New Media Centres - the Emergent Properties report

This text is taken from the early drafts of a book based on some research undertaken in 1998/9 into the activities of new media centres in the UK and beyond. The book was never completed.

Link to Emergent Properties outline presentation

Any examination of the phenomenon of the media centre has got to be clear about its terms for the media centre can be many things to many people. This conceptual plurality, difficult though it is, is further complicated by the addition of the term ‘new’ - as in new media centre - creating something altogether different and more contemporary. Not simply the latest media centre, but more specifically, a media centre which bases itself around the use and exploitation of that which is called new media. Although this is a term which is now in fairly common usage, it often confounds and, again being fundamentally ephemeral, raises many questions about its precise meaning. Is new media fixed, or is it something that continues to evolve ?. Is it like the New Forest or New England, new once, but now firmly fixed in time. Or is it a synonym for something we might more usefully define as emerging.

The term emerging media is more useful as it represents a particular set of concerns to do with how technological changes are reflected and mediated back into the society from whence they came. A feedback system in which the medium itself is not of primary importance, but is secondary to a process, a channel of attitudes that are continually concerned with the new, the emergent, the innovative and the unaccepted. This is the notion that perhaps underpins much of the energy, commitment and excitement that is currently generated out of an interest in new media. That what is new is always new and what is new now will not be new soon and as such needs to be passed on to be dealt with by those who have an interest in more fixed representations of the world.

The latest manifestation of new media - and that which still bears its name - is that which has grown out of information technology, and more specifically the digital gene pool whose parent is the computer. It is clear that this technology has very particular characteristics, yet it is similarly clear that few of us know precisely how those characteristics will impact upon our perceptions and aspirations.

However, what is most significant is that there are many people, both informed and uninformed, both in power and seeking power, who believe that these characteristics have some significance and that some of this significance is manifesting itself within what we might term as ‘the creatives’. Within this sector, comprising broadly of commercial and non-commercial cultural producers and their attendant bureaucracies, we can see some fundamental shifts occurring. Shifts which are both deliberately and accidentally chipping away at the cultural concepts which have underpinned much of our understanding of cultural production. It would be too glib to call it a revolution, as a perceived revolution is often no revolution at all. If change is perceptible it is not real change, but variation. But it most certainly is heralding some kind of change which demands some kind of engagement if we are to make it in our image and not the inverse.

So how is this change manifesting itself ?. Some of it is in crude ways, like the ways in which we can represent ourselves through faux professional means - desktop publishing and the networks of the internet, now cheaper and more widely distributed. But more fundamental is the way in which it is effecting our social and economic institutions, creating boundless nations, invisible economies and truly global markets while, at the same time, sweeping away cultural resistance to its monoglot tongue.

So what are the industrial mechanisms that are driving this ?, who are the individuals who are shaping these mechanisms ?, and how are our governments making interventions on our behalf ?. While the facts in this area continue to evolve faster than our knowledge and understanding of them, these questions are virtually impossible to answer. However, in the UK, a small, but relatively prosperous and aware corner of the globe, it may be possible to take some kind of snapshot. A snapshot which may provide some glimpses of how the systems and attitudes that we have inherited will be modulated into the digital future. The view that this snapshot represents is coloured more by aspiration than insight, more by opportunism than consideration, but, common with much of the benevolent chaos of cultural development, is one which is more likely to define the actual impacts of these emerging media than any degree of structural application.

This essay is an attempt to understand how a few significant developments may provide models for approaching the constitution of the future cultural environment. How the relationship between culture, economics and society will be determined, not by theory, but by this mix of opportunism, idealism, innovation and obstinacy that repeatedly seems to characterise many breakthrough developments. How a particular set of circumstances have engineered a moment of destabilisation which may produce some shining and possibly far-reaching examples of late 20th century patronage, enterprise and attitude. These circumstances being complex and evolutionary but usefully identified as a set of 3 paradigms:

1. the advent of new technology,
2. A set of attitudes hardened by a lengthy period of Conservative government, yet tempered by a set of social values seeded by community action, but mostly
3. the impact of the National Lottery funds, the first and only radical intervention into what has been a relatively stable and moribund system of state cultural intervention for the past 50 years.

So how do we make sense of and create useful models from this situation. Firstly we need to define what are the parameters for new media and for centres. While that may appear willfully semantic, it must be essential, as this landscape is ill-understood and at least one commonly understood set of definitions might take us a long way.

We have already suggested that new has to be seen as a relative term. That the approach in this essay is to consider new as a synonym for newest.

Secondly : media.
However much we might like to think we understand this term, it is again elusive. It is useful to consider that media refers both to the tools of creativity and to the mechanism of delivery of that subsequent content.

If we put the two together we can say that now, in 1999, new media equals computers and all their attendant systems - the internet, multimedia, invisibility, weightlessness, future shock and cybernetics.

In 2009 it might mean something different, but we can only hope to understand that when it arrives.

The third term ‘centres’ is altogether harder to define and is the subject of the least assumptions in this essay.

