Future Everything 2013

Last week I went to the Future Everything summit in Manchester.

The scope of the summit was vast, and I can’t do justice to the whole event, but there was one theme I found particularly interesting. And that was how digital technology is changing the landscape for artists, cultural institutions, audiences and funders of creative work. There are new threats and opportunities unfolding, as new entrants appear in all these groups. Brands are sponsoring new work, digital platforms are stepping in as new intermediaries between artists and audiences, and new artists and makers are emerging, enabled by accessible digital technologies and the communities that form around them.

There’s a question hanging over the arts world. Digital technology has disrupted many other cultural sectors – music, publishing and movies – in many ways, opening up exciting new fields to explore, but frequently not to the benefit of the incumbent institutions. Can the current players adapt and thrive in a new environment, or will they be pushed aside by the next generation of artists, brands and distribution platforms?

There’s a mix of fear and opportunity in the air, which makes for a lively summit.

The new generation was well-represented by a panel featuring Jeremy Boxer from Vimeo, Stephanie Pereira from Kickstarter, and Kevin Holmes from the Creators Project. All of these platforms could be seen as both threats and opportunities by existing players.

I found the presentations from Vimeo and Kickstarter very persuasive. Vimeo is more than a place to host videos. For creators, they want to provide a viable commercial distribution platform. Vimeo on Demand, their pay-per-view service, lets film-makers connect with audiences directly, and keep 90% of the revenue from film sales.

Kickstarter, while undoubtedly a poster-child for the new digitally-enabled creative economy, has suffered of late from stories that focus only on the outlier projects: those that shoot past their original fund-raising targets and leave their creators pondering how to fulfil an order book several orders of magnitude bigger than they had anticipated. And it can sometimes feel like a shop for pre-buying gadgets; a place for the digerati to fritter away their disposable income with an added edge of excitement that even the Apple Store can’t provide.

So it was refreshing to hear Stephanie dispel these illusions, and assert Kickstarter’s value as a tool for creators of all types to connect with their fans, and get all kinds of projects off the ground. She revealed that it’s films and music that receive the most funding from Kickstarter backers, not technology-related products. And that most successfully funded projects lie in the $1-10,000 range, a target that won’t make much of a dent in the tooling costs for an iPhone dock, but is both useful and not too scary for a maker or artist who just needs to pay for some time and materials.

By all accounts, the Creators Project has commissioned some very interesting and successful work, but I can’t help but feel that this model for enabling artists (light-touch sponsorship by brands, in this case Intel and Vice Magazine) is not a sustainable one. 10 years ago, this budget would have been spent on advertising. While it’s laudable that people like Intel want to spend their marketing budget in more interesting ways, and engage audiences rather than just shout at them, in the end this is marketing money. And that means they will want to see marketing returns. If not now, then if the model ever becomes more widespread. And there are significant areas of creative exploration that will never be funded by marketing teams looking to increase awareness, or align their brand with something fresh and edgy.

On another panel, Asa Calow talked about Madlab, Manchester’s Digital Laboratory, a “community space for geeks, artists, designers, illustrators, hackers, tinkerers, innovators and idle dreamers; an autonomous R&D laboratory and a release valve for Manchester’s creative communities.”

I was lucky enough to get a tour of the space from the wonderful Hwa Young Jung and Dave Mee. It stuck me as a perfect example of Stewart Brand’s ‘low road buildings‘ concept: a physical space that is “low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover”. These spaces set up the ideal conditions for incubating new companies, innovations and creativity. I hope that the Open Data Institute (also represented by Gavin Stark, who gave an refreshingly practical talk on Open Data) and Brighton’s own Fusebox can learn something from this.

Having heard from the brash new generation of disruptors, it was tempting to approach a panel of old-school curators, chaired by Jon Kingsbury from Nesta, with some amount of morbid glee.

So it was pleasing to hear Olof Van Winden from the Netherlands Media Art Institute, and Honor Harger from Lighthouse give powerful presentations about their practice, the role of artists in creating the future, and the sometimes extreme lengths curators have to go to in defence of their work.

It’s difficult to see Coca-Cola commissioning an artist like Trevor Paglen, who makes visible the technology of power wielded by the military and intelligence agencies. Or a brand manager facing up to the police in defence of art, and being beaten and arrested for their troubles, as Olaf was.

Equally, the current generation of content discovery tools on digital platforms – the algorithms that attempt to juggle the new with the ‘hot’, and the humble yet powerful ‘staff pick’ – have a long way to go before they can threaten the role of curators and arts bodies in promoting new and challenging work.

Of course, there is no stand-off between the old-guard and the new. If there is even an old guard in the arts world, I didn’t see it at Future Everything. There’s just an endless, fertile collision of people, technology and the larger forces that act on us. It’s evident in culture, and in the built environment.

Manchester is a city that presents disruption, innovation, creativity and upheaval everywhere you look. The skyline is a jagged horizon of red-brick factories from its powerful manufacturing past, and optimistic towers reaching for a knowledge-based future – one that seems to have been delayed, or has maybe even missed its moment in time.

The buildings tell a story of new opportunities enabled by technology and the coming together of people in a concentrated urban space. And they show evidence of old ways of living and working – some that have died out, and some that have adapted to new conditions and technology, and the opportunities it brings.

As with the city, so with its culture.

This post was originally written for Future Everything, and you can also read it there.