Simon Brault

A manifesto for the arts in the digital era

16 March 2017

By Simon Brault

The Arts in a Digital World Summit
March 2017, Montreal

Hello everyone. Welcome to the Arts in a Digital World Summit. This morning, like most of you, I’m very excited and really looking forward to seeing how this all unfolds.

For several months now, we at the Canada Council for the Arts have been working to clarify the Summit’s goals and expected outcomes with the invaluable support of the committee of experts we’ve assembled. For months, we have been thinking about the general structure of the Digital Fund we committed to creating when we had the confirmation that the Canada Council’s budget would gradually double. For months, we’ve been developing hypotheses, meeting with geeks and artists, technophiles and technophobes alike, both in Canada and abroad. We’ve been starting conversations across many platforms, analyzing every question and comment and, especially, reading studies, reports, survey results, critical essays…I could go on.

In other words, we’ve tried to define the space that this Summit may become: an inventive and constructive exchange and work space. We’ve done this by focusing first on our own responsibility – one we share with other public funding bodies, several leaders of which I see here today.

We wanted the Summit to focus on creation, outreach and, above all, the goal of sharing art with our fellow citizens.

As previously stated, we decided not to focus on digital arts practice, since it will be supported and recognized as a completely separate discipline in our New Funding Model, which will be launched in a few weeks. We decided at the outset to avoid any major discussion of legal and regulatory issues, funding models that need to be redesigned in the age of capitalism 3.0, and the legitimate and documented demands for Internet access across the country.

These are all extremely important and pressing concerns, of course, but they are already being addressed through various channels; competently debated at local, national and international conferences; and assessed and seriously considered at all levels of governments. Meanwhile, the monopolies and the numerous digital businesses continue to make big announcements and launch new technologies that constantly change the situation.

Obviously we have to keep this situation in mind when discussing the arts sector. We need to stay on top of all these changes, particularly any government initiatives and those of our public and private partners.

We also need to strive to better understand the impact of the continuing disruption to models of distribution, consumption and attendance that we still seem to take as a given.

Today and tomorrow, let’s envision what we can do better and how we can structure things more effectively in the short and medium terms − so that past, present and especially future artistic creation remains vital, diversified, strong, free, possible, shared, able to take risks, appreciated and highly meaningful for individuals, communities and society at large.

Simon speaking at Digital Summit

Let’s share the responsibility, taking a pragmatic look at what we are and what we represent as a sector.

We are ready to hear from you and to work with you to develop ideas, strategies, avenues, projects, coalitions, networks and collaborations that can be funded and implemented over the next four years so that art can continue to blaze a trail followed by many in the digital era.

We come to this Summit without any desire, or ability, to predict the outcomes. We accept that the digital future is largely unpredictable. We must be humble and open. But we must also resist being fatalistic by calling upon our intelligence and our desire to defend what we hold most dear: our freedom to create art in this country and to rebuild the world one emotion at a time.

So with that in mind, we thought we would open this Summit by telling you where we stand. By restating our values and fundamental choices, and redefining what we think are the most urgent issues.

What I’m proposing this morning is a kind of manifesto, a declaration from the starting lines. A series of potential benchmarks as we start our work, the outcomes of which are up to all of us.

Manifesto for the arts in the digital era

The digital revolution has been accelerating at an alarming rate since the turn of the 21st century – and we’ve all felt its affects. Whether it troubles, fascinates, disturbs, excludes, rallies, inspires, impoverishes, disappoints or galvanizes us, it affects all of us in all sectors of society, all aspects of human life, and all nations. A new model of civilization is quickly becoming the norm.

Probably for the first time, the central issue in this new model is the role that human beings can continue to play.

The constant and insidious ability of algorithms to influence and even replace an increasingly large part of our decision-making power casts doubt on the very idea of free will.

