Corrupted Space

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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We've all been there. You enter an art gallery, the space is the size of a sports hall, it's brightly lit and around the edges stand unsmiling staffers in black shirts and trousers, each with an earpiece dangling from one ear so they can receive instructions from an unseen control centre about when to take lunch.

Positioned in the middle of the floor is a single plinth about 4ft high. On top of that plinth is a tiny white box, fashioned from some exotic material, and next to the tiny white box is a card. Written on that card in plain black text is the phrase "musings on the universe - 2001".

Congratulations, you've been indoctrinated into the world of extreme visual art.

It is this world that TheSpace now inhabits. The website originally intended to bring the arts to the masses on the internet and on television has become the world's most annoying art gallery.

Internet, We Have A Problem

On paper the original "Space" was simple enough. Put the arts on the internet so people could see the arts on the internet. The only problem was that the pieces commissioned to be on TheSpace were, to be blunt, completely awful. There was also a side mission to get arts organisations in the UK educated in the ways of digital media.

From violinists playing music in airborne helicopters (not making that up by the way) to massively expensive "dance" films and faux television programmes that, along with the entire contents of the previous website, have now vanished into thin air.

The website (thespace.org) was a mess, the content was rubbish and the staff operating it came across as having the collective personality of a cactus. Mercifully, Arts Council England, along with the BBC, only ploughed £3.5Million into the thing before it was deleted.

Did we say "mercifully"? What we meant was incompetently. Now TheSpace is back with a new mission and a new tagline;

"The Space is one of the most exciting places on the internet to find new art to explore and enjoy."

Ok, stop laughing at the back!

sdt.jpg

Marina Abramović tries the enthuse the audience about her new work '512 Hours' at the Serpentine Gallery in London and fails miserably by being a bit miserable.

The old mission was such a massive failure they had to try something new and the new thing they are trying seems to be focused on, mostly, a visual art approach.

This time out you can watch, for example, Marina Abramović giving daily updates about her project '512 hours' running at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Ms Abramović's delivery on the videos is so dead-pan, so devoid of warmth or personality we can't imagine why anybody would want to sit through all ten (at the time of writing) videos or what they would learn about her work.

If you want to get people enthused about the arts, whatever you do, don't let them watch those video diaries.

The videos themselves feel like an annoying art installation and you don't even get to see the work itself because cameras are not allowed in. Irony!

Another commission on the site ('Longitude') describes itself thus;

"LIFT, The Space, Abandon Normal Devices and Watermans have co-commissioned a world first - a live play with actors in three cities on the same longitude line - London, Barcelona and Lagos, focusing on global water shortages. All perform (sic) in a Google Hangout"

First of all, every play ever made is "live", albeit in a theatre. This play is little more than a badly written and badly acted piece of film rendered in Google Hangout's low-res video format.

The only reason we can think of for this piece being commissioned at all is for the simple reason that it can be classified as "digital". 'Longitude' is a clear example of technology leading the idea. The quality was of secondary consideration to the method used to deliver it to the good people of planet earth.

Camels, Committees, Confusion

Pretentious bad work is all part of being in the arts but when you put all of that work together into one place and it's the only thing you offer the visiting public then you have a problem. Just ask the people who watched the Aerowaves dance festival "live" from Sweden.

TheSpace is not bringing the arts to the people. What TheSpace is doing is bringing a very narrow subset of the arts to people based on the egos of the individuals who hand out the money for commissions.

Speaking of those people. TheSpace has been turned into a "Community Interest Company" the reasons for which they were unwilling to explain. Suffice to say that a CIC has less stringent, publicly available, financial reporting requirements than a registered charity. Almost every arts organisation in receipt of public arts funding on a regular basis is a registered charity.

The money to fund the TheSpace's operations is coming from several sources, all of them public. Arts Council England is handing over £8.1Million over the next 3 years (that's eight point one million just in case you thought it was a typo).

