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Portraits Untold

When I begin a live Portraits Untold sitting, celebrating diversity and what is it that makes us all human, my first question to the sitter is always ‘WHO IS ………….?’ And there the story begins.

By Tanya Raabe Webber, Visual Artist

So I guess this time it’s me on the spotlight. Well Hello Culture! Who am I? I’m Tanya Raabe Webber known for my democratisation of drawing, a quiet pioneering revolutionary and an acclaimed disabled artist challenging the notion of identity within contemporary portraiture, often creating portraits of high profile disabled people during live sittings in high profile public art galleries and venues.

Last year I created project Portraits Untold is an ambitious and unique project exploring and celebrating the diversity of our common humanity through a series of four live portrait sittings with high profile sitters in well-known venues taking place in summer and autumn 2016 across the UK.

I undertook four live portrait sittings that fuse digital and tradition drawing and painting techniques in an interactive live environment, inviting physical and online audiences to join in. I was in conversation with the sitters and in some cases collaborating, as we explored what it is to be human through the stories of the lives and the work of the sitters. The conversations also explored how art and the artistic process is central to the representation, discussion and our thinking on cultural diversity and contemporary society.

A total of four sitters had been invited to be the subjects at the live events in well known and well loved venues across the country. Each sitting will took place in front of a live audience in these well known public venues, as well as being streamed live to online audiences. Both the physical and online audiences were invited to participate in the event, join in the dialogue and explore diversity whilst also developing their own creative responses in the form of drawings, both on paper and through digital drawing apps on their smart phones and tablets.

As a disabled artist, the notion of my own diversity drives my interest in people and the exploration of the human condition and the belief that everyone has the potential to be creative if given the opportunity. I am well known as a painter of people, however I have wanted to develop a way to engage audiences more fully in the subject matter of my work and also within its physicality. I have developed this project with Independent Producer Mandy Fowler and the venue partners to enable creativity to be as accessible as possible.

In (Artists) Space No One Can Hear You Scream.

And that’s because we’re too busy tapping into the quantum energy of the universe.

By Harmeet Chagger-Khan, Artist & Creative Producer

Everyone loves a good story right?  It’s how we make sense of the universe, understand it’s mechanics, learn the basics of right & wrong & reconcile with the complexities of human nature.  From the very first bedtime story you’ll have ever heard, to confessional tales around the campfire,  stories inspire and offer different points of view, that allow us to find a point of connection & gain a sense of belonging with one another.   For me, watching films like The Goonies & Star Wars, only added to my love for a well spun yarn and a tale told across an epic adventure by the unlikeliest of heroes.  My love for movies further cemented a desire to tell other people’s stories and film would become my artform du jour.

To add to that, I remember being truly fascinated by the universe ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  Why didn’t the moon fall out of the sky but a badly made lego tower would come tumbling down?    What would happen to humanity when the sun became a super red giant a million years from now?  And why did the back of a neck burn so effectively, when a well placed magnifying glass was held in the right position on a sunny day?

It was obvious to me then and still is now, that artists, scientists and children all spin a similar energy.  One is driven by an innate curiosity for the world, another wants to harness the intangible energy of creative expression and the last seeks answers to the most complicated of questions through systematic approaches.  So why wouldn’t we want those worlds to collide?  Aren’t we all inherently Renaissance individuals calling upon our polymathic tendencies to solve problems, engineer realities and communicate brilliantly to incite change within society?

For the past decade I’ve put social engagement and harnessing those Renaissance qualities at the heart of what I do through my artistic practice.  And the tension between those different disciplines & modes of thinking, offer a richer framework for engagement & cultural understanding.    Some of the most interesting projects I’ve been a part of, have had artists, scientists, architects and technologists working together to tame the 10 headed leviathan of creativity.

For me, that collaborative process is vital to create a space where ideas can come to life & as new technology continues to pervade our everyday lives, it’s the perfect bedfellow to push how people interact & engage with art & shift from being passive spectators to proactive consumers.  It’s this brand new world of VR & AR that now excites me, as my work now shifts from film to immersive environments and multiple points of view that blur the boundaries between reality & the imagination.   I’m interested in exploring how VR & AR have the potential to add value to peoples lives by harnessing emotions and connecting people.

Of course with any new technology there’s the question of ethics, boundaries, persuasion & influence.  Can we handle these new visceral immersive environments?  Or will we end up becoming addicted to ‘faux realities’ which in effect are ultimately ‘Better Than Life’?  Or will it be able to help solve answered problems by allowing us to make sense of the world around us?

As we navigate through this new universe, all bets are off and the only caveat is there are no rules.  And that my friend, is an incredibly exciting landscape to be playing in.

The Age of Experience

We’ve moved away from the information age into the age of experience. A chance to experience other worlds, other places and other spaces. A chance to be someone else, to walk in other people’s shoes. This is the dream that Virtual Reality promises.

