Conferences, Life Writing, Research Creation/Critical Media

RCADE 2019 Talk: Reflections on Critical Media Lab’s CAFKA 2018 ‘Digital Rituals’

Below is a brief ~10 minute talk that I presented at RCADE 2019 at Rutgers-Camden in Camden, NJ as part of a panel called “Infrastructures and Rituals of Trash.” I presented alongside Lai-Tze Fan, Meg Honsberger, and Jason Lajoie. The talk reflected on the Critical Media Lab’s Digital Rituals exhibit that was featured at CAFKA 2018. I blogged about here. And you can read more about it over here and view the computer-generated obits here.



As part of the 2018 CAFKA arts festival in June, the Critical Media Lab ran an interactive exhibit called Digital Rituals. If Lai-Tze’s E-Waste Peep Showfocuses on what happens to e-waste after it has been traded in, Digital Ritualsfocuses on the trade-in and re-contextualizes that process as a ritual. Exchanging a phone is certainly a practice, a routinized activity encouraged and proliferated by planned obsolescence; but it’s a practice that shies away from being ritualized: it’s a practice that hides itself. Among the criteria of rituals outlined by Ronald Grimes in The Craft of Ritual Studies,Digital Ritualsfocused on ritualizing the trade-in through a series of reflective, celebrative, and stylized actions performed by ourselves and by the participants. Organized by Marcel O’Gorman, Meg Honsberger, Jason Lajoie, Julie Funk, Andy Myles, Matt Frazer, and myself, Digital Rituals was a funeral home and service for dead cell phones.  We asked participants to bring in a dead cell phone that had not been traded in. During the in-take, we welcomed participants, offered them our condolences, and then took them through the necessary steps of the funeral process: we took the name of the phone,   took a picture of the phone in a 3D-printed coffin,  created a computer-generated obituary from information about the phone, created a 3D-printed memorialization model, and then said a few words at a garden grave site outside with the 3D models glued to a marble slab. We had promised that we would send the phones to an e-waste disposal, but, curiously, we all kept them for some later unknown project.

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Digital Rituals wasn’t as successful as we hoped. We only had a few participants attend, and even fewer were willing to give up an older phone of theirs. Yet, the few interactions I did have while running the exhibit made me interested in the autobiographical narratives from participants that emerged throughout the funeral home in-take, whether it be from those who gave up their phones or from those who refused to give their phones to us. I became particularly interested in the unexplained reasoning of keeping a phone whose data can no longer can be accessed: Why do some of us keep the phones we keep? What purpose do they serve, especially after the fact that certain materials can no longer power the phones or the data from those phones are uploaded to a computer or transferred to the next phone? Referring to museums that collect and show old technology, Jennifer Gabrys argues that “Electronic memories…give rise to specific modes of electronic waste” (Gabrys 105). But I am thinking of the new modes of electronic “waste” within the home, how they act as a kind of archive or materials waiting to be  archived. To flip Gabrys’s quote around, I found Digital Ritualsto be focused on the specific forms of electronic waste that give rise to specific modes of memory and autobiographical telling.

The autobiographical narratives and disclosures that emerged in Digital Ritualsreflected on their usage of the phone, how they carried it, specific memories and individuals associated with the phone, and how they modded it, if the type of phone afforded this. These narratives reminded me of Anna Poletti’s concept of the “archive of play,” a concept that I keep on returning to for autobiographical narratives or disclosures around media and media consumption practices. I want to quote Poletti at length because there is nuance to the quote worth quoting in full. Poletti writes,

“In referring to “the archive of play,” I here describe the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing…[which result in] a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative…The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated.” (Poletti 113-14)

The “archive of play” opens up auto/biographical material to trash, clutter, digital clutter, and e-waste stored in boxes, material that is never intentionally to be autobiographical but simply generated from play or general use. Everyday uses of phones produce material traces, and the phone itself is a material trace of a specific moment in an individual’s life. Significantly, the material generated from play and use are not always recognized as autobiographical and may never be cherished by the individual, but rather left undisturbed, hidden away in some box in some cupboard, or traded in and forgotten. But that archive of material becomes of value “once an autobiographical project is initiated” by the individual or by others.

