What language please

What happens if you apply start-up logic to being an arts organisation? Turns out that looking at what you do through the lens of another sector shows up the baggage you're carrying.

What language please

With the work we make, we increasingly find ourselves on development schemes where the common denominator is digital technology.  There are ‘start-ups’ and ‘social enterprises’ on the scheme, as well as other artists. And it turns out that there is something about shiny tech, and the narratives of ‘innovation’ that accompany it, that seems pretty hard to separate from the idea of making money. It took us a while to realise that often, there is an expectation that whatever you’re using the tech for will have a commercial application - that from the start, you should be thinking about ‘market’, ‘distribution’ and ‘scaling’. Of course, some projects -or products- have a commercial application and some obviously don’t. And we find ourselves kind of in the middle. So the last year has been an adventure in over-coming a fairly ignorant knee-jerk aversion to words we associate with cApiTaLisM (and all its evils) and thinking about this stuff through different lenses.

Love the images you get if you type 'technology' into a search engine. Growth, power, THE FUTURE

Last week were the mid-point meetings for the MediaFutures programme that we’re part of. Each project was asked to reflect on their learnings so far. Listening to the other 11 projects, I was struck by the different languages we used. For some people, I was totally clear on the societal need for what they were doing but had no clue what it was they were going to do. For other projects, I understood the political motivation behind the project but again, couldn’t tell you what would happen. And then for others, it was totally clear what would happen but not why or who would be interested in it. We -an assortment of artists, technologists, academics, start-ups- were all describing our work in different languages and in response to a series of unstated -and perhaps unconscious- preoccupations.

When I commented on this, another artist described how they’d followed an earlier presentation from a start-up, translating the concepts to their own experience. They noted overcoming a feeling of unfamiliarity -and the same imposter syndrome I get in these situations- and finding parallels and useful thinking points. And there are obvious parallels - sadly, an obsession with the ‘new’ and burn-out seem as common to start-up world as to the arts. But for us as well as for our peer artist on the MediaFutures programme, looking at what we do through the lens of another discipline has been a really useful exercise.

We often describe our work as ‘audience-centric’ - by which we mean that without an audience it doesn’t exist, it’s just 12 iPads on a table or a web browser (I’ve written more about categorisations here). So we’re always thinking about our work from the audience perspective: what is their understanding of what is being asked of them? how do they feel? Two thirds of FF’s core team come from a theatre background, and I think that means we bring quite a lot of baggage with us around what role the audience plays in our creation process. Due to a long history of how funding has worked in the UK, there are people who worry that art has been ‘instrumentalised’ - that instead of making a case for the inherent value of art, in UK the case has been made in terms of ‘benefit’ to the audience - an improvement in their ‘well-being’ for example, or that they gain new skills. So a preoccupation with audience can feel alarming to those people who fear that the arts have never made the case for their own value - and are therefore vulnerable to a neoliberal capitalist agenda. One notable high profile UK theatre artist (who has recently been discredited, so I’m not going to name-quote him) repeatedly stated that he didn’t consider the audience when making work, that he was making it for himself. Art forms that run on audience reaction -pantomime, clown, games- are often regarded as… well, not as art. I think this is a long way of saying that I have a big insecurity about how much I’m preoccupied by the audience in my work… don’t I have the courage of my convictions? Isn’t my thinking rigorous enough on its own? What’s wrong with me that I need affirmation from Them all the time? I recently realised that I had kind of internalised a thought that the more I cared about an audience, the less of an artist I was.

Approximately the amount of baggage I have around the idea of being 'an artist'.

But if I shift from thinking of FF as artists, to thinking of FF as a design studio, then suddenly we have users rather than audience, and to disregard their needs -or to fail to centre them in the development process- makes it more likely that the product will fail. Being designers implies some kind of brief, and an iterative process of development that looks a lot more like what we do. So the language we speak among ourselves is now this. Sometimes the design brief comes from a partner (e.g. 'make a research tool which lets us find out how people understand different types of scientific evidence in a court setting’) and sometimes we set it ourselves (e.g. ‘create an environment where people make informed choices about the stories that should be told about the past’). Somehow being designers, drawing on this language (even though what we design is stories) feels more… manageable. Certainly less baggage.

But of course to arts funders and the arts community, I talk about shows not products, and audiences not users. There’s a degree to which we’re always going to be shifting what we say to suit the audience - in the same way as you describe your job in a different way to a peer from the same subsector of the industry than to an estate agent you’re sat next to at a wedding - or to a seven year old child. It isn’t just the shifts in language that our journeying into these other worlds has taught us about.

There are whole concepts that have been new to us. As part of another scheme we were part of, we had someone help us work on our business model. Early on, he asked us what our sources of passive income were - and we were baffled. Passive income was, he explained, income that you get without having to do additional work - so (in the days before streaming) when you bought a band’s album, that was passive income for them, because they’d done recording it. As the pandemic took hold and theatres were forced to close, I realised that for many theatres (and probably other art buildings), there are no sources of passive income. When you can’t have the people doing the thing live, you can’t make the money. I hadn’t really thought of it in the terms of passive income before. Had people in theatre boardrooms talked about this, in the days before the pandemic when no one could imagine the last 15 months? I’d genuinely like to know.

Another thing we’ve learnt from the world of start-ups is the value of data. Most artists and arts organisations would like more people to experience their work but how many are actively collecting and using data to achieve this mission? If you’re an arts organisation large enough to have a marketing department, maybe you are thinking about using customer data to personalise your audience members’ experience or plan how a specific person might engage with your output over the next three years… but based on the comms I get from arts organisations I’ve gone to in the past, this doesn’t happen all that much. And I kind of wonder whether it’s because -at least historically- data hasn’t been part of the language spoken by the arts.

It us.

So where does all this leave FF? Sometimes I think of us like those mutant toys created by Sid in Toy Story. The head of a theatre company grafted onto the mechanical body of a design studio, jumping along on the spring legs of a start-up. No wonder people run away from us in horror. Or at least end up confused when we get the language wrong. The process of starting to accept our weird hybrid nature has involved running up against prejudices I hadn’t realised we held. A bit like night vision goggles, looking at what you do through the lens of another sector shows up the baggage we didn’t realise we were carrying. It’s a process but we’re gradually learning to pack lighter…