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What the new importance of digital in arts and culture has shown most clearly is that now is the time to reinvent – not reinstate – the sector’s role in society, writes Samantha Lindley.

I See You, Urban Projections at Frequency Festival 2019. Photo credit Electric Egg
I See You, Urban Projections at Frequency Festival 2019.

Electric Egg

It is a very real possibility that Covid-19 will change our relationship with ‘digital’ forever.

During periods of reduced interaction, we have come to rely on technology for information, entertainment, work and social connection. When the lockdown first struck, many cultural organisations adapted swiftly and reached out to audiences through online versions of their programmes. A digital groundswell rapidly turned into a tidal wave of information, activity, and opportunity. 

As our new normal unveils itself, we should start to unpack some of the rapid learning that has occurred by necessity over the past few months. What is working and what do we still need to address?

Bridging the gap

Online programmes have entertained and engaged existing audiences, but we have seen how the pandemic has isolated and marginalised specific groups within society. Online cultural consumerism is limited by personal, intersectional echo chambers. So how can we engage new audiences and communities to ensure fair access and opportunity for all?

Threshold’s work with marginalised communities from Lincoln to Cuba has proved that the most authentic engagement occurs in spaces where communities have the agency. Artistic experiences need to be about collaboration rather than a one-way dialogue. People are keen to reconnect with each other, but in the shadow of new restrictions it is clear that access will remain limited for many months yet. One answer might be founded in “blended” experiences that bridge familiar physical spaces to online places of co-creation and learning.

Digital democracy

Digital is more than just a communication tool to access culture, or a screen-based audience experience. Digital culture is fundamentally linked to innovation, democracy and play.

Festivals are well placed to explore this line of enquiry since quickly adapting to new audiences, spaces and environments is inherent to their operation. Digital Democracies, a programme led by Threshold Studios, combines the expertise of three UK producing festivals to pioneer democratic and innovative digital work in public spaces. Our collective experience spans outdoor arts (Freedom Festival in Hull), inclusive digital culture (Frequency Festival in Lincoln) and impactful Createch engagement (Brighton Digital Festival).

Originally conceived pre-pandemic, the challenge is to now consolidate our knowledge and skills and develop a blended 2021 festival experience through commissioning, artist development and community engagement. We have a responsibility to create a shared space for peer-learning in this emerging area of practice, and to do it in a way that engages a diverse coalition of producers, artists, and audiences.

Freedom Festival launched Freedom at Home in September 2020, gathering unique insights from digital platforms to engage festival audiences. Audiences navigated through the different platforms in a similar way to a real-world experience, programming and curating their own experience.

One of the most striking moments from the festival though was in the physical realm. Luke Jerram’s Lullaby, described as “a gift to a city, a surround sound illuminated artwork, created by its own citizens and delivered at dusk, to the public's door,” relied on technology for its execution but also connected directly with its audience. It reminded us that we can’t rely on people coming to us; we can’t even rely on people being able to gather. But we can ask how we can reach out and connect – and that should be our primary concern.

A new kind of contact

Annabel McCourt’s The Murmuration, takes a people-powered approach to place making. Using digital photography to capture images (from a safe distance), it transforms St James’ Square in Grimsby by turning images of locals expressing their creativity into a copper statute. During a time of increased separation, the artwork figuratively brings people together in a public space.

Further consideration is required as to how we connect artists to opportunity and collectively upskill to support this new area of practice. Flow Observatorium, led by artist Jon Adams, have adapted Project Kongress, which seeks to understand barriers to the cultural sector for neurodiverse creatives, into an online research programme. Supporting this programme has enabled us as producers to think about our methods of working with neurodiverse artists and make sure we don’t lose their rich skillsets in times of reduced contact.

We’ve also been working with NN Contemporary to explore how we can collectively develop emerging talent, supporting their employability as well as their success outside of bricks-and-mortar institutions. We want to continue the conversation with these creatives and support the sharing of knowledge and experience that can prepare them for entry into an uncertain economy without creating further barriers. 

Throughout all of our explorations so far, one thing is clear. This is a moment to re-invent, not reinstate, the role of the arts in rebuilding our society, sector and communities. Our economy, people and the civic spaces that form the backbone of “place” have been hit hard by this pandemic – and they will be again. But, we are a sector with a long track record of agile adaptation. Embedded in the topography and need of our communities, arts organisations must continue to explore and design new hybrid cultural models of engagement that ensure no one is left behind.

Samantha Lindley is Director of Programmes at Threshold Studios
 @samanthalindley | @TS_Studios | @frequency_fest

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Samantha Lindley