White Space

I’m writing this in the Tate Britain cafe. Tate Britain is my favourite Tate. Even today – in August, when it should be peak school holiday – it’s relatively empty. Not just of people, but of things – it’s an emptyish space. There’s room left on the walls, there are places to think. It’s, first and foremost, somewhere to see art and think thoughts. By contrast, Tate Modern seems like a supermarket of human existence. Everything there fizzes and pops and distracts. People even seem to eat their sandwiches more slowly here.

I suppose some of the things I like about Tate Britain are things that, once (or even now, were I a different sort of person) would have been fulfilled by a church. I’m hesitating to use the word, but it has a spiritual quality. A quality that’s missing from many other things I do in my life – and I think this is something I want to see more of as the arts get to grips with technology. More white space and less noise.

Since I started Culture Hack Day, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about “hacking culture” – which has nothing to do with hacking, really, but is about taking culture apart – subverting and reinventing it. ‘Culture’ is a set of systems we’ve invented to understand art; it’s the museums and galleries and series of Proms that have been put in place to allow us to navigate, and make sense of, all this stuff. And fair enough: we need all the help we can get.

But we’ve not yet thought enough about changing those systems, inventing new paradigms. By and large – like, say, many newspaper publishers – we’ve been trying to replicate the physical object as a digital thing. We’re preserving rather than developing. And while they may be relatively small leaps, other sectors have made them: telly has the iPlayer, publishing has the ebook. They are made with the affordances of the platform in mind, not as a desperate attempt to recreate the thing that they might be replacing.

The arts, meanwhile, tends to talk about online museums and digital performance. There are thousands of beautifully formatted PDFs on websites and lots of those turny-page online books to replicate the experience of a magazine on the screen. There is a hoving to the bricks and mortar, a reluctance to accept the slight and ephemeral qualities that technology can allow. And this is fair enough: most art is about the tingle of experience – an intangible feeling – so we substantiate it, make it real. Buy a programme, save a ticket. Without those things, we worry that it might all drift away… and, I think because of that, many arts websites become so chunky, so substantial, it feels as if you could almost reach out and touch them.

This brings me to Your Paintings. Your Paintings is an amazing thing. It’s an heroic, gargantuan effort; a literal, digital version of the National Gallery that seems bigger than all the galleries in London put together. But (and there is, of course, a but) it seems that whoever commissioned it had a think and then decided to make the Internet all over again, but make it just for paintings, in a time time before links existed or Wikipedia was written.

Obviously something of this size and magnitude was  made by a lot of very clever people who worked extremely hard and achieved great things. They will probably all win lots of awards and plaudits and not care about my opinion, which is entirely right and correct. But I think it’s really important, sometimes, to say why you don’t like things that are otherwise flavour of the month. And it seems particularly important now, when lots of arts organisations are rallying to submit their Digital R&D proposals to ACE and NESTA.

Your Paintings is a classic Field of Dreams project: a monolith, made for people to visit, by people who understand museums and galleries. It has none of the fragmentary, ambient quality that the best kind of technology (or the best kind of gallery) can deliver. And as someone who is neither in formal education or gripped by the desire to see every painting that was ever painted, I find it’s completism overwhelming. It’s almost boring. I don’t know where to start, so I’m just not going to. I want to be beguiled, enchanted, surprised. I might even want a curated experience and have the thrill and frustration of knowing there are pictures in the storeroom I can’t see right now, and that the ones in this room have been put there for a reason. But as I am also the only person in the country who didn’t enjoy A History of the World in 100 Objects, you can probably see a theme here – something like “give me less stuff, please, and make it less boring”.

I’ve been thinking about what I might say at Edgelands, and it’s this: arts organisations should stop building websites. Instead, I’d like them to tag their assets in useful ways and upload them to common platforms. Most arts organisations need a few WordPress templates – an object or performance page, a calendar, a collections search and a way to buy tickets – with a CSS that reflects their branding and the ability to make a mobile site. That’s it. There’s no big secret. Embrace the 98% of things you have in common with every other gallery and theatre and make the most of the 2% that makes you extraordinary and unique. Work with the Internet, not against it – let the tides of information come and go. Let the imagination in, and the audience will appreciate it.

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2 thoughts on “White Space

  1. If more people who are sucking money out of ACE and NESTA to build monolithic arts websites and other grand monuments to their lack of real artistic and creative talents found places in which to chew their sandwiches more slowly then the arts world would – based on the points above – almost certainly be a far better place. Less is definitely more, except when it’s Ms Coldicutt thinking and writing about open data and digital strategies when less is altogether not nearly enough.

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