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Digital arts and the imagination by Rachel Coldicutt

(Thanks to @rachelcoldicutt for giving us permission to re-publish this article, which originally appeared as an inspiration essay for Arts Council England & BBC’s launch of The Space – an experimental digital arts media service and commissioning programme that could help to transform the way people connect with, and experience, arts and culture).

Making things for screens can be tricky.

There’s something both ephemeral and infinite-seeming about digital projects that makes people nervous. At inception, these projects can seem capable of not just carrying our hopes and dreams, but also delivering our marketing targets, reaching the otherwise inaccessible and generating some incremental income on the side. If we’re lucky, our favourite digital project might also increase our search-engine ranking and tip us over a million ‘likes’ on Facebook. While also, of course, saying something trenchant about art.

Or that, at least, is how it can feel in meetings, when budgets are tight and priorities conflicted. It can seem as if a glittering digital project can save us all, while also showing that we’re modern and looking for new audiences.

Generally, digital projects that try to fulfil entire organisational strategies are doomed to failure. And I should know, I’ve worked on a few. But luckily, I’ve also worked on some that have done very well – and between those extremes a few principles have emerged:

– The most important platform is the imagination
– Try to do one thing as well as you can
– Innovate judiciously
– Not everything in the world needs to be filmed

And – of course:
– If it feels right, ignore all of the above

1. The most important platform is the imagination
Whether you’re making a film, an e-book, a website, an app or a game, the most important platform is the one between your audience members’ ears. It’s the one that can give your product a life of its own, but it’s also the most difficult one to make something for.

Digital projects that don’t leave space for the imagination tend to script every outcome, predict every reaction. As an audience member, you can’t fall in love with them because they’re already in love with themselves.

I’ve often been asked whether projects I’ve worked on have been ’art’ or ’marketing’, and I haven’t known. But I realise the difference is that an art project tends to invite the imagination in, while a marketing one will try to determine the outcomes – do the imaginative work so the audience doesn’t have to. But determining the outcomes can mean there’s no space left for the audience – which makes it less likely to become either virally popular or personally cherished.

2. Do one thing very well
Audiences seem to like this – or at least, they prefer it to ‘doing quite a few things badly’. It’s easier to take people on a journey if they think they know roughly the direction they’re going in. So, if you’re making a game, it doesn’t hurt to make it fun. If you’re making a film, make it as interesting as it can be and get the sound right! If you’re showing something beautiful, let it look as good as it possibly can. Adding additional media, calls to action, social networks and GPS mapping is the digital equivalent of Cubism – only start doing it when you really know how to paint, otherwise your audience will be confused.

And too many distractions will detract from the imagination. Keeping it simple will make your audience love it more.

3. Innovate judiciously
By which I mean, innovate as much as you like, but don’t try and build everything from scratch, just for yourself. The ocean bed of the web is littered with tools that are waiting to become vessels for your content. Bring your organisations uniqueness, its stories, its assets, its talent, to those tools and show how much better it is than everything else out there. The Space is a new platform that brings together web and broadcast elements and will let you experiment without having to build it yourself, so try to use what’s on offer.

4. Not everything in the world needs to be filmed
It just doesn’t. Particularly if it’s an event at which no microphones will be available. Or if it’s a critic or other expert sitting alone in a room commenting on something they didn’t create. If it’s not interesting enough for someone to read, it definitely won’t be interesting enough to watch as a video.

I’ve learned this the hard way. Bearing it in mind will not only save you thousands of pounds, it will free up your time to make more interesting things.

5. If it feels right, ignore all of the above
Except the first one. Never ignore the first one.

In case this seems a little abstract and esoteric, I’m going to finish with some examples of beautiful things that I think let the imagination in. Some may appear over-simple, but they have all been made with enormous skill and great respect for both the audience and the art they represent. Each has a timeless quality that lets the audience fall in love – and once the audience is in love, you can start taking all kinds of liberties.

Audio Slideshows: ‘Dick Bruna: Miffy and me – audio slideshow’, guardian.co.uk

Jan Pienkowski: drawing Meg and Mog – audio slideshow’, guardian.co.uk

Film: Edward Burra, Balfour Films for the Arts Council (via Pallant House Gallery)

Ebook: The Heart and the Bottle, Olive Jeffers and Bold Creative

Game: Papa Sangre, Agency of Coney and Somethin’ Else

Film: Mark Titchner Studio Tour, Tate Shots/Jared Schiller

Film: Lauren Cuthbertson: High Pointe, Royal Opera House

Rachel Coldicutt blogs at fabricofthings.wordpress.com