Sunday, 28 February 2016

Who owns culture - thoughts provoked by Tiffany Jenkins

Over the weekend, I participated in an accidental masterclass on contemporary museum values. It all started on Friday afternoon, when I read British sociologist and writer Tiffany Jenkins' recent blog post for OUP, which marks the launch of her OUP-published book Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended up in Museums, and Why They Should Stay There. The blog post left me aghast - for reasons I will come to soon. 

I've struggled in the past with what I see as Jenkins' rigid - even wilful - reluctance to treat with museums on their own contemporary terms, and her tendency instead to frame all arguments in absolute terms of what museums are and aren't for. The OUP post is the latest in a couple of years' worth of strongly worded and (I believe) intentionally provocative statements Jenkins has made on the topic of museums repatriating collection items to source communities. (It makes sense that earlier columns, such as this one for The Scotsman or this one for Spiked, both from 2014, were leading up to this book.)

Jenkins is vigorously opposed to repatriation, and - for that matter - to many of the contemporary activities and goals of museums. From the Scotsman, her definition of the purpose of museums:
The role of museums is to further understanding of past civilisations and their accomplishments. 
And from that Spiked article, on the British Museum's decision to loan one of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage Museum as a self-conscious act of cultural diplomacy:

This is about soft power, improving relations between countries, rather than inspiring people with the artworks and the values of the ancient world. The loan is an attempt to show the relevance of museums to modern society. If they can prove they are essential to international relations, they might survive. 
These strategies threaten the future of the museum. Pursuing social outcomes that museums can’t possibly achieve will come at the cost of their core role: research and dissemination of knowledge. The decision to loan the marbles to Russia shows that museum heads today have things completely the wrong way around: artefacts should not be put to work for the museum; the museum should be put to work to understand the artefacts. 

In her blog post, Jenkins makes a series of assertions, including:
  • repatriation activities are not only returning collection items to source communities, but limiting what museum-going audiences (where 'museum' means, implicitly, the encyclopedic collections of parts of Europe and North America) can see and learn from 
  • the involvement of source communities in decisions about the management, research and display of collection items makes an 'unfortunate elision [] between someone’s ethnicity and their authority to speak definitively about cultural artefacts, which excludes those who do not share that ethnicity, despite their expertise' and leads to 'the disappearance from public display of important material' and the restriction of access on the basis of spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs 
  • consulting a source community in research for a collection or exhibition ('it’s true that people who may be close to the original manufacture and use of an artefact will reveal a significant amount about its creation, use and meanings') is okay, but 'granting a measure of control to people on the basis of their apparent cultural roots' risks threatening the museum's highest purpose, as 'a secular institution in the service of historical inquiry' 
The most breathtaking assertion to my eyes however was this:
The Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge [] are the best way to research history and culture. Indeed, surrendering the authority to curate an exhibition to communities on the basis of their identity hinders the understanding of the very people it claims to help, because the effect is to make it impossible to research historical—and current—indigenous life. And it is an approach that does nothing to address the political and economic problems faced by indigenous populations. 
I was blown away by what I perceived as the enormous arrogance of that position. At that point, I wrote two tweets 

Via those tweets, a number of New Zealand museum professionals and cultural commentators went to the article and a robust, occasionally emotional, and occasionally defensive conversation ensued. I took part, here and there, but also settled into write a blog post - the first draft of which was definitely emotional and defensive, and not especially robust. Since then, I've been following the conversation, and trying to widen my understanding, and trying to articulate my own position - an endeavour that has resulted in this piece you're reading now.

From that blog post I went to Jenkins' site, and found there this review of her book, by John Carey, published in the Sunday Times. Carey describes the book as "an outstanding achievement, clear-headed, wide-ranging and incisive" and Jenkins' position as a defence of "the enlightenment ideal of universal knowledge" against the "betrayal" of Western museums returning artefacts (obtained legally or illegally) to source communities. He also notes that "[a]t its most extreme the case for repatriation can sound like the ravings of some weird apocalyptic sect", a characterisation of communities' desire to have their taonga returned to them that is best unsympathetic and at worst - well, I'll leave it to you to decide what your 'at worst' is.

Carey extrapolates Jenkins' arguments against the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, with recent atrocities committed against cultural heritage:
Her book is timely. The enemies of enlightenment are strong. In March 2015, Isis bulldozed Nimrud; in September they destroyed parts of Palmyra. That the great national museums should safeguard their collections has never seemed more vital. 
This kind of generalisation - that museums' collections are under an ideological threat from repatriation that is equivalent to the danger posed to architecture and objects in an ideologically-driven war zone - is inflammatory in the extreme.

It's worth taking a moment to interrogate the word 'enlightenment' there, because it's important. Far from being the kind of omniscient, objective institution Jenkins and Carey describe, today's Western encyclopediac museums are founded upon a set of English and North American Enlightenment-era ideals, relating to how the natural and cultural phenomena of the world should be collected, organised, studied, interpreted, displayed, and made publicly accessible. The British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery sets out the museum's raison d'être - of universal collections and universal access (a term which has morphed with time, as originally 'universal' originally meant "learned and studious men, both native and foreign": the right of access was limited to those of the correct gender, educational level, and financial ability to travel).

Tangentially, the BM's own study guide for this gallery is a fascinating read. To the point however: in 2004 the then-director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor (who stood down at the end of last year) mounted a spirited, eloquent, and almost convincing defence of the need for institutions like the British Museum to hold true to these ideals and, in particular, resist the pressures to return items to source communities, or the "narrowing of [an] object's meaning and its appropriation to one political agenda", actions which would both threaten the public's ability to encounter a collection that "embraces the whole world" and therefore "consider the whole world".

This is a noble and important goal and role. It's one that Jenkins clearly believes in wholeheartedly. However, I personally and professionally believe it to be a goal and role that can't be treated as one static set of unchanging rules and conditions, but one that must be aspired to, and worked on, at a level that effectively encounters each item that resides in a museum collection on its own terms, with respect to who it was created by, when, and where, and with what original intent - and the path it travelled from its source to the storeroom or gallery in which is now lies. I fundamentally support the collaborative care of collections in partnership with source communities. I acknowledge that the repatriation of objects is a far more nuanced and difficult topic - and one that changes in every instance under consideration - and I don't claim to have any hands-on professional experience in this area, let alone guidance as to when repatriation is "right" or "wrong". But I disagree with Jenkins' assertion that a source communities claim must always be bested by that of the enlightenment museum.

