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Punchdrunk: projects like this need digital specialists

November 18, 2012 2 comments

 

Last week we looked at the LSE Pulse project and what had emerged since its completion. This week we do the same with Punchdrunk. I caught up with Peter Higgin, enrichment director at the immersive theatre company, whose project aimed to connect real-world and digital experiences in a performance space. He told me about the importance of having a digital specialist in a project like this, something they didn’t have the luxury of when it ran.

“Doing it again I think we’d place a digital specialist within the Punchdrunk team,” he admitted. “It would mean we could deliberately break the rules and conventions that we adhere to in the physical space when creating online experiences. We’d also be able to explore the option of creating a bespoke piece outside of Sleep No More.”

There were other lessons as well, particularly with organisation: “We would definitely restructure our scheduling and protect the time set aside for beta testing.”

But what the project did get right was the technical logistics of it all. As Peter told the Guardian back in May 2012, “The physical installation of the project saw us run over 8,000 feet of CAT-5 cable around the site, linking a 100MB internet connection to our control hub within the building with individual runs that broke out to 24 access points. This allowed us to create a network across the building to live stream sound and audio content to both live and online participants.”

The project used a mix of 10 RFID readers and 50 Bluetooth devices, as well as 10 physical portals, “which allowed participants to communicate” said Peter. “These included a poltergeist-like book that online participants could cue to flip a real book off a shelf when their participant was nearby and a typewriter that allowed online participants to type direct messages to their real-world companion.”

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Happenstance: clarity is key and don’t forget the non-digital

September 30, 2012 1 comment

As part of continuing series of posts for this blog, I’ll be asking some questions of the experts behind the Digital R&D Fund to see how their answers compare and what other, perhaps smaller arts organisations can learn from…

Last time we heard from the Dero project, and what the team would have done differently had they had another chance at it – this week we ask the same questions of Katy Beale from the Happenstance project

If you could do the project again, what specific things would you do differently and why?

The programme may look deceptively simple, but actually there’s a huge amount of organising that goes into running it. From recruitment, to trouble shooting to establishing a common language and expectations across the organisations.  Even though, on paper, Site Gallery, Lighthouse and Spike Island are similar organisations, they are each very unique and had different concerns and practical issues to consider before we got going. There was a lot more preparatory work than we anticipated, but this was beneficial because it built relationships and began to get everyone to a shared understanding of what the project was about.

“We worked closely with the three organisations to place complimentary pairs of residents into each of their teams. Although we attracted great candidates and residents, for future iterations we would expand the recruitment process and make sure we were clearer about the residency roles and what sort of skills we were asking the residents to bring.

“The benefits of integrating digital technologies into the everyday working culture of the arts organisation include better internal communication, greater tolerance for risk and failure (because when technology fails, it doesn’t signal the end of the project) and a more collaborative, open culture. Something we didn’t anticipate is how much the residents changed the non-digital aspects of the host organisations: at Lighthouse, particularly, they influenced the wider team culture and this might be something we would put more emphasis on in future iterations.”

Scratch Online: translating live interaction and human behaviour to online

This week I catch up with David Jubb, artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), to find out more about the Scratch Online project and how it was all coming along…

(Note – the project’s digital partner is now Native HQ)

Can you explain what the Scratch Online project is and how it works?

Battersea Arts Centre’s mission is to invent the future of theatre. Most of the theatre made in the building is created through collaboration and experimentation. 12 years ago we began our Scratch programme, which gives artists an opportunity to share their ideas at an early stage of their development. As a process it also gives audiences the opportunity to roll their sleeves up, feedback on artists’ ideas, and follow the creative journey of an idea from inception to fruition. We have made 1,000s of shows using this process and over the last 12 years, “Scratch Nights” have spread far and wide, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Sydney Opera House.

About a year ago we started talking about how the process of scratching ideas might work as an online platform. Especially because one of the main challenges for theatre makers who make collaborative work is to find other collaborators: so we thought that the social nature of the internet might help one creative soul find another who could then go on to Scratch together.

How has the project been progressing?

The project process has been true to Scratch. Slow to start. Plenty of mistakes. Masses of learning from those mistakes. And some of the best decisions coming later in the process. I reckon we are about three quarters of the way through the project in terms of time – but we are about to make half of the most valuable discoveries in this last crucial quarter. That is often the nature of research and development. The result will be a Scratch of a Scratch that we are going to open up to users at the beginning of September.

What have the main successes / eye-openers been?

By creating a web-version of Scratch, we have essentially been exploring creative process. So the project has sometimes felt like an exploration of relationships, psychology and philosophy. This is partly because we are trying to create something on the internet that in the real world is all about the unspoken rules and the behaviours of a room full of people. So in creating an online version, you end up talking a lot about human nature, so our some of main discoveries have been how to adapt Scratch for an online environment.

