Tuesday, 21 July 2015

British HCI 2015

This time last week, I was swanning around Lincoln (not Licoln, Nebraska, as one friend suggested, but Lincoln, Lincolnshire) at the British HCI conference. There were plenty of heated discussions around the REF, centering on Alan Dix's impressive analysis of the results and their likely impact on HCI as a discipline. Executive summary: oh, crap.

This set the stage for heated discussions of what HCI researchers in the UK should do, strategically and tactically, to further our work. I argued strongly for taking advantage of the unusual, boundary-pushing work that so many of us are at the very forefront of. We should be celebrating what we're good at and using every available forum to promote what we do in the international community. Of course, we're no more homogeneous than the field as a whole, but we do have a disproportionate number of people doing intensely exciting, high-quality research that continually redefines the edge of HCI in terms of affect, emotion, felt experience, performativity, and all the stuff that makes humans so very different from the computational devices with which we interact. (Though maybe not for much longer...)

On Friday morning I gave a provocation paper on Performance and Critical Design, arguing that the kind of performance studies I've been working with for years can go a long way towards the kinds of practical advances advocated by Bardzell & Bardzell (2013). I only realised as I was putting together my presentation in the couple of weeks beforehand that I was going to have to spend a lot of my 15 minutes defining what the Bardzells mean by critical design to position performance alongside it, and if I wasn't careful, I was going to end up giving this talk as though I were representing them and their work. Their stuff is lovely, don't get me wrong, but it's not the focus of my research and I'd hate to mis-speak. I think I pulled it off without mangling any of their opinions, and I got lots of great feedback after the event. So it seems that Performantive Experience Design might have legs even outside the strict remit of the framework and methodology put forward so far.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Butt Dial

One of the many good things about Glasgow is that it's not horrendously far from Newcastle, at least not in the grand scheme of things. I took advantage of my week Up North to add on a weekend Up Almost As North to start work on the next Would-be Nuns and Cowboys performance with Claire Murphy-Morgan.

Aside from a lovely weekend's hospitality from Claire and her still-fairly-new husband Simon, we got on by leaps and bounds with the new work. We started from nothing, or almost nothing, as I presented her with a bit of digital ephemera to get us thinking - the voicemail of the time she butt-dialled me last month.

From that humblest of beginnings, we have a new performance taking shape. It's far too formless to describe at this point and will doubtless change utterly by the time it's ready to be done for an audience, but we have enough to move forward with, and it's really exciting! Plus, as working titles go, you've gotta love Butt Dial. Or at least we do.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Performing digital media design

I spent the past week at the ACM Creativity and Cognition conference hosted by the Glasgow School of Art and the City of Glasgow. The opening keynote by Steve Benford set the tone for a playful, exploratory, but ultimately rigorous and complex mix of creative expression and computing technology. The closing keynote, by Marcos Novak, nearly blew everyone's head apart with the tantalising density of his references - I'm pretty sure that if he had spoken for every minute of the three-day main conference, I would have understood and loved a good chunk of what he had to say. In between the two was a fiesta of interesting people doing some fantastic work. It's got me itching to dive into a new project myself.

In the spirit of reaching out beyond my own work, I ran a full-day workshop on 'performing digital media design' on Thursday. It was structured around a hands-on exploration of the Collect Yourselves! system. The workshop participants and I dived into the devising phase in the morning - a version created specially for the workshop context - and performed in the afternoon. Around and about I gave some background on the theories and practices that informed the project and the Performative Experience Design methodology it emerged from (or gave rise to, depending on how you look at it). We did a little coded performance analysis - just verbally, nothing too taxing for midafternoon - and had good conversations throughout about the tensions between visual and performance aesthetics, the role of improvisation and public engagement, and the dynamics of conversation, among many other things.

A million thanks to Robyn Taylor for helping me out, especially when the tech fell apart for not one but two separate reasons, both of which were unlike any of the ways it fell apart during previous sessions, and neither of which emerged in any of the testing I did in the week leading up to the workshop. I think my next research focus should be to document and theorise the vast array of ways that tech can collapse in a heap. I'll aim to collect at least two near-catastrophic failures for each piece of fieldwork. I figure that's the only way I can guarantee myself an error-free encounter.

