Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The ELCAF 2015 report: ELCAF goes garage

This is the final piece of this year's ELCAF coverage, collating my brief observations and thoughts, and an interview with Nobrow and ELCAF's Sam Arthur on how things went from an organiser's perspective. You can find a piece that discusses 10 people's experiences of the festival here, and a comics report by Jane Mai here.

My plans for ELCAF were all over the place this year. Having just arrived back from Canada and TCAF (Toronto Comics Arts festival)a few weeks prior, I wasn't sure if it was going to be financially viable for me to attend another festival so soon after; a return train ticket from Leeds to London costs around £100 alone. In addition, Ramadhan was beginning 2 days prior to ELCAF weekend and all that travelling and being constantly on my feet and up and about in the warm weather on a no-food, no-drink regime was making it look even less do-able. I wasn't sure whether to go for the weekend, or one day. I was asked to participate on a panel and then that didn't work out, so there were lots of ifs and buts whizzing around essentially, but I decided to bite the bullet and arrange some travel tickets for the Saturday, simply because I've always had such a good time at the festival in previous years. A big factor in that decision was the opportunity to see Annie Koyama again, and maybe meet Jane Mai and Michael DeForge. I write this to maybe provide some insight into my mindset; I was pretty comicked out, to be frank, but the chance to meet people I admire very much, who I don't know if I'd get a a chance to see again was too much to resist. 

I got up at 5 in the morning, a time at which I really can't be arsed about anything, pulled on random clothes and sat at the bus-stop for half an hour, waiting to go to the train station. The train was at 7:05 to Kings Cross, and I was more tired than I'd expected and spent much of the journey lulling and drooling and jerking in and out of sleep. I hate taking the tube/undergound- I'm not used to it and it's so windy and bitty, but I was with Oliver which made it easier as I trotted along behind him. So a bus, three train journeys and a 25 minute walk later, we were at our destination.  There was a short queue of people waiting to get inside when we arrived: a line for those who had pre-booked tickets and a line for those who were buying at the door.The festival had only just opened, so the queue at this point was expected and standard. People's names were checked, wristbands provided and then quickly let in. We didn't have to wait longer than 10 minutes.I didn't see any more queuing throughout the day. We were early enough to get one of the free ELCAF totes which had exotically flavoured popcorn inside, and then we were in.

ELCAF this year was again situated in Bethnal Green. The location had changed but was very close to where it had been last year. The main convention floor was in a basement/garage event space called The Laundry, which (I was very pleased to note) had a restaurant/bar attached directly to it with plenty of seating and food and drink available. The underground space meant there was no natural light, but it was very well lit, so you could still see everything fine -and yes, that's worth pointing out because it sometimes doesn't happen! The first thing I bought was a copy of José Domingo's Pablo & Jane and the Hot Air Contraption- these were advance copies and I got worried it might sell out and it was too good to miss.There was a stream of people in the first hour and a half, but it wasn't packed, so I took the opportunity to buy a copy of SuperMutant Magic Academy for a friend and get it personalised by Jillian Tamaki. It was nice to be able to meet the D&Q folk briefly- I think the way they're going about celebrating their 25th anniversary as a publisher with the special book, announcements, and tour has been exemplary but unshowy. They're coming to Thought Bubble later in November, and they have the kind of catalogue that will do well at both (most) shows.

Jillian Tamaki

There was a DJ playing music for the duration of the show, which was nice, but who got really loud as it went on, which mixed in with the increasing hubbub and chatter later in that day made it very difficult to communicate with anyone you weren't standing nose to nose with.  A case of having to shout at people across the table to be heard: 'HOW MUCH IS THIS COMIC FOR?' 'I'M A REALLY BIG FAN OF YOUR WORK.' It certainly helped overcome any awkwardness, haha.

The space in itself was good though, not too low hanging as can often be the case with underground spaces, and very open- plenty of room between aisles and tables even when it got busier- for those attending at least. Some of the exhibitors were really tightly pressed against the wall with their tables, and had to crawl under them in order to get out and in, because shuffling behind/past others wasn't an option. There were about 3 'alcove-y' areas- one down some steps, the others leading off aisles that were roomy, and easy to see and access. One of the things I've noticed at festivals is that exhibitors get clumped in various rooms and spaces, and you have to know that that room exists in order to find and visit it specifically -many a time I've pored over map trying to work out where I need to go-, which is obviously detrimental to those tabling. I know this can be trickier for shows- the bigger you get, the more people you have exhibiting, the larger space you need to find to accommodate it. But large, open spaces are always the best way to go. It makes it so much easier in terms of visibility and access for everyone- not just those specifically aware. Happily, there wasn't any such problems here. The alcove areas had knocked through walls and no doors, so you could see them right off- no cases of being shunted into low footfall areas.

