Hello Culture. Again.

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Appeared on a couple of panels today at the Hello Culture conference in Birmingham and enjoyed them both immensely. For the morning panel, on Digital and Audience Engagement, I’m aware that my own enjoyment was possibly at the expense of the audience’s as I did get slightly ranty about yet another talk on how the arts and cultural sector should embrace technology and work collaboratively and blah blah blah. This is no slight on the theme of the conference, of course – from many of the comments and questions in the audience it’s clear that, unfortunately, we’ve still not yet reached the point where we can move on from these discussions. But that’s my point. So, like a dog with a bone, I’ve continued gnawing away in my head at some of the things discussed. So here’s a slightly more considered clarification of some of those thoughts that were blurted out on the panel and on twitter …

The Role of An Artist
There’s a few points here about the role of an artist – or at least my understanding of it – and how it really doesn’t chime with a lot of the ‘fear/threat of technology’ arguments that still seem to be holding back so many in the arts and cultural sector. First of all, there’s this ….

What I mean by that is that if an artist is feeling threatened or fearful of technology then I’d like to see that artist’s response. Technology is threatening. It is disruptive. And it’s coming for you. So how are you going to deal with it?

Technology has systematically changed every aspect of the world we live in – not just now, but always and in every known medium. You don’t have to embrace it, but you do have to confront it. I don’t much care if it’s picking up that technology, using it, adapting to it and evolving with it or creating a piece of work using your preferred tools, craft and technique as a response to it. Either way, by confronting it the artist will better understand it, better understand and deal with their fear of it, and be better equipped to make it work for them in one way or another. The very last thing I would expect from an artist is to avoid it for as long as possible, cower away from it and hope it goes away. It won’t.

What Do We Mean By ‘Technology’
Let’s not get too hung up on digital (whatever that isn’t) or on new buzzwords like ‘transmedia’ or ‘gamification’ or on cutting edge technologies that may or may not turn out to be snake oil like augmented reality and 3D, or on dry sounding concepts that are anathema to most traditional artists, like metadata. Think of it like this …

Technology is a paintbrush.

Imagine you had never seen one before. I could tell you what it is. I could show you what it does. But I could not predict what might happen or what you would create if you picked it up and started using it for the first time. I couldn’t say how you might use it or what effects you might create… because it’s about you, not the paintbrush. So the only way of ever finding out is to pick it up and use it. And – as an artist – that’s exciting, isn’t it? Isn’t all art and creativity essentially borne from one simple question ; “What happens if I take that and do this?”. And discovering new tools and techniques is part and parcel of developing as an artist over time rather than finding what works and sticking with it.

So – again – the fear of picking up or embracing technologies just doesn’t fit with my understanding of the essential creative curiosity that underpins the artistic mentality.

Working Hard To Stand Still
This was a direct comment someone made – possibly Helga, (chairing) – about how artists are busy creating art and don’t necessarily have time to discover, get to grips with or keep up with new technology. I understand that, I really do. But, leaving aside the questionable wisdom of “working hard to stand still”, (why the hell would you want to?), there’s a couple of important things to consider here too. The only thing you ever need to get to grips with when dealing with technology is this ….

You don’t necessarily need to understand it fully in order to use it.

This is partly because the understanding comes from using it. Again, think of the paintbrush analogy. Only by using it do you understand how different strokes create different effects. And when you do really need to understand something more deeply in order to unlock its full potential, you work with someone who does get it.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that even the most tech-savvy, digitally switched-on, geeked-out gurus are largely all still getting their heads round it and struggling to keep up too. One of the key moments in my journey through all of this was at my first mobile content conference, nine or ten years ago, where I had gone, totally green, in an effort to understand the mobile opportunity in the early days of 3G. I remember watching a panel with Worldwide Heads of Content Development for the likes of Vodafone and Orange and, when asked by the chair the usual question of what the future holds for the mobile content industry they all replied, without exception, “we have absolutely no idea”. I found that strangely liberating – it freed me from my own paranoia and nervousness and fear of ‘getting it wrong’ because it made it crystal clear that – even at the highest levels – we’re all feeling our way through this together in one way or another.

We learn by doing. So do it. But with one big proviso …

So choose the right technology and for the right reasons, make sure the medium suits the message and never use a technology for technology’s sake.

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3 comments on “Hello Culture. Again.

  1. Technology is the greatest liberating tool for artists, ever. I find it amazing that they are scared by it.

    I understand why big corporations are scared of it: it threatens to be their undoing, but not artists.

  2. Milena Vroubel says:

    I wholly agree with the author on this – and frankly the best artists in history have always embraced innovation and made it their own. Oil paint for instance when first introduced enabled artists to work on pictures for longer and to build up layers in the way not possible with water colours. A radical new technology in it’s time. A check list – the printed word. Mass production. Recording of singers and orchestras. Film. Sound with film. Those who resist the force majeur of some technologies can be left on the outside. The new film The Artist” which is all about the advent of the talkies in the cinema is all about that (with lots of glitz and laughter thrown in) Surely all were resisted in their time. And moving to the contemporary scene look at an artist like David Hockney who has always adapted and experimented with new technology from the early days of such things as television’s digital paintbox to his new work which we’ll get chance to see in January – film works linking eighteen screens which enable us to really see landscapes “in time’ and in detail as if we were spending hours and hours over months in the forest.He has also used polaroids in a unique and liberating way, the fax machine and more.

    Technology isn’t an enemy but an opportunity. As Jason Hall says here it is “a paintbrush.’ Not one you have to use but you are cheating yourself if you don’t avail yourself of the new possibilities opened up by each new technology s it rolls into our world.

    • Thanks, Millie. And great example of David Hockney as an artist who fully embraces, explores and pushes the creative potential of technology. Not least because he’s 74 years old, so this also explodes the myth that it’s a generational issue

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