Blog: The Beauty Of Digital #4 at The Showroom, Sheffield
The fourth and final event in our series, The Beauty of Digital: New Technologies, Old Aesthetics and Where the Two Meet, took us to The Showroom in Sheffield. Chris Sharratt reports on a thought-provoking and entertaining finale.
James Wallbank is talking trash. You could say the CEO of Access Space, the UK’s longest-running open access digital arts lab, is obsessed with the stuff. Particularly when it comes to the millions of computers that get thrown on the scrap heap every year.
James is interested in reanimating, not recycling. It’s only trash, he says, when we can’t be bothered to be creative with it anymore. He makes a point of showing us his beat-up old laptop – black plastic with abundant stickers – placing it next to all the shiny silver MacBooks on the panel’s table. Here’s two very different digital aesthetics for starters.
James talks about creating art installations from old computers and making digital skills as accessible as possible. He’s particularly excited by the open source system RepRap and its ability to create most of its own components. As the Internet evolves from the Wild West to a series of gated communities in thrall to commerce, the importance of this kind of open technology is obvious.
The beauty of digital is that it isn’t a thing. It’s transient – it flows past and through you.
And then, James pulls out a knife – a British Army Knife, to be precise. Don’t worry, he’s not flipped his lid. This knife, which has served the British Army for over 100 years and is still made in Sheffield, is simplicity itself. In contrast to the multi-purpose Swiss Army version, it has just one blade and a Marline spike (originally for getting stones out of horses’ hooves). A tin opener was added later.
The reason this is relevant? It’s design that allows the user to determine function, to make decisions about how to use it. Too much of digital, says James, follows the Swiss model, closing down creativity by narrowly determining and restricting what it can be used for. It’s the open, uncharted digital sphere where the exciting possibilities lie – the stuff Apple hasn’t locked down yet.
Next, after a brief quizzing of James by Jag Goraya of The Gist Foundation (our chair for the night), is Greg Povey, head of production at Mudlark. Greg describes what Mudlark does as “making human things using machines”, taking everyday actions and information and turning it into “interrogable information”. You don’t, or shouldn’t, design for digital, believes Greg. “The beauty of digital is that it isn’t a thing,” he says. “It’s transient – it flows past and through you.”
Greg may work in the digital sector, but he’s clearly a man who is just as in love with more tangible, pre-digital culture – one doesn’t replace the other, after all, just like film didn’t replace theatre. Greg’s full of great, succinct descriptions of what digital means to him. I think I liked this one best: “Digital is not the artefact, it is the moment. You create something that leaves a memory.”
Next, a barefoot (she hasn’t worn shoes for two years, apparently) Bea Marshall of ‘web design family’ Moogaloo. Bea gets straight to the point by declaring that, shortly before the event, she became very conscious of being “the only vagina on the panel.” This is one of the few indisputable facts of the night.
After a brief exultation of the beauty of the vagina, Bea talks about the need to understand the people you are building a site for. “The most important thing in a website is to create an emotional response,” she says. It’s all about storytelling for Bea, with digital simply another way for humans to share their desires and experiences: “Once upon a time we sat around flickering flames telling stories, now we sit in front of a flickering screen.”
Bea believes in the “limitless potential” of digital to evolve the way we communicate. Finally, she quotes Jimmy Neil Smith: “We’re all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories.”
James Boardwell, founder and director of modern British craft site Folksy, is fond of a good quote, too. He begins his talk with something from French sociologist Bruno Latour: “Technology is society made durable.”
Folksy is one of those great paradoxical creations of the digital age – a website that provides a marketplace for hand-made products. Essentially, it’s the rejection of mass production expressed through, and enabled by, new technologies and mass communication. Echoing Bea’s enthusiasm for storytelling, James B talks about how Folksy is using the story behind the product to improve the connection between buyers and sellers. Which is what, essentially, a brand is – a product with a story embedded in it. The added value, as every good marketer knows, comes courtesy of the story.
James B isn’t too keen on the phrase ‘new technologies’. In fact, he says it’s “a rubbish term.” James W, meanwhile, has something to say about old and new aesthetics: “I kind of like things that look shitty.”
The beauty of digital? After an event such as this, the answer has to be people like the two James’s, Greg, Bea, Jag and everyone else who’s taken part in this Creative Times series. We’ve hosted events in Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and finally Sheffield, and it’s been enlightening, entertaining and loads of fun. We should do it all again sometime.
Image: (Left to right) James Wallbank, Greg Povey, Bea Marshall, James Boardwell, Jag Goraya