The People and Project
The Flux Foundation is a unique organization with a positive, community focused mission. Their dedication to a more democratic structure and artist empowerment is reflected in their art. Their projects are currently on display all over the US. Readers may know them best for the Temple at Burning Man in 2010. Flux is currently working at American Steel Studios, in Oakland Ca.
I recently sat down with PK, an organizer with FLUX. The work space at American Steel takes up several hundred square feet and it’s jam packed with tools, materials and equipment. Small sculptures decorate the walls and large work tables sit clean and ready. We sat down in a quiet shipping-container-turned-office.
How are you organized and what are the roles in the organization?
PK: We believe first and foremost that it’s about community, that everyone can be an artist, and everyone is an artist, about self-empowerment, about collectivity [sic], and about collaboration. We do what we can to maximize ownership and collaboration, which means minimizing any culture of a dictatorial nature or of singular control… In a collective, collaborative practice people will talk about something and it can resonate becoming a very dominant idea… that someone has to turn into a decision. That’s essentially what I or the other lead artists do.
What is your role in the Foundation?
PK: We pride ourselves in being hyper-collaborative, and being non-hierarchical. We try to be as flat as possible, and we’re not very big into titles, which is important in creating ownership across an operation. Technically, the leadership of FLUX are the Directors of the Foundation, of which I am one. While volunteers may come and go from project to project, the Directors make a long-term commitment and that is what empowers them beyond their overall awesomeness. As for myself I just try to coordinate the amazing work of so many people into a cohesive whole. making sure we go about things as strategically as possible with an eye on the bigger picture.
You are officially a nonprofit. How does that work for you?
PK: We have several directors, all of whom have different areas of responsibility. Even though we all act as artists, and our roles are fluid, there is an Administrative Director overseeing management, an Operations Director responsible for the shop and activities there, another director handles a lot of the PR work etc…. Regardless of the projects we’re doing at any given time, there are other activities we take on (as a nonprofit), such as serving as a fiscal sponsor for other large-scale artists. We also provide management consulting and training in arts management and project management to aspiring artists. Often they come from our own ranks. Sometimes they come from outside the organization. As an nonprofit we acknowledge what we are doing is not going to greatly benefit any of us financially, but rather benefit the community as a whole. This commitment allows us to receive donations and grants that otherwise would not be possible. and enables us to create wonder.
How do you choose and plan projects in such a democratic system?
PK: When we start a new project we will sit down in a large but manageable group, maybe 10 people or 12 people…We just generate ideas and then they get filtered. The filtering process is very important, whereby ideas have to be critiqued for the way we work. Not every idea is conducive to a collaborative process. Anything that involves a singular artist with a sketch that the final thing has to look like, in the end will not work.
So a single artist can’t pitch a fully formed idea?
PK: it can’t be [My Project].” It can’t be , “I want it to do this. I want it to do that.” You can say, “It should do this,” or, “It it should do that,” which are parameters. Parameters can be outlined, but the precise way something looks cannot be because it has to withstand so much input from a variety of sources, any a priori aesthetic conception is going to be highly problematic.
Can you give an example of this filtering process?
PK: We had an older sculpture called “BrollyFlock!” that was exhibited at a bunch of music festivals earlier. We had an idea of turning it into a giant bouquet of flowers originally conceived for Tysons Corner, Virginia but then the Philadelphia Zoo asked us to do something about nature and recycling. So we recycled that sculpture. The guiding idea everyone has to work with is “flowers and recycled materials”. The reason that idea worked was that each of the flower types could be designed by a different team, and then each flower could end up looking slightly different within that type. As we have people with different skill levels, allowing for slight variation between individual components is important, even though we may be striving for things to be identical, the imperfection works in the end. Also, having systems where individuals can focus on different technical areas allows for teams to be built and knowledge to be shared. In Bloom! that was areas such as LED lighting etc. These are the elements that make an idea have legs for us.
What sort of tools do you use or organization?
PK: We’re online excessively. Almost everything exists, and specifically exists, in the cloud because we don’t exist in an office environment. There are multiple people all working in the same space on the cloud. For example budgets are all Google spreadsheets. We use a lot of documentation so that everyone can see where we’re at.
Do you use specific project management tools, like gantt charts?
PK: I use a gantt chart myself. I’m trying to push them out more, but they’re not too helpful because there’s no one singular person managing that level of micro detail. One of the key documents we have is a master to-do list, and it just gets added to, and added to, by the team. The technology team might add something, under the wood line item, and things get built up, and scratched off. Then there is a sort of project management assistant who goes through that document every week and pushes it to the shop to say, “These are the things that are ready to get done or have to be done this week,”.
