Last year I published a blog called Birmingham Zine Festival: A New Chapter, explaining in full how and why a zine festival would be returning to the city after a 6 year hiatus. Following on from the great work of Lizz Lunney and team 2010–2012, I led a festival reboot with a new team and deepened mission and values, producing Brum Zine Fest 2018: a celebration of independent publishing and DIY making that brought together artists from Birmingham and across the UK to share their work, connect with new collaborators and audiences, as well as activating more people to share their ideas using zine approaches, methodologies and formats.
*If you're already a little lost, there's some great resources about what zines actually are and some context of their history via the brilliant Barnard Library.
Our first event catalyzed lots of energy and engagement, with some of the things people said about it below, whilst a more in-depth look at its aims and impact is available in our full evaluation zine here.
"Had a great time chatting about zines at the @BrumZineFest event! Met many like minded people and felt really inspired for the first time in a while!"
—Zoom Illustration, stallholder
"There was a mix of people from different cities, a welcoming atmosphere and I loved that there were children around. Food by aunty outside was delicious and it was clear a lot of effort and love had gone into organising the day and taking care of everyone." —Brum Zine Fest speaker
"I learnt how to fold a piece of paper to make it a booklet - felt like alchemy!"
—Brum Zine Fest attendee
"Birmingham!! You stole a bit of my heart today... Thank you so much to everyone who came to say hello, said the kindest words and bought my work. I feel so seen and heard." —olgawritesthings, stallholder
So why are we crowdfunding?
Earlier this week we received a decision letter from Arts Council England which stated that our festival would not be funded with a Project Grant this year, with a reason code of **Comparatively Weaker. Working to the tightest of timelines, we knew full well there had always been two ways this could go, and as a team we knew we were going to need to respond to either reality – to be funded, or not to be funded.
For last year's event we were funded with an ACE grant of £6,707 which allowed us to do some incredible things, including having an access fund to cover travel and accommodation for stallholders for whom this would have been a barrier to participation, paying 28 artists industry rates across the board, paying festival assistants at living wage for their time, and investing £1,125 into independent local suppliers. Honestly, this year's application felt so much stronger as we had been able to put into practice our ideas with the first event and felt ready to take the learnings forward and build upon them, asking for £9,890 this time around for a summer of activity including a DIY Dinner to host zine organisers from around the country, the zine festival itself, zine library prototyping workshops and an international zine swapping campaign with Birmingham at the heart, so to be unsuccessful on this occasion felt like a big blow for us, for zine makers and the city.
Reasons to Go Ahead
It might seem irresponsible to have launched the festival without the funding being secured, but here are some of the reasons why I made the decision to go ahead.
+ We have space.
The hardest thing to acquire in order to make creative events happen is space (or money to pay for space), particularly a space that allows you any kind of creative freedom or agency to take it over, let alone also having a community of its own or shared values that takes it from being just a venue, to an important collaborator or ecosystem within which to place your work. Right now we are so lucky to have all of those things in Impact Hub Birmingham, a space which will be closing its doors later this year, meaning it made total sense to utilise this whilst we can. NB: Impact Hub Birmingham is giving space as an investment in kind, so none of the money raised will be spent on space.
+ Money doesn't make great things happen. People do.
Unfortunately, we know we can make this happen without funding because it's how most artists and activists have to work most of the time to do the work they really believe in. I went into the festival passionate about resourcing everyone in a way that isn't usually seen in the DIY space, without compromising on the value-set and reason for it to exist, because I'm not prepared to design projects that create an additional drain on those who are already struggling for so many different reasons that intersect directly with why and how people participate within the culture of zines. Whilst all of this is absolutely true – and the reason why we're crowdfunding – we also knew that the real magic of what we had wasn't the funding, but the energy, people and passion, which lack of funding can never truly take away.
+ For DIY organisers and artists, nothing is certain.
I feel strongly about having our festival happen regularly, at the same time each year. As a maker I know the importance of having even one date in the calendar to aim for, to know you can come together with other people a bit like you; a day to charge up you and your work to give you the energy to navigate the other 364. Putting a stake in the ground and saying a zine festival will go ahead in Birmingham every July, indefinitely – even if one year it just ends up as a meet-up in my own one-bed flat and we just read zines and eat toast – is powerful.
