Case study: digital storytelling with Sanctum

This case study, from our Let’s Get Real action research programme, looks at how this Bristol-based arts organisation worked with digital storytellers to attract a new audience of young people to their social media platforms.

About the participant:

Name: Sarah James

Organisation: Situations

Jump to:

What was the research question behind your experiment? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment? | What did YOU learn? | What did YOUR ORGANISATION learn? | What next?

What was the research question behind your experiment?

How can we increase dialogue online with our audience and solicit, share and curate stories inspired by our work from audiences, participants and artists during a live project

We also wanted to engage new audiences online, and to our work, particularly young people aged between 16 and 24.

Why was this important to your organisation?

Bristol-based art producers, Situations, wanted to extend and deepen our approach of moving away from being the sole producers of digital content and stories about our projects. These are often from a position of authority, particularly on the Situations website; they are the voices of the curator, producer, artist and are from the viewpoint of the specialist and professional. Instead, we want to give a platform to different and often unheard voices and stories, including those of our participants, audiences and communities not yet engaged directly with Situations’ work or art in the public realm.

What did you do to implement this?

Situations Rising are a group of young people aged between 16 and 25 from Bristol and the surrounding area who, through Situations and Bristol based agency Rising, came together for Sanctum as our digital live reporting and storytelling team.

This core group of three young women already had a strong online presence, followers and links to a peer network of similar-aged young people, and Situations saw this as an opportunity to make contact digitally with a wider reach of young people than we currently engage with. They were supplemented later on in the project with 15 other young people who became our digital storytellers.

What happened?

Utilising Sanctum (Theaster Gates’ first UK public art project) as a potential rich platform for storytelling; Situations Rising began to document, reflect, tell the story and converse with an online audience for Sanctum.

The core group firstly utilised their own digital platforms and followers to begin to start up a conversation about Sanctum before the fabrication of the structure in early autumn 2015. The group also helped disseminate the open call out to artists and build the initial excitement of Sanctum arriving in late October.

The core group was then supplemented with 15 active bloggers, artists, illustrators and filmmakers who, during the run of Sanctum, took on the challenge of live reporting every day. These were our digital storytellers and they had unlimited access to Sanctum and backstage.

A total of 15 accounts were used in the build-up and during Sanctum to share Situations Rising content. Seven Situations Rising accounts were especially created: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, Soundcloud and Youtube. Eight of the digital storytellers posted and shared from their own accounts, on their own Tumblr blogs, from their Vine channels and on other platforms.

The Situations Rising ‘Amplifier’ accounts became a central place of aggregation,  offering a platform for these different voices to come together. Twitter was by far the most active account with the largest following (157 followers, 526 tweets), then with Instagram (119 followers, 87 posts) and Facebook (138 likes, 75 posts) following closely behind. Presences also made on WordPress, Soundcloud, Tumblr and Vine, however did not attract significant views or followings. Live reporting across digital channels broke down in to 33% re-posts, 28% text posts, 19% image posts, 14% short video posts and 4% polls.

These platforms, whilst sharing some overlap with Situations own social media followings, drew a distinctly separate audience with a much younger demographic. Around 44% of their following were not previously Situations followers and 67% of followers were under the age of 25. Interactions with online influencers such as Rife Magazine, a young people’s publication, heavily impacted on their reach. Alongside their live reporting the digital storytellers produced a number of creative responses; six films, eight written reflections, seven sets of illustrations and one original composition.

Through a new online partnership with Canvas, the Arts Council supported platform for audio-visual material, Situations Rising were invited to submit short films from Sanctum. Through Canvas, digital storytellers were supported to capture and edit six films, two of which are on the Canvas platform. To date Canvas’ reach is 164848 views and 1388 subscribers. In total we can see Situations Rising had a core reach of over 68,000 people over the course of Sanctum, with Twitter providing the highest reach for Situations Rising at 54,460 and Facebook coming in second with a reach of 14,036. Out of their 526 Tweets, the group engaged 16 people in separate conversations about Sanctum.

What were the personal challenges you faced when carrying out this experiment?

My area of expertise is audience engagement and work with young people – not digital or social media. Having a digital reporter in place within Situations from August 2015 was essential to the success of the project as I would have struggled to critique and review the online plans and digital content production with Situations Rising because of my lack of knowledge.

What did YOU learn?

I learnt a lot about online engagement through social media and digital platforms; how audiences share content and what makes a good story. Content and conversations from Situations Rising that were most popular were those stories about individual performers with special access to that individual, also when Situations Rising had more of an independent voice and voiced their own opinions and thoughts rather than just stating facts or purely sharing what was going on more generally.


  1. During the live project we needed to ensure the reporters had a clear brief, set parameters and deadlines, and we needed to encourage them to follow a timeline closely – this was especially important in live reporting.
  2. The recruitment of the digital storytellers resulted in a set of creatives rather than writers/reporters that we needed and so responses to Sanctum were creative responses which although interesting didn’t garner the interest or increase footfall by non-attending audiences.

What next? 

Situations would like to retain the relationship with Situations Rising and plan how we could incorporate an improved model into some of our new commissions and public art projects in 2016 and beyond.