(For the record, I did manage to get everything working, but it ate into 15 minutes of our afternoon and cost me any chance to eat lunch that day. It's amazing how far a handful of almonds and a cup of peppermint tea can take you.)

If you're at all curious about the workshop, drop me a line!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

LiSC talk

Summer seems to be time to talk, and talk, and talk and talk and talk! Last Friday I had the great pleasure of giving a talk at the invitation of the University of Lincoln's Social Computing research centre. What a friendly, interesting bunch of people! Doing some pretty wacky things! I understand they're aiming to promote interdisciplinary research, so I titled my talk

Designing performance into HCI: How to get an interaction design PhD with craptastic coding skills

Now I know that self-deprecation isn't always a good approach when trying to make one's way in the world, particularly the world of academia. And I am not-so-secretly very proud of the fact that I coded the application that formed the heart of my PhD thesis (with help from some extremely patient friends). But the alternate universe where I am a skilled and knowledgeable computer programmer lies at several removes from the one where I am an (insert adjectives here) researcher in performance and HCI. The premise of my talk was that it's possible to get a PhD by doing a modified form of interaction design without coming at it from a computer science background, much less a computer science perspective. (To top it all off, my paperwork tells me my degree is actually a PhD in Theatre. Who knew?)

In any case, I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about Performative Experience Design with the gracious folks at LiSC!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Mixed Reality Lab talk

This past Friday I gave a talk at the University of Nottingham's Mixed Reality Lab, at the kind invitation of Steve Benford. The talk was held in a fairly normal-looking room, the most unusual aspect of which was the fact that the projector worked. Easily. Immediately. First try. Running off of an ancient Mac. Could anything be more impressive than that?

The answer was an emphatic yes. I chatted away afterwards with a really interesting collection of people and tried to convey to them the legendariness, the aura, that surrounds the MRL. They didn't seem to believe me... but the types of stuff they're up to and interested in convinced me that the legend-aura-ness is well deserved.

Everyone was hospitable and lovely, the campus was gorgeous (though discreetly hidden behind a car dealership), and I had loads of attentive folks at my talk on 'Performative Experience Design and the aesthetics of performance'. I even got to strum the Carolan guitar. Now there's a day well spent!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

PED: the workshop!

I'll be offering a workshop on Performing Digital Media Design at the Creativity & Cognition conference in Glasgow on Thursday 25 June.

It'll be a full day of hands-on performative experience, so to speak. We'll all use the Collect Yourselves! digital media performance system to create a performance for each other (no audiences or video cameras, so don't be shy). We'll have insights into performance theory and practice relevant for experience design, a few examples to watch, some performance analysis, some design playtime, and plenty of conversation about everyone's own research interests.

Participation is capped at 8 to get the most out of Collect Yourselves! and to make sure no one gets lost in the fray. And to top it all off, I'll have the support of the fabulous Robyn Taylor from Culture Lab.

You can find more details about the workshop on the C&C15 website. Any questions, give me a yell, j.c.spence at surrey.ac.uk. And if you're a native Glaswegian, you can entertain yourself by watching my face contort from concentrating all my energies on understanding what it is you're saying!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Storytelling for Development

Right now I'm almost halfway through a six-month project called Storytelling for Development, which is piloting digital storytelling as an approach for increasing community engagement in urban redevelopment processes, and for creating a two-way exchange between communities and the architects, planners, and councils who do the redevelopment.

What's particularly exciting in terms of performance is the strand of work that uses digital storytelling - essentially the making of little 'mini-movies' out of still images and voiceover narration - in a community workshop, where people who have made digital stories screen their work for each other and use them as a springboard for discussion. This will take their stories out of the virtual mustiness of the digital archive and into relationship with each other. I can't wait to see if the participants respond solely in conversation or if they feel inspired to make new digital stories as well.

I'm also keen to see what happens in the final stage of the project, where employees from our partners at Farrells architect planners create digital stories in response to all the community stories that get created. I'm hoping that some of the holistic and humane point of view that comes through in these stories will give the architects a new angle on the redevelopment process, and might even inspire new design ideas. Of course, it might not. It might be a pain in the rear and a complete dead end. Even the community workshops might lead nowhere. But you never know until you try...

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

catching up

I had lunch overlooking the River Wey yesterday with the ever-fabulous Robyn Taylor, who does some amazing work on designing from within - bringing performance into the design space and even