To ensure I wasn't just going off half-cocked, I sat down and read the first chapter of Jenkins' book, which is available online. The book has three aims, which she delineates in this introduction. First, she sets out to explain how Western museums (my modifier, not hers) have assembled their collections over time. Here she acknowledges that 'repatriation sceptics' - a group she sees herself as aligned to, but not part of - tend to "underplay the more questionable acts by means of which objects were seized".

Second, she seeks to understand why the conversation around repatriation is becoming louder, and the number of requests is growing. She writes:
More countries, groups, and individuals have agitated for the return of ‘their’ artefacts since the late 1980s than did in the past. The objects that they want returned were taken centuries ago. Yet the cries for return escalate. ... Returning artefacts is said to heal the wounds of the past, to provide a kind of therapy to the descendants of those violated, and to restore the objects to their rightful place. Great claims are made for what repatriation can do and what the movement of cultural artefacts can achieve. 
My hackles rose as soon as I read this - based entirely on my education and experience as a 21st century museum professional raised in Aotearoa New Zealand. Perhaps the "cries for return escalate" because indigenous communities all around the world are finally - after decades or centuries of economic, educational and social disadvantage resulting from colonial actions - finding themselves in the position to think about expanding their reclamation of self-governance to their lost heritage, and also having the social, political and and financial leverage to undertake this work?

Thirdly, Jenkins outlines what she sees as the role of the museum. For her, this is clear (even in our ever-more nuanced times):
My central observation is that our great museums as institutions are struggling to find their place in the new millennium, and that this is an important contributing factor in why they have become the object of scrutiny, and defensive in response. Social changes and intellectual currents have contributed to challenging the foundational purpose of the museum: to extend our knowledge of past people and their lives. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, museums have faced a crisis of conscience and confidence, as an array of social and intellectual shifts—including the ideas of postmodernism and postcolonialism, which question the possibility of knowledge and common understanding—have become mainstream. With the influence of these trends, the institution has become a focus of a relentless critique, castigated for historical wrongs and current social ills. (My emphasis)
Here Jenkins frames the museum sector's evolving understanding and interpretation of its role in society in negative, reactive and reluctant terms - rather than proactive, collaborative, and socially-driven ones. Her assertion of "the foundational purpose of the museum: to extend our knowledge of past people and their lives" is one she defends against all things she sees as encroachments, from co-curation of exhibitions to child-oriented programming.

All of this left such a sour taste in my mouth, and anger in my heart. I mentally railed against Jenkins' solipsism, her Eurocentricism, her patronising tone towards the descendants of those people who originally made, lived with, used or worshipped the objects to which she refers: the "sincere laypeople from the relevant cultural group", a phrasing which denies the learning and professionalism of so many I see working around me in Aotearoa New Zealand, and in particular the role and work of kaitiaki Maori here.

So I went looking elsewhere. I went, for example, to the work of an anthropologist Jenkins disparages in that blogpost. I elided Ruth B. Phillips' name in the above quote, so let me reintroduce it here:
Removing artefacts that were once on display is an increasingly common practice in museums with indigenous collections, one celebrated by the anthropologist Ruth Phillips, as rendering objects “invisible” and as a “grand refusal of key Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge.” 
... Scholarship cannot thrive if limits are placed on who can investigate the past, or if lines of investigation are shut down. The Western traditions for the production and disposition of knowledge, so disparaged by Ms Phillips, are the best way to research history and culture. 
The quoted phrases from Phillips are drawn from a chapter of her book Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums, and a chapter from which Jenkins' quotes can be (mostly) read online. It relates to the return of particular taonga - ceremonial objects, never intended for general public display - to their original tribal owners. It describes what is to my mind the future of the responsible and responsive museum: a storehouse at the service of its many communities, a place where objects and ideas are lodged, but also released, on the basis of community consensus and changing needs.

I went to Huhana Smith's description of taonga in E Tu Ake, a description that conveys the power of objects and ideas and cultural knowledge as far more active and pluripotent than Jenkins' static objects, which wait to be cracked and communicated by qualified researchers:
taonga - both physical and intangible - have a vital connection to a living culture. They are sacred links to the past - a past that is alive in the present and that guides Maori towards the future. Taonga are an expression not only of the histories, identities and world views of Maori, but also the future political aspirations of this strong and resilient culture. 
I went to Mark O'Neill's (head of Glasgow Museums) response to Neil MacGregor's article above, and the the preceding 2002 Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, signed by over 30 international museums, asserting the universal values MacGregor argues for. O'Neill challenges many of these assertions, including the implication that the non-returning of objects is somehow a neutral act. He writes, near his conclusion:
Unless the museums which signed the Declaration make a fundamental shift in their basic mode of engaging with visitors, they will remain not universal, but narrowly metropolitan. Despite new mission statements tailored to fit the political language of our time, they continue to insist on being the centre, not merely in a geographical or demographic sense which could be transcended, but as the point from which all others are viewed and judged. The clearest evidence for this is the almost complete absence of any but the curatorial voice from their displays - there is no technical or aesthetic reason why historical and/or contemporary voices from the cultures which produced the objects couldn’t be included. The sense of being the invisible centre is reinforced by the exemption of one culture in each museum from scrutiny – that of the metropolitan country itself. 
And I stumbled upon a piece by Tessa Laird, published in Natural Selection in 2007, that I have not previously read, a meditation on her visit to the Musee Quai Branly on the occasion of its opening, and her discomfort there. Laird writes:
I experienced moments of elation and moments of a kind of dread and even nausea (perhaps it was the jetlag). I felt giddy at the enormity and weirdness of it all. Because, no matter the architecture, the multimedia, the MONEY, it was still white people looking at the sacred artefacts of non-white people for a frisson, a tingling of the nerves, a form of entertainment like any other. And while it’s an enormous privilege to be able to view such works, it’s one I’d gladly relinquish for the far greater privilege of witnessing the return of these objects, masterpieces, taonga, to their original people and contexts. 
In the end, I think that the only truly “modern” museum is one that repatriates its collections. Just imagine all the “going home” stories! If each one could be as detailed and magnificent as the one elucidated by Paul Tapsell in Pukaki: A Comet Returns, we would be culturally richer, not poorer, for the process. These are the stories I want to hear. 
It's a thought experiment worth working through. What if we could go back and say to every original maker or owner: This is what we who manage the museum believe it is for - to share knowledge and beliefs through objects and scholarship. Do you wish your taonga to be part of this? And on what terms? What would we learn about ourselves, not only from those objects, but from those conversations? What understanding of the "whole world" could we foster then?