Arts Council Northern Ireland (ACNI) is throwing in £600,000 over three years along with Creative Scotland, because they are slightly less crazy, who are stumping up £250,000 for 2014/2015.

Commercial Break

ACE refused to hand over the application form (for what they describe as a "Solicited Grant") that TheSpace filled in claiming that the information contained within was "commercially" sensitive.

The funding monolith said the application contains a "detailed business plan" for the operation of TheSpace and their contracts with "partner organisations".

ACNI and Creative Scotland did not provide answers as to whether or not TheSpace had to apply for funding in writing.

In another twist it turns out that ACE CEO Alan Davey is on the board of directors of the company set up to run the website. Again, ACE claimed that there are "strict" operational guidelines in-place that counter any conflict of interest problems especially when it comes to commissioning work.

The obvious elephant in the room however is the fact that Arts Council England awarded over £8Million in funding to an arts project operated by themselves.

The registered address for TheSpace is Arts Council England's own address in London. Communication's staff at ACE seemed unsure as to whether or not the employees of TheSpace are actually working in the same building and, if not, where they actually are located.

TheSpace themselves (they have a separate communications contact which is actually managed by private PR firm Bolton Quinn) refused to say how much money was spent commissioning the videos from Ms Abramović, the painting demonstration (since removed from the site) by David Hockney or for the material "donated" by Chinese artists Ai Wei Wei.

When asked, TheSpace did not respond to questions stating that since the website was basically a proxy funding body of Arts Council England why are the general public not entitled to know how their money is being used or how much is being spent on commissions.

A New Space

Imagine for a second that you are making a funding application to Grants for the Arts* or, like many, you have gone through the torturous process of making an NPO** application. From your perspective the whole thing is like rolling the dice in a casino.

Now imagine that the CEO of Arts Council England is on the board of directors for a rival organisation also making a large funding application. Do you still think the playing field is level?

TheSpace is the perfect encapsulation of what happens when you do the arts by committee. ACE, as a funding organisation, takes something very simple, putting the arts online, and makes the whole process complex and badly presented with the overwhelming appearance of insider dealing and corruption.

Add to that TheSpace's (ACE's?) refusal to comprehensively answer even the most basic questions about what they are doing with other people's money and you have more than enough reasons to throw ACE and their entire senior management team in a canal.

ACNI and Creative Scotland's involvement in this mess, although more financially restrained, is no less forgivable.

The entire arts output in the UK could be comprehensively covered by about a dozen journalists working independently of the funding bodies and the arts organisations they fund for a lot less money than is being wasted on the current incarnation of TheSpace.

No commissions, no pretentious ideas about "hacking the arts", just coverage of the massive amount of culture being funded, created and put on show every day, all over the country.

Running a web based platform for the arts that way prevents it from being little more than a publicity exercise for large scale organisations. Like this example from the National Theatre of Scotland, because what people really want to do is watch badly made short plays, broadcast "live" on the internet at 3am.

ACE and the BBC dug themselves a giant hole with the first version of the website, which they smugly referred to as a "beta test". Having spent so much money and time flogging a web-based dead horse they had no option but to continue the project, throwing more money away in the process. Hubris and arrogance do not make good bedfellows.

Instead of learning however they have just made it all worse and even more aesthetically unpleasant and impenetrable.

In a much delayed response to questions put to Arts Council England with regards to the manner in which the money was granted to TheSpace they told us;

"Apologies for the error in [our] last email but it was in fact a Solicited Grant which allows the Arts Council to invite a specific organisation, individual or partnership to apply for funding in order to deliver a specified project that helps deliver one or more of our goals and priorities as set out in our 10-year strategic framework for the arts. When, following an analysis of all options available for achieving a particular priority or strategic aim, it is clear that only one organisation would be best placed to deliver the outcome we have prioritised; we will request approval for a solicited approach to be made to that organisation."

Arts Council England invited themselves to apply for a huge amount of money for a project that only they could run and, surprise surprise, the application was accepted.

