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I’ve seen the future of theatre…

Blast Theory's I'd Hide You
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On Thursday I saw the future, and it doesn’t work. A simplistic, glib and over-cynical response, the good people at Nesta will say, but when a plea has to go out for someone who can do Windows 8 and the visual still won’t go, it really doesn’t work…

It will, of course. This was an evening presentation by Nesta’s digital R&D fund that has £7 million to invest in projects, in partnership with the arts council and the arts and humanities research council, and it is an important initiative that tries to plumb the bottomless depths of digital technology as it might be applied to the arts.

We heard from Sheffield Doc/Fest and Blast Theory, who have been exploring how to include audiences in the action of a street event through smart phones and tablets; from Extant that works with the visually impaired on “haptics” technology that puts sighted and sightless on the same receptive level with a mechanical lotus you hold in your palm which then moves as you approach … whatever it is programmed to take you to; Circus Starr, a touring circus, and a visual story app for autistic children; and Hot Knife digital media outfit from the East Midlands that has created a diorama for Nottingham Castle museum in which the audience can be brought into the action of Nottingham Riots of 1831.

Because some of them couldn’t rely on the power point technology, they had to articulate what they were doing in words. We had a lot of interfaces and protocols, spectrums and cultural spaces, but it’s hard to get the message across to an audience not tutored in the language when you have no other.

[pullquote]My question is: where is the art?[/pullquote]

Well, you’ll say, most people under 40 are, but my question with all this geekery, nerdery and wonkery, where is the art?

A digital artist I know who is, in fact, the country’s only digital artist in residence, has made a successful career out of creating images with computer photography, but he’s fearful of the future rather than expectant. He recently judged a competition for student digital artists and complains that while all were proficient in the use of their equipment, none of them had an aesthetic vision. “They hadn’t got past the point of knowing how to use the tool, they hadn’t realised that having got to that stage they had to make something. And what they made was, frankly, rather boring”. It was as if knowing how to put paint on a canvas was enough for painter, the picture was irrelevant.

The fact that Windows 8 was in a grouchy mood that evening is one of those things, but it gives me an easy way in to my point. I don’t want to sneer at that misfortune, but to ask where the creativity sits with the technology. It will come, for sure, but artists are already moving along, taking the technology with them as far as it will come, but leaving it behind if it can’t keep up with the creative process.

The phenomenon of this little cultural era is cross-arts, in which the perceived barriers between disciplines are being washed away. So, the colourful transvestism of a Turner Prize winner potter is seen as part of his art; a sculptor can create a piece out of amateur performers occupying a monumental plinth.

The Royal College of Art is planning a new MA in performing art that will be part of its fine art faculty, a very precious group that constitutes 20% of its student body, against 80% for design. And the RCA is also working with a concept called “critical design” in which the designers work like any kind of freehand artist, working without a brief using their skills to furnish a vision.

These digital technicians are undoubtedly brilliant with a zeal that is almost messianic, but in this context, the art must come first with the technology its servant, not the other way around.

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