I bought the new Michael DeForge comic from Breakdown Press- they seemed to be being picked up quickly. I won't list everything I got, because I already did it here. I think one of the things that struck me about ELCAF was the demographic is noticeably younger- and that's in reference to both people attending and visiting. Not many people over 40, I think. Tough not to make sweeping generalisations, but a segment of the more contemporary comics audience, people interested and working within graphic design and illustration fields- young artists and professionals? I chatted to someone as to the reasons why there aren't as many -very, very few- black and Asian comics creators in the UK small press. Ostensibly comics is still a DIY medium in terms of you staple some work together, book a table, and turn up. I think some of this absence has to do with a passed-down stemming from immigrant mind-frame of the importance of having a stable and sustainable income, which makes the 'arts' in many of their forms lacking in diversity. And then those who do filter through have to contend with the system and the various wider issues at play- it is still a very middle-class interest and pursuit. That's an immensely rough-shod way to encapsulate some of it, but there you go.

One of the things I like best about ELCAF and why I make it a point to go each year, is that it has a clear focus on the type of comics and art it presents. I know that there are artists and tables I'm likely to be interested in that I won't come across elsewhere, and that sense of identity makes it worthwhile. So their curation policy seems to serve them well in that regard. When the festival announced there would be 2 con locations for this year, like most people, I assumed that that would result in exhibitors being spread over 2 spaces, but one was for talks/panels and workshops, and the other housed all tabling artists.

I was so glad to be able to see and talk to Annie Koyama again- she was visiting England after many years and was taking part on a panel here. I'm not sure when I'll see her again, but the way life works is it happened twice within 5 weeks. Lots of people I chatted to were happy to have the opportunity to meet her; I think she's an inspiration to so many people, and she's incrediblygiving of her time and energies. I finally got to meet Michael DeForge, he seemed lovely. I chatted to Joe Decie, who's always lovely. I met Jane Mai and Patrick Crotty who were snazzily dressed in scout uniforms, which people were very fascinated by- I've seen more photos of the two of them from the festival than I have of anything else. Peow! as usual, were doing very well: lots of people at the table and buying.

I actually spent most of ELCAF sat in the restaurant and talking to people. I feel I bang the drum about this a lot (and it's such a basic thing), but socialising and resting and eating is such an integral part of comics events, it's daft not have provision for it. After I'd had a look around and bought what I wanted, it was really nice to be able to sit down with a drink and talk to people. I was there for the atmosphere and people more than the comics for once, and I had a good time. It's strange how what you want out of events changes from event to event and, I guess, as the further you get into something. Part of me feels I should go to these events and document new talents and the things I saw (which is an almost impossible task), and whilst I do attempt to do some of that, it can be so exhausting that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that I also do this for me- because I enjoy it, and I want that to continue! I decided to let go of some of that pressure and have a different experience and it was excellent. It made for a much-needed, relaxed change. It's good to take different approaches to events and see what works for you, or what doesn't.

A few people mentioned that it was gratifying to see that the suggestions for improvement from last year were taken on board, and from what I saw on the Saturday, this year seemed to run largely glitch-free. It was a very good time overall- it's a superb festival.

Jane Mai and Patrick Crotty at the Peow! table

I talked to Nobrow and ELCAF co-founder Sam Arthur about this year's festival and how the changes had played out.

How do you feel the festival went this year, overall?
Sam Arthur: I think this year’s festival went really well. Speaking on behalf of the festival organising team, we think things went smoothly this year. Talking to exhibitors, there was a lot of positivity over the weekend and talking to visitors I got the feeling that they were enjoying the event. We certainly didn’t have the problems of overcrowding that we had last year, but at the same time we had more visitors this year. So all in all, more visitors, less stress, that can only be a good thing!

How did the new extension to 2 days play out for you?
SA: It was a genuine risk extending to two days and we are very thankful to all of the exhibitors for believing in the event and supporting it the way that they did. If we hadn’t had exhibitor support from the get-go we wouldn’t have managed it. We had two busy days and I believe most people’s sales were up on last year. Having a two day event meant that we could do things like increase the amount of talks and workshops on offer. We also got to have an hour on Sunday for exhibitors only, so people could have a look around and share a drink with us. The general feeling that we had time to enjoy the event rather than rush to put it on and then pack it up made the whole weekend feel quite relaxed. From our perspective it worked out well, but we still need to take in all of the visitor and exhibitor feedback to get a good understanding of what worked and what needs improving. Two days is obviously more work for exhibitors – so we hope it was worth while. We did have a few exhibitors for one day only to vary the stands and the feel of the two days a little and if this is something we have demand for next year we will take it into consideration.

