Theatre Critic and Journalist

This is Tomorrow – Day 2: Manufacturing

This is Tomorrow – Day 2: Manufacturing

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Physics any more…

Gone is the worn institutional furniture that calls to mind Peter Serafinowicz’s retro educational spoof Look Around You. In its place are orthopaedic beanbags and firm couches with in-built desks. You just know that they’re the product of research; precision engineered for the best possible results. Even the colour scheme – brilliant white and chewed grass green – feels pointed. A clean, crisp light streams in through the massive windows. This is Manufacturing – or rather WMG, Warwick Manufacturing Group – and it looks like every other corporate think space: a place for brainstorming and concept visualisation. Here, the PowerPoint presentation is king. It’s an environment made to maximise.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s a space that suits our tribe, the five artists, two producers and a critic currently strewn around various padded-but-not-too-padded surfaces. It’s too regimented and too sterile, as if every surface has been cleared of the distractions that, actually, serve some forms of creative thinking quite well. Sure enough, as the day goes on, one or two fidgets start to emerge. The odd eyelid grows a bit heavy. There aren’t the flying sparks that characterised yesterday – which is by no means to imply that the material is any less engaging. Far from it. What it does involve, however, is an extra layer of thinking. Here, the artists aren’t merely dealing with the material relayed as content, they have to position themselves in relation to it as well.

I should explain.

The market force is strong with manufacturing. It becomes evident early on, when Prof. Paul Jennings explains how the department’s research comes into being. The WMG enters into partnerships, sometimes with government or public services, often with private businesses. This is, in short, where the money comes from, and it’s the market that steers the research. Someone arrives with a problem or a demand. WMG attempt to solve it or supply a solution.

True, the same is absolutely true of physics. Nuclear fusion was historically relegated beneath nuclear fission because the latter proved to have more military possibilities, even though the former has more potential in energy. Here, though, it feels more flagrant. Car Company X step up the cash in order to look at improving their vehicle in order to – well, quite frankly, at the bottom line – to sell more units. WMG comply and make that possible. Jennings talks us through the process of optimising the sound of a sports car and, at a very surface level, WMG’s research sounds no different whatsoever to market research. What do you want a sports car to sound like? Do you prefer sound A or sound B?

That word ‘want’ is at the heart of this. Not need. Want. And, in the back of my mind at least, the word ‘exploit’ follows. I don’t mean it altogether pejoratively – in the sense of child labour or slavery – but it’s along the same spectrum. The image is of massive corporations exploiting our wanting – others would, I’m sure, say ‘serving’ instead – to increase profits. Jennings mentions a £500 upgrade on a particular model of car that boils down to a single piece of equipment – cost: 20p – stuck onto the back of the speaker. It improves the sound, so it costs more. The question that follows, to my mind, is: So why not fit it as standard?

Of course, the folk at WMG aren’t responsible for that decision, but it nonetheless knocks around in the air-con. They research what they research because, ultimately, there’s a demand for it. Which begs a whole load of questions. Who’s doing the demanding and why? Who owns the intellectual copyright down the line? And, the one that swirls around my mind all day, what might they look into if freed from the need to meet demands? Or, to return to Chris Goode’s reply from the previous day, what if we don’t know what there is to want?

The question of wants steps up a gear in Prof. Irene Ng’s session: Service Systems and New Business Models. She’s quite a character, Ng: perky and scattergun, but clear-sighted and incredibly persuasive. She keeps her entire wardrobe on her iPad – tagged by colour and category, with photographs of every conceivable combination – thus saving time when stuck for what to wear. Another app keeps tabs on her pot plant, allowing her to water it from afar at the right moment. Like it’s a Tamagotchi or something.

“A lot of what we do surrounds value,” she starts, before qualifying that last word to differentiate between value and worth (exchange value) and, to point out that neither necessarily correlates with happiness. The thrust of Ng’s argument is that the old model of exchange, in which we brought ownership of an object thereby enabling usage, no longer works. At least, not across the board in the same way. In the digital world, with Spotify and YouTube and the like, we can achieve the same outcomes without ownership. So, for example, we can listen to music without owning a CD, for example. Traditional markets – the newspaper industry is a classic example of this – are collapsing as a result. New ones are springing up. That much we probably knew already.

