Digital Culture: A Change of Perspective

22 May 2020

Our Marketing Co-ordinator, Emma Hall, reflects on her changing views of the value of digital cultural experiences during the current lockdown.

This week I have been putting plans in place for our first ever digital event – a talk from neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow, who was scheduled to visit Saffron Hall a couple of weeks ago. As someone who is not normally involved with the programming or production of events themselves, I have been enjoying sinking my teeth into the task of putting together a meaningful digital experience for an audience who, until now, were most accustomed to interacting with Saffron Hall by attending live events in person.

There are so many things which I’m sure all of us are missing about attending live events at the moment. The joy of sharing an experience with others, the buzz of knowing we are witnessing a unique performance which is unfolding in real time or perhaps the intimate feeling of being in the same room as a performer or artist we admire.

However, there are irritations of attending concerts in person that are easy to forget in our wistful reminiscence of pre-lockdown life. Even the keenest concert-goers among us might have unwillingly found frustration in the stressful rush to get to a concert straight after work, the worry that you might inadvertently sneeze (or god forbid cough) during one of the quiet sections, the struggle to stay interested after 20 minutes of the same piece or the difficulty of trying to work out what on earth the Italian song lyrics mean when the house lights are too dim to read the programme.

Over the last few weeks of lockdown I have seen countless articles presenting the argument that digital performances will never be able to truly replicate the experience of being at an in-person performance – and I agree with that. But what many of these articles fail to mention is the idea that online cultural events might actually have the opportunity to offer us all something new, different and potentially as valuable as an in-person experience.

The customisable and personal nature of the ways we can interact with digital content means that we can pick and choose to explore the aspects of live events we miss most, whilst eliminating many of the facets of in-person experiences we find more challenging. For example, if you miss experiencing a performance at the same time as others, you could watch a scheduled broadcast, like the National Theatre performances put out every Thursday, and share your thoughts simultaneously with thousands of people from around the world using the ‘live chat’ function on YouTube. If you would normally find it hard to concentrate during a long performance like an opera, you could watch a pre-recorded performance in a few sittings – or you could do another activity like a puzzle or knitting at the same time. If you want to witness a raw, live performance or get the sense of intimate connection with an artist you admire, you could watch a live-stream on Facebook or Instagram, many of which feature music, poetry or dance intermingled with discussions and Q&As where you can interact directly with artists through live comments in a way which wouldn’t be possible in person.

Unlike in real life where one is normally expected to sit through a performance in silence, digital performances give you the freedom to sing or dance along, pause the performance halfway through for a cup of tea, or simply turn it off if you are not enjoying it. And this is to say nothing of more experimental digital projects which move away from a traditional performance model towards a myriad of completely different ways of engaging with the arts.

I am keenly looking forward to a time when we will all be able to experience in-person events together again. However I hope that embracing the opportunities of digital experiences, rather than viewing them as a pale imitation of the ‘real thing’, might bring with it new, meaningful and joyful ways of engaging with arts and culture which extend long after in-person events resume again.