Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Solar punk – inventing an alternative future

“Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter – what shall remain is woven by the poets”. It’s been twenty since I adopted this quote by Hölderlin as a personal motto.
As writers, we keep the fabric of the world together. We are the keepers of tradition, weaving the loose threads of the past into the present. We are also custodians of the present, we give it shape, as witnesses, so that it carries into the future. But writers – and poets, thinkers, dreamers, entrepreneurs, or innovators of all sorts – do more: we propose visions of a potential future, inventing a different world to come. And by doing so, we make it possible.
Building the future starts with a bold act of imagination, rousing our emotions, and driving us towards action. This is a critical task today, as we face the funk of COVID19, while climate change and environmental collapse continue to loom in the background. Luckily there is a growing movement to rally us around an alternative future: solar punk is creating a post-kevlar, post-black-mirror, post-apocalyptic vision of the future, one based on peer-to-peer abundance, and solidarity between humans, nature and machines. Shall we build it?

This post was inspired by a piece on Singularity Hub from my friend and FOGA co-founder @carin Ism, where I contributed a few notes

The Essence of St Kilda (from the archive)

From as long as I can remember, my dream has been to live by the sea. So, it’s not surprising that my first home in Melbourne was in St Kilda. A few weeks after settling on Loch Street, fresh of the boat, I picked up a leaflet for an essay competition: ‘the essence of St Kilda’. I thought – what is there to lose, and took part. As it happens, I got a ‘special mention’. Now that Covid-19 is putting us all in self-isolation, I have been going through my drafts and folders, putting some order into them. I thought I might share this relic from early 2009, a recent migrant’s take on St Kilda. 

What is the essence of St Kilda? The competition leaflet invites me to “tell us your story” – but I’m a Frenchman, and I need clearer guidelines. I’m not satisfied with anything so vague. A story is not an essence. A story will have characters involved in a plot, and therefore time passing, and change. Essence, on the other hand, involves a stable intellectual object, open to manipulation, exchange, diffusion. I will therefore not engage in a digressive personal narration. I will use my logic instead. I shall articulate, clarify, and establish intellectual boundaries. I want sharp naming; anything looser is boredom. As far as writing is concerned, I hate frills and blurs. I will distinguish categories, and sieve my experience through them.

As an overture, I reach for my beloved partner, the French-language dictionary. Yes, I like understanding the world with help of a reference book. I try “St Kilda,” but it does not appear in the proper nouns section – it’s a French dictionary, no wonder – but then I think, if it’s about the “essence” of St Kilda, should I maybe look up “essence” in the list of entries, and seek inspiration among the common nouns?

Under “essence” I read: “Essence: ce qui constitue la nature d’un être,” that which constitutes the nature of a being. Synonym: nature, substance. So is it nature, then? The opposite of culture? If essence is not cultural, then what is St Kilda, naturally? Should I mention the hill, how steep it is, how high it rises above sea-level? Or should I focus on the soil, the mineral truth of the place – clay, stone, sand? On the complex relationship of hill and swamp, on the cycle of water running down into the sea, digging long beds into the ground? Or maybe my essay should focus on ecosystems, identifying the border fencing the domain of the lorikeet inland, and that of the seagull beachwards; or try and understand, interviewing volunteers and specialists, how penguins and water rats interdependently share the rocks of the breakwater?

Doubtful, I read on: “ce qui fait qu’une chose est ce qu’elle est et ce sans quoi elle ne serait pas,” that which makes a thing what it is, in the absence of which it wouldn’t be. That one’s a bit fuzzy, isn’t it? Is the essence of St Kilda about a view of the receding shadows of the coastline, or the Melbourne skyline towering over the north-western horizon? Is it the hookers and syringes of Grey street, or the mansions with their grand Palladian architecture? Is it the kitsch face of Luna Park, or the gaudy tiles on the benches of Acland street? Maybe the place-name itself holds a clue. No “Kilda” patron saint encloses our part of the world in the warm embrace of its benevolence. The ship depicted in bas-relief on the railway bridge at Balaclava station – siren at the prow, thrusting her opulent throat at passers-by – is where the title comes from, although the ship the Lady of St Kilda was herself baptised after a group of islands off the coast of Scotland – and there was no kilt-wearing holy man there, answering calls of “Kilda, Kilda.” St Kilda, whether a deformation of Dutch or Danish, tells a water story, “sweet well,” “reliable spring,” or “place of many waters.” In short, the tritest of all place-names.

