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Is it all digital now?

One of the things about the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21 was that many arts companies needed to fast forward their outputs from predominantly live programmes into new digital presentations. It’s been an interesting time in terms of this change of medium and it seems as if things that would have taken years to change, were suddenly actioned. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of online arts work and think about where we might go next – I’m based in the West Midlands, so I will mostly use examples from that area.

Live events were shut down in March 2020 as we all reeled in shock at the horror of the pandemic. Lots of companies released the digital work that they already had and made it available online. We could enjoy NT Live screenings in our living rooms for the first time (normally they are shown on cinema screens and in theatres), smaller theatre companies like Pentabus in Shropshire released work for a limited time – this was all free to view.

In my work at Meadow Arts, we planned a series of artists talks, made by the artists on their own equipment in their studios. It was time to realise that the content was more important than a high production finish – the bonus here was that there was a variety and sense of creativity that came along with presenting in this way. Later in the first lockdown, we tested out some online workshops and found that Instagram Live was reaching a wider audience than other platforms (we tried Zoom, Facebook and YouTube).

An inclusive community engagement project I was working with in Herefordshire, Our Man in the Moone with EVERYBODY DANCE, was postponed. The project was very hands-on, and it was important that people could take part in person. We shared the story of a previous project and performance through the blog and social media channels, and Rachel Freeman continued to work on a community book project for Our Man in the Moone, collecting together people’s creative responses to the project. This was something that people could do remotely, without it having to be online.

Expanding thinking

As the pandemic progressed, a realisation began to dawn that this was much more long-term than anyone had first realised. More lockdowns were on the cards and it was necessary to find ways of reaching people with arts projects both through their screens and in more analogue ways where possible.

Some arts venues remained completely closed, such as MAC in Birmingham, while others became nimbler, presenting work outdoors or using technology as a part of the production process. In October 2020, Pentabus presented Signal Fires, an outdoor, socially distanced performance piece at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm in Shropshire. Audiences were advised to bring plenty of blankets and a flask of hot drink. On arrival, we were split off into separate areas and there was a campfire burning. It felt glorious to see a live event after so long, but we did get rained on too!

Catcher Media created 360º tours of its exhibitions during the pandemic, to enable people to view the works when venues were closed and this has continued into 2021, with the May Fair 900 exhibition that celebrated the 900th anniversary of Hereford’s historic May Fair (the May Fair itself was cancelled for two years in a row).

Meadow Arts devised its first full programme of digital commissions, RURALities, with an open call for proposals from artists and changed the format of its long term annual series of Art House Open Lecture Series to be hosted on Zoom after the third lockdown was announced in December 2020.

Lucy Wright, Plough Witches, Meadow Arts commission 2021

Birmingham based, Eastside Projects has produced a wide range of events for artists over the whole pandemic period, utilising digital platforms including Zoom and Instagram to share work, for virtual artist’s studio visits but also allowing for hands-on making sessions, with someone on screen to lead and support the workshop.

What have we learned?

The main piece of learning from undertaking more digital projects has been how much time it takes – it is not a quick fix and it has been quite a challenge for the small teams working on these projects to fit the increased workload into their part-time capacity.

Online art and culture is not the answer to everything. There are many people who can’t get online, so you won’t reach everyone. There are different solutions to this; Meadow Arts’ RURALities project included a print publication that was distributed in the rural counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, and the works produced were shown in real life at three county museums.

EVERYBODY DANCE’s Our Man in the Moone waited for the end of the third lockdown and created a series of live events and projects for individual community groups and schools, so that as many people as possible could take part within the guidelines for Covid-safe audience numbers. There was something very joyous in seeing children and people with learning disabilities swinging on the aerial rig, and their families coming along to watch in an outdoor space , after so long being enclosed.

EVERYBODY DANCE worked with About Face for Our Man in the Moone

The future is both digital and live – we need both things to stimulate our imaginations, and we need to see one another face-to-face for the sake of everyone’s mental health and creativity. Online events do allow us to visit the world in a way that few people would have the time or money for in real life. Only this week, I attended an online conference run by a-n (Artists’ Information Company) and the Artists’ Association of Finland. The event was streamed live from Finland, presented in English and fully subtitled and I jokingly shared it on Twitter with the caption ‘Today I’m in Finland…. not literally!’. I am looking forward to visiting Coventry Biennial in person, in a couple of weeks, as for me there’s nothing that can replicate standing in front of a piece of real-life visual art.

Long live digital art! Long live real-life art!

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