But it’s where she goes next that’s really interesting. Actually, Ng says, ownership doesn’t imply choice. Go downstairs in the morning and you can’t choose what tea you want. You’ve only got the PG Tips you brought the other day and therefore own. There’s no choice at the point of use. Digital markets can change that. They allow you to decide what tea you want just when you decide you want a tea of some kind. They can place a market in context. So, collaborative consumption – file-sharing or seven households co-owning a Dyson, a Henry and a handheld vacuum, for example – is becoming more and more of a trend. This is why the old model – the vertical model of increase the number of sales – is dying.

In the tea example, then, knowing how, where and when you take your tea becomes all-important. “Data is the new oil,” says Ng, “There’s a land-grab for contextual territory.” And if, in the digital market, a company can understand your individual usage, they can fulfil it not just better, but in a number of different ways. To continue with the example, if they know you take tea with a digestive biscuit, why not go into the biscuit industry as well?

Let’s switch to music. Currently, someone ‘makes’ the MP3, someone makes the digital platform to host it, someone makes the interface – the smartphone – that lets you listen to it while you’re in the gym that someone else owns and runs. Each of these categories is a vertical market – the more people use/buy into them, the more profits increase. Now, if each of these vertical markets is dwindling, there becomes a massive horizontal expansion, whereby one company tries to take a bigger market share of all those four individual, vertical markets. So – and my language might be imprecise – one company makes, distributes, enables and manages the context all at once, thus parting you from your hard-earned cash in four different ways simultaneously. Right now, the four individual businesses might collaborate to enable one another’s vertical market, but at a certain point, with the requisite knowledge and technology, one company can consume its former collaborators and do it all alone. The result is not just multinationals, but multi-disciplinary multinationals.

I’ve run through this in detail because it makes perfect sense. It feels pretty indisputable. It also feels fairly horrifying. To me, at least, but I don’t think I was alone in that; there seemed to be a sense of gentle recoil in the room. Why? Because actually, the choice of that tea will not be a totally free choice. Someone’s deciding what tea you should be able to choose from and there comes a point where some choices are off the menu, not profitable enough to bother offering. If you’ve a taste for a very particular, very niche type of tea, well, you better get used to drinking PG Tips or, at least, the next best alternative. Ng expresses excitement that an arts centre’s audience of, say, 20,000 becomes a global audience of 3 million. But can every arts centre sustain a 3 million-strong audience at once? Don’t the niche die out, consumed by national organisations? And, hang on, hang on: Doesn’t the elevation of wants knock into what Sandra Chapman was saying yesterday about preferences, whereby a small preference has an unexpectedly large impact? Doesn’t a 50% preference for x leave 90% of us doing x?

To put it another way; no matter how precision-engineered and purpose-designed those beanbags are, no matter how honed for their particular context, they don’t really suit this atypical band of creatives turning up for the day. They’re built for the average or the median, but they don’t suit everyone or every scenario equally. In this world, people are data and all data is equal. Consequently, just as some data is insignificant, some people get ignored.

I ask Ng what she feels about the prospects she raises. She reveals her politics are centre-right, but doesn’t use a single emotive word, either positive or negative. No joy. No fear. It just seems like this is a state of fact: This is tomorrow.

After this session, I check in with a couple of artists, half-aware that there are some odd dynamics at play and half to check whether others share my feelings. Charlotte Vincent says she feels like it’s all being sold to her; like the continual PowerPoint presentations are in keeping with a trade fair and she’s there to be convinced. Chris Goode finds himself torn; instinctively repelled by the politics (“Click here or fuck off,” as he puts it), but simultaneously drawn towards its more “tantalising” surface levels.

But that tear is fruitful. A set of ideas like this – as persuasive as they are repulsive, perhaps – is a real provocation, a disruption. I feel like Ng’s session has forced me to work out exactly where I stand on consumer capitalism – specifically what I distrust and despair about it and why – more than any generically or broadly anti-capitalist piece of theatre I’ve seen.

*****

Before lunch, there’s a change of mode. Biomedical engineer Prof. Christopher James – “the father of telepathy,” as one newspaper called him – talks to us about and demonstrates some of his work in neural engineering. In layman’s terms, his work involves directly tracking the brain’s electrical activity and harnessing it for communication or mechanical tools. So, for example, he’s created a wheelchair controlled by the power of thought alone. It’s totally fascinating and, while I haven’t time to go into expansive detail, it leads to a remarkable thought from James’s research assistant Sylvester.