Will my dictionary’s third definition yield anything less fuzzy? “Type idéal,” ideal type. Antonym: “accident, appearance.” What then in St Kilda is appearance, accident? What is the real, the true, the core? Is it an intrinsically genteel and worthy part of town, accidentally covered in sleaze? Or is it the other way around? Unless we try a more radical approach, and consider the buildings accidental, arbitrary, and search for essence in the realm of the myth, in Dreamtime older than memory. Then St Kilda could be a resting-place of the whale ancestor, seagull, penguin, some other species. Who knows? Under the Junction corroboree tree, no voices gather, and I fear that the song of the land has been lost.

I read further, unfolding the garland of meanings: “substance odorante volatile produite par certaines plantes et pouvant être extraite sous forme de liquide,” volatile smelly substance, produced by certain plants, that can be extracted in liquid form. The raw material of perfume. So should I identify the smell of St Kilda, like food and wine writers try to encapsulate a complex intimate experience of nose and mouth? Is it eucalyptus and laurel on the streets of the leafy west? Or souvlaki, chips and oil along the stalls of Acland and Fitzroy streets? Is it the smell of continental cakes, a mix of sugar, butter, apple, nut and caramel, or the bitter smell of beer and wine from the pubs? Or is it the salty wafts along the seaside – unless, wait a minute, I can smell undertones of coconut-flavoured sunscreen there, as well.

Back to the dictionary. I skip a definition that identifies “essence” as “species,” and read on to the last one in the list: “hydrocarbure, produit de la distillation du pétrole brut, liquide très volatil, odorant, inflammable,” a product of petrol distillation, volatile liquid, odiferous, inflammable. That sounds promising. They give the following quote: “l’essence est employée comme carburant et comme solvant,” essence is used as a fuel and a solvent. Giving energy, generating movement. What is it that makes St Kilda go around? Is it the slow regular tide of water moving in and out as the moon tightens or loosens its magnetic web? Or the constant ebb and flow of human desire, bringing in daily loads of the young and the old, searching for sex and drugs or the more innocent pleasures of an ice-cream, a restaurant or a concert.

I sit and ponder. Did I actually find anything that I could pinpoint as the very essence of St Kilda? Of course, I could play the existentialist – it’s always easy, being French. I grab a cigarette, pull a long face, and quote a local philosopher. Sartre: “existence precedes essence.” And I see that we’re back at the first definition – a perfect hermeneutic circle! Now we can hop along the meanings, invoke the radical impossibility of ever delineating or defining a living reality without killing it first. And thus, I undermine my initial statement of intent. Heave a sigh, meditate on the weakness of the mind. But then I can proudly stand up to my responsibility: “St Kilda is alive, it’s a historical being. I can’t define its essence, because it’s free to evolve, free to change. St Kilda is not defined by its essence!” (Imagine a serious face here.) I rave on: “I’m a part of it, I define its essence, which my choices and actions will determine. St Kilda is what you want it to be.” How moving! But isn’t all of this a series of dull rhetorical somersaults? In the end, I’ve said nothing specific. Nothing there about St Kilda distinguishes it from Prahran, Caulfield, or even Fitzroy North. And if everything you can say about St Kilda also applies to Fitzroy North, then you probably haven’t understood much about the place.

