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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with the Digital R&D Fund banner

Should the arts stop using the term ‘digital’? Is it ready to? Anna Dinnen looks at recent Digital R&D Fund projects and surveys to answer the question.

Photo of a performance
respond, Douglas, Yorkshire Dance

Sara Teresa

The Space’s Anthony Lilley said: “We shouldn’t build walls around the word ‘digital’ – you don’t have paper departments at Universities.” Speaking at Making Digital Work, an event exploring the findings from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, Lilley reminded us that digital technology should be seen as a tool, one that is used by arts organisations alongside others to help realise their mission. As with any tool, the main thing is to ensure you have the right one for the job at hand, or there is a danger that we fixate on the tool and not on what it is being applied to.

A number of projects funded by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts set out to test whether there were merits in online platforms replacing or extending ‘analogue’, or person-to-person, experiences. The London-based Ministry of Stories, in partnership with the Institute of Education and the Workshop, for example, re-created online its highly successful programme of one-on-one creative writing mentoring for young people. Yorkshire Dance’s project explored the use of an online platform to mediate feedback to artists in the process of developing new dance pieces. Both projects discovered that while digital can make processes faster and easier, its effectiveness lies to some extent in the way that it is integrated with thoughtful face-to-face activities, creating a joined-up user experience.

Designating only certain roles as ‘digital’ can offer an escape clause for those who prefer not to engage with it

Achieving such a user experience requires coordinated organisation ‘back stage’ and the input of all teams, not just those in designated ‘digital’ roles. A number of Fund projects found this to be challenging within their organisational culture. This might be less of an issue if responsibility was shared across the organisation. Designating only certain roles as ‘digital’ can offer an escape clause for those who prefer not to engage with it.

Many of the industry figures that are leading the pack, when it comes to applying new technologies in the arts, argue that digital is so integral to our way of life that it is the job of arts practitioners to mirror this by weaving digital into their ways of working – be it in production, curation, marketing, development or finance. The Digital Culture Survey, an annual survey of arts organisations’ use of digital by the Fund, reinforces the benefits of this way of thinking – those experiencing the biggest impacts of digital technologies show a commitment to digital in a number of different areas. The delegate list for the Making Digital Work event included practitioners from a wide range of organisational roles – yes, a few ‘Heads of Digital’, but also staff from learning teams, business development, creative production and curators. Each of these functional areas are finding new and diverse ways of applying all the technologies that sit under the digital umbrella.

It is, after all, a big umbrella. This is another unhelpful aspect of the term ‘digital’. It covers an ever increasing range of technologies being deployed in an ever growing variety of ways. The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts portfolio presents this in microcosm. Technologies explored included haptic devices, ibeacons, 3D laser-scanning, streaming, augmented reality, natural language processing, Near Field Communication (NFC) and drones, and were being deployed for the purposes of navigation, interpretation, donation, translation, aggregation, distribution – the list goes on. The simplicity and ubiquity of ‘digital’ belies a fantastical array of potential technologies and applications that goes far beyond websites, social media and e-marketing – the most frequently adopted digital practices.

But with all that said, are we really ready to drop the term?

Lilley’s ‘drop digital’ view is that of a leading practitioner for whom digital has been a way of working for some time. Those that espouse this view tend to have a more sophisticated understanding of the range of opportunities offered by existing technologies and a strong awareness of the potential of emerging ones. The Digital Culture Survey from 2014, however, showed that in significant pockets of the sector, applications of digital are still limited – the remit of a single or few staff, supporting a limited number of organisational functions.

In spite of the rate of development of new technologies and, importantly, their adoption by the public, one respondent in four was not planning to introduce any new digital activities at all in 2015. Where other sectors are adopting digital as an essential part of business practice, the arts lag behind, for example when it comes to data and ‘customer insight’. Applications for projects proposing big data approaches were in such short supply to the Fund, that a specific call had to be put out to encourage these.

The Digital Culture survey pointed in 2013 and 2014 to a lack of skills as a barrier to adopting and developing new ways of deploying digital technologies and interest in the Digital Toolkit for the arts published by the Fund suggests a lack of confidence among users.

With so much potential to explore and so little confidence to do so, dropping the term – and therewith the focus on digital – could leave a job half done. Sector leaders like Lilley must exhort us to normalise digital in our practice, helping to set the ambition and show, share and support those joining the party with more trepidation.

What digital as a term does, perhaps most helpfully of all, is describe the technology as much as the mindset. As Anna Rafferty, Chair of Culture24 and Director of Product, Creative and Content at Pottermore, put it in a recent interview: “I always think about ‘digital’ in inverted commas. Because part of it is about technology but part of it is also about a philosophy, a frame of mind – it’s being iterative and experimental and not having a ‘pack and ship’ mentality.” That’s what the arts is all about and it is surely worth holding on to.

Anna Dinnen is Senior Programme Manager for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts at Nesta.

This article, sponsored and contributed by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, is one in a series of articles on the theme Making digital work.

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Photo of Anna Dinnen