SPX is Waiting for Your Unemployment Check

SPX is Waiting for Your Unemployment Check

Yesterday, TCJ published an interview with SPX festival director Warren Bernard, conducted by Michael O'Connell.

It was truly awful.

Below are clips from the interview interlaced with my commentary. Interview snippets will always be in bold font and preceded by the initials of the speaker.

MO: How has the coronavirus impacted SPX 2020 at this point?

WB: There are a couple of things that it's impacted.

Just a couple, folks!

WB: Let's take them one at a time. The first one is the impact on the exhibitors room. Normally, we send out, we'll call it an invite list. That's like all the publishers that normally come. And then there's a selection of people from the indie comics community on an individual creator basis that we also invite. That is put together with input from everybody in the executive committee. So that normally goes out and then we also start the lottery.

For those who don't know, SPX runs on an invite basis, wherein they invite working artists to pay them money to attend the show. I explained this to my partner and she said, "wait, they pay to exhibit?" It was a quaint reminder that people outside of this industry and its fringes have reasonable expectations about being paid for work.

WB: We pushed things back to see what was going on. And one of the decisions we made was that normally by this time, by April, we're collecting money from people.

Because we pushed everything back, we're not going to have all the tables' stuff done before most probably May. Normally, that's like by March or April, all that stuff is done so we can push everything out to everybody saying, 'OK, look, you've got a table, send us money.'

Here's the first place where I would have appreciated O'Connell getting some clarification. What does Bernard mean here by having the "tables' stuff done"? Is this referring to having a table layout done and assigning tables? This is a minor sticking point compared to what's coming, but I dislike the way that even basic event logistics are simultaneously obscured and made to sound like crucial work. After all, having the "tables' stuff done" is the inciting moment for turning around and asking an invited creator for a several-hundred-dollar advance almost half-a-year ahead of time.

The push for transparency on behalf of festivals should primarily be concerned with questions of fairness with respect to how funds levied from creators are allocated, but we also can't begin discussing fairness with respect to other distributive concerns until we have a basic understanding of what these organizers are even doing.

Of course, this assumes that what they do is actually working in the first place.

WB: We're not even going to think about collecting money from anybody until late May, early June.

I remember seeing this and applauding SPX's decision to forego collecting funds from creators as far in advance as they normally would otherwise. Other shows and events were doing things where they were encouraging people not to give money rather than making the choice for them. And still some others were offering the option for refunds while also offering to hold the money for an event the next year.

The latter option especially is intensely cynical. It should not even be left up to cash-strapped working artists whether their money stays with some organization for an event next year that may or may not even happen: the default should be to return the money, immediately, no questions asked. I actively encourage anybody with the option to get cash back in their hands right now to do so.

Anyway, bravo SPX for not taking people's money. They are cash-strapped and deserving of holding onto that cash and whatever other cash they receive from vital government assistance programs. Bravo, I say!

WB: There were a couple of reasons for that. In the indie comics community, there are a lot of people out there that have lost their day jobs. They've lost any kind of gigs that they've got in terms of artwork, freelance gigs. So we don't want to go ahead and have to force people to cough up money that they may not have right now.

Hear, hear! Bravo, once again!

WB: The second reason is that there's all this uncertainty out there.

Uh oh.

WB: And by the way, there's a semi-selfish reason.

Oh no...

WB: We didn't want to have to go through the hassle of refunding people's money if we had to go ahead and cancel.

... Oh, is that it? That's not so bad. I mean, as I said above, the most problematic thing is organizations leeching off of people's limited cash surplus, so not taking their money in the first place because you were worried about the hassles of refunds is actually a responsible position. Refunds are a hassle.

Anyway, not taking people's money is justifiable by pretty much every reason imaginable.

WB: We also were going under the assumption that people who did need unemployment would be able to get onto unemployment by the time we asked for money, because we do need money to go ahead and run the show. We're not going to make any decision about holding SPX until most probably somewhere in June.

Not until June? That's sensible.

WB: The second thing we had to do is we had to change the Ignatz Awards.

Nice, the fact that people have to mail in is --  Wait what?! Back up!

WB: We also were going under the assumption that people who did need unemployment would be able to get onto unemployment by the time we asked for money, because we do need money to go ahead and run the show.

Some of you may be thinking, if he was waiting to collect payment and not cancelling payment outright, then obviously the redirection of people's unemployment checks towards these tables fees at a later date was a foregone conclusion.

Let me tell you why that's bull shit.