In our growing efforts to master and profit from technology, we can now reproduce life down to its biological structure, from gene sequencing and chromosomes – even the entire genome! – to certain characteristics of the human brain. It’s as if, by constantly increasing our technological mastery, we could not only predict everything, but also foresee, prevent and cure diseases, accidents, even death itself. Or solve the mysteries and perfect the imperfections of the human condition, for better or for worse.

An Italian poet once wrote that art is proof that life is not enough. Since technology continues to try and govern our lives to the point of alienating us from the process, art is undoubtedly bound to prove that technology is not enough.

Before we are removed from the process entirely, let’s use our ability and power to make some conscious choices:

  • so that we don’t become tourists in the ruins of our past;
  • so that the decrees of digital giants don’t unilaterally determine how art is created and shared;
  • so that we can counter the dehumanization of, and by, digital;
  • so that art and culture remain central to the destiny of our fellow human beings, as an anchor for society and civilization;
  • so that we can work together, in solidarity, as players in a future we insist on being part of.

This is really about solidarity. Solidarity in building. Not by discounting different perspectives, but by capitalizing on the shared values and major areas of consensus that transcend our specific situations, practices, environments, organizational scales, means and disciplines.

This Summit’s hackathon-like sessions, talks, workshops and human libraries are an invitation to set aside the competitiveness that too often drives us. To share the sense of urgency that has brought us together to take action, here, now and tomorrow. Because we’ll need the community that will have formed by the end of this event to move forward. This Summit is just the first step in our campaign to make the arts a central, more prominent and lasting feature of the digital society. Let’s not think about the final step. It would underestimate our ability to reinvent ourselves and deny the crucial role of innovation in our discussions and actions. The professional artistic community must adapt and adjust how it operates in light of the greatest social transformation it has ever known.

The demise of the meritocracy

We are living in a critical time. Entire systems and sectors are imploding because the assumptions they were built on no longer exist. Traditional boundaries and markers – like those of nations or disciplines – are disappearing. Intermediaries such as broadcasters, distributors and mediators are at risk of being replaced by platforms whose algorithms make some content virtually invisible and significantly undermine diversity of content.

As philosopher Éric Sadin observed in La Silicolonisation du monde1 : “[translation] Industry’s interpretation of human behaviours has become the driving force of the digital economy.”

The new consumption model is opaque, unbalanced, but effective. It blurs the line between content and the consumer, whose relationship to the content or product has become more valuable than the product or content itself. This means that in many cases, compensation for creators is shrinking.

Algorithms are fuelled by the data traces we unconsciously leave behind on our screens or by manipulating objects. They also drive digital capitalism by crushing critical thinking, creativity, discovery, diversity – and even truth. As Dominique Cardon writes in his essay À quoi rêvent les algorithmes2 , “[translation] Internet popularity is now created in a sudden, fickle and puzzling way based on synchronization, imitation and programmed obsolescence.” Digital distribution platforms mark the demise of the meritocracy and diversity. You’d think their ultimate goal is to reach a state of zero imagination and discernment. These are critical times for the artistic community. It must refuse to simply follow the sheep led by the digital giants while it still has the opportunity and means to do so.

Let’s learn from the terrible impact of digital on the news media, a sector that’s in a worse position than ours. We’d be wise to learn from their situation because information is an act of communication, much as it is for us. What affects communications also affects culture.

Today, the media’s civic duty of critiquing, reporting, analyzing facts and informing us is being lost in a public debate beyond its control. It’s a debate in which the superficial participation of the masses trumps healthy, informed criticism and sometimes even truth. In the media’s technological race involving platforms, comments, 24/7 news channels, specialty networks and so on, journalistic objectivity and professionalism are up against the expectations of a public addicted to immediacy. Then there are the financial challenges due to revenue fragmentation and the disappearance of ad revenues. In The Shattered Mirror, published by the Public Policy Forum last January, Edward Greenspon, the Forum’s President and CEO, said, “Two decades into its existential crisis, the news is in a state of distress and the social glue I encountered as a youngster is losing its capacity to bind.”

