Thoughts on failure

November 13, 2013 by  

This week we failed to reach our kickstarter goal for the PlayCubes project. And not by a small margin: at the close of play we had only reached 13% of our goal – just £528 out of £4,000. So I find myself asking, “What does it mean to have failed?”

The campaign was an experiment to see if this form of fundraising could work for us. It was ‘low risk’ in the sense that we were not raising funds for a new project, but to complement an already finished one with an additional outcome. It is certainly disappointing not to be able to manufacture the sets and get them out into the world as we planned; there are clearly things we can look at and consider changing such as reward types, pledge amounts and even the physical form of the PlayCubes. But do these issues indicate why the campaign failed or could there be other reasons?

Tim Wight wrote an excellent post a few weeks ago on innovation and failure which I have been thinking about during the campaign and especially once it became clear we would be unlikely to reach our target (essentially after the fifth day of a two week campaign). Tim has some great observations about the way failure is perceived and addressed culturally; how so often people seek to ‘recuperate’ failure by turning it into a risk-averse ‘learning’ opportunity rather than accepting failure as is, as something intrinsic to the creative process.

“I’d argue, however, that we don’t always have to learn from failure, and that sometimes making the same mistakes over and over again might even be part of the innovation (or rather the *invention*) process.”

What can I learn from this process? Is there anything, in fact, worthwhile to learn? Did the project “fail” or is it that I didn’t “sell” it well enough? Is it a failure of concept, execution or communication?

“…failure doesn’t necessarily need to have a learning point or any value.
We can just noodle about and experiment and repeat and fail again and again and again without any obvious point. Many great artists have done this. “

As I’m sure others who’ve launched kickstarter projects have experienced, I received a number of messages offering me advice and professional services to enhance the campaign. Essentially all the advice boiled down to a simple nugget, that the only way to succeed was to already have a significant “fanbase” who could be “activated” or motivated to pledge support and then amplify it by sharing the fact they’d supported the project to their friends and social circles. If I’ve learnt anything then its probably that Proboscis doesn’t have a fanbase as such to activate.

The irony, too, was not lost on me of trying to raise funding for a project about free play and improvisation without rules, winners or rewards on a crowdfunding platform entirely structured around rewards and goals – where there are only winners (those who reach or surpass their goal) and losers. Could there be more to this than just irony? Could it be that the conceptual nature of the PlayCubes (indeed of my whole practice) is just so diametrically opposite to the way in which kickstarter and the communities which form around it operate that it was always unlikely to succeed? Tim’s post also quotes Tom Uglow writing about a project they collaborated on, #dream40

“Artistic projects like this do not fit one-size-fits all metrics; and I’m not sure what those metrics are anyway – though I do know that targets breed strategies to hit targets, so you’ll forgive us for ignoring them. Hitting targets reward organizations not audiences, or artists, or culture.”
Tom Uglow, Google Creative Labs

This leads me to think about consumption and how kickstarter reflects an ideal of a free market economy, a sort of microcosm of how free markets are supposed to work, albeit in a very basic form. As an artist I have spent my whole career trying to evade the normalising effect of being part of such an economy – most likely as a product of growing up in the 1980s during the Thatcher years. My work has always been about exploring what’s beyond the horizon, of trying to anticipate the things that are just out of our reach, that are outwith the contemporary boundaries of society and culture. So much of what we’ve done at Proboscis since around 2000 has also been forward looking, about inventing new futures. The kinds of social and cultural ideas, tools and techniques we’ve created have often been ahead of their time: testing the just-possible and directing attention at where things could go. Is there perhaps a contradiction in using the logic of consumption and popularity to support projects that are precisely not popular because what underlies them is unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable – something that may not become mainstream for years?

“Even more importantly, people generally don’t learn from other people’s mistakes. They’d much rather learn from their *own* mistakes.  Your own mistakes hurt so much more and live with you much longer. It doesn’t matter how often Mummy or Daddy tell you not to put your hand near the fire, you’ll only really remember not to do it *after* you’ve burned your hand, right?”

Despite our kickstarter campaign failing, I feel unrepentant. I’m going to keep getting my hand burnt in this way because I believe that what Proboscis does is genuinely valuable – despite the dearth of pledges we’ve had plenty of positive feedback about the PlayCubes. We find ourselves, like many others, struggling to keep afloat in challenging times, but persistent, dogged in continuing to make work and to make a difference. Like the spider Robert the Bruce famously watched trying to weave a web across a cave entrance, even though it kept falling down, it kept on trying until at last it succeeded – “If at first you don’t succeed, try try and try again.”

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

We’ll keep trying, fail again and again, but fail better.

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