Reaching the End: User

Tim Jones engaged with The Not Quite Yet from the perspectives of a cultural activist particularly interested in participatory media and socially engaged art. Employed by SPACE as a freelance evaluator while the project was in process, he visited The Not Quite Yet exhibition several times, interviewed artists and participant groups, and engaged in dialogue with team members from SPACE and from the DemTech (Democratising Technology) research initiative to further understand the ideas and processes. Below, he describes his responses to attending the opening events for the exhibition, and wider ideas around Older People's involvement in creative/technology collaborations in the UK.

Shortly after an (evening) public opening for the exhibition, SPACE invited the participant groups and artists to visit, or in some cases re-visit, its gallery in the afternoon, for a dedicated event. Everyone's creative achievements would be celebrated over tea and sandwiches would be offered, and there would be a performance by the “Space Sirens”, the participant group that is also a choir – apparently a very busy one – that had worked with Ambient Information Systems (Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel) during the project. The Gallery was packed and animated when I arrived, with clusters of Older People sitting between the vividly imaginative results of the commissions – the chind?gu ('un-useless inventions) fabricated by Stacy Makishi and AGLOW, the confident proposals for harnessing the tidal power of the Thames, offered by the Geezers and Loraine Leeson; and the stark instruction manual language of Ambient's work with the Choir.

One of the linchpins of the afternoon event seemed to be Fiona Fieber, SPACE's head of Community Engagement, who, as an embodiment of the positive value of 'networked-ness', was able to co-exist in her professional role and as an active member of the choir. At the Symposium Fiona put forward her view that work of this kind can produce dynamic environments that can engage and activate people within the context of their communities – and it's this last clause (though not the contested meanings of the word 'community' itself) that I want to briefly dwell upon here. Arts agencies can be monocular in their assessment of, the most useful positions to take in relation to their “local communities”. With the professionalisation of community arts management comes a risk that its own workers' points of community connection and identification are limited to their relationship to their employing organisation. I've struggled to make sense of some participatory projects I've produced for arts agencies in the past, when it's been made clear at the outset that a key success criteria for the agency is 'audience development' – i.e. the participants, regardless of their own desires and feelings about arts and arts organisations, should “cross the threshold” during the collaboration. How do we 'recruit' people under those circumstances? And isn't that an interesting choice of word, implying both the military and the 'absorbent'?

How do we understand the gathering of Older People's groups in SPACE's gallery in light of this? Have they been recruited, into an exercise which allows SPACE to reassure itself that it genuinely offers arts engagement to a diverse group of local people, including those who rarely experience the arts? I'm not so cynical. Over the past few years, SPACE's media arts unit at its premises on the Triangle, Hackney, has accumulated with a well regarded history of developing innovative participatory projects involving emergent technologies that do seem to start where people are at An example is UK Sound TV, a broadband TV channel that, through its engagement with local Young People, sustains a platform for some of hackney's emerging grime and dubstep artists – understood in the mainstream arts sector as being among the hardest to reach - and seeds them with additional skills in the process.

Fiona Fieber elaborates how SPACE engages “from within” - by defining coherent, long-term programmes, such as Bow Older People's Programme, which doesn't rush to mount in-yer-face art interventions among people who may not possess a critical framework to understand it – and in any case might not be interested, whether or not they did. SPACE plays the long game, it seems – seeding and building relationships from the 'bottom up', and presumably devoting a lot of time negotiating what the characteristics of the bottom are, and where it is to be found. It's a more hopeful picture, and one that other agencies, such as Lift (formerly the London International Festival of Theatre) and the regeneration agency Shoreditch Trust seem to be adopting in their approaches to social engagement – a longer, much more iterative process: doubly delicate and doubtless a much harder slog. It remains to be seen whether other arts organisations, chronically low-capacity and still often reliant on 'quick wins' that trample over these delicacies, will follow, and the swell will allow for the dialogue  between arts and its funders to be more usefully reframed. But we seem to be moving in the right direction.

On the day, Fiona shuttles between the Choir and the SPACE team, anchoring relationships in the room. Her multiple loyalties prohibit her being guided purely by institutional interests, in a good way. There's a very different dynamic here today, in how the gallery is laid out, and how people move and interact in the space, compared to the public opening that took place a few days beforehand.  It's pleasing to see ideas around curatorial standards are flexible enough to allow the serving of coffee and cake, and gatherings of chairs to create a very social space for people who might want to be seated for longer periods. I wonder how much more scope might exist for unraveling the design template  of these spaces, away from the conventional expectancy of how galleries should behave, allowing for greater collaborative 'co-inhabitation', and how this might stack up against a limited marketing budget and ambitious audience engagement mandates.

