Blog Post

Digital Revoluton - how we went Digital and what we learned

15.09.20

An engaging blog from Imrana Mahmood, Touch Commission Coordinator at Revoluton Arts, on how Revoluton responded to the challenges faced by going digital in response to the Covid19 lockdown. 

Revoluton Zoom Touch Workshop

Anxiety. Limbo. Uncertainty.

These emotions would sum up my first reaction of going into lockdown.

Director of Revoluton Arts, Jenny Williams explained that the safety of the team and those that we work with was paramount so we would all work from home, indefinitely. This meant we would be working with our diverse communities without being physically present with them. We started making plans to go digital but what did that actually mean?

One of our core values is that “we love to take fun seriously” but how would this manifest in a situation when communities from ethnic minority backgrounds were being disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Our communities, previously labelled as low-skilled by the government, were dealing not only with job insecurity and loss of income, but many of their family members were working on the frontline as key workers. Many of our direct connections with community groups were being impacted by stories of losing loved ones to the pandemic, mainly due to structural inequalities which are especially prevalent in a working-class town such as Luton.

So, how could we instil the need for the arts and arts engagement when the very people at the heart of our work were experiencing immense sadness and uncertainty. The team at Revoluton Arts came together and had the opportunity to share our own lived experiences. The importance of introspection was cultivated through our online Existential Meetings, facilitated by critical friend Ruth Melville. It quickly became apparent that to best serve our communities we would first need to address our own worries and insecurities. We all wanted to create a digital revolution and started to brainstorm what the programme would look like. As an organisation that is committed to co-creating work which is responsive, the nature of lockdown was both challenging but stimulating at the same time. Despite the physical barriers imposed by the pandemic, our aim was to explore ways to create work which would be engaging, beautiful and community centred. 

Then came the practicality of how to deliver content working alongside proficient local and national artists. We discussed the skill-sets and strengths of each member of the team, and realised that trust would be a key component to help acheive success. We immediately turned to one of our visual artists, Jakub Rokita - one of the first ever recipients of Revoluton Kickstarter Mini Commissions - and asked for his advice about potential online platforms. We decided to purchase the most fully-featured Zoom package and Jakub became part of the team to offer technical support.  We then started making plans for a 12 week online programme, aptly named Digital Revoluton. The only question now was how would we advocate for online participation as well as developing a digital audience?

Revoluton had already managed to challenge the notion of ‘hard-to-reach’ communities as we recognise that engagement is more about the ability of an organisation to create successful outreach as opposed to othering people with outdated and problematic labels. However, connecting with people through a screen would be very different and sustainability would be a key factor. Would we lose a sense of connection by not being in a physical space together; how would we cultivate positive body language; would non-verbal communication be as effective in cyberspace; could we offer a virtual version of “let’s have a chat over a cup of coffee?” All these questions, and more, would continue to be at the forefront of our minds as we planned the digital programme.  

Once we had a strategic framework, we recognised we had some gaps in our digital acumen as well as needing extra admin support to ensure effective online marketing. We also wanted to give a platform for the underserved artists in our town. The beauty of this moment was being able to turn to our amazing cohort of young creatives through our Young People’s programme. We could pretend that we took these young minds under our wing… except it was really the other way around: Tiarnan, Lizzy Fretwell, Sadface the Poet, Lavz, Ferdusi and SunRae became the backbone of our Digital Revoluton. They had Zoom training with Jakub to become our designated Zoom programme hosts. Sadface and Lavz had their own flagship online shows, ‘Head-raps and Prose’ and ‘Lavz Live’; SunRae performed as part of the Something New at 2 with Aaron Spendelow; Ferdusi worked on an online photography commission; Tiarnan and Lizzy took control of the backstage to ensure our events progressed smoothly. 

