Thriving in the Attention Economy

A conversation with Clayton Cubitt

Clayton Cubitt (also known as Siege) is a professional photographer, video artist, and writer. He’s been making cultural contributions to the internet for over a decade.

Though he makes his living as a still photographer on high-end fashion and commercial photo shoots, much of Clayton’s personal work is created for the internet. He’s not just a photographer posting photos, he’s a visual artist using the internet as both a means of distribution and an integral part of the art, evolving along with, and responding to, the ever changing nature of the internet.

His most recent video series, Hysterical Literature, has been viewed millions of times around the world, and has launched a new genre.

Much of his work is NSFW, proceed with wild abandon.


This conversation took place via The InterroClayton:

“I often get the question “Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain?” The magic of technology now enables me to say yes to everyone. You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers. This $2 digital download entitles the purchaser to ask any single question of me and receive an honest answer to it in a timely fashion. It is a VIP ticket to my mind.


Kim Boekbinder: What was the impetus for The InterroClayton? ($2 question)

Clayton Cubitt: It came after I had to declare email bankruptcy.

I think any artist or public figure has a hard time keeping up with the questions and inquiries that come in every day. It’s gotten so bad that goals like “Inbox Zero” have been born. I tried for years to answer all messages I got, but always found myself feeling guilty for not being able to. And then social media exploded, and beside emails now there’s Twitter and Instagram replies and comments to manage, it just became too much.

So I needed to apply a throttle to it. And I’ve always been fascinated with the work of the economist Thorsten Veblen, regarding luxury goods. And I thought, in an Attention Economy, what’s more of a luxury good than someone’s undivided attention? So I just basically made an alternate “VIP” inbox, priced dynamically, based on how much attention someone wants me to pay their question, and how quickly I respond. The more they decide to pay, the more thoughtful are my answers, and the faster I respond.

I still have an open “free” email form. And of course people are welcome to send me notes that way, or via social media, and I try to read all of that, and still respond to especially thoughtful freemails, but every InterroClayton gets answered, guaranteed.

by Clayton Cubitt

KB: It’s an interesting way to ask you questions. I’m really re-evaluating everything, weighing the questions more. Even with such a low starting price it still forces me to value my time and yours in a different way.

CC: That was one of the hoped-for effects when I launched it, but I had no idea if it would work, or just make people mad. But I think it’s a testament to how pervasive the notion is in society that we can pay for VIP line-cutting access anywhere, for the right price, that no one has criticized it. In fact, the opposite, I’ve only gotten good comments about it. Americans in particular love it. We’re such a nation of grifters and hustlers. There’s no shame to making a buck, as long as you do it with some style.

by Clayton Cubitt

KB: America does love a good hustle. I like the InterroClayton because it presses the value/money/time tension button. It’s a clever tool to cut down on emails and monetize your notoriety, but it’s also a neat art project in itself. And now that I’m over my initial over-evaluation I am feeling a surge of power, via the InterroClayton and its guaranteed answer I could ask you anything. ANYTHING! Mwahahahahahaha.

But what I really want to ask next is this: What question do you get asked the most? ($2 question)

CC: Before I installed the InterroClayton I got a pretty even mix of fan mail and then questions from photographers about technical things, like what camera I used or what app for a certain shot. The former was nice, although I often felt guilty I couldn’t answer. The latter was seldom answered. After I installed InterroClayton the fan mail stayed steady, the camera/technical questions almost entirely disappeared, and I got a new class of questions that were much more philosophical, like this one from Ken Baumann.

by Clayton Cubitt

KB: How has the internet changed how your work/career is valued? ($4 question)

CC: I’m completely and totally pro-Internet. I think most of the best things about my career have been because of the Internet, or were turbo-boosted by it. I think it’s common for photographers of my generation or older to lament the Internet as destroying photography, but I feel the opposite.

I began my career in the mid-90s, when the Internet was certainly here, but it was still a very “separate” space from the real world. Photography was almost entirely analog, and non-networked. At each stage of the Internet’s expansion I’ve felt my career expand along with it, and it’s provided me with opportunities I never had when the photo world was analog and offline.

Lagos Calling, by Clayton Cubitt

I’ve been able to reach audiences the analog world never let me reach. In 2004 I was hired by Nerve.com as one of the world’s first (to my knowledge) paid photobloggers. This introduced whole new audiences to my most challenging personal work, and they became instrumental in late 2005 when Hurricane Katrina came ashore, destroying most of my family’s homes and possessions, along with the communities they lived in. I then launched a blog called Operation Eden which documented the destruction, and became a rallying place for relief efforts, and aid to both my family and to the larger community. In retrospect it also acted as a sort of primitive Kickstarter.

It was overwhelming. Volunteers rebuilt my mom’s home, and then stuck around and built dozens more for her community. Tractor trailers full of relief supplies arrived from all over the world. People stayed for months, camped out in tents, just to help. Volunteers from all around the world visited my mom’s little bayou community and made a pilgrimage to her house just to see if she was alright. The government wasn’t doing this. The old media wasn’t doing this. This was all the Internet.

Louisiana after Katrina by Clayton Cubitt

And it was that angle that actually led scores of media outlets to finally cover it. I already had a decade-long established career in magazines, but the magazines weren’t interested in covering my personal angle on this story until I did it myself, and the Internet blew it up. This was the first time I noticed the “because of the Internet” phenomenon in my work, and as a story excuse for media coverage.

My active use of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr has allowed me to maintain a steady and diverse audience without relying on publishers for sporadic showcases. For years now clients have routinely approached me for commissions based on projects I’ve only published online.

by Clayton Cubitt

I don’t even maintain printed analog portfolios anymore. And those projects I create for editorial and advertising clients receive new longevity when archived and shared across social networks. Fashion stories I shot ten years ago continue to pop-up online as scans on fashion fan sites, and kids that would have never seen the original story after the magazine left the newsstands now see them in parts of the world the original magazine never dreamed of reaching.

It’s not unalloyed good, there are definitely problems with piracy, lack of attribution, social media corporations building their massive profits on the back of safe harbor provisions in the DMCA, but in general, the Internet has mainly increased the value of my work.


Clayton does have a problem with people on Tumblr removing his photography credit. People remove credit from digital works the way they would remove a tag from clothing — tearing off an irritating extra bit. But as a viewer I always want to see the original credit so I can follow the artist.

Outtake from Die Antwoord photoshoot, by Clayton Cubitt

KB: I cast my vote for you to have another regular photo blog. I nominate Medium as a good home for it.

Besides the InterroClayton, do people pay you for your online work? Tips for your videos or donations? Do you use any of the micro-payment sites like Flattr.com? ($6 question)

CC: Actually, this is an area I’ve really neglected. Short of occasional fund-raising for disaster relief I’ve not really made it too easy for my audience to give me money directly. Then again, only recently in my career have platforms started to emerge that start to make this doable. I toyed a bit with Vimeo’s tip jar when it first launched, and I enabled advertising on my YouTube videos, but I’ve never used Kickstarter to fund anything (I’ve contributed to others though) and I haven’t toyed with micro-payment sites.

