How Maker Culture Anticipates a Future of Empowered Tech Users

The Maker Movement has been subject of much debate in education for a few years now. Schools have had wood shops for decades and there are many vocational programs out there. So why is making so different, and what is the fuss about?

Making has its origins in the do-it-yourself culture where people make things to solve daily problems, or just for enjoyment. Personal relevance is extremely important for learning. Educators like Dewey and Freire have long stated that learning best takes place using contexts and problems that are personally relevant to students. The challenge has always been accomplishing this with a classroom full of students with diverse interests. Fortunately, because the variety of possible maker projects is so broad, there is usually something that will interest every student.

Photo by Sharon Vanderkaay / https://www.flickr.com/photos/77662096@N06/

Making is usually distinguished from do-it-yourself projects and more traditional craftwork and art by the inclusion of digital technology either in the process of making or as part of the final product. The emphasis on digital technology in making is of particular interest to educators as there is currently a push to focus on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects. Furthermore, unlike craftwork and the arts, making engages multiple skillsets typically involving a combination of craftwork, mechanics, circuitry and programming. As the demands for widely skilled workers increase in the job market, educators are becoming more concerned about fostering interdisciplinary skills in students. Making has been identified as an ideal approach to this challenge.

In schools, making alters students’ relationship with technology from one of passive consumer to one of active producer.

Less evident are the benefits making has on soft skill development, motivation, identity development and democratization of industry and society. Twenty-first century skills go beyond the hard skills of design, building and circuitry. More and more, employers are seeking workers who possess soft skills like creativity, innovation, initiative, problem solving, adaptability, independent learning and collaboration, all of which are honed when making. Makers choose their own project, take the initiative to seek the necessary information to complete the project via the internet or through collaboration with other makers, learn to find creative ways to accomplish their goals, and adapt their ideas based on physical or financial constraints. Opportunities to develop these skills are often limited in schools because they are difficult to manage and assess. It is becoming increasingly recognized, however, that if schools hope to prepare their students for the labour market of the 21st century it is essential that they begin to promote these skills.

Experts in industry predict that the increase in demand for highly skilled workers in the STEM fields will continue to rise. However, a decreasing number of youth are entering scientific and technology related fields, particularly among disadvantaged populations. This is partly attributed to student motivation and personal identity. Students often report a lack of motivation to pursue higher education due to a perceived lack of relevance of school to their experience of life. This perception is particularly prevalent in youth from disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Making is ideal for addressing this issue as it bridges the gap between theory and practice. When taking measurements for a 3D design, or writing code to program an arcade emulation station, the relevance of mathematics and computer programming to students’ interests and daily lives becomes evident. In addition to motivating students to pursue their studies for current interests, making also has the potential to influence their future career choices. An important factor for career choice is one’s identity. An individual is unlikely to imagine themselves in a future role for which they have no experience. Through making, however, students have the opportunity to ‘try on’ the scientist or engineer identity as they design and build concrete artefacts in an authentic context.

Maker culture has important implications for the democratization of industry and society. Thanks to cheap open-source technology and expansive shared knowledge on the internet, almost anyone anywhere can make. It is no longer the case that citizens are entirely dependent on companies for products. Making has the potential to disrupt industries worldwide and to put the power back into the hands of the people. And in schools, making alters students’ relationship with technology from one of passive consumer to one of active producer. This sense of empowerment is particularly important for youth in disadvantaged areas who might feel disempowered by dysfunctional social systems. Empowered people will more likely seek to improve their lives, which ultimately improves society as a whole.

There are many more potential benefits of making in education that are not listed here, but these alone offer a convincing argument for the inclusion of making in schools. This must be done with caution, however. Making is about more than just building. Having students build something following a pre-prescribed set of instructions or assembling a kit is not making. Yes, some knowledge and skills will be acquired through this type of activity, but the primary learning benefits of making will be absent. The personally relevant, self-directed experiential learning that making affords is vital in motivating students to take interest in STEM subjects and develop the necessary skills to become valuable contributors to 21st century advancements. If making is to benefit students to its fullest, the spirit of the Maker Movement needs to be authentic in schools.

Nathalie is currently working on her doctorate in Educational Technology in the Department of Education. She is a teacher interested in the benefits of incorporating DIY and maker activities into the classroom to develop STEAM and 21st century skills in students. Her research focuses on professional development programs to help teachers and community workers safely and effectively incorporate making into classrooms and community centres so that youth can benefit from the many affordances making has to offer.  

Ephemeral Games and Ambiguous Rights

I come from a generation of gamers who long associated ownership with the accumulation of hard plastic. My shelves are still chock-full of Super Nintendo games, remnants of an era that celebrated brick-and-mortar stores, cardboard display cases, and grey cartridges.

At the risk of sounding like a luddite or a grognard, those were simpler times. Games were tangible items that could be bought, sold, traded, lent out, destroyed, or even buried in New Mexico, if you so desired. A video game library was measured not by an ordered list in a web browser, but rather through the physical space it took up in your home.

Photo by Alberto Garrido / https://www.flickr.com/photos/k40s/

Since the advent of digital marketplaces, however, the idea of ownership has become somewhat enigmatic. Although new technologies offer us unprecedented access to game assets and algorithms – something that was nearly unheard of in the hard plastic days – sprawling End User License Agreements (EULA) and stringent Digital Rights Management (DRM) software are contesting and restricting our ownership. Browsing through a games library on Blizzard or Steam feels more like surfing the web than sifting through a collection. Every title has gained an amorphous quality, changing constantly through iterative patches and updates. In many ways we’ve relinquished control over the games we have purchased, as developers can add or subtract content on a whim. This raises a troubling question: do we even own the games that we play?

Ownership in the World of Warcraft

 

On April 10, 2016, World of Warcraft’s largest private game server was shut down after receiving a cease and desist order from the game’s developer, Blizzard (Frank 2016). Operating without official oversight or authorization, the “Nostalrius” server featured 150,000 active users (compared to 8-10 million users that play on official servers) and ran a version of the game that was over a decade old. In a digital game marketplace where digital updates are mandatory, running an unsanctioned legacy server can be understood as both an exercise in nostalgia and a serious violation of the End User License Agreement.

However, members of the Nostalrius team had strong motivations for their seemingly subversive behaviour. They wanted to provide a space where players could engage with an older version of World of Warcraft, one that was no longer available through the game’s subscription or supported by the developer. They had also hoped that the popularity of Nostalrius could persuade Blizzard into creating an officially licensed legacy server (We Are Nostralius). Their campaign raises an interesting question: what right do players have to engage with previous versions of the games they have paid for? Blizzard’s stance on the issue has been made abundantly clear – precisely none – but many players would argue that their ongoing subscription fees entitle them to past builds of the game. After all, World of Warcraft has been patched so many times that the current version bears little resemblance to the one they originally purchased ten years earlier.

The battle brings up one of the more contentious issues with digital copyright: instances where publisher mandated terms-of-use and security measures (such as EULAs and DRM) complicate or supplant copyright law entirely (Darroch 153), shifting power away from the user and toward the developer. Critics argue this prevents meaningful ownership. How absurd would it be if Nintendo came into your home, threw away your old GameBoy cartridges, and replaced them with different versions? The scenario may seem far-fetched, but is not entirely unlike the processes playing out online. This dilemma is exacerbated by the lopsidedness in which many of these rules are enforced. Individual players are put at a disadvantage when facing the enormous resources of corporations like Blizzard, and attempts to hold onto to “out of date” game content may result in a cease and desist order or other legal action.

Although this story has a bittersweet ending – Blizzard announced its very own World of Warcraft legacy server the following year (Frank 2017) – the core issue of ownership and iterative game development remains. When EULAs, DRM, and copyright become hard to navigate, it’s the players, users, and fans that generally pay the price. And as a greater selection of games become available exclusively through online marketplaces, the idea of ownership becomes even more elusive. Games are becoming less an object that players can own and more a service that they can subscribe to.

Although there’s no going back to the days of plastic cartridges and boxed CD-ROMs, game ownership isn’t a lost cause, either. In World of Warcraft’s Nostalrius, we see some ways in which players are attempting to navigate a realm where their legal rights are ambiguous and the games they purchase ephemeral. Though daunting, users need to keep pushing back against restrictive intellectual property regimes by exploring the limits of copyright, fair dealing, and user rights. It’s important not to lose sight of how these sorts of policies affect how we engage with our video games. Otherwise, our entire collections may one day evaporate into thin air.

 

References

Darroch, Calum. “Problems and Progress in the Protection of Videogames: A Legal and Sociological Perspective.” Manchester Review of Law, Crime, and Ethics, Vol.1, pp 136-172, 2012.

Frank, Allegra. World of Warcraft fans bid farewell to largest legacy server before shutdown. Polygon, 11 Apr. 2016. https://www.polygon.com/2016/4/11/11409436/world-of-warcraft-nostalrius-shutdown-legacy-servers-final-hours. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

Frank, Allegra. World of Warcraft Classic is an official vanilla server. Polygon, 3 Nov. 2017, https://www.polygon.com/2017/11/3/16603922/world-of-warcraft-classic-announced-trailer-wo-blizzcon-2017. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

We are Nostalrius, a World of Warcraft fan-made game server, reproducing the very first version of the game published in 2004, AMA. Reddit, 7 Apr. 2016, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/4droz4/we_are_nostalrius_a_world_of_warcraft_fanmade/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

 

Michael Iantorno is a Media Studies master’s candidate at Concordia University whose research-creation work focuses on video game hacking, fan cultures, media policy, and digital scholarship. An accomplished writer, radio producer, and game designer, Michael has over a decade of experience in the Canadian media industry. www.michaeliantorno.com

Simpler Than Ever? Online Grocery Shopping With Seniors

Debbie wants to get groceries without leaving her apartment. This is what she tells me during the “Internet workshop” I’m facilitating at a seniors’ low-income housing residence in Montreal.

They are part of a series of Online Literacy workshops I’ve been facilitating for the past year and Debbie is one of many seniors participating. The workshops are supported by the Ageing, Communication and Technologies research project, affiliated with Milieux’s Participatory Cluster and they give older adults a chance to learn about their own tablets, cellphones, or computers or explore new technologies. These workshops are not show and tell, they are very much hands-on. As a facilitator, I manipulate the devices as little as possible, and let the seniors do the finger work. While some of them have never operated a mouse or used a digital camera before, others have had experience with a range of technologies.

Online grocery shopping is an action that has transitioned from futuristic idea to common practice in only a few years. It is also a tool that could make Debbie’s life considerably easier, since she uses a walker to get around and lives on the 7th floor of her building, which is located 500 meters from the grocery store. If only it was that simple.