Neon Light Revoluton image by Jakub Rokita

We also had to focus on our major Touch co-commission with Wellcome Collection as part of our wider Bury Park residency. I was supporting award-winning playwright/actor Sudha Bhuchar, who is the artist-in-residence tasked with exploring the theme of ‘Touch’ in conjunction with the Touch Test survey by Goldsmiths University and BBC Radio4. We began the residency building upon connections with business owners, shopkeepers, beauty therapists, barbers and jewellers to name but a few. The theme of ‘touch’ however, quickly tuned into the ‘absence of touch’. We were faced with the predicament of speaking about a potentially precarious topic with people we were still building relationships with. Not many people think about their lives through the lens of ‘touch’, it is something inherent to the human condition and yet it is not something we speak about in an overt way: we end our emails asking the recipient to ‘stay in touch’ or perhaps we see or hear something that deeply touches us but how often are we asked to think about the impact of touch, or the lack of it, in our lives. 

We decided to integrate a series of Touch workshops as part of the online Digital Revoluton programme. Sudha asked participants to think about touch as a colour, a piece of music, or a particular childhood memory and we also invited participants to bring in objects that held a significant experience related to touch. Through this, and despite the absence of physical connection, we were able to create an intimate virtual space where everyone felt safe enough to share very deep and personal stories. Perhaps the comfort of speaking from our own homes allowed us to feel comfortable in our own skin whilst simultaneously taking the risk to feel vulnerable with people we had not met before. There seemed to be a collective power in sharing lived experiences which boded well for continued online engagement.

"Touch is love, happiness. Helping you get through life. If you see something sad, you feel touched". (Touch workshop participant)

It was then time to deliver our online events titled Touchstone Tales: Sudha had written a series of monologues inspired by local community groups including a local health & well-being group and a Muslim women's Martial Arts group. We were also going to screen a crowd-sourced film of video diaries documenting the experience of observing Ramadan in Lockdown Luton. It was wonderful to work with artists from different disciplines working towards the same goal. We were all new to producing and performing online. In a ‘normal’ situation, performance delivery depends very much on the atmosphere and ambience of the room and we thrive on audience interaction. It was therefore going to be a challenge to perform in an empty room, staring at a screen and seeing none other than your own reflection staring back at you. We had to think of ways to minimise the feeling of isolation for both artists and our audiences. We thought about the best way to make the online event as interactive as possible. We encouraged the audience to use the chat function to make comments and share feedback on each performance, and to use the reaction buttons – a clap or thumbs-up emoji – as a way of expressing their feelings on a particular piece. We ensured there was a Q&A at the end of the performance to overcome the invisible wall and to help create a direct link between the artist and audience. We also livestreamed all our events via Facebook to increase audience reach beyond the ‘Zoom Room’.

So, what did we learn from our 12-week Digital Revoluton programme. We had more questions than answers: Did an online platform help make the arts more accessible to those who would not normally attend a more traditional arts space? Was it more convenient for families with young children or single-parent families to attend online events? Would those who attended online events choose to attend a physical event post-pandemic? Would the cost of delivering an online programme hold enough value for money when reporting back figures back to our funders? Was there a risk of our digital content becoming lost in the ether of cyberspace or could we ensure a meaningful legacy?

In an attempt to answer the above, I believe it is important to recognise that our communities have agency and they highly value cultural opportunities, especially if the programme on offer is resonant and reflective of their interests and lived experience. As organisations, we must avoid falling into the trap of making assumptions about those we aim to serve and must continue to actively listen to their needs. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, how much of our programming is truly inclusive and giving a platform to those voices that are underrepresented. A non-hierarchical structure of working, as modelled by Revoluton Arts, allowed us the fluidity to respond to our external situation in an effective way whilst also allowing the flexibility to make mistakes and to learn from them in order to refine our collective outcomes. All in all, the pandemic has been a testing time for all of us who invest our life and passion in the arts but despite this we have managed to transcend the barriers and hopefully we can emerge from the other side having created a new and more radical normal, one which has our communities at the heart of it. 

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next… we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it." (Arundhati Roy)

Imrana Mahmood
Touch Commission Coordinator
Revoluton Arts
www.revolutonarts.com

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