Reflecting on our years as an RFO

March 30, 2012 by  

Today was the last working day of our 2011-12 financial year and, as such, Proboscis’ last day as an Arts Council England Regularly Funded Organisation. What has this meant to us and what will our future trajectory be? As we near Proboscis’ 18th anniversary in June (with a by no means certain path ahead) I feel I should mark this moment of transition in some way – pausing to reflect back on what being an RFO meant to us and how we mean to forge ahead.

Becoming an RFO in 2004 was a key transformation point for Proboscis, allowing us to concentrate on developing our programme in a way we hadn’t had the resources to do before. Specifically it allowed us to engage in longer term developments, such as working in research and social engagement as well as enabling us to cashflow projects where the funding was paid in arrears (such as Technology Strategy Board funds etc). Our attitude to being an RFO was that it provided us with leverage to explore areas and partnerships where artistic practice were not mainstream, where we could slowly build relationships and nurture opportunities to work in other fields than traditional art contexts. To this end, we were able to become recognised by the UK Research Councils as an Independent Research Organisation (the only artist-led organisation to do so), to win funding from diverse sources such as the Ministry of Justice, the Technology Strategy Board and Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute and to create international partnerships that took us to work in Australia, Japan, Brazil and Canada. We were able to support seven young people into creative careers (two of whom are still with us) through our participation in the Future Jobs Fund programme. It also enabled us to develop a specific kind of collaborative practice with partners (such as universities) who were unused to collaboration (being more used to commissioning or consulting) – enabling us to be treated as a peer, not a sub-contractor.

Regular funding provided us with the resources to invest time and energy into smaller projects that were less likely to win funding on their own, but were crucial to developing our presence in critical and creative spheres – such as our 10 year programme of commissions for various series of Diffusion eBooks and the early experiments with the Diffusion Generator, a precursor to our self-publishing platform, bookleteer. The recent experiments with digital fabric printing have also benefitted from being able to take a longer view over what was originally a solution for a single project.

Times change and perhaps we are measured by our ability to respond to them. Over the past year we have been attempting to give Proboscis a new sense of direction – welcoming Gary Stewart and Stefan Kueppers into the fold as key creative associates. We’ve mapped out a new core conceptual theme, Public Goods, and several strands of practice and research that we’re currently exploring through projects and experiments. New partnerships have also begun to emerge with, for instance, Headway East London, Royal Holloway’s Information Security Group and Philips R&D (our collaborator in the Art + Tech Commission for ARU’s Visualise programme) as well as older ones being re-affirmed.

What does it mean for us to no longer receive regular funding? For sure it means a drop in immediate and reliable income and less short term flexibility to ‘follow our noses’ as to where interesting creative opportunities may lie in less familiar contexts without seeking funding first. It means we are having to work even harder and look wider than before to locate the kinds of funded and resourced opportunities that will cover the costs of running a studio and paying our team of creative practitioners. We are by no means sure that in the current economic climate we will be able to achieve the level of new investment that Proboscis needs to grow through this change, or how long it might take us. No doubt we will have to adopt a more elastic approach to our own infrastructure and working practices.

But what all this is making clear is that the reason Proboscis will endure, persevere and find new pastures is that it is not driven purely by business goals, by financial ambition or a career path, but by artistic vision, passion, compassion and the desire to learn from others by working with them, sharing what we have discovered along the way. I cannot divine the shape that Proboscis will take on in a year or two or more’s time, but the threads of imagination, exploration and experimentation that we are weaving will certainly continue to be woven howsoever we can.

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