I ditch the dictionary. I explore another path. I adopt Aristotelian style, defining things by specific difference and genre. St Kilda is (genre) a suburb. It is the terminus of tram-lines 96 and 112. No line ends in the centre of the CBD. There is nothing beyond St Kilda. But it’s not a self-standing urban community. It is situated within a continuous built environment. It is part of a metropolis – named after its original central hub, Melbourne. St Kilda differs from other suburbs in the world, by belonging to unique Melbourne – four seasons in a day, multiculturalism, lorikeets and cafe culture, etc. But what distinguishes it from other suburbs in Melbourne? What makes it not Albert Park, Footscray, Prahran or Box Hill? Does it serve a unique role in the metropolis or is it generic – distinguished only by accidents of history, identifiable only by administrative boundaries?

In terms of urban planning it stands out. None of its streets are straight, they’re all diagonal. St Kilda is not aligned with any other suburb, it refuses the sprawling symmetry. While the north expands towards the open desert of the dry continent, the streets of St Kilda all end at other streets. There is no perspective here towards anything but the bay. The city blocks the suburb on all sides. And yet, it’s not a seaport, either. It is not a place where goods are exchanged, where the riches of the land embark on their international journey, converting into cash, where docker muscle hauls heavy bags of exotic products to the ground. Oh no, the naked bodies on this beach are gym-fit, and the boats harboured along the jetty are yachts. There’s no warehouse here, no machinery, cranes or towboats. Not even a fishing fleet: just a lonely ferry crossing over to Williamstown, loading and unloading gaggles of leisure-weary travellers.

Moreover, there are no banking headquarters, industrial zones, or even a customs house. Nothing is manufactured or imported, here; there’s no-one to conduct wholesale transactions. It’s not a place of trading or legislating. It is not even a retail hub! Acland is not Chapel street. It has only a few shops, and most of them have cakes instead of clothes in the window. When I moved to St Kilda, arriving fresh off the boat, wanting furniture, a fridge and a pressure-cooker, I drove up to Windsor, Prahran and Richmond. After that I came back, unloaded everything into the house, and headed to Fitzroy street, enjoying a well-deserved alfresco dinner, and watching passersby. People come to St Kilda in search of entertainment. At night or during the day, all they want is a drink, food and terraces. Relax, enjoy, experience. It’s a place of pure spending. Ultimate consumption, of which only memories remain, a souvenir restaurant card, a receipt in the wallet. A glimmer in the eye, a shiver; nothing tangible, stackable, hoardable.

Now at last a pattern appears, a recurring key-signature that orders the polyphony of meanings. Is not entertainment the specific difference of St Kilda? This is not where people come to work, rest, or gather, but relax, enjoy and spend. When I told a friend I was moving here he said, amused: “oh, the Bohemian place!” But the same adjective applies to suburbs in the north, and there are other places for entertainment. People go to Chapel and Lygon street. What makes St Kilda not a Fitzroy or a Northcote? One thing is clearly different, and initially drew me to the suburb: collective housing, apartments. And thus no worm-farms, compost or home-grown veggies, no heaps of messy uselessness in sheds. In the same way as the north is earthy, grounded, and dreams of autonomous valley-style growing communities, recycling everything, and not daring to discard, St Kilda is open to the sea, bringing in riches from elsewhere, and throwing away the old, used and worn. The riches produced in the whole state come and mingle in Melbourne in order to be exported and alchemically transmuted into gold in the mysterious operations of harbour cities. In the process, a part of the wealth is diverted along St Kilda road, and as it reaches the pleasurely south-eastern hill it flies off, in a bonfire of sheer loss, invested in the sweet bottomless well of women, drugs, and alcohol, or in the lighter vanities of Luna Park and restaurants.

St Kilda relies on excess, on cash-burning, on idle spending. It relies on the abundant riches that are offered and sacrificed here. St Kilda makes a necessity of the superfluous, acknowledging it as essential to mental balance. One can’t constantly recycle and re-use, because man is not only born of earth and toiling and drought; we also depend on salty waves, irregular flows and miraculous catches. But with excess comes risk and potential destruction. Which applies here, in St Kilda: people will tell you: be careful, muggings at night, Irish backpackers, booze and fights, I wouldn’t live there, broken bottles on the pavement; and what about kids, you know, syringes. Hence the thrill, but it has a toll. Erring along Fitzroy street, asking for drug money, shouting at each other in front of the Gatwick, are the shipwrecked victims of the pleasure cruise. Distracted out of their way – whether drink has softened their brains or sleaze has tainted their souls. But these alcoholics and druggies are welcome here, somehow, part of the landscape; even if every cent they beg is burnt on something mind-numbing, they’re still supported, forgiven. Forgiven much, because they love much.

