What critical contexts need to be considered by arts organizations’ employees when working with young people on digital arts and live data projects?


Arts organisations are increasingly encouraged by major funders to develop a higher digital profile, and in particular to generate work with young people on digital and data-led arts projects, including those involving the creative curation of live data. (We will use the general term ‘digital arts projects’ to describe these projects here). These projects involve the Internet and so are ‘outward facing’, a fact that often leads to them being presented in terms of their being ‘socially’ or ‘community’ oriented. This requires those designing and delivering such projects to combine creative and educational or training rationales, along with social concerns, into a single ‘project package’. These may be aimed at young people generally or at unemployed, ethnic minority, or other groups of young people perceived as ‘hard to reach’. For this reason issues of context, while complex, are central to such projects.

This paper sets out to raise questions about basic contextual issues relevant to the design and delivery of digital arts projects. The issues are fairly generic, given the range of possible projects organizations might want to undertake, but care has been taken to identify these on the basis of specific instances raised in the course of the research that informs the paper.

1.1 The arts organization as primary context. Each reader will work in an immediate organizational context and it is important that the dynamic of that context is taken into account.

Given the particular social and economic factors that lead to arts organizations engaging in digital arts projects, that context will be tensioned between a number of distinct, and sometimes contradictory, influences. Recognizing the tensions that shape organizational mission and practice is fundamental because organizations, like individuals, try to function so as to avoid or minimize cognitive dissonance.[1] To do so they create an organizational culture that is as far as possible ‘internally consistent’, thus keeping explicit tensions to a minimum. At best, this consistency remains fluid and open to re-negotiation through reasonably inclusive and frank discussion of cognitive dissonances as these appear. At worst an artificial consistency is imposed from the top down, and often enforced by the type of ‘positive culture’ dissected by Barbara Ehrenreich (2009); one in which any criticism arising from cognitive dissonance is treated as disloyalty and assumed to stem from personal ‘negativity’ rather than practical concern and reasoned critique.

Given that cognitive dissonance is the inevitable consequence of shifts in policy and funding impacting on art organizations, their employees inevitably experience corresponding levels of stress from the resulting dissonance. However, senior managers tend to downplay, deny or ignore cognitive dissonance because addressing it requires genuine consultation, is time-consuming, and sometimes uncomfortable when it reveals conflicts of interest or ethical dilemmas. However, those planning and delivering digital arts projects need to keep in mind that not only are young people particularly aware of attempts to avoid acknowledging cognitive dissonance – often identified as ‘hypocrisy’ – but also that, arguably, one of the positive roles of both the arts and education in our culture is to bring cognitive dissonance to our attention. This is done with a view to encouraging us to engage with, explore, and try constructively to resolve the issues it highlights.

This view of the arts and education is the basis of the approach adopted here.

1.2 Approach. In what follows we try to promote an attitude of ‘critical solicitude’ towards young people’s educational and cultural needs.  We adopt the perspective inherent in Johanna Drucker’s observation that the production of art involves: “both what it claims to be (independent thought, discrete from other forms of cultural expression, a separate domain of alternative values) and what it pretends not to be (bound up with the values of the status quo and the ideological system that sustains it)” (Drucker 2005:17). In our view this observation is equally true of the vast majority of cultural and educational institutions. We assume here that acknowledging this paradoxical combination of creative freedom and complicity in the status quo is a pre-requisite for any properly educational engagement with digital arts projects; certainly if all involved are to reflect honestly on their own critical and creative processes and practices.

Adopting this perspective is particularly important when the arts are used to validate a digitally-oriented project because those engaged in dialogic or other forms of relational arts practice take as an a priori that they must “interact with their subjects and sites with a conversational give-and-take, assuming that meaning is to be found rather than imposed [italics ours]” (Solnit 2001:5). In an organizational context in which those delivering projects know that they will be audited on the basis of pre-designated ‘outcomes’, this can provide a substantive site of cognitive dissonance.


1.3 Background assumptions. The following assumptions are made in this paper: that those designing and delivering digital arts projects have the same obligation to practice and encourage critical reflection as other educationalists; that the reader is fully aware that the arts and digital media are not always and of necessity the ‘good thing’ they assume themselves to be; and that young people may need help developing the capacity for open, honest, and critical discussion about the wider social, cultural, and operational contexts within which the arts and arts organisations function. Consequently questions of language and cognitive framing lie at the centre of our concerns.

