Collaborative remembering

I didn’t know him very well. Damon Loren Baker, who recently passed away. The news, however, was devastating. I met him briefly in Bergen in 2015 – totally focused on his own world, preparing something related to the exhibition, I think, but we managed to have a nice chat even if he was becoming increasingly distressed. Then a few years passed. He was such an intriguing presence on Facebook, where we intermingled in the usual spaces of common friends, shared complaints and moments of awe, and sometimes grumpy comments. He tended to appear and disappear from Facebook, in his better moments sharing his insights and inspirations, sometimes in a rather idiosyncratic manner, that apparently was hiding deep internal thought currents, not always easily making it to the surface. When I moved to Winona last August to teach there as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence in Creative Digital Media program at Winona State University, my sincere awe by all things Midwestern became a ground that linked us a bit closer. I don’t know if he expressed it on other occasions, but he apparently seemed to like my penchant for the region that for many people is just a ‘fly over country’. It never was such a place to me. Soon I became totally enchanted and in love with open space, the Great Muddy, bluffs, slow pace of Midwestern life, in synch with Mississippi’s unhurried current, beautiful trees around Winona Lakes, sincere, honest and friendly people (even if sometimes a bit distanced), difficult history, Native American barely discernible but strongly felt presence, my friends: Talan Memmott, Davin & Carrie Heckman, Małgosia Plecka, awesome colleagues at Mass Communication Department WSU, and wonderful Zen Dharma River Sangha, as well as my dreams about eagles – in short, everything that kept me non-judgmental and eager to learn more about the place that quickly became a second home far from home, even if just for 4 months. So whatever appreciative I posted about “my” Midwest, Damon was usually quick to comment on or just nod, apparently glad I came to like the region so much.

Then I got back home, things started to get increasingly stressful as I was desperately trying to cope with all the (far too many) obligations at my own university upon arrival and then COVID-19 pandemic fast approaching (yes, we could have seen it coming from afar, unbelievable how we had not been aware until it became too late – in my case, too late to secure the access to my own garden located 3 km across the Polish-Slovakian border, which made me suffer tremendously throughout the whole 4-month lockdown). Anyway, just on the day my university closed down and the possible national borders closure was announced (12 March 2020) Damon approached me with what was to become our last conversation in Facebook messenger.   I’m quoting here the parts of it:

Zrzut ekranu 2020-07-15 o 22.28.00Zrzut ekranu 2020-07-15 o 22.29.01

Zrzut ekranu 2020-07-15 o 22.29.27Zrzut ekranu 2020-07-15 o 22.30.24

I wish we had a chance to continue this conversation. On this day I was exhausted after a very long day of class meetings (it was to become the last day of class meetings as we knew it) interrupted by the loudspeakers announcing that we should immediately leave the building due to the pandemic (until now I don’t know why it was SO urgent back then that the administration ordered us to leave the building in the emergency mode), frightened by the unknown looming on the horizon, torn apart between the sudden impulse to run away (where?) and keep close to my family and friends… But I remember how refreshing this conversation was. How inspiring. Like the gasp of fresh air (much needed then and during 4 months to come) in the middle of the infamous winter in Kraków, where we suffocate from the air pollution exceeding all standards, on a pair with the most toxic Chinese cities. In a way, I am going to continue this conversation at some point. File under: writing projects to follow at the nearest opportunity.

So that’s how I ended up in the Zoom event, so generously and genuinely organized by Caitlin Fisher and attended by Damon’s friends and colleagues. The circumstances of his sudden and tragic demise are dire. We were sitting on three continents, across time zones, remembering Damon, shares scraps of stories and memories, reading aloud his Facebook comments and messages. I was listening to his friends who knew him longer and better than I did and it was as if we collectively woven his story, stitching the bridges to bring him out of an abyss, gradually seeing him emerge, it never was an abyss to start with, we’re keeping him as alive, as angry and warm in heart, as generous with words and ideas, as caring for people, as messy, crazy, infuriating, clever, brilliant, and ingenious, as always. Here’s what left of him out there (thank you, Jason Nelson for digging it out and sharing):

