What is the real cost of on-demand connectivity? Emele Ugavule offers warnings, advice and some handy tips
As I see more and more artists and organisations jump online to offer alternatives to real-time interaction, I feel cautious rather than excited. This isn’t because I distrust digital media and online spaces: what gives me pause is the current lack of rigorous infrastructure, training and policy in the arts that ensures that artists are protecting the integrity of their craft and their reputations.
It’s easy to forget how young the internet is. It’s an integral part of our economy and our everyday lives. But the current crisis is making people realise there is no separation between the “real” and “online” worlds: they co-exist, and separation is merely a state of mind. Phenomena such as cyber bullying are an example of the direct impact that online actions have on real world circumstances. It’s understandable that artists and organisations may feel that going online and monetising content is a simple way to make up for lost money in the face of economic collapse. But the fact is that digital storytelling is vulnerable to extraction, exploitation and reproduction, and requires a more diligent and attentive approach to producing than live performance.
The hard truth is that most theatre companies in Australia are not equipped to handle the level of in-house digital content production, marketing and data analysis that is required to monitor and successfully meet current content demands of creation and supply. Most theatre audiences have not been trained to engage with filmed performance. In the same way that audiences are taught theatre etiquette, watching filmed performance requires developing an etiquette of its own.
Watching a theatre show alone hits audiences differently. The editing and equipment necessary to watch a performance completely changes the way we receive information – on a phone screen as opposed to a projector screen or VR headset, screen resolution, equipment model – the list goes on. Perception is not the same as reality, neuroscientist Dr Beau Lotto highlights that our construction of perception is 10 per cent what we see and 90 per cent from other senses and other parts of the brain. As visual information makes up a small percentage of our perception, this leaves a lot of room for miscommunication and misinterpretation within virtual communities. So we must ask ourselves, how is digital media flattening our audiences’ sensorial perception of live performance, and how can we work around this?
While building this conversation around artists and organisations capacity to deliver online content, there also needs to be a conversation around its ethics and who exactly the online content is targeting.
Diversity Arts recently did a survey with 91 per cent Culturally and Linguistically Diverse identifying artists predicting income loss. I’m keen to see if anyone will expand their survey to see how the move to online is also disproportionately affecting CALD and disabled artists due to the inaccessibility of technical equipment, and a lack of reliable internet access and digital literacy training across the entire sector.
At first glance, there appears to be an increase in user-generated video content or live streams, but a lack of alternatives to visual content, such as closed captioning, audio description, transcripts of recordings or even the use of alt-text or image descriptions. Organisations and independent artists must hold themselves accountable to producing accessible digital content.
Reflecting on a panel about disability-led theatre practice that I listened to at The Kiln last year, each artist reiterated that disability-led theatre practice is a chance for audiences and practitioners to expand how we experience theatre. An example was made of how deaf audiences experience sound through vibrations, and how vibration can expand our empathetic connection to performance. In a time like this, I truly wish for the panic to subside and the loudest artists in the centre of our theatre industry to hand the mic to artists who have been working for years in alternative storytelling because – put simply – they’ve had no choice. Disabled artists, First Nations artists, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse artists have the skills to create storytelling beyond the black box construct, because that’s where we have been pushed for years.
It has been encouraging to see many artists pulling together initiatives to support, not just one another’s practice, but also their mental health. Interestingly, most of this has happened on social media platforms because to its ease of access to established online communities and the cost – free.
Facebook, the parent company of Instagram and WhatsApp, has reported from Italy a 37 per cent increase in usage, an climb to 70 per cent time in group calls (three or more participants). Instagram and Facebook live stream views have doubled in a week’s time according to its own data. Analysis of data coming from Italy shows that Facebook struggled to cope with the increased usage whilst their staff were working from home. America has overtaken China as the world epicentre of the crisis, and with Australian state and federal governments failing to agree on rules and restrictions, we just may be next. Within my echo chamber, Facebook-owned platforms have become the go-to for quick online content – so will we eventually see a digital replication of the toilet paper crisis and see this tech giant crumble under customer over-consumption? Only time will tell.
Australia’s privacy watchdog, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, is currently suing Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For anyone who missed it in the news, (or in the Netflix special, The Great Hack) Cambridge Analytica is responsible for managing Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s highly exploitative election campaigns, in which profile data from millions of registered voters (and potential voters) was extracted from social media to create targeted propaganda, contributing to their landslide wins. The US government’s attempts to reprimand Facebook for breaching a consent decree that Facebook not share information beyond users agreement saw the Federal Trade Commission launch an investigation. Facebook’s internal estimate was that it would pay $5 billion, a day post-prediction – their shares surged 7 per cent, adding $30billion to their stock market value.
And Zoom aren’t the only ones who can drop into chats as they please, as reports to the FBI of a hacker trend known as “Zoom-bombing” is on the rise, with hackers terrorising online conferences and university classes with hate speech, threatening language and pornographic imagery. The recent surge in usage this past week has forced Zoom to introduce automatic password protection for calls and approval before joining meetings, which isn’t a complete fix and data privacy concerns still remain.
These might sound like big ideas and numbers that don’t affect small independent artists, but I can assure you that they do. Every day on our phones and screens we engage with algorithms, a form of artificial intelligence, that arranges your social media feed based on relevancy rather than chronological posting. When we engage with social media platforms, we are teaching the algorithms in real time how to respond to us – what to reveal and what to conceal. I have no doubt that the surge in usage combined with artist-to-audience engagement through social media platforms is going to impact our industry well beyond the predicted 6-12 month recovery period. If social media data can shape the face of entire governments, it can certainly shift the theatre performing arts industry.
