Web Sights

Putting on a Show in the Internet Age

Alberta Arthurs

Early in 2004, the Graduate Center of the City of New York convened ten small to mid-sized arts organizations to talk about what had happened to them in an experimental, internet-based project funded by the Ford Foundation. The ten, from across the country, are community-based cultural organizations; they share a commitment to emerging and experimental artists and art forms, and a commitment—equally firm—to their local or nearby communities. Despite their similarities of mission, the ten were not familiar with each other's work. With the support of Ford, the ten organizations had been offered a year's worth of “streaming;” that is, they had been offered the opportunity to put audio and video on their web sites and to share their experience with each other. The services were provided by StreamingCulture, a program of the New Media Lab at the CUNY Graduate Center.

The organizations chose their own video and audio tapes to be posted on their sites. They used sampled or whole performances, interviews and readings and lectures, music and poetry, archived materials, promotional films, and advertisements—any tapes that would help them show their activities, their work, their artists. The project's objective was to change their web sites from silent, static electronic rectangles to personal theaters, sending sound and movement, art and artists, everywhere, all the time, over the internet. The project encouraged them to do what most nonprofit arts organizations are not doing—to use the power of the web to show art directly, intimately, immediately, to large audiences.

StreamingCulture provided technical resources, including audio/video editing, encoding, and hosting on dedicated streaming media servers, working individually—one on one—with each organization and its staffers. But bringing them together was critical to the learning that occurred. A year into the project, the Graduate Center convened teams from the organizations to discuss their diverse uses of streaming, the specific opportunities and obstacles they faced in using it, their institutional aspirations for new technologies, and the possibilities of sharing work and ideas with each other through the new technologies.

The meeting was plain and practical; the organizations simply critiqued each others' web sites. With the help of experts, they drew conclusions about what each had achieved and what they collectively had learned. They talked about the risks and rewards of technological change. They talked about why it is hard for arts organizations to adapt to new technologies. They speculated about ways that they could help each other, and ways that funders could help the arts make better use of technology. They voiced these concerns and findings:

  • Making and managing web sites. All of the organizations have web sites. None of them expressed satisfaction with what they have or certitude about how to improve or advance them. They discovered that technology decision makers vary enormously from institution to institution, ranging from executive directors to consultants, from web masters to marketing staff, from graphic designers to fund raisers, and that there is little consulting across any institution about its web site. They determined that more professionals within individual organizations should be working on their web sites to match them to their missions. They decided that more shared and informed decision making about technology within organizations and across organizations is essential if its promise is to be realized in the arts.
  • Using streaming media. None of the organizations had streamed work on their sites before this project, even though commercial and public sites are transmitting video and audio as a matter of course. But the organizations were quick to understand how streaming could serve them. Most of them began by streaming material key to their institutional priorities: La Mama offered archival material; Alternate Roots offered samples of touring productions; SPARC showed community story telling; Legion Arts streamed audio of their extensive music offerings. The San Francisco Mime Troupe discovered it could use streaming to help establish its artistic identity (not a mime troupe!). Others talked about using streaming to improve “brand,” to promote upcoming performances, to reach new audiences, to encourage donations, to illustrate educational initiatives, to document work in process, to share work with other professionals. The organizations agreed that they lack easy and direct access to streaming services and an understanding of the technology. By providing this, the project made experimentation possible.
  • Design elements. Many of the sites were not dramatic or direct enough in presenting themselves on the web. Locations of the streaming clips, language related to them, references to “viewing” on the home page, for instance, all need to be compelling. “User interface,” the technical term for reaching viewers, can be improved easily, but the need for it must be recognized. Through design, also, specific institutional goals can be met. Diverse Works, for instance, spoke of incorporating streaming into a preset pictured television screen on their site as an art piece in its own right. At least one organization wants to try “livecasting,” actually broadcasting live performance through streaming. The complexity of an organization with diverse community purposes, like The Point in the Bronx, can be captured through well constructed groupings of materials, good navigation tools, and clear pagination. In most cases, these kinds of design mandates can easily be met, but the organizations agreed that they are not yet sufficiently skilled in recognizing or meeting them.
  • Intellectual property concerns. Fear of abusing the rights to artists' work keeps arts organizations from showing it on their web sites. The group discussed positive ways of dealing with concerns about intellectual property. They agreed that each organization should develop protocols about rights and should be clear about its practices. Permissions should be sought from artists, and artists should be alerted that their materials will be streamed. Also, an organization needs to be aware of the circumstances of use and make them known. For instance, there is a difference between downloading, which offers copyable material on line, and streaming, which is not accessible for copying. This fact makes permissions for streaming easier to obtain. Also, most streaming is of excerpts, rather than of whole performances, and the excerpts are clearly intended for educational and promotional purposes. These facts also make permissions easier to obtain. Some of the organizations have developed protocols they can share with others. The organizations agreed that they would benefit from such counsel, and from handbooks or legal aid or a clearinghouse on intellectual property.
  • Media production. The organizations realized that they must have quality recorded materials to stream as well as to preserve their own histories and to document their work. Most of them have access to equipment, which is increasingly inexpensive, but they are not confident about using that equipment effectively. Some also have concerns about the preservation of accumulated media materials. The participants agreed that they would benefit from workshops on media production, or from working with consultants on the best uses of media equipment, or from sharing talent to get the images and sounds that they need.
  • Sharing ideas and activities. The participants emphasized the importance of the discussion and—especially—the value of critiquing the web sites and learning from each other. They identified other shared activities that the internet, and specifically streaming, might make possible. For instance, they talked about leveraging their work through an intragroup bulletin board providing advice, examples, technical assistance, and best practices in technology; or about building an online business that would enable them to contract together for streaming and other shared technology services; or the creation of a “web ring”—a system for linking organizations to share art making and media events, and to build audience and attention for their art. They voiced their need for training—in video and audio production and editing, in the uses of technology to create and document art, in streaming, DVD and other new technologies, in managing technology, and in understanding intellectual property issues. Finally, the group suggested the possibility of joint technology systems to collect and collate data on, for instance, artists' work and its distribution, web site use and users, audiences' interests, marketing, and fund raising. The major finding was the degree to which technology might inspire fresh cooperation among arts organizations and extend benefits of the technology to a larger arts field.

The bottom line. If arts organizations can be inspired to discuss and share their experiences with their web sites, they can learn from each other, identify their needs, and find the talent they need to build better sites and to cooperate through technology. With better sites, they believe that they can better reach and educate audiences, build support and understanding of their purposes, and promote the performing arts. With small investments, funders could make a difference—by encouraging such discussion, and by providing training opportunities, technical assistance, manuals, and handbooks on the best uses of the internet for the arts.

Alberta Arthurs (GIA member, National Video Resources) is on a pro-bono advisory committee to the CUNY Graduate Center's StreamingCulture project, which is headed by Dan Arthurs, her son. She gratefully acknowledges the investment of the Ford Foundation in this internet experiment.