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Reading List, 27 February 2016

An analysis of MOMA's catalogue records, looking at 'years' information: the artist's age when a work was created, the lag between the date of creation and date of acquisition, etc. As with with most of these visualisations, better as a place to start asking questions than finish asking them.

On the language of start-up culture (and looking for a better language, and culture).

Because most of my free time over the past week has gone into starting this: a timeline of the feminist art movement in New Zealand.
a darkened auditorium with 264 silent people in the seats. on the stage, me, sitting on a stool, lit by a spotlight, the only light in the theatre. i hold up a photo of my cat, 10 people applaud, two or three hold up photocopies of the same photo, the rest do nothing, watching, waiting.
I just don't get tumblr, but this is a fascinating history-slash-analysis: The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens.

This is a really great interview with Enjoy Public Art Gallery director Emma Ng on #500words.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Aotearoa New Zealand feminist art timeline

Yesterday afternoon I went looking for something to do with a feminist art project in New Zealand - I actually forget what now - on the internet. And is common with New Zealand art topics - but especially with this one - I found nada.

So I had a little rage on Twitter, which was all very nice and generated some lovely back and forth, but ultimately unproductive
So I sat down last night, like the lapsed art historian I am, and racked my memory and shook down the pages of the internet and made a start on something I've been intending to do for awhile: the Aotearoa New Zealand feminist art timeline on Wikipedia.

Now, I know that it is incomplete, has thus far no mention of gender politics or intersectionality, and does not reference Pasifika artists. It badly needs a list of the significant artists (and the ones who time has already forgotten) who engaged with feminist topics and or viewed their own practice in this way. It lacks most of the main publications of the 1980s and 1990s and is woefully lacking in the 2000s full-stop. But I plan to chip away at it, because (dear reader, a hushed tone here) I think I would like to maybe make this a book one day. God knows we need one.

So approach this seedling with some gentleness, and please feel free to send me information that should be added (properly referenced, of course).

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Reading list, 20 February 2016

An interview with Meg Rosoff, author of one of my top 10 books, How I Live Now.

Grim reading from the Canadian equivalent of our briefing for the incoming minister on the underfunding of capital works and programmes at Canada's national cultural institutions.

We currently have a paucity of long-form recording and analysis of art exhibitions in New Zealand. That's why Francis McWhannell's piece on Auckland Art Gallery's Necessary Distraction for Pantograph Punch was such a pleasure to read.

Toby Morris and Toby Manhire produce a weekly column for the Radio New Zealand website, a combination of their political and social insight shot through with pop-culture references and enhanced by Morris's cartooning skills. It's a form of critique and storytelling that I find really compelling. This week's column was about Christchurch, the aftershocks, and mental health funding.

God it's hard to rebrand a museum. Just ask the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With bonus reactions in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, proving that people hate change and suggesting - to my mind, anyway, that while the Met wants to 'be for all', people expect a certain kind of stately grace from it. 

The Cooper Hewitt adds collecting wall panel text to the Pen's capabilities (and more importantly, gives an object lesson in continual improvement).

I'm really enjoying Seph Rodney's pieces on Hyperallergic: the latest is on three New York museums that have built in or around spaces for public programmes and participatory art.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Webstock 2016

Wellington's Webstock conference - which last week celebrated its 10th birthday - has been incredibly important to me. In a very real way, Webstock + Foo Camp (an annual invitation-only unconference held in Warkworth and headed by Nat Torkington) have been my second university education: places of deep learning, points of entry to communities of people who continue to enrich me, and insights that have shaped how I see and act in the world.

Mike Brown and Tash Lampard continue to craft Webstock with loving attention to every detail - an approach that years ago inspired me when I was working on the National Digital Forum conference: to host visiting speakers in such a way that they became our biggest international advocates; to build programmes that were consciously inclusive of gender, culture, and level of speaking experience; to encourage talks that dive deep into the technical details and talks that lift our eyes to our values and our aspirations; to care about icecream and coffee, because that means caring about manaakitanga.

I have grown up with Webstock. It's been slightly nostalgic and rather heartwarming to read blog posts (blog posts! like the olden days!) from first-time attendees, which describe how out of the ordinary this event is:

Taking stock: A first-timer's take on Webstock 2016
Webstock 2016: Wild, wonderful and 100% worth it
Webstock 2016 - Celebrating the web's values

I went back to Webstock this year for the first time since 2013. I went on my own dime, not The Dowse's, because I know that being in the museum sector for more than  three years now has narrowed my lens on the world, and I wanted to open that aperture back up with a flood of new perspectives delivered by the smartest people it's possible to gather in a room. 

Past Webstocks have dramatically widened my lens. Here's what I wrote about Webstock in 2008 (I think this would have been the first I attended). Here are the notes from just one workshop in 2009. In 2012 I was still banging away, writing about design and craft and finding your joy and strategic creativity

I have looked to Webstock for many things. There have been presentations by extremely smart people about how they do the work they do: my stand-out talk will always be Cal Henderson, then at Flickr, in 2008 on 'Building big on the web'. There are people like Heather Champ and Kathy Sierra, who showed me how to take a principled, imaginative and empathetic approach to your work. There have been presenters who showed me a vision of the socio-technical future - Matt Jones on 'The demon-haunted world' in 2009, Adam Greenfield on the networked environment in 2010. Webstock has historically been the place I go to find out what might be going to happen to our culture next.

As the conference, the organisers, and the industry has matured, there has been an increasing amount of reflection. Speakers like Bruce Sterling have been folded in to give us a bracing critique of the world digital technology is building; artists and activists have been invited as well to show us, perhaps, the signal that can still shine through the internet noise.

And there has been a trend towards speakers sharing their own personal reflections and learning. As speakers have been invited to return for repeat presentations, they have often moved from practitioner-based talks to more personal philosophical explorations: I think of Michael Lopp, Amy Hoy. At times, I have found these talks illuminating and moving. Matt Haughey in 2012, for example, gave a talk titled 'Lessons from a 40 year old' where he spoke about the personal cost of pursuing the start-up dream. But Derek Handley spoke that same year about 'Doing well and doing good', and that was when I began to tip. Handley is a successful entrepreneur, but I found his talk that year sophomoric - in the sense that I felt I had sat in the corridors of my university hostel and fiercely debated the same points with a bunch of 18 year-olds who had just encountered the principles of philosophical thinking.

