This blog post captures interesting topics that bubbled up during the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s evidence session which took place on 22nd November 2022 as part of their 'Connected Tech' enquiry.
The DCMS Committee is a group of MPs from all major political parties who hold the work of the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to account and deliberate on the key issues affecting the associated sectors. The Committee regularly publishes reports that receive formal responses from UK Government - like this one that draws on several policy recommendations made by Culture Commons earlier in the year.
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We recommend readers pop on an ABBA playlist whilst reading this one...
'Connected Tech' enquiry evidence session
Tuesday 22nd November 2022, 10.00am
Vana Gisla, Producer ABBA Voyage (VG)
Dr Yiyun Kang, Associate Lecturer, Royal College of Art (YK)
The Chair of the Committee opened by declaring some members of the Committee attended a performance of the ‘ABBA Voyage’ experience (AV) the night before the evidence session; several MPs expressed sincere thanks to the production team for an enjoyable excursion and stated that seeing the show had informed their framing of today’s questions in the committee hearing.
Throughout the session, the scale of the AV experience was revealed.
Brings together a live band and innovative uses of technologies to create a live ABBA concert experience - the performers are not present on stage but are recreated
£141m of investment to create the show with the bulk of investment coming from ABBA band members and Universal (the band’s home record label) with no government grants
The “bankability” of ABBA - a global following and dedicated fanbase here in the UK - alongside 200,000 ticket pre-sales undoubtably gave investors the confidence they required to green light the project
Industrial Light and Magic – a UK based company - are the core technology partner who created the technologies that drive the show (their other IP includes Star Wars)
A staggering 800 visual effects specialists were employed on the programme from right across the world
Located, in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, East London in one of the most deprived areas of the city (see the section on regeneration below for more details on impact this new activity is having on local communities)
The AV experience was still in the process of being produced when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, so the delay and financial impact was not quite as pronounced as it was for other live events
Opened in May 2022 following a 6-month pandemic induced delay
Now operating on 7 shows a week with 2 dark days
Requires an annual income of £3 million to breakeven – that’s 3 million visitors attending at an 80% capacity with an average ticket price of £75
Currently sold out “for the foreseeable future”!
The impact of new technological innovations and practices on operational realities and decision making within the creative and cultural sectors were explored in detail.
YK explained her practice evolved from more traditional 2D paintings to incorporate video (“time”) and physical space, which often pushed the boundaries of conventional genre.
YK suggested that many traditional cultural institutions still seem to have a blind spot when it comes to digital, hybrid and technologically innovative art works; for example, even with larger organisations such as the V&A in London (where her work was recently exhibited) her work was challenging for the curatorial team to contextualise within the rigid frameworks of a traditional “collection”
YK and the V&A collections team established new categories within the collection framework to store KY’s multidisciplinary work appropriately; this involved novel considerations around storing the work in ways that future-proofed against changes in hard- and software
VG pointed out that investment in AV was considerable due to the scale of the technological requirements, but this pioneering project will undoubtable now pave the way for similar experiences in the future, which may in turn see costs go down as the technology become more readily available
VG was clear that AV is not necessarily using “new” technology but is instead deploying it in innovative ways; this, alongside the success of that technology’s use, has sparked a discernible increase in interest from technology innovators in developing motion capture techniques and broadening their applications in live performance contexts
Whilst several committee members praised the technological prowess of the AV experience, mentioning the “believability” of the final product on several occasions, VG nonetheless made clear that areas identified for improvement would likely require more powerful computing power to render and push data through the system in real time: in this regard, the technology being deployed in AV seems to be right on the edge of what is possible with the technology available in a live performance context
VG reported that the AV production team, and no doubt other production teams around the world, are now recognising the commercial potential of utilising the technologies brought together in AV and are considering even more use cases (e.g. education, sport, medical, communications); YK and the committee exchanged ideas enthusiastically around recreating great political speeches, or even memories and dreams in the future with future evolutions of the technology
VG accepted that for projects like AV at scale, "heritage artists" were needed to make the business model stack up (i.e. bands/artists with an established fan base and global appeal), though the potential for such platforms to broaden out over time was also discussed
Committee members raised questions around how the AV model could have implications for greener touring models, or could be used in ways to circumvent the issues surrounding artists visas for touring artists in the EU; VG confirmed that many live artists are exploring real-world touring alongside hybrid touring to, for example, play simultaneously in multiple venues around the world
In a discussion around the ‘Metaverse’, YK stated that she is interested to see how it develops in terms of translating creative works into new digital environments, but also highlighted that making work in the Metaverse is currently very labour intensive and involves many barriers to the general public (e.g. the need for equipment like headsets and computers)
YK said that she is proactively considering making work that involved the Metaverse, but that she would need to have a much better understanding of the language of it before being able to translate her work projection mapping in real-world environments into digital contexts
YK also touched on the Metaverse being a more commercially driven endeavour, which she felt had led to money driving content as opposed to artists creating their thought provoking and inspiring interventions
YK suggested that the Metaverse may not become the dominant medium for “creative expression”, though it is nonetheless likely to become a powerful space in the short-term; this could also see in-person cultural experiences becoming even more cherished by people in the future
A discussion around the growing role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) saw VG sharing concerns around whether associated technologies can truly create “art”. YK concurred, expressing her discomfort with the idea of her work being used in this way. YK did however explain that her practice focusses on story over image creation and in this regard AI is not a considerable threat to her work, but did share a concern around how this technology might impact on “concept generation”
YK predicted that AI is likely to develop, but it will be for policy makers to legislate for what kinds of IP and data companies have access to. VG shared that she thought UK artists had a difficult enough time to sustain a career without having commercial entities effectively using their creative products (including those protected by Intellectual Property rights) through data mining/scraping operations to create new works using artificial intelligences processes; the Committee pointed out that the UK Government recently legislated to allow commercial entities to do just that
YK shared that her contracts are so different depending on the client/partner which would make navigating the legal complexities around IP and ownership in an AI context very difficult to navigate
A series of ethical questions were raised during the Committee meeting that are worth considering.
