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Some thoughts from Culture Hack Day

This weekend just gone, The Royal Opera House put on the inaugural Culture Hack Day - in actual fact two days. The core of the weekend, hosted at Wieden + Kennedy's Spitalfields offices, took the standard format of a hack day, bringing together developers with content owners and managers from across the cultural and arts sector, with the aim of seeing just what kinds of tools and services coders could build if given access to the right data sets. You can take a peek at some photos from the weekend here or see the twitter conversation taking place around it by searching the hashtag #chd11; for a full list of links through to the projects built, check the CHD homepage.


In the meantime, as an extension to the weekend, on Saturday afternoon, a series of lightning talks took place looking at some of the issues around data and the arts. I was honored to host and chair the talks, and eight speakers presented some of their thoughts to a packed audience before taking part in a series of panel discussion.

  • Tom Uglow, Creative Director at Google and YouTube, Europe and Clare Reddington, Director, iShed and Pervasive Media Studio both talked about the possibilities of non-web, non-screen-based online services.

  • Leila Johnston, author, blogger & comedy writer discussed the importance of fun when the arts and tech come together.

  • Tom Armitage of BERG London looked at the actual practice of making art and artists might use data in their work.

  • Film producer Tom Dunbar asked "What if the audience had access to metadata embedded in visual media?"

  • Matthew Somerville, developer, Theatricalia, posited ways that data might be used to ensure that potential audience members never missed shows.

  • Author Nick Harkaway, reminded us all of the importance of IP and ownership in all of this.

  • And finally, Chris Thorpe from ArtFinder suggested ways data could be used to help display the collection a museum or gallery holds to people outside the building.

To be frank, I was busy hosting all of this, so you'll forgive me if my notes are brief! Luckily, there are already some great round ups out there, including Meshed Media's, Roo Reynolds' and Mia Ridge's. The Royal Opera House's Rachel Coldicutt, who conceived the day, asked me to put together an, ahem, manifesto for data and culture from the day. That's proved something of a tall order(!) so instead I'll leave you with some of the bullet points I scrawled onto sheets on the wall - which you can see on the flickr page in all their illegible original glory - as a small litany of observations, questions and the odd demand:

  • There is vastly more opportunity in an open data strategy for arts organisations than danger. 

  • Yet this is often not realised. It is incumbent upon those of us who "get it" to explain the opportunities rather than to become simply frustrated.

  • Data should be humanised.

  • We desperately need to lose the techie/creative dichotomy - which has always been false.

  • What are some web-native ways of storytelling?

  • Should we be asking who is the Stanley Kubrick of the Transmedia age? Or should we be thinking about artists of Kubrick's generation who've been doing Transmedia for decades (Tom Phillips, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Peter Greenaway)?

  • Imagine what we could do with all the data and metadata in a single scene from Die Hard?

  • Characters in contemporary soaps should tweet!

  • It's good to make things fun, but remember, fun can be serious, and seriousness doesn't = sombreness. (AKA, "Does fun = s***?!)

  • In a capitalist culture, buying is voting.

  • If remix culture continues its inexorable rise, will we be left with a diminishing pool of new creative work>

  • (A: No! This is not a zero sum game!) 

A final observation from me is that of all these points, the one about the creative/techie false dichotomy is the one which glares out. It's always been a stuck-in-craw one for me. The idea that technologists aren't deeply creative is of course profoundly offensive, but I suppose one can argue that that's just down to a common usage of "creative" as a term to bundle together what we might once have termed "liberal arts" and "crafts" and the industries which stem from them.


But that aside, what was abundantly clear from the afternoon's conversation - as it leapt from Kafka to Tom Phillips, Geoff Ryman to Stanly Kubrick, form theatre to architecture to alt.rock and opera (and, yes, to Bruce Willis, too), was that some of the most technically adept and insightful people working in this area are also hugely culturally-informed. Like I say, not news to me, nor I dare say to many readers of this blog, but to have it underlined by this event was gratifying. It also gave me real excitement about the kinds of projects we might see coming up in the imminent TSB metadata funding call.

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