Standing in 2022, looking back over the past few years, the pandemic changed many things, for example it meant that I could stop having to argue why ‘digital’ was something that cultural organisations needed to think about and proactively engage with. I have been leading and working on digital projects for over 15 years. As managing director of Substrakt I work with cultural institutions of all shapes and sizes and across the world, from Shakespeare’s Globe to the American Repertory Theater, Turner Contemporary to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Malmo Opera and more. We design and build websites and digital products alongside providing strategic consultancy, training and support services. The pandemic meant that overnight digital channels became more or less the only way that cultural organisations could engage with artists and share work with audiences.
Encouragingly the past two years saw much digital experimentation from cultural organisations of all size around the globe. From immersive binaural audio experiences and hand-made puppetry workshops through to generative artworks, interesting mash ups of immersive theatre, film and online gaming and a live-streamed Glastonbury.
But as organisations have been able to welcome visitors and audiences back in-person the pre-pandemic status quo has tried to aggressively reassert itself. This is completely understandable after the chaos, sadness and difficulties of the past two years.
But unfortunately the certainties (such as they were) of the pre-pandemic world no longer exist. Audience expectations have shifted. Audiences that cultural organisations previously relied on have not returned in the same numbers, and at the same frequency. Indeed, for some, the habit of cultural attendance has been broken all together. We believe that it is only by accepting and leaning into this shift that organisations are going to be able to position themselves for the increasingly uncertain future we are all moving towards.
Reflecting on what might come next I feel that hybrid experiences will form an increasingly important part of the way that all cultural organisations make and share work. The pandemic emphasised that arts and culture organisations are more than their buildings - they are their work, their artistic community and their audiences and the gathering of these people for dialogue and connection. Buildings and physical space are a tremendous asset for this but every cultural organisation can also expand into the digital realm. Technology and creative R&D can open up venues to a broader community, and help to transform how and where culture is made and experienced.
The arc, rhythm and shaping of the audience experience in hybrid and digital experiences are different to traditional forms of culture, and the context of these experiences is similarly altered. The format of arriving at a cultural building and moving through it in a way that is defined by the physical geography of the space, and the social cues and norms of cultural attendance, do not easily map onto digital experiences that may be being experienced asynchronously, by people on their own devices, in multiple different locations, on their own or in crowds of people (who may be doing something else entirely).
Suddenly the way in which people find out about a show becomes a much more obvious part of the experience itself. The technical infrastructure of that digital experience dictates the quality of the audience experience, the commercial model is completely different, the language you need to use to describe this type of experience may not be widely shared (or even understood) at this point.
Everything is nascent, everything is interconnected.
Much of the digital culture we have seen and experienced over the past two years has not addressed this. Experiences have started with a youtube link and culminated with a ‘this livestream has now ended’ message. The communality, liveness and exchange of cultural experience has been flattened by a lack of thought, and an anxiety to ‘just make the thing happen’, the business models are either still emerging or have been proven to be wildly optimistic and unworkable.
To enable this transformation from a mostly physical venue to a hybrid venue - our experience tells us that we need to think about four things simultaneously:
We believe that it is only by giving these areas of considerations equal importance that truly excellent work and experiences can be conjured and shared with and become meaningful to audiences, and it is only through the creation of truly excellent work that any sort of viable commercial model can be developed. In other words; if the work is bad you can’t develop a viable industry, if the audience can’t access the work, it can’t become meaningful to them. All these four elements are intertwined and mutually support and amplify each other.
What we often see is that funding programmes or institutions try to approach ‘digital’ in only one way. They are driven by monetization without having a good offer, or they invest in on-off projects that don’t have a sustainable route to market, or they aim to reach a new audience through digital marketing rather than a genuine culturally relevant offer.
We know that the sector is still reeling from the trauma of the past two years (and, in many ways, the decade preceding that), the appetite for experimentation and risk is limited, leadership and boards are looking for a sure-fire thing to rebuild depleted reserves with limited resources.
But we believe that it is only by proactively exploring the opportunities offered by digital and hybrid working that the sector will flourish again. There is no one-size-fits all solution, some will expand more into the digital realm than others, some channels, formats and models might suit one type of art-form and audience more than others. Every venue, every artist, every production is unique. But there will be shared questions and shared solutions across the board.
There is a need for a framework that will guide organisations as they tentatively start to move into this space. Working for this canvas requires a radically interdisciplinary, collaborative and integrated approach. We need to see investment to facilitate investigations that provide (some) scaleable answers to the questions that we know many organisations we are working with are starting to ask. We need to examine the systems, processes and skills needed to create this work and share it with audiences.
The pandemic punched a hole in our established norms, but we believe that this has created an exciting space, opportunity and imperative for cultural organisations to rethink how they serve and engage with artists and audiences. Digital is an integral part of the fabric of our society, organisations need to seize this chance to actively engage with what this means for how cultural experiences are made and shared. The opportunities are only just beginning to be understood, let’s be part of shaping what our collective future looks like.
This article was commissioned by Audience Labs as part cross-industry consultation commissioned by AHRC exploring the emergent creative and economic possibilities at the intersection of performance, culture, technology and innovation.
This contribution was written by:
Ash Mann - Managing Director, Substrakt
Ash Mann is the Managing Director of Substrakt, Strategic Director of Creating Impakt and is a Board Trustee of Northern Stage. Ash has worked in and with cultural organisations of all sizes on a diverse range of digital projects over the past two decades. He produces the Digital Works programme of content and events - hosting the regular Digital Works podcast. In 2021 he founded the Tech in Culture EDI Alliance which aims to support, share and accelerate best practices around Equity Diversity and Inclusion in the cultural sector.
Image: Current Rising - Scene Sketch by Joanna Scotcher - Audience Labs in collaboration with Figment Productions for the Royal Opera House