About nine months I sat, along with some other staff at B arts, in a room with friends from Stoke-based digital and music collective bitjam. We wondered what we could do together – and one half of bitjam volunteered the fact that he’d always wanted to see a digital music and social media festival in Stoke-on-Trent: the last place anyone would particularly expect to see cutting-edge digital work. ‘Ok – we’ll do that’ we said, and started telling people that we’d be doing it. There wasn’t a budget, but we could think about that later.
Fast forward nine months and DATfest has just finished a three-day programme involving more than 20 events in venues across the city centre. The festival showed The Social Network with a live Twitterfall, made Lego animation with families, and reprocessed digital debris into live performance. You can have a look at what we did on www.datfest.org.uk. All the events took place and all had audiences (some quite small, but that is festivals).
What about that budget? To directly run the festival we had £2500, courtesy of Stoke City Council. But we were able to leverage this into a programming budget of over £20,000. Or rather, though it was all for DATfest; we didn’t hold most of the budget, individual producers did. Our role as co-ordinators became to make a platform and an invitation for producers to think about work they would like to present at the festival. As long as it was in some way digital or involved some sort of social media platform, and they let us know what they were doing, then they could use DATfest as an opportunity and focus for their fund-raising.
At a talk at Shift Happens in 2010, Rohan Gunillitake of Festivals Edinburgh described a festival as an event with boundaries in terms of time and space (ie when and where is it); and a social space where people can come together. We were a bit defeated by the latter (a DATcaf next year maybe) but definitely did the first two. Producing DATfest we realised that we’d become a ‘loose festival’ drawing these boundaries, and then letting people who wanted to make and present work get on with doing it. This was much more interesting (and suited to the media we were focusing on – it might not work so well for opera) than being a festival that tightly curated its programme and controlled all the resources for presentation. As Rohan said, we found out that a festival was a bit like the internet.
Trevelyan Wright is Organisational Development Team Leader at B Arts in North Staffordshire.