I was kindly invited to participate in the Opportunities Panel of Nesta's Digital R&D in the Arts Forum yesterday, an event exploring the nature of collaborative technology relationships, risk taking and knowledge sharing in the arts.
The panel's brief was to explore the major opportunities for digital innovation in the arts in the coming three years, and what this could mean for the R&D needs of the arts and cultural sector. I took part alongside Hasan Bakhshi, Director of Policy and Research Creative Economy at Nesta; Tim Plyming, Head of Digital at the British Museum; and the panel was chaired by Dr Paul Gerhardt, Managing Director at Archives for Creativity.
We were each asked to share a short response to the panel's provocation, followed by discussion with the audience. I thought I would share my personal response here, with a summary of the questions, including links to things I mentioned...
What I said:
"So we’ve been asked to focus on opportunities over the next three years… as I only really know what’s going to happen in the next three minutes, I thought I’d tell you a little about the last three years, with a view to how I think things could unfold...
In 2010 two young artists, calling themselves Stand + Stare Collective turned up at Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio with an idea to create a theatrical experience devoid of actors, that would play out on a jukebox type machine. They applied for a couple of our development programmes, but their plan was a bit sketchy and they didn’t quite make it through the interview stages. But we really felt they had a seed of an idea. So in a nimble move, we shuffled some budgets around, invented a micro-residency (specifically for them), introduced them to a creative technologist, and awarded them 500 quid plus some of our time, space and support, to get the idea off the ground.
Three years on, Theatre Jukebox is a fully-fledged digital platform that lets objects tell their stories … it’s currently on show at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has this year been nominated against thousands of international entries, for an Interactive Arts Award at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
So how does it work? … I suggest Googling ‘Stand + Stare Theatre Jukebox’ as I speak, as there are some great photos on their website that will illustrate my description…
Audiences are invited to take a seat at an arcade-style cabinet, put on some headphones and choose from a selection of photographs.
When they place a photo in front of them, an RFID tag hidden inside the physical object allows the machine to trigger a top-down projection and audio specific to that image.
Each photo plays a two-minute sequence, a short story told using film, animation or just audio. On its own, a photo gives you a self-contained and unique experience, but if you continue, you realise this is a non-linear narrative, and you begin to draw connections between the photos that builds a larger story or concept.
Audience members can spend a just few minutes or a half hour listening to stories, because they have control over how many and in which order they choose photos.
This is a digital platform, a unique, accessible way to tell stories, open archives, share histories… but to audiences, it’s an analogue experience. They’re simply moving physical objects around, watching, listening, learning and sharing.
I give you this example because technology is a tool that pervades our everyday. Much of the time we don’t even notice it, but it continues to make our lives simpler, richer, quicker, easier, in more and more seamless ways… Hands up how many of you Googled Theatre Jukebox and still followed everything I said?
While some people are only just catching up with digital, we need a parallel focus on where new technologies can enable appropriate and meaningful cultural experiences, and how these experiences can influence perspectives, expectations and behaviours.
Culture, society, art and technology are intertwined and constantly evolving. I believe opportunities lie in recognising this and producing spaces in which artists like Stand + Stare, can have time and support to build relationships with institutions, academics, scientists, technologists and audiences, to share ideas, take risks, embrace openness and collaboratively respond to our changing landscape. It’s at this juncture that new practice emerges, and great ideas begin."
Subtle messages were:
- Be nimble and light footed, don't get bogged down with bureaucracy
- Spot opportunties and act on them, (sometimes it's hard to articulate 'seeds', because they need time to grow)
- Try not to get hung up on digital, it's experience that matters
- Opportunties lie in supporting people, not just projects
- Create spaces for openess and collaboration that bring together different perspectives, it's this that encourages emergent practice and new ideas
- Be generous. It goes a long way.
I've also roughly summarised the three questions posed, and tidied up my responses:
On the question of crowd funding…
"There’s definitely a place for crowd funding within the arts - for both artists and organisations. This has been proven many times over.
