Clay pots, steam boats and a digital future

In WIRED UK recently a feature about the travel industry in 10 years time quoted Commercial Space Travel Investor Esther Dyson;

‘extra value will be attached to real experiences…even though they will be annotated by tools such as iPhone walking guides and Google Glasses’

Following #shifthappens (an annual gathering that explores the premise that change is happening – and at the heart of that change is a digital revolution) a couple of weeks ago – and the recent launch of ACE’s creative media policy – that live/digital thing is something I keep finding myself coming back to.

Cards on the table first – I’m something of a digital enthusiast – though a little like @dickpenny I could (and would) never claim to be an expert (Dick went as far as suggesting anyone who knew everything had to be a looney – that was before he told us all to be messy, encourage deviant behaviour and create collaborations and collisions!).

A walk in the park

I’d headed off to #shifthappens expecting another fill of digital inspiration but surprisingly came away with more questions than answers.

At the heart of the day were two powerful presentations celebrating the power of the live performance (by Sam West read the full text here ) and of real engagement and participation in the arts ( by @lyngardner ‘the word radical means roots – lets go to the roots and make things happen’)

A particular section of Sam’s speech lingered:-

‘But a caution, from the screen writer Nora Ephron who died last month (a sad loss). A few years ago she wrote two lists –one of things she wouldn’t miss, which included:

You've got mail a Nora Ephron film

E mail
Technology in general

And lower down the list

E mail. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it

The list of things she would miss included:

A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
Shakespeare in the park’

At lunch I found myself discussing a series of difficult questions – is digital right for every organisation, is the world a better place for this onslaught of technology – and ergo is the Arts Council’s current obsession with digital misplaced – or maybe just a passing fad? Weird things to be thinking in a digital conference.

Digital Right for Everyone?

Turn then to the Arts Council’s new Creative Media Policy and you can’t help but feel the excitement which sits behind the policy. Within the first sentence it talks of the ‘dizzying potential’. The rewards of digital development and activity ‘will be transformational’. The result – ‘great art and culture for everyone digitally’

In his book Art of the Digital Age ‘Bruce Wands wrote:-

‘digital culture holds even more potential for societal change than television and radio once did’

But rather interestingly throughout #shifthappens the question of is digital right for every arts organisation persisted – intentionally or not. Like every good conference #shifthappens had its fair share of metaphors. @rachaelcoldicutt (who had run #culturehackeast and blogs here) was in early by likening digital technologies to clay – warming a lively audience up with archive clay videos!.

Like digital technologies – Rachael argued – clay can be moulded and made into something new , something beautiful – and to reference a later speaker Clay Shirky (@cshirky) – something interesting. (Clay’s writings from 1993-2006 are here)

But clay is just one material of many. Sculptors choose it as and when appropriate – some of them ignore it completely. It passes in and out of fashion.

And as if to back that up many of the case studies felt a little ‘niche’ – exploring ideas around the culture of technology, the confluence of arts and science and the idea of science as art. None really touched me.

I enjoyed Peter Gregson’s presentation on how his work used twitter to generate music (I’m listening to it as I write this) but I’d question whether the work will ever move, excite or go beyond the ‘that’s clever’ phase. Honor Harger baffled me –( I think I misheard when I thought she said all art really should be about gonomes) – and Laura Sillars project for Sheffield’s Site gallery though worthy failed to get my creative juices flowing .


Digital technologies are of course not just a means of creating new work they are seen as a new way of distributing existing work. The success of initiatives like NT Live (which itself was inspired by Met Live and a connection made initially at #shifthappens) have shown how a show which might have a capacity of thousands across a run can be seen by millions.

As I’ve written before it is a different experience – but never the less an experience. In the Guardian last week Roger Wright (controller of the proms) talked of how through technology the Proms reaches:-

‘a much wider audience than simply those who get into the venues. I don’t know how the audience has changed in terms of its demographic since the late 19th century, but there is no doubt that it attracts a huge number of younger people, and all our figures show that there are people who are coming for the first time to a classical music concert’ Guardian 14 July 2012

Every week (or sometimes it seems that way) at the company I work for – Eastern Angles – we take somebody off the database because they have moved away from the region or sometimes have got too old to come out even to their local village hall. It’s tempting to think that digital could provide a way for them to stay connected…

Indeed through their revenue funded clients (called NPO’s or National Portfolio Organisation)ACE are seeking to increase the work made available to audiences digitally – ‘expecting all organisations to consider digital accessibility from the start of any new project or commission’.

Created for and Adapted for the new digital space

The policy divides work into two areas – that which is especially created for and that which is adapted to this new digital space.

Clearly – like clay – digital technologies provide a new source material (‘for artists to prode and poke until it falls over’ as @marcusromer put it) which are providing new opportunities, new markets and new potential.

The Creative Media Policy points to the changes digital is enabling:

‘Artists practice is changing in response to new technologies and there is a shift in the types of work being made across different art forms and a blurring of the boundaries between art forms’

But its that second area ‘adapted to this new digital space’ that’s really bugging me right now.

Personally speaking

Musically over the last twelve months I’ve had some great online experiences – most memorably a Roundhouse gig with Imogen Heap and Ana Silvera which I couldn’t get to – but even on line really moved me.

