Getting messy at CultureTECH
Summing up a week at the Derry festival of culture, music and tech
There’s a word which the CultureTECH people have always used to describe their week-long event and that’s “messy”. Depending on where you stand, you can have a couple of different types of messy, but this was most definitely the good kind.
Over the course of a couple of days and nights, CultureTECH provided the people of Derry and visitors from further afield with talks, panels, conversations, workshops, presentations, gigs, clubs, exhibitions, performances, screnings, installations, games and cat videos. In a plethora of venues across the city, from the stables of the former British Army barracks in Ebrington Square and the stunning St Columb’s Hall to a range of coffee shops and shopping centres, CultureTECH loudly and brightly and positively put on the unstructured ritz.
It’s hard to zone in on any other specific word from the usual lexicon to describe CultureTECH’s massive 150-event strong programme. It’s not quite a festival and it’s definitely more than a conference. It criss-crosses the city with aplomb, pulling off that trick of casually bringing a range of different happenings into its orbit and making it appear as if the whole city is CultureTECHing for the week. Along with all the other trappings of Derry’s current City of Culture standing, CultureTECH’s logo appears omnipresent wherever you go.
But CultureTECH was here before the City of Culture bandwagon arrived (it debuted in 2012) and it will certainly be back for more once the year ends. As we learned earlier in the year, Derry folks talk a lot about the legacy of the city’s culture year, so much so that Legacyderry seems as good a name to use as Legenderry. But it’s how events like CultureTECH and the 2D Comics Fest have responded to the increased profile and attention, as much as the buzz created by the big, standalone, one-off city-of-culture events, which will have a longer-lasting effect on the city.
I was in Derry to do some work (DOI: I hosted some Banter Salon talks and also did some panel chairing and interviewing) so was in a good place to get a sense of CultureTECH’s various memes. Perhaps the best place to start is at the culture of technology conference opener with Drew Hemment (Future Everything festival) and Scott Stulen (Walker Art Centre and Internet Cat Video Festival) diseecting and deconstructing the Venn diagram between tech and culture in a world where cat vidoes can be viewed as a valid art form.
Stulen pointed out that for all the “proper” artists dissing his festival, he still managed to get 11,000 people to sit and watch experimental art flicks. Meanwhile, Hemment answered the question about the part which talking shops like CultureTECH, SXSW, TEDx and his own Future Everything play: in a world where most of our activities are online, these give people an opportunity to gather offline, eat bacon sandwiches and put the world to rights. They’re IRL forums for digital natives.
In many ways, Derry is a good place for conversations like this involving juggling and new juxtapositions. As Culture Shock creative director (and Derry native) Hugh McGrory pointed out in a presentation about the outline of a forthcoming Andy Warhol joint venture with MPC, the conversation about if all of this is new media or multi-media or transmedia is ideally suited to a city which is both Derry and Londonderry. Indeed, as McGrory passionately argued, perhaps the best thing to do is ape Warhol and call it all art.
In the space of a few hours on Wednesday night, you had prime examples of this. BBC Northern Ireland screened some of their forthcoming attractions like The Miraculous Tales of Mickey McGuigan, the story of a Northern Ireland farmer turned storyteller who documents the tales of peole curing ringworm in cattle by spitting on it or a woman curing colic in a baby with a piece of string.
Walking along the city walls afterwards, it was a chance encounter with Cafe Scientifique at the Verbal Arts Centre. This science salon featured clinic psychologist Mark Smith deciphering how children and adolescents inerface with the world of social media, apps and gaming. It was enthralling, scary and fascinating. That CultureTECH has berths for both rural supersition and piseogs and a brilliant psychological take on social media shows the span of the event.
Of course, there are some participants in the ongoing conversation which might have a different take on things. The other pitch of CultureTECH saw a lot of tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, tyrekickers, chancers, start-up dreamers and people wearing the tech uniform of suit jacket and jeans on the caffeinated mooch all over the city. “You can tell them a mile away because they have hope in their eyes”, reckoned one local observer of this small army. When it comes to lexicons and tropes, the tech side have their own language and linguistic structures, most predicated on revenue models, scaleability and financial targets. It’s a far different world to culture and art.
And this is where CultureTECH really gets interesting and finds its sweet spot. It provides a common ground between those who want to do business and those who want to watch cat videos. Neither constituency might necessarily think they have much in common, but they are linked in all manner of ways because of how tech has become the glue in our day to day activities. CultureTECH doesn’t so much as define or delinate this experience as simply provide the examples and let your imagination take care of the rest.
Of course, it’s hard, if not downright impossible, to put a value on all of this, especially when you have funders who have to work within existing models and spreadsheets. Is it worth funding an event which mighy lead to inward investment down the road? Can an event like this really lead to sustainable job creation? Where all of this might go – be it jobs which could be produced in time from ventures which are sparked off because of a chance meeting in the Craft Village between panels – is anyone’s guess, but without CultureTECH, such chances or possibilities would not even exist in the first place.
For now, though, CultureTECH 2013 leaves us with some rich memories from the Banter side of the house. Hearing Dr Steve Myers from CERN talk about how work on the Higgs boson and the Large Hadron Collider has led to more research into cancer treatment. A superb run through nudge theory and behavourial economics from Fiona McAnena. One of the very best and strongest innovation-in-music conversations I’ve had the pleasure to be part of with Fred Bolza and David Emery.
Signature Brew’s Sam McGregor talking about how he’s put craft beer and music merchandising together. Legendary music photographer Michael Spencer Jones on how he got those iconic Oasis and The Verve shots. Brendan O’Driscoll from Soundwave on an action-packed year in the life of that start-up. A superb chat with composer, cellist and Google collaborator Peter Gregson. And a conversation with the Utah Saints on the city walls overlooking the Bogside, which was punctuated by a lad in period costume shooting off a musket – a first for interviewer and interviewee, but which probably happens every weekend in Derry.