Building Bridges into the Unknown – Human Library Session at Canada Council’s Arts in a Digital World Summit
Field notes from Owen Brierley (notes source provided by Patrick Finn)
On Friday March 17th, 2017, I was invited to host a Human Library as part of the Canada Council’s Arts in a Digital World Summit. The Summit was a gathering of arts professionals from a diverse range of disciplines. For our Human Library I focused on the challenges and successes of the brackish waters of digital media in the traditional arts. The following is a set of notes and reflections on the discussions we had over three 30 minutes sets.
Participant perspectives: small, artist run organizations, gallery curator, dance historian, Canadian symphonies
We began the Human Library exploring the one of the core issues facing collaborators: trust. The challenges a creator faces when stepping outside the standard production process is determining what level of trust they have with a variety of groups. The bigger the production, the bigger the risk, the greater a challenge to the trust investment.
I offered a story about my experience as a projection designer working on Make Mine Love for the Citadel Theatre. This was a large production that required big risk amongst groups who had well established trust relationships based on prior successes. The introduction of the projection element in the design and implementation processes required these successful professionals to step out of their normal mode of work and to alter the well oiled machine they knew so well. Trust was vital.
The Trust Triangle
I have found the trust triangle a useful tool for analyzing relationships of all sorts. The triangle cycles through trust to risk to pay-off and back to trust. This is a constantly evolving triangle that can grow or shrink depending on the results of the cycle of transactions. Well established relationships can reach a stasis but when a new parameter is introduced, that stasis can be challenged and throw the relationship into unpredictable cycles.
One member of our first conversation offered the F*ck Up Night example where participants offer stories about projects or experiences that didn’t work out and how they impacted them.
We discussed the challenges of funders offloading risk onto the arts and culture groups. Often this is unintentional and requires courage from the artists to identify the problems. I used the example of an unintentional catch 22 situation on a project where funding from one organization required the deliverable to be free for all Canadians and the funding from another organization required a clear monetization strategy. The project required both funders but could not satisfy one without sacrificing the other. Eventually, through negotiation, a consensus was reached for the project and we were able to continue to completion.
This triggered a discussion about “small experiments with radical intent” from the New Pathways for the Arts program. As well, one of the participants mentioned an experiment the Edmonton Symphony did that had the musicians live tweeting during a performance. This lead to a discussion about presence and how audience members want to be in two places: online and at the live performance. Juggling the two is difficult. Compare and contrast this with the behaviour of audiences in rock concerts or EDM festivals.
At this point we ran out of time and I introduced the second topic for the table: vocabularies and processes for working with digital artists.
A big part of bringing communities together is developing a shared vocabulary and set of processes where each artist is able to adapt their work to fit the overall production. Sometimes timelines can become unintentionally hostile to innovation and collaboration.
New participants arrived: business person specializing in strategic planning for arts groups; director of Living Lab at Emily Carr
I wanted to give a simple example of how vocabularies can very innocently mislead us. I used the example of making buns. The team agrees that buns are needed and you, being good at making buns, offer your help. You go away and make the most amazing buns ever. You proudly present your labours: excellent cinnamon buns! The team reacts and says, “but we wanted hamburger buns!”
While this is an overly simple example, I think it is one that everyone can relate to and has quite possibly experienced.
The same goes for process, though in this case, the analogy could be closer to plane crashes. Airplanes rarely crash due to one catastrophic failure, but rather a thousand inconsequential errors that are minor in themselves. When it comes to process, we need to take special care in looking after those errors, as minor as they might seem.
I then returned the idea of vocabulary and asked the participants for their perspectives. One participant commented that people get caught in a loop, often this is a result of a mix of emotion and reason. It is hard to write something on demand, like a vision statement, you have to discover it. You can use a conversation or an exercise, but when you try to write it down you use all the buzz words and your statement becomes meaningless. Your statement should be words that are specific to your practice.
Another participant commented that their experience is often between the different vocabularies of a designer and a fine artist. Especially working with startups who have new relationships and relatively isolated vocabularies.
An example was shared. Working with immigrants and refugees. Immigrant and refugee societies use language that makes it more challenging for them to collaborate with outside organizations that have vocabularies that can present unintentional barriers to accomplishing work.
I mentioned that when exploring shared vocabularies, it is vital that all participants work to return to a state of innocence and openness to new definitions and nuances to familiar terms. It is vital to get comfortable with not knowing again.
Someone mentioned terms like art vs. content, and fine art vs. design as examples of how the nuances of these terms can cause both communication and language challenges.