I am relieved to see grant programs opening from South Australia, City of Sydney and the City of Melbourne that allow artists to apply for quick response grants to present works and equipment that lead to digital outcomes. But the short turn around for submissions concerns me, because it doesn’t give people enough time to research, connect across the sector and plan appropriately how to deliver rigorous content. I’m also aware that CALD and disabled artists are disadvantaged by the grant submission system, predominantly serving those who are confident speakers of “grant language”, and those in city council areas but not in suburban local government areas such as Western Sydney, where the majority of our CALD artist community are based in Sydney.
As an Indigenous womxn, I am particularly concerned that many of our community and leaders may be rushing to use digital platforms to make their work accessible without knowing how that may affect artists careers in five to ten years from now. Online streaming of performance or making archived shows public access require a separate contract for loadings and residuals in addition to the standard MEAA contract that most are signing. There must also be considerations for the intention of performance and quality of documentation when putting archival footage online. Actors and theatremakers build performances around live interaction, whereas performance for camera requires different technical skills (even in live performance) – not only from performers and production team but also from the film team. Most artists have agreed to archival documentation under the promise that it will not go public, so to do so requires rigorous discussion.
Moving Indigenous knowledge, let alone performance, to online platforms can be a slippery slope. It’s very easy to extract, exploit and reproduce intellectual property in the online world. Artists such as @sainthoax have built an entire meme career from it. Now is an opportune time for First Peoples companies and arts councils to work together to build policy that protects Indigenous ontologies embedded in performance practice and how that is expressed in the online space.
This is where copyright and intellectual property rights for artists contracted by any organisations under digital or social media residencies on digital platforms must be transparent. For example, if you look closely at Facebook’s statement of rights and responsibilities users who post their intellectual property (ie. photos and videos) grant the platform a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.” Given that the intent behind using free platforms such as Facebook are its cost-effective marketing aka. sharing, it’s counterintuitive to join with the expectation that after deleting, your content will leave with you. You can find a similarly unforgiving clause in Twitch’s terms of service (Twitch is a platform known for streaming gaming but many artists have recently signed up to explore digital workshop possibilities.)
Now that we are all stuck at home with nothing but time on our hands, it’s time to talk. And not just about data sovereignty but also about self sustenance beyond the economy such as food sovereignty. How can arts organisations be held accountable to First People’s first? What is the responsibility of funding bodies and arts institutions to artists beyond upskilling their craft and digital literacy? How could theatre companies and arts centres invest in digital initiatives founded in intergenerational knowledge exchange that acknowledge the wealth of knowledge Aboriginal or Torres Strait elders hold about caring for Country so Country can care for us. Everyday as we see the government scramble to boost the economy with money, it becomes more evident that First Nations self determination, epistemologies and ontologies benefits not just First Peoples but everybody and this is an opportune time for the arts to be at the forefront of supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to lead a movement of self determination that isn’t reliant on a capitalist society (read: colonialism).
One of the greatest pieces of advice I heard was from writer, speaker and appearance advocate Carly Findlay last year: “If you have time, find money. If you don’t have money, take your time.” In other words – don’t do your craft or your audience a disservice by rushing. Make deliberate, informed choices to ensure your work is as holistically accessible as it can be.
There’s a lot of information out there, and very few consistent answers. Below is a list of resources and some stimulus questions to ask yourself about how to transition your practice into the digital world.
These are unprecedented times, and how we evolve and respond to crisis is more important than ever. Think of these questions and links as springboards to deepening your understanding of the digital world, rather than as solutions for working within it.
Improving your digital literacy
- Where are my digital strengths and weaknesses?
- Do I have the capacity to strategise, develop, rehearse, film & perform, edit and produce marketing content myself to a standard I would be proud of?
- Am I ensuring my content is accessible to everyone?
- Emerging Writers Festival – tips on going digital and a downloadable pdf tips and tricks sheet for livestream hosts and speakers.
- digital.gov – Improving the accessibility of social media for public service
- Shondaland – Is your social media practice accessible to everyone?
Platforms – hosting workshops, live streams and on-demand hosting
- Have I researched what platforms exist beyond Facebook, Instagram, Twitch and Zoom?
- Are there smaller platforms that I can support that also give me more rights as a content creator?
- Class Bento – Artisan classes at your home
- Vimeo – On Demand
- Sproutvideo – Enterprise for everyone
- OzFlix – On Demand
- Normal Place – On Demand
Copyright and licensing
- Have I written out a code of conduct?
- Do I understand best practice and how am I ensuring myself & collaborators are held accountable?
- Do my collaborators understand their rights and stakes?
- Have I contacted my insurance to check I am covered by Public Liability whilst filming content?
- Am I protecting my intellectual property?
- APRA – Live streaming music licensing and pre-recorded digital content with music licensing
- Storytime – Book industry partners come to agreement on copyright Note: This is an agreement between publishers and libraries, if you wish to read an author’s book in a live stream or online you still need to contact their publisher or writer to seek approval.
- MEAA – Performers rights: Streaming and recording live performances
- Arts Law – What is copyright?
- Australia Council – Importance of intellectual property within arts sector