So how do the Admins organize?
PK: We have regular admin meetings. We try to get the admin team together, which is about 6 people or so, on a biweekly basis to all chime in, and track the progress, and express our concerns about this thing executing, or that thing executing. We have a general calendar which sets milestones for the teams to integrate… I’m not going to get in there and micromanage metal or technology. There’s a lot of things I don’t freakin’ know a thing about, so things just have to be set up with key milestones for things to integrate.
So what happens when things run late or there is a critical setback?
PK: It’s not like, “You’re not working for me.” You’re working for yourself, and you want to show it at Burning Man or this festival just as much as anyone else does. You don’t want to let it down.”
How do you get a group excited about the project?
PK: You have to design the project to enable those people to have ownership, to feel like, “Oh, that sounds really interesting to me, and I have the room to do it, to execute some of my own vision within the parameters that these guys are going to set.” If you decide like, “I need someone to execute X, Y, and Z for me exactly like this,” no one’s going to do it. They’re going to want to charge a lot of money. It’s called “work.”
What are you doing to motivate your current team?
PK: This time we’re really pushing ourselves in terms of technology. We’re about teaching, and learning, and sharing skills, and that sort of idea. There comes a certain part where I need to learn new skills, and other people who have been here for a long time want to learn new skills…The guy who’s doing the LED programming has never interacted with flame effects before. So there’s something sexy and enticing to him about that. There’s something sexy and enticing to someone who’s done tons of metalwork seeing their metalwork lit up by fancy LEDs.
As an organizer, you make opportunities for artist to learn and grow. Do you miss working directly on the projects?
PK: It gives us, me particularly, the opportunity to come up with ideas and see how other people execute them. That’s something that’s interesting to me specifically and a bunch of other people. As an architecture professor I taught for years. There’s something inherently valuable about setting up an idea, or setting up a problem, or a project and seeing what other people do with it.
How do you keep artists from wandering off and creating things that don’t fit with the rest of the project?
PK: If something does wander off, you just pull that person back, and you engage them saying, “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but how do you want to solve this problem, and how can we solve this problem? If you have 3 choices, A, B, and C, I think you could do A. I think we should do A because A is most in line with what we do.”
Is it hard to manage creative types in this sort of “Flat” organization?
PK: People don’t take that stuff seriously enough. Either it’s a total disregard for one or the other: Either no one cares about the people or no one cares about the project. Someone has to be there to really execute that blended judgment, and sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes I’m wrong, but it’s important to know that, and it’s important to also make decisions, and some people don’t.
What happens when people push themselves beyond their skill level?
PK: People know it when they do that themselves. They just need someone to call them out on it. Nine times out of 10 people know when something is not going right or when they’re over their heads, but they often either can’t admit it to themselves or admit it to other people,
As an organizer, how do you help someone who is having trouble interacting with the team?
PK: You ask someone how they’re doing on an honest level: “Honestly, is this working? Is it working for you? Do you think it’s working for everybody else?” We have drama. We have problems, but everybody understands that they’re committed to each other as friends and as a community and to the project. If everyone has that level of commitment to both things it all works out.
What advice could you give to aspiring artists and makers who want to start large projects?
PK: The Bay Area has a very strong tradition of this and a lot of groups doing this sort of work, which is unique. They’re all related to each in one way or another, but they all have very different ways of operating. It’s important that you do your research, whether it’s joining one of these groups, or getting to know them in some way, or meeting them and figuring out how they work.
Did you set up your nonprofit right from the start of the group?
PK: There is legally a board of directors that’s in charge, and so we can stray from that model as much as we’d like to, but that model is always there for us. We did that and it makes it very distinct, but I would encourage when people do set out on their own sort of agreement that they have a written down or codified arrangement to start, where, “You do this. I do that. We do this,” unless you have an incredibly strong emotional connection with someone. Even then it’s a good idea to have, but not be set in your ways. You know what I mean? People grow. They launch into different ideas, and they go in different ways.
Do you go over your agreements from time to time?
PK: Yeah, usually once a year we get together in a social situation, cookout, whatever, like a casual conversation, a big dinner with 15 people, like a family-style dinner, where we just talk about general issues. We don’t hesitate to have people get together and talk about [non-project details].
*Featured image from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository