Day one highlight of #ShiftHappens at York Theatre Royal had to be the key note speech by Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.sirkenrobinson.com/) appearing live from LA by the powers of SKYPE. So of course we had the obligatory break up where Ken disappeared down a Dr Who style black hole and several occasions where he sounded as though he were swimming under the black sea rather than pontificating from a rather homely office. But even those technical glitches couldn’t stop Ken being charming, incisive and inspirational. This is a man who can take you down all kinds of alley ways (the power of rope versus the Sinclair computer for example) without losing the thread or structure of his narrative – a narrative delivered with the kind of ease which can only make you jealous. No wonder then that one of the conference delegates turned to me afterwards and said ‘whens the next flight to LA’.
Robinson’s latest book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything touches on a theme raised by Herb Kim (CEO of codeworks) who talked about finding what your good at, finding what your passionate about and then building the business model around it. Herb’s motto was worth remembering – Think Big or Go Home. His theme – social networking works …less promotion, better products, more truth – happier people was all based on his experiences of delivering the Thinking Digital Conference – which initially ignored social networks!
Robinson’s work has consistently crossed over three areas – education, corporations and the cultural sector. He increasingly looks to find the synergies between the three so its not surprising that his theme was a broad one – we are in a time of major upheaval. OK so the 19th century might have had one or two revolutions but nothing like right now. Culture is at the peripharary but it could and should be a key tool in changing our opinions about our own abilities and how we behave. Three things are driving that revolutionary force:-
a) Population change – in 1800 the world population was 1 bn with 3% in cities. By 1900 that had grown to 2bn with 15% in cities. By 2000 your talking 6 bn with 50% in cities and we’re heading for 2050 and a population of 9bn with 70% in cities. Never has there been such a concentration of people in such small space.
b) At the same time we’re seeing massive technological advances – on a scale and at a pace that is both exhilarating and frightening. Technology is simply the design and use of tools – and (at the moment) they are simple neutral. Whether we use them for good or bad is up to us
c) And at the same time (in part due to a and b above)our world is under huge environmental pressure. Most people recognise that we need to change – but how many people are?
The battle ground
In Robinson world the battle ground falls under six key themes:-
a) Arts and science (there is a growing synergy between the two – there needs to be more)
b) Democratisation of information (so much information at our finger tips these days – both useful and frightening – book list 1 Loving Big Brother: Performance , Privacy and Surveillance Space (Routledge 2004) John McGrath
c) Environment – people no we need to change – but our appetite remains
d) Health – the impact on us all of living longer
e) Spirituality – (time for a Robbo anecdote ‘when your chairing a panel how do you introduce the dalai lama. Also on the panel was Budhist monk Matthieu Ricard author of book list 2 – Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill). On the upside people are returning to a sense of spirituality on the down side is fundamentalism. You can’t contribute to peace if your angry.
f) Wealth (225 to 250 people have more wealth than 2 bn of the poorest people)
And is the answer technology?
The answer is us. Humans are unique among the species – with our singular power of imagination. It was a theme that echoed the presentation of Hannah Nicklin (hannahnicklin.com) (slides at bit.ly/HNspeech) – the future of theatre she said is in the hands of theatre makers. This is the age of theatre in the first person. No longer do you perform AT an audience – you perform WITH an audience (echoing The Art of With paper to be found at http://www.cornerhouse.org/resources/item.aspx?ID=53)
And what do you need to make an act of theatre asked Robinson – quoting Brook’s seminal text The Empty Space. Nothing more than a performer and an audience member. Earlier John McGrath (of National Theatre Wales http://nationaltheatrewales.org/) had both agreed and added to that proposition. NTW was about the exploitation of space, the live experience, that moment of shared space between performer and audience member. But over and above that in the 21st C we live in both a real and virtual world so we need to think about how our work, our landscape exists in the digital plain. So in year 1 of NTW every production has a digital footprint – whether its an online experience, actors blog or community based conversation. The digital ‘performance’ space exists along side the real one – with each experience being equally valid and audiences migrating between the two.
Is the fact we are in ‘an age of austerity’ therefore a problem? A fair enough question asked of Andy Field (Forset Fringe – forestfringe.co.uk), Hannah Nicklin and Alan Lane of Slung Low. No was the clear answer – innovation will always happen – in fact it thrives in such circumstances. Its just the question of how we make our livelihoods which is a tad worrying. Worth noting here that I was highly entertained by Lane’s presentation (www.slunglow.org) – questioning whether new or innovative work is best placed within or without ‘the system’. A very good question no doubt (and one that reflected recent hot house discussions at Dartington which argued our funding structures favour the building or the institution over the artist) but not sure of its relevance to this conference.
So diversion over time to wrap up and go to bed
The revolution is here. Think big or go home. Technology is our tool kit – use it in ways it shouldn’t be used, break it, re make it (Andy Field,) . Whatever happens it will be individuals, creatives, artists and ideas which will see us through. No wonder Ken wants to move art from the peripherary to the centre.