81. Definition and context
[There are quite a few images in this one so you might want to load them up!]
Last episode I finished up by mentioning Gabrielle Zevin’s Tommorrow and Tommorrow and Tomorrow. R is now reading it and if I didn’t convince you last episode, go get a copy. I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I’ve been on my adventure to ICOM in Prague and beyond. The main story follows the relationship between two programmer/artists drawn to making games. It’s a lot more than that but as I wrote in the last episode, it captures the tensions of creative collaborations in your 20s and 30s really well. Where those tensions play out, and the specifics of the communities involved, is very important.
When I was talking about my travel itinerary to people, they would always ask ‘why are you going to Bratislava?!’. First I'd say that I wanted begin to understand different game-making cultures and cultural contexts for creative production. Then I would tell them the story of a little collection of games that had been preserved, and now even translated/localized and playable online.
Courtesy of newsletter reader Michal Čudrnák, I got a private view inside the Slovak Design Museum stores. And inside the cupboards that house the rare hardware, software, and self-published magazines from the 1980s Slovak computer game scene. Maroš Brojo who is now the head of the Slovak Game Developers Association also happens to be the curator and conservator behind these items and listening to him talk about the challenges faced by game makers as the Iron Curtain fell was really inspiring. All the well funded institutions I have worked for have also struggled with cataloguing, preserving, and researching their technology collections - this is that multiplied many fold.
[early Slovak Didaktik home computers]
In a world of standardised software development frameworks it was exciting to be reminded of how things used to be different. The microscale of grey distribution - mail order games dubbed on cassettes with hand written covers like old mixtapes - created a very specific Slovak scene pre-Internet with its own postal and suitcase-smuggled trade routes. These local stories are far more interesting than the now well told narratives we hear from the US and UK scenes of the same period. And I think they also offer insight into how to cultivate local scenes more effectively in the present.
Immediately before my adventures in Bratislava I was in Prague to deliver two talks at the ICOM General Assembly. The first was a conversation with Antje Schmidt who heads up digital strategy for the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. She has been doing some fantastic work in a country where I was a little surprised to find their digital museum practice is only just starting to accelerate.
But the main game - and reason for the trip in the first place - was the third day keynote on the very broad topic of ‘technology in museums’. A main stage opener, I spent far too long writing, worrying and then rewriting my words. I got spooked by listening to fiery keynote on day two by young Ugandan climate activist Hilda Nakabuye. (Never read the comments, never listen to the other keynotes, right?)
Many months ago when I was preparing my application for the ACMI directorship I asked Elaine Gurian for her advice about the ICOM keynote. How might I make sure that it was useful for the delegates? She had some great advice - "it is going be a general museum audience so they won’t be invested; they won’t know the tech discourse; and it’s a keynote so make it count and make it a provocation. It doesn’t have to be profound or new - in fact that’s not what that generalist slot is for".
As always, Elaine’s advice was spot on.
Then the reality of the whole 'new Director & CEO-thing' sidetracked me. My preparation time was shot.
Like all my talks I wrote a huge bundle of notes (into Notion) and then as I was making the slides to accompany them, the ideas began to firm up more tightly. But then, on arriving in Prague I pretty much ripped it up and started again.
I do not recommend doing this.
Because of course, when I arrived in Prague I immediately bumped into stacks of people I had either not seen in years or, I had only ever known as two dimensional images on a Zoom call. It was lovely. But a very bad context for trying to finish writing a talk.
A long story short, it got done. The very final words I did in the hour before I presented it. The AV crew had connected up my laptop on the stage and I stood on the podium in front of a massive empty room and congealed the notes into more coherent blobs in the hour before the doors opened.
Then the people started filing in.
And then I presented it and it was over.
it was a huge relief. Even more so seeing that it was well received both in the room and online and on social media. These days you are inevitably presenting these things to at least those three audiences simultaneously. Then it is about following the long tail of misinterpretations that spiral out in the social media comments (again, never read the comments).
Many readers will already have read it but if you haven’t (or you've only seen the hundreds of tweeted pics of my slides) - I quickly turned that blobs of words into a script which you can now read to yourself online.
I hope it provokes a little - bearing in mind that it wasn’t written for the ‘extremely online’ ‘#musetech’ audience.
