The morning after the new media, new audience? conference..

November 26, 2008

213 people attended the Arts Council’s New Media, New Audience? conference at Dublin Castle yesterday – we hoped for 150 but quickly surpassed that. I’m biased but I think it was a useful and successful event – certainly ‘good enough’. Damien thinks so and then there are views from Emily, Fearghus, Eoin, Conor, Dermot, Dermod, Electric Mill and the Model and Niland too – I’m sure there will be others as the next few days unfold. Andrew Keen and Charles Leadbeater kicked us off with a robust interrogation of the merits and demerits of web 2.0 and certainly set the context for much of the discussion that took place throughout the rest of the day. John Kelly was in suitably wry form and kept manners on the proceedings throughout. In chatting with Keen after his presentation he was surprised (and not too disappointed I imagine) that he had such a sympathetic hearing – he’s used to being the devil incarnate at these events. But like him or love him he’s talking about things that matter to artists – like making a living, keeping some kind of control over your work, and asking questions about the value of the curated space and the value of artistic integrity. Charles Leadbeater showed a small clip of this video and then walked us through how this young man might have been met by the BBC if he’d had this idea and wanted to get it produced through traditional channels. Much hilarity ensued and the point was well made – traditional institutions have to change how they commission and produce and with whom and I think this is going to be a massive challenge for Irish arts and cultural organisations over the next few years. I don’t think Keen and Leadbeater are too far apart from each other and while the presentations were polarised both are passionate about creativity and equally passionate about increasing access to more of it. It does amuse me sometimes how resistant people can be to opposing or different views as though there must be a consensus for us all to live happily together.
It was a particular pleasure for me to spend time over the past few days with Andrew Taylor whose blog I have been following for many years. He gave a wonderful presentation on the Metaphors We Manage By and as a fellow systems thinker, invited us to dispense with boxes, circles and other containers to concentrate on the making of the art and the most helpful and useful ways of doing that. He talked us through the ecosystem as he sees it and there were references to mushrooms also – (I can’t do justice to it but Andrew has promised to let me have his slides in due course) his, and other presentations and the various panel discussions are audio streamed on the conference website here (some of the audio quality is poor because the radio mics weren’t used as widely as we would have liked). Over the next week or so we’ll up date the site with slides and feedback from the Your Space sessions.
So what surprised me? Firstly the speed with which the conference sold out. I have had more approaches from people in the last week wanting to get their friends/colleagues into the room and I believe that to be a first – I’m generally not that popular! Secondly the really strong engagement, interest and enthusiasm of delegates who attended. Sure there were moments of boredom, tiredness and crankiness – but overall the conversations I overheard were excited ones. Thirdly the make up of the delegate list – we had the traditional attendees at an Arts Council event but the presence of bloggers, social media specialists, pr, technology, marketing firms and generally interested people made for a very different kind of conversation and engagement. It simply isn’t cool to talk to ourselves any longer.
A couple of meta issues stood out for me also – the first is the predictable challenge that happens at every event of this kind that I have ever attended to the ‘organiser’ or those in charge to ‘do’ something about next steps. It’s as though convening a space for a conversation is a disruption of some kind and can’t be valid unless there’s a strategic plan in place. Invariably the responsibility for that plan is with the Arts Council or some other agency ‘in charge’. This challenge came predictably in the final plenary from a delegate. Was the Arts Council going to set up a forum or make some other intervention etc? Andrew Taylor suggested that the something next was already happening in the room and perhaps the delegates might like to think of how they could continue the conversation by taking charge of it themselves (a man after my own heart in that regard). Damien Mulley got into an interaction (just one Damien:) with someone about wanting access to publicly funded broadcast content to distribute, curate and play with. When one delegate asked him ‘why?’ there was an audible sigh in the room. And during the keynotes earlier in the day a delegate challenged Keen to stop being a critic and propose a way forward’ – Keen replied he would when he had one.
These types of comments really depress me – it feeds into this profoundly anti intellectual space we’re very fond of occupying in Ireland. It’s as though ideas for their own sake are useless unless they have some utilitarian function. Beauty, intellect, creativity, emotion – can’t be good unless we have a plan for how to use them. What’s profoundly depressing to me is that these comments should arise at a conference stuffed to the gills with artists and creatives – if the rule is that creativity, ideas, beauty and the intellect have to be useful before being conceptualised then I think we’re in bigger trouble than we imagine.
But, as they say in business, that may be a high level problem – those comments were certainly in the minority yesterday and the difference is always part of the richness. It was a pleasure to meet so many old and new faces and I’m looking forward to following and contributing to the conversations on an off line as they unfold. My thanks go to my colleagues, the panellists, moderators and keynotes all of whom were such a pleasure to work with. Now to important matters – how can we get John Kelly to start blogging? ideas?