Sharon Webb and Laurence Hill in conversation

Sharon Webb: Let’s start off by saying that it’s amazing that Laurence Hill is officially a Visiting Fellow of the Sussex Humanities Lab [SHL] and of the School of Music Film and Media.

Laurence Hill: I have to say, it’s very exciting for me. I remember seeing Caroline Bassett [former head of SHL] speak about it – I think it was at a breakfast meeting at Wired Sussex, which would have been whenever the Lab first began…

SW: In 2015.

LH: Yes, it was 2015. The idea of a digital humanities lab was something that was completely new to me. I was really fascinated by the idea, and it tied in very much with what Brighton Digital Festival [BDF] was about. In 2015, I was the BDF’s arts advisor and somebody else managed it, and then I took over as director in 2016 and took the festival in a new, slightly more critical direction. So in some ways the Sussex Humanities Lab and BDF came to fruition around the same time, and it feels like there’s been a really nice parallel between the two.

My interests — and as director they directly inflected what the festival was about — were exactly the kind of things that you’re doing, looking at the impacts of technology on culture and on life and society. And that’s really what I wanted the festival to explore as well, within its framework of being part arts and part business.

SW: That’s interesting. When I came to the Humanities Lab, the first big thing that I noticed in Brighton was the Brighton Digital Festival. I was extremely happy to find out that it was happening in the same place that I had decided to move to and work from. From that point I really wanted to get involved. I think my first meeting with you, Laurence, would have been in 2016 or 2017, at a kind of…

LH: … at a town hall meeting, I think. Every year, we would have a town hall meeting around June time, to say, ‘OK this is it – we’re back, this is the festival, come along and find out what we’re doing, come along and meet other people.’ And yes, that was when we first met.

SW: What I really liked about that whole platform, the way those meetings worked, was how open they were – it wasn’t a festival that was just set by the people who were on the top; it was really open and welcoming. And I distinctly remember the first conversation that we had together was around digital preservation, and thinking about digital art and digital preservation and how we might meld the two together.

LH: I think it was after that meeting that introduced you to David Sheppard and Leslie Wood from Queer in Brighton, because I’d met them to talk about that archive and preservation. And I said, ‘No, wait! There’s a person that I’ve literally just met…’ One of those serendipitous things.

SW: And from that point, we had a shared interest in the oral histories of Queer in Brighton and thinking about different ways of representing them in a way that looked to their future sustainability. The conversations that we started together with Queer in Brighton really influenced the work that I’m doing now, and have done over the past two years. The British Academy grant that I got and conversations with you were very instrumental in thinking about doing something that wasn’t just another digital archive – thinking about an artist commission, for example. That really solidified a lot for me in terms of how I think about my own practice.

LH: We talked a lot about reanimation, didn’t we? And that idea of the journey into an archive or into a museum not being a one-way street where something disappears and is gatekept after that, and only available to certain people, at certain times, for certain reasons. The idea that you could take something that was sitting on a memory stick under someone’s bed and make it available to the community that it came from was something that I found really exciting and interesting. We certainly saw eye to eye on that.

SW: And that analogy that you had from that Duty Free Art book, yes?

LH: That’s my favourite analogy.

SW: It’s brilliant, it’s perfect!

LH: It’s from Hito Steyerl’s book Duty Free Art – I think it’s on the very first page, so that book paid for itself straight away just with this one thing. Steyerl talks about a Soviet IS3 battle tank that was sitting on a pedestal in the Ukraine as a Second World War memorial. It was out of action but had never been fully decommissioned, and was therefore available to be driven, by pro-Russian separatists, off its pedestal and back to its former purpose, killing several people in the process. That idea of decommissioning and then recommissioning was very interesting – obviously, we were more positive in what we came up with than the tank example!

SW: Yes, and I think that the whole thing around recommissioning those oral histories really worked well.

LH: That thinking led directly to the work that we did with the Elle Castle, whom we selected alongside David and Lesley from Queer in Brighton, after an open call for an artist to make a work using some of those oral histories that would make them available again. Do you want to talk a little bit about Elle’s work Queer Codebreakers 1.0 and that process?