The biggest online income stream is currently from the YouTube ads, but they were a giant hassle to get setup for payment on, and I eventually had to resort to a third party network partner to get them working, and between Google’s cut and the network partner’s cut, they take about 70% of the revenue. I don’t think this is a sustainable state of affairs.

I think we’re still at the dawn of more equitable and universal payment systems for artists. It’s going to have to happen though. Honestly, older Internet companies have largely derived their profits from free-riding off the infrastructure and cultural capital of Old Media. Artists are only able to post work online for free because there are still magazines and ad agencies and venues that pay them real money elsewhere. These Internet companies still have market caps based on the attention derived from this free content. And we’ve all kind of looked the other way, partly from novelty, partly from the greed of wanting something for free.

But people are starting to realize that “likes” don’t pay for content, and they really do want to contribute to artists that make amazing things. And the old Internet companies that don’t get smarter about enabling this human desire risk being sidelined by the new breed that gets it. So I’m confident it’ll become more embedded into new platforms.

Solé Session, Hysterical Literature by Clayton Cubitt
Stats for Hysterical Literature.

KB: Being the author of viral works, do you have any idea of what you think a fair $ per view amount would be? Are you happy to make that money via youtube ads and sponsors, or would you prefer to be advertising free and get money directly from viewers? ($8 question)

CC: I think YouTube’s embedded ads strike a good balance between generating income for creators but being tolerable to viewers. There are some things I would improve about it, but right now I find it preferable to the tip jar feature that Vimeo has, which hardly anyone uses. And Pay-Per-View only really works for feature films and comedy specials by celebrities.

YouTube is very opaque about what kind of income is being generated from the ads they sell against my work, but after they take their cut, and my network partner takes their cut, it breaks down to about $1000 per million views. This is nothing to sneeze at, but it barely dents my rent in NYC. And 99.99% of the videos on YouTube can never hope for a million views.

The thing about “viral” content is that the vast majority of its eventual audience has no prior relationship with the creator of the work. It’s very different than a sustained Kickstarter campaign or “long tail” sales to an artist’s most dedicated fans. Viral content gets plucked out of context and repackaged a million times in alien settings, so the most durable income generating tool for it is one that can travel with it without reducing its velocity. Right now that’s advertising. It might always be advertising.

Artists shouldn’t kid themselves that most people give a fuck about them directly. At least not at first. People want what you’ve made, they don’t want you. You have to seduce them into also wanting you. And you can only do that by making more stuff that they want, and hopefully attaching yourself to it in the minds of some small percentage of its fans. This is branding.


The dedicated project Hysterical Literature website has essays on the work by amazing writers, commentary by the participants in the project, and digital downloads there for people who’d like to support the project financially, but it’s totally invisible to 99% of the people who see the works, because they’re not seeing it there, they’re seeing it on blogs and on social media, as individual videos. So having an income-generating tool that’s unobtrusively built-in to the desired content is vital.


It’s also brittle. It exists accidentally, really, this culture of embedded videos. As computers get smarter and networks get faster I could easily see this changing so that videos are re-ripped and re-blogged without recourse to a canonical (and monetized) original embed, thus divorcing the original creator from even that revenue stream. This is already the case with music and photos, which get re-encoded when someone decides to upload them to their Tumblr. Video has been spared this only because it’s generally been harder to work with, computationally. But it’s already happened to me. Perez Hilton, Huffington Post, and a few other sites have illegally ripped my originals and re-encoded them for presentation on their own sites, rather than just embedding my original videos.

Black Bunny, by Clayton Cubitt

KB: I want to keep asking questions forever. It is a joy to wander through your brain. But I think I’ll end this interview here with a final question: what can we citizens of the internet do to support you in further creations? ($10 question)

CC: I’ll be releasing art editions this year, and some interesting subscriber-only projects, so follow me for announcements.

And I’d love to partner with or consult for app developers and other tech companies who’d like to be in the next wave, and are interested in building platforms that enable growth through profit-sharing with content creators.

And anyone else, in general, I’d just like to reiterate how valuable and important it is for you to provide credit to the original artists when you share their work. This is really basic minimum etiquette in the “attention economy” we now find ourselves living in. If you love it enough to share it, love it enough to credit it!

Find Clayton Cubitt on the web:

Website: www.claytoncubitt.com
Twitter: @claytoncubitt
Instagram: Instagram.com/claytoncubitt
Tumblr: claytoncubitt.tumblr.com

Williamsburg Bridge, by Clayton Cubitt
Next Story — No Joy Without Risk
Currently Reading - No Joy Without Risk

You Don’t Get Joy Without Risk

A Conversation with Amanda Palmer on “The Art of Asking.”

Pre-order “The Art of Asking” — Release date 11/11/14

Amanda Palmer is busy, she’s juggling a book release, a new musical, the last days of her epic Kickstarter fulfillment, a best friend battling cancer, an upcoming tour, and never quite catching up to herself.

She’s a celebrated rockstar, a much maligned internet celebrity, a party thrower, a conversation starter, and a controversy magnet.

When I ask how she’s doing she says she’s stretched pretty thin, running on fumes.

KB: How long have you felt that way?

AFP: In a certain respect I’ve been running on fumes since 2001. Though, I feel generally calmer than I did 7 years ago because I’m not as stressed about becoming famous. I’ve landed on a small island where I like it and I’m gradually reorganizing my life, brain, and time to spend more moments enjoying myself and the people I love instead of wasting time on stupid shit.

KB: What do you do to refuel yourself?

AFP: If there was a single answer to that I would be so happy. But there is no single answer to that because refueling myself on certain days means getting away from everybody and catching up on work and on certain other days it means getting away from work and doing something artistic and on certain days it means making sure I pay attention to my husband, and my friend with cancer. And I have to refuel myself in all of these ways to be able to do any of them.

If there’s one consistent thread underlying all of it, it’s keeping up my mindfulness practice because when I let that go, everything suffers.

Amanda and husband, Neil Gaiman. And balls. (from instagram)

KB: Let’s talk about your book, The Art of Asking, which is based on your TED talk. How did the book grow from your talk?

AFP: When I was writing the talk there were a lot of subjects — branches of the tree — that I had to lop off in order to make it the pruned, twelve-minute product that I had to deliver, so my brain had already done the work of making those connections. While I was writing the talk I saw a parallel with every department of my life, whether that was my marriage, or my best friend battling cancer.

Those things didn’t all have a place in the talk, it would have taken away from the power of the talk if I’d tried to cram it all in: stripping, and husband, and cancer… And every single thing that is connected to the philosophy of existence.

So I kept the talk structured around music and street performance and human beings seeing each other.

When I started writing the book I gave myself carte blanche, I let myself write about everything. EVERYTHING. I let the garden grow completely wild with weeds and flowers and whatever seeds I wanted to scatter to see what would grow. I figured I would come back in the editing process and manicure it all down to something attractive.

I also give the reader the benefit of the doubt. I assume the reader can make these connections and that I don’t have to draw a patronizing line between all the topics.

Crowdfunding is like friendship is like marriage is like the meaning of life.

