Hanging out at Derek Jarman’s and the nuclear power station

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Yesterday I fulfilled a long-held ambition to go and check out the weirdness that is Dungeness - 2 lighthouses, Derek Jarman’s house, a nuclear power station and one of the strangest landscapes I’ve ever seen in this country.

I reckon by bike is pretty much the perfect way to do this, especially if you’re blessed with good weather like we were. The route is below

Twitter, not all bad

Sometimes Twitter showcases the very worst of humanity, however sometimes it also gives you an insight into how lovely most people are. That happened twice for me this week, the first was the discovery of @BrianPiltonthe Twitter account of a 75-year old grandfather living in Exeter. My cynical side hopes this isn’t a parody account, my nice side is glad to read about Brian’s life because he sounds like a lovely man and I love that he is apparently really getting something positive from being on Twitter, the internet at its best can eradicate physical constraints and open you up to a whole world of new people, ideas and whatnot and it seems that’s what Twitter is doing for Brian, as this tweet says:

The second time Twitter was good this week was after this fairly upsetting screengrab of some people being twats was shared, a load of (better) people decided to try and find the bloke in the photo and tell him that he is great, people are great, dancing is great and they want to invite him to a big dance party.

AND THEY DID: @Dancingmanfound

So, there you go; Twitter, not all bad

Writing thus doing

If I write these things down then there is a slightly increased chance they’ll actually happen, they’re less resolutions than vague aspirations for the year ahead:

  • Read a book a week
  • Get better (actually competent) at German
  • Take more photos
  • Do at least 1 marathon
  • Do at least 1 decent (3+ day) bike ride
  • Go up some mountains
  • Go bouldering outdoors

There, fascinating as ever I’m sure you’ll all agree.

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.

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?

‘Digital’ in the arts

So, returning to an old subject, about which I’ve got very annoyed in the past.

Last week Arts Council England (ACE) published the second version of their 10-year strategic framework for 2010-2020 (you can read the whole thing here). Now they mention ‘digital stuff’ quite a lot (the always excellent Chris Unitt has done a good job of breaking this all down here). I use this by way of an introduction, not to explore the specifics of the ACE framework (Chris U does a much better job on that front than I could anyway – see previous link), but more to draw attention to the fact that, yet again, ‘digital’ is being put front and centre. My point of desperation and frustration comes from the fact that despite positive noises that have been fairly consistent (certainly in the 3 or so years I’ve been at Opera North and anecdotally for longer than that), there is very very little by way of actual, tangible signs that anyone in the arts sector really ‘gets’ digital in any meaningful way. By that I mean there still seems to be no understanding of, or desire to confront the reality that digital/technological development has brought about. I can sort of understand why this happens, arts organisations find themselves confronted with an uncomfortable reality, audiences are down, funding is reduced (and from certain sources, gone altogether), they’re expected to do more with less, people are accessing and experiencing the world in a ways that – for the most part – arts organisations are completely clueless how to engage with. I get that, it’s scary, it’s difficult, there isn’t really an obvious answer to whether or not it’ll pay for itself, ever, it’s easier to just do what they’ve always done, change just enough to tick a box on a funding form and hope that the situation will improve one day. Unfortunately I can see absolutely no way that that is going to happen.

I was following the tweets from a conference the other day (I forget which one, there are so many, how do people find the time?), and one of the speakers was quoted as saying “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital“. That feels like the situation we’re currently in in the arts sector. Everyone sort of grudgingly accepts that ‘digital’ is something you need to at least pretend to be doing but the situation hasn’t quite reached the point where reality has caught up, we can still kid ourselves that having a website and ‘doing Twitter and Facebook’ is enough.

And this situation, in my view, fundamentally undermines all the worthy words that ACE come out with. The reality, at the moment, is that arts organisations can basically do the bare minimum in relation to digital/online and, at the moment, there are no consequences. The depressing thing is that this is simply storing up a whole world of woe for the medium term. The lack of ‘digital capacity’ in the arts sector is something I’ve bemoaned previously, the lack of impetus, the lack of ambition and the lack of understanding is exacerbating this situation horribly and nowhere, do I think, is this more painfully obvious than with the websites of most arts organisations.

