Leaving a trail of pixels

…or why having artists take the lead in cultural organisations is vital.

In 2006, I launched the new digital media department for South Hill Park Arts Centre in Berkshire. Starting from an empty room, I set up the first desks, became admin for a small network of Macs, designed the programme and recruited the most talented artists I could find to deliver it.

2008: Recruited from the internet, creator of the most viewed circuit-bending videos on YouTube comes to lead our first electronic toy hacking weekend
2008: Recruited from the internet, creator of the most viewed circuit-bending videos on YouTube comes to lead our first electronic toy hacking weekend

After 8 years of developing the programme, bringing artists and innovative producers to the venue, creating projects, conferences, festivals and partnerships to reach out to new audiences, I left with a great archive of photos, videos and audio as a document, and a tonne of valuable experiences.

For the most part, venue staff were bemused by the early days of their digital arts department. Marketing staff were reserved about assisting with promotion because they “didn’t know anything about this digital stuff“.  Arts funding bodies could see something interesting was going on, but didn’t have the vocabulary to assess what the activity was delivering. Film funding organisations, bound by their own bureaucracy refused to help, as the moving image work was led by “artists” not “film makers“.

These days, the funding organisations have  largely caught up, and are readily supporting culture organisations who are leading innovation in digital.

2009: Artist, Janek Schaeffer leads the Found Sound Stories weekend. Results in a one hour radio show broadcast on Resonance FM
2009: Artist, Janek Schaeffer leads the Found Sound Stories weekend. Results in a one hour radio show broadcast on Resonance FM

Imagination was (and still is) something of a personal touchstone for my work and I’ve often felt that organisational structures confine where it’s use is sanctioned. Like many (most?) businesses, the separation between management and workers means that there is a gap between staff with front line intelligence and those that coordinate and steer their output.

The translation of this separation into the staffing of culture organisations means that artists are often seen as being removed from the central operations – confined to stage or studio , whilst administrative and management staff are concerned with the substantial responsibilities of the bricks and mortar of the building.

Conversely, the role of an artist within an organisation is often eyed with vague suspicion among arts practitioners.  As someone who identifies with this role, I can certainly agree that time spent in a day job surely does compete with time for art and practice, and makes it very hard to stay immersed in a personal creative process. The topic has come up in many episodes of my “Gene Pool: Digital Culture” radio show and always seems to be tinged with a vague attitude of “sell out” for creatives who cross the divide to become  management.

2007: Sound Artist, Ray Lee led a hardware hacking weekend which attracted people from all around the UK.
2007: Sound Artist, Ray Lee led a hardware hacking weekend which attracted people from all around the UK.

However, artists have long been promoters of the work of their peers, from the Dada-ists home base of the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 to Jamie Cullum’s show on Radio 2 today. What better way, as Oxford Brookes’ Paul Whitty says in a recent Gene Pool interview about the artists who run the Audiograft Festival, to “not feel so isolated” in their own niche practice while providing a platform for presentation and discussion about their artform of choice.

Commercial business is well aware of the need for innovation and creativity. So where does that leave innovation for culture if artists are not part of the core staffing structures of organisations ? Imagination; the preserve of “creatives” is the stuff that feeds the future, provides the glue that joins the potentials of the moment to a coherent vision.

2013: Berkshire Digital business network brings industry speakers to the local community
2013: Berkshire Digital business network brings industry speakers to the local community

For a while at least, imagination got loose within an arts organisation and new things, previously unknown came into being. We can only imagine what new trends and opportunities are coming along in society, and in this time the new platforms, new experiences and commercial opportunities that came out of that imagination turned out to be pointing the way for something more permanent.

Digital Media Centre history online:

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