The short version is ‘why are we still chasing the dreams of once visionary museum technologists of the post WW2 1960s’? [and no, Web3 is not necessarily an answer]
The panel after me featured several people I've known for ages - Sarah Kenderdine, Sarah Brin, Lath Carlson - and Nanet Beumer form the Rijksmusuem who I hadn't met previously . Any panel following a keynote is awkward because it’s always a balance between engaging with the keynote content that you’ve only just heard and presenting your own thing regardless. In front of a generalist audience, I think it's even harder.
I hugely admire all the presenters’ work - Sarah Kenderdine’s ‘computational museology’ is what is possible when digital humanities is well funded and deeply connected to university STEM departments and their technical capacity. Lath’s Museum of the Future in Dubai has been on my ‘must visit’ list even before he spoke but now I am very curious to go to visit the decompression meditation room in the Al Waha wellness zone the end of the museum!
I was particularly struck by one of Sarah Brin’s introductory slides that explained why she no longer work inside art museums but instead chooses to work with them from outside. Her work with games in an art museum context was well ahead of its time and now she is at Media Molecule and Sony PlayStation. She said "I work with popular media because I care about legibility".
[Sarah Brin's slide 'I work with popular media because I care about legibility']
Recently I have been listening to many younger museum and gallery workers explain why they are fed up with the state of the industry, I sense that Brin’s one liner about legibility might underpin some of their crisis of confidence (yes, and particularly for those in the US/UK it is also about pay, labour conditions, structural racism, etc).
Legibility, too, appears to be at the heart of the ongoing cultural demarcation between commercial ‘experiences’ and ‘capital A Art experiences’. But that’s a whole other newsletter.
After this session and in the middle of day three, the ICOM assembly voted on a new definition of ‘museum’ and agreed for the first since the 1970s. It’s not perfect but it is better than the one it replaces. (Uh oh, does that make me an ‘incrementalist’?)
The local organising committee in Prague had done some fantastic preparations and ICOM was literally everywhere across the city. The 3000 delegates all got a free branded public transport pass too. And the museums hosted some excellent functions in the evenings.
I was mesmerized by Lithuanian artist Zilvinus Kempinas’ simple work Leminscate (2007) at the newly opened Kunsthalle Praha. It was a loop of magnetic tape suspended in the air, in a figure of 8 shape (a leminscate), by two oscillating fans. It was magical. I went back to the exhibition twice to see it. The second time I asked the docents the obvious question of ‘what happens to it at night? Does it ever get tangled?’. (It goes into a little silver box. And no, they take it down carefully and stop kids attacking it). The Kunsthalle also had really good coffee - something that was quite hard to find in the part of the city I was staying in! A nice view too.
I also really loved one specific work in the Heroin Crystal retrospective of 1990s Czech art. Two people kiss in close up and then a new partner replaces in turn on each side over each repetition. In the old Stone Bell House it was really well framed by the door arches making for a lovely dramatic piece of scenography working with the very real constraints of a medieval building. (Sadly I can't find the artist or title - which is a terrible indictment of my museum photo taking, and also of the museum's own website which should list all the works, right?). The rest of the exhibition needed the local context to make sense of - and I had the fortune of chancing upon the curator when I visited who gave me a very helpful historical backgrounder on the key works. In an ideal world the museum labels would convey some of this to the general visitor, right? Legibility matters.
The rest is a blur but as I wrote in a long note to ACMI staff (now I also have to write the introduction to a weekly ‘CEO Newsletter’ in my real job!) the Stephen E. Weil Memorial Lecture was incredibly moving. Ben Garcia, from the soon to open American LGBTQ+ Museum attached to the New York Historical Society, described himself as “working in service to the dead - especially those whose lives were considered expendable and whose legacies have been dismissed or erased - and to the lives of their descendants”. Together with National Museum of Australia curator Craig Middleton, they focussed on the role museums must play in recognising, validating, and supporting queer communities and diverse queer histories. I was so happy that the room for their talk overflowed deep into the corridor. There was a sense that the field is shifting.
On my last night in Prague I went with some new friends to a tiny underground gig in a semi-private apartment. When Michal and I were exchanging messages about me visiting Bratislava he managed to find that this gig was happening when we would both be in Prague. We roped in Olga from Museumbooster and headed off to see mid 1990s post-rock experimentalist Mark Nelson who still records as Pan American playing with two interesting local supports.
