Digital play

This is a blog in two parts – here is part one…

On Friday it was announced that Dame Liz Forgan was being given the old heave ho by our esteemed DCMS Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt . For those interested the official line on the story is here and Forgan’s response is here

I mention this only because the press release gives a clear indication of where Jeremy Hunt thinks the priorities lie in future years. Hunt is quoted as saying ‘The next chair of the Arts Council will have to steer the organisation and the sector through another challenging period, in particular in increasing the amount of private giving to the arts, and encouraging the sector to make the most of technological changes’

I’ve blogged before about philanthropy and the arts and the special challenges that brings (especially for orgs in the regions) before so given I’ve been musing on digital stuff recently it seems opportune too focus on the latter part of the statement ‘encouraging the sector to make the most of technological changes’.

So lets point first to the most obvious irony. The story broke the day that the Royal Ballet was trending on #Rblive as it live streamed rehearsals, interviews, performance and segments from its Covent Garden home on You Tube. It was impressive stuff – George Lamb and the engaging Royal Ballet soloist Kristen McNally – presenting a series of insights into a ‘day in the life of the Royal Ballet’.

‘#rblive so good im watching it properly now (had I progressed beyond grade 1 elementry – that couuld have been me!!!!)’ (tweeted Friday evening by yours truly)

Highlights for me included the sword fighting session, seeing Wayne McGregor at work, and Marianela Nuñez in rehearsal for The Prince of Pagodas . You can get a flavour here:-

And the Guardians highlights are here

The story also broke the day that The Guardian (which Forgan is a non executive director of) announced initial details of new collaborations with a range of arts organistions including Glyndebourne The full story is here

I’ve watched two Guardian collaborative web casts so far – a performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Kings Place and Ana Silvera/ Imogen Heap at the Roundhouse – the latter caused me to tweet ‘can’t say how much I’ve just been moved by that performance – never thought that would happen digitally’.

Later I would overhear Marcus Davey (AD of the Roundhouse) say it was even better in the auditorium itself – which is exactly as it should be – but I still feel priviliged to have shared it online.

(As an aside the Guardians attempts to move from print to an online portal have not gone unnoticed – see this weeks Private Eye!)

Quite clearly this is not an industry which is shying away from what Hunt calls the technological change. For their part ACE are actively encouraging the arts organisations they support to experiment and develop digitally. Only the other day I was at a #digicaparts seminar (see here , digital audience numbers are now counted as part of grant applications and assessments and only recently the organisation announced the line up for the SPACE programme – an exciting new collaboration with the BBC to create an arts led TV channel during the Olympic months (potentially going head to head with the Guardian’s own initiative).

Clearly all this is not enough for Jeremy (Its rather stating the obvious that the real truth of the matter seems to have been that Dame Liz was too friendly to the left)

I hinted at the beginning that this was a blog in two parts – so as promised here is part two.

I’ve been ruminating for a while on the merits and pit falls of streaming. If my twitter stream is anything to go by more and more arts organisations are experimenting with it – so much so that we’re beginning to be in need of the digital whats on. I wonder when the Guardian Guide will start listing streamed events or whether SPACE will have a listing element. Perhaps too we need a nationally recognised hash tag (like #artsfunding has become (say #artsonline) and be great to see papers and the such like reviewing the online experience.

@janefinnis at #digicaparts talked about finding the right distribution channel – the content deliverer finding the eyeball partner (so for example Glyndebourne/Roundhouse working with the Guardian). One potentially interesting legacy from the SPACE programme could be a distribution channel that arts organiations can ‘pin’ their online content too. I know from my own experience that the ‘go it alone’ streaming (hosting on your own website alone) can result in very disappointing viewer stats.

It’s also true (if not blatantly obvious) that not everything is going to be suitable for ‘pure’ live streaming. Whilst its easier to dip in and out of – say – a music concert a straight theatrical performance (for example) requires 100% concentration – not always easy when your peering at a computer screen. And whilst the likes of NTLive have shown what filmic production values can do that level of resource is simply not available to everyone. Single or duo camera shot filming can – if not done creatively – can be the death knell to even the greatest performance (as a programmer five years or so ago I used to avoid watching dvds of work – as they often completely mis-represented the work) .

That’s why I’m both excited and interested to see the outcomes of a number of this summers projects. We’ve already mentioned #RBlive which took a dynamic ‘magazine style’ approach to web streaming. The Guardian is working with the Young Vic theatre to devlop a short film called Epithhet staring Patrick Stewart whilst – through SPACE – Tom Morris, Director of War Horse and Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic, will present a unique and interactive way of replicating the emotional experience of watching live performance using the pioneering techniques developed by the BBC Natural History Unit & Pilot Theatre are offering a ‘digital amplification’ of the York Mystery Plays.

Then there are those projects who are seeing digital as a medium in its own right – the wonderfully simple but brilliantly engaging Everyday Moments by Fuel or (a personal favourite – unsurprising given my love of cricket commentary) Stans Café ‘commentaries’ – both of sports games and of artistic events (art gallery openings, ballet first nights).

The commentaries are interestingly a good example of something that #digicaparts speaker @nicoleyershon touched on – the importance of playing and experimenting. The commentary programme emerged from a seemingly ridiculous experiment (a 24 Hour Scalextric) in 2009 which became almost legendary (read more about it here .

Theres plenty more playing to be done – exciting times!

The other two (recent) blogs about digital and the arts are From Lapsed Enthusiast to Digital Convert
and To find or not to find a new business model

7 thoughts on “Digital play

  1. Hi Matthew

    Thanks for the interesting post. You are certainly right about watching shows on DVD being rubbish. The insidious thing about it is that it’s easy to imagine that the two forms (theatre and TV) are in some way related when in fact they are as closely related as sculpture and photography. Call me a Luddite but I want to be in a room with my actors. Don’t anyone say 3D will change that. I need to know what they smell like and that they could leap out and throttle me if they choose to.

    However, you’re quite insistent on this streaming of shows thing. Maybe against all my instincts I should log on to one.

    Alternatively we may just slope off and see if we can find a traffic jam to commentate on.

    Thanks for the name check.

    • Am I allowed to have a foot in both camps? I’m never happier than when I’m in a theatre (or indeed at a cricket ground). Live is always going to be best – but by its necessity limited. I’d listened digitally to Tuning Out with Radio Z twice before I saw it live at Dartington. As I’ve argued elsewhere listening in was an experience – very different to the live one – but equally valid….

      …it would be wrong to argue that the digital thing is simply about streaming and I have sympathy with some of Chris Unitt’s comments below – especially the bit about ‘addressing the right needs’. Hopefully some of the space initiatives will go someway towards finding answers…

      So I’m certainly not insistent – more curious, intrigued and am going to take your sculpture / photography analogy away to ponder on!

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. I agree that the arts sector is doing something about technological change but I don’t really think ACE can take too much credit for much of it (directly, at least). I’ve written about it at greater length here: but I think the majority of efforts and initiatives that have taken place so far have failed to address the right needs and haven’t been particularly fit for their stated purpose.

    To my mind the Arts Council so far haven’t known how to take digital seriously enough. £214.6m can be found for capital investment (to be spent on less than 30 organisations), whereas relative pennies are chucked at fancy digital projects, with some of that money having to come in from partner organisations. It feels odd to say it, but I actually think Jeremy Hunt’s right on this one.

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