|The Echofluxx Media Festival: Producing Events in Europe (F0)|
by Dan Senn
Presented at the NACUSA National Conference
Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA
November 15, 2014
This paper covers the practical aspects of producing a media festival in eastern Europe and specifically the Echofluxx festivals in Prague, The Czech Republic. It will focus on curation, performance spaces, lining up equipment and players, housing artists, website development, promotion and other aspects key to producing such an event.
While at a dinner party in Prague in 2010, I made an informal proposal to a group of Czech artists—a composer, a sound artist and a filmmaker. “I would like to produce an international media festival here in Prague which would be financed on virtually no money. Instead the festival would be “leveraged” in the sense that cooperation would be sought from local artists, schools, institutions and commercial enterprises for in-kind contributions of equipment and billets. It would seek integration into existing cultural and educational programs—international presenters invited far enough in advance for them to procure travel money from local agencies. The festival would take place in one of Prague’s rough alternative spaces, like the Trafačka Arena.” The response was quiet and polite but, generally, they thought I was delusional. A naive American. “These things don’t happen here.” they said.
I had been coming to Prague for about 6 years on a regular basis and had reached a point where I was subletting a flat. It was centrally located in Europe for my other travels, fairly inexpensive, and extravagantly beautiful. I was familiar enough with Czech language, the complex but wonderful Prague transit system and had connected with the local new music, sound art and visual art scene.
Provenance of an idea
Since graduate school at the University of Illinois-Urbana, I have been interested in out-of-the-box event production. While a student I learned by chance that there was an Office of Space Allocation that gave students access to any available space on campus for free! And so, instead of the Smith Recital Hall, I booked the large Assembly Hall on the Quad and initiated the first of 3 Spring concert extravaganzas. And what made these events unusual, beside the performance space which was known for uneven acoustics, was that I work hard to attract non-musicians, visual artists and people who were not in the arts at all. As I was raised in a blue collar family and even made a bid to get the local union halls involved.
But my real motivation, shared with my colleagues, behind these early attempts at event production, was practical. We wanted our music played and so we started to produce. We were ambitious and did not want to wait to be discovered. It was from this context that Roulette Intermedium of New York City arose, a major new music venue in Brooklyn today, cofounded by James Staley, David Weinstein and myself, all from the U of I. And it was out of this context that eventually the Echofluxx festivals 11, 12, 13, 14 and soon 15, would be produced in Prague nearly 35 years later.
Since my student days at the University of Illinois in the 1970s, I have produced the Six Exquisites International Sound Art Festivals in Washington State, the Catacombs of Yucatan Cave Installation in the remote hills of southeast Minnesota, the Municipal Dock Sound Installation in Tacoma, Washington, in a massive space 19th Century wooden building that had been closed for 50 years and then the Shy Anne Sound and Video Festival which took place in a neighborhood venue in Seattle.
Prague—A Case for Change
Like some cities in the United States, Prague attracts composers and artists from across the world because there is a lot happening. Its an exciting city, relatively inexpensive, utterly livable and astonishingly beautiful. English is ubiquitous, especially among artists, and it has an eloquent history of supporting great composers—Mozart’s operas are still played in the venues they were written for in the 18th Century. But just like the American counterparts like Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and New York, Prague has its social groups or cliques which tend to repress cooperation between artists… and it is within this context, contrary to what one might think, that I believe special entrepreneurial opportunities exist.
My Prague dinner friends in 2010 may have believed I was naive because they recognized how difficult it was to do something idealistic which would rely so much on cooperation.
As an aside here, this was the case when trying to establish Cascadia Composers in Portland Oregon, where many composers not getting their work performed, this impacting their productivity, to say the least. The local new music scene, in Portland, and indeed the entire state, was controlled by a few university professors and unless you were positioned correctly, your performance opportunities were very limited. Initiating Cascadia was therefore difficult, as artists were fearful (no exaggeration), and, therefore, the organization had to be initiated in secret. Most of that early planning for Cascadia took place in my Beaverton studio behind closed doors, and Portland composers now owe a great deal to NACUSA which gave Cascadia a quick and legal framework within which to organize.
And my purpose in raising the Cascadia experience here is that similar social dynamics exist everywhere and organizing something as banal as non-institutionally endorsed media festival in Europe can be frightfully difficult.
