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On Creativity…and Beyond…

In November, the Beyond Conference rolled into town, exploring the intersection between AI and creativity over two fantastic days of presentations, demos and debates.

The Creative Informatics team kicked proceedings off with an AI Primer quiz hosted by Chris Speed, and brought the conference to a close with a Beyond Symposium: On Creativity, which considered the future of creativity both within and beyond the context of data-driven society. The symposium was based around provocations ‘for’ and ‘against’ creativity from Professor Vicki Gunn and Dr. Oli Mould.

Creative Informatics Research Associate Pip Thornton has shared her thoughts on the outcomes of the Beyond Symposium and some of the ideas behind it …

Billed as a ‘fringe’ event to the Beyond Conference – a showcase event held over two days at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms – the Beyond Research Symposium ‘On Creativity’ started life as an attempt by Creative Informatics researchers to bring together fellow researchers from the other eight Creative Clusters around the UK.

Beyond Symposium Sketchbook, Elspeth Murray

The premise of the symposium had always been to provoke discussion about what ‘creativity’ is, and what does it mean to be ‘creative’ in the context of the Creative Industries, so it was really helpful to have the mixture of academic and cultural sector attendees we had by opening up the event up to local creatives outside of the ‘main event’ Beyond participants.

Here at Creative Informatics, we as researchers are often faced with questions about creativity, innovation and value. For example, is it possible to be successful and to attract funding in the creative sector if your venture provides social and cultural value, but doesn’t necessarily tick the all-important economic value box?

Have creativity and innovation become buzzwords that paper over social and political problems? And indeed, if these tensions exist, then where do we – as researchers – fit into the goals and KPI driven systems of our individual creative clusters? Is there room for criticality and change, for example? Can we push back a bit on the seemingly unstoppable need for innovation that equates growth and profit with value, or have we ourselves become pieces of data in the mechanisms of the creative economy?

Creative Informatics includes all the creative industries as classified by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and is focussed on using data-driven innovation to enhance and add value to the creative industries. To that end, the work we do primarily concerns digital data and technology, which fitted in well with the focus of the main Beyond Conference, which was on Artificial Intelligence and Creativity. While we wanted to acknowledge that theme in the research symposium, we were also keen it didn’t just focus on data/digital/AI types of creativity. We were especially grateful to local creative sector participants and other cluster members for diversifying the creative agenda with various levels of participation. We hope that the symposium succeeded in addressing creativity across the wider creative industries, providing an opportunity for researchers, practitioners and policy makers to meet up and share their experiences, ideas and concerns.

Introductions & Interventions

What’s with all the coloured straws?!

As it transpired, the process of curating the symposium itself was an interesting lens through which to think about creativity and technology. Indeed, putting together the slides for the introduction, it became apparent that everyday technologies such as Word, PowerPoint and Google Images all contribute to a collective ideal of what creativity is meant to look like. From the cover of Oli’s book, to a Google Image search for Vicki, and even the Creative Clusters logo itself, it seems that the universal representation of creativity is pictures of multi-coloured straws placed over black on white text.

Creativity to Microsoft became apparent in PowerPoint’s insistence that the slides would be best illustrated with rings of coffee-mug stains, and in the now often ironic use of comic sans font. Instead of fighting against these technologically perceived aesthetics of creativity, the introduction instead incorporated these ‘creative’ graphics into the slides in order to make its own comment on creativity and the technologies that mediate it. There were, therefore, plenty of straws, a ‘comic sans’ intervention, plenty of clip-art, and tastefully decorated coffee stained slides. A substantial observation from this technologically deterministic approach was in the aesthetics of ‘creativity’ when linked to anything ‘AI’ focussed. No coloured straws for digital creativity, it seems, just dramatic black backgrounds with bright/neon graphics (Beyond / Creative Informatics – guilty as charged…).

The introduction also provided the opportunity to explain an experimental method of documenting the event. As part of ongoing research within Creative Informatics into the ethics of data capture, and in an attempt to push-back a little against the excessive and intrusive use of digital photography at events, we decided to be a little more ‘creative’ with how we documented and ‘captured’ the day. To that end, we commissioned a local artist & poet Elspeth Murray to live sketch the symposium. Sketching and collecting snippets of the conversation on her IPad, Elspeth’s work was projected live on the large screens in InSpace, and simultaneously shown facing outwards onto the street.

Also experimenting with creativity and technology, Elspeth encouraged participants to ‘see faces’ in the patterns in the concrete floor tiles and draw their visualisations on a whiteboard wall, thus playfully putting human imagination back into generative ‘neural’ networks.

We could perhaps think of this as a method that pushes back against the algorithmic systems of GAN networks, instead harnessing the power of Generative Imagination Networks, or GINs, maybe. These visualisations, and all of Elspeth’s wonderful pictures have been collated into the ‘flip-through movie sketchbook’ you can watch above. The poem Elspeth recited to close the symposium (and which also inspired the ‘faces you saw in the cracks on the floor’) can be found on her website.

Provocations

Bearing in mind our first thoughts about the potential tensions and contradictions in (and on) creativity, we were delighted to be able to invite Dr. Oli Mould up from Royal Holloway, University of London to talk about some of the issues raised in his recent book ‘Against Creativity’ (2018). Feeling the need for a little balance, we were also lucky enough to have Professor Vicky Gunn from The Glasgow School of Art to fly the flag ‘For Creativity’. Although – as Vicky pointed out – the for/against binary is hardly an empirical one, it was useful as a provocation for debate, and of course for our very own interactive voting system (more on this later…).

