Farewell 2018, Hello 2019

Seb Chan
Seb Chan
Jan 2, 2019 · 13 min read

As I write this, outside the train window the snowy landscapes of southern Sweden flicker past, the flecks of green poking out through a thin layer of fresh snow. I’m currently travelling from one set of museum friends to another, and this year, especially, reconnecting with my museum friends around the world has been one of the real highlights. Even though austerity bites hard, there are still people doing wonderful things despite their difficult local contexts — and the generosity that remains within the sector is very hopeful.

Nowadays very few institutions have the luxury of the kinds of projects that I’ve been able to be a part of over the last decade. The ambitious, bold, pan-institutional initiatives prioritising openness over transactional commerce; and the infrastructural initiatives that prioritised investment in APIs to maximise the long term transformative effect of a digitised collection are increasingly being dismantled, replaced by short term, mostly outsourced projects. The irony of this short-sightedness is that the public — that is the people with whom museums have a civic contract with — have little interest in museums’ excuses for not delivering the kind of impact and experience that they believe they receive from other public institutions like public libraries or commercial enterprises in the leisure and retail sectors. That this short-sightedness is driven by a lack of skills, lack of knowledge, and worse of all, a lack of imagination is simply inexcusable.

On digital

Speaking to some friends at the Swedish Heritage Board a few days ago, Kasja Hartig and David Haskiya asked me about the future of ‘digital experiences’ and I replied that these are now very ‘ordinary’ and ‘unexceptional’. By this I meant that, like digitisation that quickly became unfundable somewhere between 5–10 years ago, the public and most key stakeholders now simply believe that ‘digital experiences’ are now a part of what core funding is there for. Again, like digitisation, if your organisation didn’t manage to break the back of it a decade ago, then your chances of securing ‘special’ funding for it from public or private sources was next to zero in the next decade — your institution was assumed to have already done the work. It is becoming similar for ‘digital experiences’. Digital experiences are and should be extensions of a museum’s existing experience — not separated from it — and of course that experience needs to stretch out and across the Internet.

2019 marks my twentieth year working in museums — a field I fell into accidentally. I’m continuously surprised by how little has actually changed since I began in the field and how much there is left to be done.

The fragility, and the scale of work still to be done, in the digital space of museums was one of the underlying themes in the Exploratorium’s Compass symposium on locative technologies in cultural heritage. A week catching up with my former US colleagues aside, it was Sherry Hsi’s look back to the early years of this century that has stayed with me since. Sherry recounted the 2001 & 2005 Electronic Guidebook projects that explored the pre-smartphone visions and experiments with mobile devices in museums and it was an important reminder that what visitors can now achieve with their own smartphones inside museums was once, recently, nearly impossible.

Yet even now it isn’t our institutions who provide much of the contextual or extended reference materials around a family’s visit — instead it is a smorgasbord of content served up by Google searches and Wikipedia wormholes.

Likewise, catching up with Keir Winesmith and hearing the inside story of the rapid shutdown of SFMOMA’s much lauded celebrity audioguides because of a ‘startup acquisition’ was another reminder of the sector’s fragility. Every single day that our sector avoids building and investing in infrastructure, and hiring appropriately technical staff to design and run it, it is another day closer to extinction.

Ni hao

Only a few weeks ago — in November — I was in China for the first time since I was a child. As a guest of the China Art Academy, the short trip to Hangzhou and Shanghai, with Tapiei en route was one of those moments that resets some of your assumptions about the future. Travelling on a superfast train between Hangzhou and Shanghai the smog hung so low that only a few hundred metres were visible outside the windows, but at the same time every single house had a array of rooftop solar panels. On the university campus in Hangzhou the cash-less student cafe operated with face scanning and fingerprint biometrics, whilst payment services had moved almost entirely to WeChat and AliPay — not a credit card or cash in sight. Talking to the academics at the conference, there was a sense that this ever-present surveillance was equal parts theatre, technology marketing aimed at Western governments, and a technological means of rekindling social trust after the cultural genocide of the Cultural Revolution coupled with the rapid urbanisation of the last twenty years.

