Archives for category: Barbican

For so many reasons, 2015 was a watershed year for Turner Hopkins. It’s certainly been an enormously busy one, and one inevitable consequence of that has been that we’ve not been posting here as regularly as we’d previously done. A couple of years back we might have panicked a little about that; after all, a strong social media presence and an active blog are surely part of the toolkit for self-respecting digital media specialists, right? Too true, but we’ve come to cut ourselves a little slack on the issue, and accepted that living through interesting times often means you don’t have much time – or energy – to write about them. We’ve also been spending more time communicating through our newsletters – which if nothing else puts us on-trend! Anyway, enough post-rationalising, and on with the review.

It’ll be more than apparent to regular visitors here that Angel Academe, in all its guises, has been the dominant force in our lives for the last year. Here’s the 2015 round-up Sarah included in her most recent AA newsletter:

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Wow, what a year! We’ve made 7 investments with several other deals in the pipeline. The amount raised so far this year is nearly double our 2014 total and from double the number of investors. Many of the women and men investing were making their first angel investment, so congratulations to them as well as everyone else taking part. 

We received and reviewed well over 500 applications to pitch to us this year from a very wide range of women-led technology businesses: from big data to healthtech, fintech and ecommerce. Of these, 15 passed our 3-stage screening process and then pitched at one of our “Studio” events attended by more than 80 angelinvestors over the course of the year.

We also ran 2 Investor Academe sessions, our half day investing workshops, with 25 of our angels as well as bite-sized Tax and Legal Academes prior to the last 2 Studio events.

Our second Entrepreneur Academe cohort has just graduated, taking the number of women founders we’ve mentored to over 50. We ran 12 mentoring sessions this year and, now that the City of London has confirmed sponsorship for next year, we’re in planning mode for 2016. 

In the summer we were honoured to received the UKBAA’s Angel Syndicate of the Year and last month we picked up Funder of the Year in the TechCities Awards.

But it’s not all been about Angel Academe, as we continued our broader-based strategic work for a range of both new and returning clients. Here are some highlights.

The BBC Academy invited Simon to curate two whole days of workshops for the organisation’s leadership, looking at various aspects of the digital landscape. We took on a pretty wide perspective, looking at issues as diverse as managing teams through disruption, “intrapreneurship”, new ways of conceiving and delivering concepts and the role of data in content personalisation and recommendation. We were particularly pleased to able to draw on our wider network to bring new faces into to the BBC, including Friday’s Anno Mitchell, Ramona Liberoff and Abundance Generation’s Louise Wilson. Our thanks to everyone who gave up their timely freely to make these days so successful.

As part of the sessions, Simon delivered a two-hour masterclass looking at his pet topic of the last few years (one which he’s since reprised for the BBC College of Journalism): how to become more personally and professionally effective in the face of potentially constant digital distraction. The sessions mixed theory with practical application and were of course highly interactive, and it’s fascinating to see the degree to which many highly experienced, capable and often brilliant people are really struggling to avoid distraction in their work.

We continued our ongoing relationships with several governmental groups, including UKTI, Innovate UK and the KTN, with work ranging from inward investment to funding competition design and general research. And of course, we continued to work with various other areas of the BBC, including the Market Engagement Team, for whom we delivered a set of detailed case studies.

We were also delighted to hook up with a couple of old friends and former colleagues.

Simon and Marc Jaffrey, OBE, worked together a decade and a half back at the BBC. A genuine polymath, Marc is currently consulting on a fascinating project running in our home town of Brighton and Hove. Our Future City is looking at the impact of education and the arts on young people in the city and kicked off the year with a series of workshops mapping out the terrain. Marc asked Simon to come along and provide a “provocation”; the result was a 20-minute tirade outlining his worries about young people and technology. You can read Simon’s presentation in full here – if nothing else it really was a provocation. In any case, we’re delighted to say that we’re continuing to work on the programme in 2106.

It was also good to be working once again with the pioneering British internet outfit state51, on whose behalf Simon attended Forum Europe‘s Future of Digital Content and Services conference in Brussels.