We sat on the floor as the bands played in front of roughly projected ambient visuals, and the two family dogs of the household came and nuzzled into us. I briefly chatted to Mark after the gig and we reminisced about when he played at Frigid in Sydney twenty years ago. I think he must have been touring with Labradford at the time. Digging through old Frigid lineup/payment spreadsheets (yes these still exist!), I discovered it was Jan 13, 2002 and he was supported by Mark Mitchell (Clue To Kalo) who was then known as Superscience. Mark M now does music and sound for videogames - including the lovely Melbourne-made rubbery-motion space-suit floaty-puzzle-thing Heavenly Bodies.
It isn’t the first surprise coincidence that has happened when I’ve been somewhere faraway for a conference - and when these things occur it makes the travel even better! There’s some very short videos of the gig on my Instagram if you are curious.
I’ve spent the days since the gig listening to Pan American’s 2019 album A Son a lot. Mark’s set was mostly live renditions of those tracks accompanied by abstract personal videos from his travels and family life. The album been a perfect solo travel accompaniment - “I’m away from home”. Moodswise that led me back to several repeat listens to Low’s I Could Live In Hope from 1995.
Not wanting to use too much data on my precious burner travel SIM (you never want to be down to your last gig with a few days left on a trip!) and also being in ‘flight mode’ for the air travel legs of the trip has meant I’ve had to pre-load a much more limited selection of tunes. I have been using hotel WiFi to pull down a couple of gigabytes of albums from my storage back in Melbourne for local playback at each hotel.
In that process I’ve made some discoveries.
I first found South Korean group TENGGER via Japanese psych rockers Kikagaku Moyo's record label. TENGGER's albums have been filling my headphones with their synth drones and layered vocal harmonies. A far cry from upbeat k-pop, TENGGER is all about slow evolving arpeggios and tones, motoring percussion - all Berlin School and Krautrock. Their recent Earthing album is like an audio version of relaxing in a hot spring in the Korean mountains, while their earlier Spiritual 2 has a more propulsive vibe. I think you might enjoy them.
Stinky Jim’s Auckland dub sounds are back with another album Special Awareness. Jim has had a golden run of releases recently - which makes up for the many years of silence from his Round Trip Mars label.
Just before I flew out of Melbourne I zipped through Chris Blackwell’s autobiography The Islander. It’s a quick airport read. Blackwell founded Island Records and the book is about his long and truly ridiculously life. It begins with him growing up in pre-independence Jamaica and hanging out with Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming!? Apparently Blackwell’s mother was the inspiration for Fleming’s Pussy Galore Bond character! The whole thing is a document of a life of coincidences and making the most of his connections and colonial privilege - along with the kind of rock and roll entrepreneurialism that evaporated at the end of last century (and got absorbed by tech entrepreneurs). Anyway I mention it because as I was flying between London and Prague, I had the surprisingly good album of Robert Palmer covers, dubbed and re-rubbed by Deadbeat and friends wobbling my noise cancelling headphones. Palmer was one of Island’s later stars and who, like Blackwell, cherry-picked influences across r&b, soul, reggae. Deadbeat enlists Mika Bajinski for the vocals and the results are fantastic - yes even the version of Addicted to Love.
[a carer and very small child play in a lake on the beach revealed by a drought stricken Rhine]
Before I end this one I do need to mention that as I have been travelling I have been very aware of the visible impact of the drought and war here. Living in Australia I thought I was pretty familiar with long periods of drought but seeing the Rhine River so low was still a real shock. Apparently the low water level is worsening shipping logistics making it even harder for food supply. It is similar in China where drought and heat is threatening the production of all the good that us in the wealthy nations have gorged ourselves on for the past 30 years. On the ground the impact of the rising cost of living is very visible. I expect it will be even worse when I get to the UK. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has also been far more top-of-mind on my travels here. From hearing personal stories from friends of their lucky evacuation or their concerns for the safety of relatives with whom they have lost contact, or the wave of refugees, it is abundantly clear that the next 20 years is going to be quite different to how some thought as late as 2019.
Right now I am en route to Frankfurt traveling and then on to London before heading home. Next episode I’ll talk about what I will have seen in the Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, London leg. And some links to stuff I’ve been reading on this trip … which, you may have noticed, are a bit scarce in this episode!