Let us now take a look at what is necessary to produce a time-based event.
What you need to produce an event (F1)
- performance space
- invited presenters
- media, social media
- if possible, money to pay presenters
- thick skin
What you do not need…
- thin skin
A Practical Guide to presenting concerts in Eastern Europe
The proposed abstract for this paper stated that I would focus on presenting festivals in Europe but while writing I realized that much of what I am about to present does not apply in western Europe and is more applicable to productions in eastern Europe and, perhaps, specifically Prague. The big difference between eastern and western Europe, and even countries like Poland, are that the Czech Republic is still less regulated, a little behind (brown field conditions still exist), and expectations are generally different.
For example, the Trafačka Arena, the old concrete power plant and alternative facility in Prague, where several of the Echofluxx festivals have taken place, would never, in a million years, pass code muster in Germany or the United States. Indeed, there are so many code violations it is not worth listing here. Even the bar we hired, a standard feature in all of European art venues, was probably illegal but not a problem here because it was run by a Prague policeman. The bathrooms were all sub par, some areas poorly lit, steps without hand railings, etc. and yet there has never a moment when there was a perception of danger because of established social expectations. For the Czechs, even with small children, the unwritten rule is “Be careful. This is art and the way things are. Hold your child’s hand.” It is not a litigious society and for this reason, there is no need to gaff cables to the floor at Echofluxx. Patrons can be counted on to step over them.
Here now is the main production flow for the Echofluxx festivals.
Production Model Flow (F2)
- Edit previous year’s documentation and put online.
- Form a production team.
- Determine festival dates.
- Find a presentation space.
- Create a website.
- Invite guests.
- Raise money for performers, incidentals.
- Generate input to social media.
- Arrange for gear.
- Arrange for billeting.
- Arrange for documentation.
- Final advertisement, press connections, mail lists.
- Do Festival.
- Prepare ground for next festival.
I will now touch upon some of these steps in more detail.
Editing festival documentation (F3)
This is done immediately following the festival.
- Use simple titling header; use entire performance.
- Relaxed limitations and accessibility make YouTube/Vimeo a viable option now;
link to festival website; inform presenters.
- Prepare composite video made of segments from all presentations.
- Prepare shorter composite video of segments from all previous festivals for fundraising.
- Prepare DVD of previous festival.
- Send materials financial contributors; DVD, posters, and programs.
- Collect photos from other sources; edit, put on site, make available to performers.
Form Production Team (F4)
- a cooperative group fully aware of the festival production model
- artistic director, curator (Dan)
- year around on-the-ground liaison (Tereza, Petra)
- translator (Tereza, Petra)
- publicity (Tereza)
- tech (David)
- logistics (Petra and Jíří)
- new music curator (Sylva, early reflections)
- video and sound documentation (Dan)
- Ustream broadcast (Michael)
- site liaison (Igor)
- webmaster (Dan)
- Echofluxx Ensemble coordinator (David)
- Note: this is usually a bit larger as artists and patrons volunteer to assist
in setup, poster design and distribution, cleanup, etc.
Ironically, developing a production team is easier when the production model is well known—that no one is getting paid and money raised will go to performers and some other essentials, like printing simple programs and a few posters. It most instances in Prague composers-performers of experimental media art are not paid. Only the organizers are paid. And, while this is the norm, in truth it is a source of resentment among artists. That Echofluxx pays has enhanced its reputation and helped overcome some disparities between art cliques.
The world is upside down in the arts and it has been this way for a long time now. When I left academe I organized a show of my video and sound sculpture at a prominent Pacific coast university which, surprisingly, had virtually no budget for the artists upon which their gallery relied. I was shocked to learn that the docents, student workers, who guarded the work were actually being paid, while artist were lucky to garner some art transportation money. What I believe has caused this is, in part, the merit system, where musicians and artists are compensated for activity away from the university. Therefore, university artists are paid, and independent artists are not. In this way, galleries and venues are supported indirectly by institutions and tax dollars while independent artists are pushed to the margin.
Determine Festival Times, Dates and Format (F5)
- A five-day festival, Tuesday through Saturday, with 10 performance slots.
