Berlin Marathon 2014

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3:28:21

I made peace with the fact I definitely hadn’t done anywhere near enough training to try and run a pb (I’d probably managed 6 weeks, and no more than 3 runs a week at best – i.e. not much/enough). So I just took my time and enjoyed it. For the first time ever I didn’t have any “bad bits” and had a massive grin on my face for most of the course (as opposed the usual grimace).

If you’re thinking about doing a marathon I’d totally recommend Berlin, flat, really well-organised, great crowds. Plus Berlin is a really ace city.

Good fun.

Emptying your brain

When I was supposed to be revising for my a-levels I spent quite a lot of time writing and recording loads and loads of music. I think I convinced myself that it was sort of preparation for doing music tech at uni but…I think it was probably just procrastination and displacement activity on a grand scale.

Ever since then I’ve tended to write and record stuff in bursts, and then do nothing for ages. Inevitably this usually leads to me buying and selling music equipment on a weird, perpetual 2-year cycle that switches between boundless enthusiasm and a combination of regret and ennui. Another problem is that I never really finish anything, which probably hints at some sort of deep-seated personality flaw, but I like to think is more linked to the fact that I enjoy having ideas and fleshing them out a bit more than I do actually completing a song.

Anyway, I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this. I think that it may be as a sort of bookmark so that I can look back and remember that in the summer of 2014 I was really enthusiastic about writing music for the first time in a long time. I think it helps that being in London has meant I’ve reconnected with some of my old, music-making friends, so there is some sort of external motivation to getting things done. I also find the whole thing incredibly relaxing, although it is an amazingly effective way of losing entire evenings or even whole days.

Who knows, maybe I’ll even finish something.

Tour du Mont Blanc

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A couple of weeks ago I went to do the Tour du Mont Blanc which is, as the guidebook says, “one of the most popular long distance walks in Europe. It circles the Mont Blanc Massif covering a distance of roughly 170 km with 10 km of ascent/descent and passes through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France. It is considered one of the classic long distance walking trails“.

It was completely incredible.

I’ve done multi-day bike rides and runs before but this was the first multi-day hike thing that I’d attempted (all the legwork of a run plus all the “carrying everything you need” of a bike ride, double fun).

Observations include: my GCSE French hasn’t lasted 12 years of neglect particularly well; glaciers are fucking amazing; being in the mountains for 10 days is an outstanding antidote to living in London; American teenagers are required to shout at all times; walking from one country into another country via a mountain pass is incredibly satisfying; being in a cloud for 3 days is incredibly unsatisfying; it is possible to eat more cheese than you can imagine (or, I suspect, is medically advisable); walking uphill for hours is pretty great; walking downhill for hours is pretty rubbish; cablecars are a mixed blessing, being at 3,842m makes you go weird.

If you like mountains, and cheese, go do the Tour du Mont Blanc. Loads of info here www.walkingthetmb.com

Stuff that may be helpful to know:

