#techaffect: on the Curating Affective Technologies Un-conference

At one of those temporary junctions where the lines of life start to intersect, the first week I started as DWIR was also the week I attended the Curating Affective Technologies un-conference at the Flinders in the City campus in Adelaide. Organised by Julia Erhart, Sonja Vivienne, Tully Barnett, Alice Gorman and Julian Meyrick with the Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities, the un-conference forms part of a year-long investigation of the theme ‘Technologies of Memory and Affect’.

What is an un-conference? I had no idea. How do you curate affective technologies? Also no idea, but I wanted to know more. It turns out that an un-conference is a collaborative, open structure, in which participants are encouraged to suggest and guide content, making for a warm and interactive forum. At our un-conference, participants were not passive, but asked to nominate key themes drawn from the ideas presented and discuss, in groups, the possibilities for collaborative articles.

After a day of intriguing ten-minute presentations, I am still working on a description of what ‘affective technologies’ are and how you curate them. I saw it happening; I contributed to it, but the topics spoken of and disciplines represented were so varied and the ideas connecting technology, affect and memory so many that for now I’ll slot in an explanation supplied by the Technologies of Memory and Affect blog:

Memory and affect are notoriously subjective and transitory concepts. Technology, from the printing press to the camera to the internet, affords opportunity to make these notions discernible and sometimes even material, in objects, words, images and a digital trace. However, while communication in the digital domain is searchable, persistent, replicable and scaleable, memory and affect remain ephemeral and contested.

Intersections between technology, memory and affect can be–and were–emphasised through diverse topics; pulled in multiple directions. Larissa Hjorth, RMIT Distinguished Professor and digital artist/ethnographer, guided the un-conference with her talk on ‘Visualising the Mundane: Technology/Memory/Affect’, discussing ways in which technology forms and deforms structures, reaches audiences and can, in the case of mobile phones in particular, tell stories of intimacy across cultures, become tools for mobilisation and create networks of witnessing. Alicia Carter, describing the technology of the Kodak Super 8 as a tool for familial forms of remembering; Martin Potter, pointing out that familiarity with media enhances rather than enslaves, and Ruth Vasey, declaring the Trove database a means of building multiple narratives within history, also drew on this idea of technology as witness and collator. For Carolyn Lake and Petra Mosmann, talking respectively about cultural memory as represented by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives and the feminist movement through (the symbol of) Faith Bandler’s gloves, public records became issues of affect; for Susan Bruce, who showed several of her short films, technology preserves the personal, tactile and textural. Listening to Deb Matthews speak about curating memory within the remix community CCMixter; Catherine Adamek on the performance of dance; Gillian Dooley giving renditions of gender ambiguous songs from Jane Austen’s manuscripts, and Daniela Kaleva discussing cabaret and the transmission of cultural memory, performance was also explored as a way of evoking and creating memories.

To capture moments of the un-conference as it unfolded, tablets, laptops and mobile phones were used to upload fragments to Twitter and Instagram. The event of the symposium–or the rarer occasion of an un-conference–was amplified through digital media recordings of discussion as ritual; through a simultaneous exploration and performance of curation to create, distribute and enhance memories, contributing to present and future perspectives on the fascinating and expanding field of technology and affect.

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The Origins of Drinks

When I applied for this digital residency, I had to propose a project that aimed to be creative, innovative, community-minded and fulfil the brief of the people reading: I came up with Friends with Drinks. You can read an actual excerpt of my application here, or you might have read the snappy version on the Friends with Drinks tumblr before you sent your submission (haven’t done this yet? Please do here!):

Merging the everyday rituals of making friends and taking drinks with the digital zeitgeist, Friends with Drinks is a creative collaborative project that aims to share different experiences of drinking and place worldwide.

By way of online communion, Friends with Drinks signifies particular spaces through full and fragmentary texts, images and sounds that together create a map of what we drink, with whom and where—whether it’s morning coffee in Milan, midday chai in Lucknow, an afternoon beer in Prague, an evening martini in New York or a cup of hot milk before bedtime in Accra.

The possibilities for joining minds, locations, words, inspirations, snapshots, actions, sketches, music, clips and destinies are as infinite as the networks that draw us together. Please submit, share—and salud!

Although I had jotted down a vague outline of Friends with Drinks in my notebook to float at the earliest opportune moment, it wasn’t until last week, in the course of writing content and setting up websites and Facebook pages—tasks that seemed far removed from the pencil-scratched origins of the idea—that I remembered what had prompted Friends with Drinks in the first place; what had given the concept enough personal meaning in order for me to pitch it with a degree of sincerity.

