On Edgelands, art and technology

I gave a short talk at Edgelands yesterday, convened by the wonderful pairing of  Hannah Nicklin and Andy Field and described as ‘A conference from the borders of performance, about the state of the world’, and a part of Forest Fringe at the Edinburgh Festivals.

There was a group discussion afterwards during which it seemed like technology was too quotidian to be inspiring: that some of the people in the room couldn’t, or didn’t want to, regard a set of networks that enable Internet banking and people liking things on Facebook as anything more than mundane. That it was too connected to the stuff of life to be able to offer up the transcendent possibilities of art. My notes on that part start about halfway down (I can’t remember how to do anchors – do people even do anchors anymore?) and you might just want to skip to that. It was an interesting and perhaps even troubling conversation, and I’m writing about it here in the hope of extending that conversation further.

During the day, we addressed four questions – covering capitalism, audience, the importance of the arts and ‘What is digital innovation in the arts and why is it important?’ My provocation addressed this last question, along with  Matthew Somerville - who talked about the wonder of  Geocities and the importance of living archives – and Matt Adams from Blast Theory, who stressed the importance of risk taking and collaborative practice as a means to creating innovative work. Tom Armitage also wrote a nice piece about creating work with the affordances of technology in mind., that I think will be online soon.

This is the text of my talk:

Walter Benjamin commented in ‘Some Remarks on Folk Art’ that, ‘Art teaches us to see into things.’ If that’s the case, then technology can do two things:

  •  it can give us tools to see, quite literally, both close up and from a distance – allowing us to see new patterns and forms
  • it can provide us with new forms and media

But we should remember that until – or perhaps – unless – we achieve The Singularity, technology is no more or no less than the people who use it and make it.

So ‘digital innovation in the arts’ is no more or less than the effort and ingenuity of people who are working in the field. It’s the things made by the people standing in this room.

There’s no magic or alchemical process. It isn’t a single activity – “leave me alone, I’m innovating now! With technology!’ It is the things that people do and make. And as we do new things, we will do them with technology in mind.

So I wouldn’t say that it’s important, so much as inevitable.

But there is always a BUT, and I have two of them:

1)   We shouldn’t assume that digital innovation takes place on a screen. Or only on a screen. We shouldn’t assume it’s a digital version of an analogue experience.

2)   We should think about the difference between art (the creative product) and The Arts (the formal network of arts organisations and funding bodies)

The Arts is a system that needs all the help it can get. It’s an infrastructure that needs trustworthy services to make businesses run and deliver services to patrons. Rather than making innovative ticketing systems, brand new video-streaming platforms or bespoke social networks, The Arts should make the most of its limited resources and stand on the shoulders of giants – use the best technology and services from the wider world, and deploy them in the best way possible.

But art is another matter. Art is about disrupting and subverting – changing and challenging the norms. “Art teaches us to see into things.” And this is the area we’ve been tentative in.

So I would leave you with a question – and a challenge: can we make technology the way we make art?

As provocations go, I think this is fairly unremarkable. In fact, I’ve been thinking I need to get a new schtick and stop going on about what is, essentially, the difference between form and content (or The Arts vs art), but there seems to be such a looming feeling of disappointment about how the cultural sector has  failed to grasp the nettle of technology that it still seems relevant.

However, I was quite surprised by the conversation that followed. I think this was because I hadn’t quite clocked the make-up of the audience; because, perhaps, for a group of people who describe themselves as artists, the idea that we can make technology in the same way we make art might be quite tough, quite threatening. I meant it as a call to arms, I guess, but I’m not sure it came across that way.

Everything below is a paraphrase – based on my impressions and reflections of the conversation.