There’s been orchestral concerts too (I came across a Guardian stream of Mozarts Requiem by accident one evening and couldn’t leave the site) as well as more esoteric work from the likes of Amanda Palmer.

But theatrically – where the visuals are more important and where as viewers we carry the baggage or expectation of tv and film – my experience is a little more barren.

I’ve had enjoyable experiences watching on a big screen the likes of NTlive, live streamed opera and even a Sondheim from Carnegie Hall. However –although culturally I’m getting more and more used to watching TV content on laptops and even the smaller screens of smart phones I’ve yet to experience any online theatrical work which has really ‘hooked’ me in. I didn’t last the distance with either of the recent National Theatre Wales project or the recent Globe Shakespeare streams.

Perhaps I haven’t found the right work or experiences. It’s certainly fair to say that the online environment is a busy, chaotic and un-curated space. Even the Arts Council flagship The Space (a joint initiative between the BBC, Arts Council and over 50 arts organisations which was advertised widely in the weekend press this week) has only received 250,000 hits in its first three months of existence.

Or perhaps its something else? I’m beginning to wonder if adapted is actually the right word.
Adapting art for the digital space suggests minor amends to make it work. My own personal experience suggests it may be easier to ‘adpt’ performances in music but in theatre – say – you need something more – a re-imagining perhaps.

And I think that need for ‘re-imagining a work for the digital space’ is especially true for those organisations who simply do not have the resources of the BBC, RNT or the MET. It’s noticeable that the BBC very quickly moved away from live broadcasts of drama to pre recorded material shot on location evidently because live theatre on screen doesn’t really work?. No surprise then that the BBC is happy to screen the proms but rather than screening the RSC (say) mounts its own screen based Shakespeare.

The creative media policy states that:-

‘Low-cost production technologies means that arts and culture can be available more quickly, cheaply, flexibly and at a higher quality than was previously possible’

Which is indeed true. But that low-cost production technology will not get away from the fact that watching on a laptop, tablet or even internet ready tv, a live stream of a ‘made for theatre adaptation’ is unlikely to deliver what the policy itself calls for – ‘great art’.

The Space

Interesting then to hear Bill Thompson (@billt) talk about The Space . ‘The Space’ he said ‘asks a question and does not presume to know an answer’. It’s about ‘Doing stuff so we can find out what we should be doing. It’s about creating a space for ‘screen based arts and therefore not just television’.

That doing stuff – or experimentation – or indeed re-imagining is in many ways creating work specifically for the digital space. The challenge as @coldicutt put it ‘is not about being technologically innovative but to be more interesting’. I’d be interested to know who people think are leading the ways in terms of ‘re imagining’ theatre for the digital space , in being ‘more interesting. I, for one, will be keeping an eye on the Tom Morris and pilot theatre projects for space).

The Creative Media policy announced a further £8million investment set aside for a future phase of The Space between 2012-2015 as well as a £6 million Digital R&D fund for the arts. That should buy some time and some failures to learn from.

At the same time it’s also likely to identify those artists and organisations who are best able and most willing to re-imagine their work for the digital space. For those organisations who this does not apply to, for whom making quality work in their chosen non digital media is all important, the arts council’s insistence on increasing digital content may well be a negative and self-defeating demand.

Time for another metaphor

An oar driven steam boat -

The afore mentioned Clay Shirkey told us about John Fitch the (alleged) inventor of the steam boat. Not surprisingly his early attempts were abysmal (and quite comical) failures. Many laughed, many more disbelieved but each attempt developed new learning and the new way forward which would (ultimately) leave others in its wake.

‘sometimes we need to think slow’ tweeted curious_tweeter ‘technology must never rush our capacity for deep thinking and meditation’

Will this period of experimentation create a series of digital steam boats which will leave other more traditional forms in its wake? I hope not. Id rather a flotilla of boats – sure the digital power houses (‘cultutal institutions that foster, create and maintain digital content’as the Creative Media policy has it) – but other boats of many different descriptions and modes of power. Some sailing the digital ocean others meandering through the canals and backwaters – and everything inbetween. @lyngardner interestingly during her speech at #shifthappens pleaded for investment in a diversity of arts organisations not just the great big ‘oil tankers’.

So for me #Shifthappens served to remind even the most avid of digital enthusiasts of the power of the human connection, of the personal touch, the live, the real. The walk in the park – just like a night live theatre – are and will remain life fulfilling, sustaining, nourishing experiences.

Whatever happens it’s tempting to think – just as Dyson feels for the travel industry – that in the arts world in ten years time there will be a real premium on the ‘live’ experience whether its navigated or not by the likes of iPhone walking guides and Google Glasses’

Previous digital related posts
From lapsed enthusiast to reformed convert via digital is here

To find or not to find a new business model – thoughts from digicaparts here

Digital play – see here


2 thoughts on “Clay pots, steam boats and a digital future

  1. Wonderful blog Matthew, an insightful summary of Shift Happens and the issues in general – will link it to ArtsPro readers.
    (Might want to correct typo that suggests Nora Ephron will miss technology & email though 😉 )

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