Deborah Dignam has many years’ experience working in arts organisations around the world. As a creative producer, curator and artistic director, she has helped artists, writers and choreographers to produce work that is both challenging and eye-opening. A member of our curatorial panel, she is one of the people responsible for commissioning and supporting artists to create new digital artworks especially for 1215.today. Always a fresh challenge, producing art online is as much about the final product as the journey, as she recounts below
My background is as an arts festival director – so, curating and working closely with artists to produce work across theatre, spoken word, visual art, music, multi-format projects and, my area of speciality, interactive performance. In the past, I have worked on some really inspiring projects such as the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase, where I helped to deliver presentations of performance art, dance and immersive theatre. Another project, Gulf Stage, was a unique initiative for the British Council that for the first time harnessed digital communication as a way of eroding cultural boundaries and to bring about cultural understanding. I think 1215.today is similar in that it is trying to use digital to foster understanding between people who lived 800 years ago and people who are living now.
As a curator I always look for work that really challenges an audience, which asks questions of them and their own behaviours, and seeks to engage with them in a meaningful way. Of course, challenging work that asks questions can come in many forms – it can simply be an artist who performs, sings, dances, or anything else, beautifully – but the hope is always that the work will lift audiences out of their day-to-day realities, and that it will be bold and brave enough for people to ask questions about it, and themselves.
When it comes to selecting an artist for the 1215.today digital commission, first of all I’m looking at their artistic excellence – the quality of their work. Secondly, I try to assess their ability or potential to work collaboratively. Thirdly, I want to know what they understand and interpret the issues to be surrounding the Magna Carta and its legacy. Ultimately, it’s about trying to determine how a potential artist might explore and unpick those themes to produce a piece of work that will genuinely engage an audience. Kathrin Böhm, for example – the artist we recently commissioned – has a lot of experience working collaboratively and democratically, with communities and, in particular, with young people.
I’m not, however, just interested in the creation of artwork – I’m also interested in its dissemination, how it gets distributed and how people engage or interact with it. Having worked in digital communication, I’m really interested in our digital behaviours and our digital lives. Working somewhere between a curatorial advisor and a digital communications specialist, then, I’m really interested in the space where the two meet, where they overlap. This feels like something that 1215.today is very much about too.
A meaningful digital experience
I think the major challenge of a digital arts project like 1215.today is simply that we live in a content-dense world. It’s increasingly difficult to meaningfully attract and maintain relationships with audiences online, in any context. Given that the internet is so dense with content, it’s a challenge to find ways to bring our rich artistic content to our audiences. We’re not selling products, and we’re not a well-known brand, so how do we make connections with people and make ourselves visible?
The Innovation Lab model is really valuable in that it gives our audience a vested interest in the artwork from the very start of its making. At these one-day events, young makers, writers, game developers, programmers, vloggers and hackers aged 14–24 are invited to explore serious concepts in a playful and experimental way with a team of creative technologists and an artist commissioned by 1215.today to create a new digital artwork. They’re invited to influence and inform the artist throughout the time that the work is being created, concretely helping to cultivate what the final artistic outcome or experience will be. Of course, it’s up to the artist to decide how to decipher and work with the information, opinions and comments provided to them by participants, but the idea is that our audience help the artist we’ve commissioned to look at things differently and direct their critical approach towards certain ideas, solutions and points of interest.
Another thing that’s interesting about the Innovation Lab in this context is that it is not filtered. Unlike a lot of online media, which is almost always targeted towards certain individuals who often have shared tastes or worldviews, the Innovation Lab is about bringing young people together with diverse opinions and giving them the chance to explore conversations around the themes of Magna Carta in a free and open space. Of course, there is some guidance to the discussion – for example, Kathrin helped us find to a way into some important topics by asking participants to respond to the provocation: How much space do you need for your future? And what kind of space will this be? But the idea is very much that, once certain parameters and the topic of conversation have been established, the debate is allowed to roam free, with everyone involved encouraged to make their voices heard.
I think this is an important approach – because I think it’s actually quite rare to be listened to now. We’re very used to communicating via one-way channels. Nowadays we’re all broadcasters, whether that’s across social media or on blogs – we’re all essentially commentators. But the nature of commentary is that we comment, say on a Guardian article or on somebody’s blog, we put something down, but then we can very easily opt out of the ensuing debate. We can choose to opt out at any time, at any point. That’s to say, people can’t really be challenged in a digital space – unless, maybe, they’re debating with somebody they already know. But mostly we’re not challenged. We can just opt out, shut down our browser, and we’re gone.
So what I find fascinating about the Innovation Lab, in this sense, is that the old-fashioned rules of engagement in terms of conversation and debate come back into play. You can maybe liken it to an old-fashioned French salon, where people across generations sat down together to discuss ideas, and where nobody was paid to represent an opinion – where all opinion, all conversation, was free and strove towards the promotion of mutual understanding. In a sense, this is also the founding principle of the internet: access to information and democratisation for all. In the session led by Kathrin in Leeds, we all had to listen to each other, to respond to each other, and the ‘opt-out’ wasn’t as simple as closing a browser. Instead, it would have involved apologising, having to leave the group, leave the room, leave the session, to walk away – so, something altogether more pointed.
