Alan Davey's speech at the opening of the Michael Chowen Prototyping Hall, University of Birmingham

Arts Council Chief Executive, Alan Davey, spoke at the opening of the Michael Chown Prototyping Hall: part of the Heritage Learning Hub at the University of Birmingham on Wednesday 19 September. The following are extracts from his speech.

It is lovely to be here at the prototyping hall, a unique development as part of the pioneering work of the Heritage Learning Hub, work that I first saw about 18 months ago but which has come on apace since then…

We are living in an age of wonder, in both arts and sciences.  Only last week, I had to stop in the street when I heard on the radio that  something quietly amazing happened, when NASA announced that they believed that the Voyager 1, the exploratory space probe launched back in 1977, had reached the furthest extent of our solar system and was beginning to penetrate outer space. 12 billion miles now separate us from Voyager 1, yet it still talks to us – gives us sounds of plasma from beyond the universe beyond the solar system, albeit it taking 17 hours for a transmission to reach earth – and it will carry on talking to us for another ten years perhaps, as it travels off the solar map, out into the empty perhaps – or not - spaces of the universe.

In the 36 years of its extraordinary journey, Voyager has sent us back thrilling images of our solar system – and of earth. Of all the pictures there have been of our planet, there is none so awe-inspiring as the ‘pale blue dot’ – the poignant picture sent back by Voyager in 1990, when it was just 3.7 billion miles out, in which earth appears as a tiny speck in a band of brown, a glittering pinhead trapped in a vast, smoky sunbeam of interstellar light. As with the best art, the picture caused millions to pause and meditate on the nature and destiny of humanity; and it suggested, in the way that the beam fell across us, that though we inhabit a tiny and dark portion of space, yet our vision and are hopes are great, and we have some special spark to offer the universe.  It was a new view of ourselves…

Anyone who reads the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci will be reminded on every page that for this Renaissance man, who sketched flying machines and painted the Mona Lisa, and whose methods of study anticipated processes of modern scientific enquiry, there was no division between the arts and science: “He who despises painting loves neither philosophy nor nature. Truly painting is a science,” wrote da Vinci.  You can argue there has been in the modern age a schism between the arts and science - that post modernism has rendered defunct that classical relationship, and that art is ironic as science is now strictly pragmatic - but this is more a distinction made by critics than a reality. Now, in the digital age, artists use technology to make extraordinary connections, to come to new insights, to new understandings and things of wonder…

Artists will help us explain our ideas; they will help us discuss and connect our ideas; and they will articulate what we aspire to. That is why what we are seeing today here at Birmingham is so marvellous…

The Heritage Learning Hub, of which the Hall is a part, has involved a vast range of individuals and disciplines, bringing together minds from a range of humanities and science, from theology, psychology and archaeology to engineering and Artificial Intelligence to produce interactive ‘multi-touch’ displays.

These have huge potential for galleries and exhibitions as we can see from the 65-inch touch table installed last July in the Hive Worcester. This table allows visitors to open and explore six albums of images illustrating the history of Worcester: the images are scattered across the table and can be dragged, rotated, zoomed and shrunk by multiple users, simultaneously. A communal and tactile experience as well as an intellectual one.

There is also a 65-inch table at Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries, in a brand new gallery opened in October, covering the history of Birmingham since 1940 and which allows a large array of objects from the gallery that would usually be protected behind glass, to be ‘handled’ virtually.

The Michael Chowen Prototyping Hall is the centre piece of the project, which has multi-touch, multi-user 2D and 3D walls and tables and – most interesting – a movement tracking system that maps users’ behaviour within the hall; this data can then be analysed by computer and presented in a 3D model, so that interaction with presentations can be gauged.

I saw the tables and what they do as prototypes, and felt at the time that I was seeing in reality something like the Memex machine envisaged by Vanever Bush in his article ‘As we may think’ in the Atlantic magazine of 1945 – at about the time the Arts Council was being set up – machines giving man access to and command of the inherited knowledge of the ages. Some have written that the windows based computing pioneered by Xerox and used by Apple in consumer products is the realisation of that ideal.  But there was something tactile, something human, connective and physical about what Bush was envisaging that I think is better reflected in the work being done here.

And linking artists with ideas and technology better to realise cultural knowledge and ambition is something we take very seriously at the Arts Council.  Digital media and technologies run across all five goals of our ten-year plan.

Very practically, we know that we as a sector possess great talent and willingness to engage in digital technology, but in practice have lagged behind, for a variety of reasons – lack of resources, lack of skills, because of the complex issues surrounding copyright that govern art.

Also, the digital world is so fast moving and wonderfully complicated, that we require astute partners…

We know that there is an audience for digital culture. Our 2010 Engaging Audiences research noted that 53% of the online population used the Internet to engage with arts and culture. A National Theatre audience survey showed that nearly half the audience would have watched the show they attended been streamed online and of these more that 40% of these said they would have been happy to pay. We have great potential content…

As the work of the Heritage Learning Hub and the Prototype Hall shows clearly shows, digital work is not all about internet access; it is also about creating the kinds of cross-disciplinary partnerships and connections  that break down barriers between culture and art, education and science to bring the experience of culture to many more people – literally to their fingertips. These kinds of physical interaction, works of art in themselves, awaken us to the true creative possibilities of technology…

Our arts sector has the material and the creative will: our academic and business sectors have their own knowledge, ingenuity and skills. For young people digital has a special attraction, because of the way that they increasingly absorb information these days…

We want to do more. In July we published a new Creative Media Policy. We want more artists to create work using digital platforms and tools and more creative media from our sector to be produced and accessible through digital platforms. We want a larger and more diverse audience for publically funded creative media.

We recognise that partnerships will be essential to this. We support the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts - a £7 million fund to further collaboration between arts, technology and research sectors. This is a partnership between ACE, Nesta and the Arts and Humanities Research council…

We have allocated £2.5 million for a Creative Media Infrastructure Fund, for which we’re looking at ways we can collaborate with The Heritage Lottery Fund, the BFI and the National archives to make publically funded cultural material more accessible digitally…

In these exciting new ventures, we will be exploring partnerships across academia, research, business and development.  The kinds of collaboration illustrated in the work displayed here in the Michael Chowen Prototype Hall. The kind of approach to knowledge, creativity and cultural industry creation that fires people with knowledge and unlocks their potential…

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of what we are celebrating tonight – marvellous new ways of collaboration, that will release the power of the human imagination.  

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