Given that we can measure and interpret neural activity and, increasingly, respond to it instantaneously, it becomes quite conceivable that a film might be able to provide the viewer with what they don’t know they want. (There’s that word again: want.)  So, say your brain activity indicates that you want two characters to get it together or a good action sequence, the film can respond and change the course of the narrative. Of course, again, the parameters of choice have been pre-set and depend on what’s been deemed worth offering, but it raises some intriguing aesthetical questions. Should art, for starters, conform to what we want of it? What happens to an artwork’s ability to surprise the viewer? What if the viewer simply isn’t a good artist – because this turns them into subconscious artists, right? Better a pig satisfied – as Socrates might ask? And, from my own perspective, if art can shape itself according to individual desires and preferences, what becomes of criticism?

*****

Lunchtime and another of those one-on-one conversations sparks up. Experiential engineer Paul Jennings – who works heavily with sound – is back in the room. He’s currently working on what sound an electric car ought to make, given that they’re silent and that’s not necessarily the safest state for cars. His researcher, Jamie Mackrill, has recently completed a PhD on making the sounds of a hospital ward more accommodating for patients. (And, rather brilliantly for a manufacturing doctorate, his conclusion was not to make something, but to provide information.) Meanwhile, one of Robin Rimbaud’s projects involved creating a soundscape for a morgue, with the intention of softening a rather austere and imposing – not to mention stressful – environment. Another involved creating a series of wake-up calls for an alarm clock.

Despite different starting points, their conversation feels more or less on a level footing. What then is the difference? Why is one science and the other art? What’s the distinction between design or engineering and composing or creation? After all, all these projects are serving a similar purpose: namely to improve a given situation or solve a problem. Rimbaud’s artwork is as utilitarian as Jennings’ manufactured sound. Jennings is out to create something pleasing just as Rimbaud is.

I think it’s a question of process. Where Jennings and Mackrill – and I’m extrapolating from Jennings’ talk about the sports car – embark on research, Rimbaud works from intuition. Follow that thought through and perhaps you arrive at, not a definition exactly, but a delineation. The (good) artist has no need for market research. Intuition based, perhaps, on empathy leads them to the same – not right, but – effectual conclusion. And yet, it’s not as clear-cut as that. Scientists intuit too. Artists research.

*****

Skipping forward to dinner – with all due respect to Prof. Lucy Hooberman, who led a session on digital media that I simply haven’t time to detail – and there’s another intriguing conversation. (This is a near constant, but there are simply too many to record.)

Jamie Mackrill, Alecky Blythe and I – a research engineer, a verbatim theatremaker and a journalist – are sat together and we realise that our three practices are underpinned by the same technique, namely interviews. Yet, each of us is out for completely different ends and, as such, led by different governing principles. There’s Mackrill, the researcher, whose questions must go through an ethics committee before being put to the subject and, moreover, have to be repeatable, so as not to skew results. Yet that’s exactly, in some form or other, what Blythe and I do; we try to get good material, good stories, perhaps even to skew results. There’s a balance, of course, between the truth and good material, and while it’s best when the two coincide organically, we’ll both take one or other as well. There’s a difference between Blythe and I too, by the way; her interviewees generally don’t have a platform, so she’s coaxing them to express themselves accurately; mine do, so, at some level, I’m out to pounce, ready with that tricksy question up my sleeve. There’s an element of deviousness in journalism, but then it’s there in Blythe’s work too, playing a quite consciously constructed persona to put people at ease and get what she needs. Mackrill too adopts a persona of neutrality. So what’s the difference again?

*****

A few glasses of wine to the good, a few hours down the line, and the markets thing comes full circle. These people, I realise, are good people – they’re out to make the world a better place. They must be. Their relationships to those markets, uncomfortable though they make me, are not based in profiteering – they’re academics for chrissake. However, in order to have some effect, WMG’s academics have to heed the driving forces of markets. It’s that or stagnate. These are simply the winds they sail in and there are two options: either you raise your sails (sales) and get something done, or else refuse and sit becalmed by your own hand. They’ve made their peace with it.

In a way, that openness is totally refreshing. After all, most artists sail in the very same winds. The question is whether they (some of them? all of them? all of us?) put fingers in ears and refuse to acknowledge that fact. Is that problematic? Is the dissent humming at an acceptable frequency? Would you prefer hum A or hum B? Should artists make the work that registers best with their audience’s neural activity? Should they get comfortable on those orthopaedic beanbags?

No Comments

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. This Is Tomorrow | Matt Trueman - [...] DAY TWO: Manufacturing – Made by the market Academics: Prof. Paul Jennings, Prof. Christopher James, Prof. Irene Ng, Jamie…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *