I had a real challenge mentoring Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield. It’s not often that I’m asked to mentor someone who has probably been working with the web longer than myself… Ruth has been Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the online community for arts, technology and social change since 1997, and works as an artist with the tools that many in the Digital Marketing Academy see as tools for marketing – code.
In our first discussion, Ruth shared a concern that she didn’t want to be seen as a marketer, if it diminished her profile as an artist. We explored the difference between the two categories, and how she could think about developing her own marketing approach without compromising her integrity as an artist.
I remembered a number of projects that I had been involved with where the boundary between art and marketing had blurred, and then disappeared altogether. Some, like The Passion, with National Theatre Wales, had started, for me, as a marketing project, but after meeting with Michael Sheen and the communication team at the theatre, it had become altogether more playful, and more about sharing the narrative and the experience in Port Talbot over Easter 2011 using the internet and social media. The audiences in the town (and beyond) readily engaged with our web version of the production, and the resulting online conversation reached hundreds of thousands of people. Not bad for a marketing project, except that by the end of the project, it looked and felt more like an online theatre production.
With The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, we were invited into the creative team and decided to make the play available to the globe through a live stream. We embedded CCTV cameras into the set, and every time the show was put on, it went out to the world. The livestream was conceived as part of the production itself… the internet was integral to Bradley’s Chelsea’s story, and we felt it should be central to its telling as well. The show toured around Wales and has also been to Edinburgh; every time it has been shown it has been broadcast on the internet and tens of thousands have been able to watch it.
These experiences have caused me to think that with the emergence of social media platforms, it is possible to put thought into how you can ‘bake marketing in’ to the design of art projects. Like the sculpture that perpetually sells itself on ebay, can we get rid of the boundary between marketing and art altogether? In some cases, and with much of Ruth’s work, I think we can.
We discussed how Ruth could begin to use this approach within a project that Furtherfield was doing called Play Your Place. They hosted a space in the Southbank Centre’s WebWeWant festival, where people were invited to create drawings and games which shared their thoughts about the future of the web. Ruth asked participants to photograph and share their creations through social networks. In the spirit of a Digital Marketing Academy experiment she quickly adjusted her practice, tried it out, and during the work the participant’s creations were shared with their contacts, particularly through Twitter.
For participatory art projects, this is a great approach that deepens people’s engagement. Furtherfield’s work at WebWeWant got out to many more people than it would have done, without making a conscious effort to ask participants to become digital producers within their own networks.
It isn’t going to be a thought that would work for any and every artistic project. But it is always worth asking the question: Is there any way we could design this event/project so that it stimulates conversations and sharing across social platforms?