Equally, what have the main challenges been, and how have you overcome them?

One has been translating the qualities of live interaction and human behaviour to an online equivalent. The other is the timeline, which has been tight in order to generate and deliver real innovation. We are entering the final phase of the project where we will face up to both of these challenges – I’m excited about the result.

Scratch is a human-centred creative process. It is what we are making online and it also how we have been making it. And there are such great people involved in the project that I trust that we will use our creativity to come up with something fresh and fun. Come to the launch on 31 August at Battersea Arts Centre, we’ll be Scratching it – and you can give us your feedback to develop the idea.

Punchdrunk: the challenges of online, offline, time and space

Pete Higgin is enrichment director at Punchdrunk, the British theatre company and masters in “immersive” presentation theatre. As part of the Arts Council, Nesta and AHRC Digital R&D for Arts and Culture Fund, Punchdrunk has been experimenting in connecting the online and physical performance spaces.

Punchdrunk Sleep no More

Connecting online users…

In particular, Pete and Punchdrunk have been working on connecting a live Sleep No More audience member to an online companion, but when I caught up with him he admitted the project has not been without its challenges, all of which he says have made the project think more carefully about planning and operating – something arts organisations can learn from as well.

“The Atlantic Ocean was a massive challenge in itself, as was working in three different teams in three different cities,” said Pete. “I’m not sure we actually fully overcame this but regular Skype meetings, a pretty constant stream of conversation and making the most of what little face-to-face time we had helped.”

He also added that it can be incredibly challenging integrating a new piece of work into an existing production: “The project attempted to connect two online and offline participants, but this had to happen in a show which demands the audience be silent and turn off all mobile devices, which makes it quite difficult to facilitate.”

But Pete actually saw this, in part, as an advantage because it forced the team into working around something specific and focused: “Interestingly these parameters helped shape the project and gave us debilitating but important boundaries – ultimately, we had to embrace these and find distinct moments for communication.”

Another challenge that Pete mentioned was time: “It was a massive challenge, and we could have done with much more and also a second iteration of the project.” But learning from these kinds of challenges is what will make the next rounds of experimenting and testing so successful.

Happenstance: putting people and technology first

From what I’ve been hearing from the teams involved in and behind the Happenstance project, it’s all about the people, so when I caught up with Lighthouse’s Honor Harger about how the project was coming along, the biggest challenge she said is finding the right residents and putting them with the right arts organisation.

“Finding people who are open, sharing, have a collaborative nature, and are skilled at building trust is the most important challenge of the project,” said Honor. “Thinking hard about the recruitment process was crucial, as was ensuring we had the right arts organisations, who were prepared for the changes the residents were being invited to stimulate.”

The Happenstance project, she said, has been fortunate in that it has found six inspirational residents who have brought energy, knowledge, generosity and open minds to the organisations, and that there had been some clearly observable positive changes at Lighthouse already.

“Our residents, Natalia Buckley and James Bridle, have got us talking more openly with one another, by implementing Agile management techniques,” she said. “And this has had the immediate effect of increasing efficiency.”

“The software tool they’ve designed to help us journal and share our thoughts – Offbot – has been something of a minor revolution within the team,” she added. “It’s helped each of us develop a greater awareness of the nature of everyone’s jobs, and the uniqueness of each voice within the organisation.”

Sandpit Pic

Photograph: Laura Sillars

Honor and the team at Lighthouse have already been looking at how to integrate the tool into wider project collaborations, and she says making technology more familiar in the arts workplace along the way will only help make arts organisations ‘digital by default’.

The Coding Club, which Natalia Buckley established, and James Bridle’s This is A Working Shop has helped demystify digital technology and coding,” says Honor. “It shows the team that technology doesn’t need to be the preserve of specialists; it’s something that all of us can get involved with and that’s been a real revelation for many of us.

“We feel inspired, empowered and motivated and wish our residents could stay on board for longer!”

Matthew Caines is a journalist currently blogging and posting updates from all eight projects involved in the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture

Find out more about the Happenstance project here

Happenstance: making software and making art – the Agile manifesto

June 18, 2012 1 comment

As part of the Nesta, Arts Council and AHRC Digital R&D for Arts and Culture Fund, the Happenstance project, developed by Caper, looks to fund six technology residencies at three major UK arts organisations – Site Gallery in Sheffield, the Lighthouse in Brighton and Spike Island in Bristol.

In an extract from the Happenstance blog, Natalia Buckley explores the relationship between making art and software and experiments with a more ‘Agile’ way of working.

Generally speaking, tech companies try to get good at investigating and reflecting on their own processes – often this results in exciting ideas that challenge the traditional ways of running organisations.

