Where Do You Find Yourself? Space, Play, and Duty in the Australian Digital Library

Matt Finch

Posted filed under Experience.
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Matt Finch is the 2016 Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland, Australia and a project worker at British Library Labs.

In this post, Matt explores how digital literature, facilitated by libraries, can create playful interactive spaces that are truly democratic, responsive to local geography, and open to a wider range of voices.

 See more at www.matthewfinch.me/about

 

  1. Digital Underdogs

Are there still cultural backwaters in the digital age? I’m three months into a year-long stint in Brisbane, capital of Australia’s self-proclaimed Sunshine State. It’s Australia’s third city after Sydney and Melbourne. Years under the deeply conservative premiership of Joh Bjelke-Petersen have given a lingering impression that this place doesn’t have much of a cultural life, despite the fact that Queensland will soon celebrate three decades since he lost power.

Queensland Cultural Precinct

Queensland Cultural Precinct

Contemporary Queensland includes many shining examples of people exploring the potential for literature in the digital age. Among them are Emily Craven and her Story City teamLee McGowan and colleagues at Queensland University of Technology, and Simon Groth who runs if:book Australia out of the Queensland Writers Centre.

In a recent interview, Simon told me:

Brisbane’s culture and how it views itself today is deeply informed by its long hibernation in the 70s and 80s and that’s important in a foundational sense. But today we can be connected to communities anywhere.

Brisbane was the kind of place where artists would have to create something and then tell people about it and cultivate an audience and then set up a venue and get the liquor licenses (or avoid the cops) etc…A great independent scene in music and publishing came out of this, especially once the political fog lifted.

Arts and activism for a long time were intertwined […] An arts infrastructure has built up around us now and that’s a positive thing, but I like to think that the art we create still has a few rough edges, a bit of mongrel about it.

“Today we can be connected to communities anywhere.” As Simon says, the new age of digital opportunity gives us a chance to correct a centralising tendency in Australian cultural life, the lingering sense that culture is made in urban places and broadcast outwards.

This tendency might itself be a reaction to Australia’s still-tense relationship with the postcolonial landscape. Where previous generations romanticised the bush and depicted it through colonial eyes, sometimes it feels as if the Aussie literary scene now consists of Melbournians who wish that they could turn their eyes away from the country and look only instead towards Brooklyn or their fellow UNESCO Cities of Literature overseas.

Recognising this, the Aussie writing community is currently going through one of its periodic bouts of self-questioning, although sometimes the critiques can look a little shrill, as did Luke Carman’s sharply worded piece in the current edition of literary journal Meanjin.

Ben Eltham gives a useful and measured overview of the latest spat at The Guardian, but what’s really telling is Eltham’s opening line: “Sydney and Melbourne are fighting again.” The literary battleground is seen only in terms of the usual suspects, the two warring cities whose rivalry dates back to before Australia’s federation.

Although Carman is Sydney-based and Meanjin is published out of Melbourne, the journal’s name is actually a Brisbane word – derived from an indigenous term for the “spike” or finger of land on which the city sits. This discordant note, a label for Brisbane land, taken from its traditional owners, in the middle of the present-day squabble, returns a sense of place to the lofty debates of the literary mainstream.

Here in the north-east corner of the continent, appearing to be a backwater can be advantageous. Queensland is on the sidelines of the Aussie book world’s urban squabbles. Cultural institutions here have different challenges – like serving a region three times the size of France! – but also different opportunities: Queensland’s regional centres are larger and stronger than those in other states. The city’s international profile is lower and budgets are tighter, too, but the benefit of this is that cultural organisations here can’t ever afford to forget the ground beneath their feet or the wider community they serve.

 

  1. Location, location, location
Mungindi, Queensland / New South Wales border

Mungindi, Queensland / New South Wales border

In his 1957 collection Mythologies, Roland Barthes devotes a chapter to the Guide Bleu series of travel guides. He points out that the Guide “hardly knows the existence of scenery except under the guise of the picturesque. The picturesque is found any time the ground is uneven.”

In short, any time you see the word “picturesque”, what the Guide really means is “hilly”. This identification becomes so strong, Barthes says, that ultimately the Guide is able to state, “The road becomes very picturesque (tunnels)”:

It matters little that one no longer sees anything, since the tunnel here has become the sufficient sign of the mountain.

This is rather like the use of the word “locative” in contemporary literature. For many cultural institutions, it’s really just a buzzword meaning “offsite”. Locative literature could mean slapping Post-It notes on alleyways or writing poems in DYMO tape on bus shelters; it could mean GPS-sensitive apps which share pre-existing content; it could mean a game like Jim Munroe’s compelling Solvitur Ambulando, which spatializes the business of puzzle-solving by counting whether you’ve paced enough steps to merit an additional clue. Fitbit meets the life of the mind.

Connecting with places has to mean more than reading about them. The question is not just whether we add a virtual layer of digital literature to physical spaces, but who gets to create the stories in that virtual layer. People don’t pass through physical places without also passing through social spaces, which are inhabited, mapped, claimed, and disputed by other human beings, whose voices are equally worthy of attention. If writers are having a creative and critical conversation about the world, and in the locative age we are venturing outside of traditional venues, we still need to ask: who are “we” having those conversations with?

