July 17, 2012

Shift Happens

Quarantine’s Associate Producer Sam Stockdale recently attended Shift Happens, an event for discovering new ideas for facing the digital future and the shifting digital landscape. Here’s Sam’s answer to one of Quarantine’s recurring questions… 

One question we ask at the end of a performance or a project is: ‘what remains’? 

Cluny Macpherson opened Shift Happens by talking about democratisation of access to the arts, about artists using digital tools to achieve the widest reach possible. It made me think of one of Quarantine’s core interrogations: whose voices should be heard in theatre, and more broadly, who is the art that we’re producing really serving right now? 

In an ideal world, perhaps it should (and must, if public money is involved) be everybody (as sweeping a statement as that is). That was the broad brushstroke behind the point being made here – we’ve got to get better at using the digital tools available to us do that. Rachel Coldicutt said, as artists, we don’t have to be ‘technically innovative but we have to be technically interesting’… Clay Shirky said we’re in a ‘chaotically connected media environment’. Audiences and artists alike have a voice – and access to globally available tools to use that voice. 

So, what are Quarantine doing right now? 

We’ve just redesigned our website with an emphasis on opening out our process/what drives us/what’s current – this Notebook section is about finding an informal space to do that and allowing an online audience to join in. Whether it’s my response to a conference, Richard or Renny’s thoughts on a new piece of work or a way to mark and continue a conversation, here it is. 

We’ve just launched Between us we know everythinga live and digital public exchange of knowledge about all the useful and useless information we’ve acquired over the course of our lives. Herb Kim quoted Steve Jobs; saying ‘everything around you has been made up by people no smarter than you’; Between us…, for me, is a clear manifestation of that – and digitally open to all; available to be participated in and created by anyone who chooses to come and engage with us over the next fortnight in the Royal Exchange Theatre and further into the project’s lifespan. 

And we’re always talking – always. Mainly over food. We’ve offered a free lunch in No Such Thing  made meals in people’s houses as part of Coming and Going; a past event was called When we talk about food, we talk about everything (also part of Coming and Going)

Broadly, we’re seeking to (and we return to this phrase often) ‘create the circumstances for a conversation between strangers’; and food is a great aid to those circumstances. 

For me, as well as that, it’s allowing people a space for their imagination;  providing the space to have ideas or respond to other people’s as some form of nourishment as well as what might be on a plate in front of you. Jennifer Yu raised the point that process should be shared to create inclusive ownership of ideas, and that digital activity can play a key role in this – but it needs to elicit thoughtful, considered and creative responses. We need to ask ourselves – where do our needs rest, and what tools do we need to change our narrative? It shouldn’t be about other people telling how to make sense of the world, your world. I think that’s why art is so important – it gives people that chance; to say something or respond to something being said. And digital tools can only increase that capacity. 

So…we need to be open. As Clay Shirky said, ‘the only certainty we have is to be open. And to be openly uncertain about the outcome’.  It reminded me of a project Quarantine did in Wednesbury –  The slightest movement – which, in our own words, ‘failed spectacularly’. It raised many, many questions about the ephemeral nature of many participatory arts projects. – because that was emerging as the theme here; that participation is the key. 

Tom Mendes asked a pertinent question –  ‘Where the f*** are we?’ In a world where the ever growing gap between the rich and the poor opens up the door to real exploitation, where we’ve got a Prime Minister who owns four houses and £2.5 million in off shore accounts lecturing people on benefits about their culture of entitlement – where are we? Because we need to be in that gap – because it’s a gap in imagination too, about one side not understanding the other. Tom Mendes finished with a call to action – we need to find the people for whom art has changed their lives, for whom it’s important. 

Lyn Gardner summed this up for me; saying that “We should be putting money into the bottom of the pyramid and not the top…We should be funding risk, not administrative overheads… Let’s work from the roots, and be truly radical’.  


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