Debbie’s desire to buy groceries online opened my eyes to a few important points. Most technological interfaces are not designed with seniors in mind. Small devices like smart phones or digital cameras are rarely senior-friendly as a consequence of their tiny buttons or small screens. Actions such as enlarging text or typing on a tablet can be puzzling, uncomfortable, and outright annoying. It turns out that the interface for online grocery shopping is no exception.

Nevertheless, Debbie and I crack our fingers and set to order groceries online from a big supermarket chain offering the service. First, we need to create a new account, which takes us approximately 20 minutes. I’m just grateful she remembered her e-mail password.

In the case of this grocery shopping website, the website designers did a great job of connecting the shop’s inventory system to a visual interface – so much so that the search for carrots is entirely overwhelming. When Debbie searches “carrots”, the system finds 113 results – the first of which is “Living Organic Carrot – 10,99$”. Let us appreciate this feat of modern system engineering for a moment.

The “Living Organic Carrots” look like a nice option. However, Debbie just wants her “usual carrots.” We try to find them in this orange mosaic while she masters the art of scroll-page shopping. There they are (five minutes later)! We add them to our virtual cart. The exercise is time-consuming, and carrots are only one item on Debbie’s 30-item long list.

In the end, Debbie decides to give up on the carrots and also on the rest of her list. A complex website, coupled with an outdated tablet and a slow Internet connection depleted her enthusiasm and diminished her determination to order groceries online. Upon abandoning the task at hand, she remarked that she was unable to deal with “technological gadgets.” She puts the blame on herself and we put the tablet away.

After this experience, I cannot help but reflect on the ways in which the design of the system and even of the tablet prevented Debbie from doing what she wanted to do. When I started facilitating these workshops, I was amazed to take a step back and realize something: the quantity of informed micro-decisions a person must make in order to operate these technologies properly are decisions that we – the so-called “native” users – stopped noticing long ago. For instance, do you realize that in order to input a URL address, you must first click in the white rectangle of said URL? Otherwise, it doesn’t work. This has become innate to most, but it is not. Every decision, linked to every movement, is not innate and must be learned.

We should be impressed that digital technologies now allow us to order a complex list of items from our home, pay online and receive said groceries later the same day. However, it is only amazing for a minority of consumers. Ironically, those who would benefit most from this service are the very ones whose experience navigating it can be the most challenging: marginalized, non-literate or disabled seniors. Literacy and financial barriers—the cost of the devices themselves, but also Canada’s infamously global chart-toppingly expensive Internet—are only two factors preventing seniors from fully participating in the digital world.

Technology advances, but there isn’t always a clear-cut correlation between advancement and user-friendliness. While the rate of innovation is rapidly accelerating, technologies themselves aren’t necessarily becoming easier to use. Engineers of all kinds might not realize what new challenges result from improvements to their systems. This is why designing logical, user- and senior-friendly systems should remain the priority of UX designers and software developers. The possibility to enlarge font size or consistent design patterns across a website are only two possible inclusive design practices making it easier for seniors – and for everyone else – to feel at ease on the Internet.

 

Nora T. Lamontagne is a writer and a Master’s student in Media Studies at Concordia under the supervision of Dr. Kim Sawchuk. Her research revolves around the weaving practices of older weavers of Cercle de Fermières and the ways they contribute, by the socio-material relationships they create, to strengthen this century-old crafts community.

 

 

Faking It: Deepfake Porn and Moral Panic

2018 has been the year of deepfakes: algorithmically generated videos that insert faces into existing video footage, fabricating convincing scenes which never took place in reality. They’re named after the Reddit user who circulated many of the earliest videos made using the technique—one that can now be mastered by anyone with a computer and some free time. The resulting videos are convincing, in fact they’re nearly indistinguishable from real footage: politicians delivering fake speeches, for example, and endless Nicolas Cage appearances. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, internet denizens have put deepfakes almost entirely to use in the pursuit of manufacturing pornography. Porn consumers have now become the producers of their own scenes, swapping celebrities’ faces into thousands of preexisting porn videos.

Deepfakes are being received as the harbingers of a moral apocalypse, with news coverage proclaiming them “a looming crisis for national security, democracy and privacy” and warning vaguely but alarmingly, that “AI-assisted fake porn is here and we’re all fucked.” But this framing forgets a crucial point: the techniques and technologies behind this practice are neutral. Machine learning is a tool that can be employed for good or for nefarious purposes. More than that, deepfakes are the most recent on a continuum of doctored sexual material spanning back over a century. From Tijuana Bibles to slash fan fiction to revenge porn, pornography has long before now been produced within a culture that does not value the consent of its subjects.

It’s not that the moral panic levied at the practice is undeserved. It does, of course, have consequences that must not be minimized. But framing deepfakes as the exception rather than the rule detracts from our ability to engage with our culture’s larger, underlying devaluation of women’s consent and disrespect for their bodily autonomy. This problem, in essence, is not unique to deepfakes, or even restricted to pornography; it saturates our social and political life, especially women’s involvement in it. Deepfakes are ethically troubling to be sure, but looking beyond the panic we could perhaps observe these media makers to help understand emerging media ecosystems.

Only this time last year the technique required dedicated teams equipped with training, tech expertise and advanced editing equipment, but since the early months of 2018 the videos have worked their way onto message boards and laptops the world over. Deepfakes train a deep learning algorithm to recognize the characteristics of a given face using an image bank. As explained by technology journalist Samantha Cole, after enough of this “training,” the assigned nodes arrange themselves to “correct” faces that appear in selected videos. Using a machine learning algorithm, a home computer, publicly available photos and some spare time, anyone can now fake a hyperrealistic video.

This type of content borrowing is typical of today’s participatory culture. In this media ecosystem, audiences construct their own culture through content appropriated from mass media, reshaping it to serve their interests. This circuit of simultaneous production and consumption depends heavily on the engagement of the average participant, the producer-consumer, or as Henry Jenkins names it, the ‘prosumer’.

As prosumers, deepfake creators are gesturing towards what they want to see in their media. When they appropriate and transform porn and celebrity in new hybrid forms of expression, they are harnessing the technique’s potential to demonstrate that anything can be made real. Unlike with studio-produced porn, deepfake communities act like fans. A free economy flourishes and engagement is incredibly high in many porn-sharing forums, especially ones that allow for creative freedom. We could have seen it coming: before this year, the immense popularity of porn GIFs suggested there was an active audience, eager to produce as well as to consume pornography. Porn scholar Helen Hester has defended these forums as exemplary spaces for participatory interaction, which is at odds with the image of porn browsers as “passive, thoughtless, and wholly receptive”. The tactics of deepfake prosumers could have been predicted, considering these fans are enmeshed in the modern world of porn – a system already riddled with piracy and an alarming disregard for consent.

Actresses including Gal Gadot, Emma Watson and Scarlett Johansson have been targeted by the practice but practically there isn’t much legal recourse for victims of a deepfake — a large part of why the practice took off so explosively. The ethical issues of consent and objectification have made it clear that a video itself does not need to be real in order for the personal damages it incurs to be. Defamation or copyright law may be a good place to start, but as one redditor put it, “You can’t effectively sue someone for exposing intimate details of your life when it’s not your life they’re exposing.” While sites like Reddit, Discord and PornHub have theoretically banned deepfakes under nonconsensual pornography clauses, the videos are emerging faster than they can be contained. There is currently no straightforward route for getting videos like these taken down, given their free circulation, anonymous creation and ability to perpetually re-emerge after they first appear.

It’s unquestionably alarming that porn is being faked without the consent of those depicted and there remains alarmingly little recourse for victims. Moderation of these videos is nightmarish, but neither legal nor regulatory responses have historically kept pace with any forms of porn making regardless of the type of technology involved. Treating this practice as an unprecedented moral problem brought about by technology ignores much larger cultural problems – a troubling red herring.

In this emerging media system, not only are media producers and consumers transformed from two separate categories into a shared pool of prosumers, but they interact with each other according to a new set of rules which none of us completely understands yet. A moral panic only obfuscates the cultural context from which these technologies emerge. Rather than misunderstanding emergent practices like this one, we should closely consider these techniques and communities in order to help us understand our media futures.

References

Cole, Samantha. 2018. “We Are Truly Fucked: Everyone Is Making AI-Generated Fake Porn Now.” Motherboard. January 24, 2018.

Hester, Helen, Bethan Jones, and Sarah Taylor-Harman. “Giffing a Fuck: Non-Narrative Pleasures in Participatory Porn Cultures and Female Fandom.” Porn Studies 2, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 356–66.

Jenkins, Henry. 2013. “Layers of Meaning: Fan Music Video and the Poetics of Poaching” in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge.

 

Maggie MacDonald is an MA candidate in Media Studies at Concordia University as well as the coordinator of the Media History Research Centre at Milieux Institute. Her research focuses on the transformation of pornography as a cultural industry through the platformization of pornographic content online, specifically investigating the impact of MindGeek, a Montreal-based producer and distributor, on the supply chain of the porn industry. 

“Body of My Own”: Disembodiment and the Digital Feminine in Mara Eagle’s Autoerotix

There is a scene in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies in which Q (head of research and development for the British Secret Service) presents Bond with a new BMW equipped with machine guns, rockets and a GPS tracking system. When Bond opens the door, a pleasant, lilting female voice greets him, urging him to fasten his seatbelt for a safe trip. Playing to Bond’s notorious womanizing nature, Q quips, “I thought you’d pay more attention to a female voice.”

The subtext here is that a female voice is not only more alluring than a male voice, with its sexual connotations, but it is also less threatening, even as it emanates from a weaponized vehicle. The disembodied female voice is a ubiquitous feature of our current world that goes relatively unnoticed as it enlivens our computers, busses, bank machines and automated phone lines. Our digital age is simultaneously technophilic and technophobic. While many of us have developed an intensely intimate and fetishistic relationship with our gadgets, and see social media and interactivity as a means for connection and opportunity, there is also rising concern about ‘screen time’ as the downfall of social skills and ethics. The digital feminine presence is the ideal interface for the unknown region between desire and fear. Housed in stoke-able fetish objects like iPhones, our in-phone secretaries like Siri mediate this unknown space, not just by sorting our emails and organizing our schedules but by performing affective labour we have come to associate with the feminine. In the digital realm, this work is disembodied.

As Montreal artist Mara Eagle puts it, “because they do not speak through bodies, digital voices are never tongue tied, choked by breath – or by passion.” Eagle, a Concordia MFA student, explores the tension between the disembodied digital voice and female pleasure in Autoerotix, an 11-minute, five-channel “audio recital” of eight pop songs about female masturbation recorded between 1984 and 2015. By feeding the lyrics into a free online text-to-speech generator, Eagle flattened the delivery of these songs into a digital chorus of voices – or rather a polyphonic incantation made up of one digital voice (named “Alice”), manipulated into varying pitches using Adobe Audition. Emerging out of her research on labour, mimicry and simulation, Eagle’s Autoerotix uses digital tools to disembody the concept of female pleasure.

