David Hockney, Foye Looking at Brooklyn, 1982. Sourced from Lawrence University Communications on Flickr.

Rewind: The Best of 2012

So it’s the end of another big year. With a view to stamping out any creeping amnesia about the year that was, I thought I’d set aside some poolside time in Sanur to reflect on the personal highlights of 2012. Some of my own making, some not so. And soon to follow, some ruminations on the year ahead, in anticipation of Mayan foibles. But if it is the end of the world as we know it, I’m feeling fine.

The Bests

1. Mapping Emergencies with the ABC

The year commenced with a fast and furious digital project at ABC, where I led a digital emergencies strategy across the divisions of ABC Innovation, News and Radio with a view to testing out the use of maps and social media to improve emergency communications. The summer of 2012 in Australia saw the tail end of the La Nina weather pattern, so it was a season of flooding on the East Coast, and bushfires in the South and West Coasts. Clearly the area of disaster communications is only going to grow in importance over the coming century, and working with the ABC to explore new reporting practices for digital emergencies coverage – addressing in particular the thorny issue of appropriate uses of social media and the trickeries of geo-spatial reportage – sparked new interests in fields I’d not previously known very much about: crisis communications & data visualisation, surely to be front and centre concerns for many a media organisation over the coming years. Working in digital emergencies at the ABC meant the stakes were high – you can’t afford to get too much wrong, even when you’re piloting new things, when you’re the broadcaster people turn to in times of need. Challenges were met with rewards, not least the chance to work again with some of my favourite people, and learning about Twitter not just as a micro-blogging medium but as a tool for mapping & analysing socio-spatial behaviours.

Website: ABC Mapping Emergencies

2. Bringing the Australia Hotel back to life

I first dreamed of re-inscribing the sites and sounds of the old Australia Hotel (1891-1971) back in 2008, when I was directed to some original ABC reportage of the Hotel’s auction in 1970 by documentary researcher Wendy Borchers. My fascination with this long gone hotel had less to do with wishing Sydney still had this gaudy old relic, essentially a rip-off of American luxury hotels constructed to attract cashed up tourists of the late nineteenth century, and more about practising new ways of experiencing historical moments in time using a range of spatial media platforms. Re-imagining digital archives in site-specific ways has long been a fascination of mine, and this project enabled a bunch of ideas I’ve been working with for many years make their way out of the dusty halls of the academy onto the public (though indeed rather dormant) stage that is Martin Place, Sydney.

Being Sydney’s premier tourist, entertainment and cultural centre for some eight decades, the Australia Hotel is today not a built artefact to wonder and wander about, razed as it was in 1970 to make way for the towering MLC Centre, but a rich archive of sounds, images, drawings, paintings, magazines, films, broadcast recordings and more. Working with this site provided the opportunity to pratice a public history in which it is the recorded heritage of a space that creates the frame for an encounter with the past. That was the idea anyway. So often (too often?) it’s only by ‘visiting’ monuments, museums, or miraculously preserved relics of the past that we allow ourselves to think about how previous lives were lived in a place; in a digital age this experience need not be confined to that which remains, through luck or otherwise, part of the fabric of everyday life. This needn’t, I hope, mean memoralising the entire landscape, but my hope is that different places of importance to the way we live our lives today might come more clearly into view.

Actuality recordings of Sydney’s changing landscape have, as evidenced by this website, been a fascination for some years now but Last Drinks was the first time I’d been able to re-inscribe many found recordings on such a public stage, through the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival. The project meant not only mounting large scale projections onto the buildings in and around Martin Place, but also the opportunity to work again with the incredible treasure trove that is the National Film and Sound Archives (and yes, to get my hands rather dirty with that other Trove), to meet and work with lots of fabulous Sydney-siders young and old who shared important connections to the old Hotel, and to delver ever deeper into the often hidden cultural geographies of the city of Sydney, which I fell in love with all over again. The highlight of the decade, not only the year.

Project site: Last Drinks: One More Round at the Hotel Australia

3. Collaborating with MK.

Frankly, my husband Michael Killalea is one of the best designers I know. The good ones, I find, are those who are thinkers first, whose depth of engagement with an idea brings just the right formal expression to the original gesture of a thought or an inkling. Reminds me of that quote about contemporary art: ‘Modern Art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.’ A good graphic designer makes you think you came up with that concept all by yourself. A not so good one thinks they know something you don’t know.

This year Michael and I formalised our collaborative inclinations through the creation of ESEM Projects, our platform for public installations and creative archives projects like Unguarded Moments and Last Drinks. The production skills Michael has been flexing on set with his creative agency killanoodle have geared him up to shift into installation design, giving my somewhat abstract ideas about experiential history a life out on the streets. Michael also has a background in film, clearly evidenced by his visual directing skills which saw the filmic sequences of these recent installations offer up more poetic than didactic experiences of the past. The best bit is I never know what trick this visual inventor is going to come up with next.