This year at Webstock there were a number of presenters who spoke eloquently and passionately of the personal experiences that have shaped them. Their professional achievements formed the platform from which they spoke, but it was their own life stories that they primarily shared. And I found myself longing for the old days of the practitioner-led conference, when I would be lit up by people talking about what they had built, the how and the why, the challenge and the opportunity, and the principles - technical, aesthetic, social - that they followed.

Mulling on this, I wondered if the conference reflects the same evolution that is happening in museums, from education to engagement. Over the past ten years, I feel like I have seen a change in the way speakers approach their task: from the audience's expectation to be informed, to an expectation to not only be informed but moved. And certainly in the past Webstock has done that to me: I have been enlightened, enraged, moved to tears.

It's also worth noting that a single-stream format (rather than the multi-streams staged when the conference was at the Town Hall) mean less opportunity to split off niche topics into smaller rooms. I certainly noticed this year that the Webstock audience has diversified: it seems younger (though maybe I'm just older), more equal in its gender split, and less programmer-heavy (she says, judging primarily by clothing cues, but also conversations I had with people). A diverse audience is terrific, but it also possibly means that presenters feel the need to make their talks less technical in order to appeal to the most people possible. This certainly happened with CSS expert Harry Roberts who, instead of delivering a technical talk, felt he needed to give a more accessible talk, and wound up with a grab-bag of travel tips, cocktail lessons, and British pop-music. This was a case where even though I wouldn't have fully comprehended a deep dive into CSS, I think I still would have learned more than I did from his generic presentation. 

It's safe to say that I have changed more than Webstock has. For one thing: when I worked in government, I badly needed that annual lifting of spirits and ambitions that Webstock provided me with - that sense, communicated by all those posts listed above, of being part of a community that aspired to being a better force in the world than simply adding more apps and websites to the internet. Today, my life is pretty much exclusively devoted to questions about how to support artists, how to create meaningful encounters between people and art and history, how to build a team culture based on excellence and generosity, how to make a difference locally, regionally and nationally. It is demanding and enriching and so very worthwhile, and I know not everyone gets to say that about their source of income.

Secondly, events in my own life mean that currently, I'm not a good audience for talks about overcoming challenges and living a better life. Having been through this process over the past nearly four years myself, it's not that I can't empathise: it's more that I want recovery and resilience and remaking of personal identity to be less of a focus in my own life.

Writing the above - and struggling to find the right tone - showed me that Webstock is truly more than a conference: no mere conference makes you question how you've changed over the past decade. Having said that, this year I found I had to sift harder to find the nuggets that will expand my thinking. Several of the talks that I have chewed over most vigorously - both inside my own head and through haranguing friends at the conference - were not ones where I learned something that will significantly enlarge my thinking, but ones where I disagreed with the speaker's central premise. A couple of talks gave me a few bright moments of insight. Two really stood out.

Here are my notes - the Webstock speaker blurb appears in italics first for longer entries.

Short takes (small insights from a variety of talks)

Heather B. Armstrong - the creator of talked about how her career as a writer who makes her living online has evolved (and impacted on her children and her ethics). Armstrong startd her 'mommy blog' in 2001. In 2005 she joined Federated Media, who placed banner ads on the site - within a few years she was making enough from this advertising to support herself, her family, and a staff of four. From 2009 onwards, with the rise of Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat, and the mainstreaming of Facebook - all systems designed to keep you within their content walls - the bottom has fallen out of the web advertising industry, and now her income is in sponsored content. I've thought quite a lot about how the broadcast of the web is turning into the narrowcast of fragmented channels, but not from the point of view of someone who makes their living from their online production.

On a side-note, I noticed that the Twitter stream for #webstock was quite quiet, and talks that in my past experience would have raised controversy or condemnation were largely skimmed over. This made me wonder if negative opinions (or even just most group conversations) have moved over to Slack or back to texting over the time I've been out of the loop. It may also be that the seating in the venue (St James Theatre) is less conducive to having your laptop open and therefore less typing goes on.

Luke Wroblewski - spoke about screen time, the freakish increases in the sheer amount of glass screens sold year on year, and designing for the diversity of screen sizes out there. He also told the story of Corning Glass's 'Gorilla Glass', the ultra-light, ultra-strong glass used for the first iPhone screen, which originated in 1952 when a malfunctioning temperature gauge lead to a kiln being run 300 degrees hotter than intended and a new form of synthetic glass ceramic being discovered. My lightbulb moment with Wroblewki's talk wasn't from his ideas about responsive design or even the startling stat that 50% of download traffic in the States is attributed to Netflix and Youtube combined: it was that I have high awareness of the Corning Museum of Glass, due to its refurbishment and extension last year, but the fact that the museum was established in 1951 by a glass-making company had completely passed me by.

Michael Lopp - a 5th-time speaker at Webstock, Lopp noted at the start of his talk that he had again decided to talk about poetry not practice. His talk however was about the practice of writing, for his own blog and books. I was impressed by the rigour with which he approaches writing: 5-6 hours of writing for a 1000 word post, 1-2 hours of editing, and an external reviewer. I empathised with his starting-writing process, which is very much like mine (make your second cup of coffee, open a buttload of browser tabs, and read until something ticks up in your brain that you need to investigate further yourself). But most of all I took away from his talk his conscious commitment to writing, and the satisfaction and utility he finds in committing to turning inchoate thoughts into a coherently arranged argument. This chimed with my own renewed commitment to thinking through things on this site. Now to squeeze in that editing time ...

Askew One - Graffiti and the Internet

Askew’s talk centres around the relationship graffiti has had with the internet – both good & bad. Where graffiti was a very localised phenomena pre-internet, various online platforms have enabled it to thrive and evolve, and enabled people, like himself from an isolated country, to have an international career.