Remember how the intricate festival logistics for which creators shell out hundreds of dollars was simply having "tables' stuff in order?" Bernard easily could have given a similarly vague explanation here. "Well, we didn't want to charge people because we were under the assumption that in a few months things would be more stable and people would have their affairs in order." Done! Bernard could have just glossed over his assumptions and counted on O'Connell not to press further about where in the holy hell artists were going to magically get cash for this. Of course, he would have been correct, since O'Connell didn't have a follow-up for the actual, brazen version.

Bernard doesn't bother coding his language here because he's just telling the truth: this show has always dependent on the cash of working artists, no matter what their financial situation was. Why would this time be any different?

Of course, this is where the absurdity lies. If any time is different, it's this one. We know that, statistically, attendees will be unemployed at a rate many times higher than any previous year. We know that many of the attendees qualify for the $1200 stimulus check. And, we know that the economy is spiraling out of control, with the ad industry and the news industry -- two pillars of cash flow for illustrators -- in absolute nose dives.

Thus we know -- and Bernard knows -- that creators are more strapped for cash than ever, and government money, however pathetic by comparison to any other semi-functioning democracy, is going to make up a higher percentage of the subsidy of SPX than ever before.

With all of these facts on the table, Bernard, and everybody involved with SPX, has options. Knowing that artists are strapped for cash and relying on limited government subsidies, SPX could forego its annual donation to the CBLDF (assuming it still makes it to the tune of $10,000 every year). In 2017 -- the last year for which SPX's tax forms are available -- they spent ~$27,000 on travel expenses.

But, no such luck. Instead of offering to help artists or meet them half way, Bernard wants to wait for your government assistance to arrive so he can take his cut. In other countries, there are laws for art galleries stating that if they access certain government subsidies, they are not allowed to make artists pay rent to exhibit in the space. Bernard instead gets to have his cake and eat it too: collect government subsidies meant for others as rent! Surely Estonian economists and cultural policymakers must go back to the drawing board.

Again, the only reasonable defense I can imagine for Bernard saying this is to suggest that the (currently boosted) unemployment money exists as a means to get people back to their regular habits, especially spending habits, to keep the economy churning.

I hate to wake you up from what seems like a lovely delusion that I wish I shared, but this line of thinking ignores reality. In reality, the money is going right from the government, to individuals, and into SPX's pocket. How fitting, then, that SPX, which in the past has received paltry grant sums and thus relies on astronomical exhibitor fees and charges admission, finally has its day in the sun: it can finally get some more sweet government grant funding, no strings attached, by way of exhibitors' pockets. While you can argue -- correctly -- that SPX doesn't get the same grant support as TCAF because our country's support for the arts is a complete joke, it does not explain why this is the problem of working artists in a pandemic instead of the festival runner who is in charge of asking them for money or having the festival at all.

Shame on Warren Bernard and everybody who enables him to use this festival this way.

Bernard then goes on to talk about how the Ignatz submissions are going digital and people will no longer have to mail in submissions.

WB: By not doing that, we're saving people a lot of money because normally people would have to send six copies. There's the price of the books. There's the price of the postage. And so we decided to take that out of the equation.

Super dope to read this guy talking about "saving people a lot of money" right after he confessed to delaying the charges for table fees so he could wait to scoop up people's unemployment money. Even more dope that he's talking about "saving people a lot of money" from something they were paying because of him in the first place!

MO: Is there an entry fee that goes with that?

Oh, sorry, you might not know what "MO" stands for: it's Michael O'Connell. You know, the guy doing this interview? Yeah, I forgot about him too. This interview happened over Skype, so O'Connell was polite enough to let Bernard finish doing his best slumlord impersonation before asking him this humdinger of a question.

WB: No, there was no entry fee that ever goes with that.

Of course, this is a lie, because there has always been a fee. He himself was just talking about it: the cost of shipping before the award submissions went digital. I don't understand why O'Connell even asks this question. It's like somebody just told you, "yeah, I just switched my district off of the polling machines that require a fifty-dollar bill to operate: now we use free paper ballots" and then you just nod and ask "has there ever been a poll tax?"

Table fees fall under this same category. Although they're outrageous on their own, the focus on table fees leads to events like Funhouse where those fees get waived as if it's a gift to creators who still have to do labor for the event. They still have to pay for things like travel, lodging, and food away from home. In the neat little world that festival runners inhabit these costs are not real and are never spoken of.

Look, just give Bernard your unemployment check, OK?

MO: So that saves them the money of copies and the saves them the money of shipping. That's a plus.

