Digital Utopias – imagining Heaven and Hull

Hull doesn’t seem like the obvious place for a conference on digital arts – but it’s two years away from being the UK’s Capital of Culture, there’s a new digital media centre being established on an old quay, and a healthy and growing buzz about the place. I may not have been there before, but I left confident that I’ll be going back soon.


Organised by Arts Council England (ACE), with some help from Google, Digital Utopias was how the Conference was billed – although as Dave Windass put it, the problem with talking about the future is that we always seem to end up conversing about the present. And, though there was a fairly predictable inability to imagine how the digital arts scene might develop over coming years, there was a very strong commitment to looking forward and a notable positivity and generosity of spirit.

The Conference was kicked-off by Martin Green CEO of the Year of Culture team, and hot from his success as Head of Events for 2012. Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England, and James Davis from the Google Culture Institute gave their blessings, and ACE Creative Media lead, Lucy Sollitt, prepared us for the challenges and creativity to come.

Lucy highlighted some key themes which had emerged through discussions of the Conference planning group, and which she expected to be developed through the day: the emergence of a new creative space at the intersection of arts and digital, physical and virtual; and the ability, through digital distribution and creation, to massively expand and enhance cultural experience.

The first of these themes was picked up in the second workshop session, which was one of the most interesting and memorable sessions. Three speakers, all of whom positioned their work within a binary context: Lyn Scarf from the Science Gallery in Dublin posed the challenge and excitement of the collision of art and science; Memo Atken – while mesmerising us with snippets from his work – talked about how working at the interface of the subsidised and commercial sector affected his creative practice, as well as his business model; while Tatiana Bazzichelli was more assertive about the role of art as a form of ‘opposition’ in a tech-driven world.

The session highlighted the apparent binary divide between ‘art’ and ‘science’, between the world of ‘subsidised’ grants and funding, and commercial development. But it also hinted at a new way of working – of artists and practitioners moving away from old ‘silos’ and opening up new spaces for collaboration.

Memo Atken Forms:

Earlier in the day, we heard from Jon Thomson of Thomson and Craighead about the way in which digital can help the artist to take on big challenges such as as  ‘war’ and ‘belief’ – the human relationship with the world. Morgan Quintain bemoaned the concept of PostInternet art, and the notion that the physical/digital are one space – a continuum. His well-articulated thesis was that this was ultimately reductive and introspective, and he argued instead for the need to build a digital arts practice which used the digital as an entirely legitimate space to address metaphysical issues.

As all of this might suggest, the conference provided an extraordinary interaction of thinking and ideas – interspersed by brief presentations and illustrations of the rich body of work being developed by artists around the country.

It’s also worth noting the diversity of the group – in the audience and on the stage. End-to-end there was a striking mix of gender and ethnicity, which is sadly lacking in most events in the digital sphere. Although the dialogue was often over-theoretical, with a notable emphasis on arts practice rather than digital technology (although that’s a distinction which many of the participants would not have recognised), the conversations were animated, and there was a strong emphasis on practical work. In particular, a key theme evident throughout the day was the importance of the viewer or ‘user’, and the way in which digital arts practice was creating new experiences and a new space for human interaction. Ruth Catlow, from the Furtherfield gallery and workspace in London, captured this particularly well – highlighting the role of digital arts in stimulating a new curiosity in the ‘user’. It is this arts-led interaction between the user and technology which provides the space for innovation.

The debate no doubt carried on into the evening, but I had to hot-foot it back to London, leaving behind a group of people developing and sharing a fantastic range of ideas and experience. The most striking feature of the day for me was the generosity of exchange and debate – a genuine openness to new ideas and new thinking. And it’s clear that, however defined, there is a strong and confident body of work being pursued by artists and other practitioners operating in that space between ‘arts’ and ‘technology’.



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