A post from SOTA blog co-curator Hannah Nicklin
So, a month of curating this live blog, and a hectic day of collating, curating, interviewing and editing on the day of the conference in, here are my reflections on how it all was.
I should begin by explaining that my view of the conference was a bit of a backward one, very much on the ground - online and off - I was most active during the breaks and lunch, talking to people, catching video and audio interviews. Then during the actual stuff of the conference I was in a hub-space pulling in interesting snippets from each of the liveblog whilst editing and posting said video and audio. So although I wasn’t actually being in any of the panel sessions myself, I did an awful lot of listening to people in the in between spaces.
Last year the problem seemed to be that the conference didn’t feel as if it had a connection in any way to those people who make actual art. Those ‘artist’ types we hear so much about. This year, the conference organisers admirably noted this, and brought artists into rooms and panels via bursaries and speaker invitations. It was a good start. This year, the people I spoke to, artists and non-artists alike, felt like there was a gulf between them, Richard Dedomenici spoke here about feeling a bit like a ‘token’ artist; not being engaged with, and Michelle Knight of Oxford playhouse about the urge from producers etc. to hear still more from those artists. This sense of slight discombobulation, of division was what pervaded the conversations, online and off, that I had.
Here’s more of what I heard: no wifi, a division between artists and arts professionals (for want of better categories), a sense of missing knowing what was going on in other spaces, a frustration at having the same conversations, a frustration at a lack of action, a want for more provocations, a want for snappier speeches, more complaints about the wifi.
Here are some other things I heard: absolute joy at hearing people like Keisha Thompson speak - a 22-year old performance poet - about what it actually means to be a young person in the arts, an appreciation for David Edgar’s grumpiness, all round applause for Kirsty Wark’s chairing abilities, joy at finally being able to ask an actual artist about what they thought in a session about artists and audiences, lots of elephants in lots of rooms, enough valentines day puns and jokes to bring you to actual physical violence, an approval of the fact that less money seemed to have been spent on the food.
I’m pretty certain I’ve heard people suggest that the best art is the kind that leaves you with more questions than you came to it with, if that’s also true of conferences, I think State of the Arts might be beginning to be something really exciting. On the way back on the train last night (substantially frazzled) my thoughts hovered over the feeling that the conference is in between two different answers to ‘what is this event for’. And actually, I think that’s worth sitting down and thinking about - what is the purpose of The State of the Arts:
- is it to exhibit?
- is it to listen?
- is it to learn?
- is it to gather a community/industry together?
- is it to celebrate a community/industry?
- is it to change things?
- is it for marketeers, or artists?
- is it useful to divide these people? How do you bring them closer together? Ditto with larger and small organisations? NPOs and those who exist via G4A at best?
I think it felt like the people I spoke to at the conference wanted to move towards a combination of learning and gathering, with the amount of change that necessarily should spring from actually learning. If that is the case, here are some questions/suggestions which I think will drive SOTA towards a clearer answer to ‘what is this for?’
- talk to artists about how they can feel closer to the conversation
- who sets the agenda? How do the Arts Council curate the important matters of the day? Who do they ask? How do they ask them?
- how do you make artists feel more like they are part of the conversation?
- give the panel-style speakers only 3 points to respond to, and 3 minutes to do it in
- sit panels in circles, get rid of the microphones, have a discussion.
- situate the panel subjects in terms of questions - think D&D’s ‘what are we going to do about’
- have each chair drive towards producing at least 2 action points - one immediate small-scale solution/action, and one more conceptual point
- give each chair much more time to present the discussion to the rest of the conference (at least 5 minutes)
- produce an ongoing document/site that lists the action points produced
- have these action points further examined, or even inform Arts Council policy
- put decent wifi in each room so this discussion can truly be had with the world outside
- invite artists and non-artists to respond to the action points over several months following the event.
- live stream every one of the ‘big’ speakers
There’s a lot of incredibly bold stuff there, for a large (and as comes with the territory slightly unwieldy) organisation such as ACE, and I’m aware that larger things take longer to accelerate, but there’s plenty of precedent in the unconference, open-space conference models, D&D, Stronger Together, TedXYork, Shift Happens are all doing some form of these things. There was much to praise about the integrating of our live blog, the bringing of the artists into the room and the theme of the conference, and on panels, the live-streaming of the morning, the attempt to tackle some big issues. A good start. My advice? Keep pushing forward.
Finally, tech-wise, there were a lot of complaints about broken wifi in the main conference space (where the keynotes happened), the fact is there just wasn’t any in the first place, apparently they were only given the option of a wired, or wireless connection, and as they needed the wired for streaming there just wasn’t any, meaning everyone on a laptop, ipad/tablet without 3g, or ipod touch was unable to participate in what has to be understood as a vital part of every conference now: the backchannel. You ignore it at your peril (all that instant feedback!) and you disable it to your loss. I have no idea who told ACE they couldn’t have both wired and wireless web access, but this needs to be one of the things you sort out in time to solve these kinds of issues. Usually by bringing someone in for the day to provide it all. Ditto to all of the conference rooms where the wifi fell over.
So there you go, that was my ear-on-the-ground feel for the State of the Arts. As for the state of the actual arts, head over to the main live blog hub, and click on the conference themes to find out what people said on the day.