The Rambler

Is Culture (Necessarily) Digital?

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Extraordinary column from Ed Vaizey in this week’s The Drum. Under the headline ‘The tech revolution is barely touching the world of culture – and it should be’ Vaizey, the former minister for culture, communications and sport,  writes that the ‘technology revolution is barely touching the world of culture’.

Vaizey is writing on behalf of #CultureIsDigital, ‘a conversation between Government, the cultural sector and tech companies, led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’ that aims to consider ‘how culture and technology can work together to drive audience engagement, unleash the creative potential of technology and boost the capability of cultural organisations’.

In somewhat muddled fashion, Vaizey argues that the tech industry is more … technologically advanced, and that the culture industry needs to keep up. Why? Well, there’s some stuff in there about the private sector delivering the smartphone, networks and apps, for what they’re worth. (Well, ‘networks’ – presumably he means the internet – were a state-funded university invention; as have been many other things more useful than smartphones and apps. But whatever.)

And there’s this:

Consider the familiarity of a gallery, with its paintings on the walls; a play, often in a Victorian theatre; or a concert performed in black tie and listened to in reverential silence. Some might say this is a good thing – culture Is [sic] one of the few places to offer respite from the hurly burly of the modern world, the place to put away the smart phone, switch off and dive in.

I’m not sure what Vaizey’s suggesting here. Should we get rid of paintings because of their obstinate flatness? Should we talk over music in concerts, because listening feels old-fashioned? Look, some things are how they are not because they are ‘Victorian’ (I thought Conservatives loved all that anyway) but because that is how they are. Paintings are flat objects for hanging on walls. Music is sounds in time, to be listened to with attention. There’s not really any ‘technological’ way of getting around this.

(As for his proposal to demolish and rebuild the UK’s theatrical building stock, this seems an audacious extravagance – particularly in these times – but I’m sure many people would love the idea.)

A more remarkable sentence is this, calling for more ‘technological’ presentations:

Theatre is now common in the cinema, but virtual and augmented reality have barely been explored, not to mention the blending of digital and live content in performances.

First of all, slapping VR or AR onto something doesn’t make it better. (On the contrary; I would argue that given the increased environmental burden of the technology required it should clear a higher bar of artistic value.) It does make it different. But there’s a reason most theatre works best under a proscenium arch, with the actors facing out towards the audience: because that’s how it was written. If you want to write AR/VR theatre you need to start from the ground up. And, oh, guess what, that’s what writers, producers and directors are starting to do.

(Incidentally, one reason VR has ‘barely been explored’ may simply be the scale of the technological challenge. VR visuals have got pretty good in recent years, but my understanding is that convincing VR sound, that ‘moves’ in the same way as video, remains very difficult to achieve.)

As for the blending of digital and live content in performance, I don’t know where to begin. Has Vaizey been to a new music concert recently? Or a new opera? You can barely move these days for some sort of digital tech layering the work, whether in the form of video or sound, live or pre-recorded. Some of this is good, some of it less so; that’s the nature of art. But the point is that it is very much extant, and its innovations are being led by composers, writers and artists. (And a lot of that innovation, incidentally, is state-funded, via universities, the Arts Council, or otherwise.) Just not the ones that Vaizey appears to be aware of, who were making their work for different times and different spaces.

I’m sure there is space for culture and tech to work more closely together, as indeed they already are. But it’s not the one-way street Vaizey suggests; neither is it an opposition between uselessly outmoded ways of doing things and a shiny techno-utopia.

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