I’ve recently returned from Papua New Guinea where, with James Leach, I have been doing field work for our TK Reite Notebooks (TKRN) project. This follows on from our work last year in Reite village on Madang’s Rai Coast, and also from our trip to Vanuatu in February, where we worked with a group of women fieldworkers and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.
Having established the model of working with the notebooks with Reite villagers last year, the focus of our trip in this second year of the project was not to produce more books, but to explore how and if the model would work with other communities and, to find other local partners for whom the tools and techniques we have developed could be useful additions to their own methods and practices of documenting traditional knowledge.
Through our close discussions with Catherine Sparks and Yat Paol of The Christensen Fund (our project’s main sponsor), we identified some possibilities – the Research + Conservation Foundation (RCF) of Papua New Guinea (in Goroka, Eastern Highland Province); and Tokain village, Bogia District (Madang Province). Having arrived in Madang and met up with two of our key collaborators from Reite – Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau – we made plans to travel up the coast to the village of Tokain and stay a few days to introduce our model to local people. James and I then travelled to Goroka to spend a day at RCF meeting with their director, Sangion Tiu, education programme manager, Emmie Betabete, and resource officer, Milan Korarome. We learnt about RCF’s work in communities and in teacher training, and presented our TKRN approach. This resonated strongly with RCF whose staff spoke of the problem of documenting traditional knowledge in both school and village settings. It was a lovely moment when their enthusiasm for the books spilled over and we decided on the spot to co-design a new template with them. We then spent a while devising questions about climate change for elementary schoolchildren, which RCF will pilot this summer.
We returned to Madang after this highly successful meeting and the next day set out for Tokain with Porer, Pinbin and another young man from Reite, Urufaf, who has become a key proponent of using the TKRN books in his own community. Piling aboard a PMV (an open back truck with benches and a tarpaulin for sun/rain cover) we bumped along the highway following the coast north for about 4 hours before arriving. Many people from the village turned out to meet us and hear Porer, Pinbin and James introduce what the Reite villagers had done with the TKRN books and why it was important to them to preserve and transmit their culture and knowledge to future generations this way. The following morning we walked around different parts of the village meeting people going to market and in the community office, where they have a laptop and printer/scanner of their own, giving us an opportunity to demonstrate the whole cycle of printing off a PDF booklet, filling it in, scanning and storing it as a PDF on the computer and printing out another copy of the scanned book.
Then we addressed all the students from the elementary and primary schools, their teachers and some of the village elders – again, the focus being on the Reite villagers explaining their use of the books and how the school in Reite had adopted the books as part of their own curriculum activities on environmental science and cultural heritage. This indigenous or local exchange of documentation practices (with James and myself taking a secondary role as facilitators rather than teachers) is very much the beginning of where we see the TKRN model developing in the future. The afternoon was spent workshopping ideas for the booklets and getting people used to the cutting and folding process for making up the books, as well as taking their photos to stick onto their books – always a popular aspect of the process. This continued well into the night with the convivial atmosphere of a house party surrounding the guesthouse where we stayed.
We left Tokain having agreed to meet up in a week or so’s time with a representative from the village who would bring us the first batch of completed books to scan and for me to build a simple website for – as I did last year for Reite (Reite Online Library).
From Madang we set off across Astrolabe Bay and down the Rai Coast to return to Reite for a few days and discuss with the community what had happened since our last field trip and what we proposed to do next. A meeting was organised and many people also came from neighbouring villages and hamlets: Sarangama, Asang, Marpungae and Serieng. Porer, Pinbin and Urufaf all spoke about the project, what was achieved last year, what we had just done at Tokain and how important it is for knowledge to continue to thrive and be passed on to future generations despite all the changes happening to the world around them. James also spoke of our visit to Vanuatu, how we had shared some of the Reite books with the indigenous fieldworkers there and we showed them some of the books made by the ni-Vanuatu people we met.
The response was dramatically positive, with people calling for a revival of teaching and learning in their traditional local language, Nekgini, alongside using Tok Pisin to document stories and practices. A core group of people interested in taking the lead to build up a library of traditional knowledge also emerged, a group who were also prepared to go ‘on patrol’ to other local villages to share with them the TKRN methods. We left over 250 blank books in the village, as well as a simple to operate Polaroid Snap camera (and several hundred sheets of Zink photo paper) to take and print out photos of people to stick on the front covers. By shifting the focus from the familiar and everyday towards the more esoteric, and perhaps endangered, types of knowledge of their environment that Reite people have, we are hoping they will be able to develop a truly unique and exemplary library that could inspire others across PNG, Melanesia and perhaps even farther afield to document their traditional knowledge before it is lost. We also took the opportunity to improve the design of the books, redesigning the front covers to allow for more contextual information about the author and the books contents, and rewriting the engaged consent statement on the front for better clarity.
Returning again to Madang we met with Ernest Kaket from Tokain and scanned in the books he’d brought with him from the village. These now form the foundation of their own online library which we hope to expand in due course.
Our next steps are to make a return visit to Vanuatu with a couple of Reite villagers to introduce their use of the TKRN model themselves; and to continue to develop the basis of a partnership with RCF as a means of extending the reach across PNG of the tools and methods we’ve co-created with Reite people.
This website has been created as an online library of TKRN notebooks made by the villagers of Reite and its neighbours in Papua New Guinea’s Madang Province. These books were created during a field trip in March 2015 and we hope to add many more in the future. We aim to transfer management of the site to the villagers themselves in due course, so that they can continue growing the library for future generations. As 4G mobile internet service penetrates into the jungle where they live and more local people own smartphones and connected devices, this is an increasingly likely possibility.
Mixing the physical and digital in this way means that traditional knowledge and customs may be preserved and transmitted forwards by embracing some of the changes that industrialisation and urbanisation bring to traditional rural communities. By working alongside the existing relationships of knowledge exchange it offers new opportunities for inter-generational collaboration on self-documentation of stories, experiences, history and practical knowledge of working with and sustaining the local ecology and environment.
The site itself is extremely simple and uses only free services: a free WordPress.com blog as the primary interface for organising and sharing the books; and a free Dropbox account as the primary repository of the PDF files of the scanned books. It is a key component in our TKRN Toolkit, and closes the loop in our use of hybrid digital and physical tools and techniques.
The villagers themselves developed their own categories and taxonomies for cataloguing the books, which have all been tagged accordingly. The books are thus searcheable by title, author and subject(s). Many of the books include an author photo on the cover page; a thumbnail image of the scanned book was included in each post, and a blog theme chosen that presents the main page as a mosaic of images from the posts. For communities with highly varied literacies, it also enables visual recognition both of the author’s faces, and in many cases their handwriting or drawing style.
These notebooks have been co-designed with villagers of Reite in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea by Giles Lane and James Leach as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project and Toolkit. They can be downloaded, printed out and made up into physical notebooks for recording traditional knowledge. Then they can be scanned and shared online or as physical objects.
The books have been created using bookleteer – Proboscis’ free self-publishing platform. Each link is to an A4 PDF file. The “view options” links open each notebook’s page in bookleteer with US Letter PDF and a web readable version.
View the TKRN Notebooks collection on bookleteer.
We also have created this guide to folding and making up the notebooks (in English/Tok Pisin) :
The TK Reite Notebooks Toolkit enables people to record and transmit elements of their Traditional Knowledge. By ‘toolkit’ we mean a specific practice of engagement and the tools that support it. The tools use a combination of digital and physical technologies. Alongside the tools, the toolkit is designed to be adaptable, low cost and simple to use.
It has been co-designed with Reite villagers in Papua New Guinea by Giles Lane and James Leach, with support from The Christensen Fund. The Toolkit is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
|What you need:
|What to do:||Why?|
|1. Identify the people who you will work with, and discuss the possibility of documenting Traditional Knowledge through this toolkit. Discuss what they might like to document, and what the value of recording it will be for them.|
|2. Make it clear that participation is voluntary, and that there are ways of restricting content built into the process. (You may use the engaged consent model developed with Reite Villagers)||It is crucial that everyone involved in the process understands certain things about it, and has a chance to consider others:
a. it is wholly voluntary.
|3. Choose from booklet templates available here, or design you own.||Booklet templates have been designed in Tok Pisin and in English, of various lengths, and with different prompts and guidance. You can choose one or more of these as suitable to your requirements. Alternatively, using bookleteer, anyone can design and create their own blank notebooks in different languages, for different contexts, or with different communities.|
|4. Print and make up the number of booklets that you think you will use. Depending on conditions and resources, you might choose to use a waterproof paper stock in place of standard office paper. Make sure people have enough scissors to make up the booklets. You may have to supply these.||The toolkit is based around the use of these booklets. People use them to document anything they choose.
