Coronavirus – a catalyst for better digital programming and online projects

Every day more arts organisations announce digital programming in response to COVID-19. Here's some advice on how to go digital.
Coronavirus – a catalyst for better digital programming and online projects Photo of #NewSelfWales exhibition featuring over 12,000 portraits from the State Library of NSW’s collection, together with selfies from Instagram.

Brooke Boland

Thursday 19 March, 2020

‘It's a shame in a way that it's taken something like this to give organisations the kick to be like, "Oh, we should be thinking more proactively about [digital programming]”,’ said Izzy Roberts-Orr, outgoing Artistic Director and Co-CEO of Emerging Writer’s Festival.

‘This may be really different for a lot of people, but it's actually business as usual for a lot of folks as well. Particularly people who are home bound due to chronic illness and disability, and it might be that it's accessible for regional and rural audiences who couldn't otherwise access the programming that happens in major cities.’

Digital programming is often supplementary or takes the form of a live stream (not necessarily a bad option) where online audiences are regulated to the status of “secondary”, rather than carefully considered. But when done successfully, the benefits of digital are numerous, creating accessibility for many who are unable to attend a festival, for example, IRL and opening up programming beyond geographical and temporal constraints.

Then again, if it’s not based in a specific time and place, can we even call it a festival? Digital continues to raise important curatorial questions that we need to consider.

Roberts-Orr explains: ‘Is it a festival if it's not ephemeral? Is it a festival if you don't attend it in person? I got really hung up on these curatorial questions around digital.’

Today, amid mandatory self-isolation, cancelled events, and lost incomes, many arts organisations are considering taking their programming online. Some festivals have committed to continuing as a digital-first event this year. Similarly, Showcase Victoria 2020 announced the marketplace will move online and Yarra Valley Writers Festival is still on, with a full day of events to be livestreamed and online viewing tickets available for purchase.

Internationally, arts organisations are also sharing work on the new Social Distancing Festival as a way to find audiences and potentially financial support.

It isn't hard to imagine that inside every arts institution someone is having a conversation about digital in the wake of COVID-19 as they consider the jump, but are still unsure exactly what this looks like for their organisation. 

Adapting a public program or festival to digital is one consideration. For others, launching individual digital projects that communicate a collection or archive to audiences online is a better-suited approach.

DX Lab, an innovation and research hub within the State Library of NSW, experiments with data visualisation and curation to bring audiences unexpected digital experiences (check out #newselfwales to see what they create).

‘We're really tasked with, or actually provided with this really unique opportunity, to explore and research how existing and emerging technologies can be used with our collections and our data to create experiences for audiences that they may not necessarily have through any traditional web experience,’ said Paula Bray, DX Lab Leader.

Bray’s advice to organisations starting to develop digital collection experiences is, ‘Do your research first.’

‘Really establish the audience and ask lots of questions around why you are doing the experience. Think about who you are not reaching, how can you change that.

‘Get as many people in the organisation to provide ideas if you can. Then once the UX research is done, start designing. Test, prototype and refine. Don’t be afraid to change direction half way through if you discover something,’ she added.

If you are driving a digital project within your organisation you may face some internal challenges. Bray said it comes down to ‘the appetite for risk from leadership in the organisation, and allowing staff to be able to try and test things.’ Without this openness to risk, even the best planned digital experiments will have trouble getting off the ground or may be outdated by the time they do.

‘Because web technologies move so fast that sometimes you might plan a whole web experience that's going to take you a year or more to build, and by the time you publish it, it might actually be out of date and the design may not be appropriate. So I really think allowing digital teams to have a lab-style prototyping, testing, experimenting, publishing early, learn with your public, and then change and adapt.’

‘It's not print. With print, it's done and dusted, but with web you can quickly adapt and change. We should be doing that all the time with web experiences, everything should really be considered a prototype, really,’ said Bray.

Tips for getting digital right

Creating an interesting platform or delivering a program online for audiences who have already been hitting streaming services hard for entertainment and are eager to engage online is a viable option right now. But it's a big endeavour and not without risk for legacy institutions who have built their brand on physical closeness with audiences. Here's some tested advice on how to get digital right, the first time.

1.     Question everything. Then ask more questions.

When leading Digital Writers Festival, Roberts-Orr prompted her programming team to dig deep into why they chose one form of delivery over another.

‘Consider why this form for this content, and why now? If you’re moving a panel discussion online - would it work best as a video stream, or perhaps a podcast with transcripts instead? If you’re moving a performance event - how can you engage the audience with the livestream, and do you archive it or keep it to live only - or perhaps it could work as a digital mixtape of the readings instead, published alongside the written works?’

2.     Make the technology invisible

‘Don’t put the technology before the audience. In fact, you should not really notice the technology. It has to be about the content and the audience always,’ said Bray.

3.     Live might not be the best delivery

‘If the visuals not important, I would always encourage people to think about making that conversation a podcast instead of a video, just because watching three people sitting at that computer desk for an hour is boring, unless there's a reason that you're engaging live,’ said Roberts-Orr.

4.     You don't need fancy technology

At Digital Writer’s Festival, most programming is done with free or very low-cost software and hardware. ‘It was a philosophy at the festival the last few years that while we had catalyst funding, I was like, "I want to road test a bunch of things that if we didn't have this money, we could still do." And therefore, be able to tell artists who don't have money, like our audience, that they don't have to spend more money. We wanted to run things in a way that they could kind of replicate.’

Software used previously for DWF include:

  • ZenCastr for podcasting and audio (currently offering free access due to COVID-19 outbreak)
  • GoToWebinar for online seminars that are ticketed
  • StreamYard for uploading video direct to YouTube when you need to record from multiple audio feeds
  • Discord for chat rooms

For more advice read Going Digital: Tips from the EWF.

5.     Create open access

DX Lab operates by an admirable Open Access philosophy. One that we should replicate as a sector as we move forward through this difficult time.

‘We share everything. We share our code, we share our findings, we write stories on the process. I think the more that people in the sector that do that, the more we can learn from each other. We're seeing other institutions reuse our code now for their own purposes. So I really think being open as a library, access and being open is a very strong mandate for a library.’

If you have any key learnings, software or hardware recommendations, or code available, let us know at editor@artshub.com.au. We will aggregate and share information with ArtsHub audiences in future.

About the author

Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW. She has a PhD in literature from the University of NSW. You can find her on Instagram @southcoastwriter.