Is it a Christian place, then, our beloved suburb? A place of gospel-driven transformation of water into wine, and the pouring of perfume over our head? Excessive, abundant, out of control. Preaching “you’re alive, so live – love is all that matters!” Grey street has it all, the short-skirted ladies making a business of love, and the green statue of Christ on the church of the Sacred Heart, extending his all-embracing arms over the hill, offering love as generously and simply as the prostitutes beneath. I saw them marching down Fitzroy street after the gay waterpolo team in the Pride march, banners above them saying “St Kilda Sex Workers: an essential part of our community.” An young boy among them – hot body, gorgeous face – was wearing a t-shirt that read: “why be poor?” Why indeed? After all, who knows, a messiah may well multiply fish and bread for us. And if we count our pennies, sourly restricting ourselves, who knows if a resenting god won’t punish our lack of trust, spoil our hoarded manna, leave us destitute of bread and money – with no memories of pleasure to relish and heaps of rotten fruit on our shelves?

Here, then, lies the essence of St Kilda: it’s a suburb of Melbourne directed towards sheer consumption and excess of life. And that’s a satisfying achievement, a workable definition of its essence. A bit dry, though. So what if – final somersault – we returned to other definitions of essence? What if the essence of St Kilda was just a volatile, flammable liquid, a subtle perfume that fills you with energy and dissolves your pain? As water tossed by waves on the shore dissolves into bubbles of foam, then lifts itself, delicate, through the air on the seaside, a gentle caress on passing faces. It sticks to the skin, a patch of iodine and dreams, quickly evaporating. Nothing left behind, only the taste of the possible. Only the phantom of a sea-something – serpent, seagull or siren – mouthing “you bear my mark now, I’m the goddess of beauty, foam-like, and my touch has made you the salt of the earth.”

Writing as entrepreneurship

A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.

From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.

Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .

An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.

How to bring together a digital community?

An old colleague of mine at Marco Polo Project reached out the other day for advice. He’s now tutoring at Melbourne University, in a subject with a lot of Chinese students. With the Covid-19 madness, a lot of them are stuck in China. He was looking for ways to improve their experience, and give them a sense of community through digital channels. It was a great way for me to think through questions that had been bubbling in my head for a while, and I thought I might share them in a blog post.

What I soon realised is, we’re prone to think in terms of ‘what’s the thing I should do’, when the better question would have a plural object, and focus not one the one thing, but the set of complementary actions that will work together as a system. So, I said, let’s think of the type of encounters and exchanges that happen in a campus experience, and how to replicate this online.