For those few participants in Digital Rituals, the process of picking out a phone to hand over to us initiated an autobiographical project, even if the individual ended up keeping the phone. Digital Rituals itself was not an autobiographical project, at least not intentionally so. But I am intrigued by how it was unintentionally an autobiographical project, and how the project resonates with certain ways in thinking about our relation to e-waste and the personal relationship we have with our phones. One participant shared a disclosure about their customized blue casing of their Blackberry curve: she remembers ordering the part, and how it reminded her of a friendship they had during high school and the early beginning of a new relationship. Another participant shared at great length their experience with their first phone: how novel it was to always carry a phone around with you, but that they wore their phone around their neck because it was too bulky to fit in their pocket. Others could tell you exactly where each scratch came from or how their phone shattered, eulogizing the last moments that they had with their phone. These few narratives highlight a specific trend: the autobiographical material that was recalled did not refer to the data and content on the phone; instead, they mention the material components, peripherals, or markings that signal a specific life narrative or disclosure. Some even referred to the functionality of the phone: a collective reflection on the purported newness of a specific phone, such as the Sidekick, or how certain users would develop strategies to get around a broken button or trackball. These disclosures and narratives drew attention to why some people, including myself, kept a phone when the data could be transferred to another. It wasn’t really the data on these phones that coaxed life narratives but rather the material components, peripherals, and functionality that coaxed these narratives, especially as participants tossed and turned the phones in their hands during the in-take.

To wrap things up and pass it over to Meg, I’d just like to conclude with the observation that the autobiographical disclosures and narratives of Digital Rituals that emerged reminded me, and some of us at the Critical Media Lab, of Marie Kondo’s Netflix series, Tidying Up. While different ritualized actions, both Digital Rituals and Tidying Up ask individuals to reflect on their phone and/objects through a series of reflective actions. There is also, as Kylie Cardell argues, an autobiographical aspect to Kondo’s concept of sparking joy. Cardell writes that sparking joy “provides an opportunity for self-conscious as well as discursive constructions of the self as part of a process of editing and crafting a deliberate, intentional representation” (Cardell 500). Whether participants said goodbye to their phones or kept them, Digital Rituals made participants reflect on and conscious of the autobiographical value of their domestic e-waste sites. The personal collections of dead cell phones are an archive that is, to borrow a phrase from Gabrys, “more akin to a disorderly waste site” (Gabrys 119). Yet,these saved electronics stored in boxes have autobiographical potential, and the act of saving these cell phones are an autobiographical act. In the disorderly waste site of my domestic collection of phones, hidden from sight, tucked away in drawers and boxes stuffed in closets, are traces of my life; that collection is is an articulation of my personality, memories of the past, and records of “new media.” While Digital Rituals stumbled into having participants interpret and narrate the autobiographical material surrounding their dead phones, the installation drew attention to the disorderly waste site of dead cell phones within the home that serve as literal artifacts that tell a life trace.

Life Writing, Research Creation/Critical Media

Biographies of Phones, a personal history

Today’s blog post is going to be a brief one – exactly one 30m pom – because I have some marking, and I’m about to come into a huge wave of marking from the TA job and a grading job I picked up. So, I’d like to fit in some article writing as much as I can this week. But I also have to start working on the thing that this blog post is about: the biographies of the phones that are kept and never thrown away, or the personal histories one has with the various phones of our past.

This topic is, more or less, what I will be presenting at RCADE this year in April. And the presentation paper comes from and is about my time co-running the “Digital Rituals” CAFKA exhibit with fellow Critical Media Lab colleagues. Together, we created a funeral-home like space in which we would receive participants’ old cell phones that they would like to get rid of. From the appointment, we would take down certain information, generate a computer-generated obituary, create 3D printed miniatures of the participant’s phone that were placed on a marble slab outside in our garden, and then hold a brief ceremony bidding fair well to the phone. You can read some of the obituaries here.

