Across this past weekend I was one of about 100 people related in some way or another to this Frankenstein’s monster known as the Digital Humanities to take part in THATcamp Canberra. One of an international series of loosely affiliated events that are self-organised by groups of theorists and practitioners working in The Humanities And Technology (ie THAT), the gatherings are billed as “unconferences“, informal spaces for the exchange of knowledge and the development of relationships between people working on connected but diverse projects. THATCamp is built around a number of key principles that can be sumarised into three key points (paraphrasing Tom Sheinfeldt):
- THATCamp is FUN – everyone attends to participate in something that will hopefully enable them to do their work better, but the sessions should be enjoyable, stimulating, exciting, intellectually liberating.
- THATCamp is PRODUCTIVE – participants are encouraged to think about what sort of outcomes they’d like to see come out of each session and the program as a whole.
- THATCamp is COLLEGIAL – unlike many academic conferences, this is not about grandstanding, competitive, careerist intellectual work. This is about developing supportive, collaborative professional relationships that help to advance an emerging set of disciplines.
As a Master’s level student, I came at the event with a great deal of trepidation. I was fully aware that I was entering a space full of people who’ve been working on these ideas with great focus, rigour, discipline (and in many cases institutional support) for a whole lot longer than I have been. I tried to enter this space with humility and an open yet critical outlook. I was relieved to find that the promise of a challenging yet welcoming space was actually delivered, even for a relative novice like me.
The event ran over a day and a half, and in that time I attended sessions covering a range of topics: the semantic web, data visualisation, API data mashups, research tool zeitgeist, collaborative play-based learning, digital objects and texts. Some of these sessions were broad ranging discussions with no concrete objective or outcome, others were designed to address a particular problem that one ‘camper was bringing to the group, and some fell into the BOOTCamp program of practical trainings and surveys of a the digital humanist’s tools.
As I have said already above, my experience of THATCamp CBR was overall very positive, and I left the weekend with an invigorating sense of possibilities for my future studies and for the important and exciting course that this young field is charting. In the name of constructive critique, here are some reflections that I have on the content and process of THATCamp CBR.
Warm (stuff I liked, thought went well)
- The sense of collaboration, collegiality was very present and very genuine throughout. In spite of being one of the least experienced, least connected people present I felt able to ask basic questions and to bring my own perspective into discussions.
- The overall logistics of the weekend (space, wifi, transportation) went as smoothly as anyone could hope for, and this was obviously a result of very hard work done in advance by the co-ordinating team.
- The diverse nature of the sessions (some broad discussion, some specific problem-solving, some training) felt very balanced and rewarding. The facilitators and participants generally did a good job at the tricky task of managing rooms of people with wide ranging levels of expertise in any given topic and the diverse contexts they were coming from.
Cool (stuff that I think needs attention or change)
- The openness of the event, both on the session scheduling level and in the facilitation of each session felt too loose to me. I would have like to see some more active facilitation to ensure that everyone had equal ability to speak, rather than those people who felt most comfortable as a result of their social and professional experience with other people present, or simply the most confident people in the room, being able to direct the conversations. This was not the case in many instances, but it was only as a result of the general generosity and self-confidence of most participants that domination of spaces did not occur more.
- I don’t think I have ever participated in a more overwhelmingly white event. I recognise that the makeup of THATCamp CBR is probably representative of the makeup of the upper levels of digital humanities/archives in universities, governmental, other institutions. This factor became particularly problematic for me in conversations around the semantic web and the creation of historical and educational tools in which we were discussing the development of ontological schema and historical narratives that are intended to serve or represent diverse (if not global) populations.
A number of THATCamps are scheduled for the coming months, beginning with Cologne, Germany in September. THATCamp Melbourne is being planned for early 2011. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in the intersections of technology and the humanities to get involved. Frequent updates can be found at http://thatcamp.org/ and by following #THATCamp on twitter.
As someone who thinks that games (video and otherwise) have an important role to play in promoting positive change in the world, I am dismayed when I look at some of the work that is being touted as making breakthroughs in the development of games as a “serious” medium. As with much other work that describes itself as promoting social change, “serious game” is too often a label that is attached to projects that reinforce the status quo of power relations.
The project’s creative director, Jane McGonigal espouses a worldview where gaming is a panacea for the world’s ills:
Evoke began on March 3, and will end on May 13. Subscribers receive an email each week for 10 weeks, alerting them to the availability of a new chapter in an online graphic novel and a new task to complete IRL and blog about on the Urgent Evoke site. Each week focuses on a critical social issue and asks participants to consider how these problems could be solved through “social innovation” (read as: neo-liberal intervention).
CNN reports that the World Bank Institute funded the project to the tune of USD$500k, with the purported goal of encouraging young Africans to develop solutions to the problems facing their local communities:
Bob Hawkins, senior education specialist with the World Bank Institute, said one big reason people in African countries aren’t as entrepreneurial and innovative as those in the West is that they don’t feel as empowered to create change. That’s largely why his international development group is funding McGonigal’s project to the tune of $500,000.
“There have been studies, for instance, in South Africa that the public investment in universities isn’t producing the types of new ideas and innovation that industry wants,” he said. “What happens is that industry is importing ideas from outside the continent and outside of South Africa.”
Yes, I can see how that would frustrate Industry, when the universities don’t come up with the answers that they’re expected to in the pursuit of profit. Better intervene with a serious game.