Autoerotix can be accessed online, but the work is intended to be experienced in person, and I got the chance to preview the installation earlier this year. In Eagle’s studio in Concordia’s Fine Arts building, I was told to sit within a circle of five inward-facing speakers. I felt like the object of a ritual whose practitioners had identical plastic bodies. I listened carefully while they chanted songs like “Touch of My Hand” by Britney Spears, “Oops (Oh My)” by Tweet featuring Missy Elliot, “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls, “Body of My Own” by Charli XCX and “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper, all in clean, monotone, digitized arrangements. In her book Feeling and Form (1953), American philosopher Susanne Langer writes that one of the oldest forms of dance is the medieval Reigen, or circle dance, the “first holy office of the dance,” acting as both stage and altar (191).

Traditionally, ritual magicians and witches have used circles to form a protective barrier that contain the energy they summon. Sitting at the center of the magic circle in Eagle’s dark studio, I inhabit this space between stage and altar: as the focal point, I am the vulnerable receiver of the energies of capitalism, female sexuality and pop culture, but there is also a barrier erected by my inability to access these voices, or their source. The songwriters, performers and listeners that created these hit singles over the years are condensed into one body through Eagle’s manipulation; similarly, the multiple “I”s of the lyrics, when spoken by the same monotone voice, congeal into one “female body,” the most familiar symbol in popular culture.

Eagle’s installation imposes disembodiment, but the lyrics she uses insist upon the presence of a body (“I touch myself/I honestly do”). The effect is both absurd and playful, but it also exposes the earnest tone that propels pop music, especially songs about female sexual pleasure. In stripping away the accompanying music and paring these songs down to just their lyrics, spoken in flatness, Autoerotix reveals their mechanized performance of female desire. Without tonal harmony or sexy rhythms, the lyrics purr along mechanically, like ready-mades on an assembly line. Similarly, subjective, intimate female pleasure becomes objectified (as well as sanitized and consumable) when performed for the mainstream popular audience, a dissonance that extends to our everyday interaction with the digital feminine as well.

The star of Autoerotix is the voice that Eagle selected from the text-to-voice database, named “Alice” by her provider. Eagle’s work exposes the lack of diversity presented by digital voices. In tone and delivery, Alice’s voice is very similar to Siri’s, which is supplied by a white American woman named Susan Bennett; the fact that we take Alice for neutral is telling. Evoking Siri’s delivery of driving directions, Autoerotix’s star Alice recites the lyrics in a monotone drawl. Her “oohs” and “aahs” are comical because they are simply phonetic. They lack emotion. Yet whereas Siri is programmed to serve others, in having Alice recite songs about female masturbation, Eagle shifts the focus from the emotional labour that our digital secretaries perform to the presence of an incessant and monotonous self-servicing. (“I can do it better when I’m all alone,” Alice recites).

In keeping with the intimate subject of solo sex, many of the lyrics in Autoerotix are spoken in the first person. The command-response structure that we know so well from interacting with digital voices through our phones (Siri’s constant prompt, for example: “How can I help you?”) is exchanged for a series of statements of independence and self-control: “I can do it better when I’m all alone;” “I’ve got a body of my own;” “my body is mine.” There are also themes of unruliness and frenzied, irrepressible desire expressed in lyrics such as “I can’t control what’s happenin’,” “it’s not a sin,” and “I find myself flirting with the verge of the obscene into the unknown…I will be bold…I’m going to places I can be out of control.” Here, female embodiment and autonomy are presented, in a classical formation, as the gateway to chaos and sin. At the conclusion of Autoerotix, which features Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” Alice’s many voices collapse together into a cacophonous glitch-parade. The disembodied vocals enact an ironic corrective to the excess of female desire; in regurgitating a rehearsed mantra like a robot army, an eerie order is imposed. But even as the lyrical disarray is hemmed in by Alice’s measured digital tone, there is still disorder at its core.

Many of the lyrics that Eagle uses, such as “When it’s late at night and you’re fast asleep” (Pink) and “Getting off, getting off, while they’re all downstairs” (Tori Amos) bring to mind the private space of one’s dark bedroom. Eagle’s work juxtaposes that privacy with communality, as multiple voices share space, and the listener at the circle’s centre is invited to witness intimate sexual experience, in ritual initiation. But if this is an initiation, what is being sacrificed here? Who, or what, is the scapegoat other than the dissolution of privacy?

Our everyday encounter with digital voices is also an encounter with surveillance and dissolution of privacy, in which the feminized vocal performance fosters complacency through its comforting associations: the trusted secretary, the doting girlfriend, the woman who captures the attention of rogues like James Bond through her voice alone. Eagle’s Autoerotix reveals both the ongoing stigma surrounding female sexuality and also how it’s used to normalize everyday surveillance. The disembodied digital feminine can be a threat as it pertains to our daily interactions. Not only do we freely share our data and personal communications through our phones, developments like Project Oxford’s new Emotion Recognition app for Microsoft will potentially allow AIs (voiced by the likes of Siri, Alexa and Cortana) to respond to human emotional states by identifying particular facial expressions, a design that poses a severe threat to human rights and privacy. In this vein, Eagle’s work is both darkly feminist and a warning about issues of security in our digital era. Where performative gender roles are used to help sacrifice our privacy, what looks like maintenance of power—and technological development as status quo—is in fact our own, undetected, loss of control.

 

A version of Mara Eagle’s Autoerotix will be presented in Montreal at Centre Clark from September 7 to October 13, and at Studio XX in November 2018.

Hilary Bergen is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Humanities at Concordia University where she studies technologies of the dancing body, posthumanism and feminist media history. She has published work on Siri, affective labour and the disembodied cyborg with Word and Text and most recently on rotoscoping, erasure and embodiment in Naomi Uman’s ‘Removed’ with Screening the Past.

Techno Moʻolelo: He Au Hou, Skins 5.0, and Digital Indigenous Community-Making

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) is a partnership of universities and community organizations that develop multiple visions of Indigenous peoples in the future. Through its four main activities — residencies, symposia, archive, and workshops — IIF contributes to a thriving Indigenous futurist community. He Au Hou was the fifth edition of their acclaimed Skins Workshops in Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design.

The Skins workshop in Hawaiʻi demonstrated how digital media can contribute to transnational fourth-world community. It was the first major Skins workshop to take place outside of the territory now known as Quebec, creating coalitions between multiple Indigenous organizations working in community.

During Skins workshops, participants work with their own stories and knowledge; they then direct the creation of a video game that speaks back to representations of Indigenous peoples within larger culture. Skins addresses new generations of creators who are already active in cyberspace by providing instruction in the tools of the medium. Storytelling and cultural knowledge form the basis of Skins; in this way, digital image and sound design, 3D modeling, animation, and level design can be approached as ways to engage with culture.

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures works to challenge the ideas and assumptions that overdetermine Indigenous peoples’ relationships to technology and digital media. In video games as in film, photography, painting, and literature, Indigenous peoples have often been denied their humanity, seen through the frame of cowboys and Indians, as dying tribal hordes, human-animal hybrids, and objects of sexual conquest. (LaPensée, https://vimeo.com/25991603) With this history and the popularity of video games among youth, this is a critical site for healing.

Amanda Roy, an Anishinaabe artist and filmmaker, considers Skins through Michelle Raheja’s concept of “virtual reservations.” Raheja parallels real-world experiences in the reserve system with the Indigenous experiences in film and new media; virtual reservations are also sites of repression and violence, insofar as the range and depth of Indigenous humanity and our ability to imagine ourselves is delimited through the multiple roles that structure our existence within the dominant culture’s imaginary. (Raheja 150 – 151, 153) Like their real-world counterparts, though, virtual reservations are places where Indigenous peoples create community and transmit cultural knowledge.

Skins “creates emancipatory space for Indigenous peoples,” where we can create our own wired communities and upload our own data. (Roy 52 – 53) We know that our experiences in the physical world are affected by a constellation of images and virtualities. Much like navigating the multilayered significations of physical space, so too do we transverse digital space as well.

There are parallels between the tools Skins brings to storytelling with Indigenous women’s writings on maps; Johnson identifies storytelling as a cartographical practice used by Indigenous women that highlights interrelationships on and through the land (116). This knowledge coalesces in “deeper maps”, which question the abstracted geographies put forward by Western maps.

He Ao Hou, the game produced during the workshop, produces a “deeper map” as a way to transmit kanaka maoli knowledges. Space travel figures heavily into He Ao Hou; the player character goes on a quest to different planets in search of their twin. The use of star navigation in He Au Hou is further in line with Johnson’s idea of a deeper map in that it embeds traditional knowledge, wayfinding by stars, into the game. In this way, new media technologies produce digital cartographies that plot Indigenous life in and through the virtual.

He Au Hou represents what the Skins Workshops in Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design hopes to achieve. Youth become creators of Indigenous digital media and contribute their own knowledge and viewpoints into the virtual world. More than speaking back, this work happens in an Indigenous space for Indigenous people. Digital media are seen through the lens of traditional knowledge, the oral tradition, and community connection.

I thank Skawennati, Nancy Townsend, and Kathryn Jezer Morton for their help with editing and writing this piece.

Cheese, Please

At one point, I had 12 liters of milk in my fridge. Bags of pasteurized milk sat next to an array of capped and labeled falcon tubes in an uncanny tableau of pre-experimental chaos. Inside each of those tubes were hand swabs of bacteria that I’d collected from Concordia staff members who agreed to participate in my little food provocation.

Last year, I made a cheese cultured with bacteria that naturally live on my hands. I cheekily called it ‘a handmade cheese’ but wanted to up the stakes. Last week, I made the same kind of cheese, but I used other people’s hands and served it to the public to theoretically scrutinize and taste.

And scrutinize they did: “By staging encounters that ask the viewer to engage directly (for example serving cheese made from the bacteria on human hands), Hey makes space not only for thinking, but also feeling our way through these kinds of epistemological and ethical splits,” recounts Milieux member Alix Johnson, who attended the event I organized for the occasion, Engaging with the Microbial Other: an exhibition of recent ferments and prototypes on December 6, 2017.

I made this cheese because its physical form tugs at the ethical fabric of what we consider to be a legitimate food, what constitutes contamination, and who gets to decide. What’s too ‘out there’ to be considered edible? Then again, what’s ‘too close’ for comfort? How do the answers to those questions change from individual to institutional scales?

