Dots that I haven’t joined yet

I’m momentarily at rest in my beloved Brisbane, with the sun blazing down in December and bushfires on the news and Leila Taylor’s book Darkly to read.

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Taylor’s book, subtitled Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, blends memoir and criticism to explore the places where African-American history, culture, and experience meet the Gothic – from The Castle of Otranto through Edgar Allan Poe to Marilyn Manson.

I’m back in Australia helping organisations to look at their future and imagine what might await them in years to come, using scenario planning. This is a method by which, instead of trying to predict what’s coming, we co-create plausible visions of the future which challenge our current assumptions. Successful scenarios are not judged by whether they come to pass, but whether they trouble, complicate, and enrich our thinking.

And the dots which I can’t quite join yet became visible when I read this, in Darkly: “Gothic narratives were (and still are) a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction.”

Which is so close to what scenarios do as to blur the edges of the two concepts. In scenario planning we talk about avoiding the “brutal audit” of a crisis by rehearsing for the things you can’t, or don’t want to, see coming through your current framing of the world.

Read more

Interview with Wendy Catling of Ettamodern.com

I had the chance to interview one of my heroes, the Australian artist and educator Wendy Catling of ettamodern.com, during my recent visit to Melbourne.

Wendy works with digital and photographic processes, particularly cyanotypes, to create artworks which address private history, psychological disturbance, Australian landscapes, and the natural sciences.

The interview comes in advance of a new series of artworks by Wendy which combine narrative, memoir, family archives, and technical experimentation to tell stories of hidden violence, resilience, and renewal.

Viewers and listeners should be warned that Wendy’s work addresses histories of family abuse and domestic violence. Australian listeners affected by these issues can can contact the 24 hour counselling service 1800RESPECT by telephone at 1800 737 732, or online at 1800respect.org.au.

State Library of Victoria Interview with Peter Miller

I joined multimedia artist Peter Miller a.k.a. Scribbletronics to talk about his work creating art from the digitised collections at the State Library of Victoria.

Our conversation ranged across questions of serendipity and creativity, empathy and respect for historical figures whose images we use, and the sheer delight of experimenting with visual art in the archive.

You can watch the full interview on YouTube.

ASPAC 2019: Australia on the front lines of human crisis

Is Australia on the front lines of the 21st century human crisis?

Societies and cultures live there which have, for thousands of years, considered that the land itself has spirit and agency.

On the same land, Australia has built prosperity from the extractive industries, using technology to remove resources from the ground in a way which has global impact.

How can these values be reconciled? What part do science and technology centres have to play in the debate about our sustainable future?

My keynote for the ASPAC 2019 science and technology centres conference was covered in the Brisbane Times.

Preparing for Worlds We Didn’t See Coming @ ASPAC 2019

Queensland Museum & Science Centre
Queensland Museum & Science Centre by Wikipedia user GordonMakryllos – CC BY-SA 4.0

“A long time ago, when I was a child, I went to a Science Centre. Back then, there was nothing like it – a truly hands-on space of adventure and learning, in an age when most museums kept their exhibits under glass.

“On most of the Science Centre exhibits, you turned a crank, hoped to see something awesome happen – then read the didactic to see what you were supposed to have learned.

“Pedagogy has moved on, but so has the world. What happens when you “turn the crank” of science and causality breaks down? What happens when social and natural systems collapse, public trust fractures, and old worldviews reveal their blind spots?

“What would the ‘Post-Normal Science Centre’ look like?”

Next month, I’ll be speaking as the opening keynote at this year’s Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres Conference – ASPAC 2019.

New strategic plan for Supreme Court Library Queensland

I’m pleased to announce the publication of one of my recent projects, the new five-year strategic plan for the Supreme Court Library of Queensland, Australia (SCLQ).

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Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law, Brisbane by Wikipedia user Kgbo – CC BY-SA 3.0

The project, which ran through 2018 and early 2019, comprised research, interviews, survey and workshop design, plus co-writing the finished plan with Supreme Court Librarian David Bratchford.

