Artist, curator and New Art West Midlands Advisory Group member Antonio Roberts was invited to speak at The Arts in a Digital World Summit in Montreal, Canada in March. Here he reflects on the possibilities and limitations of digital platforms for the arts, particularly in terms of the diversity of our creative communities.

The Arts in a Digital World Summit. Photograph Antonio Roberts

From 15-17 March The Arts in a Digital World Summit took place in Montreal, Canada. The event invited over 200 artists and institutions to the Arsenal gallery to address the many ways in which digital technologies are impacting the arts and to scope out strategies for the future.

I was invited to take part in the summit and provide my insight into how I have worked with – and against – digital technology in my artistic and curatorial practice. To date I’ve curated a number of projects and exhibitions that have addressed this including co-founding the FizzPOP makerspace, and curating exhibitions including µChip 3, GLIT.TC/H and No Copyright Infringement Intended. In addition to this I am Curator at Vivid Projects, which has a long history of showcasing experimental artworks, videos and performances that integrate new technologies.

Although the name might suggest the summit was about digital art the Canada Council were very clear in stating that digital art is only one area of interest for the summit. The wider aim of the summit was “to be a discussion about the transition and transformation of the Canadian arts sector to thrive in the digital era”.

Although it lasted only three days the summit was intensive but not overwhelming. It provided great insight into how the creative culture works in Canada and the ambitions of the Canada Council for the Arts moving forward.

To launch the first two days keynote speeches from the likes of Jackson 2bears and Astra Taylor encouraged us to think about how technology and the apps that influence how we socialise need to reflect the diversity of its users.

I was especially drawn Taylor’s keynote presentation about the internet as a democratic platform. As the internet came to be more a part of our everyday lives it was looked to as a borderless, free, democratic world that would make our culture more open and let us express ourselves more freely. It would disrupt existing models of cultural and commercial creation and consumption by doing away with gatekeepers and treating everyone as equals. What has happened instead, Taylor argues, is that the existing broken social and economic models have transferred to the internet, with all of their inequalities, biases, and negative stereotypes amplified by the speed and global reach of the internet.

Gatekeepers, which in the physical world, will have existed as bricks and mortar institutions are now global private organisations such as Google and Facebook. Their algorithms, which dictate how we consume culture, mimic and amplify existing gender, racial, class, geographical and cultural inequalities instead breaking of them down.

This encouraged me to think about how these issues affect the creative communities. Are the ways in which platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter operate ultimately negatively affecting our experience of culture both on and offline? In a digital world without borders why do we rely on a handful of sites to control our culture? Why not create our own? This draws parallels to offline institutions and galleries.

Taylor ends her presentation by encouraging us all to think about what if the internet wasn’t led by a California ideology. That is, what if the internet wasn’t controlled by mostly American Silicon Valley companies? Would there be the same focus on profits? Would every communication platform be an opportunity for advertising? I found myself asking what if the internet was governed by artists. How would it differ from how it operates now?

The Arts In a Digital World Summit. Photograph Antonio Roberts

Outside of the keynote presentations were the Human Library sessions. These were 30 minute presentations in which invited facilitators – myself included – talked about a topic and invited questions from participants. One session, led by Harmen van Sprang, focused on shareNL, a company that advises companies on the sharing economy. The sharing economy is an ecosystem built around the sharing of resources. It encompasses a lot of things, but generally organisations like Uber and Airbnb, where our personal resources are hired out for commercial gain, come to mind.

After explaining how it works we were asked to consider, could this way of working, fuelled by technology, be beneficial to the arts? One participant argued that such a model had existed in libraries that made musical instruments available for hire by the public and institutions.

There was consensus amongst attendees of the session that turning every exchange into a financial one could potentially be harmful as it could see things like the lending and borrowing of common resources and equipment e.g. projectors, chairs, something which happens amongst all artists and organisations, happen less as we place financial price on these exchanges.

There were far more presentations and workshops than these two and no way I could have attended them all.

The summit drew to a close with the announcement of a $85 million Fund for the Arts in a Digital World. Canada Council could have easily just launched this fund without much fanfare and a simple e-mail but by holding this summit everyone involved and invited – which included artists and organisations from across Canada – helped shape how the fund is used. One way to think about the summit was that it was a large survey from a diverse range of people about what their needs are. It is often that artists lower in the hierarchy feel that their needs are overlooked in favour of the large galleries.

What I took away from this experience was that digital technology can have a profound effect on our community but that we must shape it and not let it dictate us. There’s no doubt that the summit was put on at great expense but I would definitely like to see something happen in the UK, even if not focused purely on digital and art, which puts diverse artists and organisations at all levels in one physical location at the same time to discuss the issues that are important to them.

Live stream of the summit here.