This was more than just a proof-of-concept; this was a deliberate attempt to engage with the likes of directors and heads of committees that enable/hinder certain forms of research. I asked for their hand samples, invited them to the exhibition, and fed them (along with the greater public) their ‘handmade’ cheese. Well, “fed them” sounds like I pried open their mouths and force fed cheese samples. Far from it: people ate more than 80% of the samples, while I stood on the other end of the room to keep from adding any social pressures.

Responses ranged, but the most common reaction was that of curiosity. They taste so different, they’d say, referring to the variability in flavor and texture in the three samples of other-people’s handmade cheese. One sample didn’t coagulate as much, indicating very little microbial activity, and had a texture closer to yogurt. Another tasted almost sweet, like mascarpone.

Said one Masters student, “I found the exhibition fascinating. I readily acknowledge that food preparation is a science, however, I’ve never really thought about the reaction of bacteria in our food. Nor have I ever considered the ways in which our own microorganisms can be manipulated to produce something edible.”

Or even delicious: One of the people who offered their hands for swabbing said that they liked their cheese the best. They didn’t know it was theirs when they tasted it, but I informed them afterwards, and we confirmed that their ‘handmade’ cheese was the one they preferred. Makes you wonder if that was by chance.

Weaving an Uncanny Valley

Jacquard weavings can be brain-teasers for the uninitiated. “The imagery is embedded in the structure of the cloth,” explains Sophia Borowska, an artist and researcher affiliated with the Textiles and Materiality Cluster. “So there’s no fabric without the image, and there’s no image without the fabric. When people who aren’t versed in the process itself look at it, they don’t know how it’s made. It can be very confusing.”

It was thinking about this uncanny quality possessed by jacquard that led Borowska to one of her ongoing research interests: jacquard weaving as a 3D construction medium. The project has been a collaborative research project [with artists Marlon Kroll and Cedric Laurenty supported through seed funding from the TExtiles and Materiality cluster, with the aim of developing 3D renderings in jacquard.

“We looked at 3D from different perspectives, researching the nature of representation nowadays, when 3D rendering is so popular. The idea was to examine why that is. Why do we strive to make these hyperrealist VR environments, when we have the power to create literally any kind of environment we want? Why is animation all of a sudden solely 3D?,” says Borowska.

Making weaving 3D isn’t quite like printing 3D, but there are overlaps. As with printing, a jacquard weaving is generated with a digital file. Borowska’s 3D pieces have ranged from very simple to quite complex. “In some pieces I’ll just add a pile to the cloth, so it’s just a little bit 3-D. And then there’s a way to weave multiple layers all at once, as you go, so it’s a flat surface, but the way the layers intersect when they’re cut off the loom will unfold into different panels. I also tried a method that leaves big gaps of unwoven areas, and then when the threads are pulled, those areas come together. So two flat pieces will come together and make a three-dimensional construction?.”

Borowska’s research led her to consider the primacy of the visual in contemporary culture, and consider the implications of attending to the visual rather than the other senses. “Is it a toxic symptom of a Western way of looking at things?” she says. “The woven media itself has potential to do amazing things that do make you aware of the haptic senses.”

As a Milieux affiliate, Borowska hopes to engage with people working in VR to continue this consideration of the potentialities of fibres and haptics in imagining alternate realities.

 

Documenting Capital: Intersections of Free Trade Zone Architecture and Digital Filmmaking

By Patrick Smith and Patrick Brodie

 

What can digital filmmaking bring to an understanding of the spaces of capital circulation and accumulation?

This project falls under the umbrella of the Global Emergent Media (GEM) Lab’s Works-in-Progress (WIP) initiative. This workshop is meant to showcase and investigate nascent research-creation projects. To find out more, please see the GEM Lab website:

https://www.globalemergentmedia.com/initiatives

 The Shannon Free Zone is a 2.43 square kilometre international business park located adjacent to Shannon Airport, County Clare, Ireland. It was established in 1959 to attract foreign and regional investment, and claims to be the world’s first free trade zone. Prior to its establishment, Shannon Airport relied almost entirely upon trans-Atlantic flight stopovers for its business. As commercial aircraft increased their fuel capacity and flight distances, it was more and more likely that air traffic would soon begin to bypass Shannon altogether. Consequently, Brendan O’Regan, an entrepreneurial County Clare resident, proposed a manufacturing incentive aimed at creating a production and finance hub with special tax incentivization. While now a free trade zone in name only, its model of the special economic zone—a sequestered space of territorial and financial exception—has been exported and implemented across the world in places like Shenzhen, Dubai, King Abdullah Economic City (Saudi Arabia), Cyberjaya (Malaysia) and across the Global South (and North) (Easterling, 15). In these places, deregulated industry has led to massive spatial transformations, due chiefly to financial growth/investment and the resulting migrations of labor and expulsion of populations.

Driven by a motivation to document and visualize financialized spaces like the Shannon Free Zone—which, while containing a distinct history, also functions as an active financial conduit—we embarked on a multi-media research-creation project aiming to “cognitively map” the abstract flows of capital through the area. Our adoption of a “cognitive mapping” praxis intends to represent the complexity of these histories, and extends primarily from Fredric Jameson’s work on the cultural and economic logics of late finance capitalism. Cognitive mapping—a primarily aesthetic-political practice—should “provide, in one way or another, glimpses into, or distant refractions of, the functioning of a global political economy” (Toscano and Kinkle, 20).

By visualizing the spatial machinations of finance capital (shooting on a Sony A7sII camera), we hoped to confront its invisible circulations by focusing on its material infrastructures and conditions of labor.

Our understanding of free trade zones has benefited enormously from the work of scholars such as Keller Easterling and Aihwa Ong, both of whom have written extensively about the dynamics and negotiations between transnational corporations and governing bodies in the administration of these deregulated zones of industry, trade, and services. We hope to confront these spatial dynamics designed to eliminate friction in certain modes of privileged circulation, while maintaining strategic barriers around a condition of exception. While not necessarily novel, these processes have intensified under the militarized, logistical governance of these zones across all corners of the world since their inception.

While it provided a material and managerial template for free trade zone governance, Shannon never became Dubai. The space itself contains traces of this unrealized and offset potentiality, especially as it re-emerges from obscurity and dilapidation, but one must account for the Republic of Ireland’s unique political and economic context when discussing and representing its present, past, and future state. Ultimately, within the epoch of finance capital’s unrelenting expansion, its increasing globalization requires spatial placeholders to both absorb the surplus of financial overaccumulation and to create new strategic centers for further movement and expansion.

After spending some time on site, were struck by was the everydayness of the operations of corporate development. When we arrived in Shannon, we were given a presentation by executives of Shannon Commercial Properties (SCP), who described the zone’s growth, decline, and current regeneration as a commercial hub. Nested quite snugly next to the grounds of the Shannon Airport—also administered by the Shannon Group and a site of controversy as US military planes often stop over for fuel on the way to and from their undeclared wars in the Middle East—the zone is a visual relic of earlier forms and stages of production and circulation.

While the offices of the development corp were new and refurbished, we were informed that much of the zone, especially the manufacturing spaces, needed to be reclaimed, demolished, and rebuilt in order to continue operating. While SCP had not repossessed all of the manufacturing and warehouse spaces still in use, the process was underway. Across the main road of the industrial estate were the razed and rebuilding grounds of two new office buildings. These were intended to ultimately plug into the tech and knowledge economies being so successfully developed in and around the nation’s other urban centers (and elsewhere in the zone, where GE Capital holds massive headquarters).

The presence of our camera served as both a passport and mediator between ourselves and the spaces we entered and individuals with whom we interacted. Goals, intentions, relations, and intimacies emerged organically, yet the sense of our intrusion, capture, or exportation remained. However, this was not necessarily a unidirectional process. We were tactful about our intentions, but the goals of the executives were clear: they needed to promote the space, and it did not matter where this promotion went. The fact that the Shannon Group also has interests in an airport, regional touristic development, and other branches of commercial industry betrays a logic of expansion that will ride whatever medium of circulation made available. The managers of these smaller arms simply follow the mandate of whatever development process they are promoting.

This brings us to a question of methodology, and the deep imbrications of industry and knowledge creation, of capital and creative production. It is quite common for the barons of industry and policy-making to mine the analyses of humanities research, however critical, to better understand the processes that they are meant to design, regulate, and optimize. When we visited with the critical geographer Rob Kitchin at Maynooth University on this same research trip, he told us that the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis, which has produced some of the most searing critiques of Irish neoliberal policy through the Celtic Tiger and since the crash, was often under contract to produce research and policy papers from the very organizations that they threw into the flames.


While this can produce affirmative results, as developers and policy-makers may better understand the violences and hierarchies of these processes, they always appear to toe the line between critique and complicity. The information produced can aid in more robust and sustainable forms of urban development, but can also be utilized by developmental logics that further optimize systems of exclusion and exploitation, whether intentionally or not.

So, where does research creation fit into these complex systems of governance and critique, design and disruption? The ethnographic approach inevitably must account for the lived experience of both the environments observed and the researchers involved. It is impossible to impose binary oppositions to everyday contingency, social practices, relations, intimacies, and experiences. As mentioned above, in an attempt to investigate this approach, the GEM Lab—created and led by Canadian Research Chair Joshua Neves—is beginning a Works-in-Progress (WIP) initiative (co-organised by Patrick Brodie, Viviane Saglier and Patrick Brian Smith), which will create a space for alternative methodologies and practices, investigating research trends in the humanities such as visual anthropology, digital ethnography, field recording and sound experiments, approaches to information technologies, and other on the ground research practices. WIP can hopefully create a space for such exchanges. While the workshop will not propose answers to these questions, it will serve as a site of conversation around the future of humanities research that is constantly put under pressure by the same neoliberal logics that it often strives to critique.

 

The MP3 Is Dead… Long Live the MP3?

Despite the expiration of the MP3 patents, users across the world are still going to be using this format for some time. But how long will its cultural influence last, and how are Digital Humanities projects facing issues like long-term digital preservation in view of the format’s so-called “passing away”? The MP3 audio compression format triggered some major shifts in the music industry, reconfigured audio playing devices and rematerialized the way we approach our music collections. It also became the object of many scholarly studies, such as George Yúdice’s Nuevas tecnologías: música y experiencia, Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format, and Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free. But the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits recently announced that their patents for the MP3 have expired and their licensing program has terminated after 24 years.

Perhaps due to the announcement’s conclusive tone (shouting out to all who took part in the project, thanking them for their support), it has been interpreted by some media as “the death of the MP3.” As both Sterne and Witt make it clear, other “deaths” have been previously heralded, as it struggled from the very beginning with other competing formats, like RealAudio, or MPEG-2, which for some time seemed to win the match. As early as the mid-90s, Sterne reminds us, an Australian hacker reverse-engineered a Fraunhofer MP3 codec and released it under the name “Thank You, Fraunhofer.” Here is where both narratives of the format’s history diverge—whereas Witt considers the MP3 thrived on despite being hacked, for Sterne this contributed to its popularization.