Oli Mould credit Elspeth Murray

In his opening provocation, Oli presented his argument for a more radical interpretation of creativity – one which refuses to accept that there is a need for capitalism to change the world with innovation, as it already exists, and should be left to thrive un-exploited. Oli illustrated his argument with speculative examples of an innovative, employee run system of work being bought out by Amazon, a highly creative collective cooperative housing scheme snapped up by gentrifying property developers, and the co-option of the marginalised subcultures by the forces of commercialisation and neoliberalism. ‘Big C creativity’, Oli argued, is increasingly touted as a driver of growth and entrepreneurship, but what it leads to in reality is precarious living and working conditions, and an appropriation of culture and cohesion.

 

In order for creativity to be meaningful, Oli argues, it must be allowed to be playful and subversive, and given space ‘to realise the impossible’.

Vicky Gunn credit Elspeth Murray

In response to Oli, Vicky argued that there is still an important place for creativity – in particular in specialist higher education in contemporary art and design, and also as a means of mischievous or political agency. She was, however, slightly more cautious about the emancipatory potential of collective creativity (which Oli had argued for), due to what she argued is its inherently paradoxical nature. Drawing out some of the tensions and paradoxes within creativity, Vicky’s provocation put forward the concept of ‘originative willfulness’, which she sees as ‘the energy of holistic creativity, the urge to express the agency of difference”. This generative, transformative, and subjective animation of cultural change, she argued, enables us us comprehend – and clothe – our nakedness.

However, Vicky sees creativity in this sense as a double-edged sword – always necessarily abducting the old by persistently adding the new.

This ‘shifting anticipatory affect’ of creativity – even the grassroots, unadulterated type of creativity, Vicky argued, – “makes its role in collective solidarity very precarious.” This was, Vicky said, her one sticking point with Oli’s argument.

Q and A credit Elspeth Murray

The main provocations were followed by a discussion and Q&A hosted by Creative Informatics researcher Inge Panneels. An opening question about the relative importance of politics and art led to interesting discussions about representation, inclusivity and privilege in culture. While art can perhaps have a wider reach than education, for example, this still often leaves out consideration of the Global South, or indeed the colonial legacy of creativity in its materials and traditions. Discussion also turned to the carbon footprint of culture and digital art. Can capitalism and its environmental evils be subverted through creativity, or will capitalism always subsume creativity? Pushing aside the capitalist norms, how do we ensure good rather than bad creativity is deployed for the common good?

 

As Inge pointed out, these are important and urgent questions. The IPCC says we have 10 to 12 years to halt climate change: how can we deploy creativity to make a real and lasting change?

Lightning Introductions

The second half of the symposium was given over to whoever wanted to make a contribution. Some participants had responded to a call to give short lightning introductions to their own work or research, or to give their own angle ‘on creativity’. Creative Informatics researcher Chris Elsden presented a paper which explored some of the challenges of faced as researchers in the Edinburgh cluster. Recently accepted at the Halfway to the Future conference in Nottingham, the paper asked ‘How Can We Balance Research, Participation and Innovation as HCI Researchers?’ Also from CI, Susan Lechelt presented some of her doctoral work on the development of Magic Cubes as tools for digital learning and exploration, and Inge Panneels gave a quick overview of the new CI lab space E11 on the Napier campus.

Paul Moore credit Elspeth Murray

Visiting lightning slots included Professor Paul Moore from the Belfast cluster, Jon Swords from the York XRStories cluster who presented his research on ‘Using Social Network Analysis to Understand the Creative Industries’, and John Davies, a Nesta Economics Research Fellow and PEC researcher, who spoke about his work using Arxiv, Gateway to Research and Crunchbase data to map AI trends relating to the creative industries.

From other academic venues we were delighted to welcome Sophie Frost, Digital Fellow (One by One project) at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, who shared her work on ‘Enabling Creative Agency Through Digital Courage’, and Suzy O’Hara from Co/Lab Sunderland, who explained how the Co\Lab project supports academics using creative practice in innovative and cross disciplinary collaborative work and Nina Rasmussen from KCL department for Culture, Media and the Creative Industries.

Richard Brown from Falmouth University gave a creatively illustrated talk on ‘Embodied and Emergent Neural Nets’ and Carl Smith from Ravensbourne University – in a similarly artistic vein – presented on ‘Creativity as an Operating System of Extended Realities’.

From the local community here in Edinburgh, we were also delighted to hear Jack Nissan talk about Tinderbox’s radical, diverse and inclusive approach to youth work and creative learning.

Bringing the formal part of the symposium to a close, Creative Informatics director Chris Speed led a lively ‘burning issue’ discussion, which spilled over into networking drinks.

Does Creativity Work For You?

Pip and Kam at NEoN Festival, Dundee

As mentioned earlier, during the closing drinks, participants had the opportunity to cast a vote for or against creativity. Myself and Kam Chan from the Creative Informatics team recently attended the NEoN Festival of Digital Art in Dundee, and were particularly taken with Steve Lambert’s 2011 artwork Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, which invited viewers to interact with the piece by pushing the big red button to vote for or against the statement ‘Capitalism Works For Me’. Inspired by Steve’s work, and by his talk at NEoN, we made our own intervention, asking participants to vote on whether Creativity Works For Me at the close of the event by putting tokens in TRUE or FALSE jars. It was a close-run thing, but we are pleased to report that Creativity is indeed still working for the majority of people!

Thanks once again to everybody who came and took part in the symposium. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

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