Another participant offered a phrase that came out of a thinking game called Buzzword Bingo. The phrase was “adaptive resilience.” That is a humdinger of a phrase. It contains so many possible meanings. It could be positive or negative depending on connotation and context.
The notion of cognitive dissonance when a vocabulary is changed but the practice stays the same was discussed. Behaviour takes time to change and the vocabulary can be co-opted to attempt to put a new coat of paint to cover a rusting relic. Using new terms to describe existing practices only serves to reinforce a resistance to change.
Another participant noted that words used a shortcuts to efficiency only work for that purpose, but quickly constrain us and keep us hidden from one another.
How can we break out of our patterns?
A participant who is a choreographer artist in residence at a major theatre company shared some perspectives. She noted that bringing in a new show with colleagues from dance, working with a director and designer from theatre, she had to adapt her discipline practice and process to better fit the theatre perspective. She mentioned that you must be willing to let go of some of your discipline’s best practices in order to work with the group. This is a two-way street and the theatre professionals needed to adapt as well. This lead to a discussion about an added level of complexity for digital as it can be quite dissimilar to performance arts processes.
Another participant suggested that digital is inherently networked and more adaptable. Dance and theatre may seem similar, but they have long-standing best practices with deeply ingrained way so working. Digital has not had time to become as codified internally and externally.
The group then pondered the question, “does this adaptation bring anything of use back to the original practice? Does collaboration come at a cost to expertise?” The choreographer noted that there is feedback that is useful, and requires that the artist must be mindful of re-integration into their own discipline.
Another participant commented that the traditional disciplines are so entrenched in the way they work, those practices that seem like they should work well together struggles because they have the most barriers to collaboration.
This lead to a group discussion about disciplinary ruts and how those ruts are actually developed through professional artistic success.
This concluded our second session, and we used the notion of disciplinary ruts to segue to session 3.
One participant asked me what an example of a professional rut would be. I offered my professional experience as a video projection artist. I achieve continued work opportunities for my previous work. My funders expect my work to reflect my previous successes and deviation from that practice is undesired. The funding I receive does not require me to break out of my rut, in fact, staying on that success path is recommended.
Another group member commented that there are large organization people and small organization people. Smaller organization people tend to be control freaks. We need to work on helping those who exist in the middle.
New participants join the session, others leave. New perspectives include an artistic director at a choreographic centre and sound artist / event and festival organizer, visual and auditory artist and curator, choreographer, theatre director work with technology and content simultaneously and using the experimental/laboratory model of creation rather than producing product, and a participant who is building a new company doing business technology who is a data geek doing research and knowledge transfer.
I reviewed the previous discussions and asked the group, “what is your burning question?”
The choreographer asked, “where is experimentation taking place? Where can we work together before bringing work to production?” The group had several ideas: Omnimedia at the University of Calgary; Ghost River labs; Secret Body project in Montreal.
I jokingly said that this collaborative experimentation happens in secret. I was only half joking. In many ways, these ad hoc secret societies form in response to the limited collaboration time and resources offered in a professional context. When you are a working professional artist, experimentation, especially collaborative experimentation is nearly non-existent.
Another participant asked, “how do we try things (prototype) things for long enough to see if it is worth pursuing?” This lead to an example. A company has excellent resources, but their financial model is not designed for risk, they make money on shows, so why would they let someone use their space to work on something that might not be profitable? They are incentivised to keep redoing proven work (see the discussion about ruts above) with extra money going to finance star performers to the in the same plays over and over.
I then bring the discussion back to the trust triangle I had previously mentioned to talk about how we can grown tolerance for experimentation. I did this in response to the keywords of the triangle from one of the participants: risk and payoff. We have a number of different trust triangles with the people we work with. I have friends who trust me on many things, but we discovered that we don’t have the same taste in films. They don’t trust my film recommendations. In many situations an artist must develop their risk to payoff ratio in order to earn the right to experiment. Robert LePage is a familiar example of an artist who has developed a long history of experimental practice. He has also been passed over for funding in the past, so this tolerance came at a price.
I then summed up our discussions for the afternoon. I referred to the need to be cognizant of the trust triangle and the need to assess your own personal risk/payoff ratio when looking at funders, collaborators and audience. I reminded everyone that we need to be open to an innocence in vocabulary and practice as we seek to develop new collaborations. We need to start from the place that everyone is a creator. The sooner we move away from delineating artists, designers, technicians, etc. the sooner we can have truly empowering collaborations.
Thank you to the Canada Council for this excellent opportunity. The Arts in a Digital World Summit and the reflected initiatives in the Council’s funding streams is very exciting and encouraging. I look forward to being an ambassador for my community.