Friday, 30 November 2012

Only connect - NDF2012

UPDATE: You know what? Don't read this. Read Tim Wray's write-up instead.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect...  

E.M. Forster, Howard's End

The National Digital Forum conference pointedly does not have a theme. But connections and emotions came to the fore for me this year. How can we connect items within collections, across collections, throughout the web, programmatically? And how can we connect as people, connect emotionally, with these items - with our heritage and our history and our present and the products of our making and thinking and doing?

For example, Tim Sherratt has gone on from his 'Small stories in a big data world' presentation and demo at NDF to give this week a talk titled 'Archives of Emotion'. He asks:
Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge that archives are repositories of feeling? Is emotion meaningless because it can’t be quantified, dangerous because it can’t be controlled, or does it simply not fit with the professional discourse of evidence, authority and reliability. 
As our experience of archives moves further into the online realm, so the possibilities for making emotional connections increases — simply because it’s so much easier to share. From the like button or the retweet, through to a lovingly-tended personal collection in something like Pinterest — we have new opportunities to explore what’s important to us and why.
Sarah Barns' keynote captured so much of what I am looking for in terms of a more emotional, a more meaningfully spectacular engagement. Her collaborative, research based, site-specific projects like Last Drinks and Unguarded Moments bring the past into the present in a way that is intelligent, respectful, delightful, unexpected.

Last Drinks: Australia Hotel, Commonwealth Bank, Martin Place from esem projects on Vimeo.

Sarah also nailed a point at the end of her talk that I have been ranting about for a while: our collections are the fuel of contemporary creativity. They need to be made available with the the purpose of creation in mind. And these creations need to be brought back into the archives too, to fuel the next wave of making, and so on, and so on, for ever more. That's how culture works:
When we live in a digital age, when our expectations of learning and experiencing a sense of the past involve not only books but media recordings and artefacts, YouTube and StreetView, I think we also need to consider a broader concept of what public space means, to include considerations of how it is that we access and participate in sharing and re-using our ‘digital public spaces’. What might the different forms of access be for different kinds of uses, whether as a student, a historian, or a documentary maker, or a city council, and how might we define the public values of our digital archives in the future – not just as ‘memory institutions’ but also as resources for future creativity and innovation?
Chris McDowall's demonstration of a project in which he took 16,000 portraits from the Auckland Libraries heritage collection, ran them through facial recognition software, cropped the photos automagically and then morphed them artfully into a visualisation that takes the metaphor of continents as its organising principle showed how primal our connection to the past can be - we are endlessly, deeply, emotionally drawn to faces. A sea of faces opens before us, and all we want to do is immerse ourselves (Chris's project is not yet online, but a prototype can be seen in the National Library's Big Data / Changing Places exhibition, in its newly re-opened Wellington building.)

I was very taken with Cath Styles' talk of 'analogical links' in her presentation on Sembl. This app, developed at the National Museum of Australia for education groups, encourages the playful and thoughtful linking of collection items - with potential for greater effects:

My own talk also canvassed this area - hence, I suppose, why I was so sensitive to this particular zeitgeist. I have posted a preliminary taster of my presentation; I'm working on the full text.

I spoke to many people after the conference about how this theme - unintended by the organisers, but all the more interesting for rising up unbidden - had struck them, and how it might shape their work. It makes me incredibly excited already to see where NDF2013 might take us.

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