Researching and writing the plan gave me the opportunity to explore one of the most fascinating and challenging sectors of the information profession – the law.

Read more

Traditional games, digital spaces: USQ + Queensland Museum Network

In 2017, I spent six months developing special community engagement projects for the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).

I had a wide remit to find new ways to connect with the local community, pilot external partnerships, and encourage innovation in line with a new service model being rolled out across the university’s Scholarly and Information Services division (SILS).

During that time, among other projects, Dr. Kate Davis and I won & delivered the division’s first external tender; SILS partnered with the university’s radio school to pilot podcasts bringing together academic experts, artists, and professionals from across Australia; and we joined forces with Ann Arbor District Library in the US to offer coaching & professional development.

This week saw the announcement of another project coming to fruition: a partnership between staff on the university’s Toowoomba campus and Cobb+Co Museum, the local site of the Queensland Museum Network.

Cobb+Co’s Learning Officer Tony Coonan worked with SILS’ Zoe Lynch and Shane Gadsby to develop a browser-based version of Burguu Matya, a traditional game attributed to the Wiradjuri people.

The game had been available to play in physical form at Cobb+Co’s Binangar Gallery, dedicated to Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Zoe and her team of media designers, invited to explore external partnerships, proposed developing an online version which could be played on devices both within the museum and statewide.

The successful small-scale pilot tested the SILS in-house media design team’s capacity for work with external clients,  strengthened relationships between the university and its local community, and explored the opportunities for USQ to enrich the cultural and learning offer for both the people of Toowoomba and users of the wider Queensland Museum Network. The future relationship between the university and the museum will be structured and enhanced by a memo of understanding.

You can read more about the project at the USQ website.

Bandersnatch: Choosing a Future, Letting People Surprise You

Over at The Cultural Gutter, there’s a thoughtful piece about Netflix’s recent interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

The choose-your-own adventure film allowed viewers to shape the story of a young programmer trying to develop a computer game in 1984. Presented with either-or choices to make via their TV’s remote control, someone watching Bandersnatch can influence the outcome of the narrative – but as the story develops, the choices are increasingly unpalatable and the question of who is controlling whom becomes increasingly prominent.

The Cultural Gutter’s Alex Macfadyen writes:

What watching Bandersnatch felt like to me was entrapment. A choice between two terrible things is still a choice, but I often didn’t agree with any of the available options. There also seemed to be no way to avoid making some of the choices because you just got brought back to them after the other options resulted in a dead end. The writers clearly had a very specific moral direction they wanted the story to go, and the viewer is ultimately corralled into creating the narrative they want.

Part of that narrative was the construction of me, the viewer, as the person forcing the character to make bad choices and lose his mind, but the viewer also only has access to the paths that the writers dictated for them so it’s more an illusion of choice. There is no path that leads to a good outcome, but you have to follow them all to find that out. In the end, I think the only choice you could make that would resolve the ethical conflict they’ve posed would be to refuse to participate and stop watching altogether.

Playing Bandersnatch, and reading Macfadyen afterwards, reminded me of a British Library Labs event I attended a couple of years back.

Jon Ingold, who has made several great choose-your-own adventure games including the subtle and troubling World War 2 drama The Interceptspoke about the relationship between players and authors of such adventures.

Rejecting the language of “empowering players” or “co-creating game narratives together”, Ingold described adventure games as puzzles where the author attempts to lure the player into a trap of their own choosing – a trap to which the player must then find a brilliant escape. The player is never in control of the story, any more than the rat who turns left or right at a given corner is in control of the maze.

These problems of choice and control lie at the heart of the workshops I’ve been running over the past couple of years. To what extent can we allow participants in an event to surprise us?

I’ve devised participatory sessions for literary festivals, conferences, and training events; run live-action games where players must battle zombies and solve practical problems; I’ve even written a book review in the form of an online choose-your-own adventure for Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow.

The challenge for me has always been – how can you let people surprise you?