Echofluxx 15, however, will be a 4 day festival, ending on Saturday.
- Two sets a night with a possible fixed media work between or after the second.
- Sets are between 30-50 minutes; artists free to do what they want during their slot.
- All but one of the slots, two per night, is committed to individuals or small groups
presenting film, dance, improvised music, fix media, poetry, vocal and instrumental
music, and then anything the invited artist chooses.
- Artists are chosen and not specific works.
- Echofluxx is presented in the last week of April or early May for practical reasons as
alternative venues like the Trafačka - Arena are often unheated and not completely
dark until later. One year we blackened the windows at Trafačka but it was difficult
and dangerous. It is easier to simply book sound-only artists for the first set and those
needing projected images for the second set.
- There is a 15-20 minute break between sets which helps out the bar.
- The fourth night, on Friday, the second set, is set aside for new music, that is, the sort
of music being played here at the NACUSA National Conference. Curation has
sometimes been handed off to a Czech composer or sub-organizer, like early reflections,
depending on interest.
- Echofluxx Ensemble plays first set on Saturday, day five.
Finding a performance space (F6)
In the production model I am proposing here, choosing the performance space is critically important. Since the 1950s, as installation artists, dancers, poets, composers and musicians performed increasingly in galleries and non-proscenium environments, the presentation space has significantly altered creative awareness and Echofluxx has taken this into account.
Here is the criteria Echofluxx considers in choosing a performance space.
Curatorial and programmatic concerns (F6)
- Is it live or dead acoustically?
- Does it have parallel walls?
- Are the floors usable for dancers?
- Does it have a wall to project images on?
- Does it favor acoustic music?
- What sort of sound system is needed?
- Can the space be darken for projection?
- Is there additional space available for installations/visual art?
Where the curator plays a role in a creative decisions.
- In what way will it significantly shift what presenters do?
- In what way will it impact perception by the audience?
- Where will the audience be placed?
- Can the proscenium shift from set to set?
- Is the space accessible to the public?
- Is it near public transport?
- Is it free? What will it cost?
- Will the space itself attract an audience?
- Are tables and chairs present onsite?
- Are the chairs fixed?
- Is the space wheelchair accessible?
- Does it have a sound system. Is lighting available?
- Is it secure during the day and overnight?
- What kind of sound system will be required?
- Does it have a fast internet connection?
- How easy is it to load in equipment?
- Can you mount a banner outside for public viewing?
- Bathrooms? Kitchen
In Prague, the Trafačka Arena is a cathedral-like space and not be easily darkened during daytime. The floors are rough and not well suited for all forms of traditional dance. For Echofluxx 11, the first year, we seated the audience on wooden skids which were lying about, odd metal bench-like constructions, some sofa couches, and a post modern collection of unmatched chairs. The walls were white and pock marked from the nails used to hang visual art shows over the years. The space strongly favored low frequencies (it was mistake to use a subwoofer in the space) but was crystal clear in the high range. The “echo” in Echofluxx came from my first impression of this space.
Here is another list of things I look for in a festival space.
The space… (F7)
- must be free or very cheap.
- must generate interest and be useful in marketing the festival.
- must be accessible via public transport.
- must be dark for half the night.
- needs to be quiet though some external noise is OK.
- must allow performances until late (midnight).
- must be accessible by mid-afternoon each day.
- must allow the basic setup to be in place overnight.
- must be acoustically and visually interesting, not perfect.
- must be secure for gear overnight.
- must have fast internet connection available.
- must have bathrooms and a place for a bar.
The Performance space breaths life into everything else. Indeed, it may be better to confirm the festival venue before organizing a production team for no other reason than the space will generate interest and enthusiasm. Space ancillary to the main performance space, for example, may suggest adding an installation of sound sculpture or video and a team member to handle this.
No Money Note: Having no money up front is far more powerful and liberating than you might think. When looking for team members, a venue, and equipment, if you lead off with “We have no money. The organizers are all working for free, but we will try and find money for the performers…” those who would not otherwise help are more likely to do so because this is so rare. It is much easier to receive in-kind support from institutions, commercial enterprises and fellow artists if you have no money. Artists especially are more willingly to help out with, say, a video projector (beamer), a couple of speakers or a billet, under these conditions.
