• Tonya Nelson

    Arts & Culture Policymaker & Consultant

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    Factum Arte:Space for Digital Exploration and Innovation

    I had the privilege to visit the Factum Arte production facility in Madrid last week. The huge industrial space that spans a full city block allows for artists and arts institutions to explore the potential for digital technology to produce high quality replicas of great art and create new works of art. According to founder Adam Lowe, the objective of Factum Arte is the use technology to conserve and preserve, not replace. The range of projects that Factum Arte takes on are endless because they can invent (by rigging together cameras, lights and frames) a machine to tackle any digitization challenge presented.

    I was most impressed with a piece Factum Arte produced for Marina Abramovic’s Five Stages of Maya Dance. This piece is not new — it was made in 2013 — but remains a very intriguing use of 3D printing. Some photos and video from me — the website has many more. A scan of Abramovic’s head was made and printed a relief in alabaster. The effect is that from far away the work looks like a series of photographs, but as you move closer you see it is actually an alabaster block with a cut outs of Abramovic’s facial expressions.

    What is wonderful about the Factum Arte space is that it brings together artists, craftsmen and technologists in a space for explorations and innovation. It is not an assembly line-type manufacturing centre, nor a lab. It is a modern day renaissance workshop.


  • Keynote Address: 2019 Museums Computer Network (MCN) Annual Conference

    I am proud to have been selected to give the keynote address at the Museums Computer Network (MCN) annual conference in San Diego (5-9 November). The theme is Interface: Communities + Museums and will explore the ways technology, platforms, and communities interface in museums.


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    The Messy Edge at Brighton Digital Festival

    Image result for The messy edge

    I was invited to give closing remarks at The Messy Edge which was part of the Brighton Digital Festival in October.  The Messy Edge highlights the perspectives and voices of those who are marginalised in the digital revolution.

    Bill Thompson, who leads R&D at the BBC, framed the day by highlighting the messy edges, not only between our online and offline lives, but the very boundaries of biology and technology, with the systems and structures that allow use to push technology further mirror those of our inner biology.  The ubiquity of technology and the pervasive challenges of data privacy, surveillance, and the rise of artificial intelligence and smart machines, means we all have to voice in all aspects of the digital technology. 

    Thompson was followed by Catherine Allen, CEO of Limina Immersive, who offered some startling facts about the lack of gender diversity in the AR/VR/MR sector – only 14% of immersive tech companies are women. 

    Transgender writer Kuchenga shared some of her writing with us. I was struck by her statement that it was only when her work was recognised through social media channels did she feel her work was really important.  She argued that it was only through social media channels and communities was she able to reach the people who could appreciate her work and does not necessary see the established publishing industry as being able to reach those audiences.


  • Alternate Realities Summit 2019: Incomputable Sensibilities

    I was delighted to chair a session at Sheffield Doc Fest’s Alternative Realities Summit with three talented female filmmakers who are using 360 Video to make work the articulates the experience of people from different backgrounds. In Converging Sensibilities: Considering Creative Practice, I spoke to Sadah Espii Proctor, Maria Belen Poncio, Nyasha Kadandara.

    • Proctor is the director of Girl Icon. This 360 video shows you Rani’s journey to gain an education for herself and the other girls in her community. Inspired by Malala Yousafzai’s programme to change the lives of the 130 million girls who miss out on school. I like the way Proctor immersed the audience in all aspects of these girl’s lives through split screen techniques.
    • Poncio is the creator of 4 Feet: Blind Date. It is the story of Juana, an 18-year-old woman in a wheelchair who wants to explore her sexuality. She overcomes her fears, doubts, and an inaccessible city to meet ‘Felipe’ for a blind date. Together they discover how their bodies feel. This 360 degree video was so powerful because you see the world from height and perspective of a woman in wheelchair with no use of her lower limbs. Very tight and close up camera angles provide an intimacy I’ve never seen before.

    4 Feet: Blind Date

    • Kadandara is director of Le Lac. This film tells the story of climate change from a new perspective. Depended on by millions, Lake Chad has shrunk to a tenth of her former self. A journey through change and rupture, as told by the poetic voice of the lake herself.

    All three artists are using 360 video to give new perspective to people and issues we do not hear much about. It is clear that we are in still in the experimentation stage of 360 video – each of the creators spoke about drawing on traditional documentary film and theatre languages to make their work, but acknowledged that a new visual language is developing that is specific to immersive films.


  • 2019 Knowledge Quarter Conference: The Future of Knowledge

    It was a pleasure to be asked to part of the plenary session The Future of Knowledge Sharing. Start from the premise that over the next decade we are likely to experience vast changes in how individuals and organisations engage with knowledge, I was joined by F1000’s Publishing Director Michael Markie, Maria Nelson, Head of Innovation at Digital Catapult, UK’s leading advanced digital technology innovation centre, and New York-based journalist and tech writer Clive Thompson (who recently published Coders : the making of a new tribe and the remaking of the world) in a session chaired by Wired UK’s Business Editor Katia Moskvitch.

    A couple of points I shared:

    Artists are pushing the boundaries of virtual reality (VR), transforming it from an escapist pursuit to a platform for expanding our understanding and knowledge of how we connect to each other and the wider world.  Some think of VR as simply a new type of screen technology, but a number of artists are combining immersive technologies with body monitoring tools to allow us to visualise ourselves in virtual spaces. A recent VR piece I experienced allowed me to see my breath and pulse in a virtual forest and view the exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide between myself and the trees. Counterintuitively, I came away with a stronger sense of my connection to the natural world, rather than less.