  • We did more-or-less the entire thing (started in Les Houches and finished in Chamonix) in 9.5 days, this felt pretty manageable, I think you could probably do it quicker but the time we took allowed us to take a fairly relaxed pace and not end each day exhausted. As a result I think (speaking for myself at least) that we enjoyed the whole thing, as opposed to when I did the end-to-end ride, where by day 6 I was sick of cycling and everything to do with bicycles because we were cycling 100+ miles and around 10 hours a day (not fun).
  • Walking poles are really useful, I know they’re not particularly widely used in the UK but a decent set of walking poles (mine were less than £50 from Cotwolds) makes things so much easier, especially going downhill (and there’s a lot of going downhill). Plus you get some bizarre tanlines thanks to the straps.
  • The weather can make or break your trip. We were really lucky that we enjoyed a heatwave for the first week, not a single cloud in the sky and temperatures pushing 30 degrees (which did feel a bit too hot at points), however then the clouds descended and we didn’t see anything for 3 days which totally changed our enjoyment of things. The views are really what make this route so if the weather is rubbish I’d recommend holding out for a few days if you can til it clears (although I realise that’s not always possible).
  • You can camp pretty much the whole way round, the only places you definitely can’t camp are in Courmayeur and at La Flegere. In Les Chapieux the camping is free, and it was also free at the Rifugio Elisabetta (although apparently it’s not supposed to be allowed there they let you camp anyway). If there aren’t campsites specified then most of the refuges let you camp in their ‘grounds’.
  • Stocking up on food as you go is pretty affordable. We tried to buy bread/cheese/meat/fruit at the beginning of each day from whatever shops we came across, this meant we saved quite a bit as we didn’t need to pay for lunchtime meals at restaurants etc.
  • Switzerland is expensive. I knew this before we went as I’ve been there a few times over the past couple of years but Switzerland really is really expensive so brace yourself – you’ll be in Switzerland 2-3 days (or more if, like us, you take a ‘rest day’) and everything is probably 20% more expensive there.
  • Water is readily available. Almost every refuge had somewhere you could top up your water and you can also top up in some of the streams and rivers you pass.
  • Being able to speak some French is NECESSARY. I stupidly didn’t really brush up on my French before we went because the person I went with speaks really good French…this wasn’t really fair on them and I did make an effort once we were out there. However I wish I’d done some more preparation. Don’t assume anyone speaks English (in fact I’d go so far as to say most people don’t, or won’t), French is the common language and you do feel like a total idiot if you can’t at least speak the basics (by about day 3 my schoolboy-level French had made a reappearance and was almost adequate).
  • Make sure your phone works abroad. I had enabled roaming but for some reason my phone only worked about 20% of the time. However my friend’s phone worked almost all the way round. I have no idea what the issue was but it’s probably worth checking.
  • I had a 75 litre pack and that comfortably fitted all of the stuff I needed, plus our tent, plus a couple of extra bits if necessary (food, etc).

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Iron bridge, Leeds.

On my last weekend in Leeds I walked from where I lived in Horsforth into the city centre, along the canal. In that 5 (ish) mile walk you get such a good sense of the industrial history of the city. There’s Victorian iron- and stone- work everywhere and in places you can’t imagine things have changed a huge amount in the last 150-years.

Live-streaming

One of the last things I was involved with before I left Opera North was a live-streaming project called Inside Opera: Live (more info about that here http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/may/05/inside-opera-live-stream-youtube), and one of the first things I was asked about when I started at Directors UK was whether or not we should live-stream our AGM/conference. It’d be fair to say that live-streaming is still very much ‘a thing’. But I’m not always entirely sure why it is so widespread (or at least the desire for it seems to be).

Definition

I think typically what people are describing when they talk about a ‘live stream’ is a live video and audio feed of an event, although it is always a bit disappointing when you realise that is the sum of their ambition. I am firmly of the belief that there are loads of different ways you can represent/showcase your event/performance/discussion/whatever in close to real-time in a way that’s meaningful for people who can’t physically be there. Quite often this wouldn’t involve a video OR audio feed, and everyone would be much better off for it.

Expertise

I think the main problem with the rush towards live-streaming every single thing that happens is that to do live-streaming well requires a level of technical and logistical expertise that is not a) widely available or b) cheap. You can, of course, get up and running with a live-stream using nothing more than your phone and a free wi-fi connection (although I personally wouldn’t ever watch something like that) but to do it well requires a not-insignificant amount of equipment and people.

Rationale

You also have to question why people are seemingly so keen to live-stream whatever it might be they’re keen about live-streaming. Is there really an audience out there who can’t get to the event and who want to sit at (most likely) a computer for an hour or more and watch the thing unfold in real time? Really? I mean, really? Have you done that? Do you know anyone who has done that? Would those people be just as happy watching an edited video of the event a few days later? I don’t really have a definitive answer to that and of course it’ll depend on the specifics of what you’re wanting to live-stream but my instinct is that most people probably won’t get much less out of watching the latter.