What should the website of an arts organisation do? What should it look like? What function should it serve. I’d say that 90% of the sector couldn’t really answer these questions with any degree of confidence. Maybe they’ve never asked them, maybe there are too many conflicting agenda within the organisation for them to be able to have a clarity of purpose. But worryingly this seems to result in a lot of websites that seem to serve the purpose of being an online brochure. I’d argue that this does noone any favours, not only does it reduce the websites of arts organisation to the level of blandly ‘selling some products’ and presenting a load of tedious information that serves no purpose than to be some sort of odd, permanent funding application, but the lack of ambition that these sort of websites represent point to the fact that, for many organisations, digital is still something that ‘sits with marketing’. There is no desire for – say – the programming or education teams to embrace the possibilities of digital and use that to represent their activities online in any meaningful way.

Some examples: this is the website for the National Portrait Gallery http://www.npg.org.uk/. Boring, huh. Unengaging, flat, unexciting. Here is how they’re displaying some portraits from the Tudor period: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/explore/by-period/tudor.php (crikey that’s dull…so, so, so dull). Now, this is the website for the Google Art Project: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project. How is that a technology company can so comprehensively understand how to present artwork and a NATIONAL GALLERY can so comprehensively fail to? It’s so depressing. The NPG’s Tudor collection is presented like some sort of never-ending brochure of tedium. Google makes the art feel vivid and visceral and present (Google also provides far more information about each artwork but that’s by the by). NOW THEN, I’m probably being slightly unfair (in fact I almost certainly am), Google is a multi-billion dollar, global company who can afford to fritter away millions on ‘hobby projects’ like the cultural institute, the NPG is a gallery that receives almost 50% of its funding from government and a large proportion of the rest from donations. But to provide a bit of balance, here’s a website of an organisation (in a similar field) that I think really do seem to ‘get it’: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ - exciting, dynamic, engaging. Everything that the NPG isn’t. Add in the fact that the basic, underlying design architecture of the NPG’s website is hopelessly outdated (try using it on a mobile…or any screen that isn’t 800×600) and I think it provides a fairly good example of the worrying situation I think we’re in. This is a bloody national gallery. A national gallery should surely be setting the tone for the rest of the galleries in the nation? Or at least be subjectively ‘good’. This, quite simply, doesn’t, and isn’t.

Think this is unique to galleries? Nope. Soz.

The National Theatre is widely acclaimed for their NT Live stuff, broadcasting (live) from the NT itself into cinemas around the world. This seems to be celebrated as a great example of ‘digital’ – I’d argue that it isn’t really, it’s just sort of doing broadcast in a slightly different way, this essentially could have been done in exactly the same way 30 years ago. Again, have you seen their website? http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ - I mean it’s not terrible but it’s hardly interesting, or exciting, or engaging, or representative of theatre in any real way. Now I suspect they are in a slightly less bad situation compared to other organisations in that a) they’ve got fucking loads of money, b) they’ve got blimmin’ loads of content and c) I’m sure someone, somewhere is working on a new site for them so my opinion will shortly be out of date. But once again this, to me, feels, at best, like a catastrophic missed opportunity and at worse a clear sign that they don’t get digital at all. I don’t know the people at the NT, so I couldn’t say which of these views is more accurate. But surely as the NATIONAL Theatre, as well as championing new writing (which I’m told they do quite well), they should also be championing and exploring what theatre is, or could be, in the 21st century and the future. At the moment they really, really aren’t. And don’t tell me NT Live is them doing that because, it isn’t. Spending £150k a go to shoot and stream a play from a theatre into cinema isn’t innovative or exploratory, it’s a great exploitation of proven distribution techniques and a proven brand being used in a slightly new way and it is very successful on those (and commercial/profile) terms, but an example of theatre in a digital world? No. Someone who had never been to the NT, who knew nothing about what it was, would not get an accurate or interesting impression from visiting that website. Equally it’s not particularly great at selling you a ticket (but I’ve rarely found a theatre that does this well) which, I assume, is probably its primary purpose at the moment.