Laying out ideas for the book.

KB: So this is a book for everybody, not just people who want to crowdfund?

AFP: Absolutely. In fact I wrote about 150,000 words in the original draft and then cut a good 60,000 words. The majority of the cut material was about crowdfunding and internet and how to use Twitter. I figure that’s all interesting material but it wasn’t for this book. I can always go back and print that as a second book, or put it on the internet. I kept the stuff that I felt was more enduring, that will still be true for everybody in 15 years.

That’s the path I gave myself when I was cutting it down, which was really hard because I wrote some really funny, really good stuff about the internet, but I had to let it die to let the book come down to a reasonable length and a more universal point of view.

I openly name and discuss Kickstarter, and Twitter, and Facebook, and all the tools that I use, but it’s not a book about using the internet, it’s a book about people. The platforms are incredible, but also ephemeral. It’s the connection underneath that makes the internet so amazing

KB: The internet is a tool for communicating, we’re going to keep communicating with or without it.

AFP: It would be really funny if the internet went away and people just decided not to talk to each other.

KB: We could all become hermits.

AFP: Actually we’d probably talk to each other more. But that’s a different book.

The book takes shape.

KB: Was the book hard for you to write?

AFP: Not because it was hard to write, but because it was hard work, if that makes sense? I never had writer’s block, there were never any days spent staring at a blank screen. But I like people and randomness and connections, and I really don’t like sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day doing that same thing over and over, and the book necessitated sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day doing the same thing over and over.

Selfie after 11 days of editing.

KB: You really thrive on the internet — at being part of a conversation, do you think it was hard to write the book because it wasn’t the same kind of conversation?

AFP: Well I hope the book starts a greater conversation. But also, having been a blogger for so long it’s actually really satisfying to get the chance to really say my piece in the book.

The people who don’t like me, don’t want to like me, don’t want to talk to me, they probably won’t read the book, and that sort of makes me happy. It’s really easy for an “Amanda Palmer Hater” to respond to a tweet or a short blog post, but the book is so substantial that I think they probably won’t read it. But if they do, if someone is a real dedicated hater and they read my book, that in itself is a great feat.

There will undoubtedly be at least one “Hate Ambassador” who tediously combs through the book for things to misquote in their Gawker post about me, but that’s a meta part of the book process because it’s also a book about criticism and how to take it. It’s a book about hate and how to take it.

If the book has one underlying thesis it’s that “You don’t get joy without risk.” It just doesn’t work that way, things aren’t built that way. So the book, and the reaction to the book, is one more layer in the giant karmic shitcake.

“You don’t get joy without risk.”

Bring it on.

Though, I’ve made a vow to not read any reviews. Which will be hard for me, not because I’m a masochist, but because I want to see how the book is hitting people, what resonates, what they discuss.

An early draft.

KB: You do have the benefit of a very vocal audience, so you won’t have to read reviews to be part of the conversation about the book.

AFP: Yeah, if I want to avoid criticism altogether the only true route to that is to not get on the internet for a few months and I desperately want to be on the internet when the book comes out so I can promote, and answer questions from real people who want to talk about it.

I’ve been talking to a lot of musicians friends about reviews lately. The people who don’t understand you weigh so much more, psychically, than the people who do understand you. The good doesn’t outweigh the bad when it comes to taking on love and hate. Ever.

I also think having an organic, ever-flowing relationship with your critics and your lovers is an important part of the process, it is an important part of being an artist. I learn things from my critics, especially from my fans who criticize me, because they actually know me and I respect them so much more than the troll-y, random haters.

I think closing yourself off to negativity can be just as dangerous. You just start living in a bubble and that’s not good.

KB: You’d probably have to stay off the internet for… oh, the rest of your life.

AFP: You could also just dig a hole for yourself and shovel some dirt on top to be protected from all things in the world as well, but that’s not necessarily the best option.

KB: So they say.

People tend to see celebrities as perfect, strong, invincible.

AFP: The idea that there is an ideal person standing above you is so tempting. And it’s just not true. I’ve yet to meet a person who’s not in pain at some level, who’s not vain, and who’s not scared and vulnerable at any level. People who act as if they are become less and less believable to me over time.

The strongest people I see are the ones who are willing to be honest about their own vulnerability. It’s a different kind of strength. If you’re able to embrace your own fear you get a different kind of resilience. You can bounce back much more quickly from the blows of life.

If I seem invincible to people I hope it’s because they see that side of me. Not some bullshit side where I am a person who is absolutely not afraid of rejection and not afraid of pain, and not afraid of anyone or anything. Because that’s just not true. I am afraid of all these things. But I also believe that we’re all afraid, so my main focus is to remember that I’m not alone and to remind other people that they’re not alone either.

A quote from the book, taped to the wall of the writing room.

KB: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from asking?

AFP: You can’t ask authentically and gracefully without truly being able to accept “No” for an answer. Because if you’re not truly willing to accept “No” for an answer, you’re not really asking, you’re demanding — you’re begging. At least, that’s how I’ve come to understand asking.

A candid shot from the book cover photo shoot.

KB: Final question - What do you want to ask for now?

AFP: I want to ask everybody on the internet to be kind to each other.

I think we as a society, in using the internet to communicate to one another, are really responsible for shaping the etiquette that exists there. And I think we’re forgetting how to treat each other in general.

I see a lot of people answering anger with anger, and hitting back at shitty comments with more shitty comments. And I’m banging my head against a wall thinking, “How are we going to get ourselves out of this shitpile?”

Slowly, but surely, I see more people coming up with creative antidotes to the darkness that seems endemic to the internet.

So I’d like to ask the entire world on the internet to take a look at their own etiquette and how they are, or are not, talking to other people because it doesn’t take much to create a shift.

I can already see it happening in some places and it’s kind of wonderful.

from Amanda’s instagram.

Pre-order “The Art of Asking”, US release date is 11/11 — Amanda Palmer is a Hachette author, and since Amazon.com isn’t playing nice she needs all the pre-orders she can get through the stores linked to on her website: amandapalmer.net

Amanda is currently excited about the new musical theatre piece she’s developing with the talented theatre students at Bard College. Read about it here.

More Amanda Palmer on the web:

@amandapalmer

Facebook.com/amandapalmer

instagram.com/amandapalmer


This interview was conducted by @kimboekbinder — musician, writer, fox

Next Story — Speaking About Unspeakable Things
Currently Reading - Speaking About Unspeakable Things

Speaking About Unspeakable Things

A conversation with Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny is a journalist, activist, feminist, troublemaker, nerd and net denizen. She writes and speaks on social justice, pop culture, gender issues and digital politics for New Statesman, The Guardian, Vice, Salon, The Nation, The New Inquiry and many more. The website that hosts this description of her can be found here: www.laurie-penny.com

Her new book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, is about gender politics, life, love, imagination, and the internet. From how we learn to perform our genders, to how our online lives are still dominated by sexist ideals, this book is an important read for anyone interested in gender politics, feminism, and the day to day confusion of navigating a society stacked against everyone.