What's up, Mike? Like, what's your deal? O'Connell completely ignores the unemployment stuff as well as every other substantive thing that Bernard said in its vicinity, and instead takes this opportunity to repeat something Bernard just said in order to affirm that it is, in fact, "a plus."

The only possible defense I could see of O'Connell's silence earlier would be that he was trying to remain neutral, but, well, so much for that!

MO: It's nice that you're able to have that continuity and you've been able to adapt to it, doing what everybody else is doing, virtual stuff. And probably that June date is a good date. My day job, I'm an editor for Patch and one of the beats I cover is D.C, and I know they're looking at a peak for coronavirus cases at the end of June.

WB: Things may be going back to normal, but are they going to allow 4,000-5,000 people here in Montgomery County to get together? We don't have a clue.


MO: Things may start to ramp-up, but the people that you talked about who may have lost their jobs or lost hours and gigs, they may not be in a position to travel or do anything.

'Atta boy, Mike! Glad you're joining us.

WB: There are so many different variables right now that anyone who says they think they know what's going to happen is a liar. Like I said, there's this whole safety thing. For all I know, they may want to go ahead and reopen stores and stuff like that, but large congregations of people, they may put the kibosh on that for a while. We don't know. No one knows. So all we're going to do is take these incremental steps.

The other thing that is completely absurd about this interview is this weird charade that's happening where Bernard is talking about this like large gatherings are some kind of possibility and we're just not sure yet.

There will be no large gatherings this year. It's just not happening.

MO: Do you have a drop dead date? Is there a point of no return where if you don’t do certain things by like July 15, then that's it?

WB: I haven't thought about that yet because in all honesty, I want to get to the first road mark, which is May-June. Every big show has a contract with the hotel for a certain number of room nights. And if you don't book those room nights, you get penalized. The next step is going to be once we see the lay of the land on a practical basis. Is Amtrak running to bring people down from New York and Philadelphia? Are the planes flying? There are all these other variables that are going to come in besides whether or not SPX can physically hold it here in Montgomery County.

I have said this several times to friends and on social media, so I'd like to finally put it in writing: several festivals have been playing this game and I think it is a very cynical one and one that the community should commit to memory. TCAF did the same thing, as did SDCC. Some of these festivals are holding out until the last minute to see if things magically get better so that they can be the very first event on the slate post-quarantine.

There is no other explanation.

The way festival runners talk about it could not make this more obvious. I watched the festival director of TCAF, Christopher Butcher, provocatively tweet about his purchase of SDCC airplane tickets. Why provocatively? Well he had also recently retweeted some stupid asshole dog-whistling about the threat to "right of assembly." In the US, at least, we see exactly where this kind of talk led. For the festival director of a major festival, which had still at that time not cancelled, to tongue-in-cheek tweet about his SDCC tickets to his followers while having that other trash on his timeline was a sight to behold. TCAF and VanCAF then proceeded to walk their position back with a series of statements over that next week when things really got bad, but even VanCAF didn't officially cancel until several days after the US-Canada border was completely closed to non-essential traffic!

It's gaslighting to say that we didn't know how bad it was going to get. Yes we fucking did. The day I saw cases in California go from 400 to 800 cases, I knew it was real, and so did everybody else who wasn't watching Fox News or retweeting Bill of Rights concern trolls. California now has over twice that number in deaths, and the case of New York is far more sobering.

It was no mystery. And it's not a mystery now. Certainly not on a timeline of a few months. Don't let people in power rewrite history as it happens.

MO: Is there a way to do a smaller show for 2020?

WB: The problem with the smaller show is that we've already got a contract with guarantees in it. There are penalty clauses and all kinds of other stuff like that. I don't want to get into the legal aspects of it. But, the bottom line is, if Montgomery County or the state of Maryland doesn't want groups of 250 or more, 500 or more or 2,000 or more to get together, it's not going to make much sense for us to even do a reduced show.

If SPX -- hell, if TCAF or SDCC or VanCAF for that matter -- all had to hold on until the last minute to cancel their shows because of contractual obligations to major venues or municipalities, then I understand that. However, the community has no way of verifying the veracity of these kinds of claims, because despite the fact that the working artists are the most major funder of SPX and most other similar shows), they don't get any transparency whatsoever as to how its funds are used. The details of these contracts are a black box.

I can confidently wave my hands and say that taking unemployment checks is unacceptable and at the very least SPX should waive table fees for those currently in need of government assistance. I would be less confident, however, in saying that SPX could easily get a municipality to make concessions because of the pandemic. States are clawing for money right now. But it's impossible for me and, more importantly, for the exhibitors to get any insight into this.