Language and ‘cognitive framing’

Arts institutions operate in a socio-economic and cultural context in which their economic survival requires a degree of ‘positive spin’. Despite the growing tendency of organizations to take their own ‘spin’ as ‘fact’, it is often at odds with any honest assessment of the complex realities that provide the larger context for digital arts projects with young people.

2.2 ‘Power words’. Government policy towards the arts, whether enacted through the Arts Councils, other central policy bodies, or partnerships with the Private Sector, tends to be firmly based in instrumental political or economic considerations that sit uncomfortably with the stated cultural aims of many arts organizations. However, this tension is rarely acknowledged, let alone directly addressed. Instead it is mediated through an institutional rhetoric of ‘power words’ intended to communicate positive cultural, social, or educational values and intentions. The purpose of power words is to evoke a context-free assumption of supposedly collectively agreed values ‘in general’.[2] They allow their users to pass over any requirement to test whether, and to what degree, they do in reality share the same aims and values. Power words are the key to what George Lakoff refers to as ‘cognitive framing’, the process that lies at the heart of maintaining or changing the status quo (Lakoff  2010).

Arts organizations and their funders frequently treat words such as: ‘data’, ‘artist’, ‘creativity’, ‘education’, ‘digital media’, ‘activism’, and ‘community’ as power words. This is problematic because when, for example, ‘art’ is used as a power word the statement: “the arts can open new ways of working which impact on social capital, the identity of a place and our attachment to it and encourage active citizenship” [italics ours] (Cunningham 2013:3), is heard as “arts projects open new ways of impacting on social capital, clarify the emotional geography of a place and generate active citizenship”. Yet this assumption remains groundless without discussion as to how the terms ‘social capital’, ‘the identity of a place’, or ‘active citizenship’ are to be understood or, indeed, what kind of relationship between an arts organization and actual arts practices such engagements imply. Similarly, the statement that: “new spatial media – the informational artifacts and mediating technologies of the geoweb – represent new opportunities for activist, civic, grassroots, indigenous and other groups to leverage web-based geographic information technologies in their efforts to effect social change” (Elwood & Leszczynski 2012:1) is heard, in an exchange driven by the use of power words, as: “the use of new spatial media results in positive social change”.

Power words need to be heard with a critical ear, their use questioned and located within the specific social, cultural, and political contexts specific to a digital arts project.


‘Creativity’ is one of the most common power words in our culture and it provides a powerful and often unexamined context for the justification of digital arts projects. However artists do not have a monopoly on creativity. By assuming it’s positive value, we overlook the fact that fraud, serial murder, and lying are often dependent on high levels of creativity. Joseph Beuys’ much quoted observation that ‘everybody is an artist’ was intended to indicate that everybody has at least the possibility of determining their mode of living in their own particular sphere of activity – regardless of what that might be – given that the orientation of any human life offers the choice of some degree of self-shaping or self creation. However, what value is then attached to that creative act is independent of it. It follows that we must keep in mind that culture is, at the very least, a complex compound of the arts, education and the media as these intersect with social concerns and values. In considering this it is useful to reflect on Nato Thompson’s view that the current “desire to merge art and life” must be placed within the larger history of “seminal pedagogic social movements of the last one hundred years” and cross-referenced with the work of “the many leaders and visionaries … who discussed the importance of sociality, methods of resistance, and confronting power, and strategies for using media [emphasis ours]” (Thompson 2012: 21).


Digital Arts’ and techno-scientism

‘Data’ and ‘digital data’ have become important power words in the context of ‘techno-scientism’,[3] perhaps the core secular object of belief in our dominant culture. Belief in techno-scientism is enacted through the conspicuous consumption of ‘new’, ‘better’ technology for reasons related to identity and ‘life-style choice’, over and above its obvious utilitarian function. The veneration of ‘digital data’ for its own sake, and the manipulation of that veneration by media and advertising on behalf of global digitally-based industry, underpins a great deal of the passion for and investment in the digital that pervades twenty-first century culture. Consequently techno-scientism (as opposed to the actual work of scientists) provides the operative context in which the use of terms such ‘data’ the ‘local’, ‘art’, etc. as power words used in relation to digital arts projects need to be considered.

