Hello 2017. Recapping 2016.
As has been the tradition, welcoming in 2017 began with playing a gig at Club Kooky’s (almost nearly) annual New Years’ Day party. There’s nothing more bacchanalian or comforting than sweating it out in one of Sydney’s longest running safe spaces. And, sadly, it looks likely that over the coming years those safe spaces are going to be more important for many communities — and not just as places where people like myself have the luxury of visiting as ‘allied tourists’.
For many of my friends, especially those not in Australia, 2016 was a tough year. 2017 is already starting out like it might be similar.
For me, 2016 was a year of reacquainting with Australia, discovering new things in Melbourne, and in the museum world, shifting roles and priorities.
It turns out that my part of Melbourne is pretty great. Good public transport, good public services, and work that is making a difference. When I started at ACMI there were a sense that the organisation was, compared to many other museums, pretty high functioning — and I was a little concerned that building momentum to do ‘different things’ would be considered as being ‘just for the sake of it’. Fortunately it hasn’t felt like that — at least not all the time. The team and concentric circles radiating out from the team have been generous and interested — willing to take a risk. As a result it feels like a lot has been achieved — even if most of that ‘achievement iceberg’ is well below the water line. A bunch of writings sit over at labs.acmi.net.au that discuss some of the ‘above the waterline’ projects whilst some of the VR and game-related things are still undocumented. Hopefully over 2017 I’ll be able to reveal some of the scale of that iceberg and where it is now drifitng . . . the vision is no less bold than that at Cooper Hewitt.
Australia, as I reminded myself in the 2015 wrap up, is very far from the rest of the world. While I didn’t get back to the East Coast to visit my Smithsonian friends, I did catch up with many at Museums and the Web in LA in April. On that trip I realised that as Museums and the Web turned 20, I’d been to 10 of them — and more than a couple of the ‘new’ themes were, in fact, slight variations on the themes that were being tackled a decade earlier. Sometimes this meant new perspectives and new approaches, but more often than not it felt like the next generation repeating the errors of the last. No doubt this happens cyclically. Following MW2016 I spent a week at UCLA as one of the guests for their Cultural Analytics & UX Design and got genuinely excited about some of the new ways mathematicians are thinking about cultural products, and what digital humanists are doing to problematize a purely algorithmic approach.
I was lucky enough to spend even more time in LA doing the Getty Leadership Institute in June — thanks mostly to the recommendation and nudging of Janet Carding, and the generosity of my ACMI colleagues to let me be away from the office for an extended period of introspection. More than anything, the course solidified my commitment to the field. There were plenty of personally challenging moments for everyone on the course — we all were emotionally exhausted afterwars but the new friends made around the world during it have been a truly supportive and diverse bunch. On the one afternoon when we were left to oursleves, I headed back into central LA and finally got to check out the Museum of Broken Relationships. A versioning of the Zagreb original, its a great ‘reading’ experience — with the stories bringing each donated object to life — and one that made be think of Fiona Romeo’s long ago comment on visitors ‘not coming to museums to read 40,000 word books while standing up’. In this case I think I looked at labels for far more time than the objects at Broken Relationships, and didn’t feel bad about it at all. Following the Institute, amongst other things, I’ve decided to start formally mentoring a number of ’emerging professionals’ — and am increasingly committed to building the next generation of culture workers — we’re going to need them.
The latter half of the year had much less travel except for three trips to New Zealand — my first return to NZ for about 6 years. I was once again reminded of the splendid people who work in our sector over there — and felt that there had been a genuine cultural transformation in the years between visits. Bi-culturalism felt deeper and far more embedded in daily life and although deep structural inequalities remain, New Zealand seems to have pulled much further away from Australia and Canada in how the future looks with its first peoples, and its new migrants. The first trip was to speak at Museums Australia/Aotearoa — a joint event held in Auckland. The second trip was spent at Te Papa in their Mahuki museum incubator helping the first cohort interrogate and kick the tyres of their museum startups.