In a typical reaction to the news, NPR’s Andrew Flanagan considers, “We may still use MP3s, but when the people who spent the better part of a decade creating it say the jig is up, we should probably start paying attention.”


But is this really the end of the format? 
It probably would be if it hadn’t been released to the public domain—and officially it hasn’t—but there are other “liberation” stories besides “Thank You, Fraunhofer.” Since the late 90s, LAME, an encoder licensed under LGPL, has cleared the way for open source audio compression. It is used by digital audio workstations like Audacity, CDex, and Virtual DJ. Although its developers claim it does not infringe any copyright law, since its source code is released only for educational purposes, they do remind us that, in some countries, using it can interfere with Fraunhofer’s patents—that is, until now. Version 3.99 was released in October 2011, and its most recent revision was in February 2012. The latest version, 3.100, has not been released yet, and there has not been any news from the developers after the expiration of Fraunhofer patents. However, open source software programs like freeware audio player Foobar2000 are already adding LAME to their encoder packs after the announcement.


It is true that there will be no more industrial development to the techniques that brought about its creation. But the MP3 will be circulating in Western and Westernized cultures as long as the infrastructure that supports it still works.


This is not the same as when the last company manufacturing VCR players announced they would stop producing them. People can still create MP3 files without Fraunhofer; new improvements to the format (if any) will come from open source communities, rather than the industry. AAC has been usually referred to as the “natural” heir of the MP3’s kingdom, but it will hardly have the same cultural impact. As Sterne reminds us, “To succeed, the MP3’s eventual replacement will require its own combination of technical processes, multi-industrial and transnational regulatory formations, user practices, and opportunities. Whatever it will be, we know that simple technical improvements or new business models are never enough.”


There has also been a severe “path dependence” (the tendency to using one particular standard or a technology instead of another) from audio industries on this format, which is difficult to resist. This concept, coined by Paul A. David, and studied by media scholars such as Trevor Pinch, explains the success and domination of MP3—a format that shares the histories of the music, computer, electronics, and broadcast industries—not by having the best audio quality in the market (which it hasn’t had, and probably never did), but rather by the strong inertia this standard exercised for years upon the very media that made its birth possible in the first place.


Sterne explains, “Once manufacturers and users adopt a system built around a certain standard, the standard becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Both manufacturers and users have interests in the persistence of the standard (or ‘path’), since a change in standard means a transformation in manufacturing equipment and sometimes major purchases for users. So the potential advantages of a new standard have to outweigh the cost for either manufacturers or users.”

This transition to a new standard will take longer to happen in, for example, Latin America, where selling CD-Rs of USB drives full of MP3 files is still a business for informal computer stores and marketplaces. In underdeveloped or developing nations, the fading away of the MP3 infrastructure will take much longer than in Western Europe or North America.


So what will happen to MP3-based audio repositories, like PennSound or UbuWeb? In fact, this question raises the conundrum of digital preservation in general—we do not really know how to preserve files that in the long run will become obsolete (that is, inaccessible through available infrastructures). Some suggest the use of prevailing standards in digital formats, software, and protocols to tackle this question. Others consider emulation as the best option without reconverting files and losing data in the process. Format migration is not recommendable for MP3 files, since it is an end-use format, and re-codification is strongly discouraged by its promoters. However, people regularly re-code and circulate MP3, as in the case of mash-ups. The result, of course, is a loss in definition, just as when you photocopy a document’s copy too many times.

The dominance of MP3 over other files may not be that critical for already established digital audio repositories, but it certainly is for a work in process like PoéticaSonora. Created by faculty members and students from Concordia University (Montreal) and UNAM (Mexico City), PoéticaSonora is engaged with promoting and preserving sound art and sound poetry in Mexico.


One of our most ambitious projects is the creation of an online database with refined search tools to access sound art and poetry works. Sound files have been donated by several sources—cultural institutions, private collectors, artists themselves, and so on. Most of them come in MP3, a few others in lossless formats, or on CDs. In these cases we follow suggestions from digital preservation experts Lisa Goddard (U Victoria) and Kelly Stewart (SFU) and use lossless formats for preservation, whereas MP3 is intended for access purposes. This way we get a backup that is not dependent upon external supports prone to deterioration, like CDs. It also means, however, that there might not be a high-definition replacement for some files.

 

In these cases, we will have to make do with MP3s. We still do not have a definite answer for this problem, and we keep up to date to innovations in the field to figure this out.


Overall, it is good that the industry is moving forward from the MP3. For authors like Sterne, the perceptual limitations behind it made it a perfectible format. Paraphrasing John Philip Sousa’s derision of recorded sound as “canned music,” Sterne claims, “MPEG audio is processed sound for listeners who live in a processed world.” 
The AAC is not as hip as it predecessor, but it is just as processed. Until another format does not break its ties with psychoacoustics and its history of biased sound processing, we cannot claim there is a strong candidate to occupy the place that MP3 has had in our cultures during the last three decades.

 

I’m One of Those Geek Girls!

“I am here, making a film about geeks,” filmmaker Gina Hara says at the beginning of her documentary Geek Girls. Although seemingly straightforward, being “here, making a film about geeks” is more complex than it might seem and these complexities are exactly what Hara’s documentary delves into. Growing up in Hungary, Hara had no word for “geek” and no way to describe her identity within a community. In 2017, being a “geek” is in style and even commercialized. But the word’s connection to bullying and discrimination is still strong. Where geeks were once outcasts, the geek community has produced the isolation that once defined it, although now it excludes women, trans individuals, and non-binary people. Geek Girls considers the empowerment of self-identifying as a geek in order to look closely at the simultaneous costs and dangers of that label.

“Only a few years after learning the word ‘Geek’,” Hara narrates, “I had to learn another word—cyber-bullying.”

Geek Girls begins in Japan, at the centre of geek culture. Although the film travels across many different locations, it continually returns to Japan, as if to bookmark the fragmented structure of the film. Instead of following one interview at a time, Geek Girls weaves together the experiences and stories of 11 different women (including Jamie Broadnax, a podcaster from Black Girl Nerds; NASA Aerospace Engineer Anita Sengupta; and competitive gamer Stephanie Harvey.) The documentary’s interwoven structure parallels the complexities and constant negotiations involved in identifying as a geek.


Geek Girls depicts the wide range of interests that can make someone “geeky,” such as cosplaying, video games, comic books, science, and aesthetic choices. But the documentary also makes clear that, despite all these variations, geek communities are often far more homogenous and exclusionary to women.


In her book Cybersexism, feminist columnist and author Laurie Penny describes this exclusion as “perhaps the most insidious part of the misogynist defence of geekspace.”


Some geek girls resist this misogyny by making new and safe geek spaces. Mariko McDonald, for example, organizes a monthly brunch for geek girls in Montreal and works hard to create communities without exclusion. “I’m a gamer if I say I’m a gamer,” she says.

As Laurie Penny writes, “We have to take back the word ‘geek’.”

But resisting misogyny and reclaiming the word “geek” requires a lot of emotional labour and can even be dangerous. Geek Girls makes geek misogyny uncomfortably visible. During the Montreal Harajuku walk, in which people come together to wear and celebrate Japanese fashion, the camera happens to catch a moment of harassment as an unknown man grabs one of the participants. The candidness of the scene reveals just how common it is for geek women to encounter misogyny.


Élisabeth Fallen, who runs the Montreal Harajuku walk, describes how she must hide her ‘geeky’ lolita and steampunk-inspired fashion from her co-workers for fear that it would affect her employment. Although her style is celebrated in online communities, the labour and love she puts into her craft remains invisible to many who know her.

 

What Geek Girls does best is pay tribute to the emotional labour and energy that goes into “tak[ing] back the word ‘geek’.” It honours the people who say “I’m one of those geek girls” despite the risks it may pose, while also acknowledging the many people who are too scared to.


“All this for being a geek,” Hara says near the end of the film, and that’s the crux of it. “All this” work. “All this” harassment. All of this made visible.


Geek Girls will be showing in Montreal on July 30th at the Fantasia Film Festival.

 

Global Urban Wilds: Layered Explorations of Digital and Green Space

Springing into summer here in Montreal, there is little time better spent than frequenting the city’s many parks and green spaces. But whether sunbathing on the slopes of Mont Royal or picnic-ing in Parc Jarry, it is easy to overlook the careful curation that attends ordered trees and levelled grass.


Addressing green space as a place for retreat and scenic appreciation is tied to a distinctly colonial approach to ecological control. Across North America, lands and waterways are often altered to make them appear “wild” and “untouched” from particular vantage points. Parks are labelled as green spaces with views framed as picture points. Whether in a city or national park, the viewer is set apart from the land itself, placing the individual in a position of power. The 18th century obsession with the environmental aesthetics of a “picturesque” landscape remains strong (Byerly 53). 
At the same time, on the edge of Montreal’s eclectic Mile End neighbourhood, Drs. Jill Didur and Lai-Tze Fan of Concordia University’s English Department and TAG Research Centre are using locative media technologies to encourage an alternative approach to understanding and appreciating the layered histories of urban green spaces.

 

Nestled between 70s’ industrial architecture, Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, and the high grey walls of a Carmelite convent, the Champ des Possibles stands as a “re-wilding” of sorts, designated as a community green space cooperatively managed by Les Amis du Champ des Possibles and the Borough Plateau-Mont Royal since 2013 (Ambard). The site provides a place for citizens to interact with nature, for wildlife to live and move safely within an urban environment, and for countering the ecological effects of storm-water run off, land pollution, and an urban heat island (Ambard).

While the Champ des Possibles is currently home to more than 300 species of plants, animals, and insects, serving as a thoroughfare for foxes and commuting residents alike, Drs. Didur and Fan hope to further complicate the community’s relationship with this particular space through the development of Global Urban Wilds, a locative media application (Bruemmer; Didur and Fan 5-6). As the latest research creation project within Dr. Didur’s larger, SSHRC-funded Insight grant entitled, Greening Narrative, both Didur and Fan, along with computational artist Emma Saboureau and sound specialist Eric Powell have been collaborating with the park’s caretakers, experts in biodiversity and urban wilds, as well as local residents and business owners to develop an interconnected web of stories, pictures, and “found sounds” that can be accessed by moving through the park with a GPS-enabled mobile device (Ibid 5).

