Does artistic research suffer from a lack of horizon scanning?
Years ago, I heard an apocryphal anecdote about a writer’s workspace. On the wall above the typewriter, the phrase “it’s already been done”. The idea being, if you look up, it’s over – so keep your head down and get to the end of the first draft. This tale is neat to tell, though it sounds unworkable as a discipline, even for an hour. And, hey, we certainly shouldn’t buy the notion that any creative exploration should have to begin by self-consciously imagining its uniqueness.
I’ve been thinking about where ‘heads down’ productive intensity meets ‘heads in the sand’ obliviousness to the work of others recently, because a couple of moments have brought home to me a real risk: that projects, self-styling as ‘new’ in the artistic/research space, can be enfeebled because of an apparent complete disinterest in checking What Is Already Out There. The first time was in a meeting convened by Creativeworks, at which, on hearing about a project with a central idea that rang some bells, my quick under-the-table Google revealed 4 or 5 other, recent or current initiatives exploring very similar, if not exactly the same terrain, were also online.
The second was on a larger stage – the inaugural @Diversity awards, created by the European Commission to recognise innovative projects that, in their words, “use ICT to transform the cultural landscape”. The Multiwalks project – of which motiroti’s Creative Vouchers funded collaboration with Professor Clive Holtham of Cass Business School, “Walking, Journeys and Knowledge”, was an invaluable foundation stone – had developed, with support of the Arts Council of England and the European Cultural Foundation, into something aspiring to be a ‘creative tech venture’, and we were lucky enough to be among the award winners. Trophies were bestowed at the European Culture Forum in Brussels, and good intentions were declared all round. Afterwards, I chatted to the judges, one of whom I knew, about their experience of sifting through the applications they had received from across Europe. “50% of them we could immediately sweep off the table”, she said. “They hadn’t even taken a minute to run a basic web search around the features of their idea. We were like: that app already exists, this idea was done really successfully two years ago, Apple are doing that…these are supposed to be innovation ideas!”
The fact that something it in the vicinity of my idea has already “been done”, in some form, is no reason to not embark on it anyway. What’s feeble is for me not to have picked up on these other actions at all, and to strengthen my enquiry by considering and positioning my idea in relation to them. There’s no excuse for not doing this in our everything-one-click-away era. Horizon scanning is fast, global, and can be rich with insight – enabling ‘new’ ideas to take on learning from others before they’re out of their own starting blocks. And ideas gain credibility from both being able to describe the landscape they inhabit, as well as to convey the ‘unique’ DNA of the team behind an idea, which arguably will make it more successful than anyone else.
So, why don’t the arts and research communities ‘horizon scan’ more naturally?
– Is it a cultural hangover? Meaning, do we still pine for the ‘eureka’ light bulb feeling, the fully formed idea plopping into the mind of a lone genius, even as we live in an interconnected world of mass collaboration?
– Is it simply a bunker mentality that takes hold during partnership forming and funding application processes?
– Or is it a sense that ‘scanning’ equates too closely with market and competitor research, so is distasteful to practitioners who don’t want to understand their ideas as being part of a crowded marketplace, or hierarchy of value?
Whatever the issues, let’s look up from our keyboards. The arts, in particular, need to turn their wagons outward, and connect in with other disciplines and sectors. We, and our ideas, are strengthened as we take interest in what others are doing.
Tim Jones is Senior Lead, Strategy and Innovation at Futurecity, the UK’s leading public arts consultancy. He develops culture-led placemaking strategies for clients across transport infrastructure, property development and housing associations. In 2012, Tim was Executive Director of award-winning arts company motiroti when it received one of the first Creativeworks London Creative Voucher awards, which funded “Walking, Journeys and Knowledge’, a collaboration with Professor Clive Holtham at Cass Business School.