Concept Analytics Lab (CAL) gathers linguists, AI engineers, and historians and is aligned with Sussex Humanities Lab within the Critical Digital Humanities and Archives research cluster. The principle mission behind Concept Analytics is to understand human thinking by analysing conceptual layering in texts. We overcome the divides between humanities, AI, and data science by harnessing the power of computational linguistics without losing sight of close linguistic analysis.
Although CAL was formally set up in 2021, its existence is the culmination of research energies over the previous few years and our desire for a stable space to explore concept-related ideas with like-minded scholars. Establishing the Lab has provided us with a platform from which we showcase our research expertise to researchers and other external partners. CAL has grown and changed through 2022, during which time we have counted on a team of six researchers at a range of stages in their careers, from undergraduate to postdoctoral level. The team is led by Dr Justyna Robinson.
CAL has so far partnered with research groups within Sussex, e.g. SSRP, as well as ones further afield, e.g. Westminster Centre for Research on Ageing. We have worked closely with Archives such as Mass Observation Archive and Proceedings of the Old Bailey, as well as non-academic organisations.
What were the highlights of the past year?
Our activities in the past year centred around exploring the content of the Mass Observation Project (MOP) and their Archive of May 12 Diaries with the aim of identifying conceptual changes that happened during Covid-19. We have completed two main research projects. CAL was awarded funding through the UK-RI/HEIF/SSRP call Covid-19 to Net Zero, in collaboration with industry partner Africa New Energies, to identify the impact of Covid-19 on people’s perceptions and habits in the context of household recycling and energy usage. CAL was also commissioned by the PETRA project (Preventing Disease using Trade Agreements, funded by UKPRP/MRC) to discover key themes and perceptions the public holds towards post-Brexit UK trade agreements. Keep reading for summaries of the findings of these research projects, as well as our other achievements this year.
Household recycling with Africa New Energy (ANE)
Through this project we identified that respondents to the MOP Household Recycling 2021 directive were deeply committed to recycling, but that these feelings were coupled with doubt and cynicism in relation to the effectiveness of the current system. MOP writers pointed to a perceived lack of transparency and standardisation in recycling processes and systems. Lack of transparency and standardisation have also been identified as obstacles to recycling adherence and efficacy in more policy-based analytical surveys (Burgess et al., 2021; Zaharudin et al., 2022). Changes in recycling habits among the UK population were identified as resulting from external factors, such as Covid-19 and reduced services, as well as lack of knowledge about how and what can be recycled. This research has significantly impacted the way our grant partner ANE approach their operations in terms of gaining energy from organic waste content. The research results also led ANE to start work on gamifying the waste classification process. It aims to encourage recycling compliance by replacing the current sanction-based system with a more rewards-based system. This research shows that the CAL already has a track record of establishing commercial routes of impact for our research and we see extending the scope of this impact to be a critical next step in CAL’s research programme. Further details on the collaboration with ANE can be found in this blog post.
We are seeking further HEIF funding to expand on the work already done with the Household Recycling directive to maximise policy impact by processing the handwritten answers and also processing the 2022 12 May Diaries for insight into the impact of the current energy crisis on respondents’ behaviour and attitudes to energy. As part of this project we would hold an exhibition in which we would invite various stakeholders including policy makers to showcase our work.
MOP UK Trade Deals
We were commissioned by the PETRA project’s lead Prof. Paul Kingston from the University of Chester to perform a conceptual linguistic analysis of the MOP UK Trade Deals directive. We used our approach to identify hidden patterns and trends in the answers to the directive questions. The conceptual analysis allows us to combine quantitative with qualitative methods and identify otherwise unperceived patterns. The main themes that arose were related to the perceived quality of trade deals and concerns about animal and ethical standards. We also performed an analysis linked to people’s knowledge, belief and desires. The results of the analysis will inform policy makers in their decisions regarding trade deals. Additionally this piece of work has attracted some interest from public health bodies with whom we are preparing a potential grant for future research.