That move was made to meet demand- but there's also the worry that there might not be enough footfall to warrant it- how was attendance? 
SA: Attendance was up on last year, I am waiting for the final figures, but it was well over 3000 people over the entire weekend. Saturday was slightly the busier of the two days which we expected. Sunday had a quiet start and a strong finish, with many exhibitors reporting sales similar to Saturday, which was really encouraging, there was no feeling of it being ‘a bit dead', which can be the case on some festival second days. Judging from initial numbers and from the feel of the two days I’d say we got it right.

I think a few people -myself included- assumed that exhibitors would be spread over 2 spaces when you announced 2 locations, but it seems one was for the talks and panels, as per previous festivals. Was it just about getting larger spaces to facilitate both areas?
SA: We have a difficult time finding the right size venue for the right price in London. We discussed splitting the exhibitors, but in the end we wanted to try to keep them all together as we felt it would create a better atmosphere. The talks need a separate space to give them the right noise free environment and in order to facilitate easy access in and out – this is quite hard to do with a single exhibitor space unless you are talking about a huge convention centre. So in answer to your question, yes it was largely about getting bigger venues for both types of space – but it was also about getting a better flow of people through the main space, I think this year we managed to do that quite well.

Some of the feedback I got from exhibitors showing on both days was that the 10-7 hours were really long. Am I right in thinking that previously the festival's ended at 5?
SA: I think we finished at 6pm last year. Opening hours is definitely something that we will look into for next year and if the feedback we get is that 7pm is too late we’ll make a change.

The festival has largely remained in the same area of London but moved from location to location. Is finding a regular place that suits your needs important, or is it about adapting as the needs change?
SA: There are two ways to answer this question! The ideal scenario is that we have the same location each year. That would make it easier to organise, easier for exhibitors and visitors as they know what to expect and then we begin to build an association with the venue and can build on our visitor numbers. However if we wanted to make a larger festival the current location might not be able to accommodate it. So we are always trying to get the balance right which isn’t so easy. Right now we need to look at all of our exhibitor and visitor feedback and decide what we want from next year’s event. We have a feedback questionnaire which will really help us in making these decisions – please take some time to fill it out!

It's inevitable that a festival can't accept everybody who applies to table. What's your policy or motto when you're looking at exhibitor applications for ELCAF?
SA: We are looking for people who enjoy telling stories in visually interesting ways. Exhibitors range from collectives that are recently graduated to individuals that have been plugging away at self publishing for years, this is because these people love what they do and bring something special to the festival. We like the idea that people are fired up for ELCAF! Even if you don’t get a table it doesn’t mean you can’t come along and be part of it – that’s one of the great things about ELCAF, our visitors make the festival atmosphere as much as our guests and exhibitors do. Every year it’s inevitable that some applicants are going to end up disappointed, but for reasons stated above relating to space it’s impossible to give everyone a table. We are also trying to bring the idea of curation into the mix – there are first come first serve festivals out there already, so we are trying to bring something different to the mix. We think that’s important, we want ELCAF to be a unique experience. We are incredibly grateful to everyone who applies, and we have in some cases given tables to people who were rejected the previous year – so keep working and keep applying if you’ve been unlucky so far, you never know what will happen next time!

Was there anything that came up -good or bad- that you're looking to address for next year?
SA: Our guests were all fantastic, Jillian Tamaki did a great job with the poster and festival branding. We were really lucky to have so many amazing exhibitors from all of the UK and in fact all over the world. Steven Guarnaccia’s exhibition was really amazing and we were lucky to get it and him over at quite short notice from New York (via Bologna in Italy thanks to Hamelin and the Transbook project). I have a feeling we will address the hours next year, because 7pm over two days was quite tough on the exhibitors. We may or may not get Arts Council Funding next year because of all to the government cuts to the arts (amongst other things), so we may also need to look at the ticket prices which we tried very hard to keep as low as possible this year. The idea of government funding for a comics festival in the US for example would be laughable, so I think we are lucky to have institutions like the Arts Council that are open to funding a festival like ours. We’d like to involve more schools and young people in the festival next year, potentially with satellite events and workshops, it would be great to see ELCAF lead the way in getting more and more young people interested in comics and visual narratives. We’d also love to work with another suitable festival sponsor, so if you’d like to be involved in that, get in touch! Finally – this year we had a great team of organisers and ‘yellow’ volunteers, so they all need a very special mention for all their hard work and we’d love to keep the team intact for next year if we can.

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