Interview: HASTAC | digital humanities – Caitlin Fisher
I’m a HASTAC Scholar for a second year.
HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science & Technology Advanced Collaboratory) was founded by a few groundbreaking thinkers in the digital humanities, and is located at Duke University & University of California Humanities Research Institute. As a HASTAC scholar, I participate in conversations taking place on the website, at the annual conference and “off-line” with other members of this international community.
Recently, I was asked by HASTAC if I would interview Caitlin Fisher, a scholar at York University.
Caitlin Fisher holds a Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture in the Department of Film at York University, Toronto. A co-founder of York’s Future Cinema Lab, her research investigates the future of narrative through explorations of interactive storytelling and interactive cinema in Augmented Reality environments. Caitlin completed York’s first hypertextual dissertation in 2000 and her hypermedia novella, “These Waves of Girls”, won the Electronic Literature Organization’s 2001 Award for Fiction. Her augmented reality poem, Andromeda, was awarded the 2008 International Vinaros Prize for Electronic Literature.
-from the York University Faculty website
Caitlin and I first met while working on the Expo 67 Expanded Cinema research project, a multi-year endeavour funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. In August 2013, we met again over Skype to ask a few questions about Caitlin’s work with HASTAC and in the digital humanities. Audio and text excerpts from that conversation appear below.
MEL: How did you come to the field?
I am one of those people brought [to the field] entirely by accident. My training was actually in social and political thought. Entering that program, I was going to be a good political economist, 4-day work-week. When I came in, I was TA-ing women’s studies and teaching it, and I started to think: it was the time when CD-ROMS were popular, and hypertext was just emerging. I thought about all the politics around the syllabus: it would be so much nicer if you could enter through any time period. … [So] I started to think about the digital. There was so much at stake. I started to think about it as being very much a project of social and political thought. I decided I wanted to do more with hypertext and perhaps a hypertext dissertation…. And then I started to think of it as a hundred years of poetics; … to think of the digital of being firmly lodged in an entire century of invention that I thought I’m very much a part of. And that it also did seem to be a form that was entirely resonant with the feminist concerns that I had at the time. So I wrote a dissertation in hypertext. When I graduated with a doctorate in a digital thing, it actually was a great time for that, and there were interviews and jobs. I was able to make that transition to an emerging, exciting field.
Everything that I had put into the [hypertext, digital] dissertation, and all of the things that were extra-clever; the incredible cat’s-cradle of a million pieces of an incredibly complex thought sculpture [led to a decision] to do a character-driven, fiction, lyric [work]. I was just fortunate enough that I wrote a work that got a lot of attention. I’m sure that was instrumental in terms of having access to the kind of job I have now in the Faculty of Fine Arts: to being able now to do theoretical work, to build software, to write fiction and poetry, and pull together all those parts of my life.
You look back at early practices: all of these things are answered in the digital, bringing together text and image… Rethinking how knowledge is produced and how it circulates: these are all feminist concerns – different pathways and poetics. …The idea of bringing together the digital and the physical; the co-constitutive nature of that relationship – that is almost impossible not to look at in terms of history from below.
MEL: How do you see your field changing?
The idea that devices that have gone small is a real cusp moment where the handheld device will mediate the world… The hardware is changing; the software is changing. We’ve spent years developing trying to build easy, expressive tools for artists so we get a critical mass of content. The compelling content isn’t there yet… And I’m still a story-driven person. I still think there are things that we crave that will appear in different forms for different people. … The next moment is coming: the new devices are coming and more people will have them, and finally, we do have a critical mass where we’ll see excellent work. … There’s a lot at stake for humanists, for creative people: is this going to be another way our lives are instrumentalized – or is it going to be a chance for a crazy poetic world?
Furthermore [transcribed – not in the audio clip]:
People are receptive to things that they weren’t before. Storytelling is emerging. There are things that happen in 24 hours, in terms of these multi-branching Tumblr repost novels where there’s more content generated than in an 18-month research project on the crowdsourced novel. But the biggest change for me is that we’re at the point where people are so much more open, and the capacity to engage with the digital in many different ways—including storytelling across media—is so much more sophisticated, across age groups.
MEL: What role do you see HASTAC playing in terms of these opportunities and challenges?
CF: Seq05 HASTAC’s role (2:08 mins)
I love HASTAC. It’s my favourite.
An organization like HASTAC that brings people with different sensibilities and skills sets together is absolutely critical. And I think it’s interesting to think about HASTAC scholars – HASTAC is multi-generational. It’s a moment where it doesn’t matter if you’re a tenured professor, or a first-year MA or an undergrad. I think we will have innovation from surprising quarters and we don’t know who will have the piece of the puzzle to move the project forward. I see this in my lab all the time.
MEL: How have your HASTAC experiences changed your ideas about online communities? [and] I’m interested that it’s a relatively flat organization. Why is that?
It wouldn’t be HASTAC if there wasn’t a chance to meet Cathy Davidson, or Tara McPherson, or Kevin Franklin. I think part of it is a really nice balance that as an organization that understands that there’s a time to meet, to come together – that creates the conditions for really good virtual communication. And then you’ve got a huge amount of labour. I don’t want to single out individual people. Any of us who have tried to create virtual communities – they don’t just happen. You don’t create a content management system and have community happen. There’s an awful lot of work. There’s a really sophisticated understanding of how communities happen, but also a fun, compassionate organization….
If you look at the group of people who founded the organization, and I’m not one of them, look at that vision of really senior and well-known people who wanted to create something really magical for others. These were people who weren’t desperate for HASTAC for themselves but for other people. I think the founders of HASTAC are amazing.
It’s not just that it’s nice. By the time you involve thousands, and you’re modeling that kind of conversation – one of the real – it becomes incredibly useful in the world, to see people imagining things together that has a lot of grace and generosity. It models a very interesting way forward that helps to get more people involved.
MEL: Is there anything else you see in terms of potential and growth (either the directions that HASTAC is pursuing, or the digital humanities field), or limits?
CF: Seq08 HASTAC shares knowledge (4:26 mins)
HASTAC has done a wonderful job and it’s been an amazing opportunity for me to sit on the (executive) committee and see how HASTAC works. … HASTAC is a clearing-house to show how projects are being formed. On quite a different level, HASTAC has a role in protecting young academics and encouraging more risk-taking… The existence of places like HASTAC make me way more optimistic that people will be able to do what they want to do and will find their place in the academy.
There are models out there that go beyond location; it might not be encouraging your particular work, but the world is wide. I find it incredibly valuable for people to reveal how they got their grants. For example, through the scholars’ forums, HASTAC scholars can begin conversations on any subject. People from all different universities can come and share knowledge, both theoretical and creative, but also practical nuts and bolts knowledge. How was your lab built? How did you fund this? Are there different kinds of opportunities? An umbrella organization like HASTAC can jumpstart everybody.
I think there are people who are the recipients of a lot of gifts [within HASTAC], and hopefully they are regifted. And me too. In some ways, as the recipient of lots of help and lots of support, that I hope I can go forward and give that back.
A version of this interview appears on the HASTAC website as well.