Papers and presentations
In 2022 Justyna Robinson and Julie Weeds both presented the work they did within the context of the Old Bailey archives and have had their paper on that work published in the Transactions of Philological Society. In this paper they describe a novel approach to analysing texts, in which computational tools turn traditional texts into a corpus of syntactically-related concepts. Justyna Robinson and Rhys Sandow also have authored a paper forthcoming in 2023, ‘Diaries of regulation: Mass Observing the first Covid-19 lockdown’. This research will be presented at Mass Observation’s 85th Anniversary Festival, Mass Observation Archive, The Keep, 23rd April 2023.
As part of the SSRP/HEIF funding we received earlier this year we have also developed a website, which can be found at conceptanalytics.org.uk, where we also post blogs with news pieces and short research insights.
One of the most interesting projects I’ve been part of this year is the climate futures roleplaying game Kampala Yénkya. With the support of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme, I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside Dilman Dila and Maurice Ssebisubi (Uganda), Polina Levontin and Jana Kleineberg (UK), Bright Nkrumah (Germany / South Africa), and assorted playtesters and reviewers, to create innovative educational materials around climate adaptation, localised for Uganda.
UNESCO highlight the importance of futures literacy to a just climate transition:
Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’
In the Global North, games and science fiction have longstanding links with futures research, and more recently have developed a strong connection with climate futures specifically (something we’ll be exploring in a special issue of Vectorin spring 2023). By contrast, African speculative cultures are underutilised and under-theorised in the context of adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.
The project’s key deliverable was a tabletop roleplaying game, Kampala Yénkya (the title roughly translates to ‘Kampala of Tomorrow’). The game involves mapmaking and collaborative storytelling, and seeks to empower players to imagine the future of Kampala in many different ways. It is available to download here, under a Creative Commons license.
This is the first edition (‘Oracle’ edition), designed to be played with fairly minimal materials: a copy of the rules, an ordinary deck of playing cards (or two), some tokens (e.g. matchsticks), and blank paper and pen for drawing a map.
Science fiction writer Dilman Dila provided the initial inspiration and wrote a substantial portion of the game materials, as well as a supplementary collection of short stories. The game design was informed by the Applied Hope: Utopias & Solarpunk games jam which I co-organised last year, supported by SHL. Kampala Yénkya evolved through several rounds of playtesting in four of Kampala’s secondary schools. Maurice Ssebisubi, an environmental scientist and an educator, coordinated the games that involved nearly two hundred students, ensuring that the game is responsive to local climate information needs while also being fun and inspiring to play.
The bulk of the funding was made available from the SSRP’s Fund #6 to support the work of a team of Ugandan and UK academics, educators, and artists, to develop and test innovative climate action education materials for use in Uganda. SHL provided support in-kind in the form of me, and also a little extra funding for translation. All the core team members also volunteered additional time on the project. Special thanks also to Peter Newell and Michael Jonik for their help early on.
Kampala Yénkya: Oracle Edition is now available as an open beta. This version of the game can be played with easily sourced materials (matchsticks, playing cards, pen and paper). The oracle edition is published in English and Luganda. bit.ly/ImagineAlternatives
Kampala Yénkya: Deluxe Editionis currently is in its playtesting / graphic design phase (design by Jana Kleineberg). Game packs will be delivered to 20 further Ugandan schools in late 2022 / early 2023. Each game pack contains:
Game materials and instructions — custom designed cards and ‘story stones’ for playing Kampala Yénkya. With the help of narrative prompts, players imagine Kampala in 2060, while also getting quizzed on their climate knowledge.
Inspiration deck — extra storytelling and worldbuilding ideas written by Dilman Dila, with contributions by Polina Levontin.
Further information — for players who want a more in-depth exploration of themes raised within the game.
Ugandan SF writer Dilman Dila has written a collection of short stories (working title Kampala Yénkya: Stories) set in a future Uganda, which will be published by Ping Press in 2023, with an introduction by Wole Talabi. Dila’s five interlinked tales were developed in dialogue with climate experts across Uganda and the UK. The collection also includes Q&A to enrich its value in educational settings.
Uganda: Seventeen groups across four secondary schools participated in a climate quiz, raising awareness of climate issues and collecting baseline data to inform our project
Uganda: Students from four secondary schools participated in a series of Kampala Yénkya workshops, led by Maurice Ssebisubi. Students responded positively to the game, and many of their suggested improvements have been incorporated.
