The Space is an online gallery where visitors can explore exciting new digital art, made by the most talented contemporary artists, shared around the world. We commission new talent and established artists from all art forms, as well as across the creative industries, and technical and digital worlds, through open calls and partnerships.
I have been frustrated by The Space for some time. I am all for the public funding of art, and in particular, digital art, and £16 million can go a long way. But right from the start, there were warning signs. For example, the first round of project proposals had to adhere to strict data formats; if you had video, it had to be in a particular format so it could be imported to their online portal, which would be viewable on phones, tablets, computers, TVs, etc.
Sounds sensible, right? Doesn’t it make sense to have a single website for 51 projects instead of 51 websites all being made separately (and expensively)? The answer is, hell no:
a) If you’re going to fund exciting new digital art, one might expect it to come in many different forms; forms that are going to be difficult to fit into even the most flexible template. So why force them?
b) Even if everything was video, why not just put it all on YouTube? It’s free, it works, it’s better for discovery, and it helps build your social media following.
Now, to be fair, many of the projects weren’t merely video or audio-based. One of the most popular projects was the radio broadcaster John Peel’s Record Archive. It’s an interesting website which does what it says on the tin; put pictures of his archive online. I don’t quite see how it qualifies as ‘digital art’ though, and it has dreadful navigation and accessibility issues (the note cards for each record do not appear to have any readable or alt text, for example).
Another project was Will Self’s ‘digital essay’, Kafka’s Wound, published by the London Review of Books. It is an excellent piece of writing. The digital part, however, is laughably bad. The first thing you see on the website is ‘visual index’, a network of circular pictures that link to bits of video, audio, and additional material embedded within the essay. What is it for? Are people meant to use it before the read the essay, without any context? Or should they use it afterwards, even though it has no labels and after the reader has presumably already read the material they were interested in, along the way?
The embedded media is a mixed bag. Some of it is very relevant, other bits (particularly the music) appear to there simply to make up the numbers. Worse, the embedded media is hidden behind cryptically-labelled buttons to the right of the essay. You have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s very disruptive to the process of, you know, reading.
I don’t mean to pick on the essay – like I said, it’s very good. But it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘digital art’. And this is one of the better projects The Space has funded.
Now, you can expect missteps in the first year of a new organisation like The Space. In fact, you might even welcome them — but only if it looks like the organisation is learning. Sadly, an independent report by MTM, commissioned by the Arts Council and the BBC to evaluate The Space, pulled all the punches it could.
One major problem with the report lies in the people they approached to evaluate the projects. Said one arts organisation of the Will Self essay:
A completely different approach to how you experience an essay – you can interact with it and create your own navigation.
No. No. No. A thousand times, no. Anyone who genuinely believes this has no place in evaluating any kind of digital art. Another person said:
It’s such an interesting approach – it feels really new and inventive.
Really? Had this person never seen an essay online with embedded video and audio?
Or, on John Peel’s Record Collection:
It’s a wonderful archive, and it’s interactive – audiences can play and explore.
It’s a sad, sad day when ‘clicking through an archive’ equals interactive. If that’s the bar we’re setting, I despair. Once again, it’s not that I think the archive is bad – it’s that I think it’s not technically or artistically innovative, and so it’s not deserving of being funded by a body specifically created to fund ‘exciting new digital art’.
The audience figures were also, in my view, disappointing. Between May and October 2012, The Space attracted a million visits from 630,000 unique users. Now, a million sounds like a lot. But is it, really? Consider that £3.5 million was invested in 51 commissions. That means they’re paying £5.56 for each user; and who knows what the average visit time on each website was.
When you look at the audience breakdown, it becomes clear that only six of the 51 commissions attracted more than 10,000 unique users. My blog gets 3000 unique users per month. In other words, it’s very likely that my blog outperformed over 80% of all commissions by The Space in terms of audience numbers. That is awful. It’s not even a very good blog.
I could go on, but the whole enterprise just depresses me. I was recently interviewed about the possibility of the public funding of ‘art games’ (my words, not theirs) in the UK. Such a thing would be tricky, but also extremely exciting. I conjured up visions of the bounty we could expect for a mere £100,000 or £200,000 — and just imagine how many projects and how many artists could be funded with a massive £1 million! Think of the amazing Twine games, the hard-hitting Papers Pleases, the touching That Dragon, Cancers that could realised — with popular projects easily able to command hundreds of thousands of visitors each, if not millions.
And then to discover that £3.5 million was spent on these commissions, and another £16 million recently. It is a disgrace that we are spending so much money and getting so little, when we are missing the incredible opportunities that genuine digital art — not just games, but at least including games — offers.
Why have so few people spoken out about The Space? Because it’s funded by the Arts Council and the BBC. Here’s a quote from Maggie Brown’s article:
…I consulted a digital arts expert, who would speak only off the record. “It’s strange,” he said. “All that money thrown at it, and it’s bloody awful, very undercooked.”
He’d only speak off the record. We’re not talking about the CIA here, for fuck’s sake – but I don’t blame him for being worried about his career. If you’re an artist, who wants to make an enemy of the BBC or the Arts Council?