By Sarah Jones, Immersive Storyteller, sometime Virtual Life Explorer

With the uncertainties and complexities in society today, it’s no wonder that people are turning to virtual reality to escape and experience another world. By 2018, it’s predicted that 171 million people will be using VR. In 2016, Google said that 10 million Cardboard headsets had been shipped all over the world. With 360 content and virtual reality being supported on Facebook, YouTube and other social sites, the numbers of people escaping reality, look pretty healthy.

With this comes the opportunity to create new experiences. A lot of spherical videos have been empathy-driven. Virtual Reality has been called the empathy machine, a form of content that drives empathy and my own research has always backed this up. When people ar face to face with someone suffering, they feel no barrier. They feel like they are there. That they can hear the breath and feel the pain that someone is suffering. You don’t watch a story in VR. You feel a story.

Content has focused around themes that talk to this. Homelessness, conflict, refuges. Clouds Over Sidra was made by Within, as a United Nations project. It was shown to decision makers to help them understand what it’s like to be a refugee in a camp in Jordan. Similarly, stories like New York Times’ Displaced which explores three stories where homes have been lost due to war and conflict, or the Guardian’s 6×9, focusing on being in solitary confinement, are all worth checking out as narratives that drive empathy.

But it’s not just about empathy, it’s about experiences and dreams. Standing on the stage with Paul McCartney at Madison Square Gardens, exploring the great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough, or more weirdly being inside Bjork’s mouth in a pretty unique music video. All of these experiences help to transport us to places we don’t expect to go, escaping reality and finding a dream.

The critics will point to the misconception that VR is just for gamers. This is so far from the truth and what VR can do. To change this image, in April this year, I spent 48 hours living in VR, with Dean Johnson from Brandwidth. When I say living, I mean living. We went to sleep using Guided Meditations, Dean tested VR as a form of pain relief whilst getting a tattoo, we monitored heart rates through fitness challenges and created virtual art works. We showed how VR works within our everyday life, enhancing everything we do, with unique experiences.

I’ll be talking more about that and using the promise of VR at Hello Culture next week.

What it means to innovate

How can the arts and digital sector find new ways to forge practices, collaborate with other sectors and contribute to creating new opportunities for experimentation, content and influence how the world sees itself and others?

By Clayton Shaw, Programme Manager, STEAMhouse

Over the past few months, since starting work at Birmingham City University (BCU) on the STEAMhouse project, I have been struck by the overwhelming interest in the desire for people inside and outside the organisation to connect with those from other disciplines, and to openly collaborate, share and receive new knowledge and ideas.  Innovation is what people are seeking, and they are exploring it in new ways.

It is still early days in the lifespan of BCU’s mission to encourage the development of a hyper-connected, mobile and creative community of active thinkers and doers; unafraid of taking sometimes pioneering steps into unknown and unfamiliar territory.  What does it mean to be able to achieve this and why would anyone be tempted to step so far outside of their comfort zone?

Placing oneself in a vulnerable position is something most would want to avoid, or at least steer clear of. It is not easy, nor is it a regular pursuit of choice, but perhaps it is something that can be learned, appreciated, and valued.  Deconstructing the uncertainties to the basics and constructing building blocks through the process of cross-disciplinary working can, and does, provide numerous rewards from the most unexpected of corners.

For example, at one of our recent STEAMlabs, an unexpected but potentially beneficial relationship was struck up between an artist and a company working in advanced manufacturing. They are now working towards conceptualising and prototyping a new product that helps the manufacturing company to redefine market perceptions to attract new markets as well as opening a new door for the artist to work in an industry which would otherwise have remained outside their network.  However, there may not be such quick wins for everyone as it can be difficult to convince investors to get involved in entirely new concepts.

In Kevin Kelly’s book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, the author points to a move toward a “digital social-ism uniquely tuned for a networked world”.  He illustrates media theorist Clay Shirky’s hierarchy on how the networked web is socialised, from sharing to co-orperation towards a shared goal, then collaboration on things such as open source software projects and, finally, collectivism — a decentralised yet connected community of individuals uniting to “maximise both the autonomy of the individual and the power of people working together”.

This echoes the nature of STEAMhouse, which seeks to move away from a linear form of innovation based on singular disciplines, working together to solve a problem to find a solution and a move towards a collective multidisplinary team of people working towards solving a problem…

Our underpinning approaches focus on STEAM activity being both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.  Interdisciplinary activity identifies a problem and encourages each discipline to come up with the solution. Transdisciplinary action looks at developing methodologies where there is a concern that applies to both sets of disciplines but that, when reviewed together, creates a third way to solve a problem.

