Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Brief thoughts on Remix Summit London day 1

Remix Summit is a global network of conferences that bring together culture, technology and entrepreneurship for an intensive set of discussions and presentations on some of the cutting edge work happening in these areas. I attended day one of the two day event, hosted at Google Town Hall in the heart of London's West End, which featured presentations by the likes of Tate, Secret Cinema, the Mayor of London's cultural office, and Manchester International Festival. Some were excellent, and there were interesting conversations around them. But overall the day proved frustrating for a number of reasons. Here are a few quick thoughts and some challenges for Day 2 tomorrow.

1. On whose terms? I probably should have realised that a conference backed by technology and media partners Google and Bloomburg would be technology centred. Nothing wrong with that: I'm writing this on my Galaxy Note 3 while listening to music on the same device, and have been tweeting throughout the day. I like technology. But the traditional arts world felt sidelined. Almost everything that was discussed was through a commercial or tech prism, focusing on how technology built communities and reached wide audiences. It sometimes seemed that technology was being seen as the savior of art. That without it, art stayed behind locked doors in austere buildings. As though standing in a gallery or on a street corner admiring a painting, sitting forward in the midst of a play, reading a book, singing along to an album, or feeling that yearn to move in the midst of dance were not enough if they weren't somehow augmented by a screen.

Clearly this is problematic. Despite a day filled with words, it is the experience of reading Liz Berry's Black Country on the underground this morning that will stay with me. There has to be a place for quiet, calm reflection, or loud furious reflection in this world and the arts provide this. We don't always have to be doing things on digital and social media platforms to be producing great work.

As Fabien Riggall said: 'We want to use technology, not be used by it'.

How we in the arts articulate different values and challenge the profit-chasing bubble thinking of the technology world may be one of the challenges for day 2.

2. There is a world outside those ivory towers. Be they the towers of national arts organisations or multinational conglomerates, there was an absence of social responsibility today. The Barbican aside, no one gave any prominence to social deprevation or how technology, culture or entrepreneurship could work to improve the lives we live and reach those whose horizons are narrowest. We talked briefly about art for arts sake, and the whole day seemed to be technology for technologies sake, and while I admire and value this there also needs to be time for art, technology and culture that works with real people and changes communities. A deliberately provocative comment  towards the end of the night suggested that art in the regions was basically just community theatre and all a bit naff and amateurish. This pissed me off! It is absolutely possible to produce excellent work that is made in and with communities and makes those places better to live in. It's time to end the dichotomy between excellence and instrumentalism. We can (and many do!) do both!

3. Stop telling me how great your work is. I thought this was a conference not a sales pitch. I'm not trying to silence good work, but some ideas, some perspectives, some challenges. All these would have made for a broader and more impactful conversation.

4. Don't over programme! It is something everyone who produces events should remember. That a good event is often the result of time to breathe, to ask questions and challenge thinking, to share and drill down. With 3 or 4 people often speaking in only a 40 minute event, time was squashed. At one point a speaker was interrupted, quite rudely, mid flow. There needed more space. Less is more.

Where an individual was given time to talk, they were worth listening to. Alex Poots from Manchester International Festival was fascinating on the importance of giving power to artists. Sir Nicolas Kenyon from The Barbican was equally inspiring on working with local communities and the subtle shifts technology can give to a wide range of different productions. And Fabien Riggall from Secret Cinema told stories and gave more than just a sales pitch, he presented a vision and a story and a call to action.

Sadly, and despite some interesting speakers, the panels were largely sales pitches mashed together. Which was a shame.

5. Hosting is a responsibility, not doing it well is rude. If you advertise an 8am breakfast start, deliver that, or at least apologise for keeping guests hungry and waiting an hour to be let in. And then make sure there is sufficient cups and sandwiches and teabags for everyone. It's basic stuff, sadly.

And to finish it off, my quote of the day:

'Those who aim to give the public what they want begin by underestimating the public taste. They end by debauching it.'

TS Eliot 


Simon C said...

Thanks Sam - very interesting thoughts. Completely agree about the importance of the moment evoked by art itself - I doubt you'd find a REMIX delegate or speaker that disagrees. However, I think it's worth saying that art being viewed through a tech or entrepreneurial prism is precisely the point of the conference - the intersection between the three worlds, taking the best of each to cross-fertilise each other. Absolutely as equals.

This goes as much for creativity and art in tech/business as vice versa - the idea that "business knows best for the arts" is very old-fashioned and one that I hope noone can possibly still sign up to. The power is in the collaboration and mix of skillsets - this is unfortunately largely absent in most arts conferences, hence why I was one of the team that created REMIX. The idea is to hear from mobile companies about mobile, from tech giants about worldwide tech initiatives, from online media companies about content distribution, etc - rather than just relying on speakers only from the arts sector to have all the answers (as in the case of most lineups from arts conferences). The beauty is in the mix.

I also doubt if anyone actually sees technology as the saviour of art - one of the key conclusions of Day 1 was treating tech as a tool (like a paintbrush) allowing new opportunities for different types of models, distribution and artistic creations. We've got new opportunities available, so how best are we going to use and drive them forward as cultural and creative industries? Similarly, technology can enable engagement with lots of different user types.

Format is always a very difficult balancing act with such different tastes. A lot of delegates tell us that they really thrive on the intensive nature of 90-odd very diverse speakers crammed into a couple of days - a fast way to get lots of snippets of info and ideas across many big areas that can be followed up further afterwards in more detail and as applicable.

Others prefer more discussion and depth, which is why we launched the REMIX Academy format in London, Salford (at The Lowry) and Gateshead (at BALTIC) earlier this year - taking one big topic in detail at a time, with plenty of time for discussions and exercises. This will be online from early next year also. We also launched 'Follow the Speaker' and the 'Coffeehouse Experiment' at London as experiments this year to see how we can provide opportunities to dive into more detail. Any other ideas you have on this would be much appreciated.

I'd also completely agree that good chairing is important, and one that we're constantly seeking to refine and improve - when you have a confident chair, the conversation between speakers flows and deeper issues can be tackled. Some speakers are inevitably going to be better than others (no matter how much planning and briefing you do), and some appeal to different tastes, but taken as a whole there should be plenty of ideas and contacts to take away at the end.

Finally, strong relationships built on a deep understanding and trust (built over time) lies at the very heart of cultural entrepreneurship. This allows organisations to truly challenge and inspire their users - the exact opposite of dumbing down or chasing the numbers, and the combination of community and excellence that you mention. It's a massive opportunity, and it's exciting to celebrate the institutions, entrepreneurs, remixers and disrupters that are seizing it so brilliantly worldwide.

Sam Ruddock said...

Hi Simon. Thank you for your gracious response and I hope my comments didn't feel too critical. I work to produce events and conferences and I know how impossible it is to please all the people all the time.

I guess the crux of my challenge was for the arts world itself. To stop being so apologetic, to celebrate the existing quality and then look at doing more. I notice that arts organisations often start with an admission of failure (to break down walls and engage widely) whereas the tech orgs go straight to the standard sales pitch. This essentially creates a false narrative and I think impedes the really important conversations from happening on an equal level. The challenge is not for tech orgs to change but for the arts people to stand up and articulate values of excellence and social engagement rather than (vanity) metrics and products and profit. These values aren't mutually exclusive by any means as I thought Jean Oelwang showed today. Because a genuine and open conversation between culture, technology, and entrepreneurs that explores collaboration and is really important. I don't think this has quite happened here this week.