The Digital Utopias conference on 20 January brought together arts organisations, artists, researchers and curators to discuss the impact of new technologies on the arts.

Hosted by Hull Truck Theatre and organised by Arts Council England (ACE) as part of the lead up to Hull City of Culture 2017, the day was part of a series of collaborative events throughout 2015 by ACE and the Google Cultural Institute.

Through a series of clinics, showcases and panel discussions curated by Abandon Normal Devices (AND), the event explored digital’s impact on approaches to curation, archiving, collecting and creating.

Martin Green, chief executive of Hull: UK City of Culture 2017 (HCC), introduced the conference along with ACE chair Sir Peter Bazalgette and Google’s James Davis. A flurry of tweets using #artsdigital quickly streamed in from delegates and people further afield who could not attend, and this network of discussion was sustained throughout the day.

Disruptive innovation

The Disruptive Innovation debate was chaired by FutureEverything curator Jose Luis de Vicente. The panel featured Lynn Scarff, programme director of Dublin’s The Science Gallery (TSG); Memo Akten, a London-based Turkish artist, engineer and computer scientist; and the Berlin-based Italian curator, writer and ‘hacktivist’, Tatiana Bazzichelli.

With a focus on “interrogative exhibitions” and “equal exploratory partnerships” at TSG, Scarff spoke of the organisation’s position in creating a “compelling experience for astute audiences” that are expectant of technology and digital media. She also explained how the gallery’s funding allows freedom for a more “interrogative” programme, creating loopholes for disruption and innovation to take place.

“We never think of an exhibition as a finished project,” she said, showing a venn diagram illustrating TSG’s commitment to art works that, often existing only in the digital realm, inform scientific enquiry.

Loopholes are also sought out as part of Akten’s work, which manipulates data, often in collective practice such as his collaboration with Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF). His presentation showcased a number of working methods in which the larger wheel of a commissioning body was disrupted into smaller creative teams.

“It’s all about motivation,” he explained. “When there’s an alignment between what motivates an artist and what motivates a curator or commissioner, that’s when the best work is created.”

He illustrated this with the MLF piece, Meet Your Creator (2012), a live theatrical performance and kinetic light sculpture using quadrotor drones. “This piece was our baby, every single detail in the work was there because we collectively decided that that’s what the piece needed, not because it served the brand.”

Bazzichelli spoke of her PhD dissertation, Networked Disruption: Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social Networking (DARC Press, 2013).

She expanded on her Disruptive Loop Diagram (above), which looks at disruption in business markets and how this can be applied to digital arts to unveil new strategies, values and modes of production – a theme modelled by Akten and Scarff. Bazzichelli’s model also resonated with more emergent interdisciplinary practices showcased during other sessions.

First to experiment

The debate entitled After the Future featured contributions from new-media art historian Dr Sarah Cook, The Space’s interim director Ruth Mackenzie, Jon Thomson of Thomson & Craighead and curator Morgan Quaintance.

Preservation, production and distribution were discussed in relation to digital art forms, with Cook stating that “artists will always be the first to experiment with digital media”. But what happens when, as Quaintance put it, institutions in the “concrete world” get involved?

An important discussion arose on how galleries can treat internet-based and networked art forms. Quaintance posited that such works need to be taken more seriously, as “good internet and contemporary art should slow down the online experience” – much like entering a gallery space.

This point was also touched on by Katrina Sluis, digital curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, during the later Curating Networks session. Sluis   suggested that having digitally-networked artworks in a gallery, in the context of main exhibitions, actually allows a “freer” approach for showing artists who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity.

In another session, Crafting Code, artist Matthew Plummer-Fernandez shared his interest in the social and cultural significance of our relationships with new technologies. His current work uses 3D scanning and printing to explore and manipulate “image classification”, and the piece sekuMoi Mecy (pictured below) is a ‘derivative’ 3D print of a Mickey Mouse toy.

Deliberately, the artist enters political water with the work: the Disney Corporation is famously protective of its copyright, and 3D printed copies of Mickey are tightly policed. The area of contention here being: at what point do artists stop appropriating with digital media and begin to use technologies to discover something new?

Alongside painter Gretchen Andrews and Crafts Council’s Karen Gaskill in the session Crafting Code, Plummer-Fernandez managed to weave a possible future for us all. Data is practically free already; many artists can and do use it to make new, relevant and exciting work. But what happens if institutions and sources don’t bend the same way?

In his introductory speech, Sir Peter Bazalgette said: “When you share data, the rewards are far greater than keeping it to yourself.” It is attitudes to this sharing that need addressing. To a large extent, artists have already gone far beyond the institutions that claim to provide an audience for their work. If we are to truly reach these ‘digital utopias’, it’s time for the institutions to play catch up.

Perhaps Hull, which is now, as Martin Green put it, “open for business” in time for City of Culture, is the place for this to happen. They have until 2017 to show us how.

For more content from the day, including YouTube videos of discussions, go to

More on

Digital R&D Fund series – A series of articles looking at visual arts projects funded by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, including Abandon Normal Devices’ research into the use of drones in the arts

Digital art: “If it’s just about the technology it’s compromising the work – We talk to the curators of The New Sublime exibition, part of the 2014 Brighton Digital Festival