Open For Disruption

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Using Digital Tools in the Arts

Martin Franklin explains why artists and cultural organisations need to use modern digital tools to test artistic concepts.

Artists must be disturbed

Some years ago I was on an interview panel to appoint a new Head of Visual Arts for an arts organisation. My role was to represent the then new and shiny, digital viewpoint.

The candidate who sticks in my mind to this day said, of the artist residency programme that he would have to oversee, that the “artists must be disturbed”. He meant that sometimes stimulation, change and disruption must be brought to creative practitioners in order to provoke an output in response.

There’s some solid sense in this approach and I’m sure it would have given an injection of energy to the incumbent artist residents and the Visual Arts programme in the venue as a whole.

He didn’t get the job.

A gap between ambition and execution

NESTA recently produced a report on the state of digital within cultural organisations. The report generated the headline that aspirations to get best use from digital technology have dropped within the surveyed organisation’s.

“This year’s report shows that while the positive impact of technology on organisations remains high, there is a gap between the ambition of arts and cultural organisations in relation to digital technology and their ability to execute on those ambitions.”

– Sam Mitchell, Native, NESTA

Now everyone can tick the box that their marketing effort includes a Twitter account. As a result, it seems that “digital” is left to sit within the Communications department.

Just take a look at the speaker list on any culture conference. The number of the Head of Marketing and Digital roles demonstrates that the disruptive, innovative and creative digital possibilities have very much been subsumed into a functional role in most culture organisations. Which now leaves the majority of programmers and producers comfortably carrying on with what they have always done, prior to any “disturbance” from the outside world.

I could divert here into another track about the attitude to creativity in the culture workplace and the restrictive effect of judging every initiative on its potential for selling tickets. But let’s not upset too many people in a single article.

At this point, I’m opting to steer this particular blog train towards the sunny destination of Innovation and Small Incremental Change.

The former Olympic athlete who spoke to my cohort on the Clore Leadership course recounted a tale of triumph when the coaches of the cycling squad found a way to keep the athletes muscles warmer in the time between the warm-up lap and the start of the race itself (yes, I’m talking Bum Warmers, Clore #38).

Experimentation at The Place

In my corner of the culture world at London’s creative powerhouse of contemporary dance development; The Place, I’m still able to test ideas and build on a few digital initiatives to see where they lead us. There’s no big fund or team of former-BBC middle managers sanctioning me to do this, it’s just common sense and the application of creative observation to attempt to make things better.

This Autumn we hosted two experiments by firstly, inviting choreographers to participate in three days of open ended digital play. The maker lab environment gave attendees the chance to try 3D printing, solder and test primitive audio circuits, while the speaker track featured presentations about transmedia and interactive theatre from established artists who are testing new ways of engaging audiences.

Currency – International dance and circus festival

The international dance and circus festival, Currency became a platform for content experiments when we launched the online Currency TV broadcast. The invitation to performing artists was to contribute complementary video material which would be produced and mixed into a live stream of their staged performance work.

Currency TV

The experiment tried to acknowledge the fundamentally different experiences of being in a live theatre audience and remotely viewing an event from a screen, separately by geography and possibly time too.

High points for me were the chat room going crazy with fans during the performance by next level French jonglers, Compagnie Defracto, the merging of experimental cinema and stage where online audiences saw the distressed Super8 film of Anders Duckworth and Rowan De Freitas cut into the live stage show where performers projected and and manipulated the spools of film from the Super 8 projector itself.

Anders Super8

Bristol based, circus artist Pangottic performed with a set of handmade sprung contraptions to fire a sequence of balls into the air. Entertaining and skilful juggling followed. While the live audience got to participate by holding the remote control buttons that triggered each ball to launch, the home viewing audience got to see this plus a short feature on how the spring contraptions are made in the artists studio.

While there is some data generated by these events, It’s not all about immediate measurable results. It’s about road testing some ideas and discovering how they feel in practice. And yes, Marketeers some of it is about selling tickets but if we don’t use the tools of our era to expand the vocabulary of our art forms, we’re not going to stay relevant to new audiences anyway.

Written by:

Martin Franklin

Martin Franklin

Digital Producer, The Place

Broadcasting the Creative Industries

Martin Franklin is a creative media producer, digital consultant, arts event programmer, artist and culture broadcaster. He is Digital Producer at leading contemporary dance venue, The Place, London, creator and manager of the innovative Arts Council England-funded live stream performance programme for South Hill Park Arts Centre and is a founding committee member of the business networking group, Berkshire Digital. As an artist, he is known as former leader of ambient trio, TUU and for his sonic arts and performance projects which have toured internationally.


All imagery courtesy of The Place.

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