Askew One (aka Elliott O'Donnell) showed me the recent history of Auckland through the lens of abandoned and run-down infrastructure of bus depots and train tracks, remade in the pre-internet age as a place to travel, congregate, and express yourself through visual imagery. (I could say 'pre-internet tumblr' but that would be glib compared to the depth with which he spoke.) His ideas about graffiti as a mode of transmission - of South Auckland as a bright bead in a necklace of connected cities around the Pacific Rim - and how the internet has amplified and enhanced (and occasionally detracted from) this transmission, would make a freaking awesome exhibition.

Anab Jain - Rockets of India

A few months ago I roamed the streets of India with tiny Mars probes, speaking to strangers about space missions, aliens, climate change and nationalism. It was the start of a thrilling adventure exploring the history and future of India’s space program within the context of global geopolitics, militarization and cultural imperialism. From astronauts to afronauts, from cosmonauts to vyomanauts, how can deep space exploration inspire us to create more democratic future visions?

This was *the* presentation of the conference for me. I can't even pretend to have absorbed let alone understood everything. But this is what I took out of it (for now, and until I re-watch the presentation).

I have been thinking a lot, over the past six months, about how Western the values of the mainstream web and web culture are: personal exceptionalism, massive growth, reducing the friction of everyday life. Even all the extremely well-intentioned, and often necessary, drives for inclusion result more in making space for the 'outsider' in the mainstream, not changing the mainstream's core aspirations or assumptions. (I think of how a speaker I heard at MOMA last year, a black lesbian feminist academic who studied hip hop, told the audience that 'Capitalism takes our difference and sells it back to us'. I can't stop thinking about that sentence.)

In her talk, Jain showed us - among other things - how different cultures in different countries have imagined space travel and undertaken space missions, focusing on India (where she was born). The audience giggled when she showed a photo of a space probe being moved in a ox-drawn cart, but I saw something I was hungry for: a glimpse of another way of making the future.

Jain also observed that space programmes are moving from being nation-state aspirations to private endeavours: Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos. This observation joined itself in my mind to James Surowiecki's New Yorker column 'In defence of philanthrocapitalism', where he wrote:
Philanthropies, by contrast, have far-reaching time horizons and almost no one they have to please. This can lead them to pour money into controversial causes, as Zuckerberg has with education reform. But it also enables them to make big bets on global public goods. There is a long history of this: the Rockefeller Foundation funded the research that produced a vaccine for yellow fever. The Gates Foundation, since its founding, in 2000, has put billions of dollars into global health programs, and now spends more on health issues than the W.H.O. 
It’s been suggested that if we just taxed billionaires more there’d be more money for promoting social projects globally. But it’s far likelier that those projects would just go underfunded.
That article broke my mind: by which I mean, an easily-made assumption got challenged by a new idea and my thinking was better for it. Likewise, Anab Jain gave me a new lens for looking at the world around me, and that is what I go to Webstock for.

Nick Gray - Museums are F***ing Awesome

A lot of people do not enjoy museums. Some millennials find them old, boring, irrelevant and lacking in entertainment. Museum Hack is a company from New York City out to change all of that. The live, in-person guided adventures that Museum Hack produces are advertised as “Not your Grandma’s museum tour” and have become a top way to experience some of America’s best museums. Big companies like Google and eBay and Facebook regularly hire Museum Hack to produce their company events at museums in NYC and San Francisco. Museums have also been collaborating with Museum Hack for workshops, consulting, and membership work.
Nick will talk about how he started Museum Hack, what makes his tours different from all other museum experiences, and why museums matter. Note: This speech contains adult language. Like fuck.

To be honest, I went into Webstock primed to hate all over this presentation. As it was, I found Gray to be a delightful presenter and a very powerful storyteller.

The way I look at it, Museum Hack is an example of private enterprise making use of the museum-as-platform: the buildings, artworks, and existing research and interpretation as effectively an API that Museum Hack calls on to run their paid-for tours and team building exercises. Gray noted that last year the company made $1.3M and returned $200K to museums, but it was unclear whether this was simply in entrance fees, or whether there was an additional payment being made (effectively like venue hire).

I think this is a healthy model (healthier if the payment being made to the museum is more than just counting admission fees). One American museum professional I talked to recently about the company regarded them as a threat - Museum Hack has moved into an market (young, affluent, urban, disinterested) we should be in ourselves. Personally, I see the company as taking on the risk (staffing and marketing and R&D costs vs revenue) that we could not, so more power to them. The kicker is that while we focus on access for people who face other barriers to access than lack of interest (lack of awareness, geographical distance, the lower socio-economic pointers associated with lower use of community facilities, a sense of genuine exclusion), Museum Hack is homing in on the audience that might help us pay our way in the future. This may mean the key is actually in the handover, in trying to convert the Museum Hack attendee into an independent museum-goer.

However. A big key to the marketing drive of Museum Hack is downgrading the museum brand (old, stuffy, boring, disconnected) to promote their own product (fun! communal! active! irreverent!). I'm just so over this dumbass dichotomy that, as the kids say, I can't even. Could you please just quit negging on us already?

Anna Pickard - Bug Fixes & Minor Improvements, Writ Large (aka Humorous Self-Flagellation and the Multiple Benefits of Being Old On The Internet)

Somehow, improbably, the release note — that little space used by apps to describe their latest updates – has become a remarkable, human way for the creators of software to communicate with their users, and Slack (where Anna words*) has been at the forefront of the movement to turn that microcopical nugget of technical documentation very few people bother reading into (basically) a new literary genre. This little revolution didn’t happen by accident though: it’s the result of a fortunate series of events, a short list of values about how to behave as a company, and a long trail of people feeling out what it means to be oneself on the interweb.

Anna Pickard was like old-skool Webstock for me. In talking about how Slack uses the release note to communicate with users in ways that surprise, delight and inform, she took us right inside Slack's values and how these values permeate every decision and interaction. In talking about how every time we find a new place to write things down, it changes how we write, she reminded me how my own writing had its own series of growth spurts with blogging, web content crafting, and tweeting. In the end, Pickard reminded me that what I learned from writing on the web was, ironically, to be as human as I can be. 

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Reading list, 13 February 2016

Earlier this week I published a post, thinking through what the words 'engagement' and 'experience' mean in current museum dialogue, and where they've come from. There's nothing more pleasing than seeing something you've written spark something in someone else's mind, and so seeing my friend Nat Torkington take that post as a springboard for his own exploration of similar shifts in schools and education design.