Waterproof paper (e.g. Aquascribe) is more durable in humid environments.
It is a very good idea to involve the participants of the process in making up the booklets. Learning to fold booklets engages participants and offers ownership of a key part of the process. There is also a sense of achievement in making one’s own booklets. People who have learned to fold the booklets can teach others, or assist in folding workshops. In a large-scale documentation process, this also means one or two people are freed from making up multiple booklets.
|5. Public meetings or private discussions with participants to discuss content and how best to utilise the booklets for what they wish to record. This is not about restricting content but enabling people to see how they can use the booklets for different types of content.||People should choose their own content. These meetings are an opportunity for people to decide in co-operation with other people what is appropriate to record and how the process should be organised. Just as with involving people in the folding of booklets, this process is about people taking control over their own documentation project. It is also doing things together. Whether or not people decide on a division of labour or content, or even if they choose not to share content with one another, making the process a common activity motivates people to engage and stimulates deeper consideration of the corpus and range of Traditional Knowledge. It also makes it possible to air concerns, and head off disputes over what can and can not be recorded before the booklets are filled in.
Whatever people make with the booklets sits within a bigger context of who they are making it for, who will see them doing it, and what they hope to achieve.
|6. Personalise the notebooks.
Take a photograph of each person or group of people who will fill out a notebook. Print the photograph out and stick it on the front cover. Ask them to write their name(s) after the engaged consent statement.
|The photograph serves to identify the authors, to personalise the booklet, and gives people an extra impetus to complete them. It also makes whatever is recorded there associated with this person and therefore keeps knowledge attached to people|
|7. Make sure participants have writing and drawing materials. Distribute pens and pencils if necessary.|
|8. Ask if they wish to delete any of the lines on the engaged consent statement.||The engaged consent statement is a simple mechanism to get people to think about what they record and how willing they are for it to be seen by other people. This is important for several reasons, including taking ownership of the documentation process, controlling its circulation, and considering the nature of and restrictions on certain kinds of knowledge before making it public. In order to feel confident that they will retain control over the content it is vital to remind people that they are making these booklets for themselves and those they wish to pass things on to, and can restrict the circulation of the booklet completely if they wish. It reminds them they are not being asked to record things for outsiders but that if they are willing, other people can be given access to their booklet.|
|9. Remind people to be as full and complete in their documentation as possible. Encourage people to use all the space available, and to use drawing, images, photographs etc. as well as words.||People often assume a lot of background knowledge, or take for granted that the reader already knows the content. Ask them to consider what they would like their grandchildren’s grandchildren to know if they had never been in the village/area etc.. Suggest people give enough information so that someone with no knowledge of a plant or process or story could identify it or follow it properly.|
|10. Suggest a time frame for the return of completed notebooks.||This encourages completion. Some participants will be enthusiastic and wish to complete multiple booklets. Others may be shy of their ability and need a prompt to complete the work.|
|11. Be available for and encourage that questions and concerns are brought to you while people are in the process of filling out the notebooks. Respond positively to new ideas for content, or to suggestions about what people would like to document.||This means people who become confused, or lose confidence in what they are doing will not just drop out of the process.|
|12. Digitise the completed booklets. First confirm consent to scan and/or share online by giving people another chance to modify the consent statements on the front of the booklet. Unfold the booklets, scan the individual pages as either jpeg images or PDF pages. Collate all the scanned pages for each individual booklet into a single PDF file, and give it an appropriate file name.||Digitising the booklets will allow them to be archived and shared, or printed out again if the original is lost or damaged.|
|13. Put the booklet back together and return it to its author.||Immediately returning the booklets is an important way to keep the documentation with participants, and can be reassuring for them.|
|14. Share files via removable media. Copy files to USB flash drives of people involved in the project. Alternatively, each scanned notebook should be small enough to email.
15. For those with sustained access to the internet, we recommend building a simple website which can act as archive of uploaded PDFs of the booklets. Visit the online library website created for Reite village for inspiration and ideas.
16. Print out copies of the booklets, fold and make them up for the establishment of a library of physical copies of the booklets. This might be hosted by a local school, community centre or government institution.
|The project only uses freely available digital and analogue technologies. The most basic tools required are pens, paper and scissors, with various digital technologies adding increased capabilities at different levels :
Creating New Notebooks
Making Up Notebooks
Scanning & printing
Sharing & Distribution
Another simple sharing method is to copy PDF files of scanned notebooks onto cheap USB flash drives which can typically store thousands of files.
Power & Light
Empowering indigenous people to preserve and transmit Traditional bio-cultural Knowledge to future generations
TK Reite Notebooks (TKRN) is a process and tools with which people can self-document Traditional Knowledge (TK). It results from a meeting of ideas and practices of social anthropologist James Leach, artist Giles Lane and the people of Reite Village on the Rai Coast (Madang Province) of Papua New Guinea. It extends, in a new way, a long tradition of collaborative documentation of TK pioneered in Papua New Guinea by Saem Majnep and Ralph Bulmer.
During James’s long association with people in Reite village (since 1993), their desire to document, preserve, and find ways to ensure the inter-generational transmission of knowledge has been at the forefront of the relationship. This desire, realised to date through anthropological and ethno-botanical publications, finds a different engagement through TK Reite Notebooks. The project grew from James’ anthropological work with Reite people, and in particular, the collaborative documentation of plants undertaken with Porer Nombo, published as Reite Plants. TK Reite Notebooks now involves many Reite people in the co-design of a ‘toolkit’ offering people an accessible, cheap, locally appropriate and adaptable process for TK documentation. The TKRN concept has also grown extensively from Giles’ long term artistic practice of developing and facilitating “public authoring” – drawing upon his Diffusion eBook format and the self-publishing platform, bookleteer, which he has led and maintained. Public Authoring emphasises ways and means for people to document, for themselves, what they find valuable, and to share it with others, making use of the wide panoply of media – digital and physical – that are available to them.
The project is supported by US foundation The Christensen Fund whose work in Melanesia aims to support the holders of traditional bio-cultural knowledge as they work to maintain their rich ecologies, often in the face of huge pressure from resource extraction and social change. Further support comes from the Australian Research Council through a ‘Future Fellowship’ award to James Leach to investigate appropriate modes to present socially embedded knowledge forms, and from the Centre for Research and Documentation in Oceania at Aix-Marseille University.
The TKRN Toolkit is based on the use of bookleteer.com, an innovative self-publishing system that moves fluidly between paper and digital. Using this process, we have co-designed a series of notebooks with prompts that guide people to determine for themselves how to document and record Traditional Knowledge and practices. These notebooks can be easily digitised and shared online for archiving and transmission to future generations.
Explore Reite village’s online library of TK Reite Notebooks.
A pilot study in 2012 established initial notebook templates that were co-designed with Porer Nombo and other Reite people. This provided the foundation for a more extensive and in-depth project, which was awarded funding in 2014, with fieldwork beginning in February 2015.
The first year of TK Reite Notebooks has involved a more extensive engagement in Reite to co-design more booklet templates, experiment with their use, and investigate how they well they fit with peoples’ interests and priorities. Engagement with the local school demonstrated the value of the toolkit in educational contexts, and an elaboration of the basics for a handbook addressing the process, ethics, technology, and potential of the toolkit was achieved.
Liaison with colleagues with extensive experience in TK documentation, including Dr Robin Hide of Australian National University (ANU), situated TK Reite Notebooks within a wider view of past and present initiatives.
In year 2 we have tested the toolkit with another community in PNG : Tokain Village, Bogia District (Madang Province) as well as developing a collaborative relationship with the Research + Conservation Foundation (RCF) of PNG (Goroka, Easter Highlands Province) to use the TKRN toolkit with the communities they work with across PNG. We have also extended the project to Vanuatu: working with the women fieldworkers group of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS), the Vanuatu Land Defence Desk, the Heritage Section of the VKS, the Tanna Ecologies Youth & Gardens Project and with youth groups and their communities in partnership with Wan Smolbag Theatre in Port Vila, Efate. To facilitate an indigenous knowledge exchange between PNG and Vanuatu, we participated with 3 Reite villagers in the Tupunis Slow Food Festival held on Tanna island, Vanuatu in August 2016.
The toolkit is free and adaptable under a Creative Commons license – having been co-designed by an indigenous community living a traditional subsistence based lifestyle we believe that it can be simply and easily adapted by and for other communities across the world who also live traditional lifestyles and are concerned to document, preserve and transmit their knowledge to future generations.
Outputs & Resources
We have created a simple toolkit that can be adopted and adapted by others. We have co-designed a series of notebooks that Reite and Sarangama villagers, and Reite Community School are using. This design is an ongoing and iterative process – we have created additional custom notebooks for RCF, VKS, Wan Smolbag Theatre and for the Tanna Ecologies Youth & Gardens project.