So what is a centre ?. The question sounds innocent enough, especially in the light of Lottery opportunities which are tailor-made for slack thinking around service delivery - surely ‘centre’ means ‘building’ ?. This is clearly the default belief, but may well be seen to be short-sighted and an abuse of the opportunities provided by these new media. Either way, if we are to make the most of the current opportunities, both as providers or audiences, we need to understand what these things might be, how they might be of use to us and, most significantly, how we can maximise their impact upon the communities they are intended to serve.

The history of centred practice

A number of assessments have analysed the history of arts centres in the UK and have concluded that the development of arts centres, as we now know them, has occurred in 4 distinct phases. The first phase following on from the second world war and taking place mainly in the south of England. These centres focused ‘primarily on amateur work’ and had an ethos of ‘allowing professionals to enjoy involvement in the arts’.

The second phase came following a more critical assessment of arts practice in the 60s which saw the post-war arts centres as serving only the middle classes. Community access and the notion of serving the ‘culturally under-privileged’ were drivers behind this movement to break down barriers between audiences and artists.

The third phase, in the 70s, was more a consolidation of previous practice. The first national conference of arts centres and the emergence of a notion of an ‘arts centre movement’.

The fourth documented phase, in the 80s, involved the significant intervention of local authorities and a further shift in emphasis from the needs of artists to the needs of the local community and especially to centres focused on specific interests and non-geographic communities. Authorities like the Greater London Council and the other regional metropolitan authorities, proving to be very active in the seeding of these organisations.

One recent survey has provided some detailed statistical analysis of current practice, and is also useful as it makes extensive comparisons with a similar earlier survey. The first survey was published by the Policy Studies Institute in 1987 and the second, by Joy MacKeith of Compass Partnership, almost ten years later in October 1996. In the first a total of 242 arts centres were identified, while a decade on this figure had decreased to 129.

Although the 1996 survey does not overtly define what constitutes an arts centre it does make some useful analysis of the mission statements of the centres. It concludes that most are primarily concerned with, ‘enabling community access to the arts and providing opportunities for members of the community to develop their appreciation of , and participation in, a range of arts events’. It further adds that ‘a significant minority focus on the development of the artist and art form through promoting opportunities for cutting edge work’.

Since the advent of the National Lottery it seems likely that a shift in emphasis might be expected, altering, if not the text of mission statements, then their application and products. This will in part be due to the objective of community access now being only part of one criteria out of the eight that make up the funding criteria for the Capital Programme of National Lottery Funding. These being ;

1. Public benefit
2. Financial Viability and quality of management
3. Partnership funding
4. Quality of design and construction
5. Quality of arts activities planned
6. Relevance of project to local, regional and national plans for developing the arts.
7. Involvement of artists, craftspeople and film/video makers
8. Quality of plans for education and marketing.

However, the National Lottery funds, available since March 1995, have certainly altered the landscape and provided an opportunity to develop which is unparalleled in the public sector funded arts in this country. But what they have failed to do is invent any radical new mechanisms for understanding - and more crucially - assessing cultural activity.

Of the Lottery criteria listed above items 2, 3, 6, 7 can all be measured fairly effectively. Item 4 can be assessed reasonably well. But items 1, 5 & 8 raise many issues, not in terms of their appropriateness as criteria, but in terms of their ability to be measured.

As the Lottery moves into a more strategic phase these issues become much more significant. It will become necessary to explore which projects achieve Criteria 1 more than another competing project. More worryingly it will be necessary to assess whether or not a project scoring highly in Criteria 1 is more significant than one scoring highly in Criteria 5. i.e Is quality of arts activities more important than public benefit.


The common response in these cases is to revert to forms of measure which are at best inappropriate and at worst totally destructive. Usually by using forms of measure which are empirical - such as economic or social measures. This results in a system containing professionals and audiences to whom cultural significance is a primary motivation, but who are only allowed to express that significance in other languages. This is like asking a child to explain their enjoyment of their toys in terms of how much they cost, or how well they can be shared. These may be significant factors, but they are not the prime factor.

So what are the avenues open to the Local Authority arts officer who wants to make a case that the arts facilities in their borough are good and significant. The answer is none, bar the economic and social. The cultural systems we have inherited place overwhelming value upon the tacit acceptance of the cultural hegemony of star system modernism. Of art being positioned high and culture being the domain of sociologists. That cultural assessment is about a system of patronage in which what is significant is what is liked by people who hold positions of power within cultural institutions and that these people hold these positions because of their ability to absorb and represent the tacit understanding of the dominant hegemony.

So how does it work at the present ?
At present it appears that the assessment of cultural activity occurs in one of three ways:

[1] It is good or bad (this is sometimes broken down into its two constituent parts - how well did it achieve its aims, and were they worth achieving in the first place)
[2] I like or don't like it (it is possible to not like something, but to accept it is good - it is also possible to enjoy something which is pointless, exclusive or ill-advised)
[3] It produces measureable social or economic outputs

Our current arts funding system has invested greatly in the maintenance of traditional forms and values leading to a widespread, if barely visible, consensus based upon [1] and [2] above. While these assumptions have often been tacit or even denied it does seem that the funding system operates on a system in which artistic practice is supported because;

[A] An officer likes it.......
[B] ........ and some of his/her peers like it.....
[C] .......and it has been validated by an adherence to an administrative process
[D] Therefore it is good.

