Woman wearing a VR headset at MIFF XR 2022
(image credit: Phoebe Powell)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 14 Feb 2023

Financing the Future

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Your museum of screen culture

How might our sectors fund the type of R&D, strategic innovation, and investment in infrastructure that we need to produce and present creative, techonology-reliant work?

The Australia Council's Director of Industry Initiatives, Adam McGowan, Serpentine R&D Labs' Victoria Ivanova, and Paul Callaghan, Head of Games & Interactive at VicScreen join a discussion about what we might learn from adjacent fields and approaches.

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So in this next session we'll hear from Victoria Ivanova and Paul Callahan about how our sectors might fund the type of R&D, strategic innovation and investment in infrastructure that we need to produce and present creative works that is so reliant on digital technologies and technology platforms. Adam McGowan, who is advertised here on the slide from Australia Council was meant to be joining us but he's very unwell so can't be here. So Seb is going to fill in. Thank you so much Seb. Come on up everyone. Victoria is a curator, writer and strategic consultant. She is currently working with the Serpentine's Arts Technologies team and as an R&D specialist and also completing a practice-based PhD. Her core focus is on systemic and infrastructural conditions that shape socio-economic, political and institutional realities. Paul is head of games and infrastructure and interactive at VicScreen. He has been in and around games for 25 years in varied roles from development to creative production, working with organisations in Australia and overseas including BAFTA, the BFI, British Council, ACME, State Library Victoria and the Free Play Independent Games Festival. And Seb, we all know who Seb is, I'm not going to do a bio. Thanks heaps. Thanks heaps, Lucy. Yeah, I'm stepping in for Adam who is unfortunately ill and cannot be here today so I can't make any announcements on his behalf but anyway. But maybe I might ask some questions, eh? How should we just do it like this? What do you reckon? I'm fine with that. Vic? Yeah, let's go. Well Paul, I'm going to start with you because I think this panel came about really around this notion of what could we learn from the ways other sectors or adjacencies have funded R and D and heavily digitally reliant cultural practices. And you were saying to me the other day that you had this nice phrase when you were talking about film, TV and games that we work in the high capital creative sector. I thought that high capital piece was really interesting in it. It puts a ring around practices but that high capital nature brings as we heard in the previous panel some of those challenges that Tim was talking about, about funders wanting to see your script and see your edits and things like that. But it also means that people are able to invest on a longer arc in developing the technologies or having an agency in them or with them that allows them to make work. Can you tell us a bit about the particularly Victorian games field because it feels like that is an ecosystem that is remarkably amazing. No pressure. Look, I think let me sort of take that and sort of jump back to the beginning of that 25 years because I think the idea of high capital creative industries really is part of a narrative that includes games. We're always kind of hearing that line about how much money games make and that they're larger than Hollywood. And that high capital big studio world is absolutely kind of a key component but was sort of significantly more dominant 25 years ago, certainly in Australia and globally. But that has persisted in the past. But what we've sort of seen, certainly Victoria, over that time, are sort of a series of deliberate tactical interventions into that but also sort of responses to changes in the global context as well. Probably the largest one was the GFC. As a result, publishers became more conservative. A lot of the kind of the foundational work within Australia, which was in that high capital model, was kind of about licenses, was about work for hire and that work really dried up. And there's the Cunningham and Banks paper, for those of you who read it, talking about creative destruction within the games industry. But that becoming the fertile ground for a much more innovative set of practices. And that's kind of what we've seen emerge over the past 10 years. And certainly some of that has been state government funding. We had the federal government funding as well, the Australian Interactive Games Fund, creating a base for experimentation, creating a base for sort of consistency and development of practice. But alongside that, we also had these tactical interventions into the idea of high capital. So things like the Free Play Independent Games Festival, which has existed since 2004 that emerged out of a response to that studio system. So people wanting to make work. But also the emergence of the iPhone as well as a platform that made people comfortable, audiences comfortable with digital distribution as well. And then technology platforms like Unity and Unreal entwine creating the barrier to entry for makers becoming much lower for people. And so people were like, well, I'm gonna be an artist and I'm gonna make work. I'm gonna be a writer. I'm gonna be a theatre maker. I'm gonna be a visual artist. Suddenly finding ways to do that through technology. So the high capital part was still there, but there's all this kind of bubbling along. And I think Victoria, what you sort of saw here is the collapse of the