I am also surprised at how often people live-stream something and then you never see or hear anything from it after the day of the event, I know there are sometimes issues with rights etc but if you’ve gone to the effort and expense of having cameras at the thing do you not want to capture it for posterity? Surely you believe there is some value in what you’re doing or you wouldn’t have live-streamed it in the first place! And more people are likely to watch something that is available for them to watch whenever they want to.

Of course sometimes it is completely valid to want to live-stream something, especially if it is an interactive thing and you are offering some way for those watching the live-stream to engage with the event – even though they’re not physically present. Or if the thing you are live-streaming is something of an ‘event’ and there really is a ‘must-view’ aspect to it that would totally be lost if you don’t watch it unfold in realtime (although, be honest with yourself, how many things really fall into this category?).

Expense

People frequently comment on their surprise when they discover the cost of live-streaming something ‘properly’ (and I’m not even talking about live-broadcast into cinema a la NT:Live or similar which involve OB trucks and all sorts of incredibly expensive gubbins). But once you start to break it down it is, maybe, less surprising. If you were live-streaming, say, a panel discussion you might want to consider: at least a couple of cameras (and probably accompanying camera operators), audio feed (which would at the very least require a decent feed from the venue’s pa), someone to direct the thing and vision mix between the camera feeds, some way for the director to talk to the camera operators so they got the shots they wants, maybe some basic lighting, all of the switchers, cabling and whatnot that’d connect all of this together. In addition you’d want some way of getting your audio and video online and out of the venue, this would ideally require a good internet connection and a decent computer. You’d really like to have someone worrying about the technical side of things too, you might want someone monitoring social media, and suddenly you’ve got a fairly big pile of people and cameras and cables and all you’re really doing is filming in a pretty controlled environment where nothing particularly exciting is really likely to go wrong.

Creativity

I DO think there is something to be said for the view that in creating a live-stream you are creating an entirely new experience. It is fruitless to try and merely think of it as a ‘relay’ or extension of the live experience that you are covering, you are actually reinterpreting that performance/whatever, for a new audience, who are experiencing it in an entirely different way to the audience in the same physical space. You are directing that experience and you could shape something that is wildly different to what physically-present audience experiences. There is clearly a hugely interesting discussion to be had about the potential creative implications of that, although there doesn’t seem to be a massive debate on those terms just yet (or maybe I’m simply unaware of it).

I was thinking the other day and I don’t think I’ve ever really watched a live-stream of anything so I’m probably not the target market which may account for my scepticism. Equally it may come from the fact I’ve seen this sort of thing discussed ad nauseum over the last few years so I am just completely bored of hearing about it. I also have some sense of the time, money and hassle involved in organising a live-stream (it could conceivably be more difficult and expensive to sort out than the event it is covering).

I’d be interested to hear from any live-streaming devotees. I am not one of you.

Living Symphonies

Living SYmphonies

Last Saturday I went to see/hear/whatever a sound/music-installation in forest.

It is all a bit too complicated too explain properly (I can’t do it justice) but essentially a weather station and computer model generate a constantly-evolving musical soundscape that’s comprised of thousands of fragments of music that were composed to represent the flora and fauna in the area of the forest where the installation is…installed. All of this is then played back through a 24-speaker system which has speakers hidden in logs, buried under moss and strung up in trees.

The experience was incredible, beautiful and actually (for once the word isn’t misused) completely immersive. As I walked into the area where the installation was, I was totally enveloped in a wash of strings and percussion, when I say enveloped I mean that the sound seemed to rise from the ground behind me, travel up and over me and disappear off into the distance, like a flock of birds…or something.

The installation is called Living Symphonies, you can find a proper explanation of it here http://www.livingsymphonies.com/about, it’s the result of a collaboration between James Bulley and Daniel Jones and it is – in my opinion – a flawlessly realised concept. I was totally blown away, rarely do installations fully deliver on the promise of their grand ideas, this was totally successful.