I know these are just two examples, and some would say the NT are doing just fine, ACE certainly seem to subscribe to this view seemingly ignoring the fairly substantial financial barriers to entry for this particular model of ‘doing digital’ (I don’t know about the NPG – I think they were advertising for a Director of Digital recently so maybe they’ll have their revolution soon), however these are two ‘national’ organisations, based in London, they are well-funded, they are in the capital surrounded by incredible digital talent and if THEY aren’t doing stuff that’s great then god help the rest of us.

I know it’s not easy to get websites built for arts organisations (I’ve been there, I’ve done it), a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the potential results in the organisational website being treated like a glorified brochure, the number of agendas which are suddenly ‘all equally important’ means that design by committee is, at present, an unfortunate reality in most situations. However I’d argue that arts organisations need a watershed, and soon, they need to grasp the nettle, and start getting their heads around what they can do with digital. Why is it that websites for theatres, galleries, dance companies, west end musicals and opera companies all, for the most part, look exactly the same (and uninspiringly so) when what these companies do is so different?

We need to move to a point where the websites of arts organisations are as exciting, inspirational and engaging as what the organisations do. Now don’t get me wrong, by that I do not mean that websites should be flashy and difficult to use and clever for the sake of it. They just need to be better and they need to be representative, this is the arts sector, not a bloody wallpaper shop. (wikipedia to the rescue here) ” Goethe defined art as an other resp. a second nature, according to his ideal of a style founded on the basic fundaments of insight and on the innermost character of things. Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator.” Do the websites of arts organisations, as they currently exist, even come close to achieving any of these things? Websites aren’t just catalogues, they can be, and should be, so much more than that. And the fact that they aren’t is deeply worrying.

To round this all off I want to credit a few places that I think are doing good things (although these are by no means flawless examples I think they’re worth a look). I’ve already mentioned the Rijksmuseum above but they deserve mentioning twice, not only do they look like they get it: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ but they act like they get it too https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio-award. The Southbank Centre’s new site is a million times better than their old one, it actually looks vibrant and exciting and diverse (which, I think, is what they want) http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ - not only does it give a sense of the place but the design would also seem to provide a fairly flexible platform for ‘messing about’ in the future. Important. Another decent effort is from National Theatre Wales (who genuinely are exploring what theatre might look like and be) http://nationaltheatrewales.org/.

Please feel more than free to disagree with me, or to point out other people who are doing ‘good stuff’ (they should be commended) via the comments below or on Twitter, I’m @biglittlethings.

p.s. I do worry sometimes that maybe I just misunderstand the entire situation and I should be more forgiving and patient and there are in fact lots and lots of completely great things happening that I’m simply unaware of. However the more I look, and the more I ask, the less convinced I am this is the case. I am aware there are some people doing good stuff, but I’d say they are very very much in the minority. Equally I am aware (as people have been quick to point out in the past) that this malaise is not unique to the arts sector, I know, but I work in the arts sector, I care about the arts sector and this post is about the arts sector.

Related:

Responses:

This seemed to strike a little bit of a nerve on Twitter n tha’, a few responses below…

Valid point about design vs function from @ammeveleigh

@etiennelefleur indicated that he thought my focus was too firmly on websites and digital at the expense of organisations’ core mission/purpose (which I disagreed with but it was an interesting discussion)

and then the always-excellent Chris Unitt wrote this very good response (far better researched and referenced than my original blog! I’ll write something properly considered in response to a couple of his points)

Some people definitely thought I’d over-exaggerated the importance of digital, although I’d argue this viewpoint is part of the problem that could land us all, as a sector, in trouble quite soon. And I am never arguing that digital is more important than ‘core’ activity, core activity/purpose/mission/whatever is the starting point for absolutely everything.