The physical and the digital
What’s great, then, about 1215.today’s combination of its online platform and its participatory Innovation Labs, is that it encourages artists to respond to the physical aspects of communication – between participants, creative technologists, and the artist themselves – and translate that into something that works, and is communicated, in an online space. I think that’s interesting and really relevant, because that’s life. Life’s not about either/or – we don’t exist physically or digitally. It is about the ways both of these domains, which we inhabit equally, are connected and overlap. Digital has often been seen as something to amplify and augment the physical, but now life is becoming more and more integrated, and the gap between the two more seamless.
Of course, it’s a challenge for an artist to try to translate from one dimension into another – from physical to digital space. While physical conversation can be freeform, online content is by its very nature forever being filtered and categorised. What the 1215.today platform can do, though, is to take all of that dialogue surrounding the development of the artwork, and present it as something interesting for people to explore – stories, discussions, opinions, working processes.
We’ve come a long way since 1215
The first thing a digital artwork for 1215.today should aspire to do is simply to raise people’s awareness of the Magna Carta, highlighting why it’s such an important document for all of us today, 800 years on. Nowadays, when we’re going about our day-to-day business, we have a certain level of expectation: that we can get just on the bus, that we can go to work, that we can live in a house, that we can have relationships, etc. But maybe we ought to think about whether there was a time when we didn’t have the right to do all of these things. We still don’t have all of the rights we would like in a completely fair and just society, but we’ve come a long way since 1215. And we can’t assume that everyone realises that a lot of that progress began with the Magna Carta.
So I think it’s very important, when revisiting the Magna Carta, to highlight the progress of human development and to be aware fundamentally of how lucky, in our society at least, we are in so many respects. Generally speaking, I think that we focus so much on what we don’t have, or think we don’t have, that we cease to be aware of what we actually do have in our society today. We need to be present where we are. I think that’s one thing that I’d love for 1215.today to do – to stimulate an awareness of, and a gratitude for, the good in our society, while also showing up where there is still a need for improvement.
Then we can try to explore and understand what an equal, just and fair society could really be like. I don’t think our society is equitable in any sense, so it would be wonderful if 1215.today could encourage people to imagine alternatives and to think about how they might contribute to shaping that future society.
The vital role of the artist
The role of the artist is vital in society, as a person who stands slightly outside of the normal day-to-day functioning of society, and questions things with critical reflection. I mentioned earlier that I like art to be challenging, but I don’t think that necessarily means the same as bold and shocking – not in every context. Art is a wonderful catalyst for conversation and a great way of exploring ideas through mutual appreciation – through beauty, intrigue and curiosity. It can also be a lighter and more entertaining way to get people to engage with big issues. I think if we suddenly had a government campaign which asked us all to look at equitable society through a series of compulsory, state-organised workshops, we wouldn’t engage with things in the same way. I think art gives people a freedom – a freedom to think and feel – and I think that’s what 1215.today can really contribute towards ongoing debates around the significance of the Magna Carta.
We spend so much time connected to screens these days. We’re so screen-based, and yet so much of that time is spent either in stressful engagement with work, or social envy, or is simply wasted. Instead, I’d like for a digital artwork to have the ability to provide meaningful and interesting experiences for people online, things that they can gravitate towards as an alternative to random YouTube content – silly cats jumping into tumble dryers, etc. It’s not about trying to preach to people, but rather trying to offer people interesting, engaging – even fun – examples of intelligent content.
Digital is a destination
I’m a curatorial advisor, as I see it, not only for the artwork produced for 1215.today, but also for the engagement – how people find out about it, get to see it, interact with and respond to it. So I curate engagement, in a sense, and a lot of my work for 1215.today will involve curating journeys through that engagement.
I think that one way to understand the digital landscape is to see that the digital is a destination. If a platform like 1215.today is a destination, then it is one that we need to be very carefully guided towards. Say we want to travel somewhere at some point in our lives – be it 5 miles or 5,000 miles away. How do we know how to get to our destination? Very often we won’t even know about a place until somebody tells us about it. So the key thing is having previous travellers to help you – people, in this case, who are connected to the project. I see the participants in the 1215.today Innovation Lab as travellers who have already been to the destination. If they’ve liked it, now they’ll hopefully go out into the world and inform other people about it. All we need then is to have lots of signposts set up that are relevant to others and help them to reach that destination too.
That’s really where the hard work comes in, because you don’t want to hard sell. You want to try to attract and entice people to come to that destination in such a way that, when they get there, they’re not going to feel like they’ve been sold to – so they feel like they’ve arrived of their own choosing.