Here we talk about her new book, feminism, the internet, and Manic Panic hair dye.

Laurie Penny from her instagram

This interview, conducted via gchat, has been lightly edited to make it easier to read, while maintaining its intimacy.

KB: I already knew I was excited to read your book, but I felt even more excited as I was reading the introduction. Even though sexism is such a hard subject to read about, and you state quite clearly that it’s not a how-to manual, or a list of solutions, it still felt very hopeful. There’s a forward momentum even in the hard truths and setbacks.

Where did the title come from?

LP: I actually went through a number of different titles before I settled on this. It’s meant to connote confidences, truths being voiced. It’s about how sometimes the most intimate, personal issues are also the most political — and whether we’re men, women or define differently altogether, there are all kinds of reasons why people don’t want to speak or even think about gender, sex and power, how they impact our lives and keep us cowed.

We fear — women in particular are taught to fear — that if we speak openly about our anger and frustration, if we talk about experiences that might make people uncomfortable, then we will be mocked, abandoned or even attacked. Those are legitimate worries. Fortunately, the internet is allowing all kinds of previously unspeakable truths to be spoken, without mediation or silencing.

KB: Spending your teen years on the internet in the age when anonymity was still a thing feels so incredibly luxurious now that a “real” identity is required for so many things.

As you mention in the book, the one place where being “anonymous” is still acceptable is 4chan/Anonymous where only a narrow band of experience will gain you entry. Extreme racism, homophobia and sexism are used to keep undesirables out. The internet no longer allows us to “slip the bonds” of gendered experience.

When did you first feel that changing?

LP: Something has definitely changed in the past five years in regards to identity online and how fluid it can be — and that’s partly because so many of the mass platforms require you to pick an identity and stick to it. Authenticity has become social capital. But I do think people set a little too much store by anonymity when it comes to the sexism, homophobia, racism and transphobia online. A great many of the worst offenders in that regard can be easily traced — they hardly bother to hide their identities. Just a few hours ago, somebody posted a crass joke about genital hives in my Twitter timeline, which would not be notable were it not that the chap is a former British diplomat.

The internet has changed everything. The enormous cultural sea-change that we’re in the middle of is happening because of the internet. And the racism, sexism, homophobia that we’re seeing now is partly a reaction to that. There’s a certain type of digital thinker who supports the idea of information being free — but only for straight white guys. For everyone else, information should be rationed, and if you try to tell your own story, let alone make big political statements, you’re asking for an online hate-mob.

KB: I guess since we’re turning all human interactions in social capital, even misogyny is social capital.

LP: Right, and it always has been, but now it can be more directly monetized. Misogyny has always been performed, in part, between men — it’s a display of so-called manliness, which is sad, because there’s so much more to masculinity than competitive dick-swinging sexism. The difference is that now, we can see it. Some people still behave as if the internet, by default, is a private space for men and boys where you can talk shit about women to impress your friends and enemies. Other people have realized that they can score points by monstering women and minorities directly.

It’s depressing, and it’s enraging, and I’m so glad there’s a push-back. There were a couple of years, 2009-11 in particular, where this was going on, but the public conversation around it hadn’t yet started — you were expected to just sit there and ‘take it’, or else get the fuck offline like a good girl should.

KB: Yes, that ever disturbing assumption that all space is male space and if you insist on existing in it, it is only at the whim of the rightful owners of that space. Otherwise known as “You’re asking for it.”

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Yes. I am asking for it.”?

LP: Not in those terms, no. Of course, as I’ve had more experience in this sort of world it’s hard not to be aware that when you write anything at all about politics, or make any kind of art, and you happen to be female, then you’re going to get some kind of vile backlash. But that doesn’t make it okay.

The whole point of those kind of attacks is to make writers and artists self-censor. If you don’t create something because you’re scared of what might be said or done to you, the bullies win. Ding ding, round one to patriarchy.

KB: You write in your intro: “This is a story about how gender polices our dreams.” Later you write about “having it all” for a woman means monetizing her femininity and operating on a very narrow track within a capitalist patriarchy. So many people have fallen for the fairytale that feminism already accomplished it’s goal — which was breaking up the family and forcing women into the workplace. How do you explain feminism to the people who really don’t get it? Those who think it’s done and over and we get to wear pants so shut up already.

LP: I don’t think you have to use the word feminism — or to imply that there’s one right way of ‘doing’ feminism — to make people understand that there’s something deeply wrong with gender and sexuality, capitalism and consumer culture. People live that reality, they already know what it’s like to feel limited, to feel oppressed and vulnerable and angry, to feel subject to rules you didn’t invent and didn’t ask for. What art and writing can do is give people language to express those feelings. It’s not just about identifying the problem, it’s about giving people permission to imagine other worlds

That’s why, although I’m not known as a fiction writer, fiction and visual art are so important to me — particularly science fiction and fandom. It’s all about imagining new worlds, different futures, and that’s deeply political.

KB: I’m very interested in the current critiques of the internet — yours especially, and that of Astra Taylor in her excellent new book “The People’s Platform” — where you’re both saying that the internet is amazing, yes, but also, we’re fucking it up by continuing the same patterns of capitalism, and misogyny. And hey, let’s all take a step back and really think about this new world we’re creating.

Not only is another world possible, another world is already here — but we’re trampling it.

LP: It’s like the urban legend about the goldfish in the river. You know, the one where if you take a goldfish that’s spent its whole life swimming in circles, in circles, in circles in a tiny little bowl, and you tip it out into a river and set it free. For the first few hours the goldfish will keep on going in circles, in circles, in circles, because that’s what it’s used to. Even though there’s a whole river to explore. But eventually it’ll realize that there’s no glass in the way anymore, and start swimming downstream.

The internet creates a whole new sphere of human interaction. The possibilities for building communities and networks, making art and changing politics, aren’t just limitless — they’re changing and expanding faster than anyone who actually controls the switches can understand or properly monetize. But in some ways we’re still going in circles, in circles, in circles, replicating all of those old patterns of cultural repression.

KB: They’re very comforting in many ways

LP: Even within communities — some of the arguments being played out right now in online feminist groups aren’t just similar to the fights that ripped the movement apart in the 1980s, they’re discursively identical. Sex work, pornography, whether trans women should be allowed into rape crisis centres. It’s almost like historical re-enactment.

KB: Without the sweet 80's blowout hairstyles.

LP: Hey now. My hair is really 80s. I even use Manic Panic.

KB: I admit to having been very confused about sex work and pornography in the past, and how it relates to my feminist ideals.

LP: Oh me too — I’m not claiming any sort of high ground. Nobody falls out of the womb with perfect politics, it’s a growing process for everyone.

KB: One of the things the internet has done for me and many others is brought sex work into a public sphere. I am friends with many sex workers now, feminists every single one of them.

And I’ve realized, more importantly, that I have always been friends with sex workers, they just didn’t talk about it.

LP: Absolutely. There’s an element of context collapse that can be extremely productive and unexpected. You can no longer talk in public about a particular group of people and assume that those people aren’t listening.

KB: Except the Amish.

LP: Yes. Except the Amish.