United Kingdom:Kampala Yénkya was featured along other arts-led climate communication projects at The Carbon Deli, a two-day installation at The 2022 Great Exhibition Road Festival in London.
The project wrapped up officially at the end of July, but the momentum has continued. Maurice Ssebisubi is leading on the creation of a network of environmental clubs across schools in Uganda. This work has been supported through our project, with the climate quiz and game playtesting used as activities to pilot the clubs.
We are exploring a potential workshop around the game at African Futures 2023 (Cologne).
The project will also be the central case study in a chapter on climate risk education for Communicating Climate Risk: 3rd Edition (SHL, 2023), from the Sussex Humanities Lab and the Institute of Development Studies PASTRES project.
All game materials are made available under a permissive Creative Commons licence, to encourage sharing and adaptation. We have received expressions of interest in localising the game for other countries (South Africa, Nigeria), and will be exploring ways to support this work in the future.
Tabletop roleplaying (TTRPG) is popular all over the world, including many countries in the Global South, for both entertainment and education. But as far as we’ve been able to discover, it doesn’t yet appear very prevalent in Africa. We would be interested in hearing from TTRPG players, designers, writers, or societies / groups from the continent.
During March, April and May, the SHL was host to a series of weekly art-making and creative writing workshops for PhD researchers who identify as neurodivergent (autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, anxiety, depression etc.), which was funded by the University’s Researcher-led Initiative Fund.
The Art Jam was primarily intended to be a way of creating access to a safe and validating creative space where neurodivergents are among other individuals with similar experiences, fostering a sense of community and support. Neurodivergent people are often forced to mask their true selves in public and in learning environments for fear of discrimination and oppression, which, of course, is both exhausting and detrimental to our mental health and wellbeing. But a dedicated community such as this can render masking unnecessary for its activity duration, and it’s super fun!
The SHL is such a great space for this sort of community-based workshop series thanks to Silverstone’s accessibility, the SHL’s lighting and sound set-up which can adapt to suit sensory sensitivity, the outside garden suited to solitary creating, and the general adaptability of the room’s layout. Before and throughout the sessions I made it known to participants that social interaction was not expected, and non-normative social interaction and any sort of embodied expression of neurodivergence, such as using fidget spinners and tactile comfort objects, stimming, or using headphones or earplugs, would be met with absolute acceptance and fellow understanding.
Embodied ways of thinking, such as art-making and creative writing, are often a neurodivergent individual’s mode of expression, thanks to our divergent minds and ability to make connections through non-linear thinking. A regular space with free access to art materials and creative prompts provides a perfect environment to engender embodied exploration and play. Thanks to the Researcher-led Initiative Fund, the workshops were furnished with a bunch of art and craft materials such as paints, pencils and drawing pens, clay, pastels, and sketchbooks. In the first few weeks, we responded to prompts and created drawings, short pieces of creative writing and collage poems. Some participants were keen to learn lino printing, so we got some more materials in and had several excellent sessions designing a print, cutting the lino and pulling some beautiful prints. In other sessions, we learnt embroidery and played with play-dough in a spaghetti maker. Watch this space for more Art Jam sessions in the coming academic year…
To coincide with COP26, the Greening the Digital Humanities workshop was held by the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society, the University of Southampton Digital Humanities, the Sussex Humanities Lab, and the Humanities & Data Science Turing interest group. It was a chance for Digital Humanities groups across the UK and Northern Europe to come together to consider what DH communities should do to rise to the urgent challenges of a changing climate and a just climate transition.
It was a summit of unprecedented scope and determination, and probably long overdue. Before the day itself, we had a couple months’ worth of drumroll. So we were able to start by sharing insights from these various scattered dialogues and surveys. Video here and slides here.
Building on this early engagement, four-ish main action themes emerged during the workshop:
Compiling a toolkit for DH researchers to do what we do more sustainably — finding out what’s already out there and signposting it, finding out what isn’t and inventing it.
