Aspirations and Inspirations for Digital Engagement in Coventry

Thinking about my time in the city as a resident, a father, a husband and as a self employed artist this post looks to take into account and reflect on my experience working in public spaces, galleries, museums and schools, with arts organisations and business using technology as a tool for creative exploration. Quotes and sections have been harvested by greater speakers, makers, software creators and members of local organisations. These thoughts are a combination of past case studies mixed with ideological hopes and dreams. They offer both design (people) and engineer (tool) led approaches.

In my so far short career as an artist that uses technology for creative exploration, I have seen many tools and platforms become available that allow artists to express themselves in far more creative means than ever before. Coding since I was aged 10 I’ve felt at home with explorations of technology and the last 5 years has really seen a lot of innovative changes in consumer technology and opening up the potentials of the world of ‘digital’. Open Source hardware and software has pushed community based approaches to technological innovation and creation. Creative Coding languages have sped up the process of making beautiful artworks with code. The Kinect Depth camera, originally a game peripheral, allowed artists on a budget to vision track performers and audience and merge and retrieve data about their location and posture. Social networks have allowed for data driven content that personalised experiences at the click of a button. Arduino has enabled the prototyping of digital electronic products and sensing machines at a hobbyist level. Combining software and hardware in innovative and exciting ways beyond their designed purpose has led to the discovery and creation of a huge amount of experiences that could not be possible without technology? engineer led explorations with an artistic and creative sense of curiosity. The tools and digital technologies have helped widen the audience that both create and engage with these sorts of mediums and the type of work created using them. Work has gone out of the gallery and into public spaces, into homes and devices in peoples pockets and there is a plethora of output. They enable new (and experienced) users to really experience the magical opportunities that technology can provide which further widens the audience engagement and acceptance of work that you don’t necessarily find with other artforms.

Worldwide there are many creative digital arts symposiums, seminars, workshops and gatherings all aimed at different audiences and all with different agendas. Across the UK I find those gatherings where the city, its inhabitants and its businesses work together with councils and local authorities and are led and informed by local artists are the most successful and far reaching. From Playable City to Abandon Normal Devices and Future Everything to Frequency there are many Digital Technology events but for me those where artists not only talk about and showcase exciting work, but share their process openly with audiences, not just in large halls with seats, are the most accessible and exciting. Its also very valuable to use homegrown and local talent. Sure, there’s a wealth of international inspiration to choose from but to truly engage with community there needs to be local talent leading from a grass roots perspective. Those who champion the city that they work, create and play in. Providing opportunities for incredibly talented artists to exhibit where they live is vitally important for Coventry as it’s not just about turning our eyes and ears to the capital or offshore. Exploring theatre and performance in once abandoned chip shops, music and performance in public parks, uncovering hidden rivers and fictional narratives through the back streets using your phone, empty shops becoming mirrors turning passersby into Snowmen. These are some of the most engaging forms of creative practice within cities? those created by artists who know and use the space and interact with its inhabitants on a regular basis. These are the inspirational playful types of work that provide ideas for future digital engagement in Coventry. It’s a start but there is so much chance and opportunity for more.

Technological permanent features are becoming more prevalent within architecturally designed spaces. Bus stops, timetabling information points, billboards, street signs. Smart Cities are about putting technology in place for social good? Almost always they come from a top down agenda that sets out to save or make money. They are the LEAN methodology of technologically enabled architecture. Solar powered bins with sensors that alert waste collection teams when they are full streamline efficiency with workforce time management, at the same time providing a service thats has always existed ­ a bin to put your rubbish in that shouldn’t end up overflowing. Playable Cities are a more personal look at engaging with public spaces and architecture in a playful creative approach. There is no agenda to save money or increase productivity, only smiles. It’s about reimagining cities and urban areas across the globe, looking at designed infrastructure and providing curious exploratory installations and ideas to invite audiences to take a different look at the spaces they think they know so well. As a movement that has its base and conception from Watershed in Bristol it’s an ideology that has been taken on board by many other arts organisations in cities up and down the UK (Playable Leeds for example) and abroad. Its an idea not a company. It’s not sitting in meetings selling you on Big Data or the Internet Of Things or the Internet Of The Internet. It’s not trying to force technology out into the world to solve its problems. It’s about people, and it’s about playfully exploring ideas around social interaction through technology enabled experiences that have a wide audience demographic and explore the way in which people use and author a space. Those who have adopted or been influenced by these ideas are often manifested as installations and workshops / seminars. Lets not be naive, these city wide things cost a lot of money to put in place and maintain and as such have a short lifespan in their execution, yet not in the thought process and memory for those who experience and work on them and they inspire more subtle, everyday cheaper versions of exploration too so the ideology can continue.

People always have a personal experience with place, especially somewhere thats has changed as much as Coventry. Whether that’s nostalgic, social or event driven there’s a sense of ownership over spaces which might exist physically or virtually, even only at certain times. Technology can enable different audiences to inhabit and coexist within the same place yet yield a different outcome or experience. What’s really fascinating is when there are shared or common overlaps that provide insights into differing cultures, social groups and economically diverse audiences.

