It’s been a really tough year, but what’s next for media art UK?

On the Saturday of FutureEverything 11, I tripped over an interesting discussion organised by CODA, about the state of media art UK. As well as talking about the impact of recent funding cuts and the concerning number of media art organisations that had lost out, the group also talked proactively about how people and organisations active in the UK media art movement might work better together in the future, to improve the visibilty and understanding of media arts practice in the UK, and create a stronger voice for media art, particularly amongst policy makers and funders.

About the UK media art ecology

The UK media art ecology is fascinating and made up of many elements. It includes policy makers who provide funding and guidelines that help to shape the ecology at a strategic level, commissioning agencies who fund creative activity, arts and digital practitioners who make stuff, museums, galleries and other kinds of agencies (public and private) who show stuff, audiences who go and see stuff, academics, historians, journalists and critics who talk about work and broader trends, and education institutions who invest in the development of future practitioners, curators, creative producers, funders, critics and policy makers.

Image from Furtherfield's Rich Networking event

Image from Furtherfield's Rich Networking event

A strong and vibrant creative ecology needs a good mix of all of these elements in order to thrive, it also needs these elements to work well together. Sadly, one of the biggest challenges facing media art UK is that the balance of these elements is quite skewed, particularly in terms of commissioning new work, and this has only become more acute as a result of recent funding cuts. Another challenge facing the UK media arts movement is that it’s fragmented, and it has been for quite some time. I’ll come back to this a little bit later.

Drawing by the Aaron programme, developed by Harold Cohen (1970s-80s)

Drawing by the Aaron programme, developed by Harold Cohen (1970s-80s)

In terms of funding then, here’s an extract from a letter written by the Council of Digital Arts to Arts Council England providing a critical insight into the impact that recent cuts have had on the UK media art ecology. It specifically highlights organisations that were previously Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs), that have now lost their RFO status, creating a concerning gap in the provision of support for artist led media art organisations in the UK.

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We seek to draw attention to the gap in digital provision that the transition from Arts Council England’s Regularly Funded Organisations (RFO) programme to the National Portfolio of Organisations (NPO) has brought about…We are united in our shock at the loss of funding to so many organisations with long track records of fostering digitally engaged artistic practices, provision and support. These organisations, particularly those completely cut, including Access Space, ArtSway, DanceDigital, Folly, Four Corners Film, Isis Arts, Lovebytes, Lumen, Media Art Bath, Moti Roti, Mute, Onedotzero, Performing Arts Labs, Picture This, Proboscis, PVA MediaLab, The Culture Company and Vivid (as well as many others who received drastically reduced funding or were not included in the new portfolio) speak to a critical, self-reflexive approach to digital media technologies, which has been instrumental to their vitality and overall development. Whilst there will continue to be many organisations across art-forms experimenting successfully within the digital landscape, we wish to sound a note of deep concern around this disinvestment, which impacts us all. You can read the letter in full here.
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From my point of view, there really is a cause for concern when such a proportionately large number of RFOs within the media art sector are no longer in a position to continue their work – commissioning and stimulating interest and understanding in UK media art. It’s fair to say however, that even in relatively good times, agencies funded by Arts Council England haven’t always been required to to stimulate the media art ecology in terms of commissioning new work – and if we’re not making stuff, there isn’t much to shout about. Drew Hemment, Director of FutureEverything, pointed out that the Art strand of the FutureEverything festival rarely commissions new work, because the funds simply aren’t available. As a result, the work curated at FutureEverything is generally sourced from work that already exists in the world – so there’s nothing ‘new’ there. And FutureEverything is not alone.

Beacon by Thomson & Craighead (2009)

Beacon by Thomson & Craighead (2009)

In the context of what must be accepted as necessary arts funding cuts, another question worth asking is, why were these Regularly Funded Organisations deemed to be dispensable by Arts Council England, and how was the decision made? Was it because they weren’t delivering on what they’d set out to do? Or was it because Arts Council England lacked an understanding of their work and their contribution to the UK cultural landscape?

Well, the feeling of the group that met at FutureEverything this year veered towards the second view. It appears that many small media arts organisations, including MUTE magazine for instance, experienced what they describe as a crude decision making process in the evaluation of their work and its contribution to the sector. Other comments indicated that in some instances, the individuals sent by Arts Council England to evaluate the work of media art organisations had very little understanding of this area of creative practice, leading to uninformed decision making. Assuming this is true, this is a real problem, and one that Arts Council England needs to address.

Our weaknesses

As I mentioned earlier, another challenge facing the UK media art ecology is that it’s fragmented, and it has been for some time. The reasons for this are both historical and complex.

Media arts practice itself is a very broad church of creative practice and production, spanning the visual arts, net art, animation, performance and theatre, kinetic art, site-specific work, music, sound and sonic art, games…and the list goes on. One of the effects of embracing such a variety of creative practices, content and forms is that the people working within the media art space don’t necessarily recognise themselves as connected in any way, and rarely plug into each others networks. They often hold different creative interests, they work in wildly different ways and explore distinct areas of media form, process and subject. Many even find the term ‘media art,’ unhelpful and old fashioned.

'Neurotic: Punks NOT Dead' by Fiddian Warman (2008)

'Neurotic: Punks NOT Dead' by Fiddian Warman (2008)

In our discussion at FutureEverything, Pauline van Mourik Broeckmann mentioned that alongside this fragmentation, another weakness of the all embracing nature of UK media art is that it doesn’t sit neatly within a clear art category, so it is particularly vulnerable when it comes to funding.’No, we don’t do a grant for media art here…it needs to be visual art, music or theatre.’

Another factor that contributes to the fragmented state of media art in the UK is the tension at play between the worlds of creative media production and media art practice – particularly around questions of what media art is, who makes it and where we might find it. At this year’s FutureEverything festival for example, the people that shared ‘stuff’ with us included media artists, interactive designers, digital producers, game designers, journalists, academics and hackers. In this context, and depending on your point of view, today’s art can be found in many places, including games design, animation, collaborative design projects, the code and visualisations of socially engaged hackers, cross over projects that link physical and digital space, DIY ‘maker’ projects, the sounds of electronic compositions and location based experiences facilitated by apps on smart phones.

'Bus-Tops' by the Bus-Tops Team (2010-12)

'Bus-Tops' by the Bus-Tops Team (2010-12)

As a result of these combined realities, people and organisations active in the media art space often find it very difficult to speak clearly, with one voice. A good and recent example of this is when Ekow Eschun closed down the Live and New Media Art department at the ICA in 2008. One thing that really struck me about the response from the ‘media art’ sector at the time, was that its voice was so much quieter and more dispersed than the voice of the ‘live art,’ sector, which was strong, clear and strategic.

When I reflected upon this issue on my blog InterventTech at the time, I made the following notes:

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‘Live Arts,’ has the Live Art Development Agency to help drive and rally support on it’s behalf. Lois Kaiden is a well respected and active voice in the broader arts world and has established the platform and experience to organise a level of ‘on message,’ communication when things like this occur. As an art form, ‘Live Art,’ is also reasonably clear in definition. Audiences and funders broadly know what it is, and what it involves as a form of contemporary art practice.

Unlike Live Art, Media Art doesn’t have an official lobby group or development agency to represent it in the UK. Communities of artists, festivals and cooperatives like Node.L, Futuresonic, LoveBytes, DorkBot London and London Games Fringe are often too temporary, regional and/or rely on individuals giving their time and skills to make things happen. Not particularly conducive for establishing a consistent, strategic and public voice.

On top of this (and outside of the world of ‘JISC lists’), there isn’t really a UK agency committed to sharing the news and whereabouts of media art to other interested artists or audiences. There is no ‘one stop shop’ to find out about what is going on and where in the UK and where the new opportunities are. Well known online zines like Boing Boing, Rhizome, Make, Eyebeam and WeMakeMoneyNotArt that do shout about media art, tend to focus their profiling on work emerging out of the US and Asia. Passing the UK by.

Not only is it difficult for the media art community to act collectively with any level of public visibility, focus and strategy, it’s also just tough to get heard at all.

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I personally feel that this challenge is still very much present in the UK media art sector, however, and as a result of recent funding cuts, it is becoming increasingly necessary for the media arts community to fix the problem, and make their voice heard.

Media art and digital innovation

The next big thing that offers some hope to the UK media art community is the launch of two large initiatives by Arts Council England, Building digital capacity for the arts in collaboration with the BBC and Digital Research & Innovation, in collaboration with NESTA.

Emotion map by Christian Nold (2007)

Emotion map by Christian Nold (2007)

The aim of both of these programmes is to help arts and cultural organisations in the UK to use digital technologies to rethink the way that they distribute work, engage with audiences, work collaboratively and make money – something that Arts Council England refers to as ‘digital innovation’. Some of the key areas mentioned include helping arts organisations to reach out to wider audiences online, gain a better understanding of rights and the value of their archive content, look at the new opportunities digital technologies offer to develop new revenue streams based on new business models, and find new ways for arts organisations to collaborate and work in partnership – to make the most their individual strengths and not spread themselves too thinly.

This all sound good, and from my point of view is definitely the kind of thing that Arts Council England should be enabling, however there is one key element missing. There is no mention of supporting the production of actual art.

Stockport emotion map by Christian Nold (2007)

Stockport emotion map by Christian Nold (2007)

Drew Hemment, Director of FutureEverything, re-emphasised the need to distinguish between ‘digital innovation’ and ‘digital and media art’ in the context of these discussions. In his mind the distinction is clear, digital innovation is about the development of new digital tools and services that make life easier and better, whether its through improving access to the arts for different audiences or helping organisations to work together more effectively for instance. Media art on the other hand, is about the process of artists pursuing critical and philosophical inquiries within the context of today’s media landscape, in order to make work for people to see and experience. The later requires space, and an allowance for artists and other creative technologists to take risks and experiment in the development of their ideas and production of new work. Simon Poulter echoed Drew’s point when he described an overwhelming consensus amongst creative practitioners and artists in the UK who feel that criticality and creativity should be a central element of Arts Council England initiatives in the future, including and beyond digital innovation initiatives.