Organic organization note: The festival model needs to have a formal framework, of course, but relevance and complexity comes from the ability to react to what people want on the ground. Listen to those involved. Almost always say “yes.” If an artist would like to include a fixed installation, let them, if possible. If a video artist wants to sing instead of showing a film, let them. It is always interesting. Let the festival grow and develop on its own.
Create Festival Banner
The festival banner needs to be created fairly early on as it should be included in all correspondence as well as on Facebook. It will be the first thing seen on the website and when patrons come to the festival, it will be seen from outside the presentation space and then again inside.
Create Festival website
The festival website need not be complex and should never be farmed out. I suggest doing a simple scroll down page with 2-4 columns with the festival banner on top. Do not depend on a third party for this as it is a sure recipe for incredible stress. If the site is kept simple, updates will be easy and quickly made. So, I suggest doing it yourself, or using a really trustworthy artist friend using free software like Kompozer. Its enough. Be sure to include logos for all organizations and people who lend a hand to the festival. For example, if they represent your festival on their website, send out email notifications, provide some equipment, billet an artist, or print up some posters for you, etc., give credit on the site. Also, as it is an international event, the festival language is English. Even so, the Echofluxx audience is primarily Czechs, albeit English speaking, and so include a translation of the schedule, philosophy, and some other things. Leave the rest in English and do not make separate versions.
For this production model, the website is the primary communication point for everything. All artists photos should be in two forms—a site resolution which loads quickly and when selected, reveals a high resolution press version. The press release should be present in pdf format as well as a high resolution version of the poster. Even include setup times somewhere on the website. All the bios and photos should be in final form and the only ones used. The festival program will be made from the website material and included in PDF format on the site so that patrons, rather than taking a paper program at the door, can access the program during the festival on their IOS device.
Another important tip here is to almost never ask artists for their bio, photos or sound or video files for the website. Use only information available already online. Once the site is about ready to go live, let the artist proof this information and send changes if necessary. Most will find what you have done adequate and those that would like changes made will send these back quickly. This will avoid an enormous amount of frustration as artists tend not to respond quickly to such requests.
An ordered check list (F8)
- Create a banner.
- Create a simple site mostly in English.
- Do not ask artists for biographic information at first.
- Create two versions of all photos.
- Include support names and logos
- Include poster, press release, program, setup schedules.
- Include promo videos, links to previous festivals.
- Send pre-launch site to artists for approval and updates.
- Launch website, link to Facebook page.
- Contact media outlets about site (especially ArtMap)
- Site is the only source for festival information.
The order in which you invite guests to a festival makes a difference. For example, for Echofluxx 15, Phill Niblock, who will be in Europe in early May of 2015, has agreed to come to the festival. Phill travels light these days, is 81, and will do a presentation of his music and films and is very well known in Europe today. With Phill on the lineup, it is easier to invite other artist as they all want to meet and be associated with him.
I invite the Czech artists after the international artists as those who must travel a long distance need to get funding and arrange their schedules far in advance. I also leave a slot open to be filled by a local artist in the last month before the event. This is part of the organic process. I prefer to invite artists with work I have experienced firsthand, or artists recommended by someone with judgment I can trust.
Also, I never book specific pieces but only artists with work I like and then let them do whatever they want. The artists must also be easy to get along with. Again, if a composer decides to present a film, fine. If an dancer wants to present a string quartet, fine. In every case, it is always interesting even if it makes updating the website and preparing a program awkward at times. I will also allow artists to include friends and collaborators if they choose, all of this part of an organic production method, and one that heightens the intensity and interest. I want artist to take risks. To try things out and so I will tell them generally what gear will be available at the festival, what the site is like, and that they can do pretty much whatever they want for 30-50 minutes. Last year, a Czech experimental filmmaker, instead of presenting a new film, which I expected, presented a work for sound only. A radio work. I have also booked one artist and then others have turned up which is fine.
Various government agencies in Prague will routinely promote the work of artists from their country. This money is not difficult to get so long as you make application in advance. In Prague, among others, the Polish Institute, the Lithuanian Embassy, the Goethe Institute and the French Cultural Agency will sponsor artists. This can be a starting point for curation along with asking the question “Who do we know that is doing interesting work in Lithuania?" or "Who is in the area during the festival?”
