This article also appears on the Guardian Culture Professionals Network. It accompanies the publication New Playgrounds: An Introduction to Hacks in the Arts.
In the arts, hacking is a term that has become fairly meaningless. Working in the field of art and digital culture it’s ‘hacking’ this, ‘innovation’ that, ‘agile’ the other. Whatever happened to a good old fashioned workshop? Back in 2007, when the term ‘hack’ was first used for a cultural event in the UK, it was groundbreaking for the arts, but no-one can claim that now. So was it just a fad?
A well-managed hack event focuses on process, while offering an environment of low risk playful experimentation and creating sustainable interdisciplinary relationships.
A hack event generally incorporates some form of rapid prototyping. This means to make something quickly, a minimum viable product (or MVP). That action, of collaboratively making something that you can demonstrate, can be incredibly powerful. If you give something a physical form, you can have a conversation about something tangible, rather than just discussing an idea. For cultural organisations, producers and curators, this can have a significant impact on our understanding of what is possible and how one might approach working with developers, designers and creative technologists in the future.
I learn from creating, failing and collaborating. I rarely retain much information from reading instructional documents or being talked at – it’s just not how I learn and develop. Many people in the arts want to better understand how they can use digital technology to improve their organisational processes, structures, audience engagement strategies and customer services, as well as to create new artworks. Standard practice within most organisations is to solve problems and develop solutions by having a meeting with a rigid agenda. We come up with strategies by populating a google doc, we pay someone a fabricated fee to transformationally increase our organisation’s digital dexterity. These processes are contrary to creativity; why do we seldom use creative methods when we are problem solving, innovating and learning? Hacking takes us away from our organisational constraints, it lets us play and experiment with minimal risk and without a rigid agenda. It is in the hacking itself where the real dynamism lies. The common mistake often made is to evaluate how effective a hack event was by exploring the prototypes it has generated, but this almost entirely misses the point. The magic is in the ‘how’ not the ‘what.’
At the peak of its hype, hacking was in danger of being laden with hyperbole. The arts was under tremendous pressure to become digitally literate at breakneck speed. Without a clear guide as to how we should use digital tools within our organisations or how we were meant to become ‘digital by default,’ some hoped that hacking would be the answer to all of our prayers but, of course, it wasn’t quite like that. Hack events began springing up across the UK and whilst cultural professionals attended, many left despondent. So, just to be clear; hack events will not resolve the hole in your budget line, you will not walk away from a hack event with a new website, app, digital strategy or a miraculous and sudden ability to code. At a good hack event, however, you will learn something, you will develop new relationships, you will exchange knowledge with a developer or creative technologist in a truly collaborative experience and you will, hopefully, have a whole lot of fun along the way.
The arts continues to evolve in terms of its digital proficiency but we have only just scratched the surface of what is possible. In my opinion, there is indisputable merit in the hacking format and rapid prototyping as a tool for development. Hack events do not generate innovation on their own, they must form part of a comprehensive process. They are the cheese in a toastie, but unless you get the bread right and use a first-rate cheddar, you will inevitably feel unsatisfied.
Other territories have adopted the UK model for hacking with the culture sector, particularly through programmes such as the British Council’s Culture Shift. With their support, producers are trialling new adaptations of the model and demonstrating positive results, but in the UK we appear to be resting on our laurels as fewer and fewer hack events take place. Constant encouragement to ‘make it more digital’ just doesn’t cut it anymore. If we really want the arts to develop its digital toolkit, to ultimately be as innovative as we say it is, then it needs support in all the right places. I believe hack events, with their focus on process, an environment of low risk playful experimentation and their ability to create sustainable interdisciplinary relationships can offer us a small, but important, slice of the innovation pie.