A few people asked if my talk for the AMA conference would be shared online. For once I wrote notes - so here they are. Sadly minus cat gifs. Apologies for grammar and spelling. The talk was with the brilliant Matt Lock of Storythings. You can read the notes for a similar talk Matt did here.
From Ben Cameron yesterday to Matt today, if we want to establish a new relationship with audiences we know we need to dramatically change. Our structures, our presumptions, our ways of making and our ways of sharing. And not just once, we need to change again and again.
So this morning, I am going to share some of ways that Watershed has learnt to navigate and survive a constant change adventure. With our audiences, with our collaborators and with ourselves,
To make things a little harder for myself, I have not seen the slide deck for the presentation I am going to give today. To embrace new opportunity, as Matt has illustrated, we must embrace the fact that audiences and partners will make and share their own meaning, their own interpretation of our vision and message. And most of the time it will be better, richer and crazier than our own.
So, a week ago I gave Jon Aitken of Rife, our young-people led digital magazine, a list of the five points I wanted to make today and asked him to interpret them in a style of his choosing. Gone is my flashy keynote with smooth cube transitions and beautiful project imagery, and in their place, I imagine, might be gifs, kittens or sandwiches.
Fingers crossed this was a better idea than it is seeming now.
Get comfortable with change
Watershed is 30 something years old. It was set up with a vision of the convergence of the media and communications worlds, which didn’t really happen back then, but what we have held on to is a belief that bringing diverse groups of people together, showing diverse work and inviting in people who are not like us, makes for better conversations and richer futures.
This is illustrated through Pervasive Media Studio – a physical space we set up seven years ago where we could invite in artists, academics, technologists and audiences, to co-locate – sharing their thinking and ideas. We gift space (we have 45 desks, an active community of about 150 makers and open studio Fridays when anyone can join the space) in return for generosity, interuptability and passion. The informality of the connections, the energy of the chance conversation, the ability to shed off pre-defined roles (be that researcher, young person, audience member) allows new ideas to take root quickly.
But one thing we learnt fairly quickly is that you can’t ever get comfortable. Change is constant.
When we set up the studio our projects were all screen based and we believed that pervasive media would be a thing. Fast forward a few years and a tiny fraction of the output of the studio lives on screens – the technology is now hidden and embedded.
And the term pervasive media is not a thing. Nor really is location based media, or ubiquitous computing or any of the terms we used back then. Good job then that we didn’t put up our feet and smoke a smug cigar. What we did do is invite in diverse artists and audiences and listened to them about the kind of work they wanted to make and share. Which means a continuously changing programme that is guided by the energy and passion of the people in our community.
Physical space too needs constant reappraisal. A thriving community of ideas and projects requires caretaking, pruning, disruption.
In any organization, in any space, the sink will literally get filled with the dirty tea cups, unless you keep re-energising your relationship with your surroundings and each other. We do this by moving everyone around as often as we can. Including the staff – although sometimes we are the least up for this. We reinvent our meeting and sharing formats – we practice being creative together and we share this with our audiences and our collaborators. From the process of cutting our monthly brochure to the process of buying our building, change is discussed, aired, and constantly shared internally and externally. This isn’t about taking audiences with us. Its about using your community to inspire change.
Because getting comfortable with change means you can’t tick a box and think you have done it.
Get comfortable with risk
An often repeated watershed phrase is that if you don’t get things wrong once in while, you haven’t taken enough risks. And luckily we have a board who gently point out if we have played it safe for a little while.
Risk comes in the form of organizational change – we set up the pervasive media studio on our own – because the partners we approached could not take the risk. We had no idea where the money would come from, but not having partners at the outset (we do have two brilliant university partners now) means we didn’t have to write a business plan we wouldn’t stick to. We could be flexible and opportunistic. We set a direction of travel and do what we can to make the risk work out.