 

 

http://mechanicalforestsound.blogspot.com/2017/08/recording-damon-loren-baker.html 

http://www.isea-archives.org/symposia/isea2011/isea2011-presentations-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-3-3-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-3-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-147/

Click to access ISEA2011_Proceedings_Pgs_1804-2691.pdf

Damon’s Github: https://github.com/dlb 

The unknown is gonna stay longer with me, after Polish Sunday’s presidential elections won by the Central European grotesque Bolsonaro cum Trump, openly opting out for the nationalist authoritarian state, supporting open discrimination against LGBTQ, immigrants, intellectuals, and open-minded people.

I think I know what would Damon say. Time to reinstate Flying Universities.

Thank you, all.

IMG_0095 2

IMG_0097 2IMG_0096 2

 

VR Narratives: A Workshop in VR, about VR

The pandemic semester was absolutely crazy, I barely had time to attend to all the obligations related to my teaching and other administrative work (contrary to what you might think, academic work of an associate professor can be sometimes mundanely and insanely bureaucratic). Anyway, it is (almost) over now, so I can dedicate a bit more time to my own research. An excellent opportunity presents itself with the yearly Electronic Literature Organization Conference. The one we’re just about to begin was supposed to be held in Orlando, Florida, USA. It’s gonna be the first Virtual ELO Conference instead, held entirely online, including the exhibition, performance program, and the live virtual engagement sessions. The asynchronous program is freely available, but to get most out of this wonderful conference, you can consider registering and paying a small ELO membership to get access to plenaries, live workshops, and events, and first and foremost, to our Discord server where all the social life has moved (there is even The Pub where we’re convening at weird hours considering all the time zones the participants of this truly global event inhabit.

Anyway, my first active participation is on Thursday (11 am ET / 5 pm CET) – I have the pleasure to participate in the workshop VR Narratives: In VR, About VR, held in AlspaceVR   along with brilliant researchers and practitioners, including Jill Walker Rettberg, Caitlin Fisher (Director of the York University Augmented Reality Lab), Ilya Szilak ( author of the VR narratives Queerskins: A Love Story and the forthcoming work Queerskins: Ark), Scott Rettberg (co-author of the VR CAVE narrative Hearts and Minds), and Laryssa Whittaker (an audience insight researcher from StoryFutures, the UK’s National Centre for Immersive Storytelling). Join us there with any VR headset, signing up at the conference website . Please follow our code of conduct .

In my short 5-minute presentation I will briefly discuss why we need a critical theory of VR to instigate the robust participatory culture, beyond the mostly industry-driven, ideological fog of immersion surrounding VR. It will be based on the chapter “VR- the culture of (non)participation? Reframing the participative edge of virtual reality.” I have published in this edited volume. I’m making pre-print version available here. Download PDF.

Where is our future?

As it is supposed to be the way of tracking my pace through the time of pandemics, inevitably there will be some ups & downs. Let’s say the latter is the case this week, although I’m not sure anymore how to discriminate between these poles exactly. Even if I somehow managed to upstart (to some extent) my writing process and got gradually invigorated again with what I had put aside a few weeks ago, there are some days when sustained attention does not come easy or is utterly wrecked. Or, I’d rather say, it’s being diverted to some kind of an internal process I can only get a glimpse of. Actually, I’ve always felt my research and writing process seem more a creative endeavor than a properly structured and disciplined inquiry that can be properly designed and managed. This is not to say that I work on a whim or endlessly wait for an inspiration to present itself right in front of my face. However, to some extent, the whole process of playing with concepts, combining different theoretical perspectives and backgrounds, tracing the histories and lines of thoughts, analyzing the media objects or cultural phenomena is not without its pitfalls as well as sudden revelations and insights. Granted, in most cases, the latter is brought by the whole weeks of the ideas being developed behind the scene and arduous work going on in the background – so on the surface, I might be as distracted and absent-minded as any stereotypical academic.  In a way, I always hope that falling again in this distracted mode of being means something is going on behind the curtain of my consciousness. Usually, it is, but you just never know for sure.