But today, at least, there's a clear acknowledgment that people may welcome some orientation in terms of what they can, or should, be doing in this space – against which the stark white backdrop exists awkwardly. Lois Weaver's installation, though not showcasing a specific collaborative inquiry within The Not Quite Yet, may be the most helpfully familiar corner of the room, bringing, as it does, a design aesthetic, and objects, that this generation might be most familiar with. Though equally, this could be a gently playful commentary on how far apart the spaces with which this particular older generation are most familiar with, and the space of SPACE, and galleries like it, are. There's something crude, simplistic, misplaced, almost futile about “Lois's corner”, which is perhaps why I was most drawn to it at the public opening, yet not at all a few days later. It seems to evoke an age that, as a younger person, I'd be tempted to assume is becoming 'bygone', but the awareness of the projects context and co-creators make me wary of the risk of simplistic assumptions about we perceive older generations and how they connect to younger ones.

There's are repeated moments during the experience of The Not Quite Yet when the 'default' understandings of the arts sector are revealed to be insufficient. At the Symposium, the Geezers are asked a question familiar to those of us who worked in participatory arts – how did they value the process in relation to the outcome? - and immediately, this collective of sharp men's minds responded as one: outcome for them was everything for their collaboration with Loraine Leeson. In saying they want to make a change in the wider world, they junk the assumption that they're particularly respectful, or even mindful, of the therapeutic value of the collaboration while it took place. Perhaps they're asking for themselves to be un-understood as the primary beneficiaries of the project?

AGLOW, one of the participant groups within The Not Quite Yet, are very sensitive about views and definitions that are imposed upon them. In their first workshop with artist Stacy Makishi, they recoiled at her use of the word “prosthetic” - which the artist had been trying to use in the context of a Freudian definition of technology – a tool that extends from us, which each of us can deploy – because its perceived negative connotations. Though Stacy's relationship with AGLOW improved over subsequent workshops – with her humility, and acknowledgment she'd risked offence, playing a significant role in the reparations – the clash highlights the extent of the gulf in communications and connected thinking. If Stacy - a creative enthused by the prospect of a collaboration with Older People, and inspired by the premise of the project - makes such a mis-step, it's perhaps unsurprising that those who actually design interactive technological applications aren't even in the room.

Yet they should be. In terms of the social action agenda, initiatives like The Not Quite Yet otherwise feel unfinished. Such initiatives need find ways to gather momentum beyond academic research process, which on their own can feel hermetically sealed and too restricted in the interests they serve. Our blogosphere is now rich with anecdotes about how users customise technological innovations to suit their own purposes, one of the most frequently repeated being about the difference between what the inventors of text messaging thought it would be used for and the use we have made of it. In his book “Shock of the Old”, David Egerton draws attention towards 'user-centred histories' and questions the way that the place and understand the apparent innovatory power of successive new inventions. To level the landscape, and create the scope for more democratic exchange between technological inventor and end user, would not just suit the flat hierarchy and open system preferences that animate the social consciences of many media artists, they'd lead to better negotiated design processes for the Older People we hope to each become, sooner or later. Though perhaps it doesn't suit the more subjective excitements that some artists feel about personally leading the exploration of the creative and social possibilities of new technologies, which is a key professional drive in many cases.

It's interesting to speculate on the reasons why technological designers aren't in the circle, and why the questions underpinning The Not Quite Yet need to be asked in the way that they are. After all, the 'grey pound' increasing fuels our UK economy and it's clear it will continue to grow more dominant throughout our lifetimes. There's a rapidly expanding market, both in terms of individual consumers and public bodies, for well-designed interactives. Isn't there scope for a more 'viral' conversation, that might use a potent combination of participatory arts and academic research to bridge the professional world of interaction design with the stated preferences of older people as 'end users', eschewing the generation of the hypothetical “user scenarios” that are a familiar part of pitch meetings?

Why isn't this happening already? Are we hard-wired to fail to anticipate our future selves? Is the British mentality about old age such that we prefer not to think about it empathetically? Or are we heading sheepishly towards widespread submission and acceptance of whatever youth-led technological progress has to bring us? We know the mind changes in its capability to adjust to change an innovation over time. If I consider myself, as someone approaching my forties, to be part of the first generation that has come to terms with the reality of constant change as the societal norm, how will my own adjustment parameters operate in my old age? Do interactive technology designers, and the business interests they co-exist with, regard our current older generation as a time-limited 'issue' that will be resolved by the passing of time? If so, aren't we losing in pure human empathy what we're gaining in mental adaptability? And will the shift be as big as it sometimes seems, with the radical change or disappearance of the remaining social platforms Older People use, and very different attitudes to all aspects of care arrangements for the elderly? Either way. It's inevitable that the generations moving towards older age will be more affluent, better education, and not at all passive in relation their arrangement in the world. Put this way, the questions at the heart of The Not Quite Yet couldn't be more urgent – for every one of us.

Tim Jones, September 2008

Following on from Tim's interviews, materials documentating The Not Quite Yet – including images, audio, online videos and commentary – have formed the first case study within, an online resource supporting the development of artists working with technology in participatory settings, which has been developed by SPACE and Solar Associates.