Happenstance: Last week's lunchtime talk
Kevin Walker and Linda Sandvik have been resident at Spike Island over the last few months as part of a series of residencies in the Happenstance project.
Happenstance aims to change the way arts organisations use technology. As part of the Nesta, Arts Council England and AHRC ‘Digital R&D for Arts and Culture Fund‘, the project has funded six technology residencies at three of the UK’s most vibrant and exciting arts organisations: Site Gallery in Sheffield, Lighthouse in Brighton and Spike Island in Bristol.
At last week’s lunchtime talk Kevin and Linda looked back on the time they spent at Spike and opened up the discussion, along with Helen Legg and Anna Searle Jones from Spike Island, and Katy Beale co-founder of Caper.
The project is an exploration into how technologies can be embedded into arts organisations, it’s about giving artists access to organisations, and ambiently pushing organisations to move a bit quicker and adapt to new technologies.
Helen Legg opened the talk by introducing the residency as a process of discovery and experimentation, especially for Spike staff who have little digital experience or exposure. She said it had begun to open a door, and wished the residents could be there for a whole year.
Who are the residents?
Kevin Walker is a designer, researcher, artist, technologist and journalist working across disciplinary and geographic boundaries. He designs and programs installations, software, and web sites, mostly for museums, galleries and artists. He also conducts and publishes research on how people use, understand and learn with technologies ranging from mobile devices to sensor networks.
Linda Sandvik studied digital media at Hyper Island, and found that her course wasn’t very digital at all, it focused more on group dynamics and self-leadership, idea and concept development, brand management, and design facilitation. She has had her own consultancy business since 2009, which mainly does web development, apps and physical installations (electronics).
Why bring digital to arts organisations?
Kevin and Linda kept coming up against the question above, and wondered if the process wasn’t necessarily about technology. Perhaps there are other things the arts sector can learn from the digital. Both residents expanded upon how open and collaborative technologists are. If you need help with something you’ve never done attempted before, you put a call-out on twitter and people are willing to give you their code, their time, their support.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t people in the arts working in such an open and collaborative way, but there is still a fairly institutionalised blinkered way of ploughing on with your own programme and hiding the working. In Kevin and Linda’s industry, if you want to see how someone has made something you just ‘view source’. They wanted to view the source code behind the façade of Spike Island.
What have they been doing at Spike Island?
One of the first things the pair did was meet with Spike’s curators. They were told they were attending a meeting about programming. They thought this was great! Then they realised it was cultural programming, and not the kind they were used to. This is indicative of the language barriers which currently hold these sectors apart.
The residents were inspired by the exhibitions at Spike, in response to these they did some rapid drawing, ran workshops with the public, and designed installations to sit alongside the work in the galleries.
They also analysed and mapped the building, with a focus on information points within the different spaces. They observed that even the communal information points seemed to be curated in some way. They wanted to find out how the artists were communicating with each other, and how the organisation presents itself to the world.
They observed how people moved through the whole building, tracking physical activity with a depth camera.
They devised a system using an arduino and distance detecting sensors to allow visitors and staff moving through the space to influence a sound depending on how close they were to the sensors, a bit like a large-scale human theremin.
They noted that tea breaks are a great time to break out of your routine and talk to someone, get a new perspective, but the way the building is laid out means it is difficult to see when anyone else is in the kitchen. They set it up so the kettle would tweet every time it was switched on – however no one followed the kettle, very few of the staff even used twitter.
This was when they realised they needed to shift the residency, the second half consisted of working directly with the staff so they could apply things and use them on an ongoing basis.
They began short workshops for the staff in computational thinking and basic electronics, encouraging people to think of the organisation as a circuit, a system. Firstly they ran the workshops after the main staff meeting, but they realised some staff thought ‘technology isn’t for me’ and left early. They then decided to hold the workshop right at the beginning of the meeting, so people had to stick around. It seems, whether conscious or not, there is still a lot of resistance to and doubt about technology’s place within an art organisation’s working life.
At this point Anna Searle Jones, Spike’s Communications Manager observed that people assumed this focus on technology would speed things up, but what they actually got from experimenting with arduinos, and learning something new, was to slow down, sit and focus on one thing. The staff got out of their usual frame of reference. They are now thinking about how they can slow people down in the galleries, can they use technology to do this?
There were a number of questions and observations about the scepticism towards digital technology in the gallery: we are all being pushed to do it. What people value about a gallery is a creative space you go into and shut everything out, it’s about your encounter with an object. Wouldn't it be fascinating to look at how digital can relate to that space, countering the perception that it would get in the way?
Our Director Clare said the problem is people see art and technology as two different things, that they assume there’s a polarity. Technology is a material that is used, it is a medium. The ideas make the work, not the things that make it. People who work with technology also crave that quiet place, they just use a slightly different language. This kind of residency is about overcoming those barriers.
One audience member used the twitter-kettle as an indicator that the culture wasn't ready for the intervention, but Spike’s Director Helen Legg said this was not true, it is mostly a language difficulty. Spike and its staff are trying to be open about what is not known, and their conversation was so great because it went beyond technology. They often didn't see the technology behind what was being taught. Kevin backed this up, he said he was not asking people to think like computers, just to think about complex systems and how they break things down.
Another attendee pointed out that digital art is not curated well, and that this has always been a problem. But Helen responded that just by using the term digital art you are polarising it. If an idea is rich that is enough, we all work in ephemeral forms like sound. It is about content.
At this point Clare pointed out that this residency was not about putting media art in galleries. This was about organisational communication. And she wanted to know how the residents felt this had gone.
What have the residents learnt from the residency?
Both residents agreed that if they had their time again they would have conducted the workshops with staff earlier in the residency to get more organisational buy in and understanding of what they were there to do.
They were interested in how their residency seemed to place them in a dual role as something of a commissioned artist, producing installations such as the kettle project, sensor driven sound and depth mapping, and more of a consultancy role, catalysing organisational change by encouraging staff to integrate digital tools and systems thinking into their everyday activity. The tension between these dual roles was not fully resolved and there is scope for a lot more work were there more time.
Everyone involved agreed that it had been an interesting and beneficial process and that they would like to continue to work together in some way in the future.
Read more about the residency on their project blog: http://hackinstance.tumblr.com/