It was accepted because only Arts Council England could operate an online arts service as bad as TheSpace and spend millions in the process.

Make of that what you will the next time your GFA or NPO application is turned down.

*Grants for the Arts or GFA is the project based funding programme from Arts Council England and is funded by Lottery money.

**NPO is National Portfolio Organisation, the regular funding programme for arts organisations run by Arts Council England and is funded by money from central government.

Normally for a piece like this we would use a screen capture of the website in question. TheSpace is so badly designed and so ugly however we thought a picture of a cute dog would be preferable! photo by Adrian Fallace

  • Another Guest

    I absolutely agree with this article and particularly Guest's comment - most people don't even know it exists.

    I just wanted to correct the very last point about where the money comes from as the division of Lottery and government money is no longer that clear cut. I work for an NPO which is currently funded by a mix of Lottery and central government money and will be completely funded from Lottery money for 2015-2018.

  • although not quoted in the piece we specifically asked where the money came from for TheSpace and ACE told us it was lottery money;

    "Any solicited application will be subject to a rigorous assessment with no guarantee of success. The grant is from National lottery funds."

  • kema

    I have found a website http://www.thespace.org/ but I don't think it's the right one because I can't see the Arts Council or the BBC logo anywhere on it.

    The Arts Council Website says this:

    Congratulations on your grant award from the Arts Council
    Arts Council England supports arts and culture using public money from the government and the National Lottery.

    By accepting your grant award, you have made a commitment to acknowledge our support publicly. You should do this by featuring our grant award logo or Lottery grant award logo on all of your related information, marketing and publicity materials.

    Why it's important to acknowledge our support?
    A condition of the public's support for public funding for arts and culture is knowing where and how their money is being spent. This is why using an acknowledgement logo is a condition of receiving your grant award. Your work is the best advertisement for public funding that there is.

    Only artists, and arts and culture organisations in receipt of support from us can use our acknowledgement logos. We hope you will use it widely and regard it as visual recognition of your success.

  • kema

    "Solicited Grant " Years ago I was emailed an Arts Council Brief for some dance technology project and funding it came from a Mac a bit garbled. So I phoned the department asking them to email me a new version, I was told that "that document was not for me just the named organisations on it!" and if |I wanted to do something similar to what was being funded I should see my local arts officer.
    I did; she knew nothing about the funding or the brief. This has been happening for years where chunks of funding and projects are being given to friends to fulfill pre-set briefs. How different is this from an MP designing a public project that isn't offered to tender and goes straight to another MP cousin who co-incidentally is the CEO of a company can fulfill that brief? It's not different and it is obviously illegal and needs investigating.

  • while morally and ethically suspect what they are doing, given the information we have, is not illegal although it would take a serious independent legal investigator to figure out the details of what ACE is doing with TheSpace.

  • Guest

    It's likely that a lot of people out there agree with this but are too afraid to say anything or even link to this post for career reasons.

    I spent half an hour on the site yesterday in an attempt to give it the benefit of the doubt. It was difficult to actually find out where the blurb, trailers and fluff ended and the 'art' began. Why do they exclusively equate 'digital' with 'second-rate video'? Why does secondary material from something happening somewhere else (e.g. Abramovich or that Boulton and Blagg trailer) constitute an 'artwork'? It's telling that this is the only coverage I've seen (and there isn't much) that actually assesses any of the work on the site rather than just breathlessly reporting its stated – and somewhat vague when you think about it – ambitions.

  • Guest

    It's absolutely is the case. In speaking to arts professionals, the
    three reactions to the relaunched Space I've encountered are laughter
    (at the execution), anger (at the cost/quality) or cluelessness ("I
    didn't even know it was happening").

  • On occasion we have clicked on certain links only to find them either completely dead or not actually pointing to the "art" at all. The NTS work mentioned in the piece was not even on TheSpace website, it was simply loaded into a frame to make it look like it was on the site.

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