  • The first assertion was that “there was no good Internet art” – that after the invention of the Gutenberg Press it took the first novel, Don Quixote, 150 years to appear, so perhaps we should be a little bit easy on ourselves. There isn’t a canon of telephone art from the 1950s, so perhaps the Internet isn’t all that as a medium for producing new art?
  • There was a tension and anxiety about ‘normal people making stuff’ – are there people (young people, even) who are more familiar with the affordances of technology than people who perceive themselves as engaging in artistic practice? One example of this was a chatbot who has become an exquisite study in loneliness and unrequited love, because the only people who speak to it are lonely and sad – an accidental artistic by-product of life, rather than a mindfully created Work of Art. I think there was some anxiety about irrelevance; I don’t know, I might have made that up.
  • There was a strange (I thought) discussion about the anonymity of online contribution, which on reflection I think means facelessness – because private identity is the big sacrifice of our connected world. And the idea that comments on Twitter are ‘beautiful apparitions’ not substantiated connections.
  • A debate about skills and engagement: do you have to be a great HTML5 developer to make digital art or simply be engaged and have rudimentary capture skills, e.g Eva and Franco Mattes’ Chatroulette piece?
  • The feeling that stuff takes place on screens prevailed and no one seemed that bothered by either ubiquitous or ambient technology as an artistic medium, or aware of the seething mass of AI that lurks in every day life. Since hearing both Leila Johnston talk about ATM hacking  and James Bridle on the pathos of the hidden robot world (which isn’t online but was brilliant, and well worth hearing if he reprises it) I’ve been thinking about the possibility of this a great deal, and it seems like an extraordinary artistic opportunity that I’m not sure is being exploited or explored.
  • There was also a question about whether or not artists were online; everyone in the room, I think (besides me), identified themself as an artist and although they were “online in every day life” they didn’t regard any of those networks or media as being a part of their practice.
  • I asked a fatuous question (which I’m fascinated by) about what the online equivalent of applause might be; someone said – rather marvellously, I thought – that they didn’t like clapping and that we cleaved too much to the traditional idea of things. On reflection, I would have liked to explore that further; it seemed to be the crux of it.
And that was that. I still feel slightly troubled by the conversation –  by the sadness of the limitations, the fact that things seem to fall in and out of the scope of “artistic practice” (I’m not sure how this differs from art), and also the idea that the world is changing at a rate of knots and people don’t seem to be noticing. The beginning and the end of the conversation about technology and art still seems to be about free vs paid (in fact, there was a debate about it yesterday, at the Ed Book Fest) and it doesn’t yet seem to be a part of the material of life. But everyone with a smartphone in their pocket is living a networked life, filled with touchpoints to their parallel online life – which is no longer partitioned, and which is seeping into the real, so that the two are more overlapped and connected than many of us seem to realise.
I’ve written this all down to get it off my mind, as it’s been niggling since yesterday. But also because I want to extend the conversation: I don’t think we can wait for the future to come along and solve our problems. And I’m struck by the thought that we’re living in more of the future than many of us know, so we’re overcomplicating and limiting our experience – externalising technology rather recognising the extent to which we’ve absorbed and assimilated it.

Making Things New

This week, a lot of people have been talking about what “digital innovation in the arts” might be. In some ways, that seems an unlikely, rather front-loaded question as it privileges the means of delivery over the thing that’s being delivered. Sometimes it’s even intended as a tautology, to signal the double-whammy newness of it all (as in, digital + innovation = the same!).

The semantic sophistry doesn’t end there. Rather than referring to “newness in painting and literature and music and dance*”, it tends to mean the edifices and institutions that comprise the arts establishment.

So, if we unpack it a little more, the question everyone’s asking seems to be “how can we use digital technologies to remake the Arts Establishment?”; it’s using “digital” as a Trojan horse for “innovation” – sneaking in change under cover of a buzz word.

The majority of the Arts Establishment is comprised of organisations like museums, libraries and theatres – institutions that have bricks and mortar considerations that make all kinds of change quite complicated. Innovation in these kinds of organisations is entirely different to innovation in artistic practice or innovation in, say, installation art. It may look like a fairly banal change (“Look! We moved the post tray!”) or it might look like a beautiful new CultureDiscoveryApp.