So I hope that in reality, I managed to really kickstart this process. Also, it may be unpleasant and really difficult at times. Like when for weeks you can’t find conclusions that would sound relevant enough or adequate or coherent, or you don’t see how to develop some argument beyond the obvious, or you have the impression of going in circles. A bit like a koan practice, I was reminded this week, while attending another class of the course on emptiness by Roshi Paul Genki Kahn (How Empty is Emptiness? – I can’t help but see here a dash of a very specific, barely discernible sense of Zen humor along with a sincere way to study how the concept of emptiness has been developed starting with early Buddhist scripture through philosophical schools of Madhyamika and Yogaćara and then reformulated by Chinese Hua-yen all the way to Zen Garland Order). So this kind of practice provides me with yet another vantage point to better understand my work.

It dawned on me that the most difficult part of it is to let things unfold in their own time and manner, which may sound nice on the surface but requires a lot of courage (as well as trust and patience). And because this week I was again desperately missing my permaculture garden located on the Slovakian side of the border, in a beautiful village Lechnica, gardening became the focus of the week. I stumbled upon a quote that suddenly rang a bell when I was sitting in front of my screen listening to Roshi Genki:

“Change is one of the few things in Nature that is constant – the continual flow of unknowable and unpredictable relationships, which lead to choices, which in turn lead to actions, and which then become events laden with consequences. Thus everything is in constant process of becoming something else. […] In this way one of Nature’s great lessons is revealed if we observe closely and participate consciously in life: knowledge represent our notion of the historical surety of the past; change flows as the ongoing current of the active present, and uncertainty is the womb of future possibility, whether in my garden, a farmer’s field, a forest, or the world at large.”

It comes from this small book:

Chris Maser is better known as an author of The Redesigned Forest, an unconventional forester and designer of sustainable communities. Still, in this book, he manifests his gardening passion and links gardening with a much broader perspective on life, much like I was prompted to do some time ago. (And let’s leave aside, for now, “Nature” here as a construct). Apparently, the part of a process that comes as the most difficult is coming to terms with uncertainty as “the womb of the future possibility” – it has to resonate with this difficult time as well, where so many ordinary, everyday routines and structures we knew and took for granted are suddenly falling apart. Staying with this kind of trouble, to borrow from the famous title, is all about patience, trust, and perseverance. And a supportive community. This reminds me of the reason why I wrote this post in the first place – apart from the fantastic community of fellow Zen practitioners, I have the privilege to belong to a few others.  One of them became invigorated with the discussion on where our future is and how to start imagining it, where the ideas are or why there are not so many ideas about how to proceed and what to do next. Well, I would say there is no shortage of ideas around, but that is not the point. And what my point is, I’ll explain next, maybe earlier than next Sunday.

For now, I’m watching this womb of uncertainty where future possibilities grow:

Linear Process (or let’s decolonize narratives of pandemics)

,The current title of my blog, But where do we go from here? has been inspired by a poem I found in the small book, Follow the Blackbirds by Gwen Nell Westerman:

Linear Process

Our elders say

the universe is a

circle.

Everything

returns to its

beginnings.

But where do we go

from here?

Where are

our beginnings?

Our parents were stripped

of their parents

names, tongues           prayers,

lined up for their meals

clothes               classes tests.

When it was our turn

to come into this world,

they did not know

what family meant

anymore.

They did not

know.

Yet even

from here,

we can

see that the

straightest line

on a map

is a

circle.

 

IMG_4749

Here you can listen to a poet herself reading from this collection (a different poem).

