Tuesday, September 2, 2014

History as spectacle: Turkey's Çanakkale Epic Promotion Center

‘We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.’ Larry Law, Images and Everyday Life, 2009.

Since the 1990s, the commemoration of the Great War in Australia has increasingly taken the form of spectacular experiences and events. The 1915 Anzac centenary has already inspired elaborate historical re-enactments, festival style Anzac ‘glamping’ with branded swags,  luxury overseas cruises with celebrity guests, and televised sporting spectacle from AFL to V8 Supercar motor racing.

My PhD thesis, which explores war commemoration and consumer culture, is focused on Australia and the Anzac legend. However, it is important to remember that memory industries operate in a global context. A tweet yesterday from one of Australia's preeminent military historians, Peter Stanley, who is currently touring Gallipoli, served as a timely reminder of the Turkish experience.

The Çanakkale Epic Promotion Center (Çanakkale Destanı Tanıtım Merkezi) was launched by Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in June 2012. The A$40M centre offers a series of exhibits over four floors, including several ‘simulation’ rooms where visitors can experience thrilling multimedia representations of the Great War.

The Gallipoli Campaign does not just hold historical and mythological resonance for Australians. Known in Turkey as The Battle of Çanakkale, the successful resistance of invading allied forces is celebrated as a milestone in the creation of a modern Turkish republic. Here too, history is harnessed as a servant of the present.

Historical simulations are created using theatrical staging, historic film footage, contemporary re-enactments, computer generated images (CGI), 3D graphics, immersive wrap-around cinema screens and surround sound. In 2013, New Zealand journalist,  Russell Maclennan-Jones, described the tourist attraction as a ‘multimedia extravaganza’, noting that ‘Facts, figures and statistics are sparing’.

Çanakkale Epic Promotion Center Naval campaign simulation
Çanakkale Epic Promotion Center Artillery simulation

I have not visited the site yet but am greatly looking forward to Peter's insights. If you're interested in the Great War and Anzac commemoration I urge you to follow @Stanleyhistory and subscribe to the Honest History blog which has fast become a hub for breaking news, ideas and debate concerning Australian history.

It strikes me that a comparative study exploring the development, interdependency and divergence of the Anzac/Canakkale tourism industries could provide fascinating insights into personal, national and commercial investments into the past.

Promotional video: çanakkale destanı tanıtım merkezi

Promotional video: çanakkale destanı tanıtım merkezi (simulation rooms start at 4:58)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Yesterday's the past, tomorrow's the future, but today is a GIF.

Over the last two years, New York art director,  Kevin Weir, has been selecting historic photographs from The Library of Congress flickr stream and using them to create animated GIFs, which he shares on his blog. The results are delightfully absurd and utterly compelling.

I was surprised to find that so many of the photographs chosen by Weir were taken during the Great War. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Artists have long drawn from traditions of absurdity and surrealism to understand and express the horrors of war. I used Google Image Search to track down the original images and have included a description and a link to the original source below.

This photograph of Paul von Hindenburg was taken sometime between 1914-15 and distributed by one of the world's earliest picture agencies, the Bain News Service. Hindenburg became a field marshal during the Great War and second president of the Weimar Republic (1925-34).  GIF animation: Peter Weir. Image source: Library of Congress.

Another image from the Bain News Service which dates around 1914-15. This comic photograph, which depicts a wine barrel mounted to a cart, is titled ‘French 42cm gun’. The real 42cm howitzer gun, known as ‘Big Bertha’, was developed by a German armament manufacturer, Krupp, on the eve of the Great War. GIF animation: Peter Weir. Image source: Library of Congress.

This photograph has taken during 1914-15 in in Suwalki, Russia (now Poland) and depicts a Russian Orthodox priest praying for wounded soldiers in a make-shift military hospital. GIF animation: Peter Weir. Image source: Library of Congress.

This photograph of General Victor Michel was taken between 1910-1915. In the years preceding the Great War, Michel became convinced that German forces were most likely to invade France through Belgium, anticipating the Schlieffen Plan. His peers did not agree and he was later demoted. GIF animation: Peter Weir. Source:  Library of Congress.


Should historians harness the hottest trend in digital storytelling?