If you’re thinking of stepping into that territory, I think it’s important to bear in mind that crowd funding works on a basis of value exchange. Individuals only tend to give up their hard earned cash if they feel it will be of benefit to them in some way. Benefits can come in many forms, such as getting to experience the cultural experience they backed, being an extra in the film they supported, receiving the gift of a bespoke limited edition work made specifically for supporters etc. Of course if you’re Charlie Kaufman with a brilliant track record and a ton of followers it’s much easier to break through the noise and garner support. But if you are thinking of embarking on a crowd sourced campaign, don’t be put off by the competition - just make sure your idea is clear, answer the backers’ question ‘what’s in it for me?’, and a little tip I picked up from Kickstarter, don’t make your videos too slick, people respond much better to a humble, human, honest approach."
What distinct role can academics play within the R&D arena?
So I bumbled through this one a little bit, but what I think is that "academics can and do play a hugely distinct and totally valuable role in cultural R&D. I referred to REACT as an example - one of four Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and a collaboration between the University of the West of England (UWE), Watershed, and the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.
REACT funds collaborations between arts and humanities researchers and creative companies. These collaborations champion knowledge exchange, cultural experimentation and the development of innovative digital technologies in the creative economy.
REACT primarily supports collaborative projects through the use of a Sandbox process, which was developed by Watershed in 2008. Sandbox is an innovation space that offers participants regular catch-ups, showcase and feedback events in which to develop collaborative projects. It also provides access to a panel of leading industry advisers, a community of peers and a number of other resources. REACT is running two Sandbox schemes a year with up to seven collaborations in each. Each REACT Sandbox is themed around emerging issues of interest to the creative economy, and where research in the arts and humanities can drive innovation. The first four themes are: Heritage, Books&Print, Future Documentaries and Objects.
As an example of how important academic research can be, I cited Heritage Sandbox project Ghosts in the Garden. A collaboration between Steve Poole, Associate Professor in History at UWE, Bristol, and Director of the university’s Regional History Centre; Alexander Sturgis Director of the Holburne Museum in Bath; and Splash & Ripple, a creative startup making experiences that inspire excitement, intrigue and wonder in participants. Together they developed a unique experience that enabled museum visitors to hear voices of the past via a special ‘Georgian listening device’. The scripts and stories that played were based on rigorous historical research that was brought to the project by Professor Steve Poole. The project offered a unique way to break this historical academic research out of the Institution, and into a surprising, delightful, accessible public experience - which was great for the Museum to be able to offer. Steve Poole has continued to work with Splash and Ripple beyond the Sandbox, and I expect there will be many more brilliant experiences to come. So yes - academics can and do play a vital role in cultural R&D. And this is just one example, there are many, many more out there."
By developing and making technology platforms freely available to the arts, isn’t there a danger that Google will monopolise culture online? What do I see as the potential involvement of Watershed within this arena?
"Google are doing great things and I personally commend their work and commitment to creating open platforms for building and sharing cultural experiences. As mentioned in the discussion, Google are a nimble, forward thinking company, and do cut through the ‘red tape’, working directly with curators and organisations to ‘just make things happen’ - which means ideas do move on quickly.
Watershed has a long history of working with corporate companies. Our Pervasive Media Studio initially developed from a relationship between Watershed, Hewlett-Packard’s Pervasive Computing Lab and other regional partners. We’ve collaborated with Microsoft Labs on our pioneering Theatre Sandbox scheme and more recently Google Creative Labs, IBM and Toshiba on our Playable City initiative. In our experience technology companies are not commercial monsters. They are actually made up of brilliant, talented, interested, interesting people, who are passionate about supporting culture, and finding ways to make collaboration meaningful. This is because our experience and expertise as a cultural sector, are just as important to the development of technology platforms, as technology platforms are to enabling new forms and opportunities for culture. And if we’re worried about where this might lead, well isn’t that up to all of us? Isn’t it the role of producing organisations like Watershed and many other freelancers and organisations around the world, to create neutral spaces into which artists, institutions and companies can step to work together, to foster respectful, mutual relationships, and collaboratively produce meaningful, accessible, inspiring cultural experiences?"
I'll leave it at that. Such an interesting day and an inspiring bunch of people. Thanks to Nesta for inviting us participate.