This form of distinctly place-based storytelling, accessed through the Global Urban Wilds app, “prioritizes thinking about how locative media can engage citizen publics in thinking about the history of the environment and its relationship to culture, industrialization, colonialism as well as climate change” (Didur interview). While urban green spaces are often considered places to escape from the chaos of the city, they too retain industrial and colonial histories that remain part of a larger urban environment. Working to “complicate romantic ideas of retreat associated with greenspaces in urban contexts,” not only do Didur and Fan encourage an inquisitive understanding and interaction with “environmental placemaking,” but also they do so in a way that draws the eye beyond the green space itself, to the buildings, peoples, and histories that make up this city as a whole (Didur and Fan 1). Beginning to understand the stories of individuals and communities that have contributed to the Champ des Possibles over the years can help residents to engage with Montreal’s own complex history.

As wireless technologies and GPS receivers have become more readily available since the beginning of the 21st century, this new platform has inspired alternative methods of exploration, education, and entertainment through the development of locative media projects. Whether avoiding digital “minefields” in Brazilian public parks (Claudio Bueno), hunting Pokemon on the commute to work (John Hanke), or mapping multifaceted ecological explorations in Montpellier, France (Teri Rueb), various applications of locative technologies enable users to bear witness to the overlapping experience of other spaces, times, and subjects. At the Champ des Possibles, Global Urban Wild users will be encouraged to wander beyond well-worn paths in search of historical accounts, interviews, and soundscapes of other seasons, individuals, and stories that are woven into the fabric of the place itself. For instance, by entering GPS locations in the Champ, “collectibles” in the form of icons are added to the screen, with each icon corresponding to a series of pullouts with added information.

As the Champ des Possibles strives to honour the history of the land by encouraging the introduction of native plants and local wildlife, Global Urban Wilds enables the park-goer to access and acknowledge a complex history of the community and the land itself, “celebrating its current status as a protected green space while also guard[ing] against the potential erasure of the precolonial role Indigenous communities have played in shaping the landscape and the environment” (Ibid 4). While the city of Montreal gears up to celebrate the 375th anniversary of its establishment on unceded Indigenous land, it is important to acknowledge the alternative histories that have contributed to the development of an urban, colonial space.

Pushing back against idealized greenscapes and seemingly “wild” urban ecologies, projects like Global Urban Wilds, point to “the need for further inquiry and consciousness of the precisely non-urban and non-human” (Ibid 7), laying the foundation for the inquisitive exploration of spaces we already occupy and believe to understand.

Global Urban Wilds will be available for free download at the Apple App Store by the end of 2018.

 

 

Open Up! On Laboratory Cultures

SenseLab. Mobile Media Lab. Speculative Life Lab. As I’m giving a tour of the Milieux Institute, I catch myself repeating the word “lab” and thinking of the varied problematics that each of these labs take up in their respective research. Rather than trying to pin down definitions of what constitutes a lab or police what counts as a lab, I find it more useful to wade through different laboratory spaces and observe what thematics emerge.The history of traditional, bounded, scientific laboratories can be limiting and have a legacy of exclusion. In a recent interview, Dean Duclos of the Faculty of Fine Arts commented that calling a space a lab already privileges certain kinds of intelligences over others. She adds, “It’s an interesting time for us to think about how we can use some neutral terms—like zones, hubs, or fields—to then parlay into discussing or even adding a new contemporary history onto the way we think about [these spaces].” Some labs in and around Milieux are deliberately mixing vocabularies and methodologies in order to bridge these gaps and welcome a larger variety of research interests and approaches.

FLEXIBLE LEXICONS

mLab is a lab devoted to methods in games research. As one of its members, Sarah Ganzon, explains, “the mLab feels like our play space that also happens to be our work space,” adding that in many ways “a lot of things we do destabilize the work/play divide.”

The notion of play can extend beyond subject area and figure into the philosophical backbone of a space. This is also true for the Topological Media Lab (TML). Navid, one of the co-directors, explains that TML uses play as a self-perpetuating process. This constant opening up to more and more play imbues research with childlike wonder and the power of “what-if.”

Similarly, Céline Perreia describes the SenseLab as creating an open space for possibilities to emerge. Epitomizing the emergent properties of process philosophy is SenseLab’s current project on “anarchives.” The oppositional prefix an- alludes to the too-linear, too-curated nature of traditional archives. The anarchive is meant to act as seed for future projects which, in the room SenseLab occupies, doubles as a space full of latencies. Trying to describe the complexity of research necessitates an equally complex vocabulary set. Whether it be play-work, what-if, or even (groan) research-creation, these mish-mash thematics —or what Dean Duclos calls a hyphenated practice— allows for the type of complexity that labs thrive on.

THE CREATIVE COLLECTIVE

How do we come to ideas? And, how are those ideas decided upon within a lab? Céline at SenseLab reported that nobody comes in with an independent project at SenseLab: “We all think creatively together without any sort of preformed idea.” Navid at TML referred to a similar ethos, describing the process as “felt knowledge, which isn’t taught, but felt through living together.”

Sarah at mLab reiterated that “Mia [Consalvo, the director] allows us to bring our own research interests into the lab space, and because of the diversity of interests that we have alongside hers, I think that allows for a lot of creativity.”

Creativity, then, emerges as a collective phenomenon instead of an inherently individual trait. Parallel interests generate the buzz of a group, contributing to the liveliness of research labs.

“Access alone is gold dust around here.” – Dean Duclos

Supporting hybrid programs like the Convergence Initiative: Perceptions of Neuroscience and FOYER, Dean Duclos described that one of the fruitful seeds of thinking across disciplines is when participants get to cross fields literally as well as figuratively. A space where engineers can walk into artist spaces and vice versa, seeing and feeling the very stuff of knowledge production, live, in situ, and in vitro.

She lamented that even her status as Dean could not open the engineering labs. She described how “Access alone is gold dust around here,” and I immediately thought about my own keycard to access the Speculative Life Lab. By the very fact that it is a scientifically registered laboratory space, access is limited to the few who have cleared the requisite trainings and standardized tests. The term “laboratory” then, while latent with possibilities for openness, wonder, and collective research, is still a term of exclusion.

Porosity is the lifeblood of all that is lively, from cellular respiration to the creative spark of research groups. I agree with Dean Duclos, who comments, “We’re sitting on this delicious network of ideas and it’s just a shame to think that we spend so much time in our cubbyholes.” I spend so much time in my own cubbyhole of EV10.835, aloof to the myriad of other fantastic ideas taking root in other labs within Milieux. How could we cross over more from one lab to the next?

As a start, I invite you, dear reader, to please come by. Yes, our door has the tiniest of windows and, while laboratory protocols prevent me from propping open the door, I would happily walk you through our peculiar, playful space.

Media Archaeology as Platform: An Interview with Jussi Parikka

In May, the Media History Research Center hosted a weeklong seminar on Media Archaeology co-taught by Professors Darren Wershler (Concordia University), Lori Emerson (University of Colorado at Boulder) and Jussi Parikka (Winchester School of Art) who are collectively working on a book on labs and lab culture.


The course began with an introduction to Media Archaeology. Starting with Kittler’s work on Discourse Networks, we worked through German Media Theory’s approach to technical media as a way to think through the entanglements of labour, maintenances and infrastructures. As the week continued, we tried to address how labs afford specific encounters with technical media, and how we can develop methodologies to rethink these objects and the subjects they produce. To that end, students worked on projects in dialogue with daily seminars. Two teams of students built Raspberry Pi arcade cabinets with help from Anne-Louise Davidson, while other students worked with the Depot‘s collection of retro-gaming hardware.

These projects enacted the problems we run into when we try and historicize, interpret, and collect media. They were instrumental in thinking through the lab as performance space.

After a seminar on the problems of navigating institutional infrastructures, I talked with Jussi Parikka about the platforms and infrastructures at play in his own scholarly practice.

After his book on computer viruses, Digital Contagions, Parikka was left with a heterogeneous archive: composed of “three and a half inch floppy disks, but the bulk of that research is photocopies of archival materials like cartoons, newspapers.” It’s easy to see how an interest in media archaeology can emerge out of the infrastructural breaks that a long-term research catalog articulates. Maintaining such a long-term research catalog is a media archaeological project in itself.

I asked Professor Parikka how his research practices have changed since then. “I’m not as systematic as other people,” he responded, “[My process] has to be so intuitive that I don’t have to spend time on it.” Parikka favors research practices that reduce the friction of writing, rewriting and annotating. Though he was hesitant to adopt it at first, he now uses cloud-based Evernote in his writing practice. “The cloud is great for stuff that you might not need but you might want to write an article on it.”

Similarly, he generates arguments by trying to “get the broad sweep of an argument without editing. [It’s] a way of articulating all the possible avenues without getting stuck in the details.”

I think Media Archaeology’s platform functions in a similar way. As Parikka told me, “[It’s] not about enforcing a restriction of what counts as Media Archaeology; it’s set of cultural techniques”. Parikka’s methodology evokes a recurring theme of the course: how can a scholar avoid reproducing the logic of their object of study?

For Parikka, Media Archaeology is a creative intervention into this problem. By subverting the logic of an object, there is a moment of subjectification that opens up the possibility for the new to emerge. Following a genealogy of thinkers from Heidegger to Deleuze to Latour, Parikka says: “Once things fail, then you start to see their complexity”.

This is the Media Archaeological move: to un-blackbox; to tinker and glitch; to use postdigital practices as methods of creative rupture. The infrastructural breaks that these methods expose can open up new questions about production and reception. This evokes the figure that Parikka adapts from Erkki Huhtamo’s artist-archaeologist, the t(h)inkerer:

“an archaeological circuit bender and hacker, [who creates] a link between media archaeology and the political agenda of contemporary media production.” (Zombie Media)

Back in Winchester, Professor Parikka will collaborate with their computer and web sciences departments through the AMT research group, where he hopes to expand the Media Archaeology platform. His goal: to make more with collective resources.

This work speaks to another theme of the course: how the infrastructures that make scholarly work possible includes and excludes people. How can labs work through the affective costs of participation; or, as student Jeffrey Moro put it: What (or who) gets to be infrastructure?

Making Spaces in Maker Spaces: A History of the Ethnography Lab

There is a new research group filling the spaces of Milieux. The Ethnography Lab was conceived in the department of Sociology & Anthropology, and was inaugurated on February this year as a space for exploring and experimenting with various ethnographic methods.

 Although originally constituted by two short-term project groups, the Ethnography Lab rapidly became a heterogeneous space that holds not only field-focused research groups but also a podcast, a writing circle, a conversation group, and a creative re-use project. The divergent scope of practices in this specific composition[1] find their roots in the process of making the space. So how does the story of the Ethnography Lab unfold?

The sheer fact that this initiative of social scientists has found a place in maker spaces is in-itself telling of the entanglement of material and social relations that constitute this story.