SW: A lot of that work was thinking about the ethical principles and the curatorial principles of working with historical oral histories and, again, learning from you to allow a kind of playfulness to be part of the experience, and that experimentation is OK. So it wasn’t just about the end product; it was everything in between as well, and we should support that in every way that we can.

Looking back to that first iteration of Queer Codebreakers, Elle did that on her own, essentially. You had sessions with her just talking it through, and I had a lot of anxiety because I couldn’t see the end product until the day before! To me that was a letting-go of control, which is not often the case in things that I work through myself, or research that I do, because I’m doing it. That was a much more collaborative experience; I hadn’t worked that way before, and it was about letting go of control over the final piece.

LH: That’s interesting, because one of the things that that we want to do together is to think about the connection between the academy and the arts and creative businesses – and part of that, for all of those separate sectors, is about necessarily letting go of the ways that they do things. So it’s really interesting that you went through that kind of process yourself. But actually – you know that I have an obsession with messy edges, which I’m now rethinking as unruly edges thanks to Anna Tsing and her book The Mushroom at the End of the World. Well, to me, that’s where the interesting work happens: when people do work slightly out of their comfort zones. If you can find collaborators that that you can trust, that’s where the richness is. There’s richness in the edges and in the cracks, sometimes.

Queer Codebreakers 1.0 (February 2019)

SW: I think that allowed Elle and me to think about what worked and what didn’t work. Even the night before the launch of the first exhibition, we devised some additional questions that we added to the installation, and that engagement, although under pressure, encouraged us to think more creatively about what we would do next time. So, when the opportunity came around for Queer Codebreakers 2.0 to be part of the Queer the Pier exhibition at Brighton Museum, we really had a better sense of what worked. And again, experimenting for the first one supported that; it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

LH: Yes, that’s the other thing with digital art: it often it feels like an iterative process. In a sense, Queer Codebreakers 1.0 was like a proof of concept. Incredibly well done and well delivered by Elle, but it did need to go forward to further iterations. For me, that’s one of the most exciting things about digital art, and maybe there’s a link with research there: you might have an idea that you write a paper about that then becomes a body of work and it’s also an iterative process.

SW: Definitely.

LH: It’s the same for the creative industries as well. If they’re building something, that’s going to be an iterative process – it rarely gets delivered to market as a fully realised product, which is why we’re constantly bedevilled by updates of everything!

SW: I want to move on to ask you how the Messy Edge conference came about. As an output of the Brighton Digital Festival, I think that it was its most successful element. It’s the thing that I engaged with and found most useful, especially in terms of your curatorial experience or the way that you presented the Messy Edge. It’s been amazing to watch it develop over the years. Do you want to talk a little bit about it?

LH: Sure. The Messy Edge came from the need for a conference of sorts for BDF. I agreed that with the chair of the BDF board and from there, I just ran with it in my own direction really. I’ve famously never explained really where the name came from mainly because I genuinely don’t remember…

SW: I think I’ve heard three versions!

LH: There have been three versions, none of them true! But the name and idea came about through my belief, which we’ve talked about, that interesting work happens at the edges. I wanted to make a space that was the antithesis of the cutting edge, which I find such a sterile idea.

So, the curatorial concept was built on that idea and on the fact that I didn’t want a bunch of straight white men talking. Having had the privilege to go to a lot of digital culture and technology conferences, that was a lot of what I had seen, so I started thinking about programming in that kind of instrumentalist way. Then what became really clear, really quickly, was that if I wanted to get people to talk about the sort of topics I was interested in exploring, the straight white men weren’t the people who were doing that.

I’ll give one quick example – I was interested in the topic of digital colonialism and research led me almost immediately to artist Tabita Rezaire, a woman of colour living in South Africa, whose brilliant work in part explores that topic – so she became the first person that I invited to speak. So I thought, ‘OK, this is going to resolve itself and I don’t have to be so instrumentalist,’ and so it proved. Through taking that approach, the conference started to challenge the dominant narratives of digital culture, which are almost exclusively white, western, male, cisgender and straight.

