5 minutes reading time (1070 words)

Don Boyd: the opportunities of digital creativity

Don Boyd. Photo courtesy of Don Boyd

It was Damien Hirst who said that art is good at looking back and looking forward. How art, and the very principles of creativity, expression and appreciation, manifests itself in a society increasingly driven by science and technology, remains an area of intense interest and debate.

When there is now content everywhere we go, and people can publish anything to anywhere, what room is left for artistic appreciation?

The relationship between these technological influences and artistic expression is something that interests Don Boyd. The catalogue of Boyd's films, where he has been either producer or director, is certainly one which commands a high level of artistic appreciation. Working with pioneers such as Derek Jarman, Alan Clarke, Lindsay Anderson and Julien Temple, this astonishingly creative and diverse career has spanned more than three decades.

The increased technological capability over this period has certainly wowed mainstream audiences, with this relentless advance now pushing 3D back into the mass market for cinema. However, he disagrees that digital is creating a stylistic shift, from naturalism to realism, within film. The view is given that digital has clearly offered stylistic and creative opportunities. Realism can be set up to be naturalistic.

The artist in this sense is empowered either way. But of course, uninformed structuralist analysis can cause confusion. And the public can be duped very easily - especially during this early phase of revolutionary changes in capturing and delivery of digital media.

Such revolutionary changes have been happening on a macro-economic and societal level during the lifespan of Boyd's career. The “age of the self”, as typified in digital and social media's ability for anyone to publish, may well have roots in the Thatcherite agenda, as society shifted from collective to an individual productivity. However, Boyd's call of “We are all auteurs!” has its own space: a call for people to collectively express their creativity, while inviting them to maximise their individual potential; to feel empowered.

But, there are important distinctions to be made between active and passive expression. [These distinctions lie] between industrialised, commercialised communication and straightforward, non-professional conversations via the plethora of digital media that empowers people, whether amateur or professional.”

Boyd also flatly rejects the view that artistic endeavour is harder to accept in a society where anyone can self-publish. Work made for a patron or as part of a commissioning process does not add value, validate or provide acceptance, in itself. “Artistic endeavour on a spectacular scale exists prolifically for pre-school children. It is usually self published. Accepted. Valued… and challenges the myth about the power of our 'technological society'.”

This language of visual expression is, obviously, likely to be more controlled within a commissioning process. The advantage of self-publishing is that there are very few editorial limits. “There are always blurred, ambiguous, critical debates about artistic endeavour. The Establishment hate the idea that self-publishing circumvents their tyrannical infrastructure which decides who can break the mould or challenge status quo. [...] Because the more influential and radical artists create without necessarily thinking that anyone should either understand or appreciate what they do, (they certainly expect and seek a reaction!), it is impossible to identify easily the defining elements of change.”

Although the ability to self-publish has neither affected the understanding of film language or diluted art's value, Boyd sees issues on the horizon.

The first is what he terms the “promiscuity of digestion”: mass availability of content, has impacted critical thinking about art. The impact is that this lack of a critical perspective fosters mediocrity.

The second is inappropriation: a distortion of the experience. Boyd gives the example of portable music players. Such a distortion is amplified by the abundance of technological choice in both production and exhibition. Commercial choices of 2D versus 3D may oppose what is artistically accurate and sympathetic to the intention, and to the content. “To try to truly appreciate and understand within these parameters would be impossible - it has taken us two centuries to begin to do that with the Renaissance, let alone a film by Godard or an installation by Viola or a film by Vertov.”

The third is “the McLuhan factor” of communication being concerned with medium over message: “... What a visionary. The language [sic] of visual expression is so diverse now and we have not had the time or facility to properly understand its subconscious impact, or physical impact for that matter.”

Considering the achievements within Boyd's own career, he sees it as easier to create and exhibit work which is genuinely creatively challenging and original, outside of existing infrastructures such as commissioning process. Clearly, this is increasingly possible, as artists increasingly see potential in services such as Youtube and Vimeo.

The opportunity remains, as it has always been, for artists to create disruption. Evolving media presents new ways to respond to this opportunity. “In general, the art which can change appreciation and understanding of seismic shifts in creative exploration and communication, is marginalised and shunned at first. It scandalises and confronts conventional wisdom. It is often unpalatable.”

The changes in which society understands and appreciates art in visual media have clearly been massive over the past 100 years, and the view is held by Boyd that “we are only beginning to scratch the surface.” A wider range of channels gives us a wider range and ability to sample, appreciate, and develop a critical awareness of artistic endeavour.

The way in which we in Western society - and I ignore for this purpose the owners of palaces, cathedrals and private mansions - the elite, the rich and powerful - absorb media, has been evolving since the introduction of public art and sculpture in ecclesiastical environments of the early Church.

And consequently artists have discovered ways to explore expression in these new media, often with radical ideas. [It is] difficult to appreciate or understand My view is that we will not know how much this has changed society for the foreseeable future. It is vital to continue to promote the value of the artist and ironically the technology developed digitally has helped that process.”

For now, Boyd will keep challenging and pushing film and visual media as they continually evolve. The invitation is there for a new generation of digitally-literate artists to do the same.


Don will be holding an immersive workshop on “How to make great films in the YouTube age” at Like Minds on Thursday 28 and Friday 29 October. For further information and to book, visit the Like Minds website.

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