Inbetween Te Papa and Mahuki, I spoke at Web Directions — now just Directions, in Sydney. The day after the US election and alongside many US-based speakers, Directions was considerably more spikey and political than I remember it being. I really enjoyed reconnecting with many of the Australian tech scene — and the splitting of the technical sessions of Web Directions out into their own events has turned the new look Directions into an even better highly curated single track event. I should probably also mention that Directions had the best conference catering of any event this year too! If you watch one talk from it, make it the closer from Maciej Ceglowski — he was in fine form.
The third time back in NZ, several weeks after my time at Mahuki, was for National Digital Forum — one of my favourite events and something I’d really missed when I was in New York. This year I asked that my keynote be done as a Q&A with one of my favourite kiwi museum people. So, Courtney Johnson and I sat on stage around a pixel fireplace (stoked occasionally by Digital NZ’s Andy Neale) and talked about the differences between museum cultures in various parts of the world and building supportive and reflective work cultures for teams. It seemed to go down well and the casual nature of the chat probably meant we covered topics in a more forthright manner than if it had been a ‘prepared’ deck of slides. You can watch our chat over on Youtube.
The final trip of 2016 was to Singapore. It was the first time I’d stepped outside the airport in Singapore. Emerging into the humidity, I found the place full of contradictions. I got a chance to visit both Cloud Forest and the fantastic Art Science Museum. The Cloud Forest is a microclimate inside a biodome — and despite a heavy handed climate change message at the exit, its a spectacular, if dystopian, glimpse into the future. The nearby Art Science‘s permanent exhibition galleries are made up of 16 interactive experiences by Japanese agency TeamLAB. TeamLAB’s work has been exhibited in many places these days and their model of being a hybrid agency/design/art studio is fascinating. Here at ArtScience, though, the impact of all 16 works put together into ‘zones’ brings a scale and gravitas to the best of their work. It’s very impressive — and very accessible — in a way that some fo their scaled down, individual pieces aren’t.
This year was one of my most heavy listening years since 2008 — perhaps unexpectedly as I’d noticed that I’ve had a lot less headphone time during office hours this year. I clocked up 20,426 plays of 10,639 different songs from 3,148 different artists — and I went to 21 live gigs.
There were a lot of great new releases this year — and many discoveries of older things. My interest in deep synthesized soundscapes continued with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani’s collaboration being one the highlights alongside a fabulous compilation of 70s/80s music put out by Light In The Attic — The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970–1986. Add to that Wolfgang Voigt and Deepchord’s remixes of Peter Michael Hamel’s Colours of Time and I went far down a wormhole I hadn’t visited since the early 90s and the days of running our ambient recovery parties, Cryogenesis, and parties with our friends at Punos. I’ve mentioned in passing that I’d now describe this as ‘music for self care’.
On a similarly ‘home listening’ tip, I did interviews with Ian Hawgood of Home Normal, Dave Howell of 130701 and Dave Wenngrenn of 1631 — all home to different aspects of a very loosely defined ‘modern classical’ sound. 130701 put out Ian William Craig’s Centres — one of my favourite albums of the year full of delicate processed vocals. It was good to get back into a bit of music-writing, and maybe that wil expand over 2017. I’m also starting to draw stronger connections between my recent work and my musical life and this has started to leak out in interviews like this one with Dan Koener of Sandpit.
Being at ACMI has pushed me much deeper into games again. I don’t think I’ve played (or enjoyed playing) video games this much since I was a teenager, or perhaps when i was moonlighting as a reviewer in the 90s. In between the indie games, I caught up on lost time with Witcher 3, thoroughly and unexpectedly enjoyed the single player mission of Titanfall 2, and spent q lot of hours playing Life Is Strange with my daughter. I could talk about improvements in game narratives, or the immersion of a good VR game, but mostly I’m currently interested in the spatial design of the worlds in which these games take place — virtual architectures — and how they affect gameplay, how their edges are increasingly hard to find.
Perhaps I’ll get to write more this year. I had to disappoint a few people by pulling out of writing projets in 2016 which I’m still apologetic for. Life is busy.