But it was also good to see that people seemed to agree (and yes this is bordering on the self-congratulatory but I don’t care)

Digital strategy: why, how…wait…why again?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months pondering questions of strategy, partly because I’m a deeply boring person and partly because it’s sort of my job.

I was half following the discussions at today’s Leeds Digital Lunch which was attempting to define (or at least explore) the question of a city-wide digital strategy for Leeds, now I was only following things at a distance, via Twitter, so there is no question that any sort of nuance was completely lost on me but it did make me even more sure of a few things that’ve been on my mind of late.

Every now and again I’m asked to help define a digital strategy, whether that’s at work or inputting into things other people are doing elsewhere.

Let me say this now, and loudly (imagine all this is written in caps): a digital strategy, on its own, is a pointless thing. Completely pointless. You may as well have a ‘chairs strategy’ or a ‘conversation strategy’ or an ‘indoors strategy’. Saying you have a digital strategy, or you need a digital strategy doesn’t really mean anything. I understand why these conversations happen, digital (especially in the arts sector) has come to be an awful, nebulous, catch-all term for…well, sometimes it seems to cover anything that involves electricity, or technology – i.e. it is so broad and indistinct as to be almost completely meaningless.

Someone said recently (and I forget who so, sorry): “it’s a layer.” Now, the fact that they didn’t really define what ‘it’ was seems to back up my earlier point, but this definition seems to get closest to what I think people are describing when they talk about ‘digital’. And this brings me to my second point of frustration about the drive towards a digital strategy, it isn’t really a thing, digital (or at least what I think people mean when they say ‘digital’) is reaching a point of all-pervasiveness which means it enables, represents or engages with almost every single thing we do. In and of itself it isn’t really anything, social media is just conversations and other socially interactive behaviour but carried out and represented via the internet and web-enabled technology. Take it out of that context and into the real world and it’s just…talking and that. The same could be said of many, many ‘digital’ activities and functions – ‘digital’ (and yes I’m keeping the apostrophes every time I write it) is something that bleeds into everything your organisation does, and if it doesn’t at the moment it will do in the not too distant future. The advance of digital, technological development and all that jazz has fundamentally altered (or some might say irrevocably damaged) industry after industry, and it’s not going to stop.

Your digital strategy, if we’re still admitting that it might be a thing that exists, should be something that exists in terms of how you’re going to think about every other element of what you do. It is something that enables other activity. It is, in my view, probably more influential over tactical activity than your strategy itself.

“We aim to reach new audiences” – strategic aim. How you achieve that can be done in any number of non-digital ways, however digital can also play a part in helping you meet this aim in conjunction with the non-digital, revelation time – you do not need a digital strategy to accomplish this.

Saying “we aim to reach new audiences online by filming our work and putting it on youtube” is NOT A STRATEGY, that is a description of tactical activity.

All too often I see and hear people describing a succession of activities that don’t really have anything at all to do with anything and trying to call that a digital strategy. Being more active on social media, improving your website, creating more content, making better use of your data – not a digital strategy. Just ‘doing more stuff online’ isn’t strategic if you don’t have any clear idea about WHY you are doing it.

The sooner we stop thinking of ‘digital’ as this thing we can put a ring around the better, the relentless speed at which technology develops (and behaviours and attitudes along with it) means that the moment you start trying to define it you’re already out-of-date and becoming less relevant with each passing moment. People get far too hung up with specific technology, or platforms. We should be able to step back and look at what we are are trying to achieve and assess the tools available to help us do that. Now many of these tools are likely to be technological (or ‘digital’) in nature, however we don’t need a separate strategy to tell us that. I really feel that a sensible organisation would have, by now, realised that the ‘digital strategy’ debate is a distraction, it should simply be part of everything we do, because it probably already is.

So there we have it, my two problems: 1) I think a lot of people misunderstand what strategy actually is and 2) a digital strategy makes no sense, “it’s a layer”.

Discuss!