‘Artists have always been eager to push the boundaries and experiment with whatever technology was available’

In our latest virtual roundtable, we sit down with two leading experts to discuss how existing and emerging technologies are shaping the future of the arts

The panel


Host: Genna Ash-Brown

Technology supports new forms of creativity, collaboration and innovation, revolutionising our production of and engagement with the arts. But is edtech adequately supporting the digitisation of these expressive disciplines, and do aspiring artists have access to the tools they need to succeed in a sector there’s no way to predict?

On the historic link between tech and the arts

“It’s important to remember that there’s nothing, kind of, unique about the 21st century and its relationship with technology. New technologies prompt the development of new mediums, genres, new ways of working and collaborating – but in essence, art is still art.

“The other thing that’s worth underlining, I think, is that it takes a long time to see the full impact of these new technologies. There’s a very famous essay from 1935 by Walter Benjamin called, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In my opinion, we’re still grappling with the consequences of that nearly a century later. What does it mean for art when there’s no scarcity, when anyone can access it, and you can copy it and distribute it cheaply, or in the case of digital – for free?” – Sophia Woodley

On the influence of AI and XR on the arts and creativity

“I think it’s very evident that to improve the design process – and this has been shown in other industries, particularly architecture, film… that if we use technology to help us design productions, we can save time, be more efficient, and encourage iteration. I love the use of that word because iteration is a really key part of the design process” – James Simpson

On the technologies that support arts education:

“We have a course where we’re specifically teaching how to do virtual theatre creation, training and development; so learning how to use real-time engines and making theatre into computer games basically. We had all these VR headsets that we use to teach them how to make the experience, so they all went home over Christmas with one of these and we continued our lessons in VR. We all met up in a Japanese spa as our various avatars. I was a robot, we [also] had a banana. Everyone just took on the personas they most associated with…and just had a nice, comfortable conversation.

“It’s a very interesting tool for teaching… in another research project I was working on when we were trying to work out if we could introduce VR to secondary schools for teaching during the pandemic, because a component of teaching and the social experience of schools was lost during lockdown… What schools on Zoom can’t do is give you that bottom step of the playground where you might have sat with your mate and just have a chat… VR gives you that; you can’t have a physical hug, but it can create virtual bubbles…” – James Simpson

On funding for digital arts education:

“If you’re talking about cutting-edge technologies, I think even universities are having trouble meeting the demand from students… However, if you’re talking about schools and you say, “Oh, well I have a class of kids and I’d love them to be able to see how 3D scanning works”, then actually, you can do a basic job of that for free with an app that you can download on your phone if you know it’s there. So I think in essence, one of the main barriers is teachers who are hugely overburdened in terms of both their time and justifying why they do something and how it fits into the curriculum, [not] having the time, knowledge and freedom to explore what’s out there” – Sophia Woodley

“The hardware itself, so an Oculus Quest, which is the latest VR headset, is £300… They’re very affordable, and if it’s something you want to learn how to do, you can get into it quite cheaply” – James Simpson

On Nesta's The Adoption of Digital Technology in the Arts report

“This report was published in 2017, so it’s a few years old, but I think still relevant. What we found is that arts organisations, overwhelmingly, are excited about digital technology, and they want to keep up with these changes that are happening. Bigger organisations… are absolutely on the cutting-edge, but in smaller organisations, a lot of staff members feel overwhelmed… So one of the big findings of the report was really that [technology] should be incorporated into all aspects of organisational work in arts organisations and people need to think seriously about capabilities and roles.

“Learning is something that’s ongoing, so if you’ve worked in an arts organisation for 20 years, you still need to learn about technology, you still need to keep up with things” – Sophia Woodley

On social media and the arts

“… the challenge that these raise really is the business model for art. So why does an arts organisation post on Twitter, or an artist? Are they hoping to develop audiences who will then buy tickets? Is it part of their education work?… Or is there there some way of holding on to the tremendous educational promise of art in the age of mechanical reproduction – you know, art at everyone’s fingertips – while also recognising that people have to be able to make money from it, and that that money has to subsidise the work that is required to turn something from just access – just looking at something doesn’t make sense of it. You still need that one-to-one, or one-to-small-group teaching that is essential to get somebody to really understand art… – Sophia Woodley

“I’m always looking forward and think about what’s coming next. I didn’t see TikTok coming at all – that’s obviously a fantastic new platform that [people] can be creative in. But I’m really interested in what’s going to become the Metaverse; which will become the next social media platform? It’s going to be the platform where we all live our lives. It’s a digital world that sits over the top of our real world” – James Simpson

On continuing access to the digital tools required to thrive in a sector that changes so rapidly

“Obviously, yes, there are many artists using technology, and the challenge is almost less for the artists and more for traditional arts organisations and funders, who kind of have trouble finding entry points and ways of engaging with this really dynamic space… In such a fast moving field, it really is about networking. It’s about having that capacity to learn for yourself and draw your education from where it may be available” – Sophia Woodley

On the work of Coppercandle

“We make virtual theatre experiences… ultimately what we’re doing is trying to be the kingmaker of a new industry of creative practice. So, you’ve got traditional theatre, which has been there for about 200 years. In the context of human existence, the very smallest amount of storytelling has ever been produced on the stage – we’ve actually had 50,000 years of telling stories around the cave, around the campfire… And then for the last 100 years, we’re telling them on a cinema screen, the last 50 years on TV, [and] over the last 10 years we’ve been watching stories on our phones (which is just awful). Now we have this new tech… that’s a way of watching content. You wear it, you see it around you, and suddenly we’re back to where we were with the campfire. We’re imagining our stories all around us… because we evolved to be spatial people, to experience stories that we see and imagine all around us. So what Coppercandle tries to do is midwife this new industry” – James Simpson


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