Writing in the Age of New Media

19 November 2011 @ Fremantle Arts Centre

Presented by the Centre for Culture & Technology (CCAT) @ Curtin University and Fremantle Arts Centre

Welcoming Address by Robert Briggs

Greetings, and, on behalf of my co-convenor Niall Lucy and myself, as well as Fremantle Arts Centre, I’d like to welcome you all to today’s proceedings. We’re delighted that you can be here on this fine day, to engage in what is sure to be some very interesting discussion about writing, art and ideas, and to enjoy the other attractions that feature not only in today’s program but also in unrelated exhibitions throughout the Centre.

I hesitate for a moment to call today’s event by its name, by the name it was given at some point in the course of its conception and organisation; by the name used in official (and therefore binding) memoranda of agreement signed by Fremantle Arts Centre’s Jim Cathcart, Niall and myself, thereby obliging each party to take responsibility for different aspects of the nominated event; and by the name under which the activities that are to unfold today have been advertised in various promotional materials, such as flyers, posters, emails and even the odd newspaper write up.

I hesitate to call this event by its name because I’m not sure it has a name, to the extent that the event or events we are participating in this afternoon appear to have at least two titles. For me, as for a great many people here at this very moment, today’s event is called ‘Control Zed: Writing in the Age of New Media’. However, there are at least one or two people in the room, I’m sure, who consider themselves to be attending an event called ‘Control Zee: Writing in the Age of New Media’.

Zed and Zee: the difference perhaps seems trivial, and my acknowledgement of it wilfully perverse—or, worse, unhelpful and stubbornly philosophical. It’s merely indicative of the un-extraordinary, hence insignificant fact of linguistic variation, the everyday existence of regional accents and of differing pronunciations of what are, essentially, the same words. Hardly the kind of difference that would have us throwing our arms up in the air and saying, ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’.

Yet, for some people—though I readily admit not to being amongst them—there is something quite significant at stake—morally or culturally or even politically—in the difference between ‘Zed’ and ‘Zee’. For some, that is, were an Australian citizen or individual to opt for ‘Zee’, even more so were they to do it without a moment’s thought, this pronunciation would be indicative of a broader social problem: an insidious cultural imperialism, an Americanisation of the Australian vernacular, hence of Australian culture, hence a threat to Australianness as such. In this view, ‘Zee’ stands with ‘fries’, ‘restroom’, ‘diaper’, trashcan’, ‘gasoline’, ‘sidewalk’, ‘soda pop’ and ‘Zip code’ (alongside many other ‘Americanisms’) as linguistic contagions that need to be resisted in the name of preserving the supposed integrity of a national language and a national culture.

Viewed from a less, shall we say, ‘protectionist’ perspective, the dual pronunciation of the last letter of ‘the’ ‘English’ alphabet is indicative, I think, of how writing—even before the invention of television, computers, the Internet—is already a kind of multi-media. On a certain understanding of ‘reading’, that is, the interpretation of written words necessarily entails a passage through the oral medium. Even when we read ‘silently’, ‘in our heads’, the words get sounded out, they are voiced; we hear the words we read, such that writing, as conventionally understood, is never simply a graphic medium.

By the same token, writing’s not purely translatable into speech either, since writing depends on all kinds of non-phonetic materials, such as punctuation marks, spaces, and indentations, for it to work. We don’t ‘read’ a comma or a carriage return, in the sense of sounding them out, but they are no less writing for all that. And, of course, writing has its typographic, even pictographic qualities, too. As demonstrated by the visual poetry of the literary and art worlds, as well as over a century of logo and graphic design in the field of advertising, writing is a form of visual communication, always possessing pictorial qualities whose ‘meanings’, while undoubtedly processed or interpreted in some way, are never quite read in the ordinary sense of the term.

All these complications deriving from the letter ‘Z’ (or ‘Z’)—and still there’s the question of our title’s use of that strange abbreviation ‘C t r l’, a not-quite-word which depends on a familiarity with computer keyboards to be recognisable as an abbreviation in the first place. Such familiarity amounts to a kind of specialist knowledge—a minimal expertise, to be sure, but one which nevertheless potentially leaves audience members of a certain demographic, perhaps, literally unable to say what today’s function is called.

