After 3.5 years at the Royal Opera House Audience Labs moved to King’s College London to host a series of conversations around recurring themes about technology, the culture space and the shape, direction and potential for collaboration and new approaches.

All the changes 
Conditions for accelerating change have been building for years. Across every industry, the effects of rapid digital innovation, shifts in local and global sociological, economic and climate volatility are being felt and responded to. Simultaneously technology is on the rise in every aspect of our lives and hybrid experiences are becoming normal – in how we shop, communicate, play and live together. This “new normal” where change is much more rapid, continual and ubiquitous brings with it enormous challenges and opportunities. Old siloes are crumbling - that is both exciting but also makes us vulnerable. How do we navigate all this change? 

I come at this question as an artist and theatre maker. My attraction to working in and making ‘culture’ has always been that it offers space to imagine how we can live differently, where we reflect on the world. I like the taxonomy The Gulbenkian created as part of their enquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. They define our possible roles as: colleges (places of learning), town halls (places of debate), parks (public space open to everyone), temples (places which give meaning and provide solace), home (a place of safety and belonging). 

So how do we keep doing all those things in a changing world?

The joys of a Visiting Fellowship
I was lucky enough over the last year to be able to spend part of my time at King’s College as a Senior Visiting Fellow. After 20+ years of making and directing shows, immersive projects and all kinds of genre-bending work I craved time to take stock. I felt like I wanted to step away from my business-as-usual. I know how to make a show, I know how to make innovative art and beautiful collaborations, but I felt the need for reflection and deeper analysis. 

My fellowship was hosted by King’s Culture, which provided a perfect context for the work. Their work forms bridges between King’s broad academic expertise and the cultural and creative industries. Their work is often interdisciplinary and uses creative and collaborative approaches to explore contemporary challenges for social and cultural impact. All things that are important to me too.  

Collaboration and conversation as research 
My work always is developed in collaboration with other disciplines from scientists to activists, from innovators to classically trained dancers. And many people in-between. It inspires the artistic work but also it helps me think about what the work is for, who it can reach and what role it can play in the world. That is how I approached my year at King’s College as well - researching through collaboration and conversation.  

Between my projects, I always made time for conversations about the future of culture and the role art and culture can play in shaping our relationship with the world. These conversations about change and the role of culture are complex and the people and ideas that are shaping this area of work are diverse and multifaceted. This fellowship allowed me the time and opportunity to give these conversations centre-stage.  

Mirroring processes I use when I develop my artistic work; I worked iteratively and let the themes and topics emerge from the conversations - each stage of development informing the next. I ended up talking with 70+ people from across industries - including performance and wider culture, technology and digital production, broadcast media, social innovation, climate change, policy, and academia and more. I talked to people one-on-one but also brought people together at round tables, dinners and due to the pandemic and endless amount of collective zooms. Together we questioned, explored and finessed. 

 Social Change and digital technologies
Some things these creative innovators are concerned with are eternal; we are human, we love art and stories and use those to make sense of ourselves and the world. Some things are new and very much of the now; the urgency of the climate emergency, the ever quicking evolution of technology. It is that coming together of the constancy of “the human condition” and the uniqueness of this time in history - where culture thrives. Our collective imagination has the possibility of us finding a language for our collective possibilities. It helps us step away from incremental day-to-day change into imagining the radical changes we need to see in the face of climate change and inequalities. It helps us envisage a future beyond our present. 

Audiences are always at the heart of these conversations. There is a lot of ambition to see culture change to reflect our 21st century society better - to be more open, more democratic, more about dialogue,embracing new ideas,  away from didactic approaches towards meaningful exchange. And joy.  