I came across this collection last December, at an amazing bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, when I parted my ways with Midwest and Minneapolis, on my way home from a 4-month Fulbright teaching gig at Winona State University in Winona (Minnesota). I was sure at the time that I would soon be back to further explore the independent bookstores and theatres of Minneapolis (which turned out to be a scenic city notorious for such pleasures) as well as to see old friends across the state of 10 000 lakes, from Duluth to Winona and beyond. I also had other plans in mind: during my stay, I came to develop a keen interest in all things Midwestern (from organic farming in Wisconsin to local scenes of rural art in Minnesota and to the life and times of Mississippi’s ongoing presence in Midwestern economy, literature, and art). My teaching obligations, although moderate and well-planned schedule-wise, didn’t leave me much time. Somehow, I managed to make it to the extensive collection of Midwest-related literature in Darrell E. Krueger library at WSU. There was, however, one domain that I could not really venture into based on literature only (or at least I felt it would not be appropriate and adequate): Native American presence in American society and culture. Throughout my 4-month stay, I managed to find a few connections that could possibly lead to the development of a future network that could one day get me the opportunity to start working on a subject related to indigenous art. I previously wrote an article on connections between electronic literature and vocalization in joiking, based on my experiences with Sami culture. I was also lucky enough to be able to see a bit of Inuit art while visiting Montreal twice (in 2008 and 2018), and I was regularly following Isuma TV, almost since their very beginnings. I was so thrilled upon having heard that they would be hosting Canadian Pavillion at the 2019 Venice Art Biennial, where I later spent a couple of hours watching their movies, including one of my favorites, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk). The whole idea seemed very complicated from the very beginning. For years, I had some other projects underway to focus on so the possible research project around the issues that I was interested in for a long time has been postponed almost ad calendas Graecas. First and foremost, I didn’t want to be neither a sort of a researcher-turned-cultural tourist nor a cultural anthropologist-on-the-go.

I could consider it then almost a lifelong idea that has been very slowly brewing up, circumstances permitting it may or may not come into being. I still don’t have specific questions to ask indigenous artists, and the theoretical framework has not been decided yet. Well, I have something provisionally and very roughly sketched – or rather, I thought I finally got a glimpse of it after having seen Julie Buffalohead’s exhibition in Minneapolis Institute of Art last December. I am also well aware that it is not entirely uncharted area, with quite an extensive list of literature available, most recently this excellent book by Jessica L. Horton. But I have to put the idea back on the shelf again where it will be waiting for better times and fortuitous circumstances (at least until I complete the book I have to write at the moment).

No wonder then that upon seeing the numerous great articles popping up here and there discussing different examples of the historical pandemic outbreaks, most notably the Spanish influenza of 1918-1920, I couldn’t help thinking that a similar form of the end of the world had already happened before to indigenous people across the globe, yet such aspect again gets rarely (if ever) mentioned in the current wave of interest in all things concerning epidemiology and virology. BTW: We’re exploring some of the narratives and imagery surrounding coronavirus in a Facebook group I started here. – Thanks to it, I am sure that I’ve seen the photo illustrating this article accompanying literally every single essay on historical pandemics. So far, I haven’t noticed, however, much reflection on (or even one comparison with) the large-scale outbreaks of smallpox, measles, or typhus that ravaged First Nations of America in consequence of the European conquer (the smallpox epidemics started as early as in 1518). The subsequent waves of diseases killed each time up to 30% of the population. The extensive and well-informed post on Wikipedia on Native American disease and epidemics quotes Yale historian David Brion Davis, stating that “the greatest genocide in the history of man. Yet it’s increasingly clear that most of the carnage had nothing to do with European barbarism. The worst of the suffering was caused not by swords or guns but by germs.” (I traced this quote to the article that appeared on Newsweek in 1991, in the context of AIDS). So asking questions and prophetizing on what’s next after the coronavirus pandemics, we could look back to the history as well – if we were only willing to decolonize our imaginaries and narratives of doom and gloom. The end of the world has already happened in a few places on the globe, and there are societies there which have survived. Why no to ask them what the living after the Apocalypse is like? If they are willing/able to share. I can’t help thinking that our future has been played out several rounds of it already but somehow we still can’t see it.

 

Why?