Let’s not forget, too, that for an increasing number of would-be attendees ‘Ctrl’ is altogether the wrong word, or certainly a strange one, since the ‘ctrl’ key on their keyboards doesn’t really have much of a function at all. ‘Command-Z’ or ‘Apple-Z’ would undoubtedly be a far more appropriate title as far as these readers are concerned. And so not only does our title serve as a potential battlefield over cultural and linguistic value, but we’ve gone and marginalised Mac users too—even though we ourselves count among them! (Our apologies to all who have been unduly aggrieved.)

If deciding a name for today’s event is no simple matter, then what of the event itself? Of what kind of event are we in the midst, for instance? The promotional materials promise an ‘arts symposium’, while Niall and I have variously referred to it, in addition, as an ‘arts event’ and an ‘intellectual festival’. From the beginning, the intention has been to organise something that is not quite an intellectual symposium, not quite an art exhibition, and—particularly—not quite a writers festival.

Indeed, today’s event was originally imagined as a kind of anti-writers festival. Not because either of us has any beef with writers or is against writing. On the contrary! Little could be closer to our hearts than writing in all its varieties and purposes. The sentiment and impetus for something like an ‘anti-writers festival’ derives for us, rather, from the prevalence of the particular concept of writing that always seems to underpin traditional writers festivals. Such events are routinely organised around a particular conception of writing as, predominantly, realist narrative fiction, and around an idea of the writer (or author) as uniquely positioned to comment not only on their own work but also on any number of issues, both spiritual and worldly.

To what extent, though, does such an image of writing capture either the actuality or the possibilities of writing today? To quote from today’s program guide: ‘In the age of personal computers, the Internet, mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, Word, Photoshop, SMS, email, desktop- and e-publishing, blogging and fan fiction, autocorrect and track changes, who—or what—is a writer? While the means and opportunities for writing are seemingly forever multiplying, can the same be said for the ways in which we think about what we call ‘writing’, or what we call ‘a writer’? How, today, does writing take shape: how is it produced, published, distributed and read? How might we account for cultural anxieties over the ill-effects or improper uses of new writing technologies (illiteracy, plagiarism, piracy, cyberbullying), and how might we imagine new ways of thinking about creativity, technology and communication?’

It’s these questions that we hope to explore today, not only by way of what gets ‘said’ (so to speak), but also through the design of the event itself and all of its components. Traces of an audio-visual, interactive, multi-media dimension appear across the various components of the day’s events.

As you will see from the program guide, the proceedings are structured around three panel sessions, discussing a broad range of issues related to the event’s theme. We’re honoured to welcome our distinguished panel members, including interstate and international scholars and artists, Professors Mark Amerika, Darren Tofts and the virtually-present Catharine Lumby, as well as Perth-based academics and writing professionals, Professor Suvendrini Perera, Dr Anne Surma, Dr Tama Leaver, and Mr Clive Newman. These panel sessions are intended to be interactive, with brief talks from panel members to be followed with plenty of time for questions from audience members and general discussion.

In the nearby rooms and passageways, and later this afternoon, in the courtyard downstairs, you will also be able to enjoy complementary exhibitions exploring today’s themes through the media of the visual arts. We’re also very excited to be able to bring you, in the room directly opposite this main room, an exhibition of original art works by Benjamin Forster commissioned for today’s event. Benjamin is a founding member of the Canberra-based interdisciplinary arts collective, Last Man to Die. His previous work—much of which explores questions of writing and new media through computer programming, drawing and installation—has been exhibited at Fremantle Arts Centre, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, and in Canada. In the room next to Benjamin’s exhibition we are also running screenings of original pieces by ‘absent contributors’, including short films featuring performances of two specially commissioned poems by Professor of English and award-winning writer John Kinsella, and a piece by Professor Gregory Ulmer elaborating his concept of ‘electracy’.

We invite you to use the time between the panel sessions to look at these and other works, as well as to chat with our contributors. Towards the end of today’s event, we are fortunate to be featuring a short performance piece by Mark Amerika and Darren Tofts, ‘‘‘And we shall play a game of chess’’’, as well as finishing everything off with live music by The Morning Night and complimentary canapés, plus drink available from the bar. There’s no need to wait until the end of the day to enjoy a drink, though, as we are delighted to inform you that the bar is already open, and situated just down the hall outside at the top of the staircase.

Before you all rush off to grab a drink before the commencement of the main event, allow me once again to welcome you all to what I have now decided to call, without any further hesitation, ‘Control Zed: Writing in the Age of New Media’. We hope you enjoy the day’s proceedings, which will kick off in a few short minutes with our first panel on ‘Writing Media’.