The only problem is that it is a little bit difficult to get to, but it is well worth the journey. The installation is currently in Thetford Forest and tours:

  • 24 — 30 May 2014 - HIGH LODGE, THETFORD FOREST Suffolk, IP27 0AF
  • 20 — 26 June 2014 TOP LODGE, FINESHADE WOODS Northamptonshire, NN17 3BB
  • 26 July — 1 August 2014 BIRCHES VALLEY, CANNOCK CHASE FOREST Staffordshire, WS15 2UQ
  • 26 — 31 August 2014 BEDGEBURY NATIONAL PINETUM & FOREST Kent, TN17 2SJ

 

 

 

Oil tankers, learning, issues and NPOs

Big data, performance capture, digital commissions, audience engagement, new platforms, digital marketing. Blah blah blah. These are a few of the many “digital issues” that have presented themselves whilst I’ve been at Opera North.

I’ve already started and given up a few times on trying to write something that summarised what I’ve seen/done/learned over the last 3.5 years or so, here’s another try, I’m not going to go into too much detail because…it’s probably quite boring. So, here are just a few observations/thoughts from my point of view having worked at a National Portfolio Organisation for the last few years.

I am aware that this post strikes a fairly pessimistic note, so, first, here are some positives:

  • the sector is built on, and functions because of, some extraordinarily talented, enthusiastic and hard-working people.
  • the collaborative spirit which enables so much “stuff” to happen within the arts world is just the sort of thing that’s needed to be able to confront and harness digital.
  • there are some people doing genuinely interesting, clever and great things.
  • the evident frustration that appears in this post is because I can see the potential that exists, not being able to see that realised makes me very sad…and annoyed.

1. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is just going to keep getting wider. I first wrote about this quite a while ago (Building Digital Capacity in the Arts), my experience of working directly in the arts sector extends to my time at Opera North and when I first started here I was shocked and worried at the sheer lack of digital skills and knowledge within the company and more widely within the sector as a whole. This lack of understanding and awareness seemed fairly all-pervasive and no-one really seemed to have much of an idea how to address it. The Arts Council certainly didn’t (I’m still not convinced they do, even if they now seem to be acknowledging that it may be a problem) and any of the limited money that was  available was sucked up by the (mostly larger) organisations who had some apparent understanding of the problem, or at least an idea about how they might approach tackling it. I get this, allocating money to things where you’re fairly sure you’ll see success is understanding, but is just (as an unintended side-effect) solidifying the skills/capacity gap that already exists and, in my view, making it even worse. Also the money seems to have gone towards funding, frankly, unimaginative projects and, until recently (admittedly Native is good and getting better) the sharing of any outcomes was…limited to say the least, and in many cases completely non-existent. But more generally there is still a huge issue with fundamentally basic understanding of the opportunities (and threats) that digital offers and how to grasp (or confront) that and there seems to be no real momentum towards addressing that…which I would say is a problem. Referring back to the 2011 post I’ve linked to above I certainly don’t think we’re at a point where “digital capacity” in the sector has been built to a level that could be described as resilient…

2. The arts sector is its own worst enemy. I could ramble on at length here but I think what I’m trying to describe is how the structures and processes that are inherent within the sector, the union agreements that govern ways of working and the historical practises regarding “how things get done” are just too out-of-step with how the world now is. I am fully aware that artists need protection, intellectual property is hugely important and rights exist for a reason. But all of these things need to be addressed in light of how the “landscape” currently is, not how it was 20 or more years ago. I know that the level of change we have witnessed over the last decade has happened at such a pace that means lots of people feel intimidated and scared but hiding behind restrictive and outdated working practises and agreements won’t hold back the tide, it will simply mean that by the point that the impetus for change becomes irresistible many people and professions will find themselves in a position of almost complete irrelevance or that the level of change required will be crippling, far better to be flexible and realistic and roll with the punches than try to out-Canute Canute.

