Photo by Helena Dolby

I’ve worked as a digital artist, a digital curator and a digital consultant to the creative industries, but I am still never sure what sort of thing people are talking about when they talk about ‘digital’. Do they mean Facebook? Texting? A camera? Data analysis? A radio frequency car key? The mysterious ‘Cloud’?

It’s really a term for a collection of very loosely linked concepts, the only commonality being that a bit of electronics is involved somewhere. We don’t mentally group things made of wood, or shaped like spirals, or held together by glue, but for some reason the scattered world of things rooted in logic switches is treated as a coherent whole.

It’s also worth observing that these things don’t exist without our intention or our bodies. Virtual reality is nothing without human eyes; data is meaningless without our brains, and even Artificial Intelligence still needs humans to make the important decisions.

When you have ‘digital’ in your job title, there’s a certain expectation to be the voice of the defence. But it feels rather churlish and insensitive to go on about how digital isn’t necessarily an obstacle when for so many people, it palpably is. It bears the emotional weight of an entity – as solid as a body and much less yielding. Tech interventions can be a genuine imposition on a world fluent in physicality. If tech is a means of communication, it’s a blunt, efficient bleep, lacking lyricism or grace next to the poetry of dance. If it’s a helper, it can be an expensive, unreliable one. Memory and batteries run out and invisible systems break in incomprehensible ways. For many of us, ‘The Cloud’ is a rain cloud.

Humans must connect, though, and performers are feeling this particularly acutely. As our company dancer Erica Mulkern says in our most recent podcast episode:

“We’re not designed to be in isolation. Isolation is seen as a punishment. How can we return back to normal?”

It’s a rum choice: we can withdraw in silence – lonely, but at least honest – or accept the faint parodies of human contact that are offered on screens. Of course, for an organisation in lockdown, screens are no longer a choice. But they’re not the only string to our bow.

Digital and dance have more in common than we think

At BSDC, we began thinking about technology some time ago, long before the pandemic. We often talk about the landscape beyond screens, how tech can be many things – even, in a sense, another collaborator, alongside sport or music. As a bonus, new approaches to tech often bring new people into our fold, sparking exciting brain-to-brain connections and learning. As an organisation, we are a constantly burning synthesis of ideas, and anything that can stoke the fires of inspiration is welcome.

Ideas have been hammered out behind the scenes for several years, but things have really accelerated in the last six months. The website has been completely redesigned since the winter, and substantially improved over lockdown. And since February, we have created this blog for sharing news with the community, as well as a YouTube channel with a remote education programme, a podcast, monthly newsletter, Facebook Page and Instagram account. We have more plans in the works, too.

We were already working effectively as a remote team a lot of the time, but in recent months we’ve streamlined the process, shifting some comms from email to Slack, and meeting up regularly for increasingly better lit chats over Zoom. We’ve developed a comprehensive digital strategy, and have had lengthy discussions about every relevant digital thing we can think of, from audits to audiences, micro-sites to microphones.

Our broadcast channels have expanded, but our goals haven’t changed: we still want, as Balbir said in a recent panel discussion, to empower audiences to engage with things they wouldn’t otherwise, to engage new generations with culture.” Of course we don’t enjoy creating and communicating at arm’s length, but if the alternative is to not create and communicate at all, then we will do whatever we can. Everyone, after all, is in the same boat.

We are fortunate to be one of the Arts Council’s ‘National Portfolio Organisations’. Among other benefits and support, this gives us access to a team of around 10 consultants known as the ‘Tech Champions’. They all have strong cultural industry backgrounds, with specialisms covering the full spectrum of digital usefulness including SEO, social media, websites and e-retail.

Since we redoubled our digital efforts in February, I’ve had the very pleasant task of connecting with a number of these experts. The champs have come into our meetings to share their advice, delivered webinars and audits for us, sent over reams of helpful information, and sensitively provided expert feedback on our digital profile. They are busy, and so are we – now more than ever – but even occasionally extending our team in this way has been invaluable, and we often refer back to their advice. This service is a great asset to small companies like ours: not only are the Tech Champions very knowledgeable, we know for sure that they’re batting for us.

It has been a mighty climb up this mountain, and will continue to be. Performers are used to having a physical rapport with their audiences, but social media is challenging enough for muggles, never mind those with the sensibilities of a dancer. Audiences are faceless, their reactions abstracted to emojis. Invisible audiences aren’t a general feature of technology, though. We can’t blame the microwave clock for the sins of the video camera. There’s much more to tech than social media.

Technology and dance have a lot in common, and this should give us hope. Like dance, tech is rooted in physical principles; heat, light and motion. And all movement is movement, whether it’s a current flashing across a microchip or the twist of a human spine. There is much mutual ground to be found, if we’re open to looking.

Using digital systems to boost comms and creativity is just the beginning of this story. As these difficult circumstances persist, I hope we will see performing artists taking ownership of more and more ‘techie’ territories that previously felt off-limits. Will we be successful? With this sort of thing, success isn’t measured by metrics. Success is the effort itself: this bold movement into the unknown.

Leila Johnston