…because in a year or so I would like to be able to trace this journey. Just to check if I was right about what is gonna come for me and for the communities I belong to.  And for my research that suddenly and unexpectedly became tightly interwoven with the rest of my life. Or, rather, I was abruptly awakened to the fact that it’s always been seamlessly integrated with my everyday reality, only I wasn’t really willing to see it and to acknowledge the consequences. So for quite some time I’ve been desperately trying to establish boundaries between my professional life and my more or less private sphere. At the time it seemed so right and reasonable: not conflating one with the other so that they don’t bother each other too much and I can preserve some space to be someone different here and there. Occasionally these personalities intermingled, usually when I was heading for the performance or when I met people who knew me as a musician and/or as an environmentalist and an avid permaculture gardener. There is some kind of pleasure coming from switching gears and shape-shifting between the worlds that are set apart. Another thing is, any kind of ‘personality’ has always felt oppressive and fixed beyond my taste. But not anymore. I can’t gloss over the fact that writing is at the moment almost impossible, no matter how hard I’m trying to set me on my keyboard and limit the news consumption. And limit my interactions with family (mostly my ailing parents whom I can’t really help now because I can’t visit them out of virological concerns),  friends and communities I belong to, dispersed across continents and networks of communication on which we all became so strongly dependent as of recently (except maybe for the community of my Zen practice where, as we often say, the practice is the space where we stay together).

So I’ve been long neglecting the extent to which my research and teaching is in fact integrated with the rest of my life. Even last year, when I had to undergo quite serious surgery and then spent the whole month on paid leave to fully recover, the business quickly became running as usual. Or so it seemed. I stopped for a bit reluctantly. I noticed, for example, that I’m physically not able to bear the stress of hurrying up. Even chasing the bus seemed beyond my body/mind. Yes, it partly evolved out of the time of recovery regime, when for a couple of months I had to avoid straining myself too much. And these new ways of body/mind became so well integrated within me that I just couldn’t give it up. No matter how urgent things looked like, there was always this red light in my head that often kept slowing me down, sometimes against my conscious will. So no deadline was urgent enough to limit the proper amount of sleep, for instance. And you know what? I noticed that not meeting the deadlines does not incur the end of the world. Nor even the end of cooperation in most cases, if both parties see it as valuable.

Which is not to say I’m reckless or lazy. I’ve been (slowly) learning to respect my own limits. It took me more than a year to notice how unrealistic the timelines of my various endeavors were and I’m still learning the precious art of setting healthy boundaries. I’m de-learning everything I’ve heard, read or was taught on how the proper academic ‘career’ should be like. Granted, it is much easier when you’re tenured (in the country where I’m based we have a slightly different system but in general the postdoctoral degree of habilitation is an equivalent of tenure). Actually, my tenure already came at a price:  the surgery I’ve already mentioned and a couple of months of uncertainty whether it might be cancer. Luckily it wasn’t. The amount of stress I’ve undergone for all the 13 years of my academic career proved to be just insurmountable. And in a great part, it was me who cooked it up for myself. Wait, actually, nope. NOPE. It’s nothing wrong with having plans and wishes to succeed (whatever this success in academia means these days, for me it means to be included in the international networks of likeminded people of a shared field of interests). Nothing wrong with dreams. Rather, all is wrong with an often cruel and inhuman environment where you’re bound to pursue it. Especially, when you’re a female academic from a semi-peripheral country, where higher education and research has never been a priority (if measured by the reality of the level of financing, not the phantasies of consecutive governments’ declarations – the steady level of financing hoovers around 1% of GDP: in 2017 Poland spent 1,03% of GDP on R&D as compared to the average of 2,03 for the whole EU and yes, it increased to 1,21% in 2018 but it is more creative accounting than lived reality), from a family where you’re a first-generation holder of a university diploma (not mentioning PhD), someone who jumped on a bandwagon of a university career in her 30ies (for many reasons, one of which was a grim reality of the economic and social transformation of mid-nineties when you happened to graduate from the university – in pre-EU Poland the unemployment rate at the time was around 15% – and in dire need to support yourself rather than pursue the academic dreams).