Additional resources will include a handbook, a technology list, and explanations of how Reite people have guided the use of these booklets.
Reite Online Library
We have created a TKRN website (using free web services and software) for the village of Reite and its neighbours, where the booklets they produce can be saved, viewed, and accessed. This website is intended to provide a model for other users to develop their own sites to archive their own TKRN notebooks – a similar site has now been created for Tokain Village. Tips on building similar sites will be included in the handbook.
A key outcome of year 1 was the high level of engagement of people from the villages of Reite, Sarangama and their neighbours.
- About 150 people took part in a series of public meetings explaining the project and what we hoped to achieve.
- Around 12 people assisted in co-designing new and alternative booklet templates, and in testing these templates through utilizing them.
- Collaboration between the generations in making booklets was extensive in the village. Those with limited literacy tended to seek out younger people to write for them. Many, both literate and illiterate engaged in careful and beautiful illustration.
- 63 Notebooks were completed by 42 people during a two week period.
Involvement of Local School
In addition, the headmaster and senior teachers of Reite’s Community School asked for a demonstration of the process at the school.
- Practical demonstrations of booklet making were undertaken with all 8 year groups. In response to requests from the school, James gave a series of talks to the whole upper school on the importance of ecology, traditional knowledge and how it relates to environmental science, a key component of the PNG national curriculum. The use of TK Reite Notebooks in this way demonstrated a model for how the toolkit could bridge traditional knowledge and formal education, and additionally, how the toolkit created a new opportunity for inter-generational transmission of knowledge, again bridging the concerns of educators and the concerns of village people.
- An additional 290 booklets were printed and made with the assistance and resourcing of the school.
- 55 notebooks were completed in less than a week as a result of the students creating their own notebooks with elders and family.
- The school developed appropriate assessment criteria for each achievement level that related to the use of the notebooks. The notebooks were seen to be valuable because the activity had application in at least four educational priority areas: environmental science, social science, language and communication, and art.
The Papua New Guinea Department for Education supports a focus on TK under the National Curriculum areas of science, and culture and community. The National Curriculum Statement states that:
The knowledge and intellectual resources of Papua New Guinea, developed here over thousands of years, are in danger of being lost as young people lose contact with their traditions and heritage. Science education has a role in encouraging students to learn about this rich source of knowledge.
National Curriculum Statement for PNG, Dept of Education (p. 28 2003).
Papua New Guinea villagers typically have extensive and elaborate mobility, or multiple connections to people outside their own place. Word spread very quickly about the toolkit process and a number of requests for the toolkit to be made available in other places emerged. An outcome of the use of the booklets in both the village and the school contexts was an increased awareness, external to Reite, of the possibility of, and desirability for, documenting and valuing traditional knowledge. We hope in year 2 to be able to assist other local communities in adopting and adapting TKRN notebooks for themselves.
Relevance to Local Culture & Community
The booklets are not necessarily coherent or intelligible to audiences outside the local context. Noting this is important. It makes clear a distinction between TK Reite Notebooks and traditional ethnographic techniques which seek to explain traditional knowledge practices to outsiders. The beauty of much of the documentation already completed by Reite people suggests that they are already finding modes of expression for TK that are tailored to their intentions around it. (These include, for example, relationship building, the demonstration of knowing and ownership rather than an encyclopaedic approach to making a catalogue.)
We have begun an assessment of how the bookleteer platform can be extended and developed to make it accessible to people living in non-industrialised settings without immediate access to the internet, computers and printers. A feasibility study is being conducted on porting a version of the platform to run on an Android-based smartphone, for use in off-grid contexts where internet access is patchy or unavailable. This will be designed to synchronise with the main bookleteer server as and when internet access becomes available (e.g. by taking the phone to a local town), and will also incorporate as simple method for scanning and sharing handwritten notebooks using the phone’s camera. We hope to have a proof-of-concept version of this in 2017-18.
Villagers of Reite & Sarangama, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea, Pinbin Sisau, Giles Lane, James Leach & Porer Nombo
Supported by The Christensen Fund
Begun 2015 | Ongoing
Tomorrow I start my journey to Papua New Guinea where I’m taking part in the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK), hosted by the University of Goroka (Eastern Highlands Province) and supported by the Christensen Fund. The title and abstract of my talk at the symposium is:
Digital and Physical : simple solutions for documenting and sharing community knowledge
My work is about engaging with people to identify things which they value – for instance knowledge, experiences, skills – and how they can share them with others in ways that are safe, appropriate and inspiring. As an artist and designer I have helped devise simple tools and techniques that can be adopted and adapted by people on their own terms – such as uses of everyday paper, cameras and printers alongside digital technologies such as the internet, archives and databases. I will demonstrate some examples of how these simple physical and digital tools can be used to share community knowledge in freely and easily accessible ways, so that they can also be re-worked and circulated in both paper and digital formats. I hope to offer some examples of how TEK in PNG might be widely documented and circulated as part of commonly available resources.
I wrote a piece about my initial thoughts on what I’ll be presenting and doing whilst I’m there on the bookleteer blog last month. My invitation to this event has been through James Leach, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen who will be there presenting his collaborative publication, Reite Plants, with Porer Nombo in whose village James has been doing fieldwork for 20 years. I first met Porer three years ago when he visited the UK to assist the British Museum’s Melanesia Project in identifying artefacts from the region where he lives in the Ethnographic Collection. At the time James had asked me to help him devise some new ways to document this kind of Traditional Knowledge Exchange that would capture something of the experience of all sharing knowledge that more institutional methods might miss. Consequently we used some Diffusion eNotebooks to capture and record our interactions as much as the stories and information that Porer and Pinbin shared about the artefacts. Alice and I also had the privilege of spending time with Porer and his fellow villager, Pinbin Sisau, inviting them to our home for an evening with James and his family and sharing with them some of the simple delights of central London life that people who don’t live here wouldn’t experience.
After the symposium James, Porer and myself will travel back to Porer’s village of Reite on the Rai Coast in Madang Province where we’ll stay for a week or so. There we’ll attempt to put some of our ideas into practice – I’ve designed some simple notebooks for us to use out in the bush, some printed on waterproof paper, others printed on standard papers. I’m very excited to have this unique opportunity to test out ideas I’ve had for using the Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer in the field for over 10 years now – harking back to conversations I had with anthropologist Genevieve Bell of Intel in 2003. I’m also very excited to have the privilege of visiting Porer and Pinbin in their home and meeting their families and community – joining the loop of one smaller circle of friendship and exchange and hopefully spiralling out into some larger ones that will continue into the future.
Its been 12 years since we published Performance Notations, the first series of Diffusion eBooks, and launched our unique publishing format on an unsuspecting world. In that time, we have commissioned and facilitated hundreds of original eBooks and StoryCubes by an incredibly diverse range of people from all kinds of disciplines and backgrounds. In that time we also began to evolve our own free and online software platform for people without professional design skills to be able to create their own eBooks and StoryCubes. Our first proof of concept prototype was made in the summer of 2003. We then spent a few years building a fully working version – the Diffusion Generator – which was online between 2006 and 2009. In September 2009 we launched bookleteer, a whole new set of ways for making and sharing eBooks and StoryCubes.
A New Place for Future eBooks & StoryCubes
This summer we made a series of technical changes to bookleteer that allow users to share their own publications directly with others via a Public Library. Each user has their own personal profile page listing all their shared publications (for instance, here’s mine) and each publication has its page listing both the downloadable PDFs and the bookreader online version (for example, see Material Conditions: Epilogue). We have further exciting developments in the pipeline too.
To continue our long tradition of commissioning and publishing new work, we have created a new Curated by Proboscis library which will, from now on, be where all new commissions and featured eBooks and StoryCubes will be listed. Our long-serving Diffusion Library website will remain online indefinitely as an archive of more than 12 years of pushing the boundaries of what we think of as publishing and creative practice.
As part of these changes we are also launching a new monthly publication – the Periodical – which will select, print and send out to subscribers some of the most exciting, experimental, imaginative and insipring eBooks created and shared on bookleteer. Anyone can take part – just sign up, make and share something on bookleteer. Each month we’ll pick one eBook to print and send out. We are also devising special projects, like Field Work, that will enable people to participate in other ways. And we are developing partnerships and collaborations to commission new series that will also be distributed as part of the Periodical’s monthly issues.
Subscribe to the Periodical and get bookleteering!
Publishing remains at the heart of Proboscis. We began 18 years ago with COIL journal of the moving image and followed this with many series of Diffusion eBooks. Since 1994, we have commissioned and published works by hundreds of different people in many formats.