The obituaries are what attracted me the most, but not the ones posted on the website. While I did enjoy the playfulness of the computer-generated obits, I was more interested in the stories that were shared when a participant came in and gave up their phone. While we did not receive that many participants (due to numerous circumstances), the few people who did would tell their memories of their phone, fiddling with the phone in their hands; putting it down, picking it back up; if it was a flip phone, they would open and close it, move their hands/fingers across it, recalling the muscle memory that came with operating the phone. I loved these stories. Equally, there were some who refused to give up their phone, but still shared a story or at least noted that they are saving it for personal reasons.

And while we intended to submit these phones to an e-waste company, we held onto the phones for personal reasons (or at least I still think that is the case – now that the CML has moved to its new location, I’m unsure if those items were saved).

So, my proposed talk is focused on the stories that were told within that exhibit. Few sources, but I will be building off of those sources because they got me thinking through Anna Poleitti’s “archive of play,” a concept that I really like and keep on returning to. I may have written about this before – it’s a concept in my upcoming article on Cibele, and it makes an appearance in my Game Boy Camera article that just got submitted – but here’s an excerpt:

In referring to “the archive of play,” I here describe the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing. Of course, not all play produces a material trace. That play that does, however, results in material that is…a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative. Materials in the archive of play are diverse and can include: stories, hand-drawn and digitally produced illustrations, letters, videos, photographs, puppets, costumes, collage, and automatic writing. Indeed, the kinds of materials in any individual’s archive of play is themselves informative and of interest, as I will discuss later. The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated (“Autobiography and Play” 113-4)

Excuse the lengthy quote, but I think it’s worth it for the nuance here. The reason why I like “the archive of play” so much is that it opens up what can be auto/biographical material. I love that material generated from play (and, use in general, perhaps?) is not always recognized as archive and may never be, and that it may or may not be cherished by the individual. But that material, that archive, becomes of value “once an auto[/]biographical project is initiated” by the individual or by others. For those few participants in “Digital Rituals,” the process of picking out a phone to hand over to us initiated an auto/biographical project. Perhaps “project” is too strong, too big of a word to describe those disclosures or brief narratives. But it was our project that initiated those disclosures from the participants and from ourselves. One participated shared a disclosure of their customized blue casing of their Blackberry curve, how it reminded them of a friendship. Another participant discussed how they wore their phone around their neck because it was too bulky in their pocket. Others could tell you where each scratch came from or how their phone shattered.

When I upgrade to a new phone, I don’t think of my previous phone too much as an archive, just as I don’t think of my Game Boy Camera as an archive. Only when the thought of throwing the phone(s) out, then I think of it has an archive, of archive I need to keep – there are pictures that weren’t uploaded, voice recordings of song fragments, notes taken from who knows where that aren’t uploaded, etc. Some of it is trivial, may not be of any worth. But it doesn’t have to be.

The timer has gone off, my pom is over. But in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be re-reading Poleitti’s article and a couple more that may help with some theoretical backing to this presentation.

Research Creation/Critical Media

Reflecting on DH@GUELPH, “Making at the Intersection” workshop

Although DH@Guelph finished nearly two weeks ago, last week I was busy with career centre work, a committee meeting that led to a quick but intense couple of days revising, and a teaching application. So, despite my tardiness, I’d like to reflect and share some of things that we did in the workshop I attended, “Making at the Intersection,” because it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot!

“Making at the Intersection” was led by Kim Martin, John Fink, and Liviu Pop, and the workshop discussed various strategies of bringing intersectional feminism to maker culture, which is predominately masculine, is ableist, and not a safe space for women and people of colour. We discussed various readings that discussed these issues, not only in the present but as far back as the medieval ages. On the first day, we played with various maker tech available at Guelph’s THINC Lab like Makey Makeys, an Atari Punk Console, and conductive thread. Although I had no sewing experience whatsoever, it was nice being introduced to conductive thread. Over at the Critical Media Lab, we have worked lot with Arduino or I have worked on projects with arduino micro controllers, so playing with conductive thread opened up a lot of other ways of making. Here’s my sorry attempt at sewing with conductive thread:


