In July 2021, HOME appointed Dan Hett as Creative Technologist in a fellowship role created by the arts venue in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Digital Arts (SODA).
The role provided an opportunity for Dan to evolve his own digital practice while also acting as a provocateur for HOME’s rethinking around the role of a contemporary arts centre in the context of the changing needs of the city and our audiences.
I am beyond excited to be accepted onto the HOME/SODA fellowship. HOME has been genuinely instrumental in my career as a fiercely independent Northern digital artist over much of the last decade, and of course like many within Manchester’s creative sector I’ve been watching SODA come together with keen interest. “This fellowship is a first step in forming a meaningful bridge between these two brilliant entities, as well as the artists and audiences of the future – a rare and incredibly exciting opportunity, and I cannot wait to see how the next two years unfold. Watch this space!
When did you begin making work?
My first explorations into an independent creative practice came about almost by accident, in a way – my degree is in Design & Visual Art, and I’d gone into the creative tech industry in the mid 2000’s building things with code and technology. During this time I’d begun moonlighting a little bit, taking all the skills I was picking up and using them to create motion, sound, experimental games, and all sorts. Over time, the balance began to shift a little bit: as my work got more ambitious and people started to notice it more, I realised my art was the thing sustaining my interest in creativity and technology, and eventually left my real job to work independently. So, I suppose there wasn’t a specific starting point on my journey, just a slow and steady progression into working on my own terms full-time. Within this, HOME gave me some of my first opportunities to exhibit public work – back in the day I worked on a few exciting projects with Cornerhouse, including the Scribbler machine that was installed in the building to let people say goodbye and look ahead to the new HOME building. That was a lot of fun!
What does your work aim to say?
My practice covers quite a broad spectrum of interest – I’ve never been one of those artists who have a singular interest or coherent vision that all my work orbits around, and instead I work on things that interest me from either a technical or creative perspective, or projects that allow me to explore specific concepts or ideas more deeply at a given time. For example, a major component of my work over the last few years has been experimental games design, in which I’ve used my writing and development skills to produce challenging interactive story work that explores extremism, radicalisation, grief, loss, all sorts. But then, at the same time as making that big difficult work, I’ve also got ongoing strands of wholly unrelated work where I’m working on code-generated hand made print designs, from the perspective of being interested in the crossing point between digital and physical making. And then on top of that, I’m involved in things like Algorave, digital arts teaching and lecturing, live projects with collaborators, all sorts of other things. Digital technology does run through most of my work as an origin point (even with my painting and printmaking, believe it or not), but from there I go in all sorts of directions. And that’s fine! I used to really worry about being a jack of all trades and a master of none, as the saying goes, but over the years I’ve learned to embrace the chaos a little bit and follow my heart on projects and ideas that tickle my fancy or feel like rich areas to explore. More power to those who have laser-focused singular visions and crafts, but I prefer firing in a million directions at once and seeing what lands for me, or the audience.
How do you work?
In practical terms my work is a carefully organised balancing act, where I’m usually working on several things at once, while also juggling being a parent and studying (I’m working towards an MA at the Manchester Writing School at the moment too). When I started out, I used to have this wonderful idealised picture in my head of working on one specific project at a time, and completely immersing myself in for weeks or months and creating one precise and perfectly-realised output and finishing it before moving onto the next thing. Of course, real life is far more messy than this, so my practice really is a patchwork of constant activity and running around and sticking it all together. Luckily I like a puzzle. I don’t think any of this is a bad thing though – I worked for years in the creative sector doing a 9-5 daily shift, and I’m don’t believe for a second that you can just ‘switch on’ being creative or productive, and then turn off the tap and go home at the end. It’s absolute nonsense expecting that of anyone. Creativity ebbs and flows, some days ideas or code or words or inspiration will fire out of you at high speed and that’s your window to capture all of it as quickly as possible while the fire is blazing. Conversely, some days you’ll stare at a blinking cursor or a blank page and nothing will happen. For me, that’s how things work, and I’ve learned to embrace the up and down – I love working when I’m firing on all cylinders, but I’ve also learned that when it’s not happening it’s not happening, and perhaps this would be a good time to relax and do something else.
What / who inspires you?
Everything, constantly! I pull inspiration from absolutely everywhere: my favourite thing is when I see someone’s work or a show or some random thing in the world and it plants a seed somewhere in my brain that sprouts later on in a different context. Because my work is so broad, I find that the things that interest me permeate into other artforms or pop up in different shapes. I try to read widely, follow people who are doing things I’ve never done, and generally just immerse myself in new experiences – I like the kind of inspiration that jumps out expectedly and connects something in your head for the first time. One thing I try and actively do a lot is collaborate with people who aren’t like me – working with other creative coders is fine, but I’m far more interested in what happens when I pair up with dancers, makers, poets, painters, sculptors or any one of the million zillion people who are putting energy into their own creative worlds who are up for adventure. I’m also very inspired in this city right now, too – I feel properly lucky to be part of Manchester’s creative scene, and always have, right back to when I was a student. There’s so much happening here constantly, so many exciting spaces popping up, so many surprises and shows and interesting diversions… there’s an energy in Manchester that is very unique to this city, it’s hard to describe, but exciting to watch, and be part of.
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
- Making rubbish work is part of the process, not everything will be a diamond but everything is progress, I promise.
- Don’t work for free unless it’s for social good, and even then you should be careful. If someone tells you working for free will be good for your exposure, remind them that people die of exposure. Get paid.
- Back your work up.
- Capture your work properly (I have lost so many projects to the mists of time because I didn’t take photos or make prints or even write down where and when I made it)
- Finish things. The tiniest experiment that’s actually complete is worth a million grand ideas that never made it over the line.
- No, seriously, back your work up. Do it today.
- Know when something isn’t sticking. It’s absolutely fine to throw something in the bin and start over, and in fact destroying your failures is both practical and cathartic.
- HAVE FUN. Working on your art in any context is a privilege and a joy, even when you’re grafting. It’s easy to lose sight of this when the pressure’s on.
- Absorb the outside world, and other people’s work. Online, go to things, see shows, whatever works. You need raw material to feed into the machine, and locking your studio door all day won’t let you do this. Art is a contact sport.
- BACK YOUR WORK UP!
SODA is very excited about the appointment of Dan Hett as the new Creative Technologist working between HOME and SODA and we welcome the visionary thinking and doing that he will bring to the vibrant digital ecology in Manchester.
Professor Toby Heys, Head of SODA
Dan’s work is innovative, creative and truly pushes the boundaries of art and fiction. I am looking forward to seeing what his fellowship brings and the ways that I am certain that he will challenge and inspire all of us at HOME.
Dave Moutrey, Director and CEO of HOME