Time and The Space

31st July 2012

Time, most definitely, to return to The Space, the Arts Council England/BBC digital ‘pop-up’ that, in its present form at least, will be with us for only another three months. Indeed, this is exactly the half-way point for the announced project, although it is almost certain to continue in some form. In the Arts Council’s recently published document ‘Creative media policy’ (link: download), £8 million is set aside for funding the future phase of the project. In the now unlikely event that it disappears entirely – and heaven forfend – we most definitely won’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone. Some licences and rights deals, however, will expire at the end of October. So we need now to cherish the riches and celebrate the achievements of The Space. But I think we also need to offer some tough love in the form of rather more critical scrutiny than I sense it is receiving.

Part of the problem (make that my problem, but I doubt that I’m alone) is simply lack of time. The usual tugs and pulls on my attention have been multiplied by – let’s recognise this, please – a cultural offering of wide-ranging wonders focussed by the Olympics. The London 2012 Festival and the associated World Shakespeare Festival and the many special events put on by galleries and spaces across the country and the most stimulating television schedules for a good while – all of these and more have jostled and cajoled me to give them a moment, an hour, an evening (and very often they have rewarded that). As we know all too well, attention is the new currency – and perhaps here (and see below) is one slice of what The Space might be missing out on.

I have blogged about The Space before (including here and here) – and I intend to do so again – but this post aims to do three things (in addition to reiterating my enthusiasm for the project): to return to some of what I see as the broad failings of The Space; to pick out ten things there that, with a few reservations, are worth your time; and finally to return to the questions of time and attention.

So, to the first – some of the broad failings. At heart (and this is so wrong), The Space is a more-or-less traditional broadcaster, albeit one that is online. The model is one-to-many, and one-way from their centre to our periphery. I can watch one or two tremendous things – and quite a lot of perfectly good things – from both the present and the past, and I can – to a very limited degree – interact with some of them. But I don’t feel any first-order involvement with the site.

I cannot (yet, perhaps) personalise its pitch to me. I cannot recommend things (apart from externally, via Facebook, Twitter and a blog post like this). And I cannot have any dialogue, either live or via comments threads, with other users or with the makers of the different elements or indeed with those who are overall responsible. And that’s not to mention much of the functionality that, say, the Guardian is working with in its ‘open journalism’ initiative to make the users the co-owners and co-creators of the site. As I’ve said before, given that The Space aims to be a cutting-edge digital offering, these shortcomings are, simply, perverse.

That said, here are ten new things that are worth taking the time to explore – along with projects that I have recommended before like Tweet Music: The Listening Machine by Daniel Jones, Peter Gregson and The Britten Sinfonia.

• Globe to Globe: for my money, The Space justifies its existence (and the ACE/BBC investment) with these straightforward recordings of (what will be) 37 productions of the plays in 37 languages from the Shakespeare’s Globe season in the spring. There are 26 already with two new ones being added each week. Many are revelatory and remarkable and all of them need a permanent home, either here or elsewhere (and ideally also on DVD) after October. I intend to return to these productions in a series of future posts, but if you want recommendations now, try the remarkable Korean A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the entertaining hip-hop Othello: the Remix and the challenging Julius Caesar from Rome.

• Jubilee Lines – 60 Years in 60 poems: this is unquestionably the stand-out ‘digital’ offering from The Space – a strikingly strong Faber & Faber project that embeds recordings and texts of 60 poems written since 1953 in an elegant and effective interface that also accesses historical info, photos and the like. It is a great way to experience parts of the immensely rich literature of our current Elizabethan age – go play.

• The Trojans: there is nothing innovative about this recording (which was originally streamed live on The Space) from the Royal Opera House of David McVicar’s production of Berlioz’s nineteenth-century epic. But it is wonderful to have it available for free, at least for a while – and it looks and sounds great.

The York Mystery Plays: this one isn’t there yet, but it is definitely one to mark your card for – on 11 August an epic production of the York Mysteries will be streamed live from around the city. I have twice been to the summer presentation of the plays (which this year is being boosted with professional input) and it is a wonderful experience (see my blog post from the 2010 production), rich with threads and traces of medieval theatre and full of contemporary life. I look forward to experiencing it all virtually on The Space.

From the Sea to the Land Beyond: I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the presentation of Penny Woolcock’s new documentary on The Space. The film itself is a seventy-five-minute or so assembly of wonderful BFI archive material about the sea around Britain and our beach and coastline. From what I can judge here it’s gloriously rich and expertly assembled with a poetic and witty eye. For the film the band British Sea Power have created a new soundtrack, but what we get on The Space is an odd and entirely unsatisfactory hybrid from a live performance of the music alongside the film. This keeps jumping between the film full-frame, shots of the audience watching a screen and glimpses of instruments being played with the documentary images mixed into the frame. Much, much better to have simply put the film online. But there is a very smart associated website where you can make an online ‘postcard’ from your own edit of some 300 clips of archive.

Building the Pavilion: there is a lot of so-so video on The Space (of which more below), but this is one of the more interesting short films – an account of the construction of the Serptentine Gallery’s summer pavilion designed by Herzog & de Meuron with Ai WeiWei.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: a Unitel recording, made for ZDF in Germany and Japanese television among others (but not BBC Television), of the fiftieth anniversary concert from Coventry Cathedral. This is wonderful music, played with commitment and intelligence by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons and it is great to have it here – but on the live presentation you got to see the satellite feed before and after the show itself, and I rather preferred that slightly messy version – now it’s been edited a little and tidied up.

Jazz in the Vortex: concerts from the Vortex Jazz Club, London, with (so far) Sol6, Sons of Kemet and Township Comets – this is contemporary music that has no presence otherwise on television, and it’s great to have it here, especially as there are also some modest elements of contextual material available during the music.