For the next couple of days, we worked on thinking through collaborative projects that we could do in the workshop. Since quite a few of us were interested in Sound, we started discussing how voice assistant devices (if that’s what they’re called?) like Siri and Alexa are typically coded as a subservient white woman. Although there are limited options to change this vocal setting (my partner and I enjoy the British male voice for our Siri setting), we noted how the white woman’s voice is always default. So, we decided to make a Siri/Alexa-like chatbot for the THINC Lab that would subvert those subservient notions of what chat bots are for. Our chat bot, #NotYerBot, is only chat-based (but I think there are plans to make this voice-automated as well), but was a fun exercise in creating a bot that didn’t respond to your questions, asked you questions, and gave feminist insight, even if you didn’t asked for it. Here’s a snapshot of some of the responses:


That’s just testing out responses to “hello,” but here’s a couple of other responses from our draft:

+ why do feminist dh?
– Why not?
– Is there any other kind?

+ what is interdisciplinary?
– (long pause)
– It’s like playing Twister, but each space is a different academic field! It’s a lot of fun.
– [the wikipedia’s entry on the term]

Following these conversations about unseen labour, we decided to make something that would acknowledge the kinds of unseen labour of people working within the THINC Lab (and, if installed in other places, in workspaces in general). The end product: Accounts Re-see-vable: Receipts for your unseen labour. Using a Raspberry Pi, RFID cards, and a thermal printer, we made the thermal printer generate a receipt for the unseen labour card that a participant would use. Here are some photos to give a clearer picture:


From the board, the participant would take a card with an unseen labour written on it. Some of the examples include “Listened Generously,” “Emotional Labour,” “Advocated for Self/Others,” and “Fielded Microaggressions and plain old aggression.” Then, participants would tap the card against the box (the raspberry pi and RFID reader), and a receipt would be generated out of the printer. The receipt would have the title of the project, what unseen labour the participant did, and a mash-up text of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” lyrics from Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Sara Ahmed’s blog post, “Confrontation,” and Dani Beckett’s blog post, “100 Easy Ways to Make Women’s Lives More Bearable.”  We included images, too (see above), but some images struggled with being printed out. The result is a whimsical text of feminist wisdom and playfulness to comfort and motivate.

I’m really glad and grateful for being able to contribute to these projects. As much as I love these kind of workshops, it’s rare to collaborate with the entire workshop and develop two fun and functional projects to share with the rest of the summer workshops. Also, since participating in events and workshops and projects at the CML, my time in this workshop have inspired me to approach maker projects (or critical media projects) from various other angles.  “Making at the Intersection” provided me with new theoretical approaches, as well as new applications of familiar tools and new tools to use in future projects!


Research Creation/Critical Media

Reflecting on ‘A Chording to Chance’

On Friday night April 7th, Stephen Trothen and I exhibited our project, “A Chording to Chance” at the Critical Media Lab‘s XDM Exhibition. The project’s description can be read in my last post or under Research Creation on this site. But “A Chording to Chance” can be briefly described as a participatory project that invited participants to translate Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” into “dotsies” font, a font designed by Craig Muth to “optimize” the screen. Whereas Mallarmé’s poem experimented with the page, Muth’s font experimented with reading on the digital screen. So, “A Chording a Chance” playfully combines these two experimentations with page and screen.

But rather than have participants type out on a keyboard, Stephen and I used a “chorder keyboard” that we designed to work with and map the dotsies font. Below is the chorder keyboard (left is more or less put together; right is the keyboard disassembled):


And here is the the dotsies mapped out on our instructional pamphlet:

ChorderFinalLayout Page 1

To put it one way, the chorder keyboard sequentially moved through the alphabet using a finger patten. “A” is thumb, “B” is Index, “C” is Middle, “D” is Ring, “E” is Pinky, “F” is Thumb+Index, “G” is Index+Middle, “H” is Middle+Ring,” and so on. We liked to have delete to be all five at once to kinda communicate the frustration when making a mistake. In order for people to see what they were translating, we projected a split screen: one in regular english font; the other in dotsies. Here’s the set up we had for the night (top) and split screen version of the final product of the night (bottom):