Improving our knowledge, especially about how to measure our own impacts. This could definitely inform that toolkit, but it came up so much it deserves its own theme.
Nurturing a community of interest around just transitions — climate action is about decolonisation, about feminism, about anti-racism, about diversity and democracy. Many of us felt we wanted to deepen our understandings of climate justice, to share in one another’s research, and to reach out to colleagues and fellow travellers outside of DH.
Lobbying, influencing, and offering support and expertise — especially within our universities, and in our relationships with major funders. There was also some interest in other stakeholder groups (key suppliers, green investor coalitions, people responsible for league tables and excellence frameworks, etc.).
My own breakout rooms focused mostly on that final theme. We spent quite a lot of the conversation on funders (representatives from whom were in attendance). We all acknowledged the need for a collaborative and joined-up approach, feeding our perspectives into the work funders are already doing.
At the same time, there is also a fairly clear short-term ask here: we want prominent assurances that bids are not going to be disadvantaged for devoting some of their precious word counts to environmental impacts, and that budget lines related to mitigating environmental impact are legitimate. Everybody’s hunch is that this is already the case, but it’s good to have it said out loud, while the medium-term processes such as updating funder guidelines grind into gear. There is plenty to figure out. But the next few years are crucial from a climate perspective, and bids going in today or tomorrow are impacting what we might be doing in 2022-2025. To keep them aligned with the 1.5 degrees ambitions, some interim incentives will be handy.
As we flowed from our break-out groups into plenary discussion, another theme that emerged was work. We’re long past the point where managing climatic impacts could be seen as a ‘nice to have’ piece of work bolted onto the side of business-as-usual, if there happens to be some extra time and energy to devote there. But at the same time, we need to be sensitive to the diverse levels of capacity. We need to watch out for replicated or otherwise unnecessary work. Where possible activities should be folded into things that already exist. Progress can be made asynchronously to reflect busy calendars. And where we can, we should tune into the ways this work can be collectively nourishing, fascinating, and energising.
So what are the next steps? Broadly, to sort ourselves into teams to try to action things over the next six months or so, and see how we get on with that. Also to continue to reach out to others. These activities probably need to be organised under an umbrella of some kind. How do you like the ring of a Digital Humanities Climate Coalition?
The workshop winds up. One by one they go back to their lives, till I am alone in the Zoom room. A surreptitious glance over my shoulder, then I gleefully get out my gas-guzzling leaf vidaXL Petrol Backpack Leaf Blower and get the Google Jamboard in my gun sights. Post-its dance like confetti. One flies up that escaped my attention earlier.
“The world is burning. It is already too late without massive systematic top-down changes forced on us that no politician will want to do. Let’s all write nihilistic poetry and embrace the end.”
I feel that too. Of course it goes straight into the spreadsheet: WILLING TO LEAD OR CO-LEAD NIHILISTIC POETRY AND END-EMBRACING WORKING GROUP.
But it also drives home for me one last theme: the importance of mid-scale action. When we focus too much on what the individual can do — buying zippy little electric car, or the Correct Broccoli — it fails to engage with the scale of the challenge. When we focus too much on the big big shifts — system change! Degrowth! An end to extractivist ontologies! — the concepts have all the necessary oomph, but the concrete actions prove elusive.
The middle scale, the often distinctly unpoetic activity of organising with a few others to influence an organisation, a sector, a community of practice, a regulation or practice, is often what goes missing. The small scale and the big scale are still important, of course! And climate actions at many different scales feed and reinforce one another. Nihilistic poetry and end-embracing can even be part of that …
But the reason it felt like a very good workshop was that it was satisfyingly in-the-middle. Hope can be a feeling, but hope isn’t exclusively a feeling. Hope is also what you do. And often it’s things you do with a few other people that most manifestly are hope. Interventions with two or three other collaborators, or a dozen, or twenty, exploring what might be accomplished, and multiplying the tales of the attempts.
These are just a few notes from the Sustainability and Resilience at Sussex panel I was fortunate enough to participate in yesterday, part of the Sussex Library Staff Conference.
