I tried to get this finished before the end of the decade, but life intervened. And, you’ve probably already heard that Australia is on fire (and is likely to be for a while) and I’m bereft about our (lack of) national leadership. So here it is, a week late. If you’re in Australia at the moment, then think of it as distraction.
This one is in the spirit of those slightly odd summary letters that (mostly) Americans write and send out to their friends at the end of the year. I’ve done them every few years as a way of keeping track of things, and for later reflection.
As such it has fewer links than normal but will shortly be followed by Episode 34 in which the newsletter returns to normal service - commentary and hyperlinks.
The big thing for me this year, other than work, was of course this very newsletter - built out of a commitment to write more. K did this a couple of years ago in New York when a commitment to join a band ended up in her learning to play bass, joining a band with some friends, playing gigs, and recording an EP. And in 2019 her pledge to do ‘more dancing’ ended up in some great performances. If it worked for her then maybe such a commitment would for me, right?
Since I started this in January (2019) as a bit of an experiment in getting back into the swing of writing in a little less filtered self-critical, and self-censoring manner, I’ve been super pleased with its broader effects. Beyond the rich conversations I’ve had with readers - far more interesting than on social media - it has begun to change the way I’ve consumed media. I’ve read a lot more printed paper books this year, even fiction, as well as listened to quite a bit more music, and been out to more live gigs and events too. Not all of that is due to newsletter writing - but in a very hectic and stressful working year, the newsletter seems to have cracked open a wormhole of ‘extra time’ as well as a little more focus (I’m not quite sure how that works!).
There’s also been a few diversions it has triggered, some print activities, some game making, and making of mixtapes - that otherwise would have been left undone.
Anyway, 33 episodes in and about 65,000 words and many hundreds of hyperlinks later, there’s a lot more of you reading this on a regular basis than all my other online communications combined. Even though I finally ticked over the 10k mark of Twitter followers early in 2019 (it took over a decade!), each of my individual tweets gets read, and interacted with, by a minute fraction of that follower count. Same goes for Instagram. But here on the newsletter each post gets an enormous number of reads and those links I include actually do get clicked on by - fair proportion of you. Thank you for reading and occasionally replying! A huge thanks, also, to Katie Shelly and Sara Rubinow for doing illustrations for a number of the episodes, and also to those of you who decided to become patrons.
At a time where a lot of us are feeling deeply ambivalent, if not outright hostile, to social media, the newsletter has been useful alternative for me. I mentioned in an earlier episode (#24), Yancey Strickler’s ‘dark forest theory of the internet’ and I think that these newsletters as not so much a retreat from the public sphere, but a safer space to unfurl some new, but not fully formed, thought, which might later emerge into the public sphere. Regulars might recall a theme running through a few episodes about the safer space afforded by an ‘underground’ too. This is increasingly important as the public sphere is weaponised by bad actors all round. I’ll get onto disinformation in the next, already half written, missive - we’re drowning in it.
A couple of book chapters got published this year, too, but they were mostly assembled in 2018 so its a little strange to finally read them in published form. Courtney Johnston and I did a conversation that became a chapter in Museums and Digital Culture: New Perspectives and Research edited by Tula Giannini & Jonathan Bowen; and there’s a ‘framing conversation’ in The Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites edited by Hannah Lewi, Wally Smith, Dirk vom Lehn, & Steven Cooke. They are both on my to-do-list to get around to uploading Open Access pre-press versions of. The long time lag in academic publishing always fills me with dread - especially in my field, because of the rapid pace of change and technological obsolescence - but both seem to have held up reasonably well.
‘Work’ and other places
There was less travel this year as work bunkered down into production mode. I got hideously sick - the worst in years - in Singapore in January when I went over for the annual Art Science Museum board meeting, but nevertheless I reappeared at Museums and the Web in Boston in April after a break of several years. Going back to American cities I’ve been to before holds less and less interest these days - sadly most of my friends have moved on to other cheaper places these days - but April’s trip was a lovely opportunity to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen in nearly four years. I got to meet a few new additions to friends’ families on that trip too, as well as meeting up with a number of people I’ve only ever previously known online. I covered the Boston leg in Episode #17 along with the transcript of the onstage conversation I had with Damon Krukowski.