Change is hard
Over the past five years watershed’s reputation for supporting digital innovation has grown significantly – which means demand for partnership has grown too. This is brilliant for all the reasons I have already said.
Apart from the ‘can you digital this for me’ requests. Which are many – and often hard to spot. When people ask us to digital things, they mean, can you take our well rounded and existing idea and sprinkle some digital fairydust on it please. They often also mean, I would like change, as long as change looks and feels a lot like what we have done before.
But the thing about working differently is you need different structures, you need to organize departments differently – the internet is not a brochure – it doesn’t live in the marketing department. how you conceive, make and share work with digital components needs flatter, cross-departmental, more flexible ways of working. If you want me to digital something WITH you, you need to have embraced the possibility of change.
All of this is of course exhausting and requires s special group of pirates to surf the wave (which we are very lucky to have at Watershed). Navigating change takes organizational and emotional resilience, and as much as seeking out people who aren’t like you, it also needs you to find the people who are = to share and support you on a journey that will sometimes be hard.
Labels are unnecessary but names are important
I have been thinking a lot about art form boxes recently and what the terms mean to makers and audiences. Do we really need to identify something as theatre for an audience to want to see it or for a funder to understand enough about it to support it – if we want to change, we do have to be careful with language.
Few of the artists we work with self-identify with art-form silos, their portfolio careers pay the bills, and an entrepreneurial attitude allows them to create work in new ways, for new markets. Our interest should be what art and technology can do, what vision it is conjuring, how it makes us feel - rather than labelling what is created.
However, in a fast moving society and a culture of change, we do need to give people something to hold on to. Our role then is to steep ourselves in new opportunities, and to assimilate and translate these into concepts that are credible, viable and meaningful to partners, participants and audiences. This has rung particularly true with Playable City, where the act of naming and describing a playful alternative to the Smart City agenda has opened up partnerships with artists, industry and academia in the UK and beyond.
By first concentrating on the why, rather than the how (or even how much), when we begin a new project, we create a stronger offer for potential collaborators and audiences.
Innovation needs to be applied
My final point is what comes after ‘can you digital this for me’. And it’s the one that sounds like ‘let’s do a hack’.
Whilst some brilliant connections and ideas are formed at hacks - You can’t crowbar your innovation and change into one weekend of the year. And its best not to invite 200 talented people to share their ideas with you if you don’t know how you might support them and take them forward after the pizza has run out and the room has been tidied.
We use hack type formats to test the energy in an idea, for ourselves and others. Last year we hosted the world’s first magic hack – which was a revelation because magic requires performance to come alive. You can’t sit behind your laptop and mumble about data. Next week is Bristol proms – where work we did last year in Hack the quartet is embedded into the sacconi quartet’s new performance.
In setting up the pervasive media studio, we created ourselves a permanent innovation zone, which is only rich and fertile for watershed and its audiences if we are prepared to take the learning and the experiments and embed them back into the whole of our organistion.
And disruption doesn’t stop there – Rife magazine – our online young people’s platform is a department of watershed. The young journalists are embedded into everything we do. Yes it’s a programme about skills development, and creating content that young people want to make and share. But it is also about how we stay relevant as a cultural organization. How we embed difference and diversity and how much we can learn from our rife collaborators along the way.
In conclusion, in yesterday’s Guardian, Bill Drummond published his 10 commandments of art. And so I will finish with a quote "in our more insecure moments we imagine the party is happening elsewhere. The movers and shakers are doing it without you. We have a tendency to stare through the window at those having a good time. Forget them - head for the horizon where everything is unknown, where there is no security, no rules, no safety blanket, and make things happen. Be prepared to fail."
To end, a quick plug - come and make change with us - The Making the City Playable Conference takes place between 10 - 11 September 2014 when we will be bringing together a brilliant group of thinkers, makers, planners and civil disobedients to look at cities as playable places and ask the question: how do we make and unmake our future cities? More info and booking here: https://www.watershed.co.uk/playablecity/conference14/