It is sometimes possible to hook up with the local film, art or music school who may be interested in an Echofluxx artist doing a residency, lecture, or master class—for money, of course. These schools may also provide housing for the artist.
I have always tended to split my invites between men and woman, and then between Czech and foreign artists. I also prefer people of all ages presenting at Echofluxx. Artists in their 20s. Artists in their 80s. It makes for a better festival.
Guest Leveraging: An ordered invitation of artists (F9)
- I do not recommend putting out a call with the exception of fixed media works, if included.
- Invite best known artists first. Tell them that you have not invited any other artists, and that
by inviting them first, others will likely come. Tell them about the production model.
- No travel money, about the pay, but what gear you will have and the space characteristics.
- Send them photos of the space. Tell them hat you will find them a place to stay, etc. and
that you will provide them with a formal invitation on festival letterhead if requested.
- Once first artist is committed, invite the second guest saying “So and so will be there…
- When second guest is committed, invite third saying “So and so, and so and so, are coming.”
- Invite local (Czech) artists next saying “So and so, and so and so, and so and so are coming.
- keep one slot open until month before festival.
- contact local schools and institutions for artist integration and possible assistance..
Raising Money via Crowd Funding (F10)
A relatively small amount of money has been raised for each of the Echofluxx festivals and this has been done using Kickstarter and online donations. For Echofluxx 14, it looked as though we would not meet our meagre goal of $2000 and so we withdrew from the service while encouraging our supporters to donate directly at our website. Fortunately, this worked. Kickstarter takes 5% from the pledge total and you must meet this goal to complete funding. Other crowd funding services take less of a percentage and do not require that you meet a stated goad.
We are not sure what we will do for Echofluxx 15.
Crowd Funding services (F10)
These services require a slick promotional video. We use footage from previous festivals with a voice over. It is a good idea to watch videos from other projects to get an idea of what to do.
Arrange for gear
For Echofluxx 11, the first festival, we had no equipment and needed to rely on in-kind donations from a local music store in exchange for hanging a banner, and then a film and a music school with which we also had programmatic connection—a few of our artists gave presentations at their school. And while integration and cooperation is ideal, it can also be a source of stress and discontent. Two years ago, for example, a local film school which was providing us with projectors and a portion of our sound system, recognized the popularity and potential of the festival and started dictating curatorial decisions and restructuring in exchange for gear without any concern for the production model. This quickly turned into a can of worms and so we politely looked elsewhere for help. Over the years, fortunately, we have been gifted with a base level of gear and can more easily avoid these sticky situations. Even so, we continued to seek out program integration and in-kind donations of gear, but as a hedge we now have our own along with some generous and dependable artist resources.
Prague has, perhaps, the best and cheapest mass transit system in the world, part of the reason I live there, and so most artists do not have cars. It makes little sense. And while you can hire taxis to transport gear, it is best to find an supporter with access to a van and for this we have Jíří and Petra who are committed to helping out again this year. This year’s festival will be at Podnik, a space in a old office building constructed in 1920s which comes equipped with an all Czech sound and projection system.
Here is the Echofluxx base system (F13)
- 2 self-powered speakers, 15” woofers with stands.
- 2 RCF self-powered speakers, 12” woofers.
- 4 music stands.
- 400’ of mic cable, USB, HDMI and VGA cables, all lengths.
- 1 box of cables, balanced and balanced, various adaptors.
- 400’ of AC cables.
- 2 mics.
- 2 mic stands with booms.
- 2 mixers.
- 6 halogen lights with faders.
- 1-2 video projectors (beamer).
- 3 tables.
- 40 folding chairs.
- 2 camera tripods.
- 1 video playback machine.
- 1 micca USB chip playback units.
- 1 computer monitor.
- 3 cell phones.
Artist billeting at Echofluxx has been handled differently at each festival.
Here are where we have put up artists in the past.
- artist homes (flats).
- the performance space itself.
- flats associated with institutions supporting Echofluxx.
- donated hostel space.
