this is aaronland

Things I Went Home To Talk About

Talk To the Hands

21:23:36 A: trying to work up the energy to write a thoughtful (hahahaha)
            blog post about talk-talk-talking in montreal
21:25:16 M: knowing you it will be interestingly disjointed and full of
            allusions =)
21:26:06 A: "a covert indication"
21:26:14 M: hehehe
21:26:20 A: that is a better blog title than "talk to the hands"
21:26:34 A:
21:26:53 M: ha nice hand modeling
21:27:29 A: "in this hand I hold an API"
21:27:36 A: "with this hand I will poke it"
21:27:43 M: *poink*

It turns out that I do some weird-ass shit with my hands when I speak publicly.

Back in December I mentioned that a couple of proposals I had submitted for conferences had been turned down. As it turns out, one of the two rejections was really just a prolonged series of false starts and lost email messages and, in the end, I had the opportunity to give both presentations while I was in Montreal, at the beginning of the month.

Originally, the plan was simply to attend Museums and the Web with George following the launch of The Commons project on Flickr and serve as her technical wife should the need arise. Museums and the Web was held in San Francisco last year and I managed make it down for a short afternoon before some crisis or another at work sucked me back in to the office so once I got over the initial sting of thinking the conference organizers didn't care what I had to say I was pretty excited about attending. Since the last game of the (hockey) season was only a few short days before I went home early to be with friends.

Normally when I work from Montreal it ends up being a mix of time spent between Laika, the BoLab and the floor of wherever I am staying. Which is not unlike what Patrick used to do but in the time since my last visit he (and Daniel Mireault) took the idea for a co-working space, in Montreal, from hand-waving over coffee and turned it in to a living, breathing space called Station C. It goes without saying that I signed up to work from there for the few days I had before the conference.

Patrick invited me to do a casual, 5 à 7 style, presentation one night on whatever I felt like suggesting maybe the work that I had been doing with ModestMaps. I chose to spin it out a little further and do a rough survey of all the work that had been done since the original Papernet talk at XTech, in 2007. This had the advantage of being sort of like the original Computational Deepwater proposal without any of the stress of having to find a capital-P point. It could just be a fun romp through all the sprockets and widgets that I've tinkered with over coffee in the mornings, trying to tease an idea whose shape is still unclear to this day.

Earlier in the year, a few people asked me if I had submitted anything to XTech this year. Putting together the slides for the Station C talk was instructive since my answer had always been a t-shuffling and sheepish No. Maybe I was just feeling shy about getting turned down again but, at the time, it didn't seem like I had anything new to talk about. It was all just the same old thing I'd stammered on — and waved my hands around — about a year earlier.

Which was really dumb since As Cheathco Says : The learning is in the making. In the end, I had a wonderful time doing the presentation, people seemed to enjoy it and it offered me a chance to look back at the last year in some perspective. There's maybe not a lot of new for anyone who's been reading this weblog for any amount of time but at least there are some pretty slides...

Apropos of nothing, between everything he has done at Station C and YULblog before that I'd like to nominate Patrick for an annual Just Fucking Do It Award for at least the next six or seven years to come.

Then, the next day, I went back to some of the most mind-crushingly boring work I've had to do in the last five or six years and forgot to take an I'm on a telco! picture as I walked down the Main, on my way to lunch, talking to people in far-away offices.


Sometime before the liquid supercollider better known as SXSW, I received an email from Jennifer Trant asking if I had been able to tease anything more than covert indications out of my original proposal for Museums and the Web. This was always a reasonable request and Jennifer, who I first met at WWW2006 where she did a presentation on project, proved to be nothing but reasonable and doubly-patient trying to coax little more than excited hand-waving into something she could stand to include in the conference proceedings.

If you're curious, the first reply I had sent trying to make sense of my original proposal had gotten lost in the email-spam vortex and the perceived silence on both sides of the confusion led me to feel shunned and, in turn, probably just seem like a flake. Jennifer is a rock star for reaching out and forcing me to collect my thoughts and write something that pretends (tries to pretend?) to be a proper paper on TV.

The short version is that I stood in front a room full of museum people and said : You need to teach computer programming in art schools and hire full-time, in-house technical/development teams even if it's a single person. The long version involved me telling them that all the magic talk about embracing the web without those people, which really means the skills, was pretty much idle and meaningless; sorry to be the Bad Man.

If only I'd know about this when I was giving the example that Threadless is printmaking by any other name...

All in all, a pretty cheeky recap because what I really wanted to impress on people was not that everyone has to become a computer nerd but that programming is just another tool to shape an idea. The same way we teach printmakers to dance with tubs of acid and show photographers to find the magic in something as mundane and technical as developing film we need to discover the mystery and possibility available by (not goatse, no don't say it) diving in to the plumbing of the web, so to speak.

Oh, and it also means museums can move away from the six-month, one hundred and eighty thousand dollar deploy cycle any time they want to try something on the web. Which has to be a good thing. Just look at the Powerhouse, in Sydney!

I think it went well and the nerds in the crowd seemed pleased to have someone stand up and sound the trumpets. It remains a hard problem, though, and one that is compounded by the scarcity of funds in the arts community so everyone will come at it differently but it is a necessary — and worthwhile — problem to sort out.

One pretty awesome moment for me was being up on stage and being asked the brass tacks How do we actually teach this stuff to art students? question and seeing two women at the back of the room — Kara Pajewski and Lauren Addario, students at the New Mexico Highlands University — jumping up and down saying : It's already happening and we're doing it! I learned later that another student attending the conference, Jonathan Lee, was responsible for much of programming work on the American Image: The Photographs of John Collier Jr. project.

Hats off to Miriam Langer, chair of the Communications and Fine Arts department at the University, for that. Yay!

Update, see also : Mia Ridge's Talking to IT students about the cultural heritage sector, and a small 'woot'.

Something else that bubbled up talking to people at and about the conference is that, casting a wide and sloppy net, people in the arts and programming have no good way of communicating with each other. It's not that they don't respect and value the expertise of the other — they do — but rather they simply have no idea what each other are saying. Not even a little bit which makes it all the more difficult for people of like spirits, if not minds, to find each other.

Short of fairy-tale uber-renaissance-pedants, who exist only in movies and people's resumes, no one has the capacity to keep up the minutiae of someone else's speciality but that shouldn't be a reason to actively avoid one another. After all, we all pretty much get drunk the same way regardless of what we do.

Which is about as far as I've gotten with that one, really. How do you cut another person enough slack to feel like they can participate when you're dealing with something that you care passionately about?

Otherwise, a bloody lovely time and the opportunity to meet a whole new Cabal of Friends.

A good trip.