Doing digital arts differently: St. Helens Libraries and Ideas Alliance’s action research

| Lauren Wallace-Thompson

What do a solarpunk virtual reality performance, an e-textiles workshop and a research seminar on arts audiences have in common? They’ve all been part of a new ambitious project looking for ways for the people of St. Helens to get involved in digital arts.

This project – involving collaboration between Ideas Alliance, St. Helen’s Borough Council, library staff, artists and makers, as well as local residents of all ages over an 18-month period – was about answering a question: what does a digital arts offer look like for St. Helens? Ideas Alliance were delighted to be asked to come in and help formulate a collaborative response to this question with an action research project: a dynamic method of change-creation that involves combining participatory projects with evaluation and more traditional research methods. Action research aims to change at the same time as understand. It’s about learning by doing, which is exactly the kind of approach we’re all about.

The project with St. Helens Libraries combined a wide range of different methods and activities to answer the question at its heart. The collaborative team aimed to design a long-term vision for how digital arts will be embedded and delivered with and to communities in St. Helens.

What did we do?

The action research had several different strands, all aimed at finding out what works when it comes to engaging communities in digital art, innovating and testing. St. Helens wanted to emerge at the end of the project with a long-term strategic and sustainable view of its digital arts development.

Pilot digital arts events

Makers, artists and library staff worked in partnership to run a series of digital arts events as pilots. The idea behind these sessions was to learn by doing: to have a go at organising different types of digital arts activities, running the sessions in different ways, and see what worked and what didn’t. After each event we found ways to gather feedback, either by focus groups, interviews or surveys. Some of the events organised under the banner of the project were:

  • Beyond the Selfie workshop: A photography workshop all about using the camera in your pocket! This smartphone photography workshop was held on Zoom, and people said that the online delivery helped them overcome barriers that might have stopped them from attending a face-to-face event, like childcare or lack of transport.
  • Maker Monday: Children and young people took part in an online Maker Day during the February 2021 half term. They joined in with online workshops with local digital makers and artists: MAKO Create, Wigan STEAM and Little Vintage Photography
  • Out of the Earth project: This was a creative digital arts project commissioned in conjunction with Liverpool’s FACT. Residents’ ideas about what St. Helens might be like in 100 years time were used to create a song sung by a virtual community choir. Virtual reality artist Rosie Summers used the lyrics as inspiration for an accompanying music video.

Research seminars

We also held research seminars, bringing in expert voices so that we could share learning together and think about how their teachings might apply in St. Helens. These were open to the public, and people who joined in included members of St Helens council and library service, local community, arts and education organisations, individual arts/creative practitioners and residents. Artist and producer Kooj Chuhan and social-engaged artist Shonagh Short spoke at a seminar on audiences – exploring how we can support engagement, participation, and inclusion with(in) digital arts. The second research seminar, “Exploring innovations – where are we going from here?” featured contributions from multidisciplinary practitioner Jessica El Mal and Louise Hargreaves, Programme Producer at the Abandon Normal Devices Festival.

The way forward: shaping the digital arts offer for St. Helens

We wrapped up the project with a participatory online workshop where we asked anyone with an interest in the issue to come along and help us shape the digital arts offer for St. Helens going forward. This then fed into our final recommendations and will help St. Helens make their digital arts strategy.

For St. Helens Libraries, one of the most important outputs of the project is the co-produced a delivery model that will change how they run things in the future. St. Helens Libraries were already acting as a digital arts creative and a commissioner of digital arts. The legacy of the project is that they will now also act as a collaborator, facilitating digital arts creation and engagement through partnership and team working across their region. The library service is going to develop a stakeholder group to drive digital arts in St Helens. Its role will be to bring people together for things like skill-sharing; bid development and incubation; and sharing resource, space and equipment to support the local arts scene.

How do we collaboratively build and grow a digital arts scene?

This project was a great example of learning by doing: a chance to try things and see what happens, which is rare in life and in areas where funding tends to be tight (like libraries and the arts). We’re really grateful to have had the space to explore this for St. Helens.

So what did we find out through our action research? We think that many of the findings of our project hold true for anyone involved in digital arts who want to connect what they do with audiences, particularly those for whom the arts have been hard to access in the past.

Here are our top tips for people or organisations looking to establish or broaden their digital arts offer, or engage communities with digital arts:

  • Position digital arts within your wider arts offer. Don’t silo digital and tech innovations out.
  • Use digital arts as a vehicle for social change. Creativity and tech can be used for activism, understanding social issues or amplifying unheard voices.
  • Be proactive about breaking down barriers to engagement, at both a surface and a deeper systemic level.
  • Put people and place at the centre of a digital arts offer. Technology should be the enabler, not the driver.
  • Invest more in expertise than in equipment. Upskill people and bring in experienced practitioners, and focus on simple or already-held tech.
  • Build a Community of Practice with regular spaces to meet, bringing together different actors towards a shared goal, evolving membership and built on values of openness.
  • Collaborate! Do it with others.
  • Stay curious and keep learning!

You can find St. Helens Libraries on Facebook and Twitter.

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