I still really think that this quote is so relevant, and I’m annoyed I didn’t jot down who it was from: “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital” – imagine if the arts sector could try and get ahead of the curve, being brought to the brink of collapse doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable for anyone.

3. Digital strategy isn’t really a thing. I got quite uppity about this a while ago (Digital Strategy, why how…wait, why again?) but I’m still concerned by the number of quite important and seemingly intelligent people I see yammering on about “digital strategy”, my issue is with the way that digital is thought of, and talked about, as a separate thing, a new tool that we need to work out how to hold and to hit stuff with. In my opinion it is more and also completely different to that, it requires new terms of reference, or at least a more sophisticated understanding. My thoughts were articulated far better than I could ever manage in this piece from Paul Boag, Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?. Paul goes further (and writes far more coherently) than I did. Here are a few excerpts from his piece: “when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society” in my post I talked about understanding digital as “a layer”, I didn’t quite get to the level where I was discussing understanding and adapting to the level of impact the digital change has had on the world, although I should have. “I am often surprised at how resistant managers are to adapt their companies’ structure to accommodate the new reality of digital. They persist in trying to squeeze it into their existing mental model by making it an IT problem or a communications tool” - now I’m not sure Paul has any arts clients but this description could easily be applied to the arts sector, maybe it is due to lack of understanding (I think it probably is) but until this is addressed I’m worried that, once again, opportunities will be missed. I think the best excerpt I could grab from Paul is: “The key is to recognize that digital-focused thinking will not be required forever. One day, companies will not need Chief Digital Officers, the way we no longer have Chief Electricity Officers. We also need to recognize that the most important role of a digital team is not to own and implement a digital vision, but to facilitate company-wide change and to educate colleagues about the potential of digital in their areas of responsibility.” In many ways the things I am most proud of having achieved at Opera North are the changes in understanding and approach to digital. I am not claiming that Opera North is a “digital first” organisation, it most definitely isn’t, but the most fundamental changes I’ve overseen have come through intangible things such as a shift in discussions so that digital  is (in some cases) just considered as another channel through which the company performs/communicates/reaches people. It is by no means the same as being in the same room as an audience but that brings both pros and cons, and the fact that people are at least beginning to understand that is going to have the biggest and most long-term impact on the company.

4. Real change is a slow process. This is perhaps stating the obvious but the pace of change in the arts sector seems glacial (and that is putting it mildly), the reality of funding cycles and all that jazz means that the sector moves to certain rhythms and stimuli, none of which are particularly urgent. The last funding cycle was…5 years I think, the next will be…3? The impetus to do anything outside of this natural, externally-imposed timeline seems non-existent. For example it is only now, with the next round of funding applications happening, that ACE is beginning to talk about enshrining some level of commitment to “digital stuff” in its funding criteria. Maybe this viewpoint is skewed by working at a fairly large NPO organisation but at times it feels less like trying to turn an oil tanker and more like trying to turn a fleet of…whatever is bigger and slower than an oil tanker.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at any particularly earth-shattering conclusions, I don’t think I ever expected to. As I say above, change is occurring, it is just a very (very) slow thing, maybe I’m just impatient, and undoubtedly my sight of what might be possible inevitably feeds my frustration and leads me to be a grumpy bastard. Hey ho. Good luck to the arts sector and all who continue to sail in her, I will watch from a not-so-great-distance with interest.

North -> South

THE NORTH

At the end of March I’m moving to London. By the time I move I would have lived in Leeds for the best part of 10 years and I have, unsurprisingly, been feeling a bit sad about leaving the north. So here is a bit of a list of stuff that I’ve liked about/noticed whilst living in Yorkshire.

I was born in London and grew up in towns and villages twenty minutes or so by train from Kings Cross so I am, most definitely, a southerner. I don’t think I had ever really been to The North (as it is referenced on ALL road signs once you leave London), I’d briefly been to Manchester and Nottingham to watch sport, I’d been to Bradford ONCE when my dad worked there for a few months and I’d been to the Lake District a couple of times but I hadn’t really spent any time in any northern cities.