We’ve read a lot between us over the year, but a handful of books stand out with regard to digital technology:

We continue to get most of our news from two principal sources (ones with mercifully international perspectives): The Economist and The BBC World Service. But of course the podcast continues its inexorable rise and rise and several have been mainstays for us over the last year, including:

And finally, cultural highlights of the year have included Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the ROH, Purcell’s Indian Queen at the ENO, and three standout visual art shows: Magnificent Obsessions a the Barbican, The World Goes Pop at the Tate and Joseph Cornell – Wanderlust at the V&A. And we’ve been delighted to witness the thriving of Jazz in the Round, the monthly show put on at the Cockpit in Marylebone by our good friends at Jazz on 3.

So that’s been our 2015. We wish everyone a thriving, prosperous 2016 and look forward to seeing many of you throughout the year.

Sarah and Simon

 

 

On November 12 I attended a fascinating evening hosted by Christies looking at the future of arts journalism, the second such event over the last few years, it turned out. I confess that a few weeks have passed but I’ve finally got around to writing up some notes I took during this discussion and the audience Q&A that followed. This isn’t a comprehensive report from the session but hopefully it captures the main points and tenor of the discussion. If anyone who was there thinks I missed anything salient do get in touch. So then…

The panel comprised: Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor; FT arts editor Jan Dalley; our good friend Leonora Thomson, the Barbican Centre’s Director of Audiences & Development; and Richard Morrison, senior Arts Correspondent for The Times. The panel was hosted someone who’s strictly outside the arts world but who’s nonetheless very familiar with the challenges to journalism across the board, Roy Greenslade, media commentator for The Guardian and City University’s Professor of Journalism.

The discussion kicked off with 5 minutes or so of personal introduction and general observations from each of the panellists. Richard Morrison is something of a veteran, having worked under no less than 8 editors at The Times and having lived through the Wapping dispute. Indeed, he ended up writing about the arts because of departmental sackings. He confessed from the start that “no newspaper would close because it stopped covering the arts” (a sobering thought). He briefly mentioned arts blogs, saying that while there were definitely issues there, they had definitely opened up the debate around the arts generally. (We would return to this quite a lot.)

Dalley opened with the idea that the relationship between the arts world and journalism is an essential one – I think in both senses of the word. She agreed that blogs demonstrate a widespread “lively engagement with the arts” but thought that the standards just weren’t high enough. That said, she thought this was to some extent the case in mainstream journalism too, with some real failings in training.

Thomson said that without doubt everything had changed over the last few years, but agreed with Dalley that the arts/press relationship remained hugely important. Moreover, there’s so much arts activity in the modern world that journalists have a responsibility to curate it for the public. She also made the intriguing early remark that quite a number of established critics were struggling to find a way to discuss “digital creativity”. In parallel with this, arts PR people struggle to keep pace with social media developments.

She also pointed to two wider issues: that social media (and all media for that matter) are increasingly obsessed with celebrity culture and that the crisis in arts journalism reflected the wider position of arts in the culture (her observations that politicians seem almost embarrassed to be at arts events raised a chuckle).

Gompertz wasn’t nearly so gloomy, pointing out how difficult it was for Joan Bakewell to place arts stories in the allegedly halcyon 60s and that there is a huge appetite for arts stories on BBC online, from Ai Weiwei to Pussy Riot, via Justin Bieber. He admitted, with reference to the latter, that there was always a danger of falling into the celeb culture Thomson had referenced but felt that on the whole at the BBC they got the balance about right. (That said, he was apparently about to have half his team sacked, so one wonders how widely at the BBC this “huge appetite” was appreciated.)

Dalley picked up on the point about digital arts, saying that without doubt younger journalists took this in their stride, being very flexible about the whole range of multimedia, although she did repeat that despite their evident cleverness, too many of them have poor writing habits. Morrison described how back in the day a lot of arts journalists had made the leap from specialist arts magazines to the mainstream. As such they’d already had a lot of schooling in writing for print, albeit for smaller audiences. Will bloggers make that leap in the future? And how will they differ from their forebears?

There was an intriguing side-discussion about class. Dalley observed that the overwhelming majority of young journalists had gone to independent schools. This undoubtedly reflects a wider problem in society, but is a problem nonetheless. I wondered how it might affect the kinds of arts that are covered by the press, if at all?

