Digital Media and the Arts
So, an editorial-style blog and couple of creative pieces later I think there’s a ‘what I am up to’ blog due. Short answer: lots. But if you follow me on Twitter, or speak to me occasionally you probably already know that – so here’s a long-answer-picture of everything that’s been going on over the past few weeks.
Today I was at a combination of the Arts Council England (ACE) AmbITion and my first meeting/contract signing with Theatre Writing Partnership. I’ll talk a little more about the content of the former in a bit- firstly: ‘contract signing?’ I hear you cry! ‘what is this craziness?’. Aha, well I can now officially say that I have been contracted by TWP as a freelance Online Communication Officer, the idea being that over the summer I work with them on a freelance basis, helping them spread their digital roots. This will be in conjunction with a website overhaul being done elsewhere, building up to a big, exciting, social media theatre writing experiment around October time. TWP are (for the uninitiated) an East Midlands based new theatre writing initiative – I came across them in my first year of uni through the Momentum Festival – it was with TWP that I wrote my first ever piece of theatre, I made many friends (Lucy, Alex, MorpheanRamble, Robin, Phil, Sabrina) through the festival and it set me off on my current trajectory as an aspiring playwright. TWP are a brilliant resource for theatre writing in an area in which there are very few (in comparison to London) opportunities to have work read and developed. My work with them will consist of getting an online presence together, creating an online space for all of TWPs past writers, workshop leaders and other participants to reconnect and catch up, really build a grassroots-style support and opportunities network for them, get a blogroll together etc., as well as looking at how new and social media can work for a new writing theatre company. Very exciting stuff! So today I met up with Bianca from TWP, sorted all the contractual things, and got started, watch this space!
This morning (as anyone who follows me will know) I was at the ACE AmbITion day. A morning of speakers followed by an afternoon of workshops (we skipped the afternoon of how-to’s). I missed the introduction due to a combination of a late train and having a map to the wrong Broadway (one’s a street, one’s a cinema >_<) and instead went straight into one of two speakers. The first up was Alex Fleetwood (@ammonite). Alex was from Hide and Seek, they don’t call themselves an arts company per se, but what they’re doing is some very exciting and challenging stuff. Their main project is one of play – the idea being that play is going to be central to culture in the 21st Century, it took in all kinds of ideas on ‘play’ from video games to childhood games to immersive theatre in the style of Punchdrunk, Forced Entertainment et al. The most valuable (IMO) thing that I took away from the talk however, was the model of involvement that it used. It basically took on the Wiki ethic and put it in a performative/artistic context. Examples of their work include Wiki developed city-wide games of hide-and-seek and spy narratives, and one particular piece which was a game for two- one of whom was in a tomb-raider style puzzle house, and the other who controlled and interacted from a rich online environment. These pieces were all self generating. The framework was there, but the content was user generated, interractive and built in the ‘sandpit‘ of what essentially was a dev community. The games were beta tested, altered, shared and shared alike. This is a step on from ideas of devising theatre, there is no final text, there may be words spoken, but it is the participant’s play. It raised fascinating questions about authorship, of how people accept rule-sets, of created and real identity, basically bloody gold dust in terms of my theatre and tech PhD, and otherwise essential ideas for the future of performance and art.
However I was a little disappointed with the rest of the event, the next speech was more than a little lacklustre, less about potential for new work, and more about the process of some pretty standard old work. The Q&A at the end brought up two questions which stick in my mind. Overall the comments consisted of bemused excitement, people seemed to repeat the fact that it was all so over their heads so complicated etc, they could see the potential but not what it meant for them – but I suppose that’s what the second half of the day was about- getting people to jump in and see that the digital world is not scary. But it was a little depressing – the resistance to these ideas- they seemed to say ‘yes but you’re young, you know about these things, I don’t’. Um…. Well learn then! Dive in! Learn that it’s OK to not know, that it’s where everyone starts. I did fine art and English lit A levels, my respective degrees are in Drama and Playwriting, when I went to school the most advanced piece of kit we had was a little mushroom shaped thing on wheels which you could program to travel a variety of distances, left or right (I don’t know what that was supposed to teach us). My point is that everything that I know about the tech world is what I’ve taught myself, and learnt from friends, peers, family. Do some people decide that they have finished learning? That they know enough? I know so little about so many things, I’m hungry for it, for understanding, for information. This rant relates onwards, don’t worry, to two specific questions that came up. The first one I’ll mention was after Alex Fleetwood’s talk on Hide & Seek, from a gentlemen near the front of the room, I didn’t catch where he was from. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically asked:
“But how do we get these 13 year old kids away from spending 10 hours a day on World of Warcraft and on to more important, social things?”
