“…trying to stitch our future to our past… “ Arundhati Roy
Lockdown has provided Fife Contemporary Director Diana Sykes some thinking space and provoked reflection on past, present and future.
In a long working life, I’ve experienced, struggled with, and explored ever changing technology.
As a child (in-spite of always being known / in trouble for talking) I hated using the phone and had to be dragged to speak to family abroad. When I had to use it professionally however, practice reduced the pain. In my first paid job as Curator/Driver of the Scottish Arts Council’s Travelling Gallery, I had the privilege of touring some of Scotland’s most rural and outlying parts which involved some major communication challenges. All correspondence had to be done via the Edinburgh base, so I had to suffer hearing my voice on a Dictaphone. Tiny tapes had then to be posted to a secretary who typed up the contents, by electric typewriter, then eventually on one of the first two computers which had to be shared by the whole office. A mobile phone would have made life easier and me feel safer on my travels but they weren’t yet available. Now that they are ubiquitous I cling to a basic un-smart model as my last defence against being available to all at all times…
Coping with Computers
Joining the Crawford Arts Centre as it became independent of St Andrews University, new skills were required to work with the single Mac computer we shared in the office. It had a whole megabyte of memory! An arrangement allowed us to print out material in a University department after carefully carrying our floppy disc along the road. When we got our own printer we had to add a further megabyte of memory to the computer for it to work and excitingly a second Mac. Eventually Macs had to be abandoned for the significantly cheaper PCs once it was acknowledged that everyone needed their own computer and our Macs had become inevitably outdated. Much later the old redundant Mac was gifted to someone who I think intended to turn it into an aquarium. If only we’d kept it and its packaging…
A Web for Arachnaphobes
Using the web requires continuous learning. An American student working on an exhibition with us in 1994 mentioned receiving an email from his mother – a term I’d never heard before and assumed referred to some US express mail system. Not long after, we were introduced to life online and selected our first ISP following some cursory newspaper research and on the basis of it being free. As with other organisations, our website has been through a number of transformations as its potential and technical possibilities expanded. In its latest incarnation our aim is for the site to evolve into a truly digital venue with spaces providing information of interest to support artists and widen audiences. Our first digital exhibition, Past Present, was originally toured to physical venues on a monitor, but now we have a more flexible sub-site for content created online. Early reporting to funders showed the cautiously increased use we made of the web but now we find it difficult to function at all when connections fail.
Life in a pandemic has highlighted the value of digital communication beyond email with the boom in using platforms including Teams, Skype, FaceTime and Zoom facilitating both social and business meetings. As an organisation which declared Climate Emergency, we are conscious of the current improvements to the environment while travel is curtailed. Ever more valuable time is also saved and people geographically far apart can come together. Working on content around the Lines from Scotland exhibition which had to close, we’ve also become aware of how the online can provide different and deeper levels of information. We had already been planning an exhibition for our Craft Pods (self-contained display units that visit libraries and schools) which would have an online presence to enlarge the content and interpretation of the mini physical show and provide a lasting resource. This combination of physical and virtual now feels like the way forward for much of our programming and it’s very exciting to be prompted to think differently.
Mail not just Email
It should be acknowledged however than even an email has a carbon footprint and following the surreal and profound impact of the pandemic, we might even imagine a future catastrophe when the web breaks down. Also, digital relationships create a certain distancing effect and varied forms of contact remain a human need. Communication in person and the joy of receiving physical post are still to be celebrated.
Looking to the future, we welcome the contribution of student interns who have grown up in a digital world and remind us of the rapid changes over the last few decades. They have marvelled at the photographic slides in our archive (“Can I touch them?”) and one sheepishly asked to be reminded of where the stamp goes on an envelope…