There was a consensus that commercial sponsorship of the arts is pretty much essential, but that it presents some real problems for journalists covering sponsored events. It’s one thing if a sponsor had paid for (the much expensive) “ title sponsorship” – Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize etc – but otherwise, arts journalists are under no obligation to mention sponsors. That said, both Morrison and Dalley admitted that the position had changed over the years and these days journalists would often mention sponsors “as a service to the wider culture”.

Greenslade raised the issue of the key difference between general arts journalism and criticism specifically. Again there was general agreement on the fact that few critics had the kind of power they’d once had – the reputed ability to single handedly close shows. That said, a critical consensus could still have a massive impact one way or the other. Thomson pointed out that at least in classical music, critics could help build performers’ and conductors’ careers (“a healthy power”, Dalley put in).

Of course, editors love it when a critic “puts the boot in”, as with the Glyndebourne/Tara Erraught spat earlier this year – a spat with which Morrison was closely associated (whether this had backfired or should be filed under “all news is good news” was a moot point.)

There was an interesting exchange about coverage of regional (ie non-London) arts activity in the national press. The picture that emerged here was one of reduced budgets leading to travel and accommodation expenses being unsustainable (indeed, these would generally outweigh the fee by a factor of three).

On the flip side, I was struck by Dalley’s observation that the FT’s arts coverage brings in a huge amount of valuable advertising – not from arts organisations but from luxury brands who clearly see an association with the arts as some kind of validation.

Finally, perhaps the most heated bit of the discussion was around social media in general and twitter in particular. Twitter had been arguably the main weapon in two recent campaigns against arts events: the Met’s staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klighoffer and the Barbican’s allegedly racist art installation/exhibition Exhibit B (the Met, by the way, went ahead, whereas the Barbican pulled the piece. Thomson talked about the latter at some length. She felt that ultimately the press dealt with the story responsibly but that in had taken them some time to get there; initially they had been caught up in the twitter storm as much as the public. The consensus here was that twitter can generate an awful lot of “noise” – and that it’s the journalist’s job to cut through and bring clarity to complex cases.

All in all, I found the evening thoroughly engaging (not least as a music journalist-turned-blogger!) and look forward to seeing the subject returned to in another couple of years.

Simon

The Barbican’s Digital Revolution has become one of London’s must-see exhibitions of the summer; with queues up to 100-long waiting to get in at pre-alloted times, its popularity is the kind generally experienced by the blockbuster art retrospectives put on by the larger London galleries. But in every way this is a very different show: Digital Revolution is about the impact made on creative practice generally – and the arts specifically – by the rise of the PC, the internet and, in its wake, the world wide web.

Digital Revolution Trailer from Barbican Centre on Vimeo.

 

Now just to be clear from the outset, I’m not an art critic, nor any other kind of critic for that matter, so the handful of observations here are those of someone who’s simply lived through this particular “revolution” as a consumer, as a citizen and as a professional participant. (Google “digital revolution reviews” to get a sense of what the professional critical establishment made of it. Actually the spread of opinion – summarised neatly by The Week – is almost comically predictable, with WiReD calling the show “spectacular” and the Telegraph dismissing it as “gimmicky”!)

The first thing to say is this is not the Barbican’s first foray into this arena. Two previous exhibitions in the Centre’s main gallery, Serious Games (1997) and Game On (2002) looked in curatorial depth at games technology and its place in the wider culture (and Culture). But more than this, of all the main London arts centres, a pretty strong case could be made for the Barbican being the most technologically adventurous across its three principal areas of output: theatre, music and the visual arts. And as I write, only last weekend the centre was effectively taken over by the Wikimania conference. As a stolidly modernist institution, the Barbican feels as though it gets digital.

To get down to specifics then… The heart of the show takes place in the Curve gallery and begins with “Digital Archeology”, a look at the early days of digital technology in areas such as music, video games and film making. Later it looks at, among other things, how collaborative practice has been enhanced by digital, at how musicians and film makers have worked with digital technology to go way beyond the expected pop promo, at the pivotal role digital post production plays in contemporary film making, and at how developers are using code to create art (more of this in a moment).

The curatorial approach in the Curve has been to combine, essentially, a museum-style history lesson with an art show. Forty year-old pieces of electronic kit, classics from the world of video games and snippets of technologically groundbreaking film making vie for place with art work using or else inspired by digital tech. For some this might seem an odd fit, but for me it really worked, setting the work of important (although very different) artists such as Chris Milk, Björk and James Bridle in a context of a revolution that very largely played out in the entertainment arena.

The exhibition continues throughout the centre, with an area dedicated to “lo-fi” or “indie” video games (no coincidence that these terms mirror those used in music), and finishing with the installation that graces most of the show’s advertising, Umbrellium‘s playful Assemblance, a darkened space in which laser light appears to respond “personally” to the movements of the audience and which somehow encourages collaboration and non-verbal communication between strangers.

 

So the themes that emerged for me, then?

Well the most immediately obvious one – in the Curve at any rate – is that the curators have gone maximal. Put simply, the minute you enter the show you’re overwhelmed, with countless visual exhibits glowing or else lit up in the dark to a soundtrack of Peter Gabriel and Afrika Bambaataa. And so it continues, with the sound and light bleeding from one exhibit to the next.

Now “Immersive” or “interactive” might be more polite terms to use than “overwhelming”, and Digital Revolution is both of those things of course; but “overwhelming” feels to me more accurate, and certainly less modish. And to be clear, I mean this as a positive; I think it’s a commonplace that the life we all now lead in the developed world (and, increasingly, in the developing world, too) is defined by technological overwhelm. In the Curve, this feeling is captured brilliantly, and in this sense the show itself is a meta-exhibit.

Then there’s the flow between entertainment and the arts to which I alluded earlier. It’s often asserted that high art is decades ahead of entertainment in terms of technical practice, and there’s some truth in this. But it’s a more complex picture than that. Digital Revolution makes it clear that there’s been a constant two-way traffic between the two arenas. Indeed, one of digital technology’s chief impacts has perhaps been to blur the boundaries between the two.

And yes, it’s a cliché, but I was struck too by the sheer speed with which this has all happened – in less time than I’ve been alive – and its sheer magnitude. If you want a graphic illustration of Moore’s Law, look no further than a couple of early exhibits in the show, a sampling synthesizer – the Fairlight – and Linn drumm machine. Now both have their retro charm – not least to a music geek like me – but my God, the Fairlight in particular is huge. Moreover, it’s a dedicated piece of kit, that largely did one thing (albeit to great effect); its functionality might be no more than a plugin in a contemporary Digital Audio Workstation.

Or look at the FX-driven classic films, extracts from which run throughout the “digital archeology” part of the show. Terminator 2, The Abyss and Jurassic Park are all arguably fine bits of storytelling, but alongside the two films highlated later – Inception and Gravity – they don’t look any less hoaky than Ray Harryhausen or Gerry Anderson’s work, and certainly less charming. (Interestingly, by comparison, Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” sounded, to these ears, easily as contemporary as the Will.i.am piece that takes centre stage later on. Simon Reynolds might have something to say about that.)

As it happens, both Jurassic Park and T2 both tackle themes that I personally felt could have been explored a little more in the show: the downsides of technology. In this regard, James Bridle‘s piece Dronestagram is a standout. Bridle’s work in general is intriguing; on one hand he’s an advocate of “The New Aesthetic” on the other hand his work frequently forces the audience to consider the political implications of technology, from Wikipedia revisions about the Iraq War to the role of drones in modern warfare (and beyond). But the curators seem to have steered clear, largely, of the negative aspects of this particular revolution. Even the overwhelm that I talked about earlier comes at a price – often a very significant one – but that’s not tackled here.


But this caveat seems churlish, especially when considering what for me was the most inspiring exhibit in the show, albeit one outside the main exhibition spaces. Not Impossible Labs have developed BrainWriter, which uses a combination of brainwave recognition and eye-tracking to enable the paralysed graffiti artist TemptOne to communicate and perhaps even make art once again. It’s a moving story in itself, but beyond that points to one of the next frontiers in digital technology: the direct control of objects in physical space by mind alone.