At GitHub, for example, there is pride in the lack of managers – or as Ryan Tomayko puts it, the fact that “everyone at GitHub is a manager… each responsible for managing a single person: their self.”

Another example, Valve, has no formal corporate structure – everyone can pick what project they work on and the desks are furnished with wheels for setting up impromptu temporary teams. Decisions are made by getting enough supporters from across the company who want to work on the project. Their employee handbook describes exactly how it works and it’s a fascinating read.

But there is a philosophy that at first doesn’t seem quite as radical, though it appears the entire software making world is practicing it: the Agile philosophy.

I can quote the entire Agile manifesto here because it’s so short:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it – through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Happenstance was supposed to help consider whether the Agile philosophy of making software could be useful to arts organisations and, obviously, there are many differences between the ways in which software and art are made. The biggest difference is in the way they are funded; arts funding is mired in bureaucracy, paperwork and relies on relatively few bodies, which grant money to projects that fit within their goals and agendas.

For a while I wondered whether an Agile approach is even useful. Lighthouse is a small team working in one room – most of the work they do is about strategy, planning and managing, rather than making things.

But as I considered it more I realised that agility comes from a specific culture within the organisation and has relatively little to do with making things or technology. The idea that face-to-face conversation is the best way to convey information surely applies outside of the software-making world.

Agility comes from not fearing change or small mistakes and learning to respond to them quickly and efficiently – it’s about responding to change.

I have recently felt like I’ve gained enough trust among the team at Lighthouse to be able to propose anything and that they would at least try it out, knowing that I’ve got their best interests at heart. So I decided to give it a go, and completely banned email as a means of internal communication.

Obviously I have no way of of checking up on everyone, but judging from the feedback and the amount of work-related discussions that are happening in the office, they decided to follow it.

I’ve also introduced daily stand-up meetings where we all very briefly describe what we were working on yesterday and what we are going to be doing today. Somehow the format stuck and we even describe what we all did on our days off as well – it’s actually really nice to be always in the loop, and occasionally hear a funny weekend story.

It made me realise how much and what kinds of work everyone does – all the boring bits: catching up on emails, reviewing things and so on. So after these things were practiced for a while, what good did they do?

I find it hard to quantify it after a short period of time, partly because I don’t actually work on any of their projects, so I can’t tell whether things are easier, better, worse or without change yet.

… I will gather more feedback and then I will report on it.

Matthew Caines is a journalist currently blogging and posting updates from all eight projects involved in the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture

Find out more about the Happenstance project here

Culture Cloud: the digital implications of putting art online

June 13, 2012 1 comment

Culture Cloud is a digital space for artists to upload their artwork to a web portal where both recognised curators and public audiences will vote for the works they like.

The most popular and intriguing will be exhibited in August 2012 at the New Art Exchange (NAE) – an international contemporary visual arts space and creators of Culture Cloud. I caught up with Skinder Hundal, chief executive at NAE about how the project has been coming along.

He was keen to mention that a project as ambitious as this does not come without its challenges – and for a project as technical as this, making the digital platforms work so they are easy to use is crucial for a smooth operation in the back-end and for the online users at the front-end.

For Culture Cloud there are two key digital platforms – one for artists to register and another for audiences to interact with the work. The challenge for the project was to make sure the registration site was easy to use and that it came across as visually appealing and informative about the partners and key stages of the competition.

Skinder admitted that the site may have actually been too easy to use: “The process to upload the art was very straightforward, so perhaps we could have asked more questions to reduce workload for us later, ie dimensions, mediums, titles and dates of the work.

“Also there were requests from artists who registered to see who else and what else was being submitted. We didn’t create this option but did think about it – for example, should we share the whole process of pre-selection too? In the end we decided not to have it.”

Culture Cloud

Artfinder were tasked to create a space on their existing site where users could view the selected works

In terms of voting and the site where users could view the selected 100 works, Artfinder was tasked to create a space on their existing site for this to take place. The key challenge here was to make sure that audiences could navigate from a landing page to the pages where the selected 100 works would be shown, and then move swiftly across them.

“A key challenge was to ensure that the quality of the images and the respective information and descriptions were clear and that audiences felt compelled to ‘Like’ and vote for the works,” added Skinder. “Also, the site should not give certain works any unfair advantage, therefore we implemented a shuffling system and made sure that the voting system was clear and easy to use and able to connect with key social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.”

“The site continues to adapt as we receive feedback and observe how it is working,” said Skinder finally. “In our first week we have had just under 12,000 votes and a top 40 for the physical exhibition at NAE is taking shape!”

Matthew Caines is a journalist currently blogging and posting updates from all eight projects involved in the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture

Find out more about the Culture Cloud project here