Just as video didn’t kill the radio star, so also the internet won’t kill the theatre star. Technology holds many possibilities. As new forms of digital storytelling and culture emerge over the next decade, the cultural sector has all the ingredients to expand and explore these new tools to make new work and reach new audiences. But we can’t chase quick fixes and force-fit processes and solutions from existing formats onto new technologies. We need to figure out how we navigate change while staying rooted in our ethics and values and missions. We must work, learn and develop together, and become part of a wider network of partners across art forms, technologies and social and civic change makers.  

Things you can read 
One of the outcomes is “Investing in Future Cultures” a report for AHRC that looks at the way funders generally and AHRC specifically can invest in and support innovation and transformation in the culture and performance sector. AHRC is soon to launch their COSTAR initiative – which aims to put the UK at the forefront of the next-generation creative industry by building world-leading physical infrastructure for immersive performance. COSTAR is very well placed to play a key role in developing future cultures and a profitable new industry for the UK. As the industry develops, so must its support structure.  

The report looks at the ecology as a whole, identifies the needs for investment to allow it to grow and soar and makes recommendations and impact predictions. What is abundantly clear is that the UK has a world-leading, vibrant cultural and creative industry.  One that is full of innovators, and creative mavericks that are responding to a changing world and changing technologies. Currently it is a loose but interconnected ecology that has started to emerge organically. It is a diverse ecology of experts and creatives working across gaming, theatre, broadcasting, film, innovation design, engineering, technology and more. They work together at this immensely productive intersection between traditional culture, digital entertainment and technological innovation: a new and unique hybrid industry; a cultural innovation nexus. 

You can download the“Investing in Future Cultures” report here

As part of this process I also asked a few people to write about some of the things they brought up in conversation. 

Ash Mann - Managing Director, Substrakt wrote about hybrid futures and the role cultural venues can take in the process of discovering new forms of art.

Tom Burton - Head of Interactive, BBC Studios wrote about the need to break down siloes and embrace risk. How we can speak more effectively and with greater certainty of our future if we address the uncertainty we all feel right now.

Gill Wildman - Director, Upstarter wrote about how ideas grow over time and how we can avoid cliff-edges by better nurturing talent and ideas by actively building connections.

Dr Noshua Watson - Managing Director, Interwoven Impact takes an economic lens to write about new approaches to value of culture which can stimulate art that enables exchange and relationships that have value to individuals, communities and society. She asks the question how we could ask how the arts create a record, artefacts, and knowledge.

Now for the actual doing

Looking forward, I want to build on the work of last year. It feels like an exciting time to connect dots; to bring together cultural innovators, social change makers, creative technologists, academics and researchers.I’m interested in developing spaces for conversation but also importantly doing and making.  

Although much extraordinary work is happening, it is currently still fragmented. Too often high-quality and innovative work happens in relative isolation, and with massive disparities in access to resources and opportunity. Although there are many instances of successful collaborations across silos, there is no investment in the infrastructure to build an industry and identify, sustain  and build on these one-off successes.  

We need more spaces that connect across siloes to create a sophisticated and connected approach to collaboration, shared R&D and learning. We need to talk more, but we also need to DO more. We need to put some of our theories in practice, show it to each other and audiences. We will still host conversations. We need reflection and research. Ultimately, only through the act of making and doing, trial and error, can we start developing new ways forward together.  

A plethora of ideas
There is no shortage of starting points. This year has developed many green shoots.There are ideas about new artistic forms and ways of democratising culture and many ideas on how culture can contribute to society. I’m excited by culture as a laboratory for imagination working on concepts like “polymorphic touring” in response to climate change (see page 18 of Investing in Future Cultures).

There is so much work to be done! One more thing that I found exciting; throughout this incredibly diverse group of people, working across industries there is a real desire to do work on ethics, equity and climate standards as part of the work. This new industry wants and needs to be part of new solutions not historic problems.  

This Fellowship has given me renewed hope. And the energy to start creating again.

Image: a fragment of "PLEASE ENTER" by Dennis Osadebe - part of The Rules Do Not Apply - a series of commissions by Audience Labs at the Royal Opera House and National Gallery X