Guest post: Design workshop at Tate Britain review

The ‘Designing for community-powered digital transformations workshop’ at Tate Britain, 15 May 2012, was the third in a series of AHRC-funded events where practitioners and researchers came together to consider innovative practices, and develop new ideas together.

Digital transformations implies that cultural and media organisations find themselves in a new environment in which communities of participants interact to create, curate, organise and support cultural experiences. This is not really a comfortable place for the gatekeepers of high culture. The event was primarily concerned with digital platforms, which enable communities to aggregate and curate content created by a wide range of professional, semi-professional and amateur participants. This levelling of the playing field raises all sorts of unanswered questions about the validity of public contributions-are they simply background annotations or artworks in their own right? Is non-expert commentary valuable in the longer term? During the day these questions were interrogated through a variety of examples quoted both by the speakers and the participants.

John Stack, Head of Tate Online showed a wide variety of participatory examples from the Tate’s online history. The most striking of which was the opportunity for the public to talk directly with Ai Wei Wei in China using the internet and record the conversation during the showing of sunflower seeds in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall- 25000 video recordings were created and a website where you could view these. Tate Britain also ran an exhibition of modern photography called How We Are Now – informed by a desire to put that message across that the Tate is a place to engage with photography. They let people upload around 4 pictures each via Flickr and had thousands submitted –these were shown on screens in a sort of virtual gallery that contributed to the narrative of the show. Also after an exhibition at Tate Modern looking at street photography, the Tate Britain did something similar and then curated 100 photographs, which were used in a print on demand service create an “alternative catalogue”, which was sent that out to the 100 chosen people that had contributed. The irony in this process was that the other contributors objected to the curation of the photos as being too safe and proposed an alternative set, that was in fact more lively.

Jake Berger, Programme Manager at The Space, BBC showed the prototype of this convergent online magazine and showcase in collaboration with the Arts Council. At the end of the experiment will be handed over to to ACE. Open source technology could then create a “broadcaster in a box” that can be used and built upon by a wider world. The code will be issued under Share-Alike scheme so any improvements are open for users.

The big question on the current site was also one of gatekeeping and who decides on the actual content. The Arts Council had created a number of commissions to fill the space, but many of these seemed to be remediations of old media, rather than custom made for a multiplatform streaming environment. It remains to be seen which, if any, of the commissions is really tailored for the new convergent space. The Space is an experiment and the participatory model is wanting, partly due to a combination of low funding and institutional nerves, so that a two-way conduit with participants had not been established.

Martin Rieser, Professor of Digital Creativity, De Montfort University [author of this post] showed a range of mobile technology-based projects chiefly dependent on the empedia platform, where public participation and media contributions are built in as part of the concept (see: Projects shown included: Riverains for Shoreditch High Street, exploring deep histories of place;Codes of Disobedience mapping graffiti as an interface to explore social disaffection in central Athens, Songlines, mapping road conditions and mobile artworks for cyclists in Leicester; Greenview visualising energy saving on a university campus, where the buildings have animated mascots, whose mood changes depending of the level of energy saving (The project allows the user to drill down to live data on their mobile and to take ownership of energy use in the workplace) ; and Virtual Romans, bringing history to life through mobile augmented reality and allowing local enthusiasts to add content.

Claire Ross, UCL was speaking about “Putting the Visitors first” in order to design better, more user friendly, digital experiences in Museums, particularly by applying agile design methods. She used examples from the Social Interpretation project at IWM and the QRator project at the Grant Museum. The idea of permanent commentary for museum exhibits seemed a good idea, although how one prioritises them over time is a difficult problem, although some peer review was enabled for the commentaries. For the Imperial War Museum, a more focused mining of living and inherited memories of war from the public would have perhaps been a richer experience.

Sunil Manghani, York St John University gave an intriguing talk where John Berger was pictured drawing out fascinated commentaries from school children on the sexual ambiguity at the heart of a Caravaggio painting. He posed two models: Dialectical and Dialogic for creative discourse using social media forms, favouring the Dialogic as more inclusive, subtler and effective. His key question was how does empathy come through online, when the designs are really extractive Web 2.0 envelopes for commercial data mining and everyone is made to conform to the same box interface.

The day involved presentations, discussions, and smaller-group conversations. The discussions were wide-ranging and covered all the problems of participatory forms-quality was perhaps under-discussed. I concluded we want two way participation- but we need to expect more of audiences- participation is not just admiring the wall paper. The focus and context are vital and this framing can avoid the accumulation of the banal, rude or irrelevant contribution.

Nicola Osborne has done a brilliant live blog of the day.

Martin Rieser is Professor of Digital Creativity at De Montfort University, UK

Photo by Flickr user harry_nl. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

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