Is Weir is making history? In an interview with Wired Magazine, Weir stated that ‘I just stare at the picture for a while and things start coming to me that I want to bring to life’. He does not provide historical context for his GIFs, nor a link to the original archival image. Rather he looks for ‘great compositions and compelling characters’. He appears to be more inspired by Monty Python and HP Lovecraft than any aspiration for historical truth.  Nevertheless, Weir’s surreal creations - funny, confronting, haunting and emotive - reveal great potential for historical storytelling. Is it time that public historians, especially those working online, considered the GIF a creative medium?

 GIFs are not a new technology but they have come along way from their 1990s heyday when their small file sizes befit the speed of dial-up internet connections.

The acronym GIF stands for ‘Graphic Interchange Format’ and is pronounced ‘jif’.

In an era of high speed internet, these simple animations have undergone an astonishing renaissance. GIFs have never been so easy to make and share, and the technology is widely supported across a range of devices and platforms.

Most importantly, the medium is highly expressive.

We live in a visual age. Virtually all mobile phones have cameras and we now communicate with images as much as text. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have responded to this shift by making images more central to their user interface. Other social platforms - such as Snapchat, Instagram and Vine - use images and video as the primary method of communication.

In this new world, the humble GIF should not be underestimated. Animated GIFs have the potential to be more emotive than a still image, but are less effort to watch than a video. For this reason, popular social news channels such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy use GIFs liberally as a digital storytelling medium in viral posts. More recently, visual artists have begun to experiment with GIFs as a new art form. Traditional news media, including The Washington Post and The New York Times have also started cautiously experimenting with the medium.

Should public historians consider the GIF? Or is it just a novelty format, best left to celebrities and cute cats? Do we run a risk of trivialising historic subject matter, rather than promoting a deeper, more complex, engagement with the past? These are all valid and important concerns.

And yet, Weir’s captivating work seems to hint at new possibilities. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

We apologise for this break in transmission.

I’ve been living in glorious Edinburgh for three months now. It’s a magical storybook city and I’ve been enjoying getting lost in its endless winding lanes and side streets.

The first two years of my PhD were spent madly researching, writing, teaching, attending conferences, writing journal articles, and working on several digital humanities side projects. I love my work and I feel very privileged to be undertaking a PhD but I've often stretched myself too thinly in an effort to make the most the experience.

In contrast, I’ve spent the last three months totally immersed in my research project. I’m in Edinburgh on an unofficial writing retreat which has come at the perfect time in my candidature.  It’s the best thing I've ever done. I realise it’s a terrific luxury and it’s one I’ve been trying to make the most of before my return to Perth in September.

The focus and solitude have been wonderful but lately I’ve really missed blogging about my work and connecting with fellow researchers. Especially while following the Australian Historical Association Annual Conference on twitter last week! I hope to be there next year.

As my submission date looms (twelve months to go!) I’m also hoping to post more frequently about my research. It’s starting to take shape which is exciting but it's still an enormous challenge to make sense of such a daunting array of content.

But I get up in the morning, make a cup of tea, sit at my desk, and keep on going. Desperately clinging to the old adage ‘All writing is rewriting’ at the moment. I’m a believer!

My PhD writing survival strategies? Writing in 25 minute bursts, buying flowers for my desk every couple of weeks, working towards small milestones, and taking long afternoon walks around Holyrood park.

Until next time...

Long afternoon walks. A fail-safe cure for writers block.
The view from Arthur's Seat. I can see my house from here!
Glorious Holyrood Park, looking towards Leith.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Selling Anzac in 2014 #anzacommodity

Huge thanks to all those who tweeted or emailed me over the past few weeks with examples of the Anzac legend being appropriated to support strategic brand partnerships, sales promotion of goods and services, and not-for-profit events.

I've posted some of the examples below.  If brands and marketers aspire to fulfil (and create) consumer desire - what do examples of Anzac in consumer culture tell us about ourselves?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why should humanists attend GovHack?

Pixtory iPhone app
The following blog post was adapted from a short paper I delivered at Digital Humanities Australasia 2014. If you'd like more details on how I prepared for GovHack 2013 you may like to read my previous post Don't Code? You've got plenty to offer at GovHack.