  1. It’s important to develop a loose sense of ‘emotional community’. We feel connected with our classmates simply because we’re in the same room and the same building at the same time for so long. So, I suggested he set up a dedicated channel on WeChat simply to build a sense of connection. A place to post selfies and photos of the classroom or campus, and encourage cheerful exchange of memes and joyful messages – what we called a ‘Dionysian channel’ for extraverted connection.
  2. Most LMS are their own circle of hell, but tutors or fellow students can remind you what the deadline is, reshare the readings, assignments or links. That’s important, it gives a sense of structure and safety. So, I suggested that should be reproduced online, but in a very different place from the first channel – one where, essentially, whatever comes first is what’s due next, and you can easily find past references in an archive, without scrolling through thousands of dancing unicorns.
  3. What brings a group together is not just that everybody feels part of the same community. The mesh of connections between people, and all the gossip and drama that comes with it, is just as important. Those lateral relationships develop in all sorts of ways – quick chats outside the room, group assignments, discussions in class, student clubs and cafeteria habits. To replicate this online, I suggested a ‘speed-dating’ system: once a week or so, during consultation hours for instance, students will be invited to make three video call of 15 minutes each with 5 minute intervals, with three people from their cohort assigned at random, and discuss a question related to the course. This to get new perspectives, possibly make new friends, or even give space for gossip.
  4. We form some of our most important friendships and lifelong bonds at university. There’s pre-filtering at play. We’ve chosen the same subject, matched our timetables, live in the same city. Statistically, we’re likely to find compatible people in our cohorts. And spending time with those people we ‘click’ with is extremely important. We do that spontaneously after a while, but assigned tasks and hours spent together anyway are an important way to deepen the relationship. One way to get this to happen is to increase peer-work – for instance, by increasing the rate of pair-work or small group work, and encouraging students to do it on video calls.
  5. A university campus is a chaotic place. On the way to class, you pass a young couple with pink hair and piercings, someone with glasses playing with a drone, a Marxist protest for animal rights, and a poster advertising the next medieval cosplay gathering. Not all of that may be for you, but it stretches your brain, so to speak. There’s the stuff you go to once, and never return to. And then there is the serendipitous encounter that sets your life in a new direction. So, I proposed that one way to do that was to create channels with themes – the future of medicine, cool piercings, sci-fi movies, etc – and invite interested to join as part of the first channel. Nothing compulsory, just a regular pop up among the flow of unicorns, to keep the brain stimulated.


I’ll be curious to see what other people are doing to keep communities together as Covid-19 reduces in-person social gathering. If any of this makes sense to you, or you’d like to share what you’re doing – please, leave a comment!

On narrative experiences

Our current conception of music distinguishes three main figures: the composer, the performer, and the listener.

In Music, Nicholas Cook interrogates the Western construct of ‘music’ as an historically and geographically determined cultural experience. As I read his book (I’m up to chapter three), I wonder about writing as an art form. In particular, I wonder to what extent our current understanding of ‘writing’ echoes industrial production models. The writer is the ‘primary producer’ of a good (the book, the article), packaged and transported by intermediaries (editors, publishers, booksellers), and eventually purchased by customers (the readers). With this model as a background, we fight for the right of ‘writers’ to be paid in proportion to the quantity they produce – alternatively using word count or number of copies as a basis to calculate their share.

This framework has always struck me as dated and deceptive. Value chains are significantly more complex, involving layers of direct and indirect benefits, social, symbolic and financial. In addition writers don’t  produce goods in the way publishers do. Books and magazines are goods – texts may not be.

So what if we redefined writing as ‘crafting narrative experiences’, using contemporary service industries as a model?What new business model and value proposition could we come up with? What new prospects would that open to rethink the way we pay the writers, and the type of literature we produce?

The Beijing Series

Today, I’m running a poetry translation workshop at Monash University, preparing for a special event at Montsalvat Open Day next week. We’re going to translate pomes by Katie Key’s @tinylittlepoems, written during her stay in Beijing, known as ‘the Beijing series’

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 6 sept.

We are just passing through. With our mouths full of words. With our sleeplessness keeping us dumb. #tinylittlepoem from Hong Kong airport

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 7 sept.

I am not brilliant white. I am fumbled, tongue tied & lost in translation. I make songs with the sounds of my words. a #tinylittlepoem

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 8 sept.

Our fragile devices, these pieces of glass, the fingerprints left of ourselves. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 9 sept.

Childless, I am less than woman here – the shapes I make. Homeless, in the absence of my lines. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 10 sept.

Dragon-bourne and read, a two-forked tongue, a way with words. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 11 sept.

I am stuttered. The words come out on the page, not the world, & nobody hears them but me. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 12 sept.

The way the trees hold tight to the smoke haze, greying the avenues, softening the skies. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 13 sept.

A question of water, of art and of air – a question of who we might be. a #tinylittlepoem from China for the @mpoloproject

De l’audace, toujours de l’audace: on creative work and risk

‘De l’audace, toujours de l’audace’ said French revolutionary Danton. His statue figures at the Odeon corner, not far from where I studied in Paris, and I often repeated his words to myself as I passed it. It’s one French trait I have carried with me to Australia, and I have tried to reflect on this part of my heritage.