Without going into the complexities of the media’s situation and, ultimately, the consequences for democracy of a lack of high-quality news, it’s interesting to note that the public still trusts the media, despite the mistakes that have been made.

On February 25, Philippe Papineau of Le Devoir reported an increase in subscriptions and radio listeners for US media that provides political coverage that focuses more on factual investigation than information acquired from other sources. This is encouraging.

We in the arts should learn from the crisis in the media that it’s futile to try to win a technological race determined by numbers of clicks. We must also understand that it’s vital that we engage the public in the arts and artistic practice for the acts of communication and sharing that they are. And, lastly, we can no longer rely on models that are dying or obsolete, or try to recreate them out of habit or dogmatically maintain them.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves how our dependence on digital technology contributes to human development.

And to answer this, we must do away with any magical thinking we may have about technology and break away from our ingrained pre-digital habits and models.

The challenge of unpredictability

Artistic content is clearly not inherently codified and cannot be prescribed. It’s constantly evolving. That’s the very nature of creation.

However, one of the major pitfalls of codifying the arts is in trying to comply with the parameters set by the funding agencies. And the Canada Council has done a good job of setting parameters over the years. Consequently, the artistic community has long complied with the many requirements of our hundreds of programs. What’s more, engagement with the public, particularly since the 1970s, has been largely absent from our arts development objectives, or at least treated as a poor cousin. This is a real challenge for a public organization with social responsibilities and whose legitimacy and relevance depend on how it fulfils them!

For nearly five decades, we’ve largely fostered the advancement of the arts in silos. This mea culpa however doesn’t mean we haven’t produced results. Far from it. The artistic scene is now more dynamic, diversified and vibrant than ever. So our investments have been effective. But the Canada Council’s prescriptive and self-referential funding model is no longer viable in 2017. Our future in the digital era calls for collaboration, shared leadership and, above all, an all-out non-conformist approach.

Together, we must seize every opportunity to place the arts at the heart of society. We must underscore their fundamental contribution to culture, democracy. The emancipation of individuals and groups that are marginalized, discriminated against or excluded. Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, social cohesion, diversity, education, the environment, economic development, trade and public diplomacy. And to do this, that contribution must be well understood, intensified and sustained in the long term.

Once again, public support for the arts in the digital era must be a genuine social contract. It has to be promoted not just by artists and funding agencies, but also by citizens and the various bodies of civil society – all recognizing the arts as a pillar of human development.

A community of innovation

Innovation has been a buzz word in the techno-liberal speeches we have heard ad nauseam for the past few years. However, true innovation should not be confused with the latest bright idea using available technology. An app is often not innovative; and only sometimes a good idea!

As the saying goes, electric light, which was both an invention and an innovation, did not come from the continuous improvement of the candle.

Digital technology allows for radical innovation and disruption. And as writer-philosopher Éric Sadin notes, “[translation] Disruption is less an intention and more a consequence.” Disruptive innovation is innovation that culminates in the creation of a new market, radically different from what preceded it. It is a radical change of concept, one that brings customers greater benefits at lower cost. Contrary to appearances, disruptive innovation is very often based on existing and proven technologies. Disruption is more a consequence than an intention. Just look at Netflix, which essentially offers nothing more than a new way of gathering content conceived elsewhere by others. It’s a model already coveted by other giants that will eventually, inevitably, be replaced by another disruptive innovation.

We must not confuse creation with innovation. Our society needs both right now.

While the arts sector has an enormous and limitless capacity for creation, it must now expand that capacity and its will to innovate.

The good news is that genuine creation and authentic innovation draw on the same sources: imagination and invention. We must respond to the disruptions of digital technology in turn by innovating, by radically changing the experience and offering better benefits to citizens (“our clients”).

We must reject the comfort of following rules that we ourselves have set or adopted in the past. We have to reinforce what defines us so we can better assert ourselves, communicate more effectively and do a better job of fostering public engagement in the arts.