studio system. People were like, well, I wanna make games. I have to build the system, the structure, the ecosystem that I want, coupled with a funding infrastructure that enabled that kind of lower level base work to continue to happen. Talent just had time to emerge. And now we're in a world where Untitled Goose Game, Cult of the Lamb, Mars First Logistics, Grace Bruxner's Frog Detective, all of this work that is weird and creative and uniquely Victorian exists and has access now to that overseas money. Someone was saying to me that the interesting thing about accessing the screen funding is that it provides... No one sees it as the end point. People see it as a launch pad for the next thing. And because video games don't have the same local kind of channels for funding, you start to think about film and television and screen and other forms of art practice where there are sort of discrete channels. Someone here is like, well, I'm gonna get a deal with Devolver. I'm gonna get a deal with Microsoft. They sort of go overseas and attract that capital and bring it back and make their work here and that success here as well. But at the same time, we've got a sledgehammer and an app that's a little bit more advanced than the other ones. And so, it's a much broader field of practice where multiple types of success can exist and multiple types of access to funding can exist. But I think that... And this will be the last point because I've gone on. Thinking about what that means for the future, what that looks like sustainably. We're at this point where people go, oh yeah, we've got this work, but we do have to start thinking about what the next stage of that is, what the future of that ecosystem looks like, how we protect it, how we create the next generation of talent, how we create different accesses to funding and how we loop that into things like cultural infrastructure, creative infrastructure and arts infrastructure as well. Does that answer... If you feel like that maybe answered parts of your question, but yeah. Victoria, that's a good segue to you. Yeah. I think what's really interesting about what you're saying, you're describing the gaming context as an ecosystem, where ultimately you have a high diversity of approaches and infrastructural propositions that have a symbiotic relationship to one another. I think in relationship to, let's say, the public arts sector, it's a different term, sector, we have a different starting out condition. There's a homogeneity of actors that are based on, let's say, the institutional form and a homogenous type of output, which is the public interface. And I think there's a critical difference in understanding infrastructural development when it comes to these two very different forms of organizing at scale. And in many ways, I think one of the key lessons from the gaming context is that the public arts sector needs to shift more into an ecosystemic approach and be approached less by, I guess, policy, but also internally, as this kind of monolithic field. And so the question is, how does that happen? Because if we think about organizations that are dedicated to arts and technology work, they're very different to many other, let's say, peer organizations that do community outreach work that specialize in particular types of artistic practices that are not art and technology practices, right? And so the question is, is it really possible to have kind of a holistic R&D or innovation approach to public arts sector? We have such not diversity of organizational forms, but diversity of manifestations in society. And so I think this presents a really key challenge to policymakers to understand how do we fund R&D in the arts sector that allows every type of institution to really excel and to develop this kind of experimental end of their organizational practices. So in the context, I can't really speak for non-art tech organizations. So I apologize if this is a bit of a limitation. But I think in the context of art tech organizations, the idea of self-organization at an ecosystemic level becomes absolutely critical. And this is where I'm really interested to hear how you would see opportunities for greater ecosystemic interoperability, for lack of a better term, between what the public arts sector can offer in, let's say, early stage, like artistic exploration of gaming as a medium, and the more kind of commercially oriented models that are present within your context. So I think that's like one really potentially productive and highly generative way of thinking how do we like export certain organizations out of the arts sector and launch them on closer to spaces like gaming where these possibilities exist and there is the kind of liquidity that's required for R&D. That is a big question. But I guess the question is like whether you even see value in that, right? What is the value that a public arts organization that, let's say, works with artists who explore gaming as a creative medium? Potentially with a similar approach that happens in indie games, but I think there's still a distinction between how an artist would... I mean, not necessarily there's an overlap, but let's not talk about all artists. But is there a particular kind of unique contribution that you think public arts organizations can bring to the gaming ecosystem? I think that... I'm really interested in digging down into that idea of ecosystem, but let's come back to that in a second. I think for me, the value is more rooted in what do people want to do within the sector that they occupy. Because I think when you... Because it inevitably always boils down to this dynamics of people making work and thinking about work and within a cultural context, you're