 

But my single favourite piece was part of the DevArt space, which brings together pieces commissioned jointly by Google and the Barbican from developers creating art from code. Zach Lieberman‘s Play the World feels somewhat overlooked in the coverage I’ve read, yet for me it’s the best – and most evocative – piece in the show. It consists of a single piano keyboard surrounded by a circle of speakers; a note played on the keyboard triggers software that finds that very note being played that moment on a radio station somehwere in the world (the station and country are displayed on LED screens below the speaker from which the sound emerges).

Now of course the results aren’t as musically perfect as those created, ironically, on the Fairlight, sitting in a vitrine near the exhibition’s entrance. Indeed, from a certain perspective what comes out is cacophonous. But the way that Lieberman has used code to summon up a sense of our place in a world that is at once culturally heterogenous and yet irreversibly connected represents, for me, the very best kind of digital art: interactive and immersive, yes, but more than that, profoundly thought-provoking and, well, human.

 

Simon

[Disclaimer: the Barbican is a long-standing client of Turner Hopkins.]

Anti-Fragile crop

I’m currently reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s follow-up to Black SwanAnti-Fragile. Quite apart from being a brilliant, massively stimulating and (just occassionally) niggling read, it’s a book with real relevance to our practice here – one of the most obviously so since I read the William Gibson non-fiction collection Distrust That Particular Flavor and Lewis Hyde‘s Common as Air a year or so back . I suspect I’ll be reflecting on a few of my reactions here.

One of the most (I suspect) controversial observations Taleb makes is about the link between the spending a nation puts into higher education and that nation’s economic success. Most prosperous nations have a thriving university sector so there’s a direct causal relationship, right? Well, yes, but not necessarily in the way it’s generally read. Taleb claims that it’s the wealth that leads to better (or at any rate higher levels of) university education rather than the other way round. The usual narrative (education inevitably leads to wealth) is not only a logical fallacy – it’s a self-serving one spun out by a sector constantly looking to increase both state and private funding.

Now I can’t call this either way (although I have to say, Taleb makes a very strong case and I’m inclined to go with him). However, the observation has some resonance with what I’ve felt for a long time about arts funding. But first, a digression and a recollection.

I recall, some years ago, the then-Controller of the BBC Proms, Nicholas Kenyon (now the Director of London’s finest arts centre, The Barbican*) giving a speech (at the British Library, if memory serves) to launch that year’s Proms programme. He pointed out that different governments had, in recent years, very much rationalised arts funding as part of a wider politico-philosophical agenda. The Thatcher government saw the arts as a way to boost tourism and celebrate “heritage”; New Labour in turn had seen art as a way of fostering its own social engineering programme (my words, not his), that is, as a way of “driving diversity” and “regeneration”. Kenyon suggested that instead, perhaps governments (and for that matter philanthropists) might view the arts as worth funding in their own right. It’s simply something a decent, enlightened (lower case) society should do.

I completely agreed then and a decade on still do. What Taleb’s observations about education reminded me of is that not only is the argument for arts funding as a basis for economic regeneration unnecessary; it’s very probably wrong-headed too. Yes, economically thriving cities tend to have “thriving” arts scenes (and I put that in quotes because whether that art is any good is always a moot point), but again, don’t get what Taleb calls your “causal arrow” the wrong way round. Wealth attracts art, not necessarily the other way round.

But here’s a funny thing about investment… it comes in all shapes and sizes and can have benefits unforeseen (and of course the whole point about Taleb’s overarching thesis is that most things are). Last weekend, as I reported over on my blog, Sarah and I went to Cafe Oto in Dalston to see a the second night in a residency by the Japanese improvising guitarist Otomo Yoshihide.

oto-outside

The key word here is Dalston. For those of you unfamiliar with London geography, this is a North-Eastern inner suburb, and until recently was considered something of a schlepp to get to from pretty much anywhere else in the city. This was in fact untrue, as the ‘hood was well connected by buses, but most Londoners’ mental map of the city is based on the Tube, and that part of the city was well and truly off the Tube. This has all changed recently, of course, with the opening of the “Ginger Line” – actually the “Overground” – a network of lines around the entire city (some pre-existing, others entirely new) which are integrated with the Tube and, crucially – on the Tube map.

