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.

 

Come as you are (Hasta la vista)

On the subject of “wonderfully human films” (see my last post), I watched this last week. The blurb makes it sound fairly trite and terrible:

Come as you Are follows three disabled young men in their early twenties who embark on a journey to Spain, in search of wine and women…

Some of the reviews I’ve since read have given it a bit of a kicking for being overly saccharine but I think it manages to just stay on the right side of the ‘schmaltz’ line, every time it starts to veer off in that direction the script usually lands a fairly sour punch in the ribs to ensure it never becomes cloying. It is really well acted and, as I said above, wonderfully human. Definitely worth a watch.

Volcano (Eldfjall)

Here’s the MUBI blurb: “The coming of age story of a 67 year old man, who has to face the void in his life after he retires.“.

It is one of those films that I (cack-handedly) would described as really ‘still’. There are no explosions of violence or action, yet it is a completely absorbing, quietly heartbreaking, beautifully shot and wonderfully human film with an incredible central performance from Theodór Júlíusson as Hannes.

Learning to be bored

A friend said to me once that there were lots of things that I didn’t enjoy (that he did) simply because I hadn’t yet “learned how to be bored properly”. I think he said as a joke at the time (we were discussing jazz which he loves and I don’t really get) but since then I have often thought about that remark and the more I think about it the more truth it seems to hold.

I think quite a lot of ‘grown up’ or ‘long form’ cultural experiences require a certain amount of tolerance on the part of the audience. A lot of these things were created to be experienced before broadcast media even existed, before attention spans began to tumble in (reported) length and before there was an expectation for immediacy in almost every part of everyday life.

Maybe what I’m trying to describe is some combination of patience and wisdom, the patience to endure the boring bits because you know there will be something brilliant just round the corner. Or perhaps it could be better understood as having a bit more of an idea of the bigger picture, i.e. “I am perfectly happy to experience this quiet/uneventful/non-descript/verbose/unengaging element because I understand how it fits into the wider experience”. Something to do with only properly appreciating the highs if you have some idea of what they’re high in relation to.

Clearly there are lots of other factors to consider such as education and previous experiences so this is a poorly-formed and unfinished thought, but one I wanted to try and articulate. I’m interested if it strikes a chord with anyone else?

Useful/interesting things #3

Interesting:

Photo #2

Flamborough Head

Flamborough Head (dog-walker and lighthouse). Flamborough Head is where you end up if you head east from Leeds and don’t stop until you run out of England. It’s a really weird place, full of old people wandering around aimlessley or sitting in their cars look at the (inevitable) rain, we clambered down the cliffs onto the beach (which is a complete moonscape) but I like this photo, I think it captures some of the drama vs mundanity of the place.

Mapping Leeds

I was reading this article about the 6 Days of Ghent over the weekend and something (other than all the cycling fun) jumped out at me. Namely, this: “The Ghent Free Map, produced by Use-It (use-it.be) and made up of tips by locals“.

Now I have always been of the opinion that you will inevitably end up seeing and doing much more interesting things when you visit places if you either a) just wander around and see what happens or b) tap into some local knowledge. Inevitably the ‘official’ tourist information (and most guidebooks) will push you towards the big, shiny obvious things to do/see which, in my experience, are usually never the best things to do/see. Even more so in my experience of Leeds.

I like the idea behind the “Ghent Free Map“, could something similar be achieved – online initially – for Leeds? The Leeds Free Map?

I do worry that this idea has a little bit of a ‘reinventing the wheel’ feel about it, I’m sure there are endless ‘undiscovered Leeds’ (or equivalent) guides and a crowd-sourced map seems to stray quite far onto territory already covered by Google Maps BUT my (admittedly brief and shallow) research seems to indicate that nothing really quite fits the description, there are numerous blogs which detail the delights of the lesser-known corners of Leeds and then the shopping/arena/sport-focussed (as you’d expect) “official channels” but nothing really seems to draw all of the insights of the former together in one place, in a way that easily shows you where everything is.

Anyway, I’d be interested to try and get a feel for whether this is an idea that’s worth pursuing (it feels like it might be).

Thoughts?

CulturalDigital

http://culturaldigital.com/

A new thing I’ve been involved in setting up, you can read a bit more about it here http://culturaldigital.com/t/welcome-to-culturaldigital/15

This is a place to discover and talk about the areas where digital technology and arts, culture and heritage overlap with each other.

It doesn’t aim to solve all of the problems at a stroke but it is a start, an attempt to provide one place where people can share and discuss with other, interested/relevant people.

Sometimes it’s best to start simple and small and then see what happens, so that’s what we’ve done.