Andy Baio's 'Never trust a corporation to do a library's job' handily articulates beautifully some of the concerns about placing so much of the responsibility for preserving our creative and technological achievements into the hands of companies who aren't incentivised to do this job. (No regret for using the word 'incentivised there, it might be the only time I've used it without triggering a game of bullshit bingo.)

I still need to read this properly, but Wired's coverage of Quartz's new text-message style news delivery points to something intriguing.

More heritage doom and gloom, this time around closures of regional museums in Britain #ongoingsaga #nothtefunkindofsagaeither

New Zealand type designer Kris Sowersby is featured in this year's Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial: here's the NYT review of 'Beauty'.

And for your nostalgic pleasure: Winona, Forever

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The engagement era - and the artist's place within it

As I continue pecking my way through my WCMT research report (see the drafts on open collections and museum memberships) I find myself repeatedly wrestling with the ideas of 'engagement' and 'experience', two words that are constantly in use in contemporary museum speak but which I still find very floppy in their definition.

One framework that I've found really useful as I try to organise my thoughts about what characterises the urgent issues and highest priority activities in art museums today is that advanced by Seph Rodney. In a recent piece on Hyperallergic, Rodney traces a progression from the final decades of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century, when museums focused on 'centralization, specialization, and classification of a collection' and any benefits gained by visitors were largely a by-product of that concentration , to a post WWI era where visitor education becomes the main cause of the museum, meaning that by the end of the 20th century 'one could have expected to enter a museum to have an explicitly educational experience, that is, the success of the visit would have been defined largely by how effectively information was transferred to the visitor, largely through didactic texts.'

Over the past 25 years, Rodney argues, political and economic changes have created a new era of the visitor as 'consumer', and a environment in museums where 'personalisation' has succeeded 'education':
Now, in the 21st century, with the inauguration of a new museology, and the engulfing of the civic culture by capitalism with its handmaidens, consumerism and heightened competition, museums have begun to recognize that in order to survive they must cultivate new and repeat visitors. Three key means of accomplishing this is first, recognizing visitors’ capacity to make meaning for themselves; two, partnering with them to discover what they personally want from the museum; and lastly, mobilizing the museum’s resources to meet these needs. These tasks can be met by, among other things, new curatorial strategies through which museums partner with visitors to develop activities and events: co-curation projects, and crowdsourcing exhibition content.
The hallmark of this new museum is the interactive and participatory activities that have emerged over the past quarter-century in exhibition design, but underlying these is 'an institutional recognition of the visitor as an independent maker of meaning who uses the museum in a variety of ways to fulfill particular, individual needs and desires.' You can read a longer version of Rodney's argument - which is the basis of his recent Ph.D thesis - on the CultureCom website.

I don't think we can deny that there *has* been a change in thinking. Here's a pretty specious piece of evidence based on Google's ngram viewer:

Instances of the phrase 'visitor engagement' in the Google Books corpus, 1950-2008

Rodney's way of looking at 'engagement' and 'experience' is informed by the study of changes in museum philosophy, as well as governmental cultural policy and shifts in marketing trends. Another trend emerging in museums' internal understanding of themselves and their relationship to visitors is that advanced by Jon Alexander of the New Citizenship Project, who has worked with a number of media companies and art museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art. Alexander is promulgating a shift from thinking of the visitor (or individual, beyond their visiting potential) as consumer to the visitor as citizen: less about targeting individuals through a better understanding of their personal needs and wants, more about appealing to them as people who wish to be better participants in their society.

The #CitizenShift, as the New Citizenship Project terms the 'emerging era of the citizen' maps reasonably well to Rodney's 'collections > education > engagement' model, as this 'quick concepts' diagram from their publication shows:

One of the reasons why I find the words 'engagement' and 'experience' so hard to grapple with is that I instinctively conflate them with the theories and practices of the contemporary internet and web worlds that I professionally came of age in. The practice of user experience design underpins the way I approach working in a museum: as Wikipedia defines it, 'the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product'. Previously applied to the relationship between user and hardware/software, those practices can be expanded out over any interaction between the individual and the physical world. The strong emphasis upon accessibility and usability - which were 'inclusive' before that word became on-trend in wider discourse - in particular maps well to today's museum.

I find it natural, therefore, to see the changes over the past 25 years in museums as being at the very least influenced by the rise of the internet; not just the way that the web has amplified the voice and abilities of the individual, but also the theorising of the internet. And the most outwardly-visible changes in museum in this period - the introduction of digital interactives, the uptake of social media, the free wifi networks, the adoption of all things 'crowd' - have indeed looked very internetty. Let's zip back almost exactly five years, for example, to an interview with Thomas Campbell, who had by this time been running the Metropolitan Museum for three years. Much is made of the difference in style between Campbell and his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello:
The difference was certainly evident in a recent interview in the director’s office, where Mr. de Montebello used to preside with baronial aplomb behind his desk. Mr. Campbell instead pulled up a chair around a conference table and talked with boyish enthusiasm not just about art but also about the kinds of things that increasingly accompany it in 21st-century museums. The Met has created its first app, to accompany the guitar show. It is embarking on the daunting task of wiring its huge building for Wi-Fi, he said, so that patrons will eventually be able to read and watch videos about art museumwide on their phones and tablet computers. And it is venturing as never before into the rapidly evolving field of what museum administrators call “visitor engagement”: a social science aimed at trying to reach every patron, from the first-timer to the seasoned scholar.
Such ambitions for the Met might not sound revolutionary, especially after the kinds of grand expansions and acquisitions that more than doubled the museum’s size during the de Montebello years, leaving little room for his successor to start putting his stamp on the place. 
But in two wide-ranging interviews over the last month Mr. Campbell said that he did not see it that way and that he viewed the museum’s next frontier to be less physical than philosophical and virtual: a change in the Met’s tone and public face, making it a more open and understandable museum, largely by thoroughly rethinking the way it uses technology.
“It’s not sexy and glamorous, like building a new wing,” he said, “but I think it’s a fundamental part of our responsibility to our audience.” 
If you'd like to see an apoplectic hot-take on this interview, check out Charlie Finch's reaction from the time on Artnet, and his screech that Campbell is about to 'trap, fold and mutilate every poor soul who arrives with something called "Visitor Engagement".' Today, the Met has come from behind to be doing some of the most innovative online work in the world.