Part of my job as Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) is simply to notice things. That could mean spotting opportunities for new partnerships and programmes, but it also incorporates a sense of place which I try to share each week via an email newsletter, Marvellous, Electrical.

A road trip to Mungindi on the Queensland-New South Wales border led to encounters with a sunburned, swearing, “typically Strine” butcher, but also the gay, adopted, Aboriginal acrobat who is now ringmaster of our national circus.

A long walk down a historic Brisbane road – “who makes a pilgrimage to the Australian Tax Office at Easter?” – was a chance to look at the anonymity of postcolonial suburbs.

And discovering that TV chef Bernard King was a Queenslander led to an exploration of what his fallen stardom tells us about Australia’s attitude to gay rights.

These kind of ventures are part of the business of listening and noticing which underpins any writing which purports to link to the real world. Spotting the unusual and provocative corners of a locale is part of the work which Alasdair Gray’s characters described in Lanark:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here…. think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

But paying attention to a neglected setting, as Marvellous, Electrical does, isn’t enough, because it still draws a heavy line between “the artist” – individual, special, “using” the city – and the mere inhabitants who live there, supposedly incapable of imagination without that special someone to engage them.

A truly locative literature would embrace the voices of a place, past, present, and future. It would probably dethrone the author in favour of a facilitator’s role, helping locals to speak with one another and outsiders.

In fact, it would look very much like the work of a 21st-century library.

 

  1. Start a riot, make a comic

You know the great strength of libraries?

They don’t have audiences.

Unlike other arts institutions, libraries think of the communities they serve as users, not mere spectators. This is the great and lasting benefit of libraries’ long association with the book: back in the old shelfy days, a library only came to life when someone stepped inside and began to read. Books are always a collaboration between the reader, the writer, and many other intermediaries who play a part in publishing and distribution.

Nowadays, libraries are less concerned with shelves and silent reading – but they are still the place you come when you want to learn and explore on your own terms. Neither teachers nor preachers, librarians’ agenda is simply to facilitate and protect your freedom of access to information. Increasingly that also means taking their programmes off-site, outside of the walls and into every space they can possibly reach.

Is this what it really means to be locative?

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One of the digital initiatives which is part of this library-led drive to truly democratise culture emerged from the international Fun Palaces movement.

This invites communities to come together and offer people the chance to try their hands at the arts and sciences on the first weekend of every October. The motto of these community-devised and -delivered events is “Everyone an artist, everyone a scientist”, but the underpinning ethos is even more radical than that. The original manifesto reads:

Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

What might this look like to the digital writing community?

Last year I worked with SLQ to create the Fun Palaces Comic Maker, a simple browser-based way for people to create drag-and-drop comics which were then published via Tumblr.

Built at short notice and for a minimal budget, the Comic Maker was by necessity basic, but simply offering people the opportunity to tell stories on their own terms released a lot of creativity. People used the tools we gave them in sophisticated, unpredictable ways.

There were non-narrative comics:

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and comics in languages other than English:

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Users spotted a clever workaround to the limited set of drag ‘n’ drop images available, by typing emoji into the text captions:

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And the “just for kids” vibe of the Fun Palaces design was undercut by adult users who offered tongue-in-cheek references to Lovecraft, among others:

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Comics as a medium are intimately entwined with the politics of space, consisting as they do of words and images which gain meaning through juxtaposition. Digital projects extend this exploration of space by inviting people located around the world to take part in comics creation and experimentation.

Creating an opportunity for people worldwide to tell their own stories through a simple mechanism was an experiment in this kind of local connection and now that the basic engine has been built, SLQ and its partners are exploring new ways to use the Comic Maker to support people’s creativity.

You can see a full report on the project from the Electricomics conference here (PDF download).

 

  1. Fun Palaces and the Fury Road

So what does all this mean for a “Creative in Residence” in an Australian library?

SLQ’s mission is to “inspire Queensland’s creativity forever”. It’s amazing that such cosmic language was secured within the bureaucratic bounds of a state government. It raises interesting long-term questions too… In some post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road future, where, God forbid, the state of Queensland had ceased to exist or even been forgotten – would the library’s duty to inspire locals forever still be in force?

That might sound fanciful, but the 21st century is full of great examples of libraries going above and beyond their remit in the name of doing the right thing, whether that’s Ferguson Library during the recent civil unrest or Christchurch Libraries during the earthquakes in New Zealand.

At precisely those moments of crisis or natural disaster which we normally experience through apocalyptic fantasy, libraries have proven themselves to be resilient, inventive, and utterly committed to the public. This relationship to place and sense of duty to a broadly understood community is also part of being “locative” and something which makes libraries stand out from many other arts institutions.

So my duty as Creative in Residence is to respect this library ethos and ask: How do we take this dream, of truly democratic access to culture, its production as well as its enjoyment, into a digital space that is truly interactive and available to the general public – understood as users, not just audiences?

We’re sure to stumble along the way – we’re the underdog, after all – but that doesn’t mean we won’t give it an amazing go.

You can follow what we get up to during my residency at @drmattfinch and tinyletter.com/marvellouselectrical.