Dalton Junction is a spanking new station on a spanking new stretch of the network which runs from West Croydon in the deep south right up to Highbury. Cafe Oto is about, ooh, thirty seconds’ walk away. And certainly it was very busy on Saturday, (and it frequently sells out what are, after all, some pretty “fringe” musical events).

Now I am unable to prove beyond all doubt that the venue has benefitted enormously from the new line and station, but I do know that apparently poor Tube links were a problem for the now-defunct Ocean, just a mile or so away in Hackney. I’m not making any bold claims here, simply wondering: perhaps spending money on, say, transport infrastructure can have a more profound effect on the success of arts venues than direct investment in, well, art? One thing is for certain (and we’re back with Taleb here): the truth is almost certainly more complex than we think it is – and thoroughly unpredictable.

Oh, and we were home in West London in about 35 minutes. Ever so slightly deaf.

Simon

* And yes, a client, but I think our various blogs and tumblr make it clear that we really mean this, regardless; recent delights have include the blockbuster Duchamp show, Low, Geoffrey Farmer’s Surgeon and The Photographer installation and Strindberg’s Madame Julie.

Over the weekend Sarah and I popped into the Barbican to check out the “Weekender“. An annual event held each autumn, the weekender opens up the entire centre to the public for a series of participatory events around a particular theme.

This year’s event, billed “Natural Circuits”, offered ways for attendees to “Connect to your creative side through two days of free digital activity”. From the pieces and happenings that we witnessed, I think I’d say that for me the theme was about connecting our digital media activity to our experience of the real, physical world. The virtual-physical divide and cross over is not necessarily a new theme for a curated series of events, but it’s one of the most vital facing creators, and the Weekender – which, it should be pointed out, is very clearly aimed at families – approached it with exactly the kind of originality and flair you’d expect from the folks at the Barbican.

Amongst the pieces we saw were:

Claire Collinson’s Short and Tweet – a room full of iMacs set up for visitors to tweet poetry. Creative writing sessions were provided throughout the weekend to get the poetic juices flowing and you can read the results by having a look at #bweekender.

Stories from an Invisible Town are a series of stories and anecdotes by Hugh Hughes, prompted by his mother moving out of their family home. Sitting in comfy chairs, surrounded by packing boxes with players hidden inside them, we listened to the stories on headphones as if in his half emptied house. The stories are by turns dark, moving and funny, although the sound bleed from the neighbouring installation highlighted the essential problem of sound-based group shows in galleries.

Hidden Fields – and this was the culprit, although very impressive it was! Part video game, part installation, part disco (!), the piece allowed participants to dance in front of a giant screen, their movements affecting the semi-abstract images on the screen, to the accomplishment of a gently shifting electronic-orchestral ambient score. Quite mesmerising.

Black Country Atelier‘s 3D Printed Wildlife, in which kids could design wildlife themed tree decorations which were then immediately “printed” was a chance to see the wonder of 3D printing up close.

And finally, our favourite: Circumstance’s A Sleeping Bird, an ensemble piece played back on the speakers of synced mobile phones housed in rather lovely wooden boxes. These were carried around the centre by members of the public on various routes preordained by the artists and meeting at certain points. It’s rare to hear music move around a space (Sarah pointed out that conceptually it was a bit like Janet Cardiff‘s Forty Part Motet – in reverse) and the acoustics of the Barbican’s Ballardian concrete spaces suited it perfectly.

The Centre was packed on the day we visited (not just with Weekender attendees but with visitors to the the blockbuster photographic show Everything Was Moving and Random International’s digital installation Rain Room) and from the look on everyone’s faces, the event was providing a lot of delight on an otherwise wet, cold and generally miserable London weekend. Congratulations to the Learning team at the Barbican, and in particular Anna Rice (Music & Cross Arts Producer) and Emma Ridgway (Visual Arts Curator and Cross Arts Producer) for pulling off such a massive, and evidently successful event.

Simon