Most leaders in museums today (I hope) have figured out that touchscreens and Snapchat ≠ 'engagement', but rather that it's the shift in thinking that characterises the new museum. This is a point that people like Seb Chan are particularly good at articulating. In his end of year post for 2015, Chan wrote:
Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences. Sure, we might change work practices along the way, but really digital transformation efforts are really in the service of visitors wherever they might be. In that sense, ‘digital transformation’ follows in the footsteps of the education-led museology of the 1990s.
Here we see again that shift from 'education' to 'engagement'. (It struck me just now that we can throw in another 'e': 'empowerment'. Such a fortuitous vowel.) Recently Suse Cairns took this point by Chan (and Rodney's piece above) for a walk in a post titled 'Transforming audiences, transforming museums'. Cairns picks up on a distinctive theme of Chan's piece: what 'audience transformation' means in the American museum sector, where the funding and oversight of museums comes largely from private individuals and philanthropic or corporate supporters. Thinking about contemporary audience development, she also cites Rob Stein:
Now that museums are beginning to have the tools and expertise at their disposal to monitor, track, record, and analyze all the various ways that the public benefits from their work, the real task begins to redesign the process and program of museums and to embed impact-driven data collection into every aspect of our efforts.
Cairns identifies this as the "crux of this digital transformation/audience transformation question. As we can measure our audiences in new ways, we expect to be able to measure how we impact and affect them, in order to respond to them differently."

One way I have been trying to re-phrase 'engagement' inside my head (and 'experience' to, because all museums are and have always been designed as experiences) is as 'visitor-led': as in, we have moved from being educationally-driven (you will learn about this and that and come out better for it) to being 'visitor-led' (how can we better understand you and meet your expectations so you enjoy your time here?). Another way is to think of museums as switching from an impersonal omniscient narrator to a first person point of view, where the visitor is constantly asked to bring their own history and context to their museum encounter. Museums still tell a story through their arrangement of spaces and objects and accompanying interpretative devices: however our assumptions of, and responses to, our visitors' desires have changed.

All the drivers above either come out forces surrounding the museum - new technology, new cultural policies, new marketing tactics - or from museology itself. What I think much of this discussion about the new museum experience and visitor engagement often leaves out is the influence of changes in artistic practice.

Let's look again at Seb Chan paragraph cited above, this time with the final sentence appended:
Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences. Sure, we might change work practices along the way, but really digital transformation efforts are really in the service of visitors wherever they might be. In that sense, ‘digital transformation’ follows in the footsteps of the education-led museology of the 1990s. You can sense this in Nicholas Serota’s recently published “commonwealth of ideas” speech about a new Tate.
Serota's speech (printed in The Art Newspaper) identifies a 'profound shift in the expectations and behaviour of audiences in museums' initiated yes, by digital transformation, but also by shifts in artistic practice. He opens by reflecting on unexpected visitor behaviour in installations in the Tate's Turbine Hall:
For me, this first became evident in the response to Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003. People took over the space and used it as an arena for their own experience, so that the work gained an unanticipated performative aspect. Similar unprogrammed responses were prompted by Carsten Höller’s Test Site in 2006 and by Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth in 2007. 
In his essay from last year 'After the white cube' Hal Foster tracks some of the issues I'm grappling with here: the adaptive cycle (or arms race) between museum architecture and artistic practice, the 'activation' of the viewer, the society of spectacle. When we survey visitors on what they'd like to see more of at The Dowse, one of the things they cite are experiential or participatory exhibitions we have staged in the past, such as those by Peter Robinson in 2013/14 and Scott Eady in 2011/12. The appeal of these exhibitions is strong and - in those one of those phrases you never want to be documented using - they tick so many boxes. Families love them, funders love them, the media love them, and they photograph so damn well. In fact, you can sit at your desk and draw up just the perfect exhibition for your gallery, that will have all the necessary elements of hands-on interaction and Instagram appeal, and then lament the fact there's no artist you know making exactly that thing so you can just programme it in.

Which is not to demean those artists who are working in a manner that invites, or needs, participation from the viewer. But we're working in an era where it's increasingly hard to differentiate experience design from artwork. (And maybe we don't need to - and maybe I'm retrograde for thinking we do - but I still think it matters.) The Rain Room sits squarely in the middle of this conundrum - exhibited at leading art museums around the world, described as an 'immersive environment', but somehow not quite art to my mind. Glade's 'Museum of Feelings' - which coopts the experiential museum visit to sell scented candles - squats malevolently at the fringes. And then there's the 20 works developed by the 400-member Japanese technology-art collective teamLab for Pace's new Art+Technology program at Menlo Park. As Pace president Marc Glimcher said himself of first seeing teamLab's work:
I was like, ‘This is not art,’ and realized I was having an authentic art experience,” he says. “It’s something that we have to open up what our definition of art is, so I had my own conversion experience.”
Unusually for a dealer gallery presentation, you have to buy tickets to see what this actually is.

Serota says in that piece above that the future of museums is being driven by 'a combination of curatorial vision, artistic innovation and the demands of audiences'. At this point, are we dealing with artist-led experience, or visitor-led design? I can't answer that question - and I'm not even sure I'm asking the right one. So I'd love to see some pieces of writing that track the hand-in-hand development of participatory art practices and the museological interest in visitor experience: the co-creation, so to speak. I'm sure they're already out there, so please, send them my way.


Seph Rodney, 'The evolution of the museum visit, from privilege to personalized experience ', Hyperallergic , 22 January 2016

Seph Rodney, 'How museum visitors became consumers', CultureCom, 28 August 2015

'This is the #CitizenShift', The New Citizenship Project, (undated)

Seb Chan, 'Since we last spoke: Rounding up 2015', Fresh + New(er,) 10 January 2016

Robin Kennedy, 'The Met's plans for virtual expansion', New York Times, 12 February 2011

Suse Cairns, 'Transforming audiences, transforming museums', Museum Geek, 27 January 2016,

Nicholas Serota, 'The 21st museum is a commonwealth of ideas', The Art Newspaper, 5 January 2016

Hal Foster, 'Beyond the white cube', London Review of Books, 15 March 2015,

Julie Baumgardner, 'A Very Different Kind of Immersive Art Installation', The New York Times Style Magazine', 4 February 2016

Monday, 8 February 2016


One of the most puzzling conversations I had while I was visiting museums in the States was at the MuseumNext conference in Indianapolis.

I was really lucky at that conference to intersect with Frith Williams from Te Papa (who was in America at the same time on a Fulbright). After two weeks of intense travelling and observing it was wonderful to spend time with someone who knew my local context and could help me process all the things I'd seen and heard.