Digital advances and disruptions give us opportunities to innovate. We now have the means to do that on our own terms. Let’s take advantage of it before it’s too late.

Once we let go of the obsession of technology for its own sake and our pre-digital pre-conceptions about sharing art, we can together develop a progressive, humanistic and ethical way of thinking digitally.

At the same time, let’s establish a form of digital governance that fosters fairness, engagement, diversity, transparency, openness, agility, the prevalence of rights, and accountability for sustainable human development.

In L’Homme nu3, Marc Dugain and Christophe Labbé wrote:

[translation] By externalizing our memory, we could very well be altering the purely human faculty of imagination, since imagination is nourished by the emotional experiences etched in our minds. Data and machines can’t replace a human being. What constitutes our humanity is undoubtedly consciousness, ideas, dreams and artistic creation – information too, of course, but along with the knowledge and ideally the wisdom we can extract from it – which no algorithm can do. For example, the supercalculator Exascale is powered by the electrical equivalent of that needed for a city of 30,000 inhabitants. In contrast, the human brain makes do with a million times less energy. But as powerful as Exascale is, it will never be capable of formulating the theory of relativity, writing War and Peace or composing The Magic Flute.”

It’s somewhat in this spirit of going back to the sources of artistic creation that we conceived the Summit as well as the Arts in a Digital World Fund, which my colleague Sylvie Gilbert will outline for you in a few moments.

A critical look

What will success look like? In L’âge de la multitude4, Nicolas Colin and Henri Verdier explain:

[translation] The multitude is now key to creating value in the economy. If you can attract, capture and redistribute the creativity of the masses, you can become a major player in the digital economy. If you accept the masses and feed them what they want, you can effectively govern like never before. Conversely, if you do not realize that the core of your organization’s intelligence and power lies outside its walls, you run the risk of being swept aside by the champions of the digital economy – those whose radical innovation appeals to the masses. It is the multitude that has become the key to a company’s success. And in the digital revolution, the masses are the new wealth of nations.

We must strive to mobilize the masses in our own way, without losing our way. To do that we have to clearly understand the mechanisms of these digital times we’re living.

Let’s go back to basics. Let’s find ways to adapt to digital technology and fully grasp its benefits so we can continue to create, produce and share meaning, value, relevance and existential purpose.

There’s no way we can achieve this as individuals but as a community, it’s entirely within our reach.

Thank you.

Éric Sardin, La Silicolonisation du monde : l'irrésistible expansion du libéralisme numérique [Silicolonization of the world: the irresistable expansion of digital liberalism]. Paris: Éditions l’échappée, 2016.
Dominique Cardon, À quoi rêvent les algorithmes. Nos vies à l'heure: Nos vies à l'heure des big data [What are algorithms dreaming of: our lives in the age of big data]. Paris: Seuil, 2015.
Marc Dugain and Christophe Labbé, L' homme nu : la dictature invisible du numérique. [Naked man: digital’s invisible dictatorship]. Paris: Plon, 2016.
Nicolas Colin and Henri Verdier, L’âge de la multitude : Entreprendre et gouverner après la révolution numérique [The age of the multitude: undertaking and governing after the digital revolution]. Paris: Armand Colin, 2015.

Portrait - Simon Brault 2014
Simon Brault, O.C, O.Q.

Director and CEO

Simon Brault is the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. Author of No Culture, No Future, a collection of essays on the rise of arts and culture on public agendas, he has participated actively in initiatives such as the Agenda 21C de la culture au Québec. An initiator of Journées de la culture, he was also a founding member and chair of Culture Montréal from 2002 to 2014. In 2015, he received the Quebec CPA Order’s prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award for bringing together “two worlds that were once disparate – the arts and business – an alliance that significantly benefits society at large.” Follow Simon Brault on Twitter: @simon_brault

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