Cell phones (F13)
Pay-as-you-go cell phones are inexpensive in The Czech Republic and with foreign artists sometimes dispersed throughout the city, it is convenient and even comforting to give them a phone with the festival organizers details pre-programmed in. Prague is generally a safe city but on one occasion, a performer got on the wrong tram late at night and needed fetching! These phones can also be used to purchase mass transit tickets and are easily recharged from a cash machine.
The importance of documentation at media festivals has changed over the years along along with the way we assess success or failure of these events.
Over the past 4 years, Echofluxx has attracted audiences of 25 to 120 with the average being about 40 people per night and this is pretty close to audience expectation in other cities. But the Echofluxx website, where festival events are well documented, is well trafficked serving thousands of viewers every year, a fact revealed by easily accessible site statistics.
For example, a well financed festival in a city like Portland, Oregon, one that may costs hundreds of thousands to produce, will attract many paying customers, but, almost invariably, will have documentation unavailable to the public afterward. Ironically, even though Echofluxx is produced inexpensively, over time it will serve many, many more patrons as the documentation is both of high quality and available to anyone online.
This is an extremely important part of the Echofluxx production model. Echofluxx is a close up event. The artists intermingle with other artists and exchange contact information while, perhaps, having a drink together. They sleep at local homes and all of this extends the cultural relevance and meaningfulness of the festival.
Equipment for documentation (F13)
The equipment that we use to document the festivals is a small still camera, which you can hang from your side, an iPad mini for the UStream broadcast, and a high definition video camera, a Sony HXR-NX70U, with balanced stereo audio inputs connected to an audio-technica 8065, a stereo microphone. This mic will mount on the camera, but detach for a central location close to the performers using an inexpensive 50 foot 5-conductor cable. I recommend not shooting video at the highest resolution but at high quality setting from which a DVD can eventually be mastered. I shoot in NTSC, and 16:9 but 4:3 is OK too. The main target for video documentation today is online video sites, like Vimeo and YouTube, so you can get by with pretty low resolution if necessary. Lower resolution, of course, means that you can shoot a lot of performances onto inexpensive SD chips without effecting the quality of the sound. This will also speed up the editing process.
Ustream connection (F13)
Just prior to performances, between 7p and 8p, we interview artists live and stream it to an online audience. David Means and Michael Karman have been doing this for a few years now. David also organizes and performs with the Echofluxx Ensemble, which I will describe later on, and Michael is a musician-journalist who has written about the Echofluxx Festivals in the past. The streaming effort reaches online anywhere from, say 10 to 40 viewers at any one time and adds life to festival.
Echofluxx Ensemble (F13)
This is coordinated by David Means, a composer and performer from Metro State University in Minneapolis, and is comprised of performers who are present throughout the festival. They will do a group improvisation on the final evening of the festival, the first set.
Do the Festival (F14)
Day Zero, Monday (day before festival commences)
- print programs
- load in gear, set it up for 1st performances (variable proscenium?)
- clean site if necessary
- put banners in place outside and inside space
gather artists at airport, bring directly to site if possible, then to housing, give them
cell phone and city map if necessary (cell phone is metro ticket)
- setup and test Ustream camera and mic.
Days 1,2,3 and 5: Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday
- setup chairs, adjust lights, video and sound system for two artist(s) sets
- if site is wide open, consider proscenium shifts for each set.
- allow artist to reverse order.
- set out programs (Czechs will often just “borrow” a program!)
- setup documentation camera and mic.
- fix lighting
- open doors at 7:00p. Expect late start, like 8:30-40p. tell artists.
- 7:00p start U-Stream interviews with tonights artists.
- 8:30-40p: announce beginning of festival in English. Tell audience that there will be a break between sets.
- setup documentation equipment.
- let people meet artists before, after and during event.
- keep venue and bar open for an hour or more after second set.
- lock up venue for night and make sure artists get back to flats. Go with them if necessary.
- secure documentation chips (make NO NAME backup on hard drive and external DVD-R or BD-R)
make sure artists know it may take two month before editing is complete.
- Instruct artists about Echofluxx Ensemble (David).
Day 5, Friday (variances)
- load in new music gear, music stands, extra mics, tables, etc
- longer afternoon rehearsal time needed for new music ensemble.
Day 6-7, Sunday and Monday
- Strike setup and transport gear.
- Dinner for organizers to discuss festival.