If we look at our world through a technology based series of layers we can uncover that above our physical world there sits an information layer that is an abstracted yet factually accurate description of place, providing helpful signs and information. Google Maps is the best example and although not quite a smart city ideal it’s there to provide information and to help us be more productive or streamlined in terms of navigating a place, gaining knowledge and information and organising our travel. Above this we have the social layer. This is another digital abstraction of the physical landscape but not always tied to physical and actual place and often crossing time as it provides glimpses of the present and past within locations. A good example is Facebook or Instagram. This layer is highly connected and changing with content authored by its users. Above this layer there sits a game layer. This digital abstraction plays upon both the social and information layer and puts play and creativity forefront. This is a part of the playable city. What started with facebook checkins and foursquare monopoly style digital mayors of place moved on to location based games that built upon geocaching style treasure hunt explorations. Where several of these have failed is often down to a combination of the technology infrastructure and provision of data to end users not quite meeting expectations. More So, it’s been about audience aka players. To truly get engagement of scale you need a wide set of participants. One where age, ethnicity, social background, sexual preference and what technology knowledge you possess have no bearing. Also, to quote the Director of Warwick Arts Centre Alan Rivett, you need a little bit of magic. Ultimately it’s the end experience which truly matters not the means that have enabled it (although to many audiences this is also important) Technology can persuade and offer the permission to play ­ especially within public spaces and game like experiences are excellent examples of this. Pokemon GO is only weeks old as a write this yet has captured the world’s interest regardless of whether they want to play or have the slightest desire for magical mythical pocket sized monsters. What this platform and game have done is take the game layer and created an experience which is accessible by a wide audience (while riffing off the current zeitgeist for Augmented Reality and virtual interactions with our surroundings that excites curious tech fans). Sure you still need a smartphone and a data connection but as these move to become stable necessities in everyday life and maslow’s hierarchy gets an uncomfortable reshuffle its not just something for the wealthy tech literate with the latest gadgets or the young with ample free time. It’s a game. What it’s also done is reconnect people to place? heading out exploring the world around you through a different lens. Whilst many (including myself) would argue that the world is amazing enough without needing yet another excuse to look down through a device, sometimes you need to escape into a magical realm that brings joy and happiness in much the same way as a book or film might do. In this game, heritage sites have become stop offs to collect equipment and items to continue your quest. Would you have maybe noticed the Council House Gargoyle otherwise? Health data and stats show us that engaging with technology socially and getting fit and active can be good for you yet I only need to look at my sons face as we walk down the street trying to find a Squirtle near the local pond as we see the geese wander into our field of view through the augmented overlay on the phone to experience his excitement and joy first hand. Digital creative works can be very powerful and transformative when designed and implemented well. Play is inherently an inbuilt action that we all do in some form or another and it’s nice to see a growing change for games to be accepted as an artform that has a rightful place in Digital Arts amongst other medium.

As a young city, Coventry also has a reputation of rebuilding and reframing itself, changing and evolving. Technology will change faster than people. Socially we may interact with the world differently from 5 years ago (hello #selfie) but this is predominantly in my opinion based upon the tools that have been presented to us. Admittedly some tools shape the language we use and the frequency of interaction yet you only have to watch Stranger Things on Netflix to be reminded that young people have always and still want to communicate without their parents always knowing, play games and hang out together being social, create fantasy escapist realities with which to feel safe and included and to be able to express themselves through whatever platform they can do so that gives them a voice among the drowning sea of adult informative noise. Walkie talkies have become smartphones, arcades are socially streamed and connected games consoles. Underneath the tools we see the same behaviours that we can play to.

I think we need to bear in mind that whatever aspirations we have for creative digital works, platforms, interventions and installations in Coventry that we follow a more design led approach within our planning and focus on the users experience yet making sure we keep our fingers on the pulse through engineer led explorations of the tools that are and will be readily available to all so we can be as creative and innovative as possible going forward. Tech moves so fast and the affordability and availability of it is what makes its hard to predict how and what we we might use. It’s also imperative that there is a joined up collaborative approach between business, academic, organisational and public run spaces. A unity of arts organisations and cultural spaces at least with the common drive and similar aspirations for the cultural and creative experiences we are trying to provide. It’s not about disparate entities standing taller than others trying to claim the rosette.

As we head towards the 2021 bid and beyond I would hope to see even more public acceptance and engagement of digital interactive and playful works. Bravery in commissioning and placing work out there through curation. More mobile and personalised experiences that become part of a shared emotive experience that can connect and improve everyday lives. Not relying on large scale one off events and choosing more accidental everyday discoveries that are sustained, allowing users to pick the time they want to interact and experience and how they do it. Choice. More of it and out there happening right now in the streets. Bigger and bolder statements that transform the landscape and heritage yet still respecting its ancestry and story. I also believe that more collaborations between organisations and artist working within technology can hold stronger outputs and provide greater opportunity and support for technology enabled works. More work not confined to gallery spaces (or even physical spaces) and not just public events in specific locations targeting certain demographics but truly wide engaging exploratory experiences that cross all the aforementioned layers and bring that magic and smile to everyday life to all of us visitors and occupants, more than a token social media like or internet chart rating ever could.