This time last year, I was living through a sultry July in Bangalore, India, while working on a project; in the same month, I met a handful of mixed-media German artists who had come to Bangalore to complete residencies. Among them was Stepan, a tall drink of draughtsmanship who became, in the way of Melissa Bank, an ‘insta-friend’. A month later, Stepan left Bangalore with a bang and departed from my analogue life in a way you have to grow accustomed to when you travel, or else perish from the stranglehold of sentimentality. (One of the definite advantages of the digital age is having the opportunity to keep our friends in the frame of our lives, even at a strange, unquantifiable distance.)

One night I was muddling through some sentences, longing for distraction, when I heard a ping! It was Stepan, via Messenger. This is what he wrote:

S: I am already accosting the Old Monk [famous Indian dark rum] on this hot Berlin afternoon. It’s good!

K: Classic flavours travel well…and the bottle made it in one piece! Excellent. What are you mixing it with? Oh yeah, I’m glad you made it in once piece too.

S: Pure, already drunk. Feels good in the white Berlin heat.

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K: Lovely. Surrounded by white light, consuming golden redness…

S: Feeling a bit blue. I met so many lovely people, and still wearing your Ganesha band with pride—Ganesha himself has vanished already though.

K: I understand how you feel. Homecoming isn’t easy, especially after India. The people who found you lovely here miss you already! Ah, that Ganesha, always giving people the slip. I have a drop of Old Monk here in my flat too. Let’s drink together.

S: Haha, cheerio dear girl! to your health and welfaring! And to meeting again somewhere!

K: Old Monk on my work desk. Cheers to you, bhaiya! Speedy recovery from jet lag and remember: Bengaluru waits for you.

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S: I put all my Indian novels on the shelf and go to bed with Gaiman’s American Gods for now!

K: And I shall listen to Lana del Rey and write about Nepal. Sweet dreams.

S: And I will listen to Lana del Rey as well.

K: Ah, it’s just like we’re in the same room.

I wrote in my first post that digital media are machines for contortion—they certainly are, but perhaps they are also a means of intimacy, of a type that we don’t normally expose, which is perhaps an excellent reason why we should. Last week I met an artist/academic, Larissa Hjorth, who makes a study of digital intimacy, but more on that later. For now, I request that you go forth and engage in the ritual of drinking (anything, with anyone) without forgetting to record (and possibly submit) these moments—across neighbourhoods and cultures and countries. However you come together as friends with drinks, via digital methods or analogue, there is enough meaning in every communion to make each worth remembering.

Special thanks to Stepan for giving his OK for me to share our dialogue.

Machines for Contortion

Here I go again transforming my analogue self, Kathryn Hummel, into a digital version (see one of my other incarnations here): a version with the tag SA Writers Centre Digital Writer in Residence. All media are machines for contortion; to have some kind of presence on digital media seems increasingly necessary for writers, even if our engagement with it is sometimes unconscious.

When I step back; log off; shut down, I am surprised by the shift in my focus from digital to analogue and the ease of my hybrid existence between both realms. I don’t find them mutually exclusive. As a writer, I connect this hybrid to my motivation to carry on arranging words and images into creative patterns—firstly, for the pleasure of satisfying my compulsion to do so, but also to contribute to the culture surrounding me, to the zeitgeist of a digital age, and to send out words into the void, hoping for a response from Some Other Unknown.

One of the great pleasures of engaging with digital media and its various platforms is coming across a diverse group of creative people who balance their individual quests for immortality, using the creative processes particular to them, with the collective aim of developing digital writing as a genre. This kind of pluralism is one I support: one sympathetic to the assembling a few thousand disparate, peculiar and beautiful fragments belonging to the present into the grooves of one record, for a united sling back and launch. If the result is the intangible one of sending data off across a physical/digital/unknown universe, it is also one that will fracture the tendency to look too far inwards when immortality becomes a solo pursuit once more.

I suspect that the SAWC Digital Writer in Residence program will provide me with a present space from which to explore all types of artistic work—to share and expand on my skills as a digital and new media writer—and to meet (virtually) other people who unwind it. Here’s how:

  • through Friends with Drinks, a new worldwide creative collaboration mapping responses to what and where we drink. Submissions are now open at the Friends with Drinks tumblr and Facebook page
  • by finding out more about you, your work and your engagement with digital media
  • by sharing and discussing ideas and innovations involving digital approaches in writing and hybrid forms
  • through finding out what people harnessing digital approaches in their work are hoping to achieve
  • tracking the themes that emerge

The karmic chain of support between creative strangers extends worldwide and as the SAWC Digital Writer in Residence for July-August 2016 I will gladly receive and pass it on.