Project site: ESEM Projects

4. Listening to Julia Holter

Music accompanies everything I do; new music is like yoga, freshening the spirit and stretching the limits of the mind. Julia Holter’s Ekstasis spurred this mind into action (or was it spirit into flight?) more times than I’d like to admit; her way of pulling together different sound sources into beautiful constructed adventures is inspiring not just as a way of escaping the everyday-literal, but because the pathways she’s carving are being followed ever so closely by the big boys of the contemporary music scene, from Pitchfork to The Wire to Boomkat and no doubt beyond (but the beyond bit is pretty much unknown to meâ?¦). Listening to music likes this asks all of us: are we really doing the best we can do?

Julia Holter: Ekstasis

5. NZ National Digital Forum

I’d never been before, but I’d heard it was good. Now I know why. Delivering a Keynote at this most esteemed of conferences was a major highlight not just for the chance it gave me to pull a bunch of recent projects into a longer trajectory of thinking about the contemporary spaces of archival practice, but also for re-energising my interest in the potentials of cultural heritage in the digital age. Another perk: I realised during my stay that I’d adopted a bit of a depressed mindset about innovations in cultural heritage – a result, I’m all too well aware, of these days of fiscal austerity. Days of Keeping the Budgets Balanced; days when there is No Money for Anything Interesting to Happen in the Cultural Sector. While we are indeed living in lean times, the chance to get amongst a big bunch of good folk committed to making the most of digital collections for the public good helped revive my interest in the creative potentials of digital archives. I realised this year I’ve felt pretty alone on this path for many years now: if you’re into digital things you’re probably not thinking about the past, pre-1996 anyway, right? But now I know there are kindred spirits all around the world who aren’t only wanting to make as much money as they can out of their start up digital agency, but are actually interested in using these tools for something beyond their own hip-profit (ok that was a typo but it works no?). I suppose you could say this was the year I belatedly realised those digital types in the ‘GLAM’ (galleries, libraries and museums) sector are doing some of the more innovative work in digital culture, and that I’d very nearly fallen asleep at the wheel. Phew, thanks #NDF2012!

Website: National Digital Forum 2012

Other notables

Other notables include reading Thinking the Twentieth Century (Snyder & Judt) and wanting to dog-ear every page, finally getting around to reading Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian (thanks to an excellent second hand bookshop in Wellington), watching my baby Annika become a rock star dancer before my very eyes, seeing Lena forming letters all by herself, cycling around London with 40,000 others at the one intersection (yes! cycling roolz!), gasping at the tree-visions of David Hockney (in the book, sadly not at the exhibition). Likewise, there are disappointments & frustrations, skepticisms and tears, all of which make up a year of stubborn attempts to try to do things a bit differently. As Bjork said once “when you say one thing, you make another thing more hidden”, and along these lines I’m often struggling with the confounding limits of time (hours in a day); with juggling motherhood while wanting to Make Stuff Happen.

And finally: the awarding of the Turner Prize to Elizabeth Price for her video work The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979. ‘I’m interested in social, historical stories and think art is the way to remember them’, mused Price. To me the most compelling thing, from the short grab of the 20-min piece I’ve gleaned so far, is its use of sound: sharpening the vision into focus, then spacing, then refocusing again through a snap of the fingers, an all too personal, intimate gesture that allows for new meanings to form out of a bewildering, too-familiar sea of news footage. This gesture seems to me the best that art can be today; revealing the over-saturated medium of YouTube quality TV footage back to us as the very texture of our collective minds, not just abstract data or mediocre reality or terrifying horror but also, just maybe, the spaces of the sublime. That was how I experienced Christian Maclay’s The Clock too, a work that used the everyday – literally, as a 24 hour period – as a frame through which to reveal our televisual memories, shocking these hidden moments from our past into view, as familiar as the house you grew up in. ‘Rather than be seen as builders of digital interfaces, we should also be viewed as artisans of emotional experiences’ wrote Tim Wray when reflecting on the NDF, a sentiment strengthened for many by Courtney Johnston‘s moving presentation given at the NDF on the value of emotional engagement with digital collections, prompting tears and rapturous applause, both in the tent and across the Twittersphere for many days beyond (that’s years on earth right?). That this concept of emotional interfaces took such a strong hold on an audience of lifelong digital practitioners suggests to me that a world of big data and situational awareness ain’t only going to make us cleverer.

Best we finish off with Fran Lebowitz (with thanks to Jenny Diski:

If, while watching the sun set on a used-car lot in Los Angeles, you are struck by the parallels between the image and the inevitable fate of humanity, do not, under any circumstance, write it down.

Point taken.

Feature image reference: David Hockney, Foye Looking at Brooklyn, 1982. Sourced from Lawrence University Communications on Flickr. “Numerous individual images are collaged into one scene indicating multiple perspectives and the passage of time.”

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