At the drinks after one of the days of the conference, Frith and I got talking to two local post-grad Museum Studies students, who were volunteering at the event. They were agreeing vociferously with one of the speakers (I forget which) about the need to reach out to millennials (or whatever we want to call the current college-age population). I didn't dispute that we can't use "the same old channels" to reach this audience*, but it was when we pushed these two young women that things got interesting. They didn't read print newspapers or watch broadcast tv. But nor did they use Facebook, Twitter, or visit the websites of local museums. At this point Frith and I were quite puzzled - how did they track the world around them and talk to their friends? Well - mostly by texting, apparently.

I was kind of dismayed by this conversation. The marketing/comms side of me was dismayed by the narrowing of access points to these young viewers. How can you tell people about something they might enjoy - or something you've tried to make for them - if you can't reach them? And partly because two post-grad students who want to work in museums and live in the most vibrant museum country in the world were somehow proud of the fact that museums couldn't reach them - and unconcerned that they weren't being at all active about seeking information about what was happening at their local cultural institutions.

I was reminded of that conversation and my mixed feelings by this article by Felicity Duncan on The Conversation. She mixes anecdotal observational of her students (studying comms and social media) with recent research releases and writes:
Today, however, the newest data increasingly support the idea that young people are actually transitioning out of using what we might term broadcast social media – like Facebook and Twitter – and switching instead to using narrowcast tools – like Messenger or Snapchat. Instead of posting generic and sanitized updates for all to see, they are sharing their transient goofy selfies and blow-by-blow descriptions of class with only their closest friends.
Duncan concludes (by way of a rather strange segue into how this is scarier for parents because they can't monitor their kids):
The great promise of social media was that they would create a powerful and open public sphere, in which ideas could spread and networks of political action could form. If it is true that the young are turning aside from these platforms, and spending most of their time with messaging apps that connect only those who are already connected, the political promise of social media may never be realized.

*I would love to get some real research into how different age, geographic and cultural groups do and do not find out about arts events in their locations and nationally. I know in Lower Hutt, for example, that readership of the local print newspaper is still very high, and I wonder if that is reflected around the country, or varies region by region and age group by age group.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Reading List, 6 February 2016 (Waitangi Day)

Make some coffee and settle in with Andy Horwitz's 'Who Should Pay for the Arts in America?' in The Atlantic:
The fact that minority and community-based groups are “plagued by chronic financial difficulties” is undisputed. But what isn’t being acknowledged is that these difficulties are the result of systemic economic inequality. It should come as no surprise that people in minority, disenfranchised, and rural communities don’t usually have access to millionaires and billionaires who they can cultivate as donors. Nor should it shock that these organizations will suffer if the public-funding system that was helping them build capacity, gain cultural legitimacy, and become sustainable is decimated.
Shorter: an interview with Alistair Hudson, director of MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) on his idea of the 'useful' contemporary art museum.

Recursive reading lists: the reading list for the American Museums and Race conference.

A quite amazing project from the New York Times, who are releasing unpublished images with in-depth coverage for Black History Month.

Art Basel director Marc Spiegler's 'Ten questions all gallerists should be asking themselves now' for The Art Newspaper. Sample: although the goal of most successful artists used to be a MoMA retrospective at 50, many artists today focus on a career patterned on that of a football player or supermodel. Many young guns monetise their market moment, not trusting the art world to support them all the way to that MoMA show.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

On visibility and invisibility

Over the weekend I started listening to a new podcast, For Colored Nerds, beginning with this long interview with Kimberly Drew, who started the Black Contemporary Artists tumblr and now works in social media for the Met.

The podcast starts slowly with some well-trodden observations about the changes wrought by social media. (I've read that post and sat in that conference room and given that interview answer myself far too many times to be able to engage with that topic with anything more than weariness.)

It got interesting, to me, when Drew started talking about why she founded the Tumblr account. She had interned in the office of Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum, while at university and that had opened her eyes to the world of black contemporary art. She started the tumblr as a place to store and share her own process of seeking out black artists. When it comes to platform of choice, Blogger was the past and Instagram didn't exist. As she says in the podcast, she wasn't aware of other channels where this was happening, so she struck out on her own: she would learn of an artist, search tumblr for them, repost images if they were available, and create original posts if they were not.

The fact that Drew took her content from across the internet and then shot it out through this channel (which with time became very influential) speaks to the fact that the documentation was out there - she just wasn't able to see it. And to her mind - validly - if it was visible on Tumblr then wasn't visible to the 'creatives'. It was when I started thinking about this that I reflected on the fact that we have to make art and artists visible over and over and over again. A show or a catalogue or a newspaper article or a Wikipedia page is not enough. For example, I have no idea what's going on in Tumblr. I tried to use it - unsuccessfully - years ago, and it is totally invisible to me (and most of the search-based internet as well, as like Pinterest, it doesn't flag up well on Google). I consider myself reasonably well schooled in the art world / social media intersection, but this is the dark web for me.

In fact, Drew came to my attention via the Lenny newsletter, which is a channel I don't enjoy, exactly, but follow because it brings to me a worldview (a particular brand of young, successful, motivated American women with a concern for social justice and fashion and twee illustration) that I don't pick up in my other sources. (Or possibly filter out of them: I really am not a fan of twee illustrations.) I have started listening to the For Colored Nerds podcast - and the About Race podcast - for a similar reason. All the podcasts I listen to are hosted by white (almost all straight) Americans. Most make an effort to bring in more diverse guests, especially when talking about topics like the current #OscarsSoWhite debate, but the podcasts hosted by people of colour, speaking to people of colour, and locating 'white people' as 'other', helps me see things that are invisible to me.

And I appreciate the Tusk website, run by a small group of early career New Zealand arts workers, in much the same vein. Through their eyes I am seeing my field afresh, and palpably noticing some of the changing concerns between me, in my mid 30s and fairly advanced in my career, and them, in their 20s and finding their strides. Through Tusk I'm seeing the social justice motivations of this generation - and also the playfulness, the ability to move between different timbres, that I find to be quite different from the irony of Gen X, which I tried to emulate but never quite felt part of. (Poor little old me - not quite Gen X, not quite Millenial, most accurately categorised by the notion of Generation Jordan Catalano.)

Monday, 1 February 2016