On Tuesday 21st I braved the apparently dire storms and broken trains to trek up to The Studio, just round the corner from Birmingham New Street station for the fourth in a series of events hosted by the KTN Company on behalf of the Arts Council and Innovate UK. Like its predecessors (in Bristol, Manchester and Sheffield), the session brought together artists, arts administrators and creative technologists to help brainstorm what kinds of projects the two organisations might be able to spearhead to bring art and technology together in a way that’s creatively, strategically and economically meaningful.

The session was hosted by Graham Hitchen of Directional Thinking and expertly facilitated by Jason DaPonte of The Swarm (and a former colleague of mine from the BBC back when we were all trying to figure out exactly what it meant to be doing “internet stuff” for the corporation). The shape of the day was pretty straightforward: an open discussion in the morning helped to identify recurring themes and to cluster them; some attendees presented work of their own in this area to bring it all to life; and the afternoon saw us break into groups to pick off some of the emerging themes in which we were interested.

Now I had gone along not in my usual KTN role, but purely out of personal interest. Readers of this blog or of my own, more personal rantings on DGMFS will know that the coming together of art and tech is both a personal interest to me and a cornerstone of our business practice. Anyway, as a result I was “stuck in” as an attendee and not taking such rigorous notes as is my wont. So what follows is more a set of recollections about the day and the themes which emerged during lengthy, and often rambunctious, discussions.

Digital art is tending towards the immersive. Now I think there’s a real spectrum here: there’s what I think of as “traditional” immersion (being deafened and smacked around in a mosh pit comes to mind, but then so does sitting in the best seats, bang in front of the proscenium arch for the performance of a great play or opera); there’s technologically enhanced immersion or Augmented Reality; then there’s screen- based virtual reality; and finally fully immersive, virtual environments of the kind the Oculus Rift may allow.

I think these are important distinctions to draw, but it’s certainly going to be fascinating to watch new art forms develop right along the immersion spectrum.

Digital art often plays with the senses and perception. Now again, I would suggest that all art in some ways changes perception (arguably it’s the whole point), but the advent of digital is driving more direct interventions with the senses, from sensory deprivation, through binaural sound to the stimulation of traditionally overlooked senses in the arts – especially smell and touch.

There’s a strong sense of play here. This closely relates to the observation about senses above, and of course to gamification more generally. I lost count of the number of times Minecraft came up in conversation (there were, I suspect, a lot of parents in the room). I sounded a slight note of caution here. I love play – it’s a crucial part of a healthy life, and of healthy art. But there are many darker sides to humanity that art has always sought to explore or even celebrate (consider a 40,000 year arc from the Chauvet cave paintings to Norwegian Black Metal). It would be great shame – and hideously short-term thinking – if digital art got hung up overly on “fun”. (For what it’s worth, I this is just a “phase” as my mother might say.)

Production is being democritised. I don’t personally like to “D” word in this context, but I get what it means, and I think it’s hugely important. Specifically, ever-cheaper tools and the wide availability of accessible publishing platforms are allowing the re-emergence of serious amateur art making (often referred to – hideously – as the rise of the prosumer). The emergence of cheap computing, too (the Raspberry Pi, the Arduino etc) are accelerating this. But how does the traditional art world respond? And how will artistic practice be altered? For me, it’s return to normal after the blip that was art in the age of mass media. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a paradigm shift.

Multi-disciplinary practice is becoming the norm. As The Unseen’s Lauren Bowker pointed out about fashion and technology in the London Fashion Week panel I hosted last month, multi-disciplinary working is not so much preferable as essential. And this is certainly the case in art. I believe we’re going to see more and more group-created multi-disciplinary art (consider the work of 2010 Turner nominees The Otolith Group). Does this mean the disappearance of auterist art? And how will that play out? Again, this is potentially a seismic shift in how art is produced.

Shared spaces are necessary. Something that closely relates to the rise of collaborative art practice is the need for shared workspaces – spaces where radical experimentation and the sharing of ideas and practice arise naturally. There’s was considerable discussion about this, not least as Birmingham lacks a space like, say, Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio or Liverpool’s FACT. (And in case this all sounds a bit Newspeak, remember that there’s a hundred-year old precedent for a shared, multi-disciplinary space where artists and technologists can work together: The Bauhaus.)

“Art for art’s sake”. There was quite a lot of discussion about the need to think about art on its own terms. and I heartily concur. I recall a speech Sir Nicholas Kenyon gave on launching a Proms season in the early noughties. He discussed how in the Thatcher years art had been considered part of the tourist or (another hideous term) “heritage” sectors; under New Labour art had all been about regeneration. But these positions are merely two sides of the same coin, and both see art as a means to socio-economic ends. He suggested that we need to change the discourse about art, and frankly, a decade on, that still stands. Indeed, if anything, the advent of digital has only intensified the debate, with new digital art once again being discussed constantly in terms of collateral benefits, rather than considered in its own right.

Business models must evolve. Business models for the arts don’t need to be continually re-examined. Far from it. I was struck that of the day’s discussion was almost exclusively about the role of digital in the making of art. Yet from my experience of working with some major players in the UK art scene (commercial and public sector alike), the principal interest in digital media is about how it can create new business models and frankly drive income: more people through the door, more bums on seats, higher profile, online content distributed to new audiences and so on.

I’m not saying that changes to artistic practice wrought by digital technology aren’t fascinating in and of themselves (or I wouldn’t have spent 1400 words talking about them). But the new technologies offer huge business opportunities to artists and arts organisations of all statures. How those opportunities are grasped, of course, is at the heart of the disruption challenges facing not just this arena but almost every corner of contemporary life.

The series of events concluded with a session in London yesterday at Cecil Sharp House. (One wonders how the folk song collector and archivist Sharp would have responded to digital technology? Interestingly, archiving – another personal obsession – was entirely absent from the discussions on Tuesday.) I’m very much looking forward to hearing how that session pans out and how, more importantly, this little “tour” influences where ACE and Innovate UK go next.

Simon

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