In May 2013 I attended GovHack, Australia’s largest civic hacking event, where I worked alongside a team of local web developers and designers to build an iPhone app in 48 hours. Governments produce huge amounts of data and civic hacking events aim to bring people together to develop apps or websites that release the social value of these data sets. Propelled by a growing Open Data movement these kinds of events attract problem solvers with a social conscience.

The vast majority of participants were developers, designers and entrepreneurs. Where were all the humanists? I think that humanities researchers can make important contributions to civic hacking events as storytellers and strategists, ensuring concepts and executions are grounded in the latest research in their fields. Civic hacking events also provide opportunities for humanists to learn about ways to create more user-focused digital humanities outcomes.

What can humanists offer? Research driven outcomes

Opportunities for collaboration and creativity.
As a humanist, you can ensure that outcomes at GovHack are grounded in the latest research within your discipline. It’s an opportunity to work with developers and designers to put theory into practice.

So how did this work in my case? As a history PhD candidate, I have become inceasingly interested in the ways in which social media platforms enable users to share and comment on historic images.

Over the past few years, these kind of sites have become immensely popular – reflecting a groundswell of public interest in history and visual culture. For example, the 'Lost Perth' Facebook page, which features historic images of local places and ephemera, was launched in May 2013 and amassed an astonishing 50,000 ‘likes’ in the three weeks. Twitter accounts such as History in Pictures and Historical Pics have millions of followers.

These highly popular sites can be problematic. The images are uncategorized, unsearchable and lack meta-data and appropriate attribution. Little context is provided, nor any indication of the complexity or ambiguity of the image. This is a shallow understanding of history. Social media accounts that share historical images drive vast amounts of website traffic and promote high levels of interactivity  but the encounters with history they facilitate can be ephemeral and transitory. Do they help large corporations such as Facebook and Twitter more than local communities?

I wanted to create a web application that would tap into a growing public fascination with historical photographs but also facilitate a deeper understanding about history and heritage. In a 2013 journal article, 'Public History in a Digital Context: Back to the Future or Back to Basics?', Fien Danniau argued that the potential of digital media for public history has not been fully realised, reminding us that the ultimate goal of public history is to ‘develop historical thinking’.

With these issues in mind I pulled out a sketchbook and started to develop some ideas. When I arrived at GovHack I was lucky to join a seriously talented team of like-minded collaborators.

Over the next 48 hours we created Pixtory – an iPhone app that allows people to uncover the hidden history around them.  Pixtory was created with the intention of harnessing public interest to increase engagement with the State Library of Western Australia’s photographic archive, which contains over 70,000 online images. The app allows users to have an immersive experience with Perth’s built heritage, by collecting and exposing geo-tagged historic photos using the Trove API.

What can humanists learn? How to design more user-focused outcomes.

Collaboration with web developers and entrepreneurs outside the academy brings design and usability to the forefront and provides an opportunity for historians to engage with the logics that drive the competitive world of online start-ups.

When you are at GovHack, you might hear developers talking about UI and UX.  User interface design (UI) sets out how people will interact with the website and includes content, information architecture, design, functionality and interactivity. The user experience (UX) design includes the user interface but spans beyond it. It's mapped out during a user-centered design process that spans from initial concept development, all the way through to production, launch – and beyond. During this process,  research and insights into specific audience/s are taken into account at every stage of the product’s development.

Mapping out the user experience.
User experience design (UX)

A recent study by Claire Warwick highlighted the importance of user-centered approaches to tool building within Digital Humanities. Warwick refuted claims that humanists have been slow to take up digital tools because they are luddites, arguing instead that they are critics. Slow adaptation was not because humanists did not know how to use the tools created for them - but that they did not find the tools useful. Some tools failed to meet their needs and others were hampered by overly technical documentation and design.

User-centered design is crucial for public audiences too. Several speakers at DHA2014 mentioned crowd sourcing projects. But what’s the difference between a crowdsourcing project that gains critical mass and succeeds – and one that doesn’t? You can bet that one of these platforms resonates strongly with a specific community - and that this is by design, rather than accident.

In order to define and more deeply understand the audience for Pixtory, we examined the Lost Perth Facebook page to understand how and why people were using it.  We then discussed issues related to these kind of platforms from a public history and archival perspective. The user experience we designed for Pixtory was based on these insights.