A Chording to Chance Final Translation.png

But participants were allowed to make mistakes; the project, after all, was all up to chance. And, in the spirit of the original poem, participants could type into the next section (you can see that one line starts to cross into the dotsies section). Letting participants complete the project (rather than having us type out the poem in dotsies) was us taking a chance, rolling the dice, and seeing what we could get. It was a delight to see some people revel in their mistakes, having fun with the chorder keyboard and liking the visualization of the dotsies font, even though, if translated, was full of typos. Other participants strived for perfection: typing and editing, typing and editing over and over again. You could say we really encouraged a close and sllooooooww reading of the text. Whether participants strived for perfection or whether they let the mistakes be, participants experienced what Maurice Blanchot calls Mallarmé’s experience:

“Language has within itself the moment that hides it. It has within itself, through this power to hide itself, the force by which mediation (that which destroys immediacy) seems to have the spontaneity, the freshness, and the innocence of the origin” (Blanchot, “Mallarmé’s Experience,”40-1)

The chorder keyboard, in conjunction with the split screen fonts, was crucial in forcing attention to the mediation of language and destroying the immediacy of language. As a result, the typos and neologisms that appeared (re)introduced a spontaneity and freshness to the poem.

Overall, it was fantastic to have so many participate and have fun with the project. By the end of the night, the chorder keyboard was accidentally broken and the final word of the night was “concealing.” It was fitting, Stephen and I thought, that the project, very much about revealing the mediation of language, concealed itself by the end of the night.

And so here is the final product:

AChordingtoChance Final Translation Just Dotsies.jpg

Research Creation/Critical Media

A Chording to Chance

This Friday April 6th, Stephen Trothen and I will be showcasing our latest collaboration at the annual XDM exhibition. This year, Stephen and I have decided to take on Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés.” The exhibition runs from 6-9pm, but we hope to showcase the project on this website. Here’s the description of our project:

“Language has within itself the moment that hides it. It has within itself, through this power to hide itself, the force by which mediation (that which destroys immediacy) seems to have the spontaneity, the freshness, and the innocence of the origin.”  – Blanchot, “Mallarmé’s Experience,” Space of Literature 40-1.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” or “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance” is notorious for its experimentation with typography and graphical layout, sprawling back and forth across pages and varying in fonts and font size. The poem defamiliarizes language use, exposing the mediation of language, and challenges the limits of how poetry can look by cascading down the page and spilling over and across margins. A largely influential poem, it has inspired a visual artistic tradition of translations that explore or highlight the layout and form of the poem while suppressing its content (See Marcel Broodthaer’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (1969) to Eric Zboya’s At the Heart of a Shipwreck (2013) and Derek Beulieu’s “Tattered Sails” (2018) and “Un Coup de Des” (2017)). Our work, entitled “A Chording to Chance” builds upon this tradition of transforming and translating Mallarmé’s poem but within a digital context that attempts to highlight the visual aspects of the poem while maintaining semantic meaning in a way that (potentially) both distorts and enhances meaning through translation into a digital typeface.  


“A Chording to Chance” makes use of an original chorder keyboard that has been designed to work with the “Dotsie” font, a font designed by Craig Muth in 2012 to save space and optimize typeface for digital screens by rendering letters into blacked-out strips and, consequently, words into pixelated icons for faster reading time and a condensed use of the page. During exhibition, participants will be asked to use the keyboard to translate the poem into Dotsies. Our project plays with Mallarmé’s experientation with the page and Muth’s experimental optimization of the screen. As well, by having participants use a keyboard that is mapped directly to the visual output – e.g. a letter that requires two pixelated blocks is typed with a simultaneous press of the first two keys on the keyboard, etc – invites them to reflect on how interface design choices can overtake, or perhaps supersede, understanding in the act of transcribing. Moreover, participants’ interaction in constructing the poem will hit the “wall” of language’s mediation; no longer “immediate,” the veil of language’s mediation is lifted as participants work through writing the poem. Participants will not be instructed where to begin translation, but a marker will be placed in the book where the last participant finished. The end-product (after the exhibition closes) will be posted online, as well as a translation of the Dotsies poem back into English.

In this way, the intended understanding of the text, as well the rendered output, will be left to chance and placed in the hands of the translators.