In our culture digital technology has an increasingly important palliative function in addition to its very real practical functions. It serves as a psycho-sedative for the growing levels of cognitive dissidence generated by the clash between our internalisation of a culture of possessive individualism and a growing awareness of unsustainable levels of over-consumption of limited resources and profound economic and ecological instability that results from this.

To retain this palliative function techno-scientism must constantly refigure and reproduce its authority. This is done by associating it with assumptions about the ‘redemptive’ power of science and technology, along with the ‘democratizing’ value of the Internet, etc. By critiquing the past failings and disastrous effects of our scientific democracy and, having done so, proposing new techno-scientific solutions to socio-environmental and political problems, believers in techno-scientism lay claim to being best placed to address those failings (Bauman 1993: 200). This ensures that techno-scientific solutions are prioritized, regardless of whether the human needs involved might be better met through low-tech activities and face-to-face agency. In this way the status and authority of techno-scientism, and the palliative effects of the technologies associated with that status and authority, are maintained. It is in this context that, for example, academic scientific research enlists digital arts projects to ‘soften’ its alienating effects by finding more aesthetic ways to “dance the data” (Bagley & Cancienne 2001). Today the most powerful areas of techno-scientific industry have the money to create entire new sections of the art world specifically for this purpose.[4]

The ‘digital revolution’, aestheticism, and education

The current emphasis on new digital technology and youth, along with the ‘digitalisation’ of education, may be taken as reflecting both national training policy with regard to economic competitiveness and the palliative function of techno-scientism outlined above. Such policy requires young people to become as socially, economically and psychically dependent as possible on the newest digital technology. This leads to the situation in which techno-scientific innovation is presented as, simultaneously: the basis for unlimited economic and personal growth; the cornerstone of both social aspiration and social cohesion and, equally and paradoxically, the solution to environmental dis-ease resulting from the over-consumption of which the same technology is a core contributing factor. This tangle of contradictory and logically unsustainable beliefs is now integral to an addictive culture of possessive individualism and is endlessly promoted in the name of individual ‘choice’, ‘creativity’, ‘identity’ and ‘lifestyle’. However, it is also the basis for the growing cognitive dissonance that appears as the causes of economic and ecological instability become more widely known.

Arts organizations need to be aware of the ways in which the products of techno-scientism are glossed by forms of aestheticism, often mediated through a digital context that is now central to the virtual world created and sustained by the entertainment, advertising and media industry. This conflation of techno-scientism and the aesthetic is facilitated by the fact that possessive individualism requires us to accept as given that creativity or originality are exclusive to, and owned by, a unique individual. This relates in turn to a mutually reinforcing relationship between belief in techno-scientism and the role of design aesthetics in consumer society. The resulting ‘totalising’ scenario now underpins not simply our political life and social institutions but a more fundamental “complex of assumptions about personhood, about nature and about society” (Leach 2007:100). The role attributed to novelty and innovation in contemporary art, when mediated through a highly aestheticized industrial focus on the consumption of digital technology that feeds and is fed by the entertainment / advertising / media complex, is now central to the creation of exclusivity and celebrity that fuels addiction to all aspects of digital technology as social palliative.

A key issue here is that possessive individualism, which in contemporary Western culture is ultimately inseparable from a position originally modelled on artists understood as amoral aesthetes, is now associated in popular culture and the media with ‘artists’ as the embodiment of ‘creativity’. Art’s function in consumer culture is to be co-opted to provide an updated and ‘democratised’ background to the ethos of ‘bohemian hedonism’ originally associated with C19th artists, the intelligencia, and the ‘demi-monde’ of Paris. Following social changes of the late Sixties and Seventies when, by association, the bohemian demi-monde became the model for the life-style of the music, media and entertainment industry elite and was absorbed into the ethos of the ‘creative industries, the concept of creativity/rebellion was fused with a ‘celebrity culture’ designed to promote new desires for consumer goods – including those exclusive signs of wealth and cultural capital know as High Art. The transfer of the aura resulting from this re-evaluation to the ‘democratic’ culture of digital media was almost seamless, with the ‘creative’ manipulation of digital information taken as itself a new form of ‘radicalism’.


