One aspect of the approach that we have taken to evaluating the Culture Cloud is to place it in the context of other online projects that have evinced similar aims, objectives and methods. One such project is Democracy which came to my attention as a result of a presentation by Jim Richardson, founder and director of Sumo Design and MuseumNext, Europe’s major conference on social media and museums.

Richardson’s presentation took place at one of the AHRC-funded Digital Transformations Workshops organized by the University of Westminster: ‘a research network exploring digital transformations in the creative relationships between cultural and media organisations and their users.’ Clearly, an initiative that is a potentially important point of reference for Culture Cloud and related discussions.

Active in 2009, Democracy fell under the umbrella of Design Event, an initiative established in 2005 in order to support designers across the North of England  especially graduates and those at the early-mid stages of their careers; and to provide a platform for the public to engage with good design.

Still available online, this project was an interactive exhibition which was centred on the idea of democracy, its innovation to marry form and content in the approach to curation. This approach was predicated on the observation that material normally selected for display in exhibition is usually the preserve of qualified experts

Democracy aimed to challenge this with an exhibition which asked the public not only to submit work, but also to evaluate what should and shouldn’t be displayed. Our aim was to create the most democratic exhibition in the world. (http://www.sumodesign.co.uk/work/branding/democracy.html)

 The process began with an open call to designers asking them to create work on the theme of democracy. The brief suggested that this could be in the nature of graphic design, illustrative, photographic, typographic, ‘but above all: creative, original and challenging’. It suggested that this was an opportunity ‘to do something new, something non-commercial to test your creative mettle against other designers’.

Democracy

Submissions were then made through the exhibition website which served as a forum for evaluation of the design works by the public. Here, users were able to comment on submissions as well as voting for what should be included in the final exhibition. The 51 pieces of work which received the most votes of 498 submitted were exhibited in a gallery space in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. These took a projected digital form, the size of each determined by the number of votes that it had received. Displayed in this way, visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to interact by voting for their favourite works via mobile phone or paper ballot. Mobile phone votes were reflected in the digital exhibition as artworks were resized in order to reflect their place in the poll.

Numbers are an interesting gauge of success in such projects, although a drive for quantity, while important for claims about participation, might serve to qualify suspicions about the quality of the work and responses generated in such circumstances. In this case, Sumo report that, during a four week window for entry to the exhibition, the bespoke Democracy website received 28,542 visits from 14,297 unique visitors, while there were 1,767 individual registrations at the site with 1,262 online comments on the submissions.

Of interest here too is the strategy of encouraging those who took part to share their interactions via social media links. As a result, the site received 3,549 visitors from Facebook and 1,448 from Twitter, as well as gaining coverage across design blogs.

As mentioned, the online site is still active with a rich Flickr archive which gives a sense of the exhibition. Likewise, there is a publication which captures the  creative contributions. For some, of course, this might seem an anachronism for such a digitally-engaged project.

Nonetheless, this successful exhibition offers an innovative, coherent and organized approach to cultural crowd-sourcing. Like the Culture Cloud, it prompts questions about the nature and integrity of the ‘digital’ in research and development, innovation and participation in the world of art.  For instance, one of the time consuming aspects of the Culture Cloud project so far has been the formulation of the terms and conditions under which contributors make their work available. In the Democracy project, artists agreed to a ‘Grant of Rights’ in the process of registering their work, which was expressed as follows:

By submitting an artwork to Democracy, you are granting the exhibition organisers (Sumo Design Limited and Design Event) the right to reproduce the work on the internet, in the exhibition, in the Democracy book, in promotional materials and in any press related to Democracy or Design Event.

By submitting an artwork to Democracy you are declaring that you are the owner of all rights to this work (and to any photography or imagery contained with it) and that the exhibition and publication of these works do not violate the rights of any third parties.

By submitting an artwork to Democracy you agree that you shall not receive any financial compensation for granting the exhibition organisers (Sumo Design Limited and Design Event) these rights.

In our evaluation, we’ll certainly reflect a little more on the democratic nature of online projects like this and the extent to which any consideration is given to rights as it is here. There is some discussion to be had about the ways in which benefits are apportioned in such cases. The extent to which any one project is successful, and the terms of its success, will impact upon how participants are likely to feel about those benefits and the balance between exposure and short-term financial return, for instance.

Ultimately, one of the important outcomes for all of the stakeholders and participants in Culture Cloud and the wider NESTA initiative will concern whether the success of each project is defined within its own terms and internal dynamics alone or whether each offers a transferrable model and possibilities. By any estimation, Democracy offers a useful yardstick for our evaluation.

 

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