Discussing research insights and audiences.
User interface design (UI)

In 2012, Fred Gibbs argued that humanists needed to allocate more resources to user interface development stating ‘The user interface for many digital projects often seems developed as an afterthought, thrown together after completing the core functionality’.

Visitors to websites make judgments about them in a fraction of a second. They won't assess your website against a similar platform within your industry or field - they will compare it to the best experiences they have online. Full stop. Companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox and Wordpress are continually setting benchmarks for interactivity and design.

This is huge challenge for humanists. We simply don’t have access to the same level of funding, let alone long-term sources. Furthermore, funding can be tied to specific deliverables along a timeline, negating an agile design process.

Our Pixtory prototype has a clean, simple, design with an instagram-style layout that allows users to scroll through images  - because we know that people prefer scrolling to clicking when browsing content. It features a simple, intuitive menu and social sharing that allows users to share content and recommend the app to others. You can experience Pixtory's user interface here.

Promote or perish

In 2007, Claire Warwick and Mellissa Terras interviewed teams who had created successful Digital Humanities tools and they found that the single most common factor in the success of a project was a good dissemination strategy. A 2008 report by Dan Cohen, Neil Fraistat, Matthew Kirschenbaum and Tom Scheinfeldt reiterated the need for community building. The report stated that 'user bases must be cultivated and are unlikely to appear naturally' and recognised that 'few projects do the necessary branding, marketing, and dissemination of their tool in the way that commercial software efforts do’. Waiting until the end of your project to define your audience and create and execute a dissemination strategy to reach them is too late.

Civic hacking as a gateway to digital humanities

GovHack 2014 is happening 11-13 July
In her 2011 article ‘Getting Started in Digital Humanities’ Lisa Spiro recognized that digital humanists were 'to some extent self-taught and/or gained their knowledge through work on projects'.  She suggested that humanists with a mind to developing new skills and competencies should ground their learning in a specific project, find collaborators and insightful people with whom they can discuss their work, and learn standards and best practices.

For humanists new to digital humanities,  outcome-driven events like GovHack provide opportunities to gain practical experience and establish networks with like-minded practitioners and organisations outside the academy. For many, civic hacking events could offer an a potential gateway into the field.

Digital humanists make stuff. That’s what we do. But we work under considerable constraints. How do we access the specialist skills we need to make our projects sing? How can we ensure they are executed and disseminated in the most effective ways possible?  I don’t think you need to learn to code to be a digital humanist.  But as digital project managers, perhaps we do need to know about UX/UI


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

50 tips for non-fiction storytellers

Since most of my time is taken up with my thesis these days I don’t get a chance to read many digital marketing blogs. But one that I still return to is Gavin Heaton’s Servant of Chaos. I used to love his Five Must-Read Posts of each week. Although the blog posts are generally aimed at digital strategists and marketing professionals, I frequently stumble across little insights that make me think about the ways in which academics engage (or fail to engage) with public audiences.

It was through Servant of Chaos that I recently discovered Adam Westbrook’s 50 tips for non-fiction storytellers. It’s brilliant. There is so much here for researchers that I hardly know where to start. Reading through I could immediately see possibilities to apply some of these narrative devices to blog posts, online news articles and YouTube videos. But just as importantly, I could see plenty of opportunities to apply these insights to more traditional academic outputs, such as conference papers and journal articles. Take a look and let me know which particular tips make you stop and rethink the conventions of academic storytelling…

Monday, February 24, 2014

The hard sell: has the Anzac industry passed its use-by date?

Anzac’s Long Shadow. Black Inc. Publishing
In his new book Anzac’s Long Shadow: The cost of our national obsession, James Brown argues that 'A century after the war to end all wars, Anzac is being bottled, stamped and sold'. The former soldier turned scholar criticises excessive federal government spending on the four-year Anzac Centenary which, when supplemented by private donations, could reach more than A$600 million dollars.

Brown recognises our Anzac obsesson is not new, claiming that federal legislation was introduced to protect the word “Anzac” from commercial use in the early 1920s. In fact, regulations were enacted under the War Precautions Act in May 1916, little over 12 months after the landing, in response to a flood of Anzac branded products and trade names, including tea, soap and soft drink. Yet early commodification pales in comparison to the staggering appropriation of the mythology by the private sector over the past decade.