situating work within specific frames that interrogate what that work is or present that work to new audiences. So for me, the value is always does this particular person with this particular sensibility in this particular project create something interesting in an interaction with a person within an institution and does that dynamic scale? Because I think coming back to that question of tactical interventions, this big idea of cultural infrastructure as it relates to games, but one of the most successful manifestations of that in Victoria was Bar SK, which was a very small bar in Collingwood that was run predominantly as a small business and a bar, but also a space where emerging and artistic game makers could go and share their work and build a community. And Louis who ran that bar was very much a leader in that. He was thinking about, well, I want a space, but I also want a sustainable business and also I can afford this much rent. But it really became a fertile ground for people like Ed McClarty, Kalonica Quigley, the House House team who made Untitled Goose Game. And it was about getting those people into a space to ping off each other. And I know Ikemi had a retrospective and had an exhibition, so that ground level creative work became institutional creative work. But the people who were formed by that go off and I know Michael sort of did his PhD about games in the museum, worked with Marie Fullstone at the V&A, go off into these cultural spaces, but they're bringing that individualized approach. And similar, Marie Fullstone from the V&A doing that exhibition, a very clear individualized intervention. So for me, and again, this is sort of the experience I have of directly funding projects, it does come down to is this talent, is this a person, is this a project that has life and can these people deliver it? And obviously you do have to abstract that away to think strategically, but I think that's always the question. Does this create that frisson of meeting a person and meeting a mind? Do you think that the part of what, when you were talking about Bar SK and the kind of porosity that that scene of makers had, that community of makers had, it reminded me a lot of the music field, which seems so different to say other forms of contemporary art practice, which perhaps are less socially porous, let's say. And I wonder whether there are lessons from that when we're talking about, Victoria, you talk about the ecosystem a lot and you draw on that word, but it might be good to unpack what you mean by that specifically, because I think that compared to individual practice or other forms of practice might start to show us what the alternative ways of working might be, which then the alternative ways of financing that work come into play. So I think, Paul, what you're getting at too is that that field was in some ways at the beginning self-financing, but then could plug into an infrastructure that recognized it within a framework as a creative business, not as a funded project so much, or sort of a hybrid of that. Did you have comments about ecosystem before? I'm curious. I think I'll let you respond to ecosystem and if I have opinions, I'll come back. I think the ecosystem notion really came out of an understanding that if we want to develop cultural organizations in the public art sector, we can't really think on the individual organizational scale. There is a very pragmatic reason for it, which is the capital problem, right? But I don't think it's just a financial question. I think it's also a question of realizing that I think at this stage of cultural organizational evolution, we need to get much more specific about what kind of capabilities our institutions have and how these capabilities perform our missions in society and who are our peers and our allies in achieving these larger missions. And I think that's something that's kind of a process of self-reflection that maybe not many organizations have gone through because there's still kind of, I don't want to say stock, but in some ways, yes, they're kind of still embedded within sort of sector approach to what they perform within society. And so for me, the ecosystemic approach is the one that really emerges out of this process of institutional self-reflection and understanding what forms of interdependence to you as an organization or even as a part of an organization, right? It doesn't have to be the entire organization and certainly isn't in the case of the organization that I work for. Where do we want to plug in? Who are our allies in achieving the mission that we have set out for ourselves? And how do we constantly fund this mission? And the funding part is a form of creative bureaucratic practice. And I think that's something that we need to also be very sober about that there isn't, I mean, maybe with very big organizations, there is this magic pot of money that just sort of lands on your lap and stuff happens. But I think for most work and particularly for something as, I guess, slippery and mysterious as creative R&D, you sort of need to make it up as you go along. And so, I'm really interested in experimenting with infrastructural and funding models and making that part of the creative practice as well. And I think we're, I'm speaking from like a very kind of UK, European post-financialization context where we're like, everything is financialized. We might not think how we socialize the benefits of financialization. So I realize there's a certain distinction to the context here. But I'm really interested in how we can rethink ownership, where ownership isn't based on a concept of kind of exclusive private property or super prohibitive kind of IP regimes, but really thinks