Last year’s Messy Edge [in 2019] was the final one that I curated (the BDF board have claimed the name as it was conceived when I was under contract with them) and I was super proud of it. That thinking will inform all of my work going forward, including what we do together at SHL – and it’s very exciting for me to get further input from you all.

It would be interesting to loop back to our earlier discussion and make the connection to the Messy Edge. One of the things that I always tried to do was to bring elements of the BDF programme to the conference. We had, for example, Rhiannon Armstrong, who developed the idea of the Slow Gif Movement during a residency we provided, and she returned to talk about that.

At the Messy Edge [in 2018] where you spoke, I invited the performer and activist Emma Frankland and put the two of you in a session together. We did a project with the trans and non-binary community in the city called VoiceOver Brighton, which Emma led. At the conference, she spoke about the power and the importance of digital to distributed communities, but also an understanding that if you want to do that kind of work in a particular community, then you have to allow the people in that community to make the work.

SW: What I loved about that piece was that it captured and presented people’s voices from a marginalised community but critically, also the way that Emma was thinking through who has the right to record and who has the right to access these kinds of oral histories. That thinking was clear in the way she curated the final piece that was exhibited in the gallery on the sea front. This goes back to a conversation that you and I had in the Lab with Caroline [Bassett] and Amelia [Wakeford], about hidden archives and how access for communities is really important. It was a real eye opener for me, thinking through those things and how Emma identified what was for a general audience and what wasn’t. In a lot of my previous work with the Digital Repository of Ireland we’d always talked about open access, but actually, that doesn’t work for all communities. I think, again, that was something that was really important, and that’s influencing how we work with the Queer in Brighton archive as well: understanding that actually some of it isn’t for a general public, and that there are different publics within these spaces.

LH: That was the thing that Emma identified very early on – the opportunity for the trans and non-binary participants to be able to determine themselves whether their content was solely for their community or for a wider audience. It felt like a radical notion in that moment.

SW: I’m also thinking about how you framed that edition of the Messy Edge around the ideas of the right to be forgotten and the right to be remembered. That was a crucial move – it really opened up what maybe the Western notion to access is, when actually to have the right to be forgotten is a privileged position and, as you articulated in that conference call, some people haven’t even been seen let alone remembered. That goes back to the work that I do with community archives, where there is a sense that where digital preservation doesn’t exist throughout the practice there is an idea of double erasure.

Emma and I were on the same panel, and I thought that worked extremely well, because the two of us were talking about similar things. And for me it was also being putting in a space with an arts practitioner; that’s outside what I would normally do, but that’s part of my learning curve – and this has been something that through meeting you and working with you that has come to fruition.

LH: That section with the two of you worked so well, I thought, because you were talking about the same or at least very similar approaches to two different areas of practice, and in a lot of ways coming to the same conclusions even though you hadn’t worked together or even met before. One of my very many happy memories of the Messy Edge.

SW: So, we’ve collaborated on a few things, but thinking now about how we might work together more formally in the Lab, I want to ask – and this maybe is an unfair question! – but what does it mean to you to be a Visiting Fellow of the Lab?

LH: It feels like an achievement to have been awarded that status. I’ve valued my various contacts with the Lab so highly over the past few years, so it feels very exciting.

In practical terms, everything has been somewhat slowed down as we’re having this conversation [because of the Coronavirus crisis], but there are two areas that we’re looking at over the first six months that are connected and both, in a sense, pilot projects. First, and we’ve received some funding for this, is to look at the Lab’s impact on creative businesses in the city and try to make some more concrete connections; and second, I want to run an arts programme within the lab that is also about connecting outwards, and with a view to creating an artistic director role to run alongside my own curatorial practice extending and developing that Messy Edge thinking.

Initially, I need to get in there, when that’s possible, to sit down with people and start looking at the kind of work that’s happening in the Lab currently, and its history. Obviously, I’m aware of some of that but not all of it. It’s very early days and there’s a lot for me to think about, but I’m looking forward to having my thinking shaped by those conversations.

Also, as you know, I did my MA at Sussex couple of years ago and rediscovered a love of learning, and of thinking in a more focused way than normally happens in my head! The chance to reconnect with that, to be in that environment, to hang out in the library, is really important and very exciting to me.