Chloe Anthony, a doctoral researcher in environmental law at Sussex (researching the impact of Brexit), introduced the work of Brighton Permaculture Trust (including a variety of permaculture courses, plus events like Green Architecture Day). Chloe gave us a crash course in the history and philosophy of permaculture, and the applications of permaculture design both in everyday life and more specifically in academic projects. The three permaculture ethics of “earth care, fair share, and people care” are not one-size-fits-all dogmas, she explained, but rather tools for thinking through particular sustainability puzzles, which bristle with distinctive detail at the local level. Chloe also touched on themes such as working with nature rather than against it; responding imaginatively to change and working where possible with what is available or becomes available in the world around you; eliminating waste; using renewables; creating closed loops of energy and resources; valuing diversity both as an intrinsic good and for the resilience that diversity can bring; and creating beneficial connections among the diverse elements of your system, integrating rather than rigidly segregating and pigeonholing.
Claire Sumners runs the campaign Plastic Free Seaford. She talked us through her own growing awareness of plastics: from having never given much thought to what plastic is made of, or how long it sticks around in our ecosystems, to becoming an environmental activist and educator herself. Getting Seaford certified as a ‘Plastic Free Town’ didn’t mean hitting some kind of literal zero waste target, but but rather unlocking a set of achievements to support ongoing transformative work. For Claire this has involved starting conversations with businesses, schools, politicians, and other stakeholders. One thing sounded out loud and clear: the importance of taking action at many scales, simultaneously. Addressing the environmental emergency means advocating for system change at the global and national level, and being open-minded and imaginative about new ways of doing things at the ‘middle’ scale of sectors, institutions and organisations, and making those many smaller changes in our everyday lives. In fact, as society as a whole transitions to net zero, actions at all these different levels should start to complement each other more and more.
I also detected in Claire’s talk a real subtext (maybe it was more than a subtext!) of meeting people where they are, and then giving them the support and encouragement to take a couple steps in a new direction. A not insignificant part of the work of coping with the climate emergency is affective labour: the work of listening, empathisizing, the work of storytelling and worldmaking.
In my bit (slides here) I introduced SHL and our recent Sussex Humanities Lab’s 2020 Environmental Strategy. SHL’s plans for 2021 include a more fine-grained scoping review of the sustainability work and priorities of DH centres (and adjacent) across the sector, so watch this space! I also elaborated on one or two points from the Strategy document. For example:
Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) and geoengineering play an important role in climate modelling and policy in every future scenario seriously considered by the IPCC. Yet it seems like they’re not really talked about outside of this ‘big picture’ context, for example, when we think about our sustainability plans as individuals, institutions, and local communities. So I think it’s important we cultivate a rich critical awareness of climate technologies, and become literate in the issues and uncertainties, so we can make robust decisions and protect ourselves the risks of Net Zero on paper only.
Obviously there are many different routes to Net Zero, and it’s also important we don’t elide their political differences in the drive to get there speedily and efficiently. In other words, it’s not just about “us” getting to Net Zero as fast as “we” can (although obviously it’s time to get a move on). It’s also about recognising that resources and responsibilities are unequally spread, and that different decarbonisation strategies spread the costs and the benefits in different ways. This is just the kind of critical thinking, I suggest, which humanities academics can often bring to the table … although of course it’s also something we all can and should be thinking about!
Samantha Waugh, Sussex’s Sustainability Manager, then gave a very useful overview of where the university is at and where we might be heading. A new Sussex-wide strategy is in the works (publication in the spring), structured around four themes, mapped to the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals. There was a lot of great detail (albeit some of it necessarily a bit provisional): here’s my (probably slightly unreliable!) summary …
Sam kicked off with strategic drivers: how is the environmental crisis is manifesting at the institutional level? This includes of course the global context: all the ways that our understanding of the environmental crisis is expressed and contested across scientific research, grassroots activism, and national and transnational policy contexts. Another significant piece of the global context is the pandemic itself, the risks and opportunities it has created, what it has accelerated or put on hold, what it has made more visible or less visible. Some relevant drivers have a more specifically Sussexy flavour: we are lucky in that our staff and student communities generally already have a deep personal commitment to social and ecological justice, and passion and impatience to make the necessary changes. NSS scores are one window into those student priorities. We also have really world-leading expertise in Development Studies, with all the opportunities and obligations that implies. More generally, we need to ensure our sustainability policy and practices are fully alligned with our Sussex 2025 vision.
