The past five years have been transformational for the creative industries in Saudi Arabia. The government has responded to growing public interest by making substantial and diverse investments in the creative and cultural industries, and has expanded its understanding of the kind of output that constitutes “creativity”. No longer is it just about the traditional mediums, such as literature, poetry or art, that had long dominated the space. “Creativity” has become more dynamic, to include film, architecture, fashion, technology – the kinds of things that would enable Saudi Arabia to develop creative partnerships with international bodies working in those areas, and that would diversify and enrich the creative options available to its own citizens and inspire them to break new ground. Festivals proliferated, access to cultural and creative sites and events have opened up to a wider audience, and the creative cultural industry is growing at 13 per cent annually.
It has proved a resilient industry too. Despite various setbacks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has continued to adapt and innovate, and nowhere is this more evident than with the Tanween Creativity Season. The season has been running since 2018, attracting some 60,000 people on average each year over its four-day series of events. In 2020, despite lockdowns and economic uncertainty, it ran again, combining virtual and in-person formats to huge success. This year, it launched once more, and introduced new creative tracks.
The word “season” is perhaps too limiting to capture what happens at Tanween. It is, rather, a creativity platform where innovators, producers, industry experts and otherwise – people who have realised success through a willingness to be bold and take risks, and who see disruption as productive, not problematic – meet with aspiring creatives to exchange ideas and share knowledge in a highly active and dynamic environment.
Each year there are talks, masterclasses, workshops, networking events, creative challenges and more, all grouped around a theme. In 2018, it was “Disruption”; in 2019, “Play”. The following year it was the “New Next”. Having already explored ideas around what drives creativity and experimentation in 2018 and 2019, the “New Next” theme sought to examine what people wanted the future to look like. Imagining is central to the process of creativity, and the 2020 event looked at what we could do when our imaginations are given a practical outlet, and how collaboration can aid this.
This year, Tanween asked participants to think about something different, something more tangible: “Tools”. What tools are on hand to help shape that imagined future? How can we use these tools – anything from a carving knife to a piece of computer software to a robot – to our best ability? How can they generate enhanced human experiences?
“It was about saying, well, let’s pick up these tools and see how we can make that future happen,” says Robert Frith, curator of Tanween. “We have this saying: ‘a good tool improves the way you work; a great tool improves the way you think.’ So it’s about developing different mindsets in the way we think about creativity and production.”
Take one feature at this year’s event: The Embodied Media Project. It gets participants at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), in Dhahran, where Tanween is held, to hold in their hands a paper cup. Attached to its base is a sensor, known as a “haptic reactor”. Over on the other side of the world, in Tokyo, someone else will be holding a similar cup with a sensor attached. That person will fill their cup with water, and because the sensors are connected, the participant at Tanween will be able to feel the very same sensation in their hand that their new friend in Tokyo is feeling.
Such technology was originally designed to add more feel, and therefore precision, to machine operating. But one of the central efforts of the “Tools” theme at Tanween this year is to show that tech can not only be repurposed for a variety of needs, but can aid more meaningful human interactions and experiences, whether up close or over great distances.
There’s more. Each year, the season sets the Tanween Challenge, bringing 20 to 30 participants together with professionals to work on a range of projects: jewellery, fashion, urban design, food and more. This year, as part of the Architecture Challenge, participants were tasked with creating a pavilion. One of these, named “Faseelah”, designed by Lujain Alatiq and her team, incorporates into its design the fronds and trunk of the palm tree, synonymous with Saudi Arabian flora. The pavilion has been realised through collaboration with an architect from the University of Hong Kong, and is being showcased at the season.
A highlight of Tanween 2021 featured mass drone swarms that interacted with the 4.600-strong audience in one of the largest co-created drone/human light paintings ever made. As part of Tanween’s community driven initiative, Alsharqiya Gets Creative returned for its second season, with over 200 creative participations and 150 collaborative partners.
“A key aspect is how we connect the professionals in the creative industry to the emerging creatives,” says Frith. “Two main strands in the creative sector – graphics and communication, and architecture and product design – have each been given a dedicated space at this year’s season in which people can meet and exchange knowledge and be inspired.”
Tanween has been central to the growth of the creative sector in Saudi Arabia, and to the emergence of the country as a regional sector leader. But this isn’t just about unlocking the potential of the kingdom’s creatives. A number of years ago, the UN began to emphasise how essential the creative and cultural industries were to a country’s inclusive and sustainable economic growth. Accordingly, 2019 was designated the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, and Tanween has grown to become one of the largest seasons of its kind in the MENA region.
An event such as Tanween achieves its success from the popular energy and hunger for innovation that exists in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s creative sector was already making strides before Tanween came about. The true value of Tanween is that it can now take that energy in altogether new and exciting directions, and showcase it to the rest of the world.
“We can always talk about ideas, but at Tanween we can do this in a fun, creative and engaging way,” says Frith. “The power of the creative industries is simply that they’re really good to work in – of course they generate jobs and are great for the economy, but more to the point, you get to create amazing ideas and work with brilliant people from all walks of life. Part of Tanween is working out how to put our foot to the floor so that we can do more of that.”