= The modulated faith principle

Although this structure has been in existence for some time now, it is occasionally thrown into some confusion by interventions being argued into the matrix; equality of opportunity, special needs and representation being politically motivated interventions which now share the house, but don't live together happily. The resultant structure is a complicated mixture of the opaque, the transparent and the invisible. Of regulated procedures, imposed targets and earnestly held values.

This matrix has been further complicated by the more recent insertion of the need to operate within an audit culture, in which accountable measures are used to assess outcomes of public sector intervention. The historical inability of the public funded arts sector to articulate its outcomes in anything but the most vague or complex terms has meant a reliance upon the default simplicity of [3] above - economic or social values.

This scenario leaves us with the poor spectacle of the UK Culture Secretary only able to validate arts and cultural activity in economic terms. With no commonly understood and easily articulated measure of cultural worth, none is expressed.

The advent of new media cultural practice has created an interesting challenge to this position. It appears that much of what is valued in this area has developed through a complex ecology of creativity, experimentation, speculation, and citizenship, and defies assessment by any of the conventional methods outlined above. It has its own arenas and its own foci.

But ;
Many people like it, but is it good ?
Is it the fascination with the new, is there work of more universal, durable significance ?.
Some economic activity occurs, but much of it refuses to be measured, viewing the constrictions and demands of public sector support & validation to be too unproductive.

This leads to a collapse of the modulated faith principle.

While some activity still remains within the public-sector funded sphere it is still possible for state agencies to assert their relevance by applying the criteria listed above and this is perceived to be happening within many of the new media centres studied during research for this essay. However, once the weight of activity is perceived to be happening beyond that sphere a crisis must be precipitated within the state agencies. This may have many consequences, but one factor significant here is the loss of intervention in a culturally significant paradigm. (Similar to the failure of the BFI in the 80s to recognise video as a distinct area of media practice).

However, if we have in place processes of measuring cultural significance we are able to make tests in areas where state intervention bodies have little or no expertise. These measures can then in turn be used by those who have no wish to engage with complex cultural assessment, but instead need to champion activity in simple terms. (e.g Local authority officers)
While these measures might be useful in moving the arguments forward, they can only ever be tactical - used to achieve equivalency in arenas where brevity is the only possible frame for process. However, they might also be used within the creative community as a method for advancing awareness of their own principles and measures, especially comparatively.

So how might these measures work ? One method might be to encourage the devolution of the arts funding bodies into lighter, more entrepreneurial Development Agencies with a countervailing influence provided through the establishment of an ‘OfArts’ body - a regulatory influence, monitoring activity and setting standards.

In some ways this might be seen as a privatisation of the Arts Council, but providing the measures are demonstrated to be accountable and fair, this may be an acceptable evolution and ultimately more productive. It will certainly create some cries of outrage as we do try and establish exactly how many angels fit on a pinhead, but the truth is (as in the great religious debate of 1349) we cannot rely on mystical hegemony to manage our expressions of self-identity when they have grown old and ignorant of the ways of the world.

As Morrissey says “Hang the D.J, because the song that he plays says nothing to me about my life”.

So what might be some examples of measures:

Significance to local audience
Significance to national audience
Significance to international audience
Significance to local artists
Significance to national artists
Significance to international artists
Acknowledgement of heritage(s)
Innovation in form
Innovation in content
Work practices
Third party dialogue (reviews)

Processes of assessment might be ;

Peer assessment
Optional adoption of this method
Hidden (client and funder only)
Public (published)
Scored numerically
Expressed textually
Relative ( related to organisations own aspirations)
Absolute (related to national standards)

This process might result in the gloriously effrontery of a usable Arts Funding Index, based of a cultural value quotient which might be used to measure cultural activity in terms controlled and regulated by the cultural providers themselves. Perhaps a suicidally philistine gesture for whoever might promote such a scheme, but, given the impact of new and emerging media, one way of accepting complicity in an outmoded structure and seeking a way to move it forward. Critically, one which will allow new users of public sector support to quickly define the criteria with which they might usefully engage in order to locate and deliver significant cultural activity.

Future Chapters :

Opportunities to develop
Diversity of models
The will to combine
Introduction and analysis of four identities
Reactive, Spontaneous, Interventionist, Opportunistic
The seeding of a creative milieu
The gravity effect
Industrial models
An assessment of cultural value
Measures of success
The dispersed media centre
The significance of the individual
The role of strategic funding
The role for integrated practice

original interviews ;

Brighton Media Centre
cplex, West Bromwich
ICA, London
The Lux, London
Kirklees Media Centre
Rural Media Centre
ZKM, Karlruhe


© Clive Gillman