Overall, whilst I believe great things can be developed and supported by the Arts Council, we simply cannot justify letting them dictate our work. If all the ingredients are there: people, energy, space and deep purpose, then you make it happen. We cannot, and will not wait for the money, otherwise the creative landscape will remain identical to its current form, with larger organisations shaping people's understanding of what the arts are, of what work and what kind of practitioner is creatively valid. In this reality too many incredible, heartfelt ideas will remain trapped in notebooks and the daydreams of people from a range of different backgrounds because they never get the money, connections or confidence to bring them out into the world. In this reality the power imbalances remain the same. In the words of Alastair Parvin, it gives you the distinct impression that we will be caught, perpetually, 'begging for crumbs under our own table'.
So, all that considered, you would be forgiven for wondering: why didn't I just get the grant in sooner so we had chance to pivot and pursue other options?
The answer to that is the least comfortable part of this whole thing, because it lies at the complex interplay of factors within my identity as a person, worker and artist – a variation of which most artists are operating within in ways that aren't discussed enough, but which I think are important to be honest about here.
There's a reason I find so much sanctuary in the world of zines, and I've also lightly but openly begun to share my own challenges with mental health in blog posts such as I Am Afraid of Nothing and Drowning Not Waving. Frankly for me having got this far with something as open and exposing as leading a festival around something I so personally believe in has been particularly terrifying, exhausting, and surprising whilst trying to enter recovery for my all too often turbulent and terrified mind. I also had no idea how deep physical symptoms for mental health conditions ran, and continue to fight routinely with migraines, as well as currently self-investing in monthly treatments just to keep my shoulder and neck mobile.
It's tricky to navigate working full-time for living wage on expansive, forward-looking work that could totally transform the lives of many, whilst also juggling freelance work to earn something that goes back into my practice. For some time now my creative practice has been decreasingly about actually getting to make any work myself, and more about creating a healthy context within which myself and other artists can work in a way that serves us, focusing on building the residency programmes, exhibition opportunities, and genuine creative networks that I and so many others need, all of which you can read more about in a recent blog: My Best Intentions as an Artist in Birmingham, and most of which I draw no earnings from.
I want to be clear as well that this is not a case of creative chaos as artists are so often dismissed. Everything I am doing is focused, and deliberate, and so many other niceties get stripped away in order to make this particular jigsaw hold together: its just that it never stops, is never at peace, never truly buoyant or bountiful. I did what I needed to do to get the application in, but there was no margin for error, I guess representative of the entire pickle that so many artists are in; one that planning further ahead or getting more organised simply won't fix.
Whilst receiving the rejection from ACE absolutely played into some of my deep-rooted fears about not being the right person to lead this work, and all of my initial thoughts were around exactly what I could or should have done differently, I also know the hard reality is that the things that make this difficult for me to do are also what make it exactly what it needs to be – deeply inclusive and completely affordable by design, personal and done with heart, with nothing but care, respect for and direct understanding of DIY, lo-fi, independent practitioners who are all too often overlooked and under-resourced, and crafted with every ounce of energy, time and love that I am lucky enough to be able to find in the good people of Birmingham, the city of A Hundred Thousand Welcomes.
Comparatively Stronger: What's Next?
Moving very quickly, we have stripped the festival budget right back, which we know will still involve great human effort from many friends and supporters plus no fee for myself, to crowdfund the basic costs such as materials and basic promotional materials. We also, crucially, don't want to engage artists to lead sessions based on their skills and talents, then ask them to travel here by their own means, nor close down the access fund, which will make participation impossible for some stallholders.
Our total budget for a summer of project activity was £9,890, which we have reduced to £5,000 to cover the working costs of the festival. We are doing this crowdfunder to see if we can people-power what will still be an incredible festival using even a fraction of the resource. We will link to updates of what different mini milestones mean for the project, with the first £200 alone set to make a massive difference by directly supporting access costs for stallholders. It really is the case that no matter how small a pledge you can make it has the power to totally change the game for us and the makers we are proud to work alongside and champion.
You can also find out more about the theme of **Comparatively Weaker via our creative call-out, the culmination of which can be picked up in zine form as one of our perks, as well as forming an exhibition as part of the festival.
Cheers for reading and for any support you can give,
Curator of Brum Zine Fest