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The Comedy of Errors

Near Now

8 August 13 words: Ashley Carter
We’re responding to the ways in which technology has changed our relationships with everything
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Mat Trivett - Photo by Ashley Bird

 

Tell us a little about what Near Now is?
Near Now is Broadway’s commissioning and artist development programme, funded by Arts Council England. We work closely with artists and designers to produce and commission new work that explores the place of technology in everyday life. We’re responding to the ways in which technology has changed our relationships with everything.  We’re trying to investigate the near future, or the ‘near now’.

What sort of things do you do?
We bring people to Nottingham to develop new projects that are quite playful, and often quite provocative.  We also work with the Arts, Culture and Heritage sector in the Midlands. We’re like consultants, helping people develop approaches and strategies for working with new digital technologies. We’re trying to respond to the opportunities that the digital economy presents, as well as the challenges. Think of us as a platform for all things vaguely futuristic.

How do you approach all the different sides of new technology?
I think we’re mostly optimistic, but we can be quite critical of the way in which technology is shaping our lives;  we’re working in a playful but still critical kind of way. Saying that, we are really passionate about people fully understanding technology in its broadest sense, and how they might use and modify it.

Do you focus more on the artistic or the practical side of technology?
I think there’s definitely a bit of both.  We use play as a way of understanding and learning about how things work. It’s nice to have that impish quality, testing the boundaries of what these things can do.  Whether that ends up being applied practically, or just purely artistic isn’t something we worry ourselves with too much.

How long has Near Now been running?
I joined Broadway in May 2012, and have been developing the programme for the last year.  We are funded by Arts Council England from 2012 until 2015. It evolved out of Broadway’s ongoing involvement with artists who work in things like digital moving images, generally called Media Arts. People like Rafaël Rozendaal, Simon Faithfull, Ellie Harrison, Evan Roth and Aram Bartholl from Fat Lab have all worked with us in the past.  We’ve been doing this sort of work for eight years; it had just never been given its own identity and platform up until now however, Near Now has only been live to the public since April this year, so it’s still relatively new. We really want to sing about it a lot and make sure people are aware that Broadway engages in this kind of programme.

What has been the public response so far?
It’s been really great.  We’re running a monthly talks programme, which is a really good way to bring inspirational, engaging and maybe slightly weird people to Nottingham to talk about art and design.  We’ve had Nelly Ben Hayoun, an experience designer, who did a project with NASA to make the first international space orchestra.  We’ve also had Belasco & New who are currently looking at data mining in everyday life.  Most recently, we’ve had Russell Davies who is a communication strategist that works with the government. The response to all of those talks has been really great; you can feel that people are really starting to engage with the programme.

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Dentaku

How to you go about recruiting people to give the Near Now talks?
It’s quite an open thing. We have been approaching a wide range of different people, but we are definitely up for people coming to us too. Further down the line we are looking at having a more regular, maybe even weekly, event. The monthly talks will always be there, but there are just so many interesting people in Nottingham. I could easily populate the entire programme with people just from the city, but we really want to see the work that’s happening in Notts alongside work from both national and international artists.  My interest is in placing Nottingham and Broadway as part of the national discussion of digital technology.

You said that you want to increase the amount and range of talks you do as part of Near Now. What other ambitions to you have for the project?
We’re not just a talks programme, although that is the most visible element currently.  We are a commissioning programme within Broadway; we commission three big projects a year and do a lot of research activity both independently and in collaboration with both University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University. We have got various exciting projects coming up.

Can you tell us about some?
Currently we’re working with two Berlin based artists called Belasco & New to develop Soul Lines: a mobile app that tracks your soul.  It’s based on the idea that your soul can only move at walking pace.  We launched it recently, and anyone can register to use it.  From July to September we will be working with a design and invention studio called Dentaku, working on a new project that’s basically a little electronics kit for kids.  Anyone that’s interested in music can design and build their own synthesizer.  The nicest thing about it is that you can connect it to real life objects; you can turn food into something that plays music.  We’re going to be launching at a workshop day in September. We are also looking for an Associate Producer to work with us on a big, ambitious residency project called Internet of Growing Things.  Internet of Growing Things is a research project that is looking at how we might design more resilient ways of producing food in the future and borrows some of the thinking from a technology term the Internet of Things.