I was back in Singapore in May for a meeting of the Digital Advisory Council of the Singapore National Heritage Board and then Auckland the following week for Future Slam happening during NZ TechWeek. Those two trips were short, sharp ones revolving around a couple of presentations which were a ‘test run’ for my provocations at the Creative State Summit in Melbourne at the end of May. My Creative State provocation got a good amount of play and seemed to have the impact that the organisers wanted it to have - and it was a lot of fun to have my slides projected on the enormous iMAX screen! By the time I was back to Hong Kong for their Museum Summit in November the ‘negative turn’ in my public talks was a recurring theme. I covered that a little in Episode #31.
In part that ‘negative turn’ is my disillusionment with technology and the directions it has taken, but another part of it is my noticing the continued quiet resistance in the sector to the notion that museums (and other cultural institutions) are inherently political - as the cool kids say ‘museums are not neutral’. Of course none of that resistance to acknowledging an explicit politics is stated outright these days, instead it’s cloaked behind statements like “letting objects speak for themselves” or “just presenting the artist’s work the way they intended it”. By being ‘just an empty space for artists’ or for works to be presented in, institutional power isn’t devolved - it is just obscured. That obscuring shuts down the opportunity for institutional critique and reduces the ability for medium and large museums to claim they can be more than tourist attractions.
The work at ACMI continued and sometime this year, soon even, everyone will be able to experience the fruits of all that labor. If you’re curious, the marketing team at ACMI have been doing a great job keeping the Re/New website updated with design, demolition, and construction activities, but there’s still quite a lot of ‘unrevealed’ things yet to come.
There was a lot of staff change in the office too with quite a few of my colleagues leaving and new people coming in. Big multi-year projects always have phases and organizations shift as those phases arrive like waves and then pass. Part of the work inevitably involves letting those waves break in the least destructive ways possible and riding their wakes in useful directions. I miss working with some of the people who’ve left but I’m also excited by the new faces arriving.
At this stage - a handful of months away from opening - it’s also a bit of a personal battle to stay committed to the path and back the core design, content and experience principles that have now been baked, coded, and physically built into the fabric of what lies ahead. Being so close to the project it’s very easy to get distracted by all the choices made, and undermined by pre-emptive hindsight. Overall the core ideas are as strong as they were four years ago when they first appeared in a masterplan - even if some of the peripheral ideas have been shed or have evolved. Keeping the faith - at least until the doors are opened and you discover that visitors love/hate it - is what is necessary.
The newsletter got me back into reading books end-to-end. On the fiction front, Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail was pretty much perfect for me, sitting as it does at the intersection of dystopian technology and a backdrop of Bristol, whilst on the non-fiction front I throughly enjoyed Robert MacFarlane’s Underland along with short dives into different aspects of Tokyo through Anne Sherwan’s Bells of Tokyo and Lorraine Plourde’s Tokyo Listening.
My good friend, activist and educator, Juha van’t Zelfde who runs Progress Bar came over and stayed at our place mid year and we talked music and politics and art. As he left he bought each of my family a book. He got me a copy of Max Porter’s 2015 debut short novel Grief Is The Thing With Feathers - which was a spectacular strange read (and apparently has now been ‘theatricalised’). Juha explained to me that Max is actually Roly Porter’s brother - Roly who makes intense atmospheric bass music and used to be half of Vex’d, a Bristol duo that Luke and I played with way back in 2007. Small world. Anyway, Max’s second book, Lanny, came out during the year too and is in a lot of my friends’ best of lists.
Ian Anderson’s A to Z of The Designers Republic was everything the Kickstarter promised to be, an almost definitive catalogue of one of my favourite graphic designers of the 1990s, whilst I had enjoyable side diversions into books on videogame typography, Letraset, and Chris McDowell’s fantastic data visualisation atlas of Aotearoa We Are Here.
