MIX 03: Mixing it up for digital writing

MIX 03: Mixing it up for digital writing

'An unusual event': a space to show work, a chance to discuss work

Today at Bath Spa University's Newton Park Campus, delegates to the third annual MIX festival have heard from a host of speakers including:

  • Lucy English on the Book of Hours
  • Sophy Smith on "Pervasive Theatre: New Online Environments for Performance Narratives" (which might related, of course, to the work of Michel van der Aa in his new The Book of Sand)
  • Marianna Shek on "The Transmedia Triangle"
  • Dylan Spicer and Mike Warren on "Giant Cannibals: A Digital Fiction Project"
  • Dave Miller on "The Augmented Book"
  • Christine Wilks on "The Interactive Character as a Black Box"
  • Rik Lander in a workshop: "How To Get to the Top in Digital Drama"

Not your average campus-based writing conference. After all, on Thursday night, the audience heard a keynote address from author Naomi Alderman, whose 2012 Zombies, Run! is still honoured as an instructive success — classified as "a fitness game and audio adventure." Alderman is a professor in Bath Spa's Creative Writing Department.

What on Earth is MIX Digital?

"MIX Digital is an unusual event," says conference co-chair Kate Pullinger, "in that it gives artists and practitioners a space to show as well as discuss new and often highly experimental work." Working with her on the project has been novelist and performance poet Lucy English, a reader in the Creative Writing Department.

The programme is staged by the university's School of the Humanities and Creative Industries, which houses the Creative Writing Department, an international standout in recent years among MFA and PhD programmes in the field.

Pullinger is the "digital author" behind the long-running Inanimate Alice project. She's also a writer of multiple traditionally published novels (most recently, the unsettling contemporary character study, Landing Gear); co-creator of the Letter to an Unknown Soldier World War I writing-commemoration project; a self-publisher of her own backlist; and, like Alderman, a professor at Bath Spa Uni. She's one of the industry's go-to people in questions (and there are so many) about digital storytelling.

Indeed, my colleague Philip Jones went to her and to one of her MIX speakers, University of West England's Tom Abba, just this week for his piece here at The FutureBook on the Arcadia of Iain Pears from Faber, Arcadia's vision for a new way of reading

Pullinger's direction of Bath Spa Uni's @MixConference, as it goes on Twitter, offers the blessing of clarity. Unlike a lot of transmedial-literature events about "story worlds" and the heady hints of potential that never quite seems to arrive in these events, Pullinger's effort does manage a coherent, efficient statement of what it's about.

Here you go, and I'm excerpting here, to get it down to the absolute essentials:

MIX Digital 3: Writing Digital addresses ...how technology is transforming narrative and whether the written word will remain a key tool for how we tell each other stories.

Having covered events in this vein many times — some of them with Pullinger speaking, as in San Francisco's Books in Browsers — I can tell you that this is a very clean statement of an often confusing inquiry in the field: where does the written word lie in the future of storytelling?

Granted, part of the problem is that we don't know what we're asking. If we knew that, we wouldn't have to ask, would we? 

Pullinger augments that clarity-of-question with a couple more of the parallel quandaries that stand adjacent to it:

  • We know that the book is being transformed by digitisation, but is storytelling itself evolving? 
  • What are the possibilities for narrative in the twenty-first century? 

On the ground, these things are hard to play out with the logic of those smooth, elegant questions, of course. As soon as you get into one session or another, the topic of the moment can seem tangential to the big picture, not least because the field of digital storytelling development is broad and spliced with many disciplines. But the organisational good sense that structures this biennial conference argues for expansion in its next iteration; it's ready to grow in recognition. At the very least, live Web transmission would be a valuable component of future activities related to the MIX series of events.

"We're witnessing evolution first hand here," Pullinger says to me, "as our disciplines – creative writing, theatre, documentary, film – are transformed and remade in the digital age."

Unfortunately, economic realities are curtailing what might be accomplished, she says:

The academic conference model itself is changing – austerity and recession are having an impact in the UK as well as the rest of the developed world. We’ve seen that here at MIX, where many fewer of our European colleagues have been able to find the finance to join us. And yet this conference, its exhibition, and the MediaWall commission are an important and vital forum for the sharing of ideas and practice in the expanding field of digital writing.

'No Idea Who They're Working For'

Speaking of MIX's MediaWall commission, University of Washington faculty member James Coupe is this year's winning artist. He comes in with a 30-channel video installation (on view through July) that features people who work for Amazon's Mechanical Turk "scalable human workforce" service. His title, General Intellect, is associated in literature about the project with mehrwert, a Marxist term also translated to "surplus value." 

"The work is largely concerned with labour," Coupe says in a short video about the piece, "in particular digital labour. Most of the people on Mechanical Turk are completing tasks for which they have no idea who they're working for or what the purpose of those jobs are. The work has something to say about relationships between humans and machines, between humans and algorithms, and the nature of dissociative — potentially disenfranchised — relationship with technological narratives."

Of course, one element of this is that the Mechanical Turk workers in the installation are, as it turns out, providing to Coupe the labour he uses as the raw material of his installation, calling the piece, itself, into question along with the nature of a technologically assembled workforce, in itself. And thus, the artwork enters the sphere it presents and operates within the milieu on which it comments. 

Here's the video: 

Rethinking the book

Pullinger, this afternoon, has presided as Coupe discussed his MediaWall installation, which was launched on Thursday evening with Bath Spa Uni vice-chancellor Christina Slade on hand. 

Also this afternoon, Saturday, Chris Meade presented his "Nearlyology" project, before Pullinger and her colleague Lucy English wrap up the events at 3 p.m. BST.

Pullinger's own presentation, "From dBook to pBook and Back Again" was also given Thursday, shortly after Abba had presented a paper called "Sherlock Holmes to the Skyscraper Throne: Working with Writing in Ambient Literature."

Friday, Florian Cramer discussed the words "post," "digital," "media," "Internet," and various ways in which we combine them. Anna Gerber and Britt Iverson were on-hand to talk about Visual Editions and Editions at Play with Google Creative Labs — rethinking the book as a multimedia digital artifact. 

Convergence, the new media research journal, has invited MIX 03's contributors to create developed papers from their presentations for a special issue in February 2017 on the theme of digital writing and transmedia. 

The presentations of the conference papers have been organised into thematic tracks, including:

  • Transmedia Fiction Practice: Ambient Literature (chaired by Maggie Gee)
  • Digital Remediation: From Analogue to Digital (chaired by Bambo Soyinka)
  • Digital Poetry: Sound and Language (chaired by Lucy English)
  • The New Publishing/Distribution Multi-Modality and Participation (chaired by Katharine Reeve)
  • Transmedia Fiction Practice: The New Novel and Long-Form Digital Narratives (chaired by Stephen Gregg)
  • Pedagogy: New Forms and Methods (haired by Eliane Glaser)
  • Digital Storytelling: Interactive Forms (chaired by Mandy Rose)
  • The New Publishing: Fan Fiction (chaired by Naomi Alderman)
  • Analogue Futures (chaired by Dan Ashton)
  • Digital Poetry: Finding New Audiences for Digital Poetry

MIX 03 was supported by partnerships with the Digital Cultures Research Centre (DCRC), The Writing Platform, and Conducttr, a "pervasive entertainment platform."