Our latest publishing venture, the Periodical, aims to re-imagine publishing as public authoring – a phrase we’ve been using for over 10 years to describe the process by which people actively make and share what they value – knowledge, skills, experiences, observations – those things we characterise as Public Goods. Based on bookleteer, the Periodical is a way for people to participate in publishing as well as reading – in addition to receiving a printed eBook (sometimes more than just one) by post each month subscribers are encouraged to use bookleteer to make and share their own publications, which may then be chosen to be printed and posted out for a future issue.
Our first project being developed as part of this venture is Field Work : subscribers will be sent a custom eNotebook to use as a sketch and note book for a project of their own. Once they’ve filled it in they can return it to us to be digitised and shared on bookleteer. Several times a year we will select and print someone’s Field Work eNotebook to be sent out as part of a monthly issue of the Periodical.
Why are we doing this? We’ve long used the Diffusion eBook format to make custom notebooks for our projects and digitised them as part of our shareables concept. We think that such new possibilities of sharing our creative and research processes with others is a key strength of what these hybrid digital/physical technologies offer. Creating a vehicle, via the Periodical, for others to take part in an emergent and evolving conversation about how and why we do what we do seems like a natural step forward. If you’d like to take part, subscribe here.
One of the most fun things we’ve done this year has to be the little project we ran as part of the Soho Food Feast : helping some of the children of Soho Parish Primary School produce their own reviews of the amazing foods on offer in specially designed eNotebooks. The children would choose something from one of the many stalls, bring it to be photographed and a Polaroid PoGo photo sticker printed out an stuck into one of the eNotebooks, then they’d write about what the dish looked, smelt, felt, sounded and tasted like. This idea of doing the reviews through the 5 senses, along with the great introduction, was contributed by Fay Maschler, the restaurant critic of the London Evening Standard and one of the Food Feast committee members.
We’ve now published a compilation of the best reviews which is available via the Diffusion Library as downloadable eBooks and in the bookreader format. We’re also printing a short run edition which will go the children themselves (and a few for the school to sell to raise funds – get one while you can!). Thanks to everyone who took part in this project – the children of Soho Parish and Soho Youth, members of the Food Feast Committee (Anita Coppins, Wendy Cope, Clare Lynch), Rachel Earnshaw (Head Teacher) and the team here : Mandy Tang, Haz Tagiuri & Stefan Kueppers.
Last Thursday I visited members of the Pallion Ideas Exchange (PAGPIE) at Pallion Action Group to bring them the latest elements of the toolkit we’ve been co-designing with them. Since our last trip and series of workshops with them we’ve refined some of the thinking tools and adapted others to better suit the needs and capabilities of local people.
Using bookleteer‘s Short Run printing service we printed up a batch of specially designed notebooks for people to use to help them collect notes in meetings and at events; manage their way through a problem with the help of other PAGPIE members; work out how to share ideas and solutions online in a safe and open way; and a simple notebook for keeping a list of important things to do, when they need done by, and what to do next once they’ve been completed.
We designed a series of large wall posters, or thinksheets, for the community to use in different ways : one as a simple and open way to collect notes and ideas during public meetings and events; another to enable people to anonymously post problems for others to suggests potential solutions and other comments; another for collaborative problem solving and one for flagging up opportunities, who they’re for, what they offer and how to publicise them.
These posters emerged from our last workshop – we had designed several others as part of process of engaging with the people who came along to the earlier meetings and workshops, and they liked the open and collaborative way that the poster format engaged people in working through issues. We all agreed that a special set for use by the members of PAGPIE would be a highly useful addition to their ways of capturing and sharing knowledge and ideas, as well as really simple to photograph and blog about or share online in different ways.
Last time I was up we had helped a couple of the members set up a group email address, a twitter account and a generic blog site – they’ve not yet been used as people have been away and the full core group haven’t quite got to grips with how they’ve going to use the online tools and spaces. My next trip up in a few weeks will be to help them map out who will take on what roles, what tools they’re actually going to start using and how. I’ll also be hoping I won’t get caught out by flash floods and storms again!
We are also finishing up the designs of the last few thinksheets – a beautiful visualisation of the journey from starting the PAGPIE network and how its various activities feed into the broader aspirations of the community (which Mandy will be blogging about soon); a visual matrix indicating where different online service lie on the read/write:public/private axes; as well as a couple of earlier posters designed to help people map out their home economies and budgets (income and expenditure).
Our next task will be to create a set of StoryCubes which can be used playfully to explore how a community or a neighbourhood group could set up their own Ideas Exchange. It’ll be a set of 27 StoryCubes, with three different sets of 9 cubes each – mirroring to some degree Mandy’s Outside the Box set for children. We’re planning to release a full Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange package later this summer/autumn which will contain generic versions of all the tools we’ve designed for PAGPIE as well as the complete set of StoryCubes.
This week just passed Alice, Haz and myself have been running some co-design workshops with local community members in Pallion, a neighbourhood in the city of Sunderland, and with Lizzie Coles-Kemp and Elahe Kani-Zabihi of Royal Holloway’s Information Security Group, hosted at Pallion Action Group. The workshops, our second round following some others in early April, were focused around visualising the shape, needs and resources available to local people in building their own sustainable knowledge and support network – the Pallion Ideas Exchange. We also worked on testing the various tools and aids which we’ve designed in response to what we’ve learned of the issues and concerns facing individuals and the community in general.
The first day was spent making a visualisation of the hopes and aspirations for what PIE could achieve, the various kinds of activities it would do, and all the things they would need to make this happen. Based on previous discussions and workshops we’d drawn up a list of the kinds of activities PIE might do and the kinds of things they’d need and Mandy had done a great job over the past couple of weeks creating lots of simple sketches to help build up the visual map, to which were added lots of other issues, activity ideas, resources and hoped for outcomes.
Visualising PIE this way allowed for wide-ranging discussions about what people want to achieve and what it would need to happen – from building confidence in young people and the community more generally, to being resilient in the face of intimidation by local neer-do-wells. Over the course of the first afternoon the shape changed dramatically as the relationships between outcomes, activities, needs, people and resources began to emerge and the discussion revealed different understandings and interpretations of what people wanted.
On the second day we focused on the tools and aids we’ve been designing – a series of flow diagrams breaking down into simple steps some methods for problem solving, recording and sharing solutions and tips online, how to promote and share opportunities to people they would benefit and things to consider about safety and privacy before posting information online. We’ve also designed some simple notebooks with prompts to help do things like take notes during meetings and at events, a notebook for breaking problems down into small chunks that can be addressed more easily alongside place to note what, who and where help from PIE is available, and a notebook for organising and managing information and experiences of PIE members about sharing solutions to common problems that can be safer shared online. As the props for a co-design workshop these were all up for re-design or being left to one side if not relevant or useful. An important factor that emerged during the discussion was that people might feel uncomfortable with notes being written in a notebook during a social event – the solution arrived at was to design a series of ‘worksheet posters’ which could be put up on the walls and which everyone could see and add notes, ideas or comments to. The issue of respecting anonymity about problems people have also led to the suggestion of a suggestions box where people could post problems anonymously, and an ‘Ideas Wall’ where the problems could be highlighted and possible solutions proposed. We came away with a list of new things to design and some small tweaks to the notebooks to make them more useful – it was also really helpful to see a few examples of how local people had started using the tools we’ve designed to get a feel for them:
On the afternoon of the second day we also spent a long time discussing the technologies for sharing the community’s knowledge and solutions that would be most appropriate and accessible. We looked at a whole range of possibilities, from the most obvious and generic social media platforms and publishing platforms to more targeted tools (such as SMS Gateways for broadcasting to mobiles). As we are working with a highly intergenerational group who are forming the core of PIE (ages range from 16 – 62) there were all kinds of fluencies with different technologies. This project is also part of the wider Vome project addressing issues of privacy awareness so we spent much of the time considering the specific issues of using social media to share knowledge and experiences in a local community where information leakage can have very serious consequences. Ultimately we are aiming towards developing an awareness for sharing that we are calling Informed Disclosure. Only a few days before I had heard about cases of loan sharks now mining Facebook information to identify potential vulnerable targets in local communities, and using the information they can glean from unwitting sharing of personal information to befriend and inveigle themselves into people’s trust. The recent grooming cases have also highlighted the issues for vulnerable teenagers in revealing personal information on public networks. Our workshop participants also shared some of their own experiences of private information being accidentally or unknowing leaked out into public networks. At the end of the day we had devised a basic outline for the tools and technologies that PIE could begin to use to get going.
Our final day at Pallion was spent helping the core PIE group set up various online tools : email, a website/blog, a web-based collaboration platform for the core group to organise and manage the network, and a twitter stream to make announcements about upcoming events. Over the summer, as more people in Pallion get involved we’re anticipating seeing other tools, such as video sharing, audio sharing and possibly SMS broadcast services being adopted and integrated into this suite of (mainly) free and open tools.