    Artificial intelligence is being used by artists to better understand the nature of their own creativity. Many artists resist the idea that artificial intelligence can play any role in creativity, but there are artists are embracing AI tools in order to understand the nature of their own creativity better (for example, using computer vision to analyze a series of dance performances to understand the unique qualities of a dancer’s movement) and to push their creativity further. AI-enabled creativity requires open access to archives of video, sounds, and images as training data, but of course AI-enabled artistic work will raise issues of authenticity, provenance and copyright.

    A new generation of technology-enabled participatory theatre is emerging that offer audiences the ability to debate and find collective solutions to challenging technological issues. Artists have always given us new insight into the world and there are many artists who are shining a light on the implications of new technologies.  A number of artists have used their work to challenge racial bias in facial recognition technology, for example.  However, there is a way in which technologies are enabling us to be more participative in arts and generate collective artworks that help us engage with challenging issues.


  • Government can work! Seeing Culture is Digital come to life

    At a time when confidence in  government is low and political cynicism is high, I wanted to share a story demonstrating that the public can still have a role in bringing about positive change through government (rather than despite of it).

    Part I:  The Idea

    It was close to three years ago when I was seated next Matthew Hancock MP at a conference after he had been appointed Minister for Culture and Digital at DCMS. We spoke briefly about about the challenges of adopting new digital technologies in the museums sector.  A few months later I was sent an advertisement for secondments to DCMS to work under Hancock to develop a digital strategy for the cultural sector. It was a unique model of working that I had never heard of and, as it turns out, was a new way of working for DCMS: inviting practitioners to help develop and draft policy.  I was selected for the secondment and fairly quickly got the opportunity to see the wheels of government turn up close.

    In what would end up being called the Culture is Digital Project, my role was try to get to grips with the challenge and opportunities digital technologies presented in terms of skills, intellectual property and business models for arts organisations. I would have two days a week over six months to do this.

    Desk research is the first port of call for any policy making endeavour – reading what is already written about the subject. Seems sensible, but what I might not be so obvious is that desk research only reveals what someone could been minded to write about.  HENCE, if you want your smart thinking to be noticed and to have influence in government, it has to be documented in some form or fashion – through articles, blogs, videos, SOMETHING. The bigger organisations have the resources to produce reports and attend conferences where their views are presented and recorded. Some very small organisations that were persistent in writing about their experiences got my attention. What’s important about this point is that there is a multiplier effect going on: desk research leads to interviews and invitations to events and other face-to-face conversations. And in-person conversations lead to more opportunities to INFLUENCE.

    After compiling desk research, holding a series of interviews, online consultaton, roundtables and events aimed at understanding the needs of the sector, I was in the position to start proposing policy recommendations. One of the complexities of working in government is that there are other agencies and departments that are working on similar agenda from different perspectives. So you have to try to understand if there are synergies between those agendas, which may help advance your ideas or make your ideas redundant or, vice versa, conflict with your ideas and cause friction between departments or agencies.  There is no science to this vetting process. You try your best and prepare for the worst. I was really pleased to find that an idea I had around  up-skilling, for example, dovetailed with a new training programme that was already funded by the Intellectual Property Office.

    I put forward a total of seven policy recommendations at the end of my secondment. Mind you, there was no budget allocated for implementing anything and a couple cabinet reshuffles meant that I was no longer working under Matt Hancock MP. I say quite honestly that I had no expectation that any of my work would end up in the final policy report.  My suspicion was that by the time my work had gone through the political machine, it would bear no resemblance to my original thoughts or intentions. With no expectations, I was happy to have had the chance to see how the inner machinations of government worked.

    Fast forward 6 months later. I was sent a draft of the Culture is Digital report. I skimmed through the 30 page document looking for my recommendations. Three were there – albeit at toward to the end of the report.  I was surprised and quite frankly ecstatic. When the report was published, I was acknowledged in the report and was inundated with requests to speak about the report, both in the UK and abroad.

    For about 4 months, I was on a speaking circuit talking about Culture is Digital report. This was the point where I got a taste of what it might be like to be politician or career policy maker. Some audiences were enthralled, others not so impressed.  I tried to keep things fresh by changing my presentation to fit each audience group, but after a while I started to feel myself sounding a bit robotic. I was trying to sell it as opposed to just having a conversation about it.

    Part II:  The Implementation

    Recommendations are just recommendations until some entity takes responsibility for implementing them. DCMS does not directly implement recommendations – the organisations it funds, such Arts Council England (ACE), National Heritage Lottery Fund, and National Museums do. During my time at DCMS, these organisations seemed rather reticent about the work we were doing – this was one of the reasons I had no expectation of actual implementation. However, it turned out that ACE had taken up my particular recommendations and were working towards implementing them.

    Fast forward 1 year.  A high level position at ACE was advertised and my experience working at DCMS had made me believe that working in government – which for me, was about helping multiple organisations rather than one – was something of interest to me and something I could do.  I was selected as ACE’s first Director of Arts Technology and Innovation and started work there a year after Culture is Digital report was published.

    What I discovered when I started at ACE was that the ideas I had generated had grown from concepts to real programmes. It is all well and good to have ideas, but there are people who work in government agencies who must make an idea and reality.