ABBA band members being alive, having made the creative decisions and interacted with the motion capture and other technological systems means the AV producers were able to legitimately say “this is an ABBA concert”; this prompted an interesting discussions around the suitability and practical difficulties associated with posthumously staging artists or unsympathetic renderings in similar contexts; YK shared her own experience of interacting with a dead painters works and estate (albeit in a non-digital space), which had been quite complex and seemingly difficult to navigate
VG explained that the AV team made a clear decision not to “go digital” which could have reached millions of people around the world; this was because ABBA really wanted to create an emotional experience. VG explained that the banning of photography and video in the space is designed to enable humans to experience a show in person without distractions
VG spotlighted the importance to the creative team of including a live band of musicians in the experience because of the quality of live music and also because this supports creative artists: it was acknowledged that this was very much down to the personal ethical preferences held by ABBA band members
ABBA band members were also clearly instrumental in deciding on the the location of the performance venue and creative decision making - perhaps pointing towards the important role that artists can play in developing projects that have wider impacts
The potential for the creative and cultural sectors to support urban regeneration and the enlivening of communities arose during the Committee meeting.
VG explained that whilst ABBA have a following in Germany, and could easily have headed to Las Vegas, they decided to locate in the UK where some of the band had lived and had an emotional connection
AV producers approached the Greater London Authority (a body similar to a combined authority, led by the elected Mayor of London) to explore sites for possible location
The venue is located in one of the most deprived parts of London, on a site that was previously under-loved and underinvested in
The current location builds on the relocation of the BBC and nearby V&A Museum campus and Sadlers Wells, supporting a growing cultural ecosystem in the area
The unique nature of AV i.e. being neither live performance, concert or film, but rather a blend of a variety of many mediums, meant that locating away from the West End despite the usual commercial necessity was possible
VG explained that AV are committed to employing locally (for non-highly skilled roles): 90% of employees are local and many have their very first job with the company; the VA team are working with the Good Growth Hub for apprenticeships, working in parallel with schemes that are already set up
Whilst the building housing ABBA Voyage is “temporary” – built on a 1m high platform and leaving the ground untouched – the space is robust and could easily be adapted into a more permanent space that could house creative and cultural activity in the future
Several issues related to workforce pipeline and skills shortages were surfaced throughout.
YK had to move to the UK as the academic courses she would have needed to develop her practice further were not to be found in South Korea
YK explained that most of her students have experience of working with virtual reality (VR), but it’s difficult for the university to provide the comprehensive support that students with different software and hardware needs have; the rapid development of software can also make it hard for the university to keep up. Students often have to find their own way to study and make their work happen
YK suggested that students that come to her course are generally keen to pursue a career as an artist and are not necessarily likely to be interested in exploring FinTech courses or similar careers
VG shared that the prohibitively expensive cost of producing digital and hybrid work sees established creative workers being employed repetitively, which can keep new talent out of the jobs market. YK backed this point up saying that her graduates are often struggling to find funding or work despite having the ideas and capabilities to innovate in this space when they graduate
VG suggested that creative subjects being removed from the curriculum undervalue them, which then leads to a distinct lack of understanding about the wide range of professions and skill sets required in the creative and cultural sectors - from carpenters, executive managers and accountants through to on-screen/on-stage creative talent
VG also explained that some young people think they could become influencers on social media channels but do not necessarily know there are much wider creative industries roles out there
VG shared that young people can often feel like the arts and creative industries are not reliable or stable enough for them, compounded by parents and guardians steering children away from an early age with similar concerns
VG also explained that sometimes there are assumption that there aren’t many jobs to go around, despite there being large numbers of vacancies right across DCMS subsectors
VG explained that the AV team had observed a profound lack of diversity within the creative and associated workforce, but their location in the East of London could improve that disparity