Derby QUAD’s John Whall, our ArtWorks Alliance digital participation activity group champion, takes a look at what the DCMS Culture is Digital and Nesta Digital Culture 2017 reports have to offer (or not…) for participatory arts.

The recent Culture is Digital report is a shining example of how arts and culture are driving forward great practice, R&D and the structural integrity of digital in the UK. It makes strong cases for digital and its advantages in enabling audiences to access artists, art works and venues, as well as highlighting the need to help arts organisations succeed in a digital-by-default society.

What the report doesn’t do is give an indication of what meaningful engagement means in relation to digital participation.

It does highlight how technology improves access for audiences to engage with culture; it does identify the profound effect technology has on younger generations and how it enables co-creation; it does explore the tools and devices now used by organisations to allow audiences to interact and engage with culture; and it does bring to light how digital technology enhances the experience of disabled people.

All these things can be embraced and moulded by organisations to provide participatory and community arts practice that speaks to audiences in a meaningful way.

However, also highlighted in the report is the skills and capability deficit in digital that characterises many organisations.

So, where the report brings out the best the arts has to offer digitally, it also identifies the big pitfall in my view: ‘I don’t understand that, so how can I know how to use it?’

The knowledge and skill of arts and culture staff, facilitation artists and those crossing over from the tech world into arts engagement is what helps us to directly engage people in digital participation.

Without this understanding and without investment, I feel that the sector will continue to commission and achieve great passive experiences, but just lack that meaningful engagement we know we can achieve if digital wasn’t part of the picture.

While Culture is Digital and Digital Culture 2017 reports give us a lot of data and examples of digital practice by arts and cultural organisations, I’m interested in where what we do digitally has a meaningful impact on participatory and community arts.

Where are the examples of good practice, the point where digital provided that spark of interest and engagement in the arts… and wasn’t just a ‘flashy come hither’. What does digital participation look like as an art form in its own right? We can identify a physical community arts project in a physical community arts setting, but what does it look like digitally?

As champion for the ArtWorks Alliance digital participation activity group, I’m hoping to discover and explore approaches in digital participation. The aim is to categorise and define each approach to start to form an overview of styles, themes and outcomes that we can call ‘digital participation’.

Over the next 18 months, I want to investigate the terms, devices and approaches that audiences, artists and organisations use that can be categorised as digital and participatory. The East Midlands Participatory Arts Forum (EMPAF) will be exploring this through a series of expeditions around participants, organisations and artists. This work will be extended to the rest of the network and include the sharing of best practice, collated to become a defined and identifiable category in participatory arts.