This year I listened to the most music I’ve listened to in a year since I started fastidiously tracking my listening habits back in 2006. Not only was more music listened to, the number of different artists I’ve listened to rose by 10% over 2018, and double the diversity of 2015’s listening patterns. Given that I don’t, on principle use Spotify, I’m not quite sure what caused this rise in different artists - perhaps I listened to more compilations this year?
Maybe I got caught up in a lot of the 1990s nostalgia this year - both of reissues of, and homages to, the early 1990s UK hardcore continuum - it was all those artist pseudonyms from the ‘faceless techno bollocks’ period?
Even as it becomes more difficult for small emerging acts to release music and recoup any money from them, the wilds of Bandcamp have been a great place to make new discoveries, so an alternative explanation might be that it was all those new discoveries made there?
The newsletter covered a lot of the week to week musical obsessions of the year, and I hastily assembled a few albums for the annual Cyclic Defrost list.
Anatolian Weapons & Seirios Savvaidis – To The Mother Of Gods (Beats In Space)
This collaboration between Anatolian Weapons, a DJ/producer better known for his quirky dancefloor productions and Greek folk singer Seirios Savvaidis was a lovely surprise. It reminded me a lot of mid 1980s eclectic dance music that worked in teh ’space between’ rather than settling into anything particular genre. Each time this would come on at home, I’d immediately recognise the basslines, and have to hit repeat.
As One – Communion (De:Tuned)
Kirk DeGeorgio returned this year with a throwback to his mid 1990s alias As One, with a sterling set of heavily Detroit-influenced dreamy ambient techno that wouldn’t be out of place of Warp around that period, or, for that matter, the covers of 1970s pulp science fiction novels.
Deadbeat & Camara – Trinity Thirty (Constellation)
Berlin-based dub techno producer Deadbeat doing a cover-version of the Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions – recorded for Montreal’s Constellation Records? Yep. With vocalist Camara this album was the sound of Winter for me.
Basically two halves of the same album, Superbloom and Bridges are two excellent EPs of loop-based hip hop beats and jazz piano. Deceptively simple and earwormingly constructed, they’re perfect summer listening.
Tenesha the Wordsmith – Peacocks & Other Savage Beasts (On The Corner)
Oakland’s Tenesha the Wordsmith’s debuit with electronic beats by DJ Khalab was a fiery slam poetry that was a worthy follow up to a eries of excellent guest spots and EPs of past years.
Shida Shahabi – Shifts (130701)
Stockholm-based cellist Shida Shahabi put out one of several excellent albums released this year on Fat Cat’s offshoot 130701. It was a toss up between this and Ian William Craig’s new duo with Missy Donaldson called Minor Pieces.
It wasn’t the most well thought through list - I was rushed for a deadline - and it ignored a lot of other things that got binged on during the year. But its a good enough place to start.
Now the kids are older it’s much easier to get out to live gigs. Sometimes they even come along. The first six (of twenty nine) gigs that I went to this year were all headlined by women - Mary Lattimore, Julia Holter, Neneh Cherry, Gwenno, Maarja Nuut & Ruum - while the last five of the year were all men - Chino Amobi, Steve Gunn, Robert Henke, Andy Stott and DAF. Quite a few of the gigs this year would have benefitted greatly from better production - not so much in the sound department but from more sympathetic venues and an investment in smart lighting and video. A few extra dollars on the ticket price would have made for a considerably more fun experience.
If you’re missing all the links I usually send and want to see if I’ve changed over the years, here’s some previous years’ wrap ups - 2018, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 - in lieu, at least for the time being, of a decade in review.
Happy new year. Stay safe.
PS - This post is full of links. Which you’d know if you clicked them. But I’ve collated them all here in case you want to cut and paste them to your browser instead because then they won’t activate the tracking codes.