I recently joined a reflective dinner at Hub Melbourne, where the conversation skimmed over the usual topic of corporate drain vs unpaid creative work, and how to reconcile both. I proposed a different interpretation of the facts, saying that creative work is not ‘underpaid’, but carries a very high level of risk. I was apparently the only one to really believe in that line – and yet I had some evidence to support me. The richest woman in Britain, as far as I know, made her money writing Harry Potter. She took a risk – and won. Many writers fail and remain poor, not because the world ignores their value, not even because they dramatically lack talent – but through the multitude of factors that make any risky venture succeed or fail, and which the classics called luck or fortune. Making large amounts of money from a book, a work of art, or any creative production, is partly talent, partly hardwork, partly good judgement, and partly simple fortune – like making good money from a cycle of the spice trade, on a rough sea.

The point I’m making here does not deny that there may be multiple cases of exploitation, whereby a publishing or producing body absorbs most of the benefits and transfers all risk to the creative agent, but doesn’t share benefits in the same proportion, or keeps them willingly misinformed about the nature of the agreement. More should be said about a fair distribution of risk and benefits across actors in the creative industries – but I believe the inherent risky nature of creative work is a premise that all discussions in this area should integrate. And the recurring ‘pay the writer’ issue could be reframed, at least partly, within the framework of insurance and mutual (financial and personal) risk sharing across the profession.

This is an ongoing theme of reflection for me, and I’ll be coming back to it in further posts – meanwhile, please feel free to comment or disagree – I’m putting this forward as a proposal – it may be quite off the mark.

Honey Pot – how a project came to life.

Four years ago, I wrote the script of a short gay film that would show two men dancing in a public toilet. My friend Nghi, whom I’d met by chance at a screenwriters meetup, was interested in the storyline, and offered to produce it. We gathered a small team, found a location, negotiated hard for a permit, and shot the whole thing three and a half years ago. The film screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was later selected for the Verona and Mumbai Queer Film Festivals.

Two years ago, Nghi decided to put Honey Pot on youtube. We were not going to sell it, and had exhausted the festival circuit. A month later, our film had received over 10,000 views – and we were exhilarated! That was more viewers than fifty festivals. And then the number grew. 50,000. 100,000. Last I saw, we were over 2 million. More people have seen this film than live in South Australia, Stockholm or Dublin – and with 2000 to 3000 views a day, we’ll soon overtake Manchester, Budapest or Vienna.

This is the power of the net. What was just an idea four years ago, with very minimal budget – 3000 dollars, which we’ve since covered through youtube ads – we’ve reached out over 2 million people, generated hundreds of comments, and become part of debates and discussions about male desire, police abuse, and the perception of Asian gay men. We spent no money marketing or promoting the piece – it resonated enough with people that they sent a link or told their friends about it.

This little video, and the story of its online success, is one of my great pleasures. When I doubt about the success of my current projects – I think back on Honey Pot, and how, within four years, a few words on a page became images seen by over 2 million people over the world. It’s happened, it could happen again. It’s taken time, other things will. And if all fails, at least, I’ve made this little film, which people have enjoyed. It’s also taught me something else: many viewers were in countries I never thought of – Indonesia, Philippines, even Saudi Arabia. There’s an audience beyond the North Atlantic – and maybe we should think of them when we shoot, write, paint, or edit. At least, from now on, I do!

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet – here’s the video. If you like it – send a link to your friends!

Afterthought on crowd-sourcing

In the previous post, I talked about how the bet behind the Marco Polo Project is that there is a demand for reading original Chinese voices in translation, rather than news about China.

I realise, after some reflection, that the model for Marco Polo rests on a paradox. That I trust the online crowd to bring across these individual voices, rather than water down the selection and translation, so that everything and everyone will sound the same.

Am I taking an absurd leap of faith?