KB: Something you say in the book really resonated with me: sex isn’t the problem, sexism is the problem.

Which is so very useful, for those confusing times. When I wonder if wearing high heels or a sexy dress are undermining my feminism.

“Sex isn’t the problem. Sexism is the problem.”

It should be embroidered onto pillows.

LP: I do have a bit of a tendency to sloganise, but yep — there’s been such a lot of confusion, deliberate confusion in some cases, about what it means to ‘betray the sisterhood’. It’s all supposed to boil down to personal decisions — the high heels, the sexy dress, whether or not you wax your legs or shave your pubes. Nobody wants me to write about housework and economic inequality, but as a journalist who’s known to write on gender issues I get endless requests to write about pubic hair. I could probably make them into an article by themselves. The idea that liberation is all about a set of very minor personal choices regarding dress and intimate grooming is exactly what I’m talking about when I bang on about ‘neoliberal feminism’. The idea that everything that happens to you, as a woman, as a person, is your fault, and if you’re suffering then you must have made bad choices. In fact, the game is rigged — coming back to the sexy dress, if you don’t wear it, then you’re ugly or prudish and therefore worthless, but if you do wear it, you’re inviting rape and sexual assault. You can’t win.

Of course if you wear a spacesuit I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen.

KB: Everybody looks the same in a space suit. They are the great equalizers.

No gender. No race. Only space.

LP: In space nobody can hear you flamewar?

….cue massive academic rant about race and gender in Science Fiction and the rewriting of bigoted Golden Age SF tropes that is EVEN NOW UNDERWAY *insert rant here*

KB: It’s true, all space is gendered, even space space.

Which leads back to how gender polices our dreams. And how important media representation is.

LP: Oh god yes. Which is interesting right now, in particular, because there’s a real battle going on over media ownership and ‘social’ media — who gets to control the narrative about what women and men are and what they do?

KB: And how harmful it is that the default human is a white male.

LP: Absolutely. I still love John Scalzi’s post about this — how being white, straight, male and cisgendered is a little like playing the game of life on the lowest difficulty setting.

KB: Yes, it’s brilliant.

So, one thing I hear a lot from friends when I talk about sexism is that they say “But you’re life is good, right? Like, sexism isn’t ruining your life. It’s not like you live in Egypt or something.” Which makes me so frustrated.

LP: That’s like telling kids whose parents have to use food banks in the UK (over a million of them now, up from almost none three years ago) that they can’t really be hungry — because think about all the starving children in Africa.

KB: Or that you shouldn’t take an aspirin for your headache because someone else in the world is having a migraine.

LP: The fact that the situation for women in, for example, Syria right now is absolutely appalling is used to shut up women in Western countries, by people who have no other interest in the suffering of Syrian women. They’re just a rhetorical device to make the whining feminists closer to home pipe down and be ‘grateful’, not real people at all. I see it as terribly racist.

I get sexist creeps emailing me all the time — either saying that I should just be ‘grateful’ I’m not in Saudi Arabia, or suggesting I be genitally mutilated in an epic mash-up of racism, violent misogyny and missing the point.

But yeah, it’s really hard to acknowledge privilege and stay in the room with people’s legitimate anger. Because it’s the internet and people are not polite and even when it’s not about you, it can hurt. And sometimes the fight with a person whose political opinions are an inch of skin away from your own is easier to have than the bigger fight with an uncaring oppressive structure because there’s a far greater chance of that person actually listening, actually caring and actually changing their mind.

KB: So hard to be an ally. Does being an ally for others make you feel more empathic towards the bio-gendered white men who attempt to be feminist allies only to be denounced by female feminists?

LP: Okay, so there’s a lot of anger sloshing about online at the moment, and it’s really hard to know how to be a good ally, because the stakes for getting it wrong are so very high. I really feel for a lot of men who are trying so hard to do the right thing, trying to unlearn years of unthinking sexism, and so worried about getting it wrong that they don’t know where to start! Trying is good. It’s not everything, but it’s good.

Although I also believe feminism is for everybody, in bell hooks’ terminology

The levels of hostility online right now — I always listen, although there’s a psychological cost to that, and it’s often very hard to tell when people are airing a genuine grievance with something you’ve said or whether they’re just nitpicking because they’re angry at the entire system and it’s not about you. I still err on the side of genuine grievance because I’m conscientious, but that can get very exhausting.

Especially when at the same time you’re also dealing with real misogynist attacks, sexist harassment, threats of violence from people who just hate you because you’re a woman talking. One thing that four years of interacting online at this level has taught me — is teaching me slowly — is how to stand up for myself, how to set my own boundaries

KB: I know that you have felt very drained by the anger you have been experiencing, from men and women, from misogynists and feminists alike. But you are so sure-fire, so steadfast in your dedication to justice and civil rights for women, for men, for POC, for the fabulous and the drab alike. I’m so happy for the world that you are willing to be our knight in digital armor, and I’m so amazed that you keep standing up for us all.

LP: You’re so lovely, thank you. I used to be really bad at those things, but I’ve had to get better, there’s been no choice

KB: One of the things that really comes through in your book is that equality isn’t a goal, it’s a process. And it’s a process for everyone. We’re all taught how to perform in our genders and “men” and “women” have difficult roles to play. But that the current social structure rewards violence against women both online and off, social violence, financial violence, sexual violence, emotional… it’s all there. All of it being rewarded, and so much of it is so minor that when you call it out it sounds like hyperbole, like screaming about paper cuts.

And when you point at physical violence it is explained away as either inevitable (all men are rapists by nature) or as a fluke (one crazy guy with a gun, not a social problem.)

LP: Yes, it’s funny how when it’s a white guy holding a gun he is always a lone psychopath, but if he’s Black or Asian, he’s a terrorist, or at least a criminal thug.

As you say, one of the worst things about tackling violence against woman as a cultural phenomenon is that the individual instances of physical, lethal brutality and rape aren’t the only problem. It’s the everyday aggressions, the casual insults — the paper cuts, as you describe them

And one paper cut hurts, but what about a thousand? At the very least, you’d go into shock.

KB: Or just be always irritated, paranoid, and possibly “insane.”

LP: Paranoia isn’t a mental health symptom I’ve ever experienced, but social media can sometimes recreate its effects!

Although of course deviation from cultural norms has always been considered a marker of insanity, there’s a real problem here, particularly if you’re a sensitive person, in that there’s no way to really talk about what goes on online without sounding bonkers.

KB: “Too sensitive”

LP: Oh yes, and ‘grow a thick skin.’ I’m a writer. Empathy and sensitivity to nuance are my tools of the trade. A thick skin is the last thing I need.

KB: Do you ever feel grateful to the online haters for proving your point for you?

LP: Ha! Sometimes, although mostly right now I’m just tired.

KB: Is there comfort in knowing you’ll soon have a sabbatical from the internet while you complete your incredibly impressive Harvard Fellowship?

LP: Oh yes, I’m so looking forward! I think if I wasn’t going BACK TO SCHOOL OMG I’d have needed to do something similar in a less formal way.