While Brown believes the money allocated to the Anzac Centenary would be better served by supporting veteran’s charities he admits that these organisations have also become part of the problem. Once guardians of Anzac, the fortunes of the RSL and Legacy have become increasingly tied to corporate cause marketing.

As a former marketing manager (turned historian) I can attest that cause marketing is not philanthropy – it is marketing. Corporations that align their brands with the RSL and Legacy have firm profit motives for doing so. Commodification masquerading as commemoration is less discernible but no less exploitative. It is also much harder to contest.

Brown’s highly readable book aims to provoke. He employs stinging metaphors to describe our Anzac fetish – claiming that “Anzac Day has morphed into a sort of military Halloween” and that the Centenary promises to be an “exorbitant four-year festival for the dead”.

Brown is highly critical of the rampant commodification of Australian military history by a burgeoning “Anzac Industry” and, ironically, it is these sensational claims that have led the promotional campaign for his book.

Yet to focus on this aspect misses the point.

Brown’s exploration of Anzac commodification is constructed as a counterpoint to his main argument – that the Australian defence force is underfunded and that the “digger myth” has left little room for appropriate awareness, appreciation or debate surrounding the work of today’s service personnel.

In their attempts to celebrate “a century of service” it seems the organisers of the Anzac Centenary have inadvertently raised some uncomfortable questions about how current servicemen and women relate to the Anzac legend.

While modern warfare has evolved, the mythology surrounding the volunteer digger has not. Brown claims the Anzac narrative “doesn’t yet have a place for quiet professional soldiers doing their job” and that “a surfeit of honour can scar today’s returning soldiers as much as insults scarred our Vietnam veterans”.

Brown echoes the views of several prominent Australian historians when he argues that the unwillingness of the federal government and defence department to talk about why Australian soldiers fight overseas and what they do there has resulted in a dangerous gap between myth and reality.

For ex-serviceman Brown, the “digger myth” does not aptly convey the complex experience of war – one better characterised by shades of grey than black and white. He also echoes historians when he insists that increasingly sentimental approaches to commemoration have acted to conflate emotion as historical understanding and stifle much-needed critique and debate.

Brown goes even further to suggest that the mythology has “not only distorted society’s view of the military but also the military’s view of itself”, claiming that the Anzac legend has undermined the organisational culture of the Australian Defence Force.

Royal Australian Air Force/AAP

In a scathing review in the Quadrant, Mervin Bendle classed Brown’s book alongside Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake’s What’s Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History but, despite outward similarities, this book is boldly distinctive. Unlike Reynolds and Lake, Brown wants to invest more in the military, not less. Brown does not seek to undermine the idea of an “Anzac Spirit”. Indeed, he admits this is the reason that he and many others joined the military in the first place.

Brown engages with the substantial historiography surrounding Anzac mythology too lightly and the evidence he employs to support his argument is often anecdotal. Furthermore, in a world in which celebrity VC winners receive lucrative book contracts, go on speaking tours and front multi-million dollar ad campaigns for beer brands – it is hard to believe that modern-day soldiers lack status and prestige.

Yet, there is much to like about this book.

Brown’s efforts remind us of the necessity of interdisciplinary approaches to understanding our military past. His claims upset the cosy assumptions of historians who assume that the Anzac resurgence has been wholly beneficial to the cause of the Australian military.

Collaboration between social historians, military historians and scholars of defence strategy is not absent, but sorely lacking. In their efforts to understand the social cost of war, many Australian historians have been guilty of neglecting to examine the military and strategic contexts in which these conflicts play out.

We would do well to remember that, as an ex-serviceman, Brown has a unique and privileged platform from which to critique the “digger myth”. The authority to challenge the mythology is all too often reserved to veterans and their families. There are many ways of “knowing war”. A national mythology in which all are encouraged to participate but few are allowed to critique does not serve its citizens well.

Has the Anzac Industry passed its used-by-date? Only time will tell. But the public reaction to Brown’s book suggests that the Anzac Centenary is set to become a focus of debate and critique as well as commemoration.

Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession by James Brown is published by Black Inc.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.