The team at BCU has had, and will continue to have, plenty of discussions about what STEAMhouse could and should be, particularly given the nature of the associated vulnerabilities around the process of collaboration.  We aim to provide a reassuring place for people to be open to share and receive ideas and new ways of thinking, to be curious and inquisitive and to be inventive and unafraid to test, mould, and create.  We want to encourage multiple viewpoints to break through new ideas, find new solutions to challenges, and to innovate and prototype in a very hands-on way.  Interactions with others can also lead to developing a network of long lasting creative and collaborative relationships to further discuss, share and develop new ideas into the future.

Through the collaboration with Hello Culture 2017 we hope that workshop and conference delegates may begin to imagine how they can engage with the challenges and opportunities around collaborative open innovation methodologies, and join us in creating a growing community of likeminded individuals to break down silos, find new networks, and reframe what it means to innovate in the digital age.

“And the stars look very different today…”

By Helga Henry, Director of Organisational Development at Birmingham Hippodrome 

For another year – my 9th in fact – I have the pleasure of hosting Hello Culture, just as I hosted Hello Digital back in 2008 and all the events in between.  I’ve just watched the stream from the 2014 conference and in my introduction I mention that there is someone in the audience wearing a Google Glass.

Remember them?  Only three years ago and yet they are already technology history, withdrawn from the market in 2015.  Technology years are more like dog years than human.

The theme of this year’s conference is story telling and how new technologies are changing the way we create art and the audience experience.  There are all sorts of scary new words for us to encounter:  “posthumanism”, “interactive and embodied experiences”,  “digital avatars”.   As ever, it’s part of my role to be the resident techno dunce (not “technophobe” – I like technology but don’t really know much about it) and to ask the questions that will help me – and delegates – make the most of the vast array of expertise offered by our speakers and panellists.  To pull the strands together and make connections that may be useful to you as you listen and learn with me.

Hello Culture will share some examples, let us hear from the artists on the forefront of this work in performance and also those working at the interface with science.  We will also explore how technology is having an impact on the way we see and understand the world, how it helps us tell our stories and how it opens up the opportunity for a variety of stories – personalised and reflective of the experience of  our diverse population – to be told in thrilling and evocative ways.

The modes and means of story telling – of actors and performers using their craft in live performance as enhanced by technology – look very different today.

Join us at Hello Culture to come and take a look.

Sound and Vision

We are living in a digital world.

By Lara Ratnaraja, Cultural Consultant

“Don’t you wonder sometimes ’bout sound and vision,” David Bowie, Sound and Vision.

Madonna may have sung about living in a material world, but, increasingly, notions of materiality have been subverted by the evolution of immersive experiences.

Cultural experience, be it auditory, visual or sensory has been transformed from a linear distribution model that presents work at audiences, to a dispersed, augmented and amplified experience.

While the ‘live’ experience will always maintain its emotional and visceral impact, technology such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) provide a whole new spectrum of creative opportunities. In doing so, the experience of audiences is enhanced, democratising modes of reception.

A cultural model of production that emanates from the centre is predicated on permissions and an invitation in to view culture on prescriptive terms.

The tendency of digital cultural experience to be viewed as a gateway to the live experience is a reductive one that inhibits cultural participation and limits creative expression.

In a recent article in Arts Professional, Anne Torreggiani, CEO of The Audience Agency, posed the question, “How do we use the new channels and platforms available to us to increase the reach of our work?”

Immersive cultural production enables a truly representative experience of a plurality of voices that reflects and challenges audiences and can significantly increase audience reach.

This presents a huge opportunity for new forms of creative expression, for disruption in traditional models of cultural production, and for audiences to experience culture in multiple ways.

What is challenging is our need for new ways to articulate these myriad modes of reception, to understand and ascribe new terms of value and to explore new frameworks to create work.

With a non-linear cultural dialogue, there are whole new areas to explore such as ethics, accountability and responsibility with regards to the creation of empathic environments. Equally, however, there is a brave new world of creative opportunity, collaboration and the forging a new inclusive relationships with audiences as well as a new form of participation founded on an equality of cultural discourse rather than permission.

In a recent talk about artist diversity I spoke about a new narrative on diversity and cultural creation and engagement. One that is not based on ͞allowing͟ diverse artists in, in the well-meaning spirit of inclusion, but creating a narrative on inclusion that is not predicated on permission or an invitation. Instead, the foundation is on collaboration, equality of discourse and equity of diverse cultural value to allow for a fluidity and intersectional cultural ecology.

Creating new frameworks of immersive and virtual creative experiences, we can catalyse development in a plurality of artistic voices to wider, diverse audiences.

The opportunities presented for new forms of democratised digital story telling creates an exciting future for new cultural experience and content and new collaborative thinking to inform this.

We no longer have to wait to receive the gift of sound and vision as we have new ways for artists to forge practices, collaborate with other sectors and contribute to creating new opportunities for experimentation, content and influence how the world sees itself and others.