distraction of, advertisements, branding or ‘like’ buttons which is particularly important for a durational experience of time-based work. As a purposefully small platform, Flatness aims to work against the model of commercially-led social media platforms by cultivating safer more attentive conditions for all the specificities of minor, fictional, speculative, embodied and unbodied experimental works to be appreciated. I hope this puts forward an idea of communality around art which otherwise feels threatened by overexposure and competitiveness.
Curators are also concerned with developing audiences who follow our work because they find it interesting, progressive or recognise themselves in it. We often write about the work from our own positionality (in relation to the artist’s) or commission other writers to critically contextualise the work which is important in guiding the viewer’s experience of it and pointing to key works surrounding it.
Jenny Brady: I’ve always felt that you need to create a structure for feedback in your practice. For it to be really useful, you need a system or setup that allows for this kind of open criticality. I don’t think it happens organically. Yes, lots of useful dialogue can come from in-person encounters at festivals and exhibitions, but I don’t think you can be overly reliant on it. Some of the best (i.e. useful) and worst (i.e. also useful) feedback I’ve received came from showing work with MUBI. The kind of politeness you find at industry events, which by their nature are part-social, part-professional, just doesn’t exist on a platform like this. Personally, I find this lack of opacity really refreshing.
But, building a consistent critical support structure for your practice is really about finding the right people. Over the years, I’ve sought out mentoring/advice sessions with individuals and organisations I have an affinity with or respect for. The kind regularly offered by LUX Scotland (plug!). I’ve found these really generative, in particular at critical points in the development of projects. I also try to build some sort of formalised learning experience into each project. This provides a framework to test out emerging ideas in public, with a group. It’s a really useful way to gauge whether the material has any legs. My last film, Receiver, was definitely helped along by a narrative craft workshop Sarah Schulman ran in Dublin.
Over time, I’ve developed a kind of formal/informal network of people whose work I’m invested in and importantly, who I like. My husband is one of them. I work with him designing sound for the films, and he’s a great sounding board for new ideas or works in progress. You need people who can recognise the good stuff and call out the bullshit.
Jamie Crewe: What feedback do artists need? Do cinema or gallery audiences provide this? When I think about the feedback I have appreciated, I think of emails I’ve received after someone viewed an exhibition of mine; I think of conversations over Zoom or on walks; I think of DMs of mutual appreciation on Instagram; I think of conversations with friends in which they reveal a way they’ve thought about my work that I didn’t know; I think of working with collaborators and closely reading details of a work; I think of tears in my or someone else’s eyes.
I also think about a practice I try to keep: articulating and expressing to people what I like about their work; communicating when I have a productive encounter with someone’s work; trying to nominate artists I appreciate for prizes or opportunities, and when doing so to write as well as I can about what moves me in their practices.
This is all to say that the richest feedback I get comes from community, which is something to be tended to. Cinemas and galleries are not the only or even primary loci of this kind of community: it happens on margins, interpersonally, in private spaces as well as public. I would encourage artists to give thought and care to the work of others, which is its own reward.
Shama Khanna: LUX Scotland advice sessions and LUX one-to-ones are great opportunities for professional feedback. More informally, you could gather a small group of friends together and take it in turns to show and respectfully crit each others’ work. Or why not apply for some professional development funding to be able to invite mentors to discuss your work.
Jenny Brady: I think the most exciting aspect of presenting moving image online is the opportunity to set a wider context for it. It can open the work up and potentially change or complicate how it’s read. I love this!
Also, it seems like a good time to lean into the specificity of this online encounter with work, which takes place in a more intimate, and possibly more distracted environment. Personally, I’m quite excited about the prospect of designing my new film for both big and small screens, mixing for headphones and thinking on a one-to-one scale.
Jamie Crewe: I think specificity, accessibility, and reach.
Although you can use online resources to present films, TV, or moving image work envisioned for cinema or gallery, the internet has its own histories and conventions of moving image. Specificity, to me, means thinking about how you can work with this, rather than imagining it as neutral or pushing too hard to recreate another context. This is a rich vein to tap.
On video hosting platforms like YouTube and Vimeo you can add caption tracks that viewers can turn on or off, which allows d/Deaf and hard of hearing audiences to engage with work they might otherwise not be able to. Unfortunately, there’s no comparable option to add audio description tracks to videos for blind or partially sighted audiences — I hope this will change, and this is one of the failings of these platforms. Accessibility also means availability: work hosted online can be viewed by people unable to visit physical exhibitions or screenings due to geography, mobility, health restrictions, capacity, cost, or any other reason.
Reach is an aspect of accessibility. More people will be able to see your moving image work if it is available to view online and made more accessible in all senses. If you aspire to have your work seen, this is a good way to enable that; there also opportunities to think about who you want to see it, and how you want to reach them.
Shama Khanna: Presenting work online provides an invaluable opportunity for people with unconventional working timetables and people with mobility issues – such as those with caring responsibilities, those who are housebound due to illness or disability, or people with limited funds to travel – to be able to access your work. Also your audience is no longer restricted to those in geographical proximity to the gallery or cinema where your work is being screened – technically anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection can watch your work which is a great prospect to consider.
Supported by On & For Production and Distribution, an initiative co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union