People power in the arts

This piece was originally written for and published in Guardian Culture Professionals in September 2013. It’s the second in a trio of articles written by the Sync team, you can read the first and last in the series here and here.

There’s a trap we keep falling into as we attempt to embed digital creativity in the arts sector. Just take a look at the programmes that encourage and support digital work. They tend to focus on product: what’s the innovative thing that you’re planning on making? Occasionally they deal with organisational health: how can your organisation be better equipped to deliver this type of work?

Talent development, however, barely gets a look in. The reason is clear – we’re forgetting that behind every great digital project there’s at least one great person making it happen. Rather than making sure the right people have the right resources and support, we’ve instead settled on a product-centred approach.

Little wonder, then, that there are very few people working in the arts in the UK who are ready to drive the digital agenda, who feel confident enough to bring together teams to make genuinely mind-blowing digital work. Instead, they are at best struggling to come up with digital ideas, and at worst so confused or overwhelmed by the task they’re hiding their heads in the sand.

Even the language we use is wobbly and unconvincing. Take digital, technology and innovation – words that are regularly interchanged with one another. Not only is this irritating for any semantic sticklers out there, it’s also contributing to misconceptions that are holding the sector back, preventing us from moving enthusiastically towards a future in which digital creativity is no longer fetishised or feared.

These terms all carry big meanings. For a lot of people, they also carry intimidating baggage. Just one of them on its own might be enough to send a digital scaredy-cat into a frenzy of panic. Bundled together, they represent a world of torment and confusion, all stemming from a central feeling of “this is something I simply don’t understand”.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Digital creative work, like most if not all creative work, is led by (and made for and about) people. And at Sync, we’ve started making sure that people are at the heart of all our conversations. We’ve shifted our focus and tone, and we think that those designing and managing funding programmes and training opportunities should do the same. We want people to drive the agenda, not the technologies, projects or products.

Towards the end of 2012, we realised that a significant number of people we were talking to about digital innovation were crippled by what can only be described as fear. We found that people are worried about looking idiotic, feeling irrelevant, being pushed to one side, being overwhelmed by things they don’t really understand. They are worried about economic and reputational pain. You can read more on this in articles we published here and here.

It’s really no wonder that nationwide we’re struggling to develop an environment that nurtures excellent digital work in a way that’s progressive and sustainable. And yet how we make a work that sits on a digital platform or uses digital tools is really no different to making a non-digital piece – we bring visionary people together to imagine and then build the impossible, to find meaningful ways of talking about contemporary issues, to engage people in dialogue and discussion.

There’s no secret recipe with digital; we just need the right people to be together in the right room at the right time. Yes, of course at some point we’ll start talking about logistics and technologies, and that’s when the experts within the team should be able to take over. Whether they’re specialists in app development or lighting design, data management or script editing, the principle is the same.

Clearly though, something isn’t quite clicking, which brings us to the role of the producer within the digital landscape. These are people who can straddle different sectors, speak different languages, bring disparate people together and facilitate processes that support effective communication. It’s not just about producers; as this conversation has developed at Sync, we’ve started to talk about “bilingual” people. These might be designers or developers, directors or writers – whatever they call themselves, they are the lynchpins.

You may know some. There’s Sarah Ellis, currently doing amazing work at the Royal Shakespeare Company; or Ben Templeton, who has developed work with Tate and National Museum of Scotland through his company Thought Den. Look also at how Yann Seznec works, making and selling innovative products through his company Lucky Frame and also sustaining an individual arts practice, collaborating with the likes of musician Matthew Herbert and the Edinburgh Art Festival.

Bilingual people know others who work in different sectors. They can predict and deal with points of divergence, and they know how to steer towards points of overlap. They are the people who can create the right environment for progressive creative processes to emerge and establish themselves.

The single most impactful thing we can do to create a sustainable digital landscape within arts practice is to concentrate on these people; those who already exist and those who are showing signs of becoming bilingual. There are relatively few of them, but it’s got to be worth seeking them out, concentrating on them, and ultimately creating better spaces to work in. Let’s support the real innovators to do what they do best. Let’s believe in them and give them room to experiment.

The photo is of the Interface 3 team at Culture Hack Scotland 2012.