The workshops were great fun, hugely productive but also involved a steep learning curve for all of us. We’d like to thank Pat, Andrea, Ashleigh and Demi (who have taken on the roles of ‘community champions’ to get PIE up and running) for all their commitment and patience in working with us over the three days, as well as Karen & Doreen at PAG who have facilitated the process and made everything possible. And also to our partners, RHUL’s Lizzie and Elahe who have placed great faith and trust in our ability to devise and deliver a co-design process with the community that reflects on the issues at the heart of Vome.
Once again we have been collaborating with our esteemed colleagues Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer at DodoLab on a discursive exploration of place and knowledge as part of our ongoing investigations and collaborative publishing project, City As Material. This time we have been undertaking a research expedition with Professor William Starling into the decline of the European Starling in Britain, seeking stories and evidence to explain their rapid disappearance in three towns : Thetford (in Norfolk), London and Oxford. Alongside Proboscis and DodoLab, we were accompanied by expedition members Dr Josie Mills, Curator of the Art Gallery at the University of Lethbridge, Canada and artist Leila Armstrong.
Haz has posted reports for each of the journeys and visitations which we undertook in Thetford, London and Oxford over on our bookleteer blog and we are now collaborating to produce a series of eBooks charting the expedition’s activities and findings – blending together questions, observations, musings, photos, drawings, rubbings and other things collected. As before, we’ll print up a limited edition of the books as well as placing downloadable PDFs in the online Diffusion Library for handmade versions and enabling bookreader versions for reading online.
A few days ago we deployed a simple but exciting design change to bookleteer.com, namely we have added QR Codes and Short URL links to every Diffusion eBook’s back page. These link directly to the online bookreader version of the eBook – a web-based version that makes it possible to read the eBooks directly on mobile devices such as smartphones (Android, iPhone, Blackberry etc), tablets (iPad, Galaxy tab etc) or any computer.
What’s so exciting about that you may ask? Well, we have been thinking about ‘tangible souvenirs‘ for a few years now – exploring ways of capturing and sharing aspects of ‘digital experiences’ into physical forms such as the Diffusion eBooks and StoryCubes. This might be data visualisations or digital assets such as photos, tweets etc arranged to act as mementoes of ephemeral experiences which are primarily mediated through digital technologies. Conversely we have also been thinking about how to share these ‘tangible souvenirs’ digitally as well as physically. This thinking originated in a small project we helped take place between schoolchildren in a village in rural Nigeria making and sharing eBooks with schoolchildren in Watford, north London. In parts of Africa computers, printers, paper and internet access were (and remain) scarce – yet mobile phones were proliferating fast. If people who had never before had access to low cost publishing technologies through the simple tools we had created (Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer.com) could use these to publish their own knowledge and experiences how then would they share them when the means of production (computers, printers, paper etc) which we take for granted in the industrialised world, were still scarce?
The answer was to find another bridge between the digital and the physical – enabling people to share their Diffusion eBooks not only through the PDF files and printed formats, but also via mobile phones. In 2007 I wrote a post on diffusion.org.uk (our free library of eBooks and StoryCubes) speculating on how we might in future use visual barcodes to make sharing the eBooks simpler. At that time we didn’t have the online bookreader format, so there was still the problem of how someone with a mobile phone could print out and read the book. However, with the implementation of bookreader (a fantastic piece of open source software created by the Internet Archive) we have been able to realise this in a remarkably simple but potentially crucial way. If someone has a printed or handmade copy of a Diffusion eBook then they can share its content with anyone else simply by letting them use their mobile device to scan the QR code (there are multiple free QR readers for most types of phone or tablet device). Or they can take a photo of the back page and email it or send it via MMS to someone who can then scan it in themselves.
By placing the Short URL link alongside the QR code we have also provided a human-readable alternative to the QR code. This way anyone can simply type the URL into a web browser on any internet-connected device to begin reading the eBook. The URLs are also short enough to send via SMS, Twitter or any other social messaging system.
Over the years we have described the concept behind the hybrid digital/physical nature of Diffusion eBooks and StoryCubes as being about creating ‘Shareables‘ – things which can float between these states, which can exist in more than one place at a time as both physical and digital objects. We have collaborated with friends, colleagues and partners to explore the affordances of capturing unique handwritten and handmade books and StoryCubes and being able to share them directly with others, almost without restriction. This simple addition linking the physical PDF/printed versions to their online bookreader versions amplifies this rippling effect between the physical and the digital in ways we can only begin to imagine.
We think this could be a step change in the uses and usefulness of bookleteer.com and the Diffusion eBook format – we’d love to hear what other people think too.
“Space is a part of an ever-shifting social geometry of power and signification”, this is an inspiring quotation drawn from Doreen Massey’s Space, Place and Gender and immediately it puts light on two major ideas underpinning the understanding of space: its non-neutral and non semantically univocal essence, and its intrinsic conflict. Space harbours a wide spectrum of semantic nuances and potential political definitions and thus produces continual challenges in terms of interpretation and agency. “The map is not the territory”, even if it is thought to be so, but an interpretation, a graphic and linguistic exposition of a portion of territory and how ever it strains to be scientifically irrefutable, the discursive component shines through mainly in the very moment such codes are disrupted. The elaboration of alternative maps make overt that “maps, like art, far from being a transparent opening to the world, are but a particular human way of looking at the world”. The idea of embracing alternative tube maps came to my mind because I was already familiar with Alex Roggero’s Underground to Everywhere map where he replaced the tube stations with the immigrants’ city according to the main ethnic minority living in a specific area. This travel book is in every aspect an homage to the author’s wanderings across the city and a sincere admiration to the vibrant, Babylonic and multicultural London. The author himself mentions several alternative tube maps which have been produced during the years. The tube map itself is not scientifically accurate but it was designed in such a way, so readable and clear, that has become hugely popular and iconic. Moreover, a recent visit to the Museum of London gave me the idea to insert in my visual essay some samples of hand-drawn maps which are displayed at the museum entrance in order to further underline the discursive, subjective aspect of the act of mapping. In partnership with Londonist, readers were encouraged to submit hand-drawn maps, focussing on their own experiences and connections with certain areas of London and obviously the aim was not to provide a factual representation of the city but to capture the different and variegated personal projections on the cityscape. The galleries themselves, which go through London’s history from when London was just a piece of desert land to the very present, are full of fascinating maps, each revealing a peculiar sphere of London according to the point of view and the intention of the composer. Booth’s poverty maps, based on his survey into life and labour in London from 1886 to 1903, assess varying levels of indigence and criminality in different districts across London, graphically accessible through a colour code, so for example, dark blue stands for ‘Very poor. Casual, chronic want’, while black stands for ‘Lowest class. Vicious, semi criminal.’ The textual level of the mapping process discloses diverse perspectives on the emotional and biased degree involved in any act of representation and this leads us to think that the entity represented, in this case the city of London or at least a portion of it, is to be found where more or less codified and official discourses and a multitude of singular experiences meet. Regarding this, it is very illuminating to address Proboscis’ Urban Tapestries project which, combining mobile and internet technologies with geographic information systems, looked at how people could actively map the environment around them and earnestly share this ever-evolving body of knowledge. This kind of collaborative mapping hints at another aspect implicit in the mapping process: its blatant lack of innocence suggests a potential political use, either as a tool of coercion and possession – unequivocal, for instance, is the case of Imperialism as Edward Said suggests – and as an instrument to reclaim and re-conquer one’s own right to the city and to build an alternative organic mutuality.
I see mapping as a central issue in Proboscis’ work not only because several projects have focussed on contemporary perceptions of the human, social and natural landscape around us – see for example the Liquid Geography ebooks series – as well as on fertile and rewarding ways to affect it, but their general conceptualization follows the mapping procedure. Proboscis’ approach simulates an unexpected plot, a thorough exploration, rich in ramifications, bends and junctions, sudden and unpredictable directions.
This year’s seen several major milestones achieved in developing our bookleteer platform. At the beginning of the year we launched a User API (Application Programming Interface) allowing people to create and share eBooks and StoryCubes directly from their own projects, applications and websites.
In February we unveiled a new price estimator to help people calculate the costs of printing and shipping (all over the world) eBooks and StoryCubes through our Short Run Printing Service. We combined this with new pricing structures that make both the eBooks and StoryCubes cheaper and easier to order in small quantities (from 50 copies)
This month we’ve launched what we think is our most exciting new feature : an online bookreader allowing users to read and share their eBooks via standard web browsers. We have also re-vamped the user interface for creating and editing eBooks which should make it simpler and more intuitive. Below is an example of an embedded ‘mini reader’ showing an eBook created by Caroline Maclennan as part of Alice’s As It Comes project in Lancaster:
You can also find plenty more (and growing) over on our Diffusion website.