There are two key ingredients that define this research group: one is having active projects, and the other is the material construction of the space. While the projects provide fuel to the research space and give it vibrancy; it is the making of this space that has laid the foundation for an assemblage of various practices to be gathered.

In the making of the things that reside in and define the space, the Ethnography Lab has become a ‘thing’ itself.

The centerpiece of the research space is a large table that embodies the story of how the space came to be. The making of the table was a process that put the members together and provided a sense of solidarity by enforcing itself as solid matter waiting to be assembled. People who worked on crafting the table and various furniture have shared both enjoyment and frustration; we experienced pleasure that came with lunch breaks, and pain that came with carrying heavy materials in and out of places. We learned how to use various tools, and how to give material time for it to take its final form. Overall, the mundane and repetitive task that materiality requires enabled production of a collective effervescence[2], which was reorganized into sociality that informed the everyday reality[3] of this research space.

The table reflects this coming together of human and nonhumans actors into a collective[4] that now we call Ethnography Lab. The ‘things’ that define Ethnography Lab are embodiments of the intertwined materiality and sociality: the table that was gathered by ethnographers now gathers researchers from various disciplines; the ‘campfire’ brings together different schools of thought; these ‘things’ both create the conditions of the possibility for, and become witnesses to unfolding of ideas, emergence of projects, and formation of solidarities.

The space now hosts a podcast series that profiles the activities happening around Ethnography Lab; a writing circle where people engage with their scholarly work in solidarity with another; and a conversation group that aims at creating a space dedicated to crystallizing the collective aspect of knowledge production. Not to mention initiations that emerge from the gathering of the lab; for instance, a visit from students from STS program in Technical University of Munich turned into a long-term collaboration with various members of Milieux that will result in conferences and research on maker spaces. If the Ethnography Lab only worked through short-term projects, I do not think that it would turn into the lively space that it is becoming. The initial step of materially putting together the space in collective action had set forth processes that unfold into bundles of assemblages.

 Making a space in a makerspace such as Milieux is a concrete example of how making some-things makes us something.

The collectivity that constructs this space is what makes the Ethnography Lab special. The surplus of the socio-materiality spills over from the making of things and composes the research space as a place of belonging, thus enabling the coming-into-being of new collaborations and initiatives.

The Ethnography Lab became a part of the vibrancy of Speculative Life Research Cluster of Milieux, with its table gathering discussions, experiences, methods, and researchers together, setting a space for interdisciplinary exchanges to take place and innovative research approaches to emerge.

 

 

Interacting With Place

My research maps together practices of knowledge transformation – sensory observation, spatial critique, and art-making – to ask how places come to be known. In doing so, I consider how metaphors shape understanding of spatial environments, and how they can be played with.

 

My work incorporates multi-media field practices focused on sound and listening in order to direct sensory attention in new ways which challenge ingrained assumptions. I’ve been sharing some of these techniques in the Sound Environments Workshop series (hosted by Milieux), as we experiment together with approaching sound as a “texture of reality.” These practices include prosthetic encounters (forcing shifts in perspective by filtering the senses through technology, such as microphones or lenses), juxtaposing images and sounds (i.e., creating spaces of meaning through contrast and poetic resonance), and open-ended art practices.

These practices of “listening deeply” force us to question our spatial impressions. For example, last year I worked on a sound-based collaborative project exploring ‘situated nostalgia’ in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, organized by Dr. Owen Chapman in connection with Concordia and Lancaster University. Designed by then-Mayor Jean Drapeau and architect Roger Taillibert in the 1970s, the “Big-O” was signalled as a potent, modern cosmopolitan space for both commercial tourism and Montreal nationalist and humanist identity work.

 

But what did it mean to have this identity work mustered by a 175-metre tower that jutted outward at a 45° angle to form the capstone of a rolling cement landscape – besides suggesting the future under formation by a benevolent scientific patriarchy?

 

Although I was critical of the Big O to begin with, and planned to enter tension with its history and expression of public space values, roaming the grounds physically led me to embodied experiences that I could not so easily dismiss. Through repeated encounters, I observed not only complex spatial properties of the site, but my own experiences of space. I was able to hear energy flow in the enormous concrete diorama, ponder the act of its mass obliterating a residential area, and grapple with my own feelings of awe at the stimulating geometry of the walkway design.

 

At the Olympic Stadium, I approached the site as a visitor and tourist. With my thesis work, my role was different. My project engaged nature sites well-known to me in my rural hometown. There, I was an expat returning to a familiar site with new knowledge of local history and development. The local natural spaces appeared pristine, while at the same time they were being managed and presented for the public by local government and resource industry operations (hydro-electric, logging, quarrying, etc). Their organization primed visitors for a settler experience of land and public space and excluded histories and perspectives outside the settlement paradigm.

The question driving me became how my understanding of home had ever been so in line with local narratives that I was now deeply questioning.  

 

A focus on metaphor led me to question whether, when driving the backroads, I might interpret my car as a sort of house-proxy (intimate space furnished with comforts of home), or as a mech suit, or both. I wondered how perceiving it each way affected/effected my experience of the backcountry I was driving through and shaped my relations with where I was going.

 

These interpretations bear on ways sensory awareness is integrated into social paradigms and place narratives. They can suggest which parts of public space are connected ecologically or seemingly kept apart, how shared space should be used, what values are prioritized, and how development can be realized. In the case of the road, the benefit of high-speed transportation became associated with the current infrastructure providing it – which also delimited what other forms of conveyance and connectivity might be imagined.

To spread our metaphors across the floor and consider their evocation allows us to reconsider memory-work, social values, and durational themes not always identified at first reflection. Creative methodologies and sensory focus push back against grooved thoughts and archetypal structures and illuminate processes of world-creation.

Adapting Academia: On Pedagogy and Fandom

Amid the stress of grades, coursework, and piles of assigned readings, what can we do to remind students—and ourselves—why we came to the academy in the first place? How can we liven up the classroom. Last fall, I was offered the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant for ENGL 261: British Literature to 1660. The survey class, compulsory for the majority of undergraduate English degrees, features the daunting likes of Beowulf, Paradise Lost, and the other usual suspects of the early English literary canon. In the first class, it became clear that many students’ academic interests lay elsewhere, and that the centuries-wide chasm between today and Volume A of the Norton Anthology of Western Literature positioned the syllabus as largely un-relatable. 

To render these texts more appealing and accessible, the students didn’t need me at my most academic—the needed me at my most fannish: as someone capable of modeling interest and of connecting the works and concepts under discussion to cultural objects they already knew and cared about. Clips from ABC’s comedy musical Galavant opened the door to discussions of courtly love and the chivalric code; She’s the Man clarified the stakes and subversions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The weeks where we took contemporary adaptations as our conversational starting points resulted in some of the more enriching critical conversations we had.

 

Around that same time, I sat down with my fellow members of the organizing committee for the annual Concordia English Graduate Colloquium to decide the theme of our fifteenth iteration. Our concerns cohered around a collective desire to do exactly what I was struggling to do in class: to make scholarship more engaging for academics and the broader public.

 

Like canon-driven syllabi, conferences have long been criticized for their elitism and affective distance. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere describes an academy that is “detached from reality,” disconnected,” and governed by an “alienating verbosity.” Such a disconnect means that, as academics, we occasionally forget what drew us to scholarship in the first place, how we initially learned how to close read not in classes but through our favorite books, movies, video games, and an assortment of cultural objects that only tangentially make their way into class discussions.

 

A number of my co-organizers and I were fans long before we became serious about academia. We are, to borrow Matt Hills’ widely popularized term, aca-fans, liminal individuals who identity as both fans and academics, and who have access to the cultural communities and means of knowledge production of both. When our committee settled on “The Sincerest Form of Flattery” as the title for our call, we didn’t want to create a fan expo by overthrowing the structures of academia altogether. Instead, we wanted to open a dialogue between criticism and cultural objects not often discussed in universities. Our panels examined fan-fiction, memes, video games, Disney, movies, translated letters, and social media platforms through the lenses of feminist, queer, and postcolonial theory.

 

The conference concluded with a keynote address from Dr. Hannah McGregor, an Assistant Professor in Publishing at Simon Fraser University and one half of the duo behind the fortnightly podcast Witch, Please. McGregor’s talk, “Like Dumbledore’s Army Except Hermione is In Charge: Podcasting, Feminist Fandom, and the Public Academic,” addressed the intersections between fandom and scholarship.

 

McGregor suggests that the aca-fan “can bring fannish enthusiasm into the classroom and critical thinking into fandom.” In addressing what a critical practice that is at once analytical and based in love rather than disdain would look like, she says, “My theory is that it would look an awful lot like fandom: engaged, enthused, uninhibited, critical yes, but lovingly so.”

 

Fandom synthesises affection and criticism. As Anne Jamison argues in Fic, fanfiction takes a story and “makes it new, or makes it over, or just simply makes more of it.” A form of making, fanfiction is bound up in an excited desire to take part in a conversation, to say something—and this something is often a critique. The difference is that this form of productive criticism develops out of attachment, engagement, and excitement, not cool superiority.

 

A pedagogy that looks like fandom would therefore be generative rather than silencing, community-oriented rather than isolating. Unfortunately, the specialized language of fandom and the critical interventions that fans undertake out of a desire to explore, transform, and improve the objects of their fandom are often elided or disparaged as being too uncool precisely because they’re too affected. As McGregor notes, “[t]he primary difference between cultural criticism and fan production is the institutionalization of the former,” but imagine what can happen if we were to grant fandom institutional acknowledgement as scholars like Hannah McGregor, Marcelle Kosman, and Anne Jamison do? Imagine what it would be like to sit in a classroom and be encouraged to feel.

 

When we teach the same texts over and over in a way that, as Freire describes, “is alien to the existential experience of the students,” we teach without affect and we teach students that affect and affection does not belong in the classroom. There is merit in studying the cannon, but it’s about time, I think, that we adapt the syllabus.

How To Brand A Nation

As a governmental project, nationalism adopts nation-centric rhetoric and policies that instil a feeling of patriotism and devotion among its citizens. The practice emerged in the 1800s as Europe’s dynastic empires tumbled in favour of nation-states. Over a century later, a new form of nationalism has appeared: nation branding. With nation branding, national consciousness is taken up and repackaged to enhance a country’s trade strategy and soft power. This new tactical form of nationalism is a response to the emergence of the 21st century globalized nation, one whose commercial markets and policies are intertwined with other countries and coalitions. Traditionally, a country’s economic health was based on its national corporations and levels of production. That changed with the increase in free trade agreements, foreign acquisitions and the cross-border production chains of the late 20th century. A country’s economic value could no longer be defined by its corporate landscape. It could, however, be defined by its citizens.

