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

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