Spill: A Playground of Dance: it’s good to see The Space partnering on a project that continues an otherwise lost broadcast tradition of dance for the camera (many archive examples of which are also available on the site) – but I wish I could be a bit more enthusiastic about the athletic playground choreography by Shaun Parker for Birmingham’s DanceXchange which is shot on location by Michael Murphy and Maverick.

• ‘Test clip for Arena Hotel – Bar – Luis Bunuel’: I was going to include this less for its inherent qualities -although it was an engaging fragment (about the Spanish director’s liking for Martinis) from the famous Nigel Finch documentary about New York’s Chelsea Hotel – but more for the appropriately surreal quality of its appearance here, given that there was no contextual information or explanation. Did the title mean that it is or was some kind of try-out, the removal of which had not gone to plan? Or was its presence a ‘test’ of some sort that the the user had to interpret. But then the clip disappeared, and there’s no trace of it on the site now.

Each of the above (well, not the Arena clip now) is part of The Space offering that, overall, comes over as a lot of as-live performance and numerous short videos (some of which, like Tate Shots, are available elsewhere online). A good deal of this is fine as far as it goes, but in toto it doesn’t feel as if it has captured even a fraction of the excitement, the challenges and the diversity of this extraordinary summer of culture.

Nor is that about insufficient quantity, although it may be to do with constrained budgets. Indeed I think there is probably just too much material here with a lack of focus on what’s not just good but really great. The budget should support less work with but greater ambitions for each element. Which brings us back to the questions of time and attention. Ideas, projects, productions need to wonderful or highly distinctive or gloriously imaginative or just plain crazy to break through to ask for our time and to capture our attention in today’s overcrowded media world. And very little on The Space at the moment seems to me to be trying to do that.

If I can be cruel to be kind, too much of The Space seems to be happy to settle for being just a bit too ordinary – at least in terms of the way it is manifested as a media offering (or it too often looks as if that is all it can afford to do). The Space, three months in, is fine as far as it goes – but I wish it was making a more compelling case on screen that it wants to go much, much further. Only then will it deserve to demand far more of my, and your, time.


  1. Richard Lee says:

    It should be accessible to all.
    Subtitles aren’t an option and are actually a boon in a multi-screen/tasking world on the move.
    I’m pretty sure it is being addressed for the future but until it is, I think it’s worth the reminder.

  2. Alison Smith says:

    Your article is absolutely spot on that Space Arts website and digital channel that it is just another traditional broadcaster putting out content and sadly could have done much more to engage (and interact).

    Sadly I can’t even watch any of the video or listen to the audio content on The Space Arts as because I’m Deaf they done sod all to ensure simple things like adding subtitles or text transcripts to audio content or build in disability access as part of the remit.

    So thank you for giving me an insight into the range of work they have on The Space Arts and how much great art I’m missing out on.

    Their failure to make it accessible ignores a huge audience (20% of the population is disabled and 10 million are deaf or hard of hearing). The fact we are also worth £80billion a year is also ignored.

    It is not difficult to add subtitles and audio description to video content, links to transcripts of the audio, ensuring people with cognitive disabilities can navigate and adding text descriptions to images etc. The cost is minimal and easy to build in – there is even free subtitling software available http://www.universalsubtitles.org!

    This lack of access has made my experience of the website frustrating and yet another example of how I and many others are excluded online by cultural organisations who think that by making their buildings accessible they don’t need to bother doing the same to their online content (or live streamed events).

    To add insult to injury both the BBC and ACE they have said that despite spending £4.5million of public money they have no intention of making it accessible because it was only going to be live for 6 months. That ignores The Equalities Act 2010 legal requirements and also it’s predecessor The Disability Discrimination Act 2010.

    It is “an experiment” I’m told (also said publicly at Future Everything) and that in their view it is unreasonable to ask anyone submitting content to the website to make it accessible(!) No one woud dream of of planning a new building and only providing steps and not installing lifts for wheelchair users, families and older people so what’s the difference between that provision and the accessibility to a website? Lack of will.

    The #subtitlesnow campaign was set up in response to this by deaf people to raise this with all broadcasters and sadly to date (since 30 May 2012) not one broadcaster has bothered to respond.

    ACE’s new Creative Media Policy also completely ignores the need to ensure digital content is accessible and criteria is met and lobbying by a number of individuals and organisations it has I say with no irony fell completely on deaf ears.

    It saddens and angers me greatly that 1/5 of the population lose out in one fell swoop at this attitude and action.

    I fear that as digital innovation gathers speed and it becomes the coolest tool to be used by the cultural sector that the gap between those who can get online to see cultural content and the lack of access will increase so much that it becomes a tool to disengage rather than engage.

    Arts for All – I don’t think so 🙁
    Alison aka @peskypeople

  3. Hi John –
    Agree with your constructive criticism, and have updated my February review of the The Space as a project here, in light of the Digital Copyright Exchange consultation and report. http://consultrudman.com/2012/08/digital-content-update/

  4. John Denton says:

    Thanks for the comments and review, one of the issues I have with TheSpace (as co-producer of Live Vortex) is the lack of promotion which goes to the point of it being self-contained and not allowing any social interaction with or across the content.
    Our original pitch emphasised interaction both online and offline via the venue but TheSpace aims to be multi-platform which has constrained it to templates and a design that works across most platforms/devices but at expense of innovation.

    The rights have been taken by Arts Council until 2015 which is unwelcomed.

    And as you note where is the content that you cannot get elsewhere and on a big screen where it works best?

    However, the small team have worked wonders to get it out at all and for that opportunity I am very grateful.

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