KB: Many of your columns are reactions to things happening in the world, they’re very current and insightful. Whereas writing a book takes a very long time and once it is published can no longer change its shape based on world events, the way that your column might. How is it different for you to write a book rather than the essays on current events? Do you have a preference?

LP: I don’t have a preference, but in future I’ll try to pick one or the other — whilst I was writing the book, I was also churning out two or three columns a week, plus longer essays and events. It was very hard to switch back and forth from that ephemeral, high-octane process of engagement to more longform, timeless, reflective work. A small portion of Unspeakable Things is adapted from columns for that reason — and for of the rest, tricked myself into making it feel more visceral and immediate by writing some of it one-handed, on my phone. I’ve got speedy thumbs. Part of the sense of urgency and passion in the book, I think, comes from the fact that I’ve learned to write fast and dirty — one reviewer said that I write ‘like I’m on the run.’ I think that’s worryingly accurate.

KB: Does publishing in print feel more important?

LP: The textual life of a book is utterly different from the life of articles and blog posts online. I’ve never had a preference for one over the other, but they do engage a different audience — and many of the ideas in Unspeakable Things are fairly radical for the mainstream, ‘printed book’ world of gender politics, but utterly normal for the internet. For years I saw an older generation of writers and columnists complaining, at least in the UK, that what some people called ‘Fourth Wave Feminism’ wasn’t coming up with ‘big ideas’ — actually, we were, they just weren’t making it into the big high street bookshops. It does feel important to make sure that a trans-inclusive, sex-worker-positive, intersectional feminism is represented in the mainstream conversation, and right now ‘mainstream’ means ‘printed books.’ That won’t always be the case. Several books have come out this year, including Melissa Gira Grant’s ‘Playing theWhore’ and Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’, that are helping to make that happen, and it’s pretty damn exciting.


Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things is pretty damn exciting. You can order the Kindle version for immediate reading, or the paperback for reading upon its US release on September, 16th at Amazon.com.

The UK version has been released and is available both print and digital on Amazon.co.uk or Hive.co.uk

Laurie Penny photographed by Jon Cartwright

www.laurie-penny.com
@lauriepenny

Next Story — Ethics, Art, and Good Business
Currently Reading - Ethics, Art, and Good Business

Ethics, Art, and Good Business

A conversation with Nadya Lev


Nadya Lev is a photographer, activist, storyteller and world shaper. She is co-founder and publisher of the popular alt-culture magazine, COILHOUSE, which became an international platform for art, politics, activism, and aesthetics. Together with co-editors Meredith Yayanos and Zoetica Ebb, and designer Courtney Riot, Nadya produced six print issues and several thousand blog posts. Though COILHOUSE was put on hiatus in late 2012, the magazine still sends ripples across alt and popular culture, and many thousands eagerly await its reinvention.

Nadya’s photography sits at the border between portrait and high fashion, highly stylized and stylish, with an emphasis on the model as storyteller rather than empty object.

Harlequinade by Nadya Lev on Zivity.com

Nadya is currently the managing director of Zivity.com. We met for a quick coffee that lasted for seven hours of incredible conversation about art, culture, the future, and the demanding and sometimes confusing position of being both an activist and a business manager.

(Partial nudity below.)

Zivity.com homepage.

KB: What do you do as general manager of Zivity.com?

Nadya: My job is to take Zivity to the next level in every way possible: product, community, brand and design-wise.

Zivity is a site that enables fans of sexy photography to support their favorite artists. I call it “sexy photography” because I find distinctions like nude, fetish, erotic, glamour, pinup, etc., to be a little awkward. A lot of our photos don’t fall neatly into any category — they’re gritty, confrontational, inspired by everything from glitch art to Cindy Sherman. One of the things I try to do at Zivity is to craft an experience that challenges expectations of what a sexy photograph can be, and a safe space where models of all body types have room to play.

The first thing I did when I started working at Zivity was hire two incredible people to help the site grow. Getting the right people involved is the most important thing. I brought on Star St. Germain, a gifted designer, performer and illustrator, to be in charge of design and UI. Star and I previously worked together on Coilhouse, and I apprenticed under her to learn modern design/development practices last year. And, after meeting him at the Lost Horizon Night Market, I brought on Dennis Collective to be our lead dev. Dennis is a Radical Faerie, and previously led development at Diaspora — a nonprofit, user-owned, distributed social network. Together with our completely badass social media/community manager Okami, and Zivity’s wonderful founder Cyan, we have a really solid team that works well together.

On a day-to-day basis, I “run the company” — and that can mean something very different every day. Sometimes, the work is very left-brained: poring over spreadsheets, analyzing metrics (or, as Dennis calls it, “statsturbating”), agile development planning meetings. Other times, it’s very creative: making things like the Zivity Artist Guide and brainstorming about new features. Some days, I get to write a little code. Mostly, I’m making sure that everyone around me has the tools they need to get their jobs done, continues to learn and grow, and stays on the same page about our objectives.

Jessica Drue in “Leather and Grain” by Adam Robertson on Zivity.com

KB: We spoke before about the challenges of running a for-profit company that needs to make money (at least to cover running costs) and the sometimes opposite goal of being an activist and feminist who believes wholeheartedly in freedom of expression. Can you give me an example of when those things are at odds and how you resolve them?

Nadya: When I took this job, I definitely agonized over the notion that I might be working on a site that catered to the male gaze, reinforcing the paradigm that women are decorative objects competing for male attention. Instead, it was heartening to discover that Cyan had created a very real groundwork of body positivity and consent culture on the site, and that some of the most prolific artists on Zivity are also bad-ass feminists. Gracie Hagen’s project “Illusions of the Body” is one great example of this. Rather than running away from the opportunity to work on Zivity because I found certain aspects of the site problematic, I embraced the chance to cultivate more of what I liked there.

I’ll give you an example in which business needs and body politics collided head-on. I was moderating a lovely pin-up set when I noticed something that shocked me: the model was covered in dozens of cuts all over her skin. They appeared to be fresh, and self-inflicted.

My initial thought was: “uhh, I don’t know if we can publish these.” First of all, I was concerned about the model’s well-being. Secondly, I worried that Zivity would be accused of glamorizing and sexualizing self-harm. We live in age where a hashtag can bring down a whole company, and out of context, some of the pictures were pretty shocking. I worried that our payment processor would take issue with the set, and wondered how other site members would react to it. In a nutshell, there were a few business reasons not to publish it.

We had an internal discussion about it. Okami brought up a really good point: refusing to publish the set could feed into the cycle of shame that cutters often experience. I didn’t want to be complicit in stigmatizing self-harm. We decided to reach out to the model and, first of all, make sure that she was okay. After talking to her, we learned that these photos were symbolic of her overcoming the urge to cut, and that publishing the set was part of the healing process. Based on this conversation, we decided to publish the photos. It was important for us to respect this model’s recovery/self-expression, even if it had the potential to shock people.

KB: You’re a very talented photographer yourself. Does having the day job to pay the bills help you create more art for art’s sake, or does it get in the way?

