SYMPOSIUM: DIGITAL FOLK 1; PARTICIPATORY ARTS IN THE DIGITAL AGE 27th November 2015, 10am – 5pm University of Sheffield, The Engineering Faculty Boardroom, Mappin Building, S1 3JD Only one week...
Three weeks have passed since the Symposium – enough time to reflect on the highlights (and insights) of the day…
Our intention with the event was always to look beyond the confines of “folk” activities (as they are conventionally defined), and to draw new connections between the great range of research being carried out on participatory arts more broadly (with, of course, an emphasis on the role of digital media and technologies in these varied fields). The line up of speakers, and the range of topics they covered, helped to get a sense of the ‘big picture’ of digital impacts on artistic and cultural participation, and so help us to think about the intellectual contexts for this particular piece of research.
Kerrie Schaefer (University of Exeter) then introduced two contrasting community digital arts projects: the Yijala Yala project based in the Pilbara region of Western Australia; and the MED Theatre project in Dartmoor. The paper illustrated, vividly, the relationships between regional politics and digital artistic activities in these two examples. Both involved local communities resisting romantic – or imperialist – narratives of the respective localities and communities as static or historical, by instead engaging with digital media to self-represent as living, evolving, ‘in the here and now’. Again, the parallels with the muse of Digital Folk were clear in this respect. Also significant here was the discussion of resistance shown towards culture industry (such was demonstrated by the MED Theatre project’s participants’ resistance to the idea of a commercialised app).
Henry Stobart’s (Royal Holloway, University of London) contribution offered an introduction to yet another very different cultural milieu – that of indigenous music video-making in Bolivia. Focusing on the use of the VCD in Bolivia, the paper was a useful reminder of the diversity of digital technologies that help to shape local techno-scapes – an important point to be made in a field of scholarship where it is easy to imagine one homogeneous, globally applicable pantheon of digital elements. The paper was also a very valuable reminder that close ethnographic observation of people using digital media can offer significant insights for charting continuing cultural similarities and diversity. My favourite point with this paper, however, was how Henry linked together two disparate ideas – the idea of making a digital artefact, and the idea of participating in a cultural act. In his case study of the Bolivian highlands, Henry found video-making to be a ‘participatory’ activity (rather than a ‘presentational’ one – c.f. Thomas Turino‘s dichotomy). This fit very clearly with my own work looking at digital recordings in folk sessions in the North East.
Sita Popat (University of Leeds), offered a very different perspective, by speaking to the sensory, embodied experience of digital technologies and media. Through her exploration of virtual and mixed-reality art installations, Sita brought into sharp focus the juxtapositions of dislocation (brought about through virtual/virtualised environments) and the human instinct for physical interaction or enactment. A brief mention of the disorientation caused by the lack of an avatar representation of the body within the virtual space of a simulated balloon ride led me to wonder if this may be an interesting metaphor for other types of ‘self-absence’ experienced within other virtual spaces/platforms.
An appropriate “book end” to the research papers, George McKay’s (University of East Anglia) paper returned us from contemplation of the representations and transformations of the artistic and physical self, to matters of group/community activity, with his thoughts on “the congregationalist imperative” within the cultural politics of the music festival. The paper was particularly important for spelling out the possibilities of an instinct to congregate as a nostalgic response to – or compensation for – the technological atomisations of contemporary life. Again, these ideas spoke particularly clearly to the ‘parallel’ human instinct to participate in tradition – ever present in the folk arts, and something taking on new meanings in an increasingly digitised world.
In the role of “Discussant”, Nikki Dibben (University of Sheffield) responded to the papers by drawing together themes for the discussion that followed. Among them were: the interweaving of offline and online worlds; the dependencies on/of the physical and virtual; the politics of participatory opportunities/arts (‘Who is this participation for?’); and the methodological demands of this new wave of study. The conversation illustrated a shared acknowledgment that ethnography in the new digital field requires a participant observation that is informed in terms of the digital activities with which your participants are engaging. It was also agreed that one must strive to understand, ‘from first principles’, participants’ responses to things like intellectual property (i.e. that concepts like IP cannot be assumed on the grounds of hegemonic, top-down discourse).