With that in mind, the four threads are:
Interdisciplinary Development. Sustainability will be embedded throughout the curriculum, in particular via a flagship first year module in each school. It will also be embedded in our employability strategy. Interdisciplinarity also means recognising that sustainability is also about environmental justice, so this theme is also likely to be where a large chunk of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work sits. There are tremendous opportunities here for collaborating with our passionate and brilliant student body to drive transformation, creating spaces, solidarity, and support to test out more radical ideas.
Decarbonisation. Our decarbonisation strategy is also in the works, and will include SMART targets for achieving Net Zero by a particular date. Will it be 2035? Maybe earlier? Some modelling has been commissioned which should give us a clearer idea early next year. There are questions of course around how decarbonisation will be incentivised and monitored across the sector and the UK economy more generally, and the potential for Sussex to show pre-emptive regulatory alignment. But there’s also the potential for leadership: this could be another area for creative exploration, innovation and social and commercial entrepreneurship. Sam hopes to put in place prizes for green innovation, support for spin-offs from research, and so on. Other priority areas to look at are buildings, facilities and construction, and flexible and remote work policies. Sam reinforced the point that the carbon implications of flexible and remote working may be more complex and mixed than they at first seem, and the importance of taking an open-minded and holistic view as we steer through these transformations.
The Civic Leaders and Partners theme is about our engagement, outreach, and collaborations, including charity partnerships. So this relates to the UN Sustainable Development Goals of good health and wellbeing; sustainable cities and communities; peace, justice, and strong institutions; and that final goal which is to pursue all the others through partnerships and collaborations. For Sussex this means, among other things, a sustainable and active travel action plan, and a sustainable procurement policy and practice. Sussex must use our influence with suppliers and other strategic partners to normalise a society of ecological sustainability and personal and collective wellbeing, including ensuring partners have their own appropriate Net Zero commitments and plans in place, that they pay a living wage, and so on.
Environmental Champions. The fourth thread of our strategy maps to the UN Sustainable Development Goals of clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, life below water and life on land. There will very shortly be published (probably already out) an initial benchmarking exercise, ahead of a sustainable food and waste action plan and biodiversity policy and action plan. The initial targets will be to be in the top quintile of performers.
Sam also shared a provisional timeline with a number of milestones, including sustainability committee subgroups to launch in December 2020, a net zero commitment to be announced in spring 2021, and sustainability to be integrated into the curriculum in time for the 2022 intake.
There followed one of those lovely rich Q&A sessions which you know could have gone on much, much longer, but which you also don’t mind ending, because you know these conversations will still be flourishing long after the Zoom window winks shut.
This Monday SHL hosted a fascinating artist talk from Jonathan Reus and Sissel Marie Tonn. Jonathan and Sissel explored a wide sense of mapping far beyond two dimensional diagrams of territories, and took us through recent and ongoing artistic projects, exploring the use of wearable technologies to augment, expand, refilter and transform sensory experience.
On Monday, SHL was lucky enough to have Prof Shannon Mattern visit the virtual lab for a fascinating seminar on ‘Urban Algorhythms.’ Shannon’s talk situated contemporary and emerging practices of macro-scale listening within a broad historical frame, tracing a genealogy from diagnostic auscultation, and articulated and explored some of the tricky ethical and epistemological questions around sonic surveillance and the stewardship of the city’s many dynamic ecologies and systems.
Prof Shannon Mattern’s research and teaching address how the forms and materialities of media are related to the spaces (architectural, urban, and conceptual) they create and inhabit. She writes about libraries and archives, media infrastructures, the material qualities of media objects, media companies’ headquarters and sites of media-related labor, place branding, public design projects, urban media art, and mediated sensation. She is the author of The New Downtown Library; Deep Mapping the Media City; and Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: 5000 Years of Urban Media, all published by the University of Minnesota Press. She is a professor of anthropology at The New School in New York City. Twitter: @shannonmattern.