Choose-your-own adventures, from Bandersnatch to Ingold’s more sophisticated offerings, are ultimately more like mazes which one can only choose to run or not run. (The promo art for Bandersnatch helps to make this clear).

black-mirror-bandersnatch

In activities like Library Island, I’ve been trying to devise opportunities for people to tell their own stories and genuinely shape the outcome of a collective narrative – the benchmark for this being whether the players were able to do something the author didn’t see coming.

Library Island players have brought fraud, civil unrest, and workers’ rights issues to sessions – helping us to address the most serious challenges to a community within the safer space of a playful, fictional setting. In the very first pilot for the game, a character stole a plane which they had illegally bought using government funds – something I definitely hadn’t accounted for – and an event which led on to serious discussion of scrutiny, oversight, and accountability for the use of public money.

Since then, players have only made the problem worse — delightfully worse.

Games which genuinely let people contribute to the outcome of a story also have the potential to change the way we look at the future.

Too often, when planning for the months and years to come, we see our options as constrained, like the forking but pre-written paths of Bandersnatch and its kin, railroading us towards a limited number of possible futures.

This can sap our ability to imagine a better world than the one we expect, but it can also make us vulnerable to harmful futures we didn’t see coming; financial crises, political upsets, and environmental disasters, for example.

In a turbulent era, finding ways to allow many voices to offer their story and participate in constructing plausible future scenarios help us to prepare for the world which is to come – a world which has not been pre-written by a game designer, and which therefore denies us both the safety and constraint of someone else’s narrative.

Read more about Library Island here.

Play The Lifted Brow‘s “choose-your-own adventure book review” here.

Elevate!

Rachael Rivera in Library Journal's Movers and Shakers 2018 awards

Last year, I was invited to give a keynote speech at Aotearoa/New Zealand’s national library conference, LIANZA 2017.

I wanted to realise a long-held dream and present a collective keynote with a number of Australian & New Zealand colleagues sharing the stage, but it wasn’t practical for LIANZA to fly a whole group of us across the Tasman Sea.

(They did, however, kindly accede to one request and arrange a special funded session on Indigenous Knowledge Centres, led by my brilliant Queensland colleague Lesley Acres).

In the end, we contrived a way to deliver a unique collective keynote – by taping my mouth shut and inviting members of the audience on stage in an hour-long series of creative, constructive, collaborative activities.

For me, the highlight came at the end of the keynote session, when two special guests materialised.

We had arranged for Auckland Libraries’ Rachael Rivera & Hamish Noonan to attend the conference in secret, taking the stage to conclude our keynote.

Rachael’s concluding comments triggered a debate about libraries and homelessness on national media in New Zealand, and gave both Rachael and her Kiwi colleagues the opportunity to stand up for library values, articulating their commitment to equity, justice, and access to the world of knowledge and culture for all.

In October, US librarian Justin Hoenke approached me to co-nominate Rachael for the American Library Journal‘s annual Movers & Shakers Award, highlighting professionals who have done exceptional work in libraries around the world.

Today, Rachael was announced as a winner of the 2018 Movers & Shakers Award and her friends & supporters worldwide are justifiably celebrating. From her days back in suburban Auckland to current international glory, including her own individual library keynote in Edinburgh,  Rachael is one of the greatest heroes of public librarianship in 2018.

Voices like hers deserve to be elevated. Look her up. Learn from her. Change the world for the better.

Read more about Rachael’s Movers & Shakers nomination at Justin Hoenke’s website.

USQ Podcast: Eurovision to Eudaimonia

The final pilot podcast from my 2017 project at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) just went live.

The project explored ways for the university to engage a wider audience and connect with the community beyond recruitment, research, teaching and learning.

USQ’s resident Eurovision expert, humanities lecturer Jess Carniel, was joined by Neil Martin of the USQ Digital Life Lab and Lee McGowan, who researches the history of women’s football at a neighbouring institution, Queensland University of Technology.

Their conversation ranged from the history of women’s football to Aristotle’s views on “eudaimonia” and a life well-lived, politics, performance, and the fate of Katy Perry’s Left Shark.

Shark

Check out the latest USQ podcast episode online now.

You can also listen to previous instalments from USQ Astronomy Festival and Bluestocking Week for women in higher education.