It's also worth emphasizing that even if an organization was locked in an unfavorable contract, it could communicate this clearly instead of dragging things out. There is an unstated assumption that all of these festivals are too big to fail. If a festival went under because of a bad contract it couldn't fulfill in a pandemic, isn't that preferable to leeching off of exhibitors in dire times?

MO: In times when people don't have a lot of money, they cut out things, the frills. And for a lot of people the frills are books, comic books, movies, things like that. So even though right now they're taking a big hit, during the recovery, who knows how long this downturn is going to go on?

WB: On exactly that point, floating back to SPX and this coronavirus thing, without getting into internal details, we have gone ahead and taken a look at our expenses and have cut a whole bunch of stuff. And by cutting a whole bunch of stuff, we are anticipating a 20-25 percent drop in attendance.

What a great moment this is. O'Connell brings up that consumers are going to have less money to spend on comic books, and so Bernard immediately says, "we have gone ahead and taken a look at our expenses and have cut a whole bunch of stuff." since they're "anticipating a 20-25 drop in attendance."

O'Connell specifically asks about consumers, and now that we're talking about people who come to spend money and the fact that there may be less of them, we can talk about cutting costs at the festival. But earlier, when we spelled out that comics artists were losing jobs, when we said that a lot of them were going to have to go on unemployment and wait for unemployment, we didn't talk about cost-cutting. Oh no, we talked about waiting for their fucking unemployment checks as a source of funding!

The contrast here is best understood as the general contempt that festivals have for working artists as just that: workers. You are not workers: you are just orbited by your work. Your work is a cultural artifact with some transacitonal value and so you should cough up money for the mere opportunity to display it to the much more important consumers.

WB: So we're even doing things that, like I said, there's a whole bunch of different areas that we're cutting that then impacts people who were depending on us to go ahead and whatever little revenue we were going to throw them, we're now not going to throw it to anybody.

Again, another determination of desert as made by Bernard. Costs should be cut to compensate for low attendance, but not for struggling artists via lower (or waived) table fees. Similarly, we should be concerned about the fate of the people who we cannot pay with pilfered government aid because we determined, via our black-box funding model where the entire festival is one large expense, that these people to whom we redistribute exhibitor fess are the ones who ought not to be losing out on this arrangement.

MO: There's so many different levels that you've got to look at this. You've got to look at your own business side of can we afford these contracts that we have to maintain? Are we going to be able to get the people that are going to draw audiences in? And then is the audience even going to be financially able to come?

Does O'Connell think that this interview is the listening comprehension portion of an exam? Why is this happening?

MO: What would you say to the retailers, to the people who are going to want booths, and also the the people that may be coming to do panels and things? What would you say to them? And then also, what would you say to other people who want to attend?

WB: I would say do what you feel safe doing. It's the only thing that you can do. I'm not going to get up here and plead with people to come and ask them to go against their own self-health interest. By the way, if it comes down to that we have to cancel SPX because of strictly health reasons, then that's something that we're going to have to do.

It's surreal watching this dude drop these pointless tautologies as counterfactuals, acting like the ongoing worldwide pandemic is some kind of unknown agent. The dude literally says "if ... we have to, then that's something that we're going to have to do." Cool, thanks. But what's more alarming is how he's treating the antecedent here. If you have to close for strictly health reasons? Sorry, what else has been on the table this whole time?

WB: For instance, what if they go ahead and they say, 'Ok, you can hold it, but you have to maintain the six-foot distance." How would that even work in an SPX situation?

It wouldn't. He knows the answer to this. We know the answer to this. The further I get in this interview the less it seems like the dude just says shit and the more manipulative it sounds. Why else are we getting so many non-hypothetical hypotheticals hurled at us if not to attempt to destabilize our perception of this awful situation? The benefit of an interview is that somebody gets pressed beyond rhetorical questions, but O'Connell does nothing but formulate his own rhetorical questions based on things Bernard has already said.

WB: So all of this gets back to everyone has to feel safe in what it is that they're doing. That's the message that I think everybody needs to have.

The real message that everybody needs to have is that Bernard was willing to cut costs because of low attendance, but made the business decision to wait to charge artists for their tables -- in full -- until they received crucial and relatively limited government assistance in the worst financial disaster of our lifetimes.

But hey, at least you'll save on postage. That's a plus.

Austin Lanari

About Austin Lanari

Call me a bedbug to my face.