Kathryn Deane, ArtWorks Alliance Consultant Director, is not a techno-Luddite but does want to reclaim what’s participatory when we talk digital…

I’m not a techno-Luddite (I was programming IBM computers 40 years ago*). But some things pass me by in my bid to get some sleep now and then. ‘Digital’ has been one of them. But with our latest partner being a Digital Participation Curator, I thought it time I updated my RAM and rebooted my learning.

Learning one: ‘digital’ is nowadays more noun than adjective. It’s OK to say ‘ArtWorks Alliance works largely through digital.’ Try it, it’s very handy.

Learning two: ‘participation’ is being subject to a land-grab. This may be tolerable when talking about digital participation in non-arts fields. It is not acceptable in the arts, where ‘participation’ has a specific meaning. So, one study segmented museum audiences according to their level of participation, the lowest level being using the web to read about a museum. This is palpable nonsense: the opposite of digital is analogue; and the analogue equivalent of reading about a museum on the web is reading about it in a paper brochure. I don’t recall anyone ever calling this ‘analogue participation’. We need to guard against this annexation, it devalues the currency of arts participation – as Sophie McGrath brilliantly pointed out in our last Forum meeting, merely by asking the question ‘Yes, but is it participatory?’

Learning three: ‘digital’ is used for Orwellian purposes, especially by those who don’t understand the technology: digital new and good, non-digital (though most would be hard-pressed to define that term) old-hat and bad. But my IBM computers were digital; your telephone exchange went digital years before smartphones appeared. Certainly, there is an order of magnitude between what analogue electronics could do and what digital electronics allows of – but no more different than with the invention of the steam or jet engines. And no-one says Airbus A-380 good, pedal bike bad.

Learning four: it’s not difficult to describe digital participation in a meaningful way. ‘Participation’ has its normal meaning in participatory arts: people making art for themselves. ‘Digital’ implies this making has an element of modern electronic technology involved. It’s not difficult to identify a ‘really brilliant’ digital participation project: for me, it would use digital to extend the boundaries of a participant’s capabilities in participating in arts activities. Noise Solution works with some very vulnerable young people in Suffolk through music technology doing just that. In another project, care home residents are shown how to manipulate digital pictures of themselves so they present the image the resident, rather than the photographer, wants to be known by.

For new ArtWorks Alliance partner John Whall of Derby QUAD, digital is both a tool and a material; and his blog describes more really brilliant projects.

There is still work to be done on helping people understand this message and in ensuring that more projects are meaningfully digital and properly participatory. And John will be leading a group of ArtWorks Alliance partners interested in doing just that.

(*It was an IBM 360/67, programmed in PL/1 using punched cards for I/O, and we were very proud of its unique virtual memory architecture.)