So, here I am, associate professor at one of the best Polish universities (which, although occupies the tier of 301-400 in this ranking,  still is one of the two universities mentioned there at all, and earns #338 in this ranking). I’m not a fan of this kind of rankings, but they are often referred to as a (mistaken) measure of quality. The fun fact is that in the latter the Arts&Humanities division (my cohort, at #236) fares slightly better than Natural Sciences (#242), but we’re still being lectured on what waste of the taxpayers’ money we are. Or, wait. In this country, humanities are at the forefront of the current ideological battles and are considered a strategical asset in shaping the so-called “politics of history” and re-installing the proper amount of national pride. Which is nothing to be ecstatic about, if your field happen to be digital culture and new media art.

So, here I am, middle-aged, mid-career associate professor at one of the best universities in this country, famous for its 700-year history and for the fact that it turned down once the job application from no other than Marie Skłodowska-Curie (after she managed to graduate from Sorbonne). My gross salary is roughly 1387,71 EUR (1 498,91 USD) monthly (before taxes) which translates into 16 652,52 EUR yearly (17 986,92 USD), before taxes. This semester I teach 7 courses because my research grant has ended. For 3 years it used to pump up my salary by roughly 500 EUR extra monthly, before taxes – thanks to which I could afford meeting you at international conferences and buying books. Now I need to earn this money myself to keep in touch with my field (yes, I applied already for another grant but you know what it’s like). Each course is one 90-minute class meeting per week. Two courses are at the doctoral programs (one at another university). Normally, my teaching load is 180 hours per academic year, which translates into 6 30-hour courses (90-minute class meeting per week each). I’m required to perform the top-notch research (measured with Scopus-indexed publications and grant projects, whereas I prefer open-access online journals significant for the network of colleagues whose opinions really matter to me and engagement with the international forums fostering meaningful dialogue and mutual learning). I’m the vice-editor-in-chief of a leading Polish journal in cultural studies. I chair the Ph.D. program in the discipline of art studies within Jagiellonian University Doctoral School.

The personal development fund for my whole Institute (around 20 employees) hoovers around 6552 EUR (7700 USD) PER YEAR. It is supposed to cover participation in conferences and publications, among others. Out of this, I can usually count on up to 400 EUR per year (the average international conference registration fee is in the range of 250-300 EUR).  I work on my own equipment. I have access to decent research infrastructure (Sage Premium, Project Muse, EBSCO, etc.). I have access to several platforms supporting online teaching (such as MS Teams, customized Moodle, and, as of recently, Webex). I have an extensive network of wonderful colleagues and friends across academia in Poland, Europe, the United States, and Australia. The range of support I was getting from my direct supervisors throughout the whole 13 years, on different stages of my academic career, varied tremendously. But as of recent, I can say I work in a generally supportive environment – without the support from my faculty, I wouldn’t be able to spend 4 months as Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Winona Stae University (MN) (it deserves the whole separate story here). I guess it is mostly because I’m considered an asset valuable enough – which is OK, I’ve been working hard to get where I am.

I don’t have kids. I have elderly parents to support financially (their income is roughly 600 EUR monthly and both of them suffer from different health conditions, with one of them being in the need of constant care).

I chose to write in English (which is not my native language so occasionally there might be some mistakes in how I surf its waves ) so that the larger group of people could follow (and, hopefully, participate in the discussion here).

I’m not complaining. I’m just summing up and clarifying for myself, where I am at at the turn of March and April 2020. I’m gonna write this journal mostly for myself. To check out in a year, how this road (now and supposedly) ahead has been.  

I was supposed to write a book, and rather quickly, summing up my research project that ended rather abruptly in January 2020. I’ll share this story separately too. I was supposed to write at least two reviews of the books I really dig and wanted to share my thoughts on them.  And as far as I can see on Facebook, I’m far from being the only one who stumbled upon a writer block.

So I’m gonna trace this journey hoping that it will help to kick start the process of writing in general. (My book on post-digital imaging will be in English, as was most of my publications over the last 2-3 years).

I was inspired by the Facebook post that Annette Markham shared one day, reporting her own obstacles with writing. I could totally relate to it and then this urge to somehow chronicle what is happening with me as a researcher these days started materializing.

I do hope I will still be in the capacity to read this one year from now. And I’m really curious where we’d all be, circumstances permitting.