Extended Thoughts on Failure
I'm thinking a lot about failure - this is the most artist thing I've said all morning, soz. As part of a collaboration with Live Art Development Agency a few months ago I wrote a piece about failing to win the lottery to save the arts. The more I think about it the more I've got to say - here’s my extended thoughts on failure...
Over 4 days in early September 2015 I went to over 60 shops, spending on average three awkward minutes explaining the premise of Double Your Money to people in newsagents, supermarkets and dodgy sweet shops off the beaten track. My aim? To spend £1,000 on lottery tickets and win millions of pounds for the arts. 120 punters nervously checked multiple lottery tickets on Saturday 5 September. 10 tickets matched 3 numbers and 1 ticket matched 4 numbers. Needless to say we didn’t win £2.2 million, in fact we won a pitiful £397. I tried and failed, but hopefully it started a discussion about how our work is funded, who funds it and what alternative funding revenues could exist if and when the public purse should run dry.
At face value this was a pedantic response to what the future of arts funding might be like if we keep voting for idiots who favor capitol over community. Hopefully its audience realised this is more than just a pedantic poke-in-the-eye. I wanted Double Your Money to be a comment on who art subsidy benefits - those who fund it (lottery players like my Dad, a roofer who only comes to see my shows) or those more at home at the Royal Opera House?
In the spirit of evaluation what did I learn from losing? I guess the overarching thing I took away was that failure is OK. After coming out of the Edinburgh Fringe this year with a deficit of £3k, a pile of rejection letters from funders stacking up on my desk, a near commission worth thousands that was nearly mine until the company decided they wanted to make craft (LOL) and a los of LADA’s hard earned dosh - all £603 of it. You could say failure seems to be very present in my work these days but how would you know? I, like others only push out the positives. My twitter feed is full of gratuitous praise shrouded in filthy humility - perhaps this project has taught me to show my worst more often and more publicly.
I guess I should be crying, depressed and looking for a real job (or at night school learning craft). However, I’m beginning to accept that things don’t always work out how you want them to – luck isn’t something you can manifest nor curate. Perhaps my new found lax attitude to losing is knowing what my Mum taught me when I failed to keep up payments on my first credit card: “they are not going to kill you, the world is not going to end, you are not that important".
Why is this pressure to succeed so present in so many of our practices? Like a lot of artists I inadvertently relate money to success, not because it means I can then afford to buy a scented candle but it means I’m able to make bigger more ambitious work; being able to make the work you want to make is a luxury these days. Since not winning millions I’ve learnt to allow failure in and with it clarity has quickly followed behind.
Why is winning so important? The arts likes to think of itself as a GM free, hippy love-in, with people hugging each other in fields surrounded by wild flowers. In fact the arts is one of the most competitive communities I've willingly immersed myself into. How often do you hear "it's going really well, I'm really busy" - it's our stock response that actually means "I'm super successful, got loads on, rolling in it, this game is easy, go home and leave it to me". Its time we told the truth "I'm broke, tired and having to move home, again" - but would this mean admitted to failure and is that such a bad thing? Accepting failure can be the best skill you can add to your armoury as an artist. For some reason we consider failure as a side effect, an afterthought or an evaluative negative. I think we should be approaching failure with awkward open arms whilst smearing (performatively) the jam left on our sobbing faces - what’s wrong with saying "I fucked it"? By welcoming failure into our work we learn what success is, once we’ve broken past the societal pressures of winning, coming first or achievement can we then tell the truth – this is what good art is about, right?
Perhaps our fear of failure is why so much rubbish work is made - being mediocre has more merit than failing horribly. Its the pretence of failure thats bugs me, scratch culture alludes to public failure but really we all know this has just become a tool to fool funders into thinking your project is well thought out and less of a risk.
We can't be the ones to take all the blame - we're making work at a time when risk isn't favoured - partners want other partners, funders want joint funding, audiences go when critics say so. Money is tight and everyone wants to be making the next 'immersive' Culture Show endorsed hit so its no surprise we're shying away from fucking up. We're supposed to be experimental (that doesn't mean pretentious), we're supposed to bring new ideas to the table, we're supposed to be awkwardly risqué, we're supposed to be brave. Being anti-risk and therefore anti-failure means we're making safe, normative, Valencia filtered experiences for the Edinburgh fringe festival that preach to the converted. Boring.
Moving forward I think we should all agree to fail – publicly, embarrassingly and often. This will make us better losers, collectively picking each other up whilst reveling in our humanness – now that sounds like the hippy love-in sector! Only then can we learn why winning is completely overrated, undemocratic and for those afraid of failure.