The latter category is, obviously, more fashionable than the former. If we all moved our post trays, we might get more work done and have more time to make great art. But those kind of changes are rarely labelled as “innovation”; they tend to be called “infrastructure refinement”, and no one ever won a BAFTA for their infrastructure refinement.

There’s also the potential to wield the innovation stick indiscriminately: what creates radical change in one context might be irrelevant in another. Rather than change for change’s sake, perhaps we should be identifying required outcomes – looking for “more effective audience development projects” or “more provoking art” rather than new things that use a specific type of non-analogue delivery.

This seemed very relevant this week at the event to mark the end of Project Electroclassic, an R&D project by WNO. The innovations at the heart of this project were based around key legacy and organisational issues, and the necessity to engage in the project was, in some ways, provoked by an absence of a shared framework. In order to discover the real issues (in this case, the standard contracts at the heart of the commissioning process don’t support the overall artistic ambition) WNO had to do the project and learn the hard way.

Tuesday’s performance and Q&A focussed on artistic innovation – something that WNO is already comfortable engaging in. The words “open source” and “collaboration” were used in abundance in the post-performance talk and the performance was in some respects quite a radical one for a national opera company to give.

But it seemed that the real innovation was in the rather less sexy topic of rights and contracts.  By their own admission, it was one that WNO had not managed to pull off, and so – regardless of the very intriguing artistic outcomes created by composer Jessica Curry  with Michael and Joe Fairfax – the end-point of project was not an artistic discovery but a practical one.

It’s unlikely that that single commission will be seen in the longer term as innovative, or as having a decisive impact on the sector.  However, if  - as a result of the project – WNO alter their approach to commissioning and change their basic contracts, then the impact of the project will be extraordinary.

So, in this case, if WNO move their post tray, we could all find ourselves delivering a lot more post in the future.

*Other art forms are also available

Hacking Culture Hack

Culture Hack Day in January was an event for people who make things with data, accompanied by a stream of inspiring talks. It seemed to be a success, and I’ve spent some time recently thinking (and talking to Katy Beale) about what to do with it next.

The original event was intended to be a barnraiser: something that said to the cultural sector, “Look! There’s a whole world of other ways of doing things out there, and we can do them too!”. Unlike some other hacks, it wasn’t a way of making sense of an abundance of linked data (because there isn’t one – yet), but it was an exploration of the possibilities that linked data + collaborative practice could bring to the worlds of arts and culture if we decided to let them in.

And, brilliantly, it’s now taken on a life of its own with upcoming Culture Hacks in Ireland, Scotland and the North of England.  We’re working on a kit of parts that explains how to do the nuts and bolts, but the idea is that it’s an open-source project: if you do it better, then tell us how, and then everyone can make their event more effective the next time.

But in the meantime, there are two distinct strands of activity that need to happen to allow the idea of Culture Hack to usefully evolve:

  • advocacy around linked open data
  • new kinds of digital/creative collaboration in the cultural sector

The way to achieve these is likely to be very different. One is policy based, and will rely upon investment, planning and hard work, while the other is about getting people in the room together to Make Cool Stuff and Think Interesting Things. So there’s a long game, and a series of fun, short sprints that will hopefully combine together to make a great deal of change. And while the advocacy stream is likely to be more difficult, I hope to be able to announce some smaller multi-disciplinary events (for technologists, producers, artists and anyone-else-who’s-interested) in the next few weeks. These will be about making, prototyping and proposing and, if a pot of money falls from the sky, might even be about commissioning. Let’s see.

In the meantime, there’s a piece of work to be done around advocacy, which needs more thought and consideration, in order to persuade the people who look after the data to expose it in new ways. And I’m not entirely sure how to do that bit. So if you have any thoughts about it, please do say: if we don’t manage our arts and cultural data in the right way, then the digital world will be a poorer place – with less of the beauty, truth and amazement than we have in the physical world around us.