What does Digital R&D Mean in the Arts? What's The Value in the Arts Economy?

20/07/2016 14:16 | Updated 20 July 2016

On Thursday, I spoke at an event called "Make, Do and Bend", described by its organisers, The Hub, as a "one day event for musicians, composers, producers, curators and arts managers with an interest in live performance and making digital projects". A quick skim through the tweets shows how successful it was as a networking event, too. There was a definite sense that people who are used to working with clients, audiences, producers or artists, don't often get to chat to each other, and appreciated the opportunity.

The event was a mini festival of practical tech demos, project-sharing lightning talks, and two 'big picture' panels exploring questions around R&D with plenty of audience interaction. My panel was asking "What makes good digital R&D", and as an artist, digital creative and producer, I have various perspectives on the subject.

R&D and innovation have proper economic meanings I wanted to be aware of. According to a definition I found somewhere, digital innovation requires:

1) A recognised need.
2) Competent people working with relevant technology.
3) Financial support.

It's another term for risk-taking, with the goal that at some point these experiments will pay off and the value of the output will be boosted beyond the cost. There are Government grants and tax credits available for R&D, not because anyone wants to reward work that is exploratory for its own sake, but purely because it might turn out to be an economic investment. This old-school 'innovation' is the muse of digital agencies producing extra-curricular creative technology products like educational tools or games. It might result in fun and challenging work, but make no mistake, the goal is to make more money for the agencies.

But there's another economy which does reward work which is exploratory in and of itself. "R&D in the arts" seems to be quite a new thing, inspired by the digital model, but not motivated by financial revenue. I worry about the arts taking on the mantle, because R&D and innovation are terms with such an overwhelming direction built in to them - a direction in favour of commercial digital products. No one ever asks what the problems are in digital which the arts might be able to solve. The arts are on the back foot. As I often say, why don't they have dancers-in-residence at Google?

We have a creative technology scene so wary of originality that it can list the 'innovations' it's after, right down to the technical parts

As an artist, I've been involved in a number of wonderful "R&D" projects centred on 'cultural change'. Many interesting things resulted, but none involved innovation in an economic sense and none brought about products. However, in a completely different sense, the mere existence of some of these programs was innovative. Sometimes just parachuting a technology person into an arts environment is surprising and challenging enough to count as a sort of artistic performance in its own right. The value is woolly, subjective, emotive and economically defiant - just like art.

The culture industry is great at discussing things forever; digital is great at whittling down definitions. It's both admirable and troubling that we in the arts don't know, or don't want to know what we mean by R&D. It's particularly difficult, because artistic or 'cultural change' projects are playing by similar rules to product development ones, often pitching for the same cash. But the game we're playing, and what we're getting out of it, is totally different. There may be no way of knowing any of the outcomes we're hoping for before we start. Perhaps, for artists, research projects are development projects. Perhaps we're all doing R&D whenever we get creative... or maybe none of us are!

I don't know anyone making a living through digital creative work alone. It talks and walks like industry, but who's making the money? If the answer is no one, then is the culture sector cargo-culting 'product R&D'? Understandable, but a bit futile. And of course, commercial digital has an interest in supporting things which aren't motivated by money. Who doesn't love a volunteer? This is one of the biggest un-interrogated problems with digital culture: the commercial interests are working the ethical angle.

One of the biggest problems with digital culture: the commercial interests are working the ethical angle.

For a scene that claims to want novelty and diversity, it is striking that all the digital artist call-outs at the moment look exactly the same. They all award bonus points for the same areas of interest: Internet of Things, Sensors, Wearables, Futures, Interaction, Disruption, and of course, Innovation. For all its jabber about storytelling and imagination, digital consistently values equipment and effects over ideas, mechanics over feeling, soundbites over nuance. We have a creative technology scene so wary of unimaginably original ideas that it can list the 'innovations' it's after, right down to the technical parts involved. The sums offered to any accommodating geniuses generally amount to little more than the minimum wage.

This latest rash of product-driven creative technology residencies feels like a reincarnation of the "Hackathons" of five years ago. Hack days were criticised for exploiting free labour, and while there at least seems to be some money this time around, it still has the whiff of an 'opportunity' - the feeling that someone is doing us a favour by letting us play; that we ought to be grateful. After all, we're not boosting economies fast by making art.

So are we valuable, or not? Do you want us here, or not?