 

So how does one brand a nation? Nation branding operates as a series of campaigns meant to promote a nation’s value to international audiences.[1] Melissa Aronczyk break the process down into four stages: research/evaluation, training/education, identification and implementation. 

The first stage involves evaluating a nation’s level of attractiveness based on national and international perceptions. Citizens are then trained on nation branding and its importance. Thirdly, a nation’s essence or “core idea” is developed, which is then shared through multiple channels as a distinguishing feature of national identity.

 

Canada is no stranger to the practice. Right now, as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Liberal Government has taken advantage of the opportunity to “sell” Canada both at home and abroad. Canada’s Sesquicentennial celebrations fit in as part of Aronczyk’s fourth stage of nation branding, to “distill the political, economic and cultural interests of the country into a single but mutable proposition.”[2]  The celebrations’ four themes, diversity and inclusion, reconciliation with indigenous peoples, the environment and youth, reflect the rhetoric that has come to define the Liberal government since Trudeau took leadership. Crafting the themes in the image of the Liberals’ platform is a branding tactic that ensures citizens are embodying the party’s values throughout the celebratory events. The themes are meant to create a cohesive and attractive story of Canada that we, as citizens, are compelled to embody and share.

 

When announcing diversity as a Sesquicentennial theme, Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly reiterated what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has exclaimed many times: “we want to celebrate our diversity” because “Canadians understand that diversity is our strength.” Trudeau’s dependence on the concept of diversity as a selling point was evident during his address at the World Economic Forum Signature Session in Davos in January 2016. The Forum was Trudeau’s first post-election opportunity to tout the “new Canada” on a global stage. In his Davos speech, entitled “The Canadian Opportunity,” Trudeau used the occasion to rebrand the Canadian economy from one that is heavily reliant on natural resources to one that is dependent on its country’s confidence and diversity. The address was one way to establish the innovative technology industry as a natural fit for Canadians because “diversity fosters new ideas.”

 

With his speech, Trudeau shifted Canadians’ understanding of diversity from a key descriptor of their identity into an economic asset. For decades, Canada’s pride as a functioning multicultural society has been at the center of our identity. Now, it is part of our global brand. Yet just 10 years earlier, diversity was deemed an impediment to our “brand.” [3] Now, in the age of “innovation,” mixing different ideas, background, and methods has become valuable. It is true in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal, and here at Milieux. We embrace diversity; operating at the intersection of art, culture and technology, we encourage each cluster to work together in challenging assumptions about what is possible. The government knows the industrial and technology sectors will only continue to grow. They understand the future of our economy will depend more and more on being innovative and pushing technological boundaries. That is why they are so eager to shift how Canadians and international investors see our economy. The Liberals want us to be known as a country that produces ideas, not oil.

 

When the Liberals took over planning for the Sesquicentennial in 2015 and abandoned the historical aspect of the anniversary in favour of themes, the celebrations moved away from a birthday celebration to a political project, one steeped in nation branding strategy and with a specific mission: to establish long-lasting Canadian myths in their own image for both their citizens and potential investors. As spokesman for Minister Joly, Pierre-Olivier Herbert explained in a January 2017 Globe and Mail article, the celebrations are “our chance to reaffirm our social contract – rooted in our two official languages, our attachment to pluralism as well as our continued efforts towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”[4] Indeed, to live in the nation of Canada is to sign a social contract. With the Sesquicentennial, the Liberals have rewritten the contract, redacting and expanding certain sections while adding others.

 

Nationalism does have its benefits, creating a reassuring and communal bond among citizens. However, as we are seeing today in the United States and Europe, it is also dangerous. The danger of nation branding, like the nationalism it serves, is the mistaken assumption that these myths are intrinsic. When traits are mistaken for intrinsic, one doesn’t want to contaminate them. Nationalism is inherently biased; a group, even one as big as a nation, can only be formed through exclusion. That exclusion can remain benign, or grow into a hostile sense of protectionism to preserve the traditions or way of life (the myths) of a nation.

Participatory Making

You are handed an envelope and instructed to text “READY” to an unknown number. You send the message and look through the envelope. In it is a single loonie, which you pocket. You receive a text and image from the number: “Follow this handrail to the auditorium. Walk slowly. Text me the room number at the end.” You follow the instructions, guided by a series of texts and images from the unknown number. You are told you are looking for someone named Lucie, someone who has been missing for a long time. You are told to “keep your face hidden from the cameras.” You look up to try and see the cameras. You are not sure whether you are more engaged by the mission prescribed to you, or the fact that you enjoy playing the role.

In early April, during the height of end-of-term madness, over twenty students, faculty, and artists gathered at Concordia to kick off a week of workshopping, making, and conceptualizing. The week was part of an ongoing collaboration between independent theatre and digital art company ZU-UK and Milieux’s Technoculture, Art, and Games (TAG) lab.

The starting goals for the week were vague, but exploratory: the group would break into teams and then make projects based on a similar set of concerns. The projects all needed to consider and make something based on the terms “participatory, public, locative, performative, and game.” The ongoing tension of the week was between making things and conceptualizing them. How do we determine how much time to spend on each part of the process? At what point is it necessary to physically experiment with what has been conceptualized, and how often is it important to go back to the conceptual drawing board?

 

You receive another text: “There is a coffee cup in one of the plant pots. I left instructions inside. Do EXACTLY as it says.” You find the coffee cup and ignore the weird looks from the strangers watching you as you pick the instructions out of the cup: “Buy the cheapest thing in the cafe.” You follow through, purchase a banana, make small chat with the barista, try to appear natural. But your phone buzzes again, another text. It is a picture of you, followed by another message: “You have been compromised.”

There is no singular kind of process in group collaboration, rather an ongoing entanglement of making and reflecting on that making. But what seems to work best is an ongoing process of making and reflecting–with neither part of the process dominating the other. Maintaining singular and specific goals is also necessary. Because the week was an experiment, everyone came with different expectations for what was inevitably not-quite-game-jam, not-quite-conference, not-quite-makeathon. By defining the process through nots, we are able to narrow the focus. It is often the simplest, most constrictive goals that allow for the most bizarre, interpretive possibilities. Interactive experiences are similar. Participants need to be drawn in with the least amount of explanation possible. They need to understand their role immediately. They do not necessarily need to feel safe, but if there is a leap, they need the incentive to jump. How we frame playable experiences is similar to how we frame these collaborative processes.

Someone comes up to you. You don’t know them. “You just missed her,” they say, and hand you a pair of headphones. You put the headphones on and hear a voice. It is the voice of Lucie, the woman you have been looking for. “I don’t want to be found,” she tells you. She instructs you to look up, towards the top of the staircase. You see another person, in your old footsteps, picking up an envelope as you once did. You follow them from a distance, listening to the voice. You sabotage their progress, take a picture of them standing outside the cafe. You realize you are the cameras.

In making, thinking, and experimenting, we must remain aware of how our actions function. How do we invite all participants to feel welcoming in our critiques? What conversations are we participating in by conceptualizing? When are we just following prescribed instructions? How do we make our making matter? “Sometimes it is important to stay with the trouble,” TAG co-founder Lynn Hughes tells me, referencing the title of Donna Haraway’s most recent book. And maybe the reference is not so far off from what we try to do when we get together to critically collaborate. This act of participatory, critical collaboration is like a game of cat’s cradle, “passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.”

You see them buying a banana, as you once did. You walk towards them, tap them on the shoulder, and repeat: “You just missed her.” You have finished the game. (The not-quite-a-game.) And you feel like not-quite-yourself. You have participated in something much more cyclical and knotted than just an individual experience. You have entangled yourself with other participants in an ongoing process of “becoming-with-each-other” and now you are left looking–not for Lucie–but for your own relation and engagement with that complex, participatory web.

Avatar Activism

“I now think of avatars as metaphors for the future […]
“What I hope to show is not that I want to be like my avatar or my avatar wants to be like me but we want to be like each other,” Skawennati, 2017

Distinctions between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ become messy when considering the lives of avatars. Second Life is a free 3D virtual reality platform that was first launched in 2003 and still hosts roughly 800,000 users/avatars today. Though the mainstream public interest in Second Life has dwindled, artists and educators have begun takeover the VR world. The massively-multiplayer-online (MMO) game has expanded to include more than 200 institutions of higher education, as well as VR representations of the Smithsonian Institution, the Census Bureau, and NASA. Similar locations include OCAD University’s VR campus and Skawennati’s AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace) Island.

Like the real world, the online virtual sphere, and more specifically the world of Second Life, has become a new site of public encounter. With new possibilities of self presentation and representation, come new opportunities for social and political uprisings, for activist protest, and biting commentaries on the “real” world.

 

Mohawk multimedia artist Skawennati Fragnito is no stranger to Second Life; she has been filming experimental machinima in the VR platform since its early days. Her first machinima (a mode of filming using computer graphics engines from video games), TimeTravellerTM, is a 9-episode series of activist art. The machinima is a critique of colonial, Western and imperialistic historical narratives that retells actual historical events from an indigenous perspective and imagines a vibrant future for indigenous people.

 

TimeTravellerTM is an empowering piece of activist media. Skawennati’s work with Milieux’s own Initiative for Indigenous Futures research cluster is imperative to our imagining of a bright and inclusive future in times of desperate despair provoked by the recent American election.

 

Skawennati’s most recent work has brought her back into Second Life; though it seems unlikely that her personal avatar xox Voyager ever left. She Falls for Ages (2017), is a beautiful retelling of the Iroquois creation story in Skyworld.

 

In Second Life, Skawennati creates her own lyrical and enchanting depiction of Skyworld as an otherworldly alien inhabited planet of vibrant pink and green extraterrestrials. Skawennati’s exhibition Tomorrow People (Feb. 4 – March 18) at OBORO gallery will be the debut of this newest machinima film.

 

The avatar is a chimera creature that is both real and constructed, imagined and material—a shared experience that allows artists to move through and inhabit multiple worlds.

Watching empowered bodies march and congregate in the material world, I wonder about methods of occupying the virtual world as resistance? We need bodies in the streets, but we may also need bodies in the virtual sphere to create change. Virtual spaces allow artists to comment on the unique experiences and the potential injustices they face in their physical bodies.

 

Second Life is a real site of social engagement, as well as a space that can inform the cultural climate of the ‘real’ world offline. If the avatar is a metaphor for the future, it is also a powerful tool of activist engagement. It can be used as a tool that “allows the artist to go anywhere and do anything in the virtual realm while also presenting the open possibilities of constructing and presenting her own unique identity through these seductive iterative virtual bodies” (Pullen 2016). Marginalized publics have the potential to be set free online.

 

So let’s make our own avatars, occupy material and virtual spaces, and ask: how can we use virtual reality as a site of activism rather than escapism?