6. ‘Community’ and ‘activism’

Some of the dangers of using terms like ‘community’ and ‘activism’ as power words in the context of digital arts projects are illustrated by the digital artist/activist Evan Roth’s account of his White Glove Tracking project in Tom Finkelman’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (2013). Here Roth makes it clear that his assessment of his project’s success is based on two criteria, one actual and related to a particular notion of community and the other, deduced, relating to an equally particular notion of activism. These two criteria relate to the number of people actively contributing to this on-line project – “over 1,500 registered users and many more that worked anonymously” – and an assumption based on these figures about “the total amount of company money people wasted by participating in the project at work” (Roth in Finkelman 2013: 320). As Finkelman makes clear Roth, like many who see themselves as digital artists working ‘outside’ the art world, has a background in “the anti-institutional libertarian zone of free cooperation that dominated the early days of the Internet” rather than, as is the case of the majority of the artists elsewhere in the book, “the progressive, collectivist politics of the 1960s” (ibid: 314). This situation is further complicated if understandings of the nature of and relationship between ‘activism’ and ‘community’ as understood in other sectors of society are taken into account. (See, for example, Jason 2013).

There is not sufficient space here to unpack the distinctions inherent in the above example in any detail. However, given that those with responsibility for arts organizations are more likely to have internalized notions of ‘art’ and ‘community’ that are more closely aligned with “the progressive, collectivist politics” associated with radical traditions in the visual arts than with digital libertarianism, a clear understanding of the contexts within which digital arts projects that claim to have ‘activist’ and ‘community’ dimensions are framed can again be seen to be of paramount importance.

Indicative Bibliography

Bagley, Carl and Cancienne, Mary Beth. 2001, ‘Educational Research and Intertextual Forms  of (Re)Presentation: The case for Dancing the Data’ in Qualitative Inquiry, 7:2, pp. 221–237.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1992 Intimations of Postmodernity London & New York: Routledge.

Cunningham, Jocelyn (2013) Knitting Together Arts and Social Change Royal Society for the Arts. Available at: http://www.thersa.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/1530052/Knitting-Together-Arts-and-Social-Change-Casestudy.pdf (accessed 18 December 2013).

Drucker, Johanna (2005) Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009) Smile Or Die: How positive Thinking Fooled America and the World London: Granta.

Elwood, Sarah & Leszczynski, Agnieszka (2012) ‘New spatial media, new knowledge politics’ in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Volume 38, Issue 4, pages 544–559, October.

Finkelman, Tom (ed) (2013) What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation Durham & London, Duke University Press.

Fuller, Matthew (2012) ‘Art Methodologies in Media Ecology’ in Simon O’Sullivan and Stephan Zepke (eds) Deleuze, Guattari and the production of the New London & New York: Continuum.

Jason, Leonard A. (2013) Principles of Social Change Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, George (2010) ‘Why it matters how we frae the environment’ in Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 4:1, 70-81: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17524030903529749 (accessed 06/11/2011).

Leach, James & Watson, Lee. 2010 Enabling innovation: creative investments in arts and humanities research http://www.jamesleach.net/articles.html (accessed 30.06.2013).

Siddique, Haroon (2014) ‘JP Morgan worker falls to his death at canary wharf HQ’ in The Guardian 29/01/2014

Solnit, Rebecca (2001) As Eve said to The Serpent: on landscape, gender, and art Athens, Georgia, University of Georgia Press.

Thompson, Nato (ed) (2012) Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 Cambridge Mass. & London, MIT.


[1] This gives rise to forms of anxiety that result from holding contradictory or incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or values simultaneously, as when we believe in the liberating qualities of free access to the internet but disapprove of the online bullying and mass dissemination of violent pornography that this enables.

[2] A typical use of ‘family’ as a power word appears in the following statement concerning the suicide of an employee of a large international bank. “We are deeply saddened to have lost a member of the JP Morgan family at 25 Bank Street today. Our thoughts and sympathy are with his family and his friends” (quoted in Siddique, 2014: 6).

[3] Techno-scientism here refers specifically to a pervasive, largely unconscious, deeply felt belief in, relationship with, and desire for, a particular way of life predicated on unlimited and unending techno-scientifically enabled economic growth linked to patterns of increased consumption.

[4] So, for example, there is now “an art system devoted to science-art collaboration in the United Kingdom that is almost entirely fabricated by one biomedical public relations fund” (Fuller 2011:52), namely the Welcome Trust.