Marvellous, Electrical: The Man in the Machine

A burned-out crop header

…the nonhuman entities with which we share the world – including, but not limited to, our tools – are active in their own right. They have their own powers, interests, and points of view. And if we engineer them, in various ways, they “engineer” us as well, nudging us to adapt to their demands. Automobiles, computers, and kidney dialysis machines were made to serve particular human needs; but in turn, they also induce human habits and behaviours to change. Nonhuman things must therefore be seen as…active agents with their own intentions and goals, and which affect one another, as well as affecting us…

…Things are creative. And again, one of the great potentialities of science fiction is to illuminate the positive, productive powers of things, of materials, and of technological apparatuses.

– Steven Shaviro, Discognition

This week, Marvellous, Electrical heads out to the fields of Queensland’s Darling Downs for a ride in a modern farming machine.

When you find yourself at the wheel of a self-driving harvester, just who’s steering who?

Read Marvellous Electrical: Module, part 2 here.

Electrical updates

There’s been some new entries on Marvellous, Electrical in recent weeks.

Here’s a few highlights:

You can sign up for weekly updates from Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical here.

We The Humanities: Interview with Daisy Johnson, University of York

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

Writer, researcher, and librarian Daisy Johnson blogs on children’s literature and literary tourism – which also happen to be her research topics as a doctoral candidate at the University of York. She began by telling me about her thesis.

I research children’s literature and literary tourism in the United Kingdom. I’m interested in what happens after the book; that moment when you visit somewhere in the real world that you’ve previously read about in a book.

I think I’ve always been interested in literary tourism without quite knowing what it is. I visited the Achensee in Austria when I was younger, solely because of my interest in the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, and ever since that point, I’ve been interested in the edges of the literary experience and what happens when you experience the fictional in the real world and vice-versa.

Read more

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: (Un)comfortable Defiance

1968 Mexico Olympics, Men's 200m winners' podium

This week’s Marvellous, Electrical looks at Brisbane street art and how we remember a quiet gesture of defiance from 1968: 200m runner Peter Norman chose to wear a human rights badge in solidarity with black US athletes in the year of Martin Luther King’s death.

Ostracised by the Australian athletic community after this act, Norman descended into depression, painkiller addiction, and heavy drinking. The Australian government only apologised for his treatment six years after he died.

How can we remember Norman today, acknowledging his heroic act without hiding the grim reality of the years which followed?

You can subscribe to the Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical newsletter here.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: All We Leave Are The Memories

You can subscribe to the Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical newsletter here.

Brisbane’s weird, in the best way. They’ve got portals into the past – actual physical gateways. Years ago, they had state-sponsored magicians who could make buildings disappear overnight. Their job was to erase the city’s history. These things happened right in the middle of town.

It’s all documented. The magic’s fading now, and when I first heard the stories, I assumed it was just people exaggerating. But I work in an archive, the place where records are kept, and it turns out Brisbane’s magic is real.

Check it out over at Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Dinner at the Circus

You can subscribe to the Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical newsletter here.

This week’s newsletter features an interview with Dale Woodbridge-Brown, acrobat and ringmaster at Circus Oz.

While Dale gave me an unusual Australian cookery lesson, we talked about sport, storytelling, country childhoods, and indigenous identity.

Check it out over at Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: The Butcher of Mungindi

You can read this week’s Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical newsletter here.

Last week I set off on a 1000 kilometre road trip across rural Australia on a kind of impulse Bowie pilgrimage.

I didn’t get to my destination, but found myself at the border between Queensland and New South Wales: a land of cotton farms, ice, drought, and drama.

The night time streets of Mungindi, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales

I learned about beer and butchery, drugs and irrigation, the ballad of Kelly and Red, plus timezones, crime, and the One Ton Peg in the thick of the bush.

You can learn about those things too, over at Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical.

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: An E-mail Newsletter

In January 2016, I start my role as Creative in Residence for the State Library of Queensland, Australia.

A man riding a goat over a high jump in Blackall, Queensland, 1905
Tiger the goat makes a record high jump – State Library of Queensland Archives

As part of this new adventure, I’ll be launching a weekly e-mail newsletter called Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical. In it, I’ll share some of the things I find on my journey through the past, present, and future of Australia’s Sunshine State.

To join up, visit – the first newsletter will go out on Saturday, 9th January.


The Thrill of Heritage: Playful, postapocalyptic, postcolonial cultural programming

TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady
TimeQuest Postapocalyptic Auckland Skyline by Nicola Brady

Heritage is one of the most exciting challenges in community outreach. It’s an opportunity to dispel the myth that the past is staid or somehow divorced from the present. Many public and private bodies hold weird and wonderful archives, unique traces of the generations that have preceded us.  Everything we do and dream is rooted in what has gone before, whether we like it or not, and yet the past is not fixed, as we uncover new truths, new ways of looking at those who have gone before us. The strange and beautiful thing about historical narrative and memory is that even a path you’ve already trodden can still change course in retrospect.

Two years ago I visited Auckland in New Zealand for a six month contract as Service Development Adviser to the city’s libraries. My brief was “to push the boundaries in how our large public library network creates innovative programmes for children and young people […] to inspire others to experiment and learn from the experience of working in fresh, even unexpected ways.”

