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Extending The Space

Tony Ageh

Tony Ageh is Controller, Archive Development

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Since May 1 and the launch of The Space over half a million people around the world have had the chance to share in the astonishing summer of arts that has accompanied the London 2012 Olympics and the Jubilee.

They have enjoyed great and innovative art on tablets, smartphones, PCs and connected TVs, watching Shakespeare’s plays performed at the Globe theatre in many different languages; hearing Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet played by a string quartet in four separate helicopters flying over Birmingham; getting a cast-eye view of the astonishing 2012 production of the York Mystery Plays; and even dipping in to a six-month long piece of music created by the Listening Machine from the conversation on Twitter and performances by musicians from the Britten Sinfonia.

And of course they have had the joy of exploring John Peel’s record collection and seeing some of the finest clips from the archives of the BBC’s award-winning arts strand, Arena, including hitherto unseen footage from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – currently the single most viewed item.

The Space project has been a bit of a magical mystery tour itself. At the centre is a close partnership between Arts Council England and the BBC, two very different organisations that share the goal that the BBC’s first Director General John Reith outlined in 1930’s – “to bring the best of everything to as many people as possible”. We have also worked very closely with other partners, most notably the British Film Institute and the Community Channel, to make The Space a success.

Both ACE and the BBC are grappling with the best way to serve audiences in a world increasingly dependent on digital communications and screen-based engagement., and The Space emerged from many conversations about how to develop an experimental digital arts service that would allow the BBC and The Arts Council to explore the best ways to reach audiences and ACE to encourage growth in the digital capacity of the arts sector.

We also saw an enormous opportunity to help the wider arts sector develop its digital skills by giving a range of organisations a chance to deliver innovative online art. Every organisation whose work has appeared on The Space has been mentored by the BBC and offered training in digital skills, an offer which has been widely taken up.

We originally thought that we’d run The Space as a ‘Pop-up’ arts service for six months, showcasing the widest possible range of art from a diverse set of organisations, and that at the end we would close it down. Each commissioned organisation would be able to take the work they had created and make it available on its own website or elsewhere.

However the project has delivered far more than we had expected, and I’m pleased to say that the BBC and ACE have both agreed that we need more time to evaluate its impact and to consider how the innovations we have made in commissioning, curating and delivering digital art can shared more widely. The Space is going to continue in something like its current form until March 2013, and during that period we’re going to explore the potential for a permanent digital arts service that could support the aspirations of a range of cultural organisations beyond the current Space partnerships, and an increasing number of artists and arts organisations.

The BBC and ACE are equal partners in The Space, but while ACE has focused on commissioning the work to appear and brand, my team has been mostly responsible for the technical and live service infrastructure that makes it all happen, based in Room 7083 here at Television Centre.

The technology behind The Space (described here in a post from Mo McRoberts) has proved exceptionally well-suited to the task. It’s a cloud-based service, providing a scalable, flexible and incredibly low-cost content management system that can host and publish the widest possible range of material. We built The Space as a separate service from the BBC’s own network and technical infrastructure, partly to show we could and partly because during the Olympic period it would have added unwanted risk to both projects.

Now I have asked Jake Berger, Mo McRoberts, Brandon Butterworth and Dirk-Willem van Gulik , four of the best engineers and managers in the world of technology, to review the great work they have done and figure out how to deploy these innovations more widely.

Meanwhile The Space’s curator, Peter Maniura, has a chance to reflect on the commissioning and editorial aspects of The Space, working with his colleagues inside the BBC’s arts teams and the team at Arts Council England as they deliver their exciting creative media strategy.

What you see on the website won’t change radically on November 1. During this next phase, The Space will continue to showcase arts and cultural events across the UK– live free and on-demand. It will feature live broadcast, open up more of the hidden treasures of the nation’s cultural archives, and feature experimental work exploring new digital art forms and new ways to connect with audiences. Much of the work showcased on the Space in the first six months will remain on demand. And we will be publishing a modest amount of new work during the next period as we test out different aspects of the platform as a delivery tool for all forms of art. If you work in the arts then we’d love to hear your thoughts on how we did, how it could be improved, and what we could do next.

We’re grateful to all the arts organisations, rights-holders, partners, performers and creative individuals who have worked with us to deliver The Space to date, and I will ensure that we continue to keep them informed of our plans as they progress. The Space was designed to showcase all forms of screen-based art, some of them television-shaped and some profoundly digital, and delivering the platform and the art was a collaborative effort on an enormous scale. The flexibility, willingness to engage and sheer creativity of the arts organisations we worked with has been a constant source of delight to all of us on the project.

When Roly Keating at the BBC and Alan Davey at ACE signed the agreement to develop The Space and asked myself and Alison Cole to lead the delivery team, I hoped that we would create a lasting cultural asset for artists and arts organisations involved, that would highlight both contemporary creativity and the innovative ways in which archive can be exploited using digital tools. I think we have succeeded and I’m very pleased that everyone has an extra six months to enjoy what we created in the summer of arts.


Tony Ageh is Controller, Archive Development

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