In Kent, Kevin Grist and Janet Moore are using digital art and immersive technology to bring people together and up-skill the next generation – one virtual reality headset at a time
If you had stood on the quayside in Chatham, near Sun Pier, on a sunny day back in August and listened intently, you might have caught hints of an unusual melody floating down on the breeze from Victoria Gardens, a leafy park that sits on the hill above the town. Then, if you’d taken a stroll up to the gardens the sights and sounds of a community concert like no other would have greeted you; with people from all walks of life laughing, lounging on the grass, or swaying to the sounds of smooth, scintillating electronic music oozing from DJ decks on the bandstand.
This is Electric Medway, the centrepiece of a biannual 10-day-long digital arts festival, masterminded by co-founders Kevin Grist and Janet Moore, whose community interest company (also named Electric Medway), is putting technology at the heart of social change.
Electric Medway’s goal is to foster a sense of community in Chatham and the wider Medway area, giving locals access to digital technology, art and a vehicle to share stories. Kevin established the company following several years working as a music relationship manager for Arts Council England, and Janet joined him as executive director shortly afterwards. Both are warmhearted, softly spoken and project a serine kind of energy – even in the midst of running the festival. We chat to them on the hoof, while they check in on the jam-packed schedule of festival events around town.
“I think for me it was really about art,” Kevin says of the decision to found Electric Medway, as we leave the park and head down to the river. “I saw a lot of different types of artwork in my previous job. It struck me that it was always the same kinds of people visiting galleries, theatre shows, and concerts. Even today, art and culture still isn’t reaching the broadest part of our society. At Electric Medway, we give access to people who normally wouldn’t be able to experiment or express themselves with art.”
Why digital art, you might ask? “Because it’s accessible. These days, people can create art using a mobile phone,” Kevin explains.
Electric Medway encourages creativity not just with the annual festival, with its roster of art installations, live performances and immersive tech pop-ups – but also with a regular programme of public workshops and community events throughout Kent. These range from working with groups of students or training teachers to use digital technology in the classroom, to large one-off productions, including performances held atop submarines and augmented reality boat trails plotted along the Medway’s banks.
“We’ve run projects that include digital music making in schools and community centres; we’ve trained young people to run their own youth clubs and given them the digital resources to do that; we’ve worked with older people in care homes, and we’ve supported musicians to create songs that tell the stories of old Kent and take them on tour,” Kevin continues.
“Last year, we put on an immersive production at the end of the harbour arm in Folkestone, which was part treasure-hunt, part live performance. People were encouraged to find ‘sea gooseberries’ hidden around the town and take them home for a number of weeks. Then one day all the gooseberries lit up, signalling it was time to take them down to the harbour for the performance. Children loved it – lots of them had grown very attached to their own gooseberries.”
Kevin and Janet’s work performs a vital function for the next generation, supporting young people to develop new skills and, crucially, their employability. “We’re increasingly focused on levelling up young people who don’t have a degree, but who want access to sought-after tech jobs in the local area,” says Janet. “The North Kent Production Corridor is a hub for tech and media businesses, and there are around 50,000 jobs in this area at tech companies, film studios and media companies. We feel like we’ve got a role to play in giving young people access to these kinds of career paths.”
A skeptic might question whether virtual reality installations and digital artworks are the most logical way to power-up Medway’s community, but Electric Medway’s co-founders have seen first-hand the impact that learning a new skill, or getting comfortable with today’s ever-changing onslaught of technology can have on people. “A lot of what we do is about giving people a sense of pride in where they live,” Kevin says. “If you can give people the chance to see their town presented in a slightly different way, or the chance to tell their own stories and give them a voice, those two things are really important in building up communities – and people’s lives.”
It’s clear that Kevin and Janet both care deeply about supporting the Medway area. As we walk together along the banks of the Medway, towards a former cargo crane that now presents passers by with a VR installation for the festival, Kevin reflects on what motivates them to devote so much time and energy to community development. “I think it’s about seeing the change we can make, particularly from the people we work with for a longer period like our trainees, or people we have on projects from session one right to session 10, for example. You can see the growth either when they’ve created something for themselves, or their confidence has shifted in some way.”
“A community is a collection of people that come together for a common interest,” he adds, as we part company so Kevin and Janet can head off to Electric Medway’s next event. “I think community is a safety net – and it should be a safety net for all people who need it.”