SW: And it’s really exciting for us as well. You know, the Lab started in 2015 and over the past few years we’ve become more involved in the Brighton Digital Festival – that includes me, Alice [Eldridge], Cécile [Chevalier] and other members across the university. Through those involvements, we’ve had so many conversations about various different things, and to now have you as, essentially, part of our team, is absolutely amazing. For me, it’s not about an academic setting, it’s about the people who we navigate towards, so it’s great to have you with us because it’s organic; it makes sense because we’ve worked together over the past few years. And I think, again, it’s about the things that are important to both of us: that sense of community, and that collaboration within communities and supporting each other. I think that it’s a great way for us to see what we can do in the future.




Life, but not as we know it

A guest post by Peter Newell, Professor of International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. This article originally appeared as part of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme Forum on the Pandemic and Sustainability, convened by Dr Andreas Antoniades.

Amid the fear, uncertainty and personal loss that surround the current Covid-19 pandemic, people are starting to think about what form a ‘just recovery’ to the crisis might take. But what if sustainability was also one of the guiding principles of efforts to re-build economies, communities and societies?

Here I highlight three key dimensions. Firstly, behaviour change. People have shown themselves to be remarkably able to adapt to constraints and adopt new norms of living, accepting limits on their behaviour requested by the state in order to address this threat to our collective well-being. No one will welcome further or permanent restrictions on their freedom, of course. But there may be scope to further encourage positive behaviours around re-localisation and resilience: from supporting local businesses and sourcing local food and reducing food waste to enabling more people to work from home and making virtual conferencing the norm to avoid unnecessary flights.

Historical evidence suggests that once behaviours shift, even if induced by crisis, they can become the new normal. One example, would be the shift towards a four day working week that was introduced as a temporary cost-cutting measure and became so popular that it remained in place.

Secondly, fighting roll-back. Just as the crisis has provided an opportunity to avoid aspects of business as usual that are clearly unsustainable, so too the rush to kick-start the economy, combined with the losses they have suffered, is emboldening airline industries and fossil fuel firms to claim bail-outs and state support of around $2 trillion in the case of the US alone. This is in addition to the $10 million a minute that the world already spends on fossil fuel subsidies according to the IMF. They have already had some success with commitments to suspend the enforcement of environmental laws in the US, for example, and pressure for further de-regulation of hard-fought environmental protections.

Ensuring these basic safeguards are not eroded is vital to our ability to deliver the SDGs. Beyond providing compensation and re-training opportunities for workers, this is not the moment to resuscitate industries whose business models are incompatible with delivering the Paris agreement when there are so many other sectors deserving of state support. Rapid transitions out of these sectors were required before the crisis; the coronavirus has served to precipitate their decline and provides an opportunity for an economy wide re-think.

Thirdly, re-set around the aims and priorities of economic life. We have seen widespread support for prioritising welfare and prosperity over growth at all costs. This has implied strengthening the resilience of our life support systems: health services and the environment which sustains us all.

The industrial conversions we have seen in recent weeks could be extended to a broader re-purposing of the economy through new investments in jobs and infrastructure along the lines of the proposed Green New Deal to ensure the economy we build from the crisis is built on stronger foundations of sustainability. The basis for this could have to be secure and decently paid work as part of a just transition; a deliberate move away from casualisation and precarious contracts for the poorest in society.

Alongside this, there is renewed interest in cooperatives, social enterprise, B-Corps and non-traditional business models that put welfare above short-term profit maximisation.

This is a key moment to change the economy by design and not just in the mode of crisis management. The goals of strengthening resilience, enhancing well-being and guaranteeing social justice need to guide our efforts.

Things won’t ever be the same again, but nor should they be. If normal was the problem, pushing us beyond planetary boundaries, getting back to normal spells disaster. Is it possible that we might make something positive come from this most devastating of crises? For the sake of future generations, we have to make sure the answer is yes.

Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Peter is a specialist in the politics and political economy of environment and development.

Find out more about his Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project on ‘Climate Resilient Agricultural Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa‘.