Page last updated at 10:17 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Tech shifts cultural boundaries

Pans People dancing
Dancing avatars is a step on from the days of Pans People

Digital technologies challenge the cultural industries, says Bill Thompson.

I had one of the strangest experiences of my online life last Friday evening in the bar of the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, and while I'm still not sure what it means I enjoyed it, in a odd sort of way.

It came at the end of a conference on the future of cinemas and other artistic venues in a digital world, while we were enjoying a DJ set from Captain Buck Rogers. The music we were listening to was being streamed live into the virtual world of Second Life, and being played out in replica of the renowned Baltic Mill gallery, situated on a newly-opened virtual Tyneside island developed by a local company, Vector 76.

Avatars from around the world were dancing to the music we could hear, while we watched them projected onto the wall of the cinema bar, so I got out my laptop, logged in to Second Life and made my way to the virtual Baltic, where I joined in the dancing.

I could see my avatar moving around on the screen of my computer, but I was also clearly visible among the crowd projected onto the wall, dancing like every teenager's embarrassing dad in cyberspace while drinking a deliciously cold beer in the real world.

It was profoundly disquieting to find myself in three places at once, but it helped me reflect on how new technologies are shifting the boundaries of the arts and culture, and it was a very appropriate end to a day which had been spent considering how arts venues are being challenged by digital technologies.

Offline galleries

Bill Thompson
The network could be about to unleash a wave of creative cultural destruction as great in its impact on all cultural activism as the rise of modernism was in the last century.
Bill Thompson

The conference was called 'Clicks or Mortar?' in reference to the question facing many retailers who are struggling to decide whether to put effort into online or shop-based sales and marketing, and was part of a programme of debate and discussion I've been helping to lead at Tyneside since it reopened last year after extensive - and expensive - rebuilding work.

As you might expect, it was a day with many more questions than answers, although by the time we headed to the bar there were lots of plans for exploration and innovation being hatched between the theatre directors, curators, cinema managers and social media experts who had spent the day together.

There might even have been a sense of optimism about the future, since nobody had tried to argue that everyone would abandon their desire to share space and art with other people even if high speed networks, home cinema systems and social tools meant the quality of the home experience continued to improve.

Immersive environments

But there was also great concern that venues such as cinemas and theatres may not survive in their current form.

Of course it is far too easy to frame any debate about the future development of the arts in terms of a 'crisis', and theatre, opera, cinema, the novel and even the very idea of the author have all been through more crises than most of us care to recall.

David Hockney in front of his Grand Canyon painting
Can art galleries survive in the digital age?
Yet there is a strong case to be made that the combined effect of the collapse of the current iteration of globalised capitalism and the social changes wrought by digital technologies really do merit the use of the term this time around, and that it might sensibly be applied to the whole cultural scene rather than just one aspect of it.

New technologies offer new ways to create and experience art of all types, but they also offer new conceptual frameworks within which art can be created, from the immersive environments of video games like Grand Theft Auto IV to the complex mathematical modelling that underpinned My Secret Heart, one of the works shown at the conference as an example of current practice, and this could have significant consequences for current cultural practice.

Anyone who has heard me talk about the impact of technology will know that I am a great admirer of Joseph Schumpeter, the twentieth century economist whose described the way that new production methods often destroy successful companies when they leave it too late to adopt innovations because they are wedded to currently profitable practices.

He named the process 'creative destruction', and his work still provides a useful framework for understanding how Microsoft challenged IBM, Amazon challenged the booksellers and Google destroyed Yahoo!

It can also be applied to cultural production, but whereas in the past it has largely been driven by artistic innovations such as the invention of the first person narrative or atonal music, with technology secondary, the rapid rate of technological change may mean that those artists, artforms and venues that make the best use of the capabilities of the new technologies will sweep away those who fail to innovate.

The network could be about to unleash a wave of creative cultural destruction as great in its impact on all cultural activism as the rise of modernism was in the last century.

In the new digital world I suspect that artforms, artists and cultural organisations will succeed by occupying the liminal space between offline and online, building a compelling presence in both that allows something unexpected to emerge where they meet and blur together.

Rather like dancing in Second Life while drinking a beer in the the first one.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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