Nadya: Thank you! I have so many ideas currently on the back burner. They’re all over the map: I’m interested in tech-fashion, LED art, journalism, large-scale industrial sculpture, and science fiction. Though I have less time for personal work than I’d like, seeing all the incredible art on Zivity keeps me inspired. It has led to me practicing photography on a regular basis for the first time in years. Overall, I find satisfaction in the fact that I’m working on a platform that enables artists around the world to make more art, even if my own time to create is constrained.

KathTea in “Sparklewren” by melzphoto on Zivity.com

KB: Speaking of a platform that helps creators, there’s nothing that helps creators create more than financial backing — money = time, and supplies, and talented help. Zivity was one of the first sites that allowed artists to crowdfund in a way. Tell me about how the financial support system works on Zivity.

Nadya: Artists aren’t paid by Zivity, but by fans on the site. Fans upvote the most interesting sets they discover. A fan can vote on a set as many times as they want. Every vote costs one dollar to cast, and that money goes to the artists. 55 cents of every vote dollar goes to the model, and 30 goes to the photographer. We make almost no money off votes — our cut covers fees. For fans, voting is a way to show their appreciation and empower artists on the site to keep creating, improving and experimenting.

We also let people run photo contests. For example, let’s say I really want to see a sexy Hello Kitty-themed shoot. I can say, “whoever creates the best shoot on this theme gets this $300" or however much money I choose to put up. Then, artists upload sets and I get to choose a winner. In the past two months, my favorite contests created by site members were: Infinite Jest & Most Excellent Fancy (harlequin-themed), Lynch-Like (David Lynch tributes), and Art Reference. The staff run prizes, too. Okami just did a Shower Beer one. Cyan has created some amazing ones: I think Women Struggling to Drink Water was my favorite. I have two right now: Urban Exploration, and a Surveillance State. I should mention that the current system doesn’t allow for everyone who enters to be rewarded for trying, but that’s something I’d love to see one day.

J. L. Cupcakes in “Closet Freak” by Holligraph on Zivity.com

KB: One way that Zivity.com has upset the norm is by giving a larger share of the profits to the models, honoring their place as full participants doing something skilled and difficult. Photography is generally considered to be a photographers art, the subjects (models) often treated as replaceable objects.

Zivity.com gives models a platform to show their work, build a fan-base and community, and grow as artists. Models are honored as the talented workers and artists that they are, working in collaboration with photographers to tell stories.


Are people confused by the “voting” = money aspect? Asking for “votes” instead of money seems like a more emotional way to ask for support. Artists get so shamed for wanting to be paid for our work, does couching it in those terms make it easier for people to support and ask for support?

Nadya: I definitely see confusion around the term “voting.” When you participate in an election, voting is free, and you only get to do it once. “Vote for me” does sound more confident than “support me” — to my ear, at least. We’re currently working on new ways for artists to be supported on Zivity, and one of the biggest challenges is coming up with the proper language for people to use. The phenomenon of artists feeling ashamed about asking for money is definitely something we’ve been thinking about a lot. One of Zivity’s goals is to educate everyone — both the artists and the fans — that image production is hard work that should be compensated.

KB: Well it’s certainly starting to change a bit, though I think crowdfunding will always have a bit of a charity whiff to it. It’s a hard thing to shake when people keep using language like “help” and “donate.” I’m guilty of it myself.

Nadya: There’s not a lot of good vocabulary for this sort of thing. It’s funny, because “art patronage” and being a “patron of the arts” both sound super-classy, but “patronize me” doesn’t sound good at all. I wish we had one verb that meant: “support the work of this person, empower them to create, and be part of this exciting thing that they’re doing.” I bet there’s a German word for it. Wunderbarkunstunterstützen? If only there was a catchy, monosyllabic English version. Of all the crowdfunding terms we have, “back this project” seems like the least needy-sounding. Being a backer carries the connotation of being a smart investor who recognizes a project’s worth. But it’s still not a perfect term to describe this emerging movement.

MaryCeleste in “Mary’s Mirror” by deadclownstudios on Zivity.com

KB: What’s next for Zivity? Got any exciting new updates or experiments you can talk about?

Nadya: There are two big tasks at hand. Currently, we’re working on making Zivity more modern, accessible, and user-friendly. Here’s a “before and after” of a page we recently overhauled.

While we’re doing that, we’re also in the early stages of launching something new. I don’t want to jinx it, so I can’t talk it about it too much, but I can tell you that this project touches on many of the things we’ve discussed in this interview: supporting art and connecting people.

KB: And more excitingly, what’s next for Nadya Lev: the artist, the activist, the publisher?

Nadya: It’s an exciting question to ponder. I’m still recovering from a really scary life experience. At the end of 2011, I started going blind from an aggressive type of glaucoma that never affects people my age. Doctors didn’t know what to do with me. There were 12 surgeries, many of which failed, and some that had complications. At its worst, I couldn’t recognize my partner from across the room or read my text messages. I got lost walking to the local grocery store. There were moments when I thought that I’d never be able to make a living — let alone make art — ever again. Thanks to one brilliant doctor and my amazingly supportive community, everything is finally under control. Even though my eyesight is different than it was before, I have completely adapted to it. I can ride my bike in traffic, travel alone in a strange country, devour books.

I’m still getting used to the fact that there are no eye surgeries on the horizon. Just last week, I did a new shoot that picks up where my favorite old photos left off. Previous attempts at making new photos had resulted in sadness and frustration, but I walked away from this shoot with a “nailed it” feeling. That was a huge milestone for me. The shoot was a collaboration with model Wenchi, makeup artist Hannah Concannon, and my best friend and collaborator of almost 10 years, Mildred Von (the designer behind Mother of London). When I saw the photos, I was like, “I can do this and continue growing.”

So, to answer your question (in the most roundabout way), I feel like I just got reborn as an artist. Maybe I’ll stay with photography, and maybe I’ll jump into some new medium. Maybe both. The future is wide open.

Harlequinade. June 2014. Photographer: Nadya Lev. Model: Wenchi. Makeup: Hannah Concannon. Wardrobe: Mother of London. Post-production: Marina Dean Francis. More photos from this set can be found on Zivity.


Find more Nadya Lev:
@nadya on Twitter
and at Zivity.com

Interview by Kim Boekbinder
@kimboekbinder

Next Story — Setting the Highest Goal
Currently Reading - Setting the Highest Goal

Setting the Highest Goal

A conversation with artist Dax Tran-Caffee


Dax Tran-Caffee is a multi-disciplinary artist; puppeteer, musician, illustrator, storyteller — bending genre and gender, time and art, into a beautiful craft.

Failing Sky — Dax’s current work — is an online graphic novel and experiment in narrative. Panels flow left and right, up and down, objects become links to backstories, or to other art. Failing Sky is more than a webcomic, it’s a world.

Recently nominated for an Eisner Award — which is like the Oscars of comics — Failing Sky is a story of depth and life, it is funny, or sad, or scary or confusing as life is funny or sad or scary or confusing. Most of all it is very beautiful. The Eisner nomination is helping the work reach a new audience in a world dominated by flashing, clever, funny, brightly colored, click-bait.