Following a recurring theme in these pages, the video contains an interesting example of blackface (blackvoice?). Alchemy, the shadowy leader of the Evoke network, is voiced by Adam Behr, white voice actor. If this is about creating employment opportunities for Africans, and there’s a half a million bucks to throw around, they couldn’t even find a black man to voice the lead black character? So what we have is a project created by funded, developed, and voiced by white folks behind a digitally generated black mask. (fishing for the ghost of Fanon to contribute to the comments section)
Thankfully, the webisphere provides the opportunity for concurrent critique of projects like this, and a group equally as shadowy as the Evoke network calling themselves Invoke has offered an alternate augmented reality game (AARG?), Urgent Invoke. The parallel story unfolds:
The time has come for the development of games and games studies that are not only serious, but critical. Gonzalo Frasca has done some of the foundational work in this aspirational field, but there is a lot of heavy lifting to be done before it takes any sort of real shape. I hope to have an opportunity to do my share of that work.
(Dear Readers: apologies for the long absence. The fates have stepped in and made me a full-time carer for my injured partner and our baby, so little time for blogging. Background here. That said, some stories are too infuriating to ignore.)
I’ve previously mentioned the prevalence of the Golliwog figure in Australia in these pages. Last week, on a reunion show of “Hey Hey It’s Saturday“, an extremely popular and long-running television variety show that ran all through my youth, an example of Australians’ obliviousness to the prevalence of racism in oz came roaring into the nation’s living rooms.
That’s right, producers and audience thought it was so funny the first time they did it 20 years ago, they brought it back for an encore. For those non-Australian readers, the cutaway to the caricature of a fat-lipped figure with the caption “Where’s Kamahl?” is a reference to a popular Australian lounge singer who is ethnically Tamil and was born in Malaysia.
Discourse around the story in the media and blogosphere is following a similar line to that begun in the exchange between Harry Connick Jr and Daryl Somers in the clip above. To summarise:
Rest of World: Hey Australia, that shit is racist and it’s mind-blowing that you’re still yucking it up to minstrel shows.
Australia: This is not America. Blackface is not considered racist here. Take a joke, mate.
Me: White Supremacy is so deeply entrenched in Australia that ridicule of people of colour, even in the crudest and most outmoded of forms of expression, is a socially acceptable form of entertainment.
Note that Daryl’s apology is directed to Harry for offending his American cultural norms, not for the content of the segment itself and its offense to people of colour.
While Australian blackface commonly mimics the Golliwog/Sambo/minstrel type, we also have an indigenous form. Growing up in North Queensland, King Billy Cokebottle was a popular performer who did his routine on a local radio program, when not out touring the pubs of the nation and selling audio cassettes by mail order.
It is important to remember that the assault on racial justice in Australia is not only taking place in the field of representation. The government has suspended the Racial Discrimination Act as part of the “Northern Territory Intervention” in order to enact policies that explictly discriminate against indigenous people, and deployed the and federal police to enact these laws. Lynchings occur, and semi-organized fascist groups are sprouting.
But it’s just a joke, mate…
There are certain things that it seems that Australia has not received the memo on. Glitches in the cultural continuum that send a jolt of culture shock through my system and let me know that I am in thoroughly americanized space, but not the US.
Being a new parent, I spend a fair amount of time browsing through childrens’ shops for cute new clothes or toys for Ramona. Many average mall baby/toy shops stock some version of the Golliwog.
As racist as the US is institutionally, this type of “Sambo” minstrel character is generally understood for what it is, a deeply insulting racist caricature from a bygone era. Apparently not here in the supposedly progressive Australia.
Until recently, Arnotts, an Australian company iconic for its Tim Tams, Iced VoVos, and many other baked confections sold biscuits called “Golliwogs”. (NOTE: I tried to find an image of this, but was amazed to find that I could not. Australians not so good with uploading? Arnotts on an aggressive revisionism campaign? weird…) In a seriously half-arsed PR move, “Golliwogs” became “Scalliwags” when Arnott’s sought to expand business in the US (maybe? not great sources on this).
Not only is the Golliwog still alive in Oz, it has spawned descendants. In Australia, dark-skinned people, particularly immigrants (often southern Europeans, Arabs), are often referred to as “Wogs”. “Wog” is a shortened form of “Golliwog”, first used by British troops to refer to Arabs, and later becoming a more general slur against people of colour. It is reported that in the 1960s soldiers from the Argyll and Southern Highlanders Regiment would display a Robertson’s Golly Badge for each Arab they had killed in Aden (Yemen), a British mandate until 1967.
Jason Di Russo remarks on the morphing context of the term “wog” over the past 20 years in his well thought out essay in The Australian. Russo does a good job of pulling the ridiculous framing of the Chk-Chk Boom non-story into focus. The story here is not whether or not Clare Werbeloff witnessed a shooting (she did not), it is the normality of white Australia’s caricatures of people of colour.
More curriculum-related research gems:
The first use of the Black Panther Party logo was not by the Oakland-based Black Panther Party who made it such an icon. It was used as a logo of a political formation called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The LCFO was organized by a group of SNCC radicals, including Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale.
Stokely Carmichael in 1966:
In Lowndes County, we developed something called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. It is a political party. The Alabama law says that if you have a Party you must have an emblem. We chose for the emblem a black panther, a beautiful black animal which symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people, an animal that never strikes back until he’s back so far into the wall, he’s got nothing to do but spring out. Yeah. And when he springs he does not stop.
Now there is a Party in Alabama called the Alabama Democratic Party. It is all white. It has as its emblem a white rooster and the words “white supremacy” “For the Right”. Now the gentlemen of the Press, because they’re advertisers, and because most of them are white, and because they’re produced by that white institution, never called the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization by its name, but rather they call it the Black Panther Party. Our question is, Why don’t they call the Alabama Democratic Party the “White Cock Party”? (It’s fair to us…..) It is clear to me that that just points out America’s problem with sex and color, not our problem, not our problem. And it is now white America that is going to deal with sex and color.”
…and while we’re on the subject of whiteness, I can’t help myself: