At Watershed we like to bring people together. In fact we more than just like it, we think that to do so well fulfils a deep human need. We bring people together to eat and drink, to watch films, and to make new work.
One of the ways that we do this is through Pervasive Media Studio, the collaborative research and development space that we run in partnership with UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol. Together we gift space and support to an extraordinary community of artists, creative companies and researchers, all exploring ideas at the intersection of art, technology and society.
The Studio is 14 years old today. In those 14 years we have developed an international reputation for creative technology; producing cutting edge creative products, award winning cultural experiences, globally leading research outputs and leveraging millions of pounds of money into the region. I have been at the Studio for around 10 of those years and am now its Executive Producer, which means that I am always thinking about how we make what we do greater than the sum of its parts. In the time that I have been here the community has grown dramatically in scale and range, projects have come and go and the term Pervasive Media has become both less used and more true than we might have ever imagined.
While we are hugely proud of our success the enforced interruption to our usual way of working over the last two years has, in some ways, given us some space. Space to reflect on what we do, what has changed since we set up the Studio, and how the work of our community positions us to respond.
How Pervasive Media Studio works
By hosting space for residents to develop ideas in a practice-based community, the Pervasive Media Studio generates a critical mass of interdisciplinary research and collaboration happening all the time. Individual projects start and finish, but the conversation continues. Importantly, no one pays to be here which we hope enables more people to take risks in their work - and we have a reputation for spotting possibility and potential first, limits and constraints later. So while we support residents to respond to the quantified definitions of success that characterise the current funding landscape; it is the creative freedom and limited set of expectations at the heart of the Studio partnership that generates the most value.
We develop methods for thinking about the future through making and testing - running programmes like Sandbox, International Labs, Artist Residencies and Fellowships to bring people together around future facing themes. Outside of these focussed investments however, companies, artists and researchers can come to the Studio at the right moment for them and find what they need (advice, partnership, routes to an audience).
Studio Workshop, Shamphat Photography
The community is supported by a team of Creative Producers who are the key points of contact in the system; brokering new connections, advocating for residents’ work and supporting the development of new ideas in a way that de-risks research and innovation.
As has been demonstrated through programmes such as Creative Producers International and Network for Creative Enterprise, Creative Producers are important because they translate between disciplines, configure resources to make things happen, find audiences for new work and care for people and ideas – nurturing them over time and space as they undertake the painful process of experimentation.
Creative Technology (and the higher education, arts and engineering sectors which intersect in our work) have structures of power that we know limit full and equal participation. So, we also work with Inclusion Producers and consultants who have both professional expertise in and lived experience of exclusion to make change within our own cultures and processes. We are developing more equitable methods for recruitment and selection, evaluation, facilitation, knowledge production and sharing. The Pervasive Media Studio environment allows us space to try new ways of doing things, knowing that real change takes time and serious commitment.
We are 14 years old, what has changed?
Pervasive Media Studio was set up in 2008, in the last 5-10 years we have seen major change in the creative technology sector(s); increasingly sophisticated algorithms, Unreal Engine, wider use of crypto-currency and NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens), growth of the immersive industries, the increasing prominence of data capture and expansion of social media and other platforms for connecting people. While these technologies have yielded opportunities for new forms of access and expression, they have also led to heightened public concern; about surveillance capitalism, data bias, exploitative growth and environmental impact. Where once technology represented a shiny new future it is often now associated with threats to democracy.
Our residents’ work offers alternative ways to think about our relationship to technology. Anagram’s Goliath, which won Best Immersive work at Venice Biennale 2021, and Duncan Speakman’s Only Expansion, winner of the inaugural Best Immersive work at London Film Festival 2021 are both extraordinary examples of experiences that deepen our connection to each other and to the world.
Only Expansion, Duncan Speakman
Universities are increasingly required to demonstrate the impact that their research has in the world. When the UK Industrial Strategy was announced four years ago, informing the Research Councils’ programmes and priorities, we already had a set of research questions, inspiring examples and trusting relationships to draw on. In the intervening period we have worked with partners to attract over £40m of funding to the region (through REACT, South West Creative Technology Network, Bristol+Bath Creative R+D and MyWorld).