I moved to Leeds in 2004 to go to university and have been here more-or-less ever since.

Leeds has changed so much in the time I’ve lived here. My first year was spent on the south side of the city centre at the – then new – Mill Street halls of residence, near enough to the brewery for everything to constantly smell faintly of a combination of yeast, marmite and stale beer. My flat was on the sixth floor so I had a pretty good view of the, admittedly low-lying and uninteresting, Leeds skyline. The same area now has loads of new hotels, the LCM halls of residence, redeveloped blocks of flats and the brewery itself has been turned into an art gallery.

I don’t think I really explored, or appreciated, the area properly until I had finished uni and moved out of the city to Horsforth (about 5 miles north-west of the city centre). Being slightly out in the suburbs made me realised how brilliantly located Leeds is to be able to easily access the countryside. Within 10 minutes of my front door I could be in the woods and the canal towpath was only a little further away (on which you could walk to Liverpool if you felt like it), the Dales were within half an hour’s drive and it was easy to take in some amazing scenery on a Saturday morning bike ride. It’s also pretty to get north, south and west from Leeds by train.

Someone recently said that Leeds is an ‘easy’ city to live in, I think I’d probably agree with that in so much as it is incredibly compact and pretty well-equipped so that almost everything you need is within easy reach. However it is also a slightly odd, grumpy place that has a fairly sizeable chip on its shoulder when it comes to trying to pull together and get anything done. It is almost like it succeeds (when it does) despite itself. I am also constantly amazed at how, in such a relatively small place (which really does just feel like a big town most of the time) there are so many things going on of which noone really seems to be aware. The left hand rarely seems to know what the right hand is doing, in fact I’m often convinced the left hand has forgotten the right hand ever existed.

However despite that I have loved living here, people get on and get things done, being ‘up yourself’ isn’t tolerated in any way, everyone more-or-less rubs along together without too much fuss and the stereotype of everyone calling each other ‘love’ is completely and gloriously accurate. More recently (over the last 2-3 years) there seems to have been a real explosion of ‘stuff’ in terms of bars, and gigs, and galleries and things opening and happening, I suppose this can only be a good thing. I remember when I was a student the nightlife in the city was fairly rubbish, that could no longer be said to be the case.

It is also nice to be outside the London/South-East bubble just in terms of having a slightly different, more representative perspective of the country you live in.

So, I will miss the people, I will miss the countryside and I will miss being able to get to Edinburgh, Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, York or Liverpool easily by train. I will not miss the terrible and expensive transport within the city itself, the inept urban planning and the constant message that Leeds=shopping.

I also hope that, one day, I will be back.

1-sentence film reviews

A few things I’ve watched recently….(I know I mention central performances a LOT but…there was loads of good acting in there)

12 Years a Slave: an intense, harrowing, powerful and beautiful film that deserves every award it wins but which I found slightly emotionally unengaging at points.

Dallas Buyers Club: Mcconaughey’s weight-loss probably deserves to be mentioned because it is shocking to see, the performances from him and Jared Leto carry the entire film, I really enjoyed it but the historical and political questions which have been raised by some critics are probably valid too.

Inside Llewyn Davis: almost perfectly paced and a great central performance from Oscar Isaac, far fewer obvious ‘ticks’ than the Coen’s sometimes employ, although I found the ending a little frustrating (in a bad/unsatisfying way).

The Wolf of Wall Street: big, brash, way too long, Di Caprio’s performance is great but you could easily lose 90 minutes and the film would work far better, I was also left pretty cold by the story, almost every character in this is a demonstrably awful human being.

The Selfish Giant: a beautiful little British film, the two boys (Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) in the main roles put in incredible performances, the direction from Clio Barnard is outstanding and Mike Eley needs to take credit for how the film looks, the emotional punch doesn’t quite land with as much force as I think it should/could have but that may be more down to me than any failing on the part of the film.