When you have something like Belasco & New’s Soul Lines app, do you find the dichotomy between the spiritual and the technological much of a hurdle?
Well their Soul Lines project is really about emphasizing pace over efficiency.  They’ve been working in this area for at least the last ten years, and often work with computer scientists and suchlike.  Whenever they bring up the spiritual aspect of technology, computer scientists and people more familiar with computer interaction can shy away; it’s just not talked about.  I think one of the main things we’re interested in with that particular project is the fact that mobile phones have become so closely embedded in our lives, particularly for young people, your phone feels somewhat irremovable from your body.  It’s the exploration of the analogy that the mobile phone is you, which isn’t that much of a leap to comprehend.  We’re interested in raising questions about spirituality in 21st Century life.  For various reasons there is now less of an interest in religion, which has left a spiritual gap.

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Nelly Ben Hayoun in NASA Ames Research centre - photo Neil berrett

Do you think that the spiritual gap created by the lack of belief/interest in religion is being filled by technology?
Yeah I think potentially it is.  There’s a designer based at Goldsmith’s called Bill Gaver who works in the design research studio.  He undertook a project working in a convent with nuns, in which he produced an object that connects to the internet and displays current news events called a ‘Prayer Companion’.  This device was meant to help nuns’ prayers become more pertinent and relevant to what was going on in wider events, enabling them to feel more connected to the world. They have been using it in this convent for the last two or three years now as a tool to stimulate their prayers.  I think that is really interesting; it questions what we consider technology to be.  Essentially, a pen and paper or conversations are a technology.  It’s an approach used to investigate and manipulate the world around you.  We don’t think of technology as just digital, we’re interested in ‘dirty’ technology too.

Is that broader sense of what is considered technology a recent school of thought?
The etymology of the word is techne, meaning craft or skill, and logia, meaning knowledge of, so at its root has a broad meaning.  Part of our interest is looking at the broader things it encompasses.  Various things, such as approaches to farming, or doing business, or newer technologies fall into different categories.  Some are hard technologies, like using a hammer. Others are soft technologies, such as talking to people.

Why do you think there is such an active community in Nottingham for creative projects such as this?
For one thing, Nottingham is perfectly located geographically.  We’re bang smack in the middle of the country and populated with a lot of smart, creative and passionate people.  The low cost of living, and incredible sense of community are really important, too.  There are so many people working really hard on so many different things, and that’s what we’re interested in.  We really want to be a part of that community.

How important is Broadway and the Creative Quarter to that community?
Broadway has been a big part of the city for twenty-two years.  We’ve always had this ambitious position around the UK with film and cinema, but also new types of media.  We’ve been quietly pioneering things for a while now. Nottingham’s creative quarter is recognition, not just of Broadway’s involvement of the cultural life of the city, but of lots of independent businesses, galleries and studio spaces too.  In some ways, it’s always been here, and it’s great to see it get the recognition and support it does. I’d like to see the city really get behind what’s already been here and been growing for the last twenty or thirty years.

 Do you think there are any real downsides of the modern reliance on technology?
I think you can either see it as progress, looking at the incredible things that have happened in the last couple of hundred years like healthcare, sanitation, heating etc.  Or, you can think that anything that is created or advanced creates further problems that need solving.

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Belasco & New - photo Near Now

Do you think the immediacy of the Internet has manufactured a widespread level of short-term thinking?
Yeah, I think so.  There’s a great example from a photographer who worked a lot in war zones ravaged with horrendous conditions.  He said that he went back to shooting on film because the time it takes to take that photo, carry it with you and get it processed somehow gives the image that much more depth and meaning.

It’s a similar concept to the Soul Lines App – when things move too fast they can lose a sense of perspective.
Yes, I think that it’s amazing that we can move at the speed that we do.  But the idea of providing space to reflect is important.  Boredom isn’t really a thing anymore.  We’re not really bored.  But boredom and slowness are both great, they give you a chance to think about everything.  Within that time you learn that you’re bored of being bored, and put into practice what it is you have been thinking about.  I’m a really passionate advocate for boredom – although I don’t practice it very well.

There seems to be endless potential conversations about technology in 21st century life…
We want Broadway and Near Now to be a place where we can have those conversations with each other, in real life – or IRL – and explore what people think technology means to them.  These questions affect everybody, whether you consider yourself interested in technology or not, we want to talk to a wide range of people, and challenge what people think of when they talk about technology.  We are going to be here for a while, and there’s some really exciting projects coming up.

Sign up to be the first to get your hands on Belasco & New's Soul Tracking app Soul Lines and book for the next Near Now talk, visit the Near Now website.

 

Near Now website

 

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