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Introducing R+D season!

To get 2013 off to an inspirational start, we’re launching a Literary Platform season all about interesting cross-disciplinary collaboration experiments. You could think of it as an “R+D season” although that term doesn’t quite do justice to the range and value of the projects we’ll be featuring over the next few weeks.

On this site we are of course always interested in what happens when disciplines collide, but we’ve noticed more and more of these funded, fast collaboration projects cropping up. What are the benefits and drawbacks of teaming up academics or creatives with technicians? What are the lessons that experienced producers in this area can share? And what are the implications of this kind of working for the future of creative industries: storytelling, visual arts, games, theatre etc?

I have first-hand experience of an interdisciplinary research experiment, having been one of the Happenstance technologists-in-residence placed in arts institutions in the spring of 2012. Masterminded by Caper and funded by the ACE, Nesta and the AHRC, the project was all about introducing technology processes and ideas to three arts institutions: the Lighthouse Gallery in Brighton, Spike Island in Bristol and Sheffield’s Site Gallery – where I was located.

Perhaps I was lucky, but my experience was very positive. For my fellow resident James Jefferies and I, the benefits of taking part were – and continue to be – tremendous. We were able to spend three months in a friendly gallery space talking to interesting people, playing with cutting-edge equipment, speaking at conferences (we did Future Everything and TEDx Sheffield, amongst others) improving our technical, writing and researching skills, thinking like artists – and learning masses about the workings of the contemporary art world.

But more importantly than all that, James and I both discovered that this three-month sabatical from our old lives was a wonderful opportunity to rethink where things were going for us. Something extraordinary happened. It may be that we just needed this ‘permission’ to be creative, but after a few weeks our brains unlocked, and we found ourselves buzzing with ideas for things to make and talk about – wondering what was possible and often literally sitting up all night, wires all over the floor, working on a fiddly electronics experiment (“just five more minutes!”) or untangling a programming problem.

Having tasted the excitement of experimental play and glimpsed the possibilities of our own skills, the idea of returning to our old ways of working was unthinkable. There is perhaps an element of getting out what you put in with these things, and James and I were fortunate in that we got on with each other, and with the gallery, very well which made proper engagement with the work very natural. The galleries reported back positively from the experience, too. Through accessible tech like electronics, computing was seen as more approachable and fun; the arts organisations’ links with the local tech communities were strengthened as we brought new people into their world, their websites started looking better, their in-house processes and even the kinds of events they are now running have begun to shift.

Respect between the parties involved is crucial. We felt trusted and given space by Site – and as a result were perhaps even more inclined to try to help them. James and I are fairly workmanlike anyway: we’ll just get on with it. Still, had we been precious about our working hours or environment, I suspect Site would have accommodated us. As technologists in that situation, we felt valued and given a lot of freedom – after all, arts organisations are used to dealing with artists, and artists can be quite particular!

These are fast experiments to bring about a more steady-paced change. In a world focussed on quick returns on investment, a residency or research experiment is a difficult sell. But there are people out there taking chances, and it is agencies like Caper, and funding bodies like NESTA, who are making this possible.

The Happenstance Project is just one of a number of new initiatives that are colliding disciplines like this. This week, we will hear from Bristol’s REACT (Research & Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technology) about their new Books & Print Sandbox residencies. Over the next month, expect reports from Arts Council’s R+D team, news on the BBC R+D department’s storytelling experiments, the thoughts of University researchers and even a piece by a branding agency in York who have adopted an artist-in-residence to interpret their client briefs.

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