Billed as a day of ‘inspiring TED-style talks from the world’s leading thinkers, digital creators and artists’, Shift Happens is a one-day conference organised by Pilot Theatre at York Theatre Royal.
I’d never been to one before (this was their 4th event), or to a TEDx event for that matter, and I was a little worried that it might be ‘too digital’ for me. This is why I haven’t been to TEDx events in the past; they seem to be dominated by people talking about code and HTML and other things I don’t get.
I was also a bit worried that it might be ‘too theatre’ for me. I’m Head of School of Art, Architecture and Design at Leeds Metropolitan University, and although I have some knowledge and understanding of performance and live art, and even devised, contemporary performance, proper theatre isn’t really my bag.
I was asked to speak at Shift Happens by Marcus Romer, the Artistic Director of Pilot Theatre. I’d met him on Twitter and then in real life at the State of the Arts conference at the Lowry in February of this year.
Of the 23 presentations during the day there was a really good mix of art, music and performance. There was also quite a bit of stuff about politics and even a bit of science.
The visual art input included talks by Laura Sillars from Site Gallery and Dave Moutrey (Cornerhouse). There was also an excellent presentation by Bill Thompson, about the recently launched The Space, where he argued very convincingly that it is a place for screen-based art. That is, it’s not (as some might assume) just television.
But there were two really big themes that emerged through several of the talks. Firstly, the business of ‘digital’. For Caper director Rachel Coldicutt, technology is just a medium, like clay. It doesn’t have any ideas of its own; it’s up to us to use it in an interesting way.
I was also taken with the idea that we should be as interested in ‘digital’ as authors are in paper. We need it, we use it every day, but we don’t need to be that interested in it, or to understand how it’s made.
This was echoed in Bill Thompson’s emphatic disgust at the use of the word ‘content’ by people who work in digital. He said: “To call something content implies you don’t really know what it is. Call it music, or painting or whatever it is…”
The ‘content’ is the work, the art, the stuff. The people who refer to ‘content’ are the ones who look after the platforms and the technology, i.e., that bit that we don’t need to be interested in. He went on: “‘Content’ demeans everything it touches and ‘audiences’ don’t exist”. Brilliant.
The other big issue that recurred through many of the talks was political. With limited resources, what should our priorities be? How can we support emergent artists and vulnerable art forms? For Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner we are “in a period of unprecedented change, which is here to stay. We have to come to terms with uncertainty”.
Gardner went on to say that, “Regional building-based institutions should not be considered ‘too big to fail’, or feel they have a right to exist”. She also emphasised the importance of participation and the need to fund at the bottom of the pyramid. She finished with the idea of supporting a large fleet of “cultural tugboats” rather than a few cultural flagships.
Reflecting on the day, my take homes are firstly something about how we should work with the new generation of artists. They are the fleet of cultural tugboats, they are the future, what Lyn Gardner described as the bottom of the pyramid. Many in the industry want to support them, in particular if they are working in participatory and community practices (which incidentally is a huge strength of the art and design provision at Leeds Met).
My second reflection is on this thing called digital and on what I, and colleagues, have been trying to do at Leeds Met. We’ve moved rapidly past wanting a ‘digital footprint’ and we’re now thinking about what we look like online. What can people find out about us from a distance? We have always thought that the work is the most important thing. You can see some here.
Facebook is like disco and Twitter is like punk: Dr Rebekka Kill’s Shift Happens presentation