A Critical Text by Frederik Lesage
A recurring theme underpinning Proboscis’ work is storytelling. Their preoccupation with it is not only reflected in the stories they have told – through works such as Topographies and Tales and Snout – but also in their efforts to explore the practices and forms that enable people to tell stories. For a group of artists to embark on this latter kind of exploration may at first seem counterintuitive; the artist as a teller of stories is a familiar role, the artist as one who helps us tell our own is less so. It is beyond the scope of this paper to convince the reader of the value of such a role. Rather, I will set out to investigate how a specific tool developed by members Proboscis helped to shape one particular collaborative exchange with Warren Craghead in a work titled A Sort of Autobiography. By doing this, I hope to demonstrate how collaborative processes for storytelling like the ones that Proboscis are developing require new frameworks for understanding the kinds of work taking place.
What in the world is a StoryCube?
I often hear this perplexed question when talking to people about my research into Proboscis’ work. Most often, my answer is similar to the one that Proboscis themselves give on their diffusion.org.uk website:
StoryCubes are a tactile thinking and storytelling tool for exploring relationships and narratives. Each face of the cube can illustrate or describe an idea, a thing or an action, placed together it is possible to build up multiple narratives or explore the relationships between them in a novel three-dimensional way. StoryCubes can be folded in two different ways, giving each cube twelve possible faces – and thus two different ways of telling a story, two musings around an idea. Like books turned inside out and upside down they are read by turning and twisting in your hand and combining in vertical and horizontal constructions.”
This answer, for the most part, tells my interlocutor what one can do with a StoryCube – it encompasses a number of actions as part of a process wherein one makes and uses this particular type of object. The StoryCube represents a way to print images and text onto a different kind of paper surface in order to share these images and texts with others in a particular way. But I often find that this answer does not suffice. In this paper I will argue that this problem arises because, although a process description of what one can do with a StoryCube does provide part of the answer for what in the world it is, a more complete answer would require more worlds in which it has been used.
To clarify this obtuse little wordplay, I turn to two different authors who provide two very different models for understanding how culture is made and how it is interpreted: Howard Becker’s art worlds and Henry Jenkin’s story worlds.
Disciplines such as the sociology of art have gone out of their way to show how artists are not alone in creating cultural objects. It has arguably become a cliché to state this fact. But one must not forget its implication. Howard Becker’s Art Worlds (1982), for example, demonstrates to what degree artistic practices from painting to rock music constitute complex sets of relationships among a number of individuals who accomplish different tasks – the people who make, buy, talk about, pack and un-pack works of art are connected through what he refers to as art worlds. These worlds are populated by different roles including artists, editors, and support personnel. By artists, he means the people who are credited with producing the work. By editors, he means the people who modify the artwork in some way before it reaches its audience. By support personnel, he means the people who help ensure that the artwork is completed and circulated between people but who aren’t credited with producing the artwork itself. This might include a variety of different people including framers, movers and audience members. If one were to apply Becker’s art world model to the world of book publishing and printing, for example, we might say that the artists are the authors, that publishers are editors and that the book printers are part of the support personnel: they reproduce and maintain a set of conventions for the production and distribution of an author’s work.
Part of Becker’s point is that even if we credit authors as the source of a book’s story, significant parts of the book’s final shape will be defined by choices that are the purview of support personnel like printers rather than by the authors: what kind of ink will be used to print the text, the weight and dimensions of the book pages, etc. These decisions, be they based on aesthetic, economic, or other considerations, can often be made without consulting authors and have a significant impact on what readers will hold and read when they get their hands on the finished product. Nevertheless, there are arguably varying degrees of importance attributed these different choices. After all, few of us read books because of the kind of ink it was printed with.
But one should also remember that the distribution of these roles within an art world is not necessarily fixed. In Books in the Digital Age, John B. Thompson writes that it was only in the past two centuries that there has been a distinction in the Western world between what a book publisher does and what a book printer does. Prior to this differentiation, the person who published a book and the person who printed it were one and the same. Just as the distribution of printing and publishing roles can change over time, the significance attributed to these roles might also change.
Becker’s art world model is useful for the answer to my initial question stated at the beginning of this paper because it is a social world model. Placing the StoryCubes into an art world allows me to populate the process answer provided above with a number of different roles:
Proboscis are the designers of the StoryCube who created it as “a tactile thinking and storytelling tool for exploring relationships and narratives”. They invite all sorts of different people from different disciplines to play an artist’s role by using the StoryCube to “illustrate or describe an idea, a thing or an action” and to “build up multiple narratives or explore the relationships between them in a novel three-dimensional way”. The results of all of these different peoples’ work are then made available in various ways to anyone interested in these relationships and narratives. These audience members are invited to “read [the StoryCube] by turning and twisting [it] in your hand and combining in vertical and horizontal constructions.” In some cases, these same audience members take-on additional support personnel roles such as “printers” when they download the StoryCube online and print and assemble it themselves.”
This newly revised version of my answer now has artists and audiences who are working with Proboscis and StoryCubes. But it still seems quite vague. What are these “relationships and narratives” that seem to be the point of making StoryCubes in the first place?
The second world I turn to for putting my answer together is what I refer to as Henry Jenkins’ “story world” model. In his book Convergence Culture, Jenkins argues that a convergence is taking place between different media that is not simply due to technological changes brought about by digitisation. He believes that in order to understand the changes taking place in media, one needs to include other factors including economic pressures and audience tastes. One of the ways in which he demonstrates this is by analysing how storytellers like the Wachowski brothers developed The Matrix franchise. Jenkins argues that the brothers were not only engaged in the process of making films but that they were in fact engaged in an “art of world building” (116) in which the “artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium” (ibid). The Matrix was not only available as a movie trilogy but was also explored and developed in short films, comics and novels by a number of different contributing artists. In other words, today’s creative people – be they individual artists or media conglomerate business executives – need to start to think about a ‘story world’ that is manifested in multiple, interdependent media.
I would argue that one should not interpret Jenkins’ model as suggesting that story worlds exist independently of any specific medium. Rather, the model suggests that other people, not just the author credited with originating the story world, can contribute to the development of a story world. Audience members and other authors can actively reinterpret aspects of story worlds not only through an active interpretation of the text but also by authoring their own parallel contributions. This is significant because it suggests there are contingent relations of power involved in the negotiation of the overall representation and interpretation of those same story worlds. The simplest example is how laws for copyright are employed to ensure that authors and their publishers maintain certain kinds of control over the development of story worlds.
For me to explain how Jenkins’ story world model is useful for answering my initial question will take a bit more effort. In order to fully clarify why I have gone through the trouble of bringing these two very different worlds from two very different research traditions, I will need to demonstrate how they can be combined and applied to a specific example which follows bellow. For now, however, suffice it to say that the story world model deals with meaning and how the narratives and relationships that stem from the process of making and reading StoryCubes do not appear in isolation from other related meaningful artefacts. How one interprets the meaning of a particular StoryCube is embedded within a particular set of intertextual relationships that I refer to as a story world.
We now have two different ‘world’ models for explaining what are StoryCubes:
- the art world model as a way to understand how a particular artwork is produced, distributed and appreciated through a set of interdependent roles enacted by people and
- the story world model as a way to understand how meaning can be conceived as part of a number of different texts produced by a number of different people.
A sort of printing experiment – The case of Warren Craghead
I will now examine Warren Craghead’s A Sort of Autobiography and how some critics interpreted his work as a way of illustrating how both models presented above enable me to better answer what in the world is a StoryCube. A Sort of Autobiography is a series of ten StoryCubes whose outer faces are covered by drawings of Craghead’s own making. Taken together, the ten cubes are intended to be interpreted as his “possible” autobiography – hence the title of the work. Here is a description of the work posted by Matthew J. Brady on his “Warren Peace” blog as part of a longer review of the project:
With the onset of digital comics, an infinite number of possible ways to use the medium has erupted, and even the weirdest experiments are now visible for any number of people to experience. This is great for comics fans, who can now experience the sort of odd idea that creators might not have shared with the world otherwise. Warren Craghead’s A Sort of Autobiography is a fascinating example, using the tools provided by the site Diffusion.org.uk to create a series of three-dimensional comic strips, with each in a series of ten cubes representing a moment in his life, separated by decades. Some of them seem to simply place an image on each side of the cube (with one side of each working as a “title page”), while others wrap images around the surface, and several working to make faces representing Craghead at that cube’s age. It’s a neat way to use the medium, if you can call it that.”
