Drum roll please – today, the creative social network Central Station launches a book celebrating the success of the site to date and looking back at its beginnings. Stylishly designed and crammed with great original art and thought-provoking essays, the book is a really interesting reflection on an experiment in combining art and social media.
But what is Central Station, other than a transport hub in Glasgow? Like its namesake, Central Station is both a network and a platform, a place where people can make connections and reach new destinations. I won’t labour over the metaphor, but you get the idea.
In little more than a year, Central Station has amassed more than 120,000 members in 6,000 cities. Some 35,000 original works of art are showcased on the site, in clean member portfolios or curated collections. Turner Prize winning artists such as Gillian Wearing rub shoulders with up-and-coming young talent such as illustrator Johanna Basford.
The numbers are impressive, but they’re not really the point. The point, at least for me, is in the moment. Central Station was born in a moment when social media was teetering on the brink. On one side, oblivion – driven to irrelevance and tedium by its own navel-gazing habits. On the other side, an opportunity to develop into something exponentially more meaningful. It was a moment when the creative industries held its breath, and watched. If the bursting of the dot com bubble carried any lesson, it was to hold ‘the new’ up to the light and really examine it. Who is it for? What does it do? Importantly, how does the virtual connect to the real?
Channel 4 decided to take a punt. Gathering together an impressive pot of £51m, it offered funding for digital projects that delivered Innovation for the Public. The title alone speaks volumes: innovation with a purpose, and public service that rises above the humdrum. Basically, public service media with a distinctly Channel 4 flavour. Around the same time, Scottish Screen (now part of Creative Scotland) set up its Digital Media IP Fund to explore digital projects.
Central Station was among the first projects to benefit from 4iP/Scottish Screen funding. Right from the start, the creative team at ISO set out to deliver something real. Founding director Damien Smith recalls: “When you work in a dynamic cultural hub like Glasgow, communities of artists, designers, filmmakers and musicians naturally bump up against one another. They might not always speak the same language, but they’re the people who shape the city at grassroots level. Could the project explore social media as a location for these communities to gather? We understood there was an audience out there, hungry for new work, new ideas and to be introduced to people who they hadn’t had access to via traditional showcases or exhibitions.”
Sure enough, the audience arrived in droves. They browsed collections from Gillian Wearing, Toby Paterson, Chad McCail and Lucy Skaer; uploaded virtual portfolios for community feedback; attended pop-up real life events; collaborated on new projects and found new work. They even won funding through Central Station’s innovative Member Fund – cold hard cash without the red tape.
Media consultant Ewan McIntosh sums it up well when he describes Central Station as “the meeting place between two worlds... the real world of art, film and making stuff, and the slightly transient, virtual world of click here, type there... It’s exciting to know that the digital world will only help me get closer to the things I didn’t already know I wanted to experience first hand.”
I also believe it could herald an exciting new age for arts funding. Yes, we are battling through a recession and our public sector is being squeezed ever tighter, but thankfully we now live in an age where we can take matters into our own hands. As digital media breaks down the power structure of creator/publisher/distributor, so it enables the artist to get their work out there to new audiences. Online, we can collaborate, showcase, critique and make new connections - real human connections that will help us forge our careers. To me, the real power of the digital world lies in its ability to help us reach out in the real world.
So good luck to Central Station! If you would like to read more about the growth of the network, and browse some of its fantastic collection of artwork, you can buy a limited edition copy or download it for free, right here. Happy reading.
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