This event was part of the SHL lockdown seminar series. Please also join us on 1 June for Jonathan Reus and Sissel Marie Tonn on ‘Sensory Cartographies.’
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.
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.
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.
Last week the Sussex Humanities Lab played host to a pretty special experiment. Alex Peverett and Andrew Duff assembled over twenty gaming systems, spanning over forty years of gaming history.
In attendance, says Alex, were such marvels and horrors as a Sinclair ZX81, Atari 2600, Colecovision, Vectrex, Sinclair 128k, Commodore 64, Atari 800XL, Acorn BBC Model B Microcomputer, Windows/Dos Laptop, Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, Nintendo Gamecube, Sony Playstation 2, Sega Megadrive, Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo Gameboy, Sony PSP, Sony PS4 and PSVR, and a Speak and Spell … that he can remember.
I am fairly sure there were at least one or two systems from a parallel universe’s timeline (but my memory is a bit blurred by vast steam clouds billowing from the polished brass and stained glass Sega Steamcast, so maybe not).
Tim Jordan, Professor of Digital Cultures at Sussex, kicked things off with a highly suggestive, whistlestop tour of issues in gaming from a broadly media studies, sociological, and cultural studies perspective. Tim used the example of a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game to illuminate at least four themes. First, there was the negotiation of meaning and identity in gaming, especially thinking about race, gender, and sexuality. Second, the co-production of games by players, not only through their in-game behaviours, but also through player co-operation outside of games, and the modification and changing of games by players. Third, there was the media archaeology of games, both in regards to the glittering array of stand-alone games surrounding us, and on the servers of discontinued MMORPG. Some digital ludic worlds have an uneasy, precarious existence, liable to have the plug pulled by the owners of the IP. Then Tim wrapped up by looking at some issues around gaming and the digital economy more generally. The older consoles in the room were built with the expectation that players would purchase and fully and permanently own each new game; more recently, gaming has been reshaped by the economics of free-to-play games (with in-game purchases), subscription models, and so on.
Then we played. I tried out a VR game for the first time (and am presumably still in the game, which was Moss). It wasn’t nearly as immersive as I’d been led to expect by commercial hype and popular culture portrayals of VR, but it was fetchingly unsettling. I liked the way sometimes an invisible object or person in the “real” world got in your way, and you just had to push it or them over to pursue your in-game objectives.
I drew some eldritch granite water lilies up from the deep, and helped my heartbreakingly brave protagonist (a needle-wielding champ with a real Reepicheep / Mattimeo vibe) hop across the water. In the background, the mountainous gloom shifted … it was a deer, stooping to drink.
But although I was there for almost the full three hours, I probably only spent ten minutes on the gizmos, because I just kept having nice chats with people! We talked about gaming — video games, board games, tabletop RPGs, gamification, art with game elements, worldbuilding and storytelling across games and other forms of culture. Networking was part of the event’s rationale:
This event will not only be a chance to explore SHL’s media archaeology resources, reflect on media archaelogical theory and practice — and play some games! — but also an opportunity to meet others across the university involved in gaming, game studies, and game design, and to take stock of the state of the art and the future of game studies at Sussex. […] What are we already doing around games at Sussex? How can we bring together existing research and teaching around gaming to share resources, projects, ideas, and opportunities?
We were here to shoot zombie Nazis, but more fundamentally, to shoot the breeze.
For some reason, I did start to think of Sam Ladkin, Senior Lecturer in Critical and Creative Writing (English), as a sort of console. “You should give this one a go,” I told everyone. “It’s really weird.”
Among other things, Sam and I discussed the new elective undergraduate module he’ll be launching, Video Games: Critical and Creative Writing. It sounds like a really fascinating and exciting mix, which will look at games as both technical and cultural objects, will allow students to be assessed through creative work and/or their critical studies of games, and will place politics at its very heart.
With the launch of Video Games: Critical and Creative Writing, along with what’s already happening on the Games and Multimedia Environments BSc and elsewhere, and the outlines of SHL 2 beginning to wobble on the horizon, we could well be at the dawn of a golden age of game studies at Sussex.