If we attempted to place A Sort of Autobiography in the art world model presented earlier, it would be fairly easy to follow Brady’s lead and look to comic strips as a guiding template. One could say that Craghead is the artist-author who created the work. Determining who plays this role is fairly easy because Craghead has authored a number of comic strips using a similar visual style. Things get a bit more complicated when we try to determine who is the editor-publisher. Based on the information I’ve been able to gather, there doesn’t seem to be anyone other than Craghead who makes editorial choices about the content of the final artwork – the style of drawing, the way in which the story unfolds, etc. There may be some “invisible”, un-credited co-editors who help Craghead with his drawing and choice of subject matter but they are not formally acknowledged and I have not tried to enquire whether or not this is the case. What is clear, however, is that Proboscis also do take-on aspects of the editor-publisher role: Proboscis commissioned the project as part of their Transformations series, the works are made available through Proboscis’ Diffusion website and, of course, Proboscis designed what Brady refers to as the “tools” used to publish the project.
It is this last aspect that seems particularly problematic for Brady. If we focus (rather narrowly) on some of the comments Brady makes in passing about the StoryCubes as a support for the work in his review, it is clear that they make it more difficult for him to pin down the project. Much of Brady’s review seems to implicitly be asking “Is this a comic?”. In describing the work, he uses the language of comic books to help him describe it. For example:
“Some of [the cubes] seem to simply place an image on each side of the cube (with one side of each working as a “title page”) […]”
Here Brady suggests that Craghead employs a particular convention of comics – the title page – as part of how he constructs some of his cubes. But though one of the panels located at the same place on each of the ten cubes does have writing that indicates the year and how old Craghead is at the time (ex. 1970, I am zero years old; 1980, I am ten years old; etc.), there is little to suggest that this choice is necessarily drawn from comics. This might explain why Brady puts “title page” in quotation marks. Brady seems pleased with the overall results of the project but also refrains from categorizing the result outright as a comic. Recall how he ends the paragraph I cite above with:
“It’s a neat way to use the medium, if you can call it that.”
Further along in his review of the project, Brady still seems hesitant:
“Does the whole thing work as a comic? Sure, if you want to put the work into interpreting it, not to mention the assembly time, which can make for a fun little craft project.”
One could argue that Brady may be pushing the comics category a bit: Craghead’s own website doesn’t seem to put so much emphasis on whether or not this, or any of his other projects for that matter, should be interpreted as comics. But Brady is not the only one who approaches A Sort of Autobiography in this way. Inspired by Brady’s reading, Scott McCloud – an authority on the comics medium if there ever was one – characterizes Craghead’s work as an “experimental comic”. Brady and McCloud’s categorisations of A Sort of Autobiography as a comic matter in part because it strengthens a number of associations with the comics art world. For example, if one reads A Sort of Autobiography as a reader of comics, then it does involve some additional assembly time. But what if one categorised it as part of an origami art world? Then this assembly time would be taken for granted (but Craghead’s drawings on the cubes might be interpreted as an oddity).
But Brady and McCloud are able to make this kind of association in part because they are familiar with the author’s previous work. Craghead is an established comics artist for both Brady and McCloud. It is therefore possible to compare A Sort of Autobiography to his other works. This is where I need to bring in the second world model presented above – the story world. As stated previously, the definition of story worlds based on Jenkins’ work depends on a set of possible meanings within “environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium”. One could argue, that Craghead creates a similar kind of story world based on a particular style of illustration and subject matter that is consistent with other works he has created. So rather than working with comparisons to other comics, Brady’s reading can simply refer to Craghead’s established story world.
But instead of placing Craghead’s biography as the foundation of our story world, why couldn’t we instead use the StoryCube’s story as our starting point? That is, rather than assuming that authors are the only ones who create meaning by telling stories, what if we assumed that Proboscis had designed a compelling story environment “that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work” and that Craghead’s A Sort of Autobiography was only one of the many parallel contributions to the meaning of this medium?
This kind of inversion is problematic because our contemporary culture, for the most part, depends on consistent formal conventions to be able to make comparisons and value judgments. That isn’t simply at the level of individual artists, but as a whole. Jenkins’ story world model does allow for all sorts of different media, but most of the media he discusses are based in familiar art worlds – comics, books, television programmes, videogames, and movies – art worlds whose implicit formal conventions allow authors to tell their stories in relatively unproblematic ways. But if we don’t know what a StoryCube is, how are we supposed to know what these conventions are? How can we know if this is a “good” or “bad” StoryCube since most of us don’t know how a StoryCube is supposed to work
I would therefore argue that Craghead, Brady and McCloud are telling us their stories of the StoryCube that involves mixing together art world and story world. They are using the more or less familiar narrative of how one makes and reads comics to tell us how to make and read a StoryCube. Craghead is relating to us the tale of how an illustrator can assume the artist’s role in the process of making a StoryCube by making different kind of drawings on it. Brady and McCloud are producing accounts of how to be readers of StoryCubes. Just as with any other kind of story world, these contributions provide only partial insights into the whole story environment and how one might participate in its creation and extension.
The example of A Sort of Autobiography suggests why Proboscis’ initial definition, the one presented at the beginning of this text, was left under-developed: their objective is to develop a meaningful world in which people can tell stories – one that invites people to populate it with their own art worlds and story worlds. In order for there to be enough room for others to create and sustain this kind of world, Proboscis may have to allow the StoryCubes to remain an insufficient process and an incomplete story. But they must also continue the delicate work of articulating how this incompleteness can itself be a meaningful and fertile ground for others to complete. The bookleteer platform is arguably one step in this direction in that it is an attempt to generate an online community of people who use StoryCubes and other “Diffusion Shareables”.
In the end, the true challenge may not be whether any of the answers about “What in the world is a StoryCube?” are sufficiently clear or exhaustive, but whether or not one of them can entice you into telling your own story of the StoryCube.
Frederik Lesage, March 2011
This year we will begin a major new programme of projects exploring the intangible things we value most about the people, places and communities we live in : Public Goods. Through a series of projects over a 5 year period we’ll be making artworks, films, events, exhibitions and publications in places across the nation (and hopefully abroad too) working in collaboration with both other creative practitioners and local people.
In this first year we’re planning a series of smaller research projects to help us meet and engage with collaborators, identify places and communities, themes and activities. We’ll be using our City As Material format for collaborative urban exploration and zine-making as a method of investigating new places with local people, and also focused projects, like Alice’s As It Comes, in both urban and rural settings exploring other knowledges and experiences that are often overlooked or are being swept away by the fast pace of social change. We also plan to continue our research collaborations into new technologies for public authoring, play and sensing the world around us (such as Urban Tapestries, bookleteer and Sensory Threads).
Our aim is to build up an archive, or archives, of the intangible goods that people most value and want to share – transmitting hope and belief through artistic practice to others in the present and for the future. In the teeth of a radical onslaught against the tangible public assets we are familiar with (libraries, forests, education etc), Public Goods seeks to celebrate and champion a re-valuation of those public assets which don’t readily fit within the budget lines of an accountant’s spreadsheet.
We’d love to hear from communities, practitioners or organisations who’d like us to work with them around this theme – do get in touch.
At the beginning this year I started planning how we could begin to introduce bookleteer into education and learning contexts and programmes – not just in formal settings such as schools, colleges and universities, but also in other spaces and places where learning takes place : museums, community centres, libraries, archives and grassroots groups.
We began this journey with a Pitch Up & Publish workshop in February co-hosted by former teacher, writer and digital evangelist at TeachersTV, Kati Rynne which was aimed at teachers and creative people who work in education settings. Among the participants who took part was Ruth from Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination who have ended up creating around a dozen eBooks for workshops and projects they’ve been running with people of all age groups. Others have also used bookleteer in their own projects and for creating teaching and learning outcomes – workbooks, notebooks, documentation and course materials – and not just in English, but Hindi and Arabic so far too.
Our own City As Material event series has also outlined a simple model to bring a group of people together to explore an idea, place or theme and then collaboratively produce eBooks (you can follow the development of the series over at diffusion.org.uk). In these events we’ve shared lots of local knowledge and experience within the group of participants, and found creative ways to share and explore themes of common interest with other people. Its very much in the informal/non-formal learning space (one of the participants was Fred Garnett, a former policy advisor at Becta who’s written on and worked extensively in this area) and I think it suggests exciting ways in which hyper-local groups can come together to explore or pool knowledge and experience, capture and share it in a rapid and very easy way not only among themselves but with wider communities too.
More recently we’ve been joined by Education Assistant, Christina Wanambwa, on a 6-month placement whose role is to help extend and focus our efforts on working both in formal and informal learning. We’ve begun a collaboration with Soho Parish Primary School, where she’ll be spending 1 day a week from January til Easter – helping both teachers and students use bookleteer to create tangible outcomes from curriculum based projects. We’re also using this project to understand more about the specific needs of schools in using online platforms like bookleteer; potentially to build a separate schools version that suits the context of authoring and sharing by children and the need for oversight by staff around issues such as child protection.