I’m being very, very restrained by not breaking into a full on rant here, because I don’t think it would be terribly constructive, let me just outline all the things that are wrong with that question.
- The assumption that WOW is antisocial
- The assumption that what the questioner calls ‘art’ is worthier than a game
- The assumption that games and art cannot be the same thing
- The assumption that time spent on WOW is wasted
- The assumption that it is our job to rival the ‘bad influence’ of games.
We should be learning from the model of MMORPG games – they enthral people because they put them at the centre of a story, they make the player an originator. People connect online, just because the connection doesn’t fit hitherto subscribed to social norms, doesn’t mean the connection is any less. Often, in terms of intellectual engagement, it can make it is somehow more. I’m not saying that all theatre should be like a game- but in our world there are new questions arising from new politics of identity and communication. Gaming communities are vibrant, strong, and active things, it’s so ignorant to assume that your way of living your life is somehow right, and another wrong, rather looking at the differences between the two, trying to understand. Why might someone spend so much time online? What does the VR give them that RL doesn’t? Is it control? Is it the power of the protagonist? Is it the idea of playing as another? Is it relaxing? Is it exciting? Is it escapism? Ask those questions, don’t ask how we can save them from themselves. Ask how they can save us from our old selves.
Alex Fleetwood was brilliant in response, he emphasised that we shouldn’t see WOW and other games as ‘bogey men’ or enemies to real life. He put it much gentler than I have, but he was clear, and gave what I think was an admirable response.
The other question I’ll talk (briefly) about was asked by someone from Lincoln’s Drill Hall venue – basically the point put forward was that they couldn’t afford the staff hours or to pay someone external to run the kind of web 2.0 social network that was being talked of. Which is a reason I’ve often heard mooted- and it’s understandable, but if you ask me, it’s not the answer that’s the problem – it’s the question. The kind of sandbox style beta testing artistic environment that AF talked about is not one that you can engineer- it is only one for which you can provide the framework. It is not an organisation’s job to nail down every corner of a mapped social network – it should be theirs to enthuse an audience or target group to the point at which they author it, and in which the organisation is merely a participant. This means that the organisation hasn’t spent masses of budget and time on something that might not work, it means they have something which is and continues to be self-generating and relevant. The point of social networking in the arts is to pull down the pedestal on which art has been placed- to stop saying so definitely when art stops and audience begins, to play with collective creation, to play with narrative, to play with identity. These things are changing in modern society, there are new ways of loving, laughing, and losing being invented everyday, if we don’t investigate them, if we don’t tell these new stories, then we fail as artists.
We need people to stop being afraid of these new ways of communicating, otherwise art – which I consider as best-fitted to challenging society – will become defunct, another method of escapism, a tool of suppression rather than revolution. Better put than I ever will:
“Theatre is a weapon. A very efficient weapon […] for this reason the ruling classes try to take hold of theatre and utilise it as a tool for domination […] but the theatre can also be a weapon of the liberation. For that, it is necessary to change appropriate theatrical forms. Change is imperative.” (p. ix, Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed (New Edition). London: Pluto Press, 2000.)
What else am I up to? Many things, I think it’s best if I summarise more quickly as this appears to have become a bit of a behemoth. I’m writing an article for Subtext Magazine on women in tech. I’m going to be in York at the Shift Happens arts and digital technology conference at the end of this month, talking to people about Twitter. I’ve also written an arts organisation intro to Twitter for it, which so far seems to be getting some good responses. I finished and sent off my treatment for the 15 minute play Box of Tricks have commissioned me to work on. I’m meeting up with some Twitter friends for some drinks (as well as some thoughts on the future of digital media, but mostly drinks) I’m off to Leeds and Birmingham this month, and in mid July – Paris! I have also decided to save up enough money to attend the weekend of Climate Camp in August.
Plus I’m trying to squeeze in some temp work so I can afford all of the above!
I’m not going to pretend I don’t love this :-)