I talked to Dax about being a genre/gender bending artist, a constant experimenter, and a relatively unknown artist finding ways to fund their ongoing slow storytelling experiment.

KB: Congratulations on your Eisner nomination! It’s always a big deal for a totally independent artist to have their work recognized in this way. Did you want an Eisner? Did you do anything to apply, or put your work in front of nominating bodies? Or did it just happen?

Dax: Yes, I wanted that Eisner nomination! I wanted it so bad I shamelessly submitted myself for consideration (which is something that you have to do, by the way — no one is going to submit self-published work for you), even though I had no expectation that anyone would take said submission seriously.

When I started this project and I needed an unrealistically high goal to aim for, I wrote down “Eisner nomination.” I didn’t really think I’d ever get this far, much less so soon! I kind of don’t even know what to do now — it’s like when they ask you as a kid “what do you want to be” and you’re like “astronaut,” you’re not supposed to actually become an astronaut ‘cause that’s just crazy.

KB: Tell me about Failing Sky, how did the idea come to you?

Dax: Failing Sky is an online graphic novel, and the latest in a long line of hare-brained projects where I dreamed about making some money on my own terms, not solely for someone else’s benefit. I want to be both ‘marketable’ and ‘true-to-myself’, although it’s hard not to see it as balancing antithetical ideals. It’s especially hard because I hold on to far too many artistic ethics, even whilst starving in a cold warehouse. Writing and illustrating my own graphic novel, though, does what I think art should do, while also being an accessible enough medium to consider trying to sell it.


I drew the first page in 2010 to include in my storyboarding portfolio, kind of as a fake project to make it seem like I’ve also dabbled in sequential art. That portfolio never got me any jobs, but the short story script I’d written to help make that fake page seem real was easier to write than I’d anticipated — I’d only ever written 5-minute puppet shows before, without dialogue, so I had no idea I’d like writing in this format.

I wondered if publishing a long-form story could develop a supportive audience, I was starting to like writing dialogue, and drawing was something I’ve had sitting in my pocket for way too long, so I slowly nursed that one chapter into a full novel outline over a few years. I’d just finished a huge commission in April 2013 and was calculating how long I had to find another paycheck when I reasoned I’d be more stable if I just worked for myself.

It was actually a toss-up between launching a graphic novel or launching a new solo-puppetry song-and-dance fiasco that I’d been working on, and for some reason comics sounded like a more mature financial decision.


KB: Why did you decide to crowdfund it?

Dax: Crowdfunding comes so much easier to me than traditional arts fundraising. The most I’d ever collected at a live benefit, after expenses, was a few hundred dollars, and the only grant I ever actually won was unsolicited. There’s something about the pace, types of tools, entrepreneurial attitude, and psychology of crowdfunding that I guess just fits how I think; writing for grants, for instance, feels like shoehorning ideas into something that I don’t actually want to do. I engineered 3 crowdfunding campaigns before Failing Sky (large-scale puppet theater, studio album, national music tour), and while it has been getting more difficult as it becomes more popular, I’ve also gotten more efficient with managing my campaigns, so crowdfunding still feels like my path of least resistance for arts funding.

Screenshot of the Kickstarter campaign for ‘Failing Sky.’

KB: Was the crowdfunding campaign enough to cover your costs?

This campaign covered my production costs, no problem, but I’m abnormally obsessive with planning and budgets. I’ve advised on a handful of other crowdfunding campaigns, and I get the impression that artists aren’t champing at the bit to build in fees, postage, the cost of scaling — but as it can be 40% of the total budget, it kills me when people dismiss it. In order to stick to my promised budget for Failing Sky, though, I’ve taken on a workload that isn’t sustainable in the long run, so I’m setting up the next round of Failing Sky fundraising to be more gracious.

Failing Sky’s campaign was largely a living stipend so that I could shirk freelance work and just draw pages, but Failing Sky is an unusual project in that it’s materials cost is negligible and it’s labor costs are enormous.

Creating Failing Sky full-time by living on crowdsourced funds has made me the most productive artist I have ever been (by an order of magnitude, so to speak) and has had the added benefit of giving me a stable income that I haven’t had since I went freelance. Even still, I am hilariously below the federal poverty line, and am a long way from getting off food stamps, even doing these 60-hour weeks (I know everyone’s tired of hearing it, but the undervaluing of art in this country is criminal).

KB: Have you had solo projects before Failing Sky?

My first solo art project of any consequence was the ‘Museum Proper’ festival puppet show in 2010, which was also crowdfunded; Failing Sky is only my second attempt to do something entirely on my own. It’s always been my intention to create my own projects, rather than working in someone else’s company, but it’s taken a painfully long time to break away from established art organizations and strike out on my own — as well as being emotionally difficult and financially reckless.

KB: What websites do you use to share/fund your work?

Dax: I’ve only ever used Kickstarter as my funding platform, and still swear by it (for appropriate projects). I’m convinced I’ve benefited from the branded curation, shorter campaign periods, all-or-nothing model, and staff involvement.

I can also appreciate some of the less-talked-about ethical choices in their model, like not handling money themselves and not creating a conflict-of-interest by taking a larger cut for projects that don’t make the goal.

I’ve just started my first Patreon campaign as a way to sustain future chapters, and have my fingers crossed that the ongoing micro-sponsorship model is as viable as one-off crowdfunding. Ongoing sponsorship is such a different game than I’m used to, though, so it feels a bit like starting from scratch.

Crowdfunding, of course, not really being about platforms but about social networks, as much as I hate it I still make most of my money through connections on Facebook, backed up a bit with Twitter and email lists. I have active accounts on Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Imagekind, Flickr, even Lookbook, but I haven’t figured out how to work those sites in any appreciable way. As Facebook (and maybe all news-stream-based networks) continue to lose the public’s interest, though, I keep hoping for a new method to broadcast projects, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

KB: Besides Kickstarter and Patreon, do people pay you for your online work in print sales, tips, or donations?

Dax: I’ve sold a few prints, but the proceeds were forgettable; I guess I make prints available as something like a loss-leader to make my internet presence seem more lively. Merchandise seems to be a thing that works in the fervor of live events, not so much in the tranquility of online shops.

I have a Flattr account, and would love to see it work, but I can’t find a proper way to build a campaign around it, and I have no illusions about waiting for patrons to toss me tips on their own initiative. I’ve toyed with Paypal / Square donations, and while they seem like good ways to keep production costs low, again I can’t figure out how to build a campaign around services that have no intrinsic momentum.

From the ‘Failing Sky’ website.

KB: What’s next for you and Failing Sky?

Dax: Well, I’ve still got another 26 chapters planned, which, if I can raise funds to keep working full-time on it, will still take me another 4 years to complete.

KB: So you need long-term, ongoing funding.

Dax: Hopefully the readership from the Eisner nomination will make funding the rest of this project easier…

www.failingsky.com

Support ‘Failing Sky’ on Patreon

Dax Tran-Caffee on Twitter

Sign up to continue reading what matters most to you

Great stories deserve a great audience

Continue reading