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Research Reflections: Designing Digital Commons for the Performing arts
The emergence of numerous online platforms that provide access to tools for creative purposes has greatly enabled users to develop and master skills rapidly, directly connect with their peers, exchange knowledge and interact with the community that forms around each tool. These tools have also helped creative industries apply co-creation methods in order to motivate and engage their audiences and capitalise on the vibrant social networks created and maintained by people with similar interests and passions who build communities of interest.
One prominent characteristic of these new cultures is a blurring of distinctions between who is the artist and who is the audience, and between artistic and everyday lives. This situation presents a unique opportunity for developing new kind of narratives and of synergies, and new types of appreciation of art, creative practice and collaborative creation. But not without issues.
Most of the existing platforms which are widely used for communication and collaboration are social media spaces containing, as a trade off for their immediacy, a lot of ‘noise’, information that appears and passes through these channels on a daily basis that is often irrelevant with the content one or more try to develop. Secondly, social media platforms are created upon and supported by corporate structures with well-known issues of data privacy, control, and surveillance. Particularly for socio-political activist art projects, many of which are performative and inherently call for community participation to intervene with a direct aesthetic response to social and economic inequalities, these issues are of particular importance. In addition to the above points, the communities that form these new cultural landscapes may be a way for artists to overcome the increasing funding cuts in the arts and the imperatives of the austerity economy.
Can we then design an online commons space, without the noise of social media, drawing on peer-to-peer decentralised practices, and thinking of infrastructures for building communities of interest outside the imperatives of corporate control? Is this a necessity for artists? What matters to artists, what does participation, collaboration, and co-creation mean for them and their audiences in an online networked world? What are the needs, desires, fears, expectations and aspirations of the artistic community from an online platform? What are the design considerations of an online creative commons? Are they the same for independent artists and companies? How can such space become an alternative to the funding cuts for the arts and contribute to a gift and sharing economy? What is the model for authorship, ownership and IP in this digital ecosystem?
On the 27th June myself and Gerard Briscoe from CWL’s Digital Economy strand, ran in collaboration with Furtherfield Gallery in London, the first in the series of roundtables, symposia and workshops addressing this topic and the research questions posed above with a focus on the artistic community of Performance Artists.
We were a group of performing arts practitioners, designers, network technologists and theorists, among us many who have been in the process of building online tools or are interested in doing so. The agenda for the day was to discuss specifically needs, fears and expectations that performance artists might have from an online tool. The group had diverse backgrounds and the ice-breaking activity of the day, each one introducing themselves to the group, turned into a fire-starting method for the discussion. Each participant described their field of research or practice and shared the questions they have been concerned with in relation to the topic. Each introduction triggered lively discussion opening many thematics but somehow we managed to move from one introduction to the other in a logical sequence that was led by the discussion. The last participant introduced herself 2 hours into the symposium!
As expected, the diverse backgrounds of the group took the discussions in many different directions and led us in a useful split of Performance Art into three categories to better understand the mosaic of different approaches in the field which yield different needs and motivations and, therefore, different design considerations. We created the following three areas with the understanding that they also will have subcategories, and a vast literature that analyses them in detail:
- Stage performance: performance that takes place on stage, usually in a theatre but also in other venues with a physical stage.
- Participatory performance: performance that engages the audience/public, interactive theatre, socio-political performances all of which happen in outside spaces or spaces other than a stage with the clear division between performers and audience
- Online performance: performance that happens only online, using online tools that have been developed for this purpose, and which they have an online only audience.
We discussed and analysed extensively the case of stage performance where a strong point was made that the creative process for stage performances is mainly physical and that real creation happens offline. Online tools are used during the ‘get to know’ stage to make contact before the work and exchange information, to promote the work and to engage the public. Textual form is not used much by stage performers as it is not a very suitable way of expressing themselves, and there are issues caused by different languages, cultures, unfamiliarity with tech tools, and the increasing number of platforms and apps for communication that are useful for some aspects of the creative process but not fully supportive of it. There is not a platform that can successfully combine online collaboration and physical activities.
At this point we analysed the creation process and concluded that an online tool – kind of killer app for stage performance artists would consider important elements of the creation process such as serendipity. An important design consideration that followed was that a commons space needs tools that give the user agency and flexibility to design their own online commons space pretty much as a public space offer props so that its visitors create their own experience.
Participants mentioned the usefulness of turning the discussed issues into opportunities, adding further issues for consideration such as controlling what is shared or not, and adjusting the collaboration channels within a larger online network of people.
The overall feeling was that we discussed many different issues and felt we only ‘scratched the surface’ but that was also expected at this first event of the project the methodology of which is to run a series of similar events addressing the same or different thematics within the topic and delving deeper each time in the analysis. During and in between the events will be reflection time for everyone involved with the aim to synthesize theoretically and in practice possible strategies. These will be disseminated in several forms: blog posts such as this one, design documents, toolkit prototypes, working papers, presentations, artistic interventions, educational workshops.
The main goals are:
- to gain insights on how to design platforms for collaboration that empower the emergence of communities of interest, without the noise of generic social media platforms
- and discuss how to build them free of corporate control and to ingrain into the design the choice of anonymity and multiple identities (privacy preserving by default)
- consider how to use such platforms to overcome, through increasing digitally-enabled creativity, the negative effects of funding-cuts in the arts and the imperatives of the austerity economy
- and how to produce, through emergent creative practices, models for gift and sharing economies
The second workshop takes place in July as part of British HCI 2015, with a strong focus on online performance tools and communities. If you would like to participate in future workshops or be informed about upcoming events please email me at email@example.com.
This research is also connected to a larger-scale research project, titled Erehwon, which is currently under way in collaboration with the Lisbon-based cultural organisation Osso, and the Stress.fm media platform. The aim of the project, details of which you can read here, is to develop an online cartography of socio-political performative projects across European countries, designed to be a digital tool for rehearsing new ways of direct democratic practices and experimenting potential forms of public space transformation these practices may lead to. The cartography will be a platform for engagement, a visual research tool, and a digital commons, designed to be updated, used and re-appropriated by anyone involved in these acts and accessible to the public. Such visual research tool addresses some of the questions raised during the workshop such as, how do we know how connections and collaborations between artists and between artists and participating public are formed and grow.
Author: Dr Mariza Dima, Creativeworks London
Date: July 2015
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