Old signage at Taipei’s C-Lab housed in a former air force barracks

There is much to think through, because despite these local cultural differences, the artworks at the Taipei and Shanghai Biennales all spoke to the same themes as the art I have experienced in other countries this year — refugees and migration, climate catastrophe, isolation, inequality.

Home

Back in Melbourne the work continues at ACMI. The project that had filled my first two years in Australia finally got fully funded in April and gears switched into full-scale recruitment and production. I’m still struck by the different work culture in Melbourne to New York, and Sydney. Every year from the end of the football finals through to the end of January, work slows right down.

If you’ve heard me talk over the last two years you might remember that I’ve often asked what it means to be a museum of non-exclusive ‘content’. And what it might mean for exhibition and experience designers when that content also takes a long time to engage with and make sense of. If you are the ‘national museum of film, tv, videogames’ then what does a 90 minute visit actually intend to awaken within a visitor? How does a museum foreground context over content — and do that with time-based media without being like Amazon Prime X Ray or the much maligned Microsoft Clippy? How might a museum draw out a critical response to a videogame whilst also revealing the pleasure in playing it? Just under a year after ACMI closes temporarily in May you’ll find out. Inevitably we’re going to make some mistakes but the way we have been working with each other internally and externally with our architects BKK, and exhibition designers Second Story, things bode well.

This year too was the year I rejoined a union. It has been a long time between memberships, in part driven by the reality that as one moves up the workplace hierarchy the less a union is perceived as representing your common interests — and in some countries and jurisdictions, managers and executives are not allowed to join. As a result my contributions are probably mostly symbolic and go to funding collective action on behalf of less well paid workers.

It took reading Angela McRobbie’s book Be Creative:Making a Living in the New Culture Industries to bring me back into the fold. When I was writing my (unfinished) PhD on the cultural geographies of music subcultures back in the pre-Napster 1990s, McRobbie’s work on music subcultures, fashion and feminism was very much part of my research — but in the intervening 20 years I hadn’t followed her more recent writings. Continuing to be interested in young people, their practices of identity production, and how they make ends meet, McRobbie’s Be Creative explores the labour relations of the contemporary creative industries. In so doing it looks to map a way out of the neo-liberal trap that most workers and practitioners in ‘freelance creative endeavours’ find themselves — the competitive hustle, the celebration of individual brilliance, and the constant downplaying of any value in collective action, collective bargaining. 2018 was a timely reminder that the hard-won gains of the past 150 years are fragile.

For me, too, McRobbie’s book helped illuminate some of the time specific privileges that have helped shape my creative life. In some recent-ish interviews where I’ve tried to articulate the importance of my musical past to my museum present, I’ve always struggled with giving this connection clarity. Her chapter on the cultural entrepreneurialism of the late 1980s and 1990s club and rave scenes, especially, is useful for describing the way in which those of us who grew up through those times — and I expect other DIY music scenes of the same period too — trained us to leverage the early benefits of the network society (and ‘networked sociality’) that the mainstreaming of the web, and later social media has brought. In McRobbie’s 2002 predecessor to her book chapter, she describes it thus,

