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'State-funded arts must embrace digital age'

2 Jan 2013, 16:31

Published: 02 Jan 2013 16:31 GMT+01:00

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"We want to see how digital technology can bring culture closer to the people regardless of their circumstances," wrote IT Minister Anna-Karin Hatt and Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth in a joint statement on Wednesday.

They noted that distance, personal finances, not having enough time or physical disabilities means that it is difficult for some people to access cultural offerings.

Digital technology could bridge some of the divide, they argued.

There have already been noteworthy digital experiments in Sweden.

The National Federation of People's Parks and Community Centres (Folkets Hus och Parker, FHP) pioneered a similar idea already at the turn of the century.

In 2003, a handful of local community halls streamed a David Bowie concert live from a small venue in London.

"He only sang songs from his upcoming album so people in smaller Swedish cities were getting an globally exclusive preview,” Richard Gramfors, head of digital development at FHP, told The Local.

A few years later, his organisation struck a deal with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In 2007, they streamed the Barber of Seville live with Swedish singer Peter Mattei in one of the leading roles.

Part of the idea of live-streaming was to offer a more in depth, behind-the-scenes view with interviews with the singers, the conductor and the director during the intermissions. When it was Mattei’s turn he asked if he could say a few words in Swedish.

“Mum and dad, I know you’re watching this live in Boden, and my wife Rosie and my mother-in-law are in Spånga. I just wanted to say I love you and I’ll be home in Sweden on Monday.”

The direct link-up to New York proved a smash hit with the Swedish audiences, Gramfors recalled.

“For the audience it was a “Damn, this is really happening right now!” epiphany. I can tell you there wasn’t a dry eye in sight.”

At the time, the initiative was partly underpinned by EU funding. In 2010, the Swedish government earmarked 60 million kronor ($9.3 million) to co-finance buying digital equipment for smaller cinemas across the country.

Furthermore, Sweden’s main film distributor, SF, now only offers digital movie copies, in practice pushing smaller cinemas to adapt or die.

Gramfors said there are very few dissenting voices left in the debate about digitalization.

“A few years ago the Dagens Nyheter critic Leif Zärn said the Bolshoi theatre should be seen in Moscow, but that is a completely outrageous comment. He gets paid to whizz around and review performances, which is not the case for most people.”

The government on Wednesday similarly underlined how digital distribution could introduce different types of culture to new environments and new audiences.

“That school kids in southern Sweden can watch theatre playing up north is one example,” the ministers wrote

And apart from its educational potential, some proponents see the digitalization drive as a counterweight not only to Sweden’s urban-rural divide, but as an antidote to the class divide.

"Digitalization for us is a democracy project," Gramfors at Folkets Hus and Parker noted.

"It can be a heavy task to push open the gilded doors to cultural institutes in the big city when you aren’t used to going to the opera or to the ballet."

Yet if one asks what these institutions can do for smaller communities, it is seemingly as pertinent to ask what those communities can do for the institutions.

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“This all began because the Met realized its fans were getting older and older, the average age was 78. So they asked themselves ‘What happens to us when they’ve all died?’”

At first, he said, there were fears that the new technique would undermine the urge to go see the performances in real life. Today, however, the Met streams live in more than 60 countries.

“The Met thought it would cannibalize their ticket sales, but it’s had the opposite effect. Their visitor tally is up by 16 percent.”

The government, meanwhile, says it wants Sweden to lead the field globally. It has tasked the Swedish Arts Council with mapping out how producers and venues are using digital technology at the moment.

The report is expected at the end of May.

Ann Törnkvist

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