It’s 4pm on Saturday and Jonnie Common has been up all night. As if the sleep deprivation wasn’t already a challenge, he now has to perform a brand new set in front of 120 people. A set that he’s put together in just the last 24 hours and inspired by and comprised of a glorious assortment of data that was provided by cultural organisations across Scotland. And as a non-techie, that’s an intimidating ask. Needless to say Jonnie Common performs brilliantly and he closes the set with a surreal track called Footfall, a sonic interpretation of how many people have attended exhibitions at the popular Glasgow Southside venue Tramway. It’s crazy beautiful stuff and the assembled crowd are now well warmed up for the show and tell. I’m MC-ing the presentations and in my intro I tell everyone to get ready for what may well be the most remarkable couple of hours of their year. This is Culture Hack Scotland 2012 and I’m not wrong.
Culture Hack Scotland does what is says on the tin. It’s a hackday – an intense event in which quick proof-of-concept digital projects are made in a short period of time, in this case 24 hours. It’s set in a cultural context in that data and content is provided specially for the event from cultural organisations so as to provide inspiration and framing for the project prototypes that are made. And it’s in Scotland, involves Scottish cultural organisations and mainly, but not exclusively, digital and design talent from around Scotland. Incubated by the Edinburgh Festivals in its first year in 2011, it is now an independent event managed through Sync and although only two years young, it is already established as one of the most productive cultural innovation events around.
It’s 2pm on Saturday and Stef Lewandowski is thinking about one more hack. Well known for his prodigious as well as prolific making ability, working together with Dublin-based Carolyn Jones, London-based Lewandowski has already made two well constructed projects, one a textured map of stories from a Scottish Book Trust campaign and the other an ambitious prototype of a direct-to-artist crowdfunding service. And with two hours to go until the hacking deadline, something is really bothering him. The Demarco Archive is a tremendous collection of 10,000 photographs taken in and around the Edinburgh Festivals since 1947 and in 2005 a university was awarded £300,000 to turn them into a digital archive. The problem however is that the website made to house the images makes it incredibly difficult to view and interpret the images despite that being its whole purpose. Frustrated, Stef takes the image set kindly made available for the event and presents them as a beautiful and simply navigable gallery. And of course it’s optimised for iPad.
Given their rising popularity and prominence in recent time, events like Culture Hack Scotland are seen by some within the sector as an ammunition store full of magic bullets, somehow acting as a factory of culture related digital projects and startups that will result in untold Zuckerbergian riches. There is clearly enormous potential both from a creative and from an enterprise perspective in cultural organisations engaging with digital practice in a more progressive way. However to expect hackdays themselves to create the sustainably wonderful projects misses the wood for the trees. Culture Hack Scotland is less a factory and more a gym, a playground and a nightclub. It’s a gym since it builds our prototyping and risk-taking muscles, a playground since it gives us a low-risk environment to try somethings that are radically new and it’s a nightclub since it allows us to dance with a lot of different people we may not have otherwise met. And who knows, we may just meet the love of our lives.
It’s 11am on Saturday and Padmini Ray Murray has a smile on her face. After the 2011 event, Padmini gave us a lot of great feedback on how the technologists and the cultural community were too separate at that inaugural event. This time she has taken the initiative and is producing and guiding a team with three developers on a project which uses the text of Macbeth as the basis for an interactive parlour game using mobile phones. And as a lecturer in publishing studies and organiser of the Electric Bookshop events she is a valuable hand on the tiller, bringing nuance and context to her ad hoc colleagues. And she’s not alone – one of this year’s highlights for us organisers has been seeing many more culture specialists working on and enhancing hacks.
Like innovation, collaboration is a somewhat overused word in the arts. And most typically it’s related to need – there is less money so to help me keep its lights on I’m going to have to collaborate with you to realise some efficiency or other. At Culture Hack Scotland, the starting position is really quite different so when two people meet at the event, that meeting asks of them “what is it that might be the most creative and most useful coming together our our different skills and interests?”. While it can feel outside of one’s comfort zone as someone who works in arts & culture to suddenly start working with technologists and designers, the same is true for the technologists and designers very few of which typically work in the cultural context. But because they have personal cultural lives they are able to make projects in that context. And in the very same way artists and arts and arts professionals have personal technological and design lives so there is always going to be a collaborative space if you’re happy to explore it.
It’s way past midnight on Friday and the Roy, Jack, Michael and Tom have made their decisions. On the side of the SocietyM venue which is made up of a series of meeting rooms, there is a glass wall covered in cards, each representing a different project idea inspired by the various datasets. Four product designers standing next to a wall of ideas with a bag beside them full of prototyping and technical materials. After a short but fair voting process in which they graciously grant me a say, two projects are chosen. One is beautiful and the other somewhat comical. The beautiful is a micro-projection system which displays lines from your favourite books discretely around your home. The comical is a pair of skinny jeans that dances according to how many event listings there are in The Skinny for the location of where the jeans are. The latter proves to be a sensation when it comes to the presentations.
After 2011’s inaugural Culture Hack Scotland had catalysed so many new connections and projects, we were initially unsure of how this year’s event might evolve further. Thankfully that concern proved to be redundant as the community grew and brought new skills, inspiration and ambition. As well as there being several more product-design rather than web-design projects and also many more people who work in arts & culture involved in project teams, there were three other important new features this year. Firstly was a much higher gender balance among the participants, better than last year and certainly much better than most other hackdays. Secondly was the increased number of designers to complement the skills of the developers. And thirdly and perhaps most importantly was how so many of the hacks were creative experiences in their own right, rather than just apps and services that sit around existing experiences.
It’s 8pm on Friday and Julie Johnstone is talking about poetry. Which isn’t particularly surprising given that she’s a librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library. However what may surprise her is how in the following hours several talented designers, developers and producers will be inspired to use work from the Edwin Morgan Archive that Julie so generously was able to enable being available for the hackday. And what they will make will range from a poem generator using some clever maths called a Markov chain and a deeply disturbing 3D game environment based on Morgan’s Stobhill. But at the moment, these brilliant projects are just sparks of ideas in the mind.
Among all the excitement and activities exploring digital opportunities within the cultural sector right now, three things tend to fall by the wayside – the willingness to be genuinely experimental, the ability to make space for the unexpected and the bravery to be open to different ways of working. Itself a prototype, albeit now in its second iteration, in just 24 hours Culture Hack Scotland shows what is possible when we bring the most creative attitude to innovation that we can and relax our boundaries. We look forward to curating Culture Hack Scotland 2013 and you are most warmly invited. And if you’re wondering what the cost of entry is, it’s your participation.