about the way that kind of value flows across ecosystems and what types of market mechanisms we can design in order to enable for those ecosystems to strive. There are a lot of limitations to this. And I think, you know, you have a good critique of why this is also a problem in terms of fragmentation, etc. But that's, you know, one way of testing out new approaches. Yeah, I think I would agree with that. You're always trying to find... So I think the, I think the ecosystem is one lens of looking at what is largely a network of agents. And you can sort of, you know, definitely take an ecology metaphor and look at the interconnectedness things of that way. But you can also take a very systems-led one and look at the flows of capital because that's not necessarily an ecosystem structure, or you can look at the flows of power within a system. So I think... But I think the core for me is like, you're always trying to understand the dynamics, try not to look at it as a static process. I think that's where, for me, the relationship to games is really... And also like the lived experience of having been in a sector for 25 years, is you're conscious of it as change. And so as a funder, you're trying to navigate the dynamics of those complex systems and we're power-wise and we're capital-wise and where that looks like and where talent is as well. So I think, yeah, for me, the ecosystem is one lens, but there's also the other systemic models of interconnectedness. But it's interesting what you're saying because I know people like Cassie Robinson in the UK who's written a lot about different models of funding. And I know Watershed currently experimenting with random selection as well. So I think you're always looking for, again, those kind of ideas of tactical intervention. What are the broader structures that we occupy, but how do we bring in new programs or new structures that have a long view but fit within those complex dynamics as well? But also being sensitive to the terrain. I was just talking to Kerry about a book that I'm reading at the moment called Dancing at the Edge, which is very much about creative and cultural leadership. It emphasizes the role of people in these types of functions being able to read the terrain of systems and being sensitive to the terrain and understanding this is the context, this is where it goes, these are how things move and how things are interrelated. Which probably brings us back slightly to those questions around games, games as high capital creative industries, but also in a very real way, interventions into machines that we live our lives on. Like bringing a play to a computer is like an actual intervention into a device that wants you to engage with it all the time in a very particular way, which speaks to one of the reasons that were probably quite popular in COVID because we're all on Zoom. Maybe I want this machine of sand to entertain me, to bring something else. So all these other parts of not just funding but audiences and people and that sort of dynamic. And games as creative technology, as audiences, as fundable objects, but also as culture, as something... When I was running Freeplay, people would always talk about games as being culture and I'm like, culture is when you write a poem for your wife. That's what it is. Culture is when you learn to dance for your wedding, when you do a little thing for another person. It's not always a big game or a big movie, it's a little thing that you do for someone else. And I think that's the thing that when I think about games as creative practice and as culture, it's all of that together. How do we... How does someone make a game for their wife? Like, yeah, Valentine's Day, that feels kind of romantic maybe, but yeah. And that's sort of the birth of Wordle in many ways, wasn't it? Yeah, that's a great example. We often see games through the lens of a commercial product, but we know in Victoria that's totally not the case and internationally it's not the case either. Wordle as well, case in point. What's lost in that? Because I think the last 10, 15, 20 years of arts funding or cultural funding has kind of split funding up into, well, entrepreneurial commercial practice, we'll fund this in a particular way, and then this is sort of uncommercial stuff which we have to fund. But perhaps we've lost the reason why we fund that in a deeply rooted sense, so we're not able to allow that to innovate with the same degree of access to infrastructure and change, materials of change that we allow the commercial to. And I guess it's sort of, you know, like in some ways games step between those two, but also we've seen when you try to force people into games funding models, they have to set up as a company to access it and that sometimes really breaks the very thing that made their creative practice interesting. Do you want Paul? So you're asking what do we lose by having specific structures? Yeah, so there's sort of binary of like commercial or not even non-commercial, sort of anti-commercial. I mean I guess I would throw that back and say if we talked about that through a literature lens or a theatre lens or a music lens, how would we answer that question? Which is my way of deflecting the question I guess. What I see in your question perhaps is with games there are specific kind of shelf-ready technologies that are driving the sector. Of course gaming is a creative medium, but there's also, let's say, an earlier stage intervention as far as technological development cycles are concerned where cultural input is required. And I think maybe that's another way of understanding your question is, but those points of intervention don't have an obvious kind of commercial endpoint