This has allowed us to support companies like Sensible Object and Reach Robotics to collaborate with academics to develop new products that have both rigour and commercial potential. The former was acquired by Niantic in 2019 while the latter became Awarri Limited in 2020 to focus on developing the robotics infrastructure across Africa, starting with education tools and systems.
In Bristol we have seen demographic changes and further gentrification of parts of the city, with rising house prices and people migrating from London. Larger companies have moved to the city and there has been greater inward investment. However, disparity levels have grown and the city remains segregated. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, during which the Colston Statue was toppled, highlighted the need for change in how power is distributed. More widely Brexit, the climate emergency and a decade of Conservative led austerity have created an atmosphere of existential threat around our cultural lives. The importance of social, environmental and economic justice has permeated our work with a greater level of urgency, calling on us to interrogate our structures and processes and move from value statements to meaningful action. In research, technology and the arts this has meant a growing focus on responsible development and a deeper engagement with the ethical implications of making new work.
Our residents often use co-design methods to develop new work that responds to urgent need. Last year CARGO partnered with National Education Union, Lewis Hamilton Commission and the Runnymede Trust to keep develop CARGO Classroom, tools for teachers that promise better educational opportunities for Black students at Key Stage 3. Around the same time Open Bionics (who have developed the world’s most affordable multi-grip prosthetic arm), launched a Prosthetic Clinic in Bristol to bring their customers even closer to the manufacturing process.
Ironman Arm prototype, Open Bionics
What are we thinking about for the future?
While public optimism about the future and the role of technology may be low and continuing to wane, the Pervasive Media Studio is built on hope. We continue to believe that investing in play, wonder, joy, and discovery can influence it for the better. As shown through some of the examples above, our community is already finding ways to model a better world and we want to double down on our commitment to make that more possible.
As the ways we participate in culture and democracy are increasingly mediated by technology – we must ask who has the right to own, design, make and change the tools?
Thinking deeply and experimenting responsibly with technology has never been more important. We will work with residents to foreground the power of art and the imagination to drive technology towards a more inclusive, sustainable and playful future. We will proactively support work that considers ethics and offers alternatives to the extractive technology platforms that disconnect us from each other and our environment. We will also be interrogating routes into technology development; amplifying the voices and ideas of young people within the Studio community and wider creative ecology, and asking how we can support them to develop their practice in a way that works for them.
Over the coming year we will seek to reboot our vision; connecting to new areas of technology, sharing our opinions more publicly and looking to use our building to make this work more visible. We will make clear that we stand for climate and social justice and offer residents tools to support them explore how their practice can be part of a just transition.
Locally rooted, internationally connected
We think that place matters and particularly the ways in which people, culture and technology intersect in cities. We are keen to work more closely with communities across Bristol and build new, and deeper, relationships in the city we call home. Through Playable City, Creative Producers International and recent collaborations with partners in Nigeria, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and South Africa we have also built a network of people exploring common themes and issues from very different city perspectives.
Playable City Seoul
We want to connect the creative technology communities in Bristol to those based elsewhere in the world. Initially we will experiment with ways of making our international work more visible in the building and creating opportunities for people based elsewhere in the world to join our events. We will look for opportunities to broker relationships between residents based around the building and those further away. We will also develop a clear talent development approach for how new people connect to the Pervasive Media Studio so that as we re-focus our work, we support people who aren’t already part of the community.
Pervasive Media Studio could play a bigger role in improving the quality of public discourse around technology. We want to make accessible invitations that bring together people from different backgrounds, disciplines and experiences to explore what we want from technology and why. The Studio community has particular strengths around ethics, experience design and place-making, all of which have an important part to play in the drive towards social, climate and economic justice.
We will create new ways to actively share the research and development that happens in the Studio, ensuring that this offers mutual benefit to residents and the public. We want to explore how all of Watershed’s spaces and programmes can be better used to test and share early-stage work.
On that note, if you want to know more about our work in Pervasive Media Studio we are open to anyone who wants to visit us every Friday from 10am. You can meet the team, get to know our residents and tell us about what you do. There is even a free talk at 1pm (which you can also watch online). We will also be open to new applications to join the Studio as a resident in the Spring. In the meantime you can hear from The Residents themselves in this brilliant podcast produced by Will Taylor and Jo Kimber (series 2 coming soon). Or if you are interested in any of the above, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.