Loca visualisation at RCA London, by Drew Hemment (2004-06)

Loca visualisation at RCA London, by Drew Hemment (2004-06)

The point is, if Arts Council England isn’t supporting criticality in art and arts practice then who is? For me, one of the most important aspects of Arts Council England’s role is their responsibility to support art that would not, or could not otherwise be made. It’s also about nurturing art that is relevant to today’s audiences and art that asks questions about the world. They also have a responsibility to develop a cultural ecology that enables ‘great art’ to thrive, whatever the art form. And some art forms need more help than others.

What is our role?

In the context of recent funding cuts and the launch of new initiatives like Building digital capacity for the arts and Digital Research & Innovation, what then is the role of today’s media artists? And how are they expected to contribute?

Recalling a discussion that I was involved in last year, where we explored these very questions, Karen Guthrie, who has worked as an artist within and around the UK ‘media art’ scene since the mid 90’s (and runs Somewhere with Nina Pope), described that in her view, the role of media artists (like any other artist), is to find the cracks in our world, to highlight the spaces and things that nobody else is noticing, and in doing so, discover and create new things and sometimes instigate change. In this same discussion, Adam Sutherland, Director of Grizedale Arts, described the artists’ role as someone who uses their chosen art form to articulate their ideas and respond to the questions posed by the complexities of contemporary society. In doing so, artists help rest of us to see and understand the world in which we live in new ways. I agree with both of these statements but would add that I also feel that the role of artists is to push boundaries, to try out new things, to think the unthinkable and sometimes make trouble. It’s this kind of stuff that inspires others and opens our minds to new ways of thinking and doing things.
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Seen by David Rokeby (2002)

Seen by David Rokeby (2002)

The concerns that many practicing artists have with the new initiatives launched by Arts Council England, in collaboration with the BBC and NESTA, is that neither prgramme directly supports ‘art making’, nor do they offer the space for artists to take the lead in this way. As a result, the UK media art community is now starting to group together to make its argument for broadening the remit of these initiatives to include the support of critical media art work.

In order to win this argument, it is acknowledged that the media art community must show off  its relevance and broader contribution to the fabric of UK culture more effectively. It must also show the value of its work in terms of real-world impact.

New opportunities

It’s pretty well documented that when times are hard, people are more likely to club together and work creatively with fewer resources to achieve their goals. Although it’s been a tough year for media art UK, these austere times do offer a real opportunity for the UK media art community to strengthen its bonds, support each other more and work more effectively together, particularly in terms of promoting the common cause of ‘making great art’ and getting their voice heard.

Senster drawing by Edward Ihnatowicz (1969-1970)

Senster drawing by Edward Ihnatowicz (1969-1970)

The good news is, there are a few things that are already happening to help further broader understanding and recognition of UK media art, which are being driven by the community itself. The first is the creation of discussion and lobby groups like ACEDigitalUncut and the Council of Digital Arts, a really good sign. The second is the moves being made to showcase the contribution that UK media arts have made throughout the past and in the present.

Senster by Edward Ihnatowicz (1969-1970)

Senster by Edward Ihnatowicz (1969-1970)

The upcoming Media Art History Rewire conference at FACT in September is a significant step in the promotion of UK media art practice as a long-term driving force of innovation and culture. A smaller, but no less significant step can be found in the intention of a group of contemporary UK media artists to take more responsibility for documenting their own contributions to culture and innovation too. From what I hear, there is a proposal to collaborate on the production of a living history or timeline of UK media art (1990-present), in order to showcase the contributions and impact that working artists have made, to date. This kind of development is particularly important in light of the publication of two really quite fantastic books that document the contributions of UK media artists between the 1950s-1980s. If you haven’t already, I would urge you to read them. They are Computer in the Art Room by Catherine Mason and White Heat, Cold Logic, edited by Paul Brown, Charlie Gere, Nicholas Lambert and Catherine Mason.

Parameter IV by Roy Ascott (1967)

Parameter IV by Roy Ascott (1967)

With the launch of these new digital innovation initiatives, there is also an opportunity for media artists to get involved in the co-production of digital services and tools that could make their lives easier and better. How might we create digital tools and services that help us find each other and work together more effectively? How can we make funding decisions by Arts Council England more transparent and model their impact, in order to inform future decision making? How might digital technologies help us to make a little more money from the work we make? How can we reach more people with our work, and get wider audiences on our side?  There is definitely a growing audience for UK media art, you just have to look at the crowds that turn out for Decode, One Dot Zero and FutureEverything each year, to know that it’s there.

If you made it this far down, thank you very much for reading this post. I don’t really have much of a conclusion, other than to say, there’s a lot to do, so we’d better get a shift on…

– claire_w – (follow me on twitter)

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  1. […] Blog post by Claire Welsby on the Council Of Digital Arts media art ecology discussion via @FuturEverything & @claire_w Arts Council NPO Funding region by region statistics on the participatory arts via @mailout […]



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