and they don't actually have any obvious endpoint, right? They're kind of there just on the basis that we think it's valuable for different types of people with different value systems, with different understandings of what is good for society to interact in order to reflect on what could potentially become a very powerful technology, right? And I think that's perhaps where we're kind of missing a beat as far as looking for funding models is concerned because this isn't really, we're not going to find a funding model for that within an adjacent space. You know the closest that comes to that is what we just discussed before the talk, which is the state funding really kind of early high risk technology projects that ultimately get commercialized and end up being completely like historically apathetic technological platforms that don't remember where actually they came from as far as their kind of value equation is concerned. So here we have like a bigger problem that isn't just about culture, but I think in general how technology gets developed, who's on board, and how that value is eventually shared. We were talking before this panel about the development of Wi-Fi by the CSIRO and that public funding is why we have Wi-Fi, but now so much scientific research is now privatized early that we don't socialize the benefits of that. And I think that's sort of pointing at this, I think in games it feels like the way we fund games, because it's come out of film and TV funding models, feels like we're doing more intervention in that than we do in other forms of funding, cultural practice in the arts funding model. There's more intentionality perhaps, but I'm not sure of this. I'm trying to... Intentionality is one view of it, but also I think it's... There is real... Because broadly, there's a world where you can think about games through, again, through that creative technology lens. So you can have a conversation about eSports and applied games, so like sort of digitally enabled audience experience, or you can make work which is positioned in a gallery space, or you can make work which is in a theater context, or draws in other arts practices and other creative practices as well. There is absolutely a question about how do you have a conversation about all of those things? At what point does the metaphor break down? Because a game designed for training purposes is not necessarily the same as a game designed to go on itch. So at some point, you have to kind of come up with a new metaphor or come up with a new structure that enables you to find the boundaries of what you are able and prepared to fund, ultimately. And I think that's where being part of a screen agency already does that, creates those parameters. But then you do have questions about where do those other parts of games practice live? And how does an organization support that and have that conversation? And this is maybe where it starts to become that conversation about R&D. R&D has the process of identifying the fuzzy edges and trying to either make them less fuzzy or push them far enough away that you don't have to think about them because you've solved the problem. So I think it's that. And whenever you're sort of part of that work, it sounds like both of our sort of works are about going, what can I do now within the constructs that I have? But how do I think about the change, the change that this drives and build the structures, build the kind of the baseline for future change ultimately and start to take 10, 15, 20, 25 year horizons of that change and sort of really live in a sort of an imaginative present for one of a better term that understands the dynamics and understands how those things will ping off each other. But you're maybe not, you're not going to be right, but you can do a hundred experiments because 10 of them will be right and one of them would be properly right. Yeah, that's interesting. Actually, this model of kind of distributed risk taking that kind of has the same objective, but there is this model of co-op gardens that an R&D lab in the US has come up with where it's exactly that where you have, let's say, five or 10 different teams that are working on the same larger question, but from very different approaches. And then they go through cycles of like reflecting on the work and consultating teams depending on which approach is proving to be more fruitful. And I think there is something quite interesting in that when we think about also, I guess, interoperability or how do we scale R&D across different organizations, institutions, that ultimately a lot of the problems that we're trying to look at through the lens of R&D, whether these have to do with institutional digital transformation or providing artists with appropriate support mechanisms in order for them to be able to experiment with advanced technologies, we're kind of looking at the same types of problems. So this kind of co-op garden approach is something that deserves the time for consideration, but it is a very unusual way, I guess, for us to be thinking about funding, innovation and strategic development. And the question is, can these approaches trickle up sufficiently to like policy level and also into the mindsets and kind of cultural approaches of individual organizations for them to be trialed out? I guess in some ways the funding agency does take that approach in some ways, but the results of the experiment... It's quite atomized, right? That's atomized. It's still atomized. And I think what here the question is more about self-organization of the entities, actors, who have become self-aware of the fact or aware of their ecosystem or I don't know where else we want to describe, attempts to resolve