iShed at Watershed, Bristol, constructs ever more magical spells

I see the work of Watershed in Bristol as a beacon – always pushing the leading edge of creativity in the arts – and seeking to capture the learnings from which others can benefit. Among Watershed’s new work is an AHRC enabled project in which multi-disciplinary groups have opportunities to play creatively (in action-learning style) in order to explore how culture-related concepts might be expressed in innovative formats and platforms.

     Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio – an open area where early-stage ventures of similar (and purposefully different) ilk develop together – has now expanded from 30 to 42 places and moved into the Watershed complex – its effective parent; and some of them have grown up into near-investable businesses. New companies have become involved as sponsors of Watershed’s work, including, not least, Dyson – through its Chief Innovation officer.

iShed (Watershed’s subsidiary which manages the Studio) is also partnering on a £4.8 mn project – REACT, one of four UK Creative Economy Hubs funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to act as parent to seven Sandbox ‘themes’ over the ensuing four years. Each such ‘theme’ involves six teams of people who work together over a 3-month period to develop ideas for innovations and to bring them into effect.

            Each team is peopled by one academic (five universities are involved: Cardiff, Bath, Exeter and the two at Bristol) and the leader of an SME with his/her team – a total of up to ten people. Their task is to explore (in this case) issues of heritage, as expressed through such things as Apps, augmented reality, physical displays, new audiences and community groups.

The form of their activities is based on an earlier format of iShed’s – inspired by schemes like Seedcamp and Melt – where iShed’s role consists of weekly informal visits from its Producers, to discuss recent progress and the next objectives (in action-learning style); and monthly gatherings, each of one or two days, where subjects relevant to early-stage venturers are addressed by experts, consultants etc, subjects such as routes-to-market, IP, organisational structures, and (interestingly) storytelling. Each of these themes is supported by a group of eight mentors (largely from London,) who are introduced with some ceremony and are then available for whatever they can offer. The participants are expected to tweet or blog regularly about their experience; and these learnings are editorialised and published by iShed. Watershed publicises their work-in-progress and produces a final film which it showcases shortly after the end of the three-months period at an event where the projects are presented to organisations that may be interested in their furtherance (eg Hewlett-Packard, BBC, Ogilvy et al.)

Nor is iShed short of other new work. It will also be running Sandboxes of this kind in different media; it has recently run a week-long residency for the British Council, called the ‘Playable City’, at which six UK artists were paired with six artists from SE.Asia; and expects to run at least two more in the near future, probably outside the UK; it is running events in different locations with the Crafts Council, designed to help craftspeople to learn from each other’s experience in making use of new technologies; and  it is also running a project in Portugal about open-ness and open cities.

These additional activities have entailed iShed scaling up it own role – taking on new staff, dealing with new fields (eg academia), and handling a wider range of commercial and non-commercial projects; turning to other sources of funding such as Trusts and Foundations; and both becoming more commercial and more experimental; as well as adopting a higher civic leadership profile.

iShed has had remarkable success in terms of new (and different) projects at a time when the Arts, academia and public bodies, as proponents, have all been under severe financial pressure. While iShed carries out evaluations of its own performance, it is concerned that its values and its assessments differ in kind (eg about what is value and how is it created in the arts) from the ‘KPIs’ espoused by the Arts Council, such as audiences and financial viability.

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