The dance/rave culture that came into being in the late 1980s as a mass phenomenon has strongly influenced the shaping and contouring, the energizing and entrepreneurial character of the new culture industries. The scale and spread of this youth culture meant that it was more widely available than its more clandestine, rebellious, ‘underground’ and style-driven predecessors, including punk. The level of self-generated economic activity that ‘dance-party-rave’ organizations entailed, served as a model for many of the activities that were a recurrent feature of ‘creative Britain’ in the 1990s. Find a cheap space, provide music, drinks, video, art installations, charge friends and others on the door, learn how to negotiate with police and local authorities and in the process become a club promoter and cultural entrepreneur. This kind of activity was to become a source of revenue for musicians and DJs first, but soon afterwards for artists. It has meant that the job of ‘events organizer’ is one of the more familiar of new self-designated job titles. The form of club sociality that grew out of the ecstasy-influenced ‘friendliness’ of the clubbing years gradually evolved into a more hard-nosed networking, so that an informal labour market has come into being which takes as its model the wide web of contacts, ‘zines’, flyers, ‘mates’, grapevine and ‘word of mouth’ socializing that was also a distinctive feature of the ‘micro-media’ effects of club culture.

[...]

In this creative economy, older features of working life such as the career pathway, the ladder of promotion, the ‘narrative sociality’ of a life spent in a stratified but secure workplace have been rapidly swept away to be replaced by ‘network sociality’. Work has been re-invented to satisfy the needs and demands of a generation who,‘disembedded’ from traditional attachments to family, kinship, community or region, now find that work must become a fulfilling mark of self. In this context, more and more young people opt for the insecurity of careers in media, culture or art in the hope of success. In fields like film-making or fashion design there is a euphoric sense among practitioners of by-passing tradition, pre-empting conscription into the dullness of 9–5 and evading the constraints of institutional processes. There is a utopian thread embedded in this wholehearted attempt to make-over the world of work into something closer to a life of enthusiasm and enjoyment. We could also note that for young women, now entering into the labour market as a lifelong commitment instead of a part-time or interrupted accompaniment to family life as a primary career, the expectation that work is satisfying and inherently rewarding has a special significance alongside the need now to be one’s own breadwinner.

I got prodded into McRobbie’s book largely through Queensland videogame academic Brendan Keogh. At some stage this year he was reading the book and tweeting passages from it — whilst a group of local game designers and game workers were agitating to form a Game Workers Union of their own. I’d also really enjoyed Brendan’s own book on the phenomenology of game play in videogames — A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames — which has a lot to offer non-videogame thinkers and designers too.

Art and museum visits

Amongst the more memorable art I saw this year I finally got to see John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015) when it was at showing SFMOMA. Somehow I missed it when it was in Melbourne at the Ian Potter in 2017 — as, I expect, did many others. That, Cao Fei’s Asia One (2018), Joyce Ho’s Overexposed Memory (2015) and Anne Noble’s Museum for a time when the bee no longer exists (2018) — all at the excellent Asia Pacific Triennial at QAGOMA.

All the eyes at Museum Boerhaave in Leiden

There were a lot of other museums I visited for the first time. Amongst the best were the refurbished (medical) Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, the newly designed M/S Maritime Museum of Denmark (which also doubles as the location of the Apollon base in Danish post-apocalyptic YA Netflix series The Rain!), and FACT Liverpool which had the temporary exhibition State of Play on art & videogames.

Videogames

And so to videogames. This year I helped ACMI pull together a ‘manifesto’ for its curatorial approach to videogames in the absence of an actual ‘Curator of Videogames’ role. As the museum gets back into videogame preservation proper, and the new galleries come together, there has been a lot of thinking from staff across the institution about the why, more than the how, of videogames.

Its impossible to have missed Red Dead Redemption 2, and despite its questionable labor practices, the resulting game is a spectacular example of a slow game. So much real time is spent travelling and it feels so important to the game that once ‘fast travel’ becomes available it seems wrong to make use of it. I can see why a lot of people don’t like the slowness. The other AAA game I wasted plenty of time with was Assassins Creed Odyssey where those 3D models from the various museum’s classical collections sprang to life. Although only three weeks apart in terms of release dates, ACO’s open world of repeating buildings and non-player characters was shown up by RDR2’s environmental detail and narrative design. Other than that, Minit, Into The Breach, and Celeste were highlights alongside local productions Florence and the Gardens Between. Watching my kids devour Super Smash Bros Ultimate on the Switch — and thus open up a family discussion about Game & Watch — and finally discover Universal Paperclips was also a reminder of how game knowledge spreads in the schoolyard. Obviously Fortnite is a thing but everyone knows about it already so its hardly worth me giving it more oxygen.