this question. And yeah, so I am very interested in how kind of self-organization and policy needs and how we can institute certain forms of, I guess, de facto policy by just doing, setting precedents through smaller scale actions. Because at least within the context that I come from, that's probably the fastest way of doing things. Because just trying to get things through the policy door might happen, most likely won't happen if you look at the state of UK government now. So yeah, I guess that's sort of a view from the dark lens of post Brexit reality. Paul, do you think that garden... As Victoria's talking, that sort of sense of the cooperative garden model, in many ways the scene in Melbourne in many ways works in that way in that the experiments are socialized amongst practitioners from different commercial and non-commercial companies, formations or whatever, they're actively talking about what they're doing, they're sharing of knowledge. It's a very self... It's a community oriented, not an austerity culture. It's looking at how they can support each other more so than other industries perhaps. I don't know. I would say that it's pretty distinct when I've seen game scenes from around the world. But I think again, if you take that long historical lens, some of that community practice is an explicit response to the lockdown nature of the previous studio system. And it's interesting having been through that and felt that release and now seeing a lot of practitioners for whom they don't have that lived experience, but it's kind of embedded in the community values, the kind of the common understanding of what it is. And I think as well, there's lots of other kind of observable features. There's a sort of an individualized success that doesn't cannibalize someone else's success, which you sort of see there's a pride in the thing that people have built, which I have found really, really fascinating. They've built companies, they've built projects, they've won awards. And I think there's also people's ability to move in and out of commercial and non-commercial practice. We sort of mentioned Ian McClarty in Klinica quickly earlier who are part of the Out of Bounds exhibition along with Goldie Bartlett and Andrew Brophy. And they have worked on projects like Mars First Logistics, but also the frankly incredible Catacombs of Solaris, Ian's work, but Klinica's apartment project as well as working on We Were Stranded with Goldie. And so they're moving out of in and out of these spaces where we're making a game which is going to be on PlayStation, and then we're making this weird commission thing, and then we're in a gallery space and that they're orbiting this and they sort of don't necessarily identify themselves as predominantly artists or predominantly game makers. They're just making work and they're accessing funding and opportunity where they can, whether it's through an agency like Fix Screen or Screen Australia's funding or it's a deal with Sony. And then that all flows down and people are circulating the experience of that. There'll be a conversation where like, hey, I've got my project, can you introduce me to your publisher? And that just sort of happens. But it only happens because of the response to what has come before. And I think that has grown up as a result of the collapse because people have realized we've had to build the thing that we want. But also Hannah Nicklin, who's a games writer, wrote this really wonderful piece about needing fallow periods as a creative as well. And I think the shutdown of the studio system and then people actually needing to respond to that in a very real embodied trauma way. And then having that fallow period and then going, all right, how do I gently re-enter and how do I make work? And then people coming back to all those ideas of leadership, people having success and other people following that. So again, sort of trying to dig into that idea of it's not just a garden, it's not just an ecosystem, it's lots of different features that you sort of identify and you might not know how they're going to ping off each other. Similarly, maybe we can extend the garden metaphor. You're sort of tending it a little bit, but everything's doing its own thing and it will be chaotic and it will be unexpected. And all you can do is be like, I'll just kind of bump this bit a little bit and I'll just kind of cut this bit back here. But yeah, you have to deal with what's there. You have to deal with the material reality of people's lives and conditions on the ground. Yeah. I think that's a really critical point. Sorry to belabor the garden metaphor, but if we go to the soil level, ultimately it's the political economy or particular context. And it's what is the reality of the political and economic setup within a certain creative context and simple infrastructural issues around space, rent, ability to have a family in a certain city. It all kind of breeds particular forms of daily behavioral logics that can either encourage this type of symbiotic behavior and fluid, migrating from one context to another, having fallow periods, et cetera, or discourage it because you're just sort of trying to make ends meet. So yeah, it does seem to me that without the kind of, I guess, an activist position in relationship to the realities of political economies at large, all of this talk about R&D within the cultural space, not sure how relevant it is. And I don't want to be totally noir about it, but it does strike me, looking especially at the experience of, I guess, London over the last 15, 20 years, we see what the austerity model has spread and it's not great. Let's wrap now because we have more things to come, Lucy. Thank you.