During my stay, Auckland celebrated its 2013 Heritage Festival, an annual “opportunity for everyone, locals and visitors to Auckland, to celebrate and remember our past and discover our heritage.”

With my Auckland Council hat on, I looked for ways to make the past thrilling, and immediate, and to create opportunities for each neighbourhood library to take responsibility for devising and delivering inspired, playful programming.

A trip to Chromacon, the city’s festival of illustration, led to a meeting with British expatriate artist Nicola Brady. Her drawing of a crumbling present-day Auckland was the perfect inspiration for a time-travelling heritage event.

Nicola’s doomy vision provoked questions: What if we made our heritage programming about both the future and the past? What if we turned it into a dynamic mission of rescue, with participants making their own choices about the value of history?

TimeQuest was born: a season of cultural programming for the school holidays, with a heritage theme and an overarching narrative:

Auckland, 2379. It’s the end for planet Earth – a red sun burns in the sky and the ground is parched of life.

The last survivors are preparing to leave for a new home on the other side of the galaxy, when the scientist Maia completes her greatest invention – a time portal that can take you to any moment in Auckland’s history.

Her plan: to send you back in time to recover the best books, art, and objects from New Zealand’s past. Time has run out for the planet Earth, but we can still rescue the best of our heritage and take it with us to our new home.

Where will you go – and when?

What will you choose to save?

Time Quest – Raid the past to save the future.

For me, it was important to create a storyline which respected New Zealand’s bicultural past and future. If we were going to imagine a postapocalyptic science fiction setting, it would be one where Māori identity was front and centre. Our defiant genius hero would be a Māori woman and a scientist, who invited TimeQuest participants to make their own decisions about the value of heritage, rather than accept some dusty authoritarian imposition.

My Auckland supervisor, Peter Thomas, is a Māori public servant with extensive experience offering guidance and representation to government bodies working in New Zealand. He helped us to choose the right name for our rebellious female science-hero, and also took me through the process needed to approve the use of a quote I’d found at Auckland Museum, which became the motto of TimeQuest:

“Haere mai, e tai, kei te wera te ao”

“Come and see, the world is going to be burned”

These were the words recalled by an eyewitness to the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, a violent natural disaster which decimated communities. I had seen the quotation in a display on volcanoes and earthquakes at the Auckland Museum, and saw it as a symbol of our programme’s link between an imagined future and authentic historical accounts. Peter helped guide me through the sensitivities around using a quotation in this way.

To balance out the gravity and drama of our programme, we also created an alternate promotional image which was friendlier and more cartoony, for TimeQuest events featuring younger children.

Auckland Libraries - Timequest
Auckland Libraries – Timequest logo

Having established our storyline, we wanted to be sure that local communities would create their own events and not just copy some central voice of authority. We wanted local stories, local histories, local art, and local play – so rather than create a prescriptive centralised programme, we created a resource pack with eight model activities to serve as inspiration for local librarians to devise their own versions.

By kind permission of Greg Morgan and the team at Auckland Libraries, I’ve been allowed to share the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF download. 

Our simple missions included robotic dress-up, Nerf gun battles, creative writing, and research activities for a variety of age ranges. In many ways these events were the forefathers to later projects like Time Travel Detectives, Write Your Own Urban Myths, and Big Box Battle.

Auckland’s librarians ran with the inspiration they’d been given and came up with sessions such as these:

  • Time travellers from the year 2379 are on their way to find out information about the culture and life of the tweens and teens of today. They’ve asked us to make a teen’s room that they can teleport to the future. Help us to design and decorate a representation of what a teen’s room looks like in 2013.
  • Life in 2379 is rather bleak. With the sun burning out, life on earth is dying. The time travellers have come back to 2013 to gather enough knowledge and resources to save the future generations. But they will need enough sustenance to do this. Tweens and teens will be asked to investigate the vitamins and minerals humans need to keep healthy and strong. They will then be blending up some fruity concoctions for the travellers to take back with them to help them save the world.
  • Time travellers, to slow the sun and save the future you have been asked to bring back to the future Maui, the Māori hero of How Maui slowed the sun. Listen to the story and help Maui to catch and slow the sun again by making your own fishhooks and ropes.

It was great to watch local librarians take on the challenge and the opportunity of a heritage programme that left space for their own creativity. TimeQuest was just one of many experiments in Auckland over my six month stint there: everything from zombie battles to librarians in comic book stores and a national youth libraries conference.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched with pleasure as participatory, local, and lively approaches to culture and creativity have spread. For me, the most promising model for a decentered, participatory approach to the arts in local communities has been Fun Palaces, the British event co-directed by the Kiwi-raised Stella Duffy from an original 1960s idea by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price. If it’s true that the neighbourhood public library is the gateway to all human knowledge and culture, then Fun Palaces are a beautiful fit for libraries’ swashbuckling cultural mission.

You can download the Auckland Libraries TimeQuest 2013 Mission Pack here as a PDF file – and read more about the project in my blog “A Scientific Romance for Libraries.”