Music

There was a lot of music listened to this year, the most individual tracks of the last ten years (second only to last year). Somehow these days I’m listening to more music, more often. There’s just so much excellent music around at the moment it is increasingly hard to sift through it all.

Lastwave visualisation of the year’s musical listening by week

I’ve already written about some of my top picks over at Cyclic Defrost — a magazine I founded at the end of the last century that still manages to plod along thanks to the commitment of that other global network of friends I have managed to maintain — musical friends.

Because I know you aren’t going to click that link above — no one clicks links these days — here’s those recommendations in full again.

Ill Considered — 3 [self-released] / Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings [International Anthem] / Various — Spiritual Jazz 8 Japan [Jazzman]

I think the last time that ‘contemporary jazz’ was this popular was in the ‘acid jazz’ era of the early 90s. This year the whole London jazz thing really burst out everywhere. There was is really so many great releases to choose from here but Ill Considered released 3 and several live recordings right from the heart of the scene whilst over in Chicago Makaya McCraven connected the London scene back to Chicago with his re-edited live recordings on Universal Beings. But it wasn’t all new jazz, with a whole host of reissues from the out reaches of the late 1960s and 1970s. The best of these collections was the latest in the long running Spiritual Jazz series — a double album set with some amazing and obscure recordings from Japanese artists.

Another Channel — Dub Excursions [Moonshine Recordings] / Deadbeat — Wax Poetic For The Our Greatest Resolve [Blkrtz] / Dub Surgeon — The Lost Future [Ark to Ashes]

Over in Berlin, dub techno never seems to go away, and in 2018 there was a solid new album from Deadbeat, alongside a slippery debut from young producer Another Channel who has managed to find some new trajectories to explore. Then there was also a ‘lost album’ recorded in the late 1990s from Jay Haze with Ricardo Villalobos aka Dub Surgeon which is in the same vein as Pole’s crackly experiments.

La Luz — Floating Features [Hardly Art] / Carla dal Forno — Tops of the Pops [self-released] / Penelope Trappes — Penelope Two [Houndstooth]

Three quite different acts here — the LA surf indie of La Luz, the Melbourne via Berlin coldwave of Carla dal Forno, and the Lismore via London ethereal electronics of Penelope Trappes (of The Golden Filter). La Luz’s third album is just a great summery record, perfect for those long drives to the beach while Carla dal Forno’s cassette release of pop covers plunges summery pop into midwinter coldwave. Penelope Trappes’ latest release is perfect late night listening and came accompanied with a ‘visual album’ version which premiered on 4:3.

Low — Double Negative [Sub Pop]

I had no expectation that Low’s latest album would be as spectacular as it turned out to be. In fact Low has been one of those bands that I’ve known by name but never really followed in a massive way — and I only saw them live was when they supported Slowdive a few years back. But Double Negative evoked the same emotions for me this year as Ian William Craig’s Centres did for me last year. — the perfect accompaniment to a world on fire. The album was released with a series of excellent music videos too.

I’ve found Melbourne to be a pretty great place to indulge my sonic proclivities — and its a place where many of those faraway music friends still tour to. Some of the best venues happen to be within walking distance of my current dwelling. But some of the best gigs this year were the ones I found out about only at the last minute. Catching Midori Takada and Jan Jelinek’s concert at London’s Union Chapel and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe in at the Brava in San Francisco were wonderful moments of happenstance.

Jan Jelinek at Union Chapel, London.

Happy new year.

Seb Chan

Written by

Seb Chan

I’m currently the Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. Previously Cooper Hewitt (NYC) & Powerhouse Museum (Syd).

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