Christina’s also begun a research and outreach project visiting other kinds of learning environments to see how bookleteer could be weaved into their existing education programmes to add value and fun. She’ll be publishing an eBook of ideas relating to each place she visits over the coming months, as well as posting about her research on the bookleteer blog. Her first post discusses a recent visit to the Museum of Childhood (download the eBook).
bookleteer is about helping people make and share beautiful publications of their own – whether they handmake the results or choose the PPOD professional printing service. We want to help people find new and dynamic ways to record and share the ideas, stories, knowledge and experiences they have – learning and exchanging things of value as they go. bookleteer has enormous potential to enable people to make and share things of their own, books and storycubes; things which they can share with people all around the world, without the problem of shipping physical objects. Hand-written eBooks can be scanned in and made available online in the same way as ‘born digital’ ones and can also be turned into professionally printed books too.
We’d love to hear from other people in education and learning contexts who see the potential of using bookleteer in their own work and play, want to try it out and share their ideas, experiences and templates with others. We’d like to see bookleteer evolve into more than just a tool – into a community of practitioners creating and sharing across many languages, geographies, interests and outcomes. In the new year we’ll be launching new functionality which will open it up even further. Watch this space.
Orlagh and I are just finishing a short video, inspired by our Snout project, which will have its first outing at the upcoming Mobilefest Festival in Sao Paulo Brazil. A single screen video work – it draws together line animation, visualisation of sensor data and video footage of a live event featuring European carnival characters Mr Punch and The Plague Doctor as they cavort around London in costumes instrumented with environmental sensors. It reminded me that Snout was featured in 2008 in Zona 2; signs in the city, a supplement to the Italian architecture and design magazine Abitaire. So to accompany the video here is the short essay and my drawings from Zona about the project:
A theatre of the everyday
Carnival is a time when everyday life is suspended – a time when the fool becomes king for a day, when social hierarchies are inverted and the pavement becomes the stage, a time when everyone is equal. There is no audience at a carnival, only carnival-goers.
On 10 April 2007 the Snout ‘carnival’ performance and public forum (featuring Mr Punch and The Plague Doctor instrumented with environmental sensors) drew together artists, producers, performers and computer programmers to explore how wearable technologies with environmental sensors can combine with Internet sharing technologies to map the invisible gases in our everyday environment. The project by Proboscis, inIVA and researchers from Birkbeck College also explored how communities can use this evidence to initiate local action.
For Proboscis public space is a focus for convening conversation and dialogue. It gives context to shared issues such as pollution, the environment, and our personal and communal relationships to them. In Snout, we sought to meld the problem of measuring pollution in public space with ways to begin a conversation between local people that can inspire a path to change; not just frighten people with statistics.
Our world is increasingly affected by human behaviour and industry – there is awareness of pollution in public spaces but we rarely have access to actual data. What is the local air quality of our street like? What ground toxins are present? The participatory sensing concept seeks to put the science and technologies of environmental sensing into the hands of local people to gather and visualise evidence about their environment.
We chose Mr Punch as an allegory of Western consumer culture. Punch is the fool, the trickster, an anti-authoritarian figure – challenging social structures, yet never taking responsibility for his actions. In the traditional Punch story – The Tragical Comedy, Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, he defeats authority, but at the same time kills all the people close and dear to him. Ultimately he is left alone. We also chose the Plague Doctor because of his ambiguous relationship to technology. The doctor’s outfit is a kind of seventeenth century HazMat suit, but is he a real doctor or is he a quack hiding behind the cultural and hygienic prophylactic of the costume? With both the characters we are questioning the social and cultural role not only of technologies but also of those who use them, and why.
The data collected by the sensors in the Snout costumes are the ingredients for a feast of conversation; a recipe that includes various ingredients (sensor data, statistics culled from official websites and local knowledge shared by the community) to cook up local feasts of conversation. In addition to the data picked up by the sensors on the Snout costumes (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, noise, solvent vapours etc), other sources were aggregated such as local health statistics, local education and the ‘deprivation’ index.
Consumerism drives a headlong scramble of production, underpinned our concept of individual freedom and choice. Our desire to have technologies which ‘free’ us, enable greater communication and ability to travel are also ones which contribute to accelerating ecological damage. The technologies we manipulate to help us make sense of these issues are also part of the problem. The question then becomes, how do we take responsibility for the impact of our desires upon the environments we live in, and their effects on the environments of others? How can we shift our perceptions of what can happen on the street, in public space, to create the context to begin conversations?
This Saturday I’m heading to Barcelona to take part in the lift @ home workshop at CitiLab organised by Fabien Girardin and Nicolas Nova – Hands on Barcelona’s Informational Membrane, part of Urban Lab days. I’ll be there, I understand, as a sort of respondent to the keynotes, Adam Greenfield and Ben Cerveny, offering some of our experiences in working at grassroots level – and I guess at policy level too – with geospatial systems, public authoring, sensor networks and doing general mischief.
Fabien has posted a list and bios of the workshop’s attendees, a very eclectic mix of doers and thinkers, here.
A film made in 2006 which demonstrates several of the interfaces – PDA, mobile, web and Google Earth – that were made for various tests and trial of Urban Tapestries. Also contains footage of participants in the trials and bodystorming experiences.
Today I’m travelling to San Sebastian, Spain to take part and give a presentation at the workshop, My Map is Not Your Map. The workshop is hosted by Arteleku and coordinated by José Luis Pajares (gelo); the other presenters are Lize Mogel, Fabien Girardin and Julius von Bismarck.
My presentation (Thurs 24th at 19.00) will be an overview of Proboscis’ projects exploring place, public authoring and sensing conducted since the 2002 (e.g. Urban Tapestries, Social Tapestries, Feral Robots, Snout, Sutton Grapevine & Sensory Threads. Proboscis’ work has always focused less on the technological than on the relational nature of linking human knowledge and experience to place – why and how people tell stories and construct narratives around the places they inhabit and which hold meaning for them.
Starting in October we will be running regular informal evening workshops for people to literally pitch up and publish using bookleteer.com. Initially these will be held at our Clerkenwell Studio for up to 15 participants – all you need is a laptop and some content (text /photos/ drawings etc) you’d like to create and share as eBooks or StoryCubes (shareables). We will provide free user accounts to bookleteer and guide you through the steps of preparing and generating your shareables to share online, via email or as physical publications. Once created you can publish them on your own website or, if appropriate, we can publish them on Diffusion.
Update: The first workshop will be held on October 15th 2009 between 6.30-9pm at the Proboscis Studio.
To reserve a place please email us at diffusion (at) proboscis.org.uk Participants will be asked to make small donation to cover materials (paper/printing ink etc) and refreshments (beer).
This week we begin teaching a course on the city as material for artistic practice with students from Vassar College‘s International Program in London. We’ve planned it as a co-creative course, intending to act as facilitators and guides to the students in devising and conducting their own investigations of the city and creating their own interventions. The students will be creating a blog to document their activities, as well as publishing eBooks about their individual projects.
The course is fortnightly (from early September to the beginning of December 2009), based in our studio in Clerkenwell, from where we’ll engage in walks, watching, making, drawing, discussing and eating.
The focus for this class will be in considering the role of the city as material for artistic experimentation and creation. Only inadequately understood as “public art,” urban interventions produce public space where it does not exist, foster new modes of urban citizenship and participation, render legible the force of political and financial power shaping the global city, expose the mutability of “public” and “private” entailed by new media transformations of social space, create alliances between varied urban stakeholders, challenge the zero-tolerance policies of the increasingly securitized city, and broaden the repertoire of political resistance and direct action. In addition to contemporary practice the course will consider the rich histories of urban intervention by artists in London and elsewhere.
Proboscis is very excited to announce bookleteer.com – our forthcoming service for creating eBooks and StoryCubes which uses the latest version of the Diffusion Generator. We are planning a private beta test of the service in early October, with a public version launching in 2010.
Bookleteer will allow individuals and organisations to create personalised eBooks and StoryCubes under their own identity (the front covers of Bookleteer-made eBooks can contain a logo image) and with a cover image to make each publication more distinctive and recognisable. Bookleteer supports all 4 types of eBooks (classic/book ; portrait/landscape) as well as single and double-sided StoryCubes. It will additionally support eBooks created in many other languages and non-Roman alphabets (Hindi, Chinese, Greek, Russian etc) and will enable Right-to-Left eBooks to be created for Right-to-Left languages (Arabic, Urdu etc).
We’ll be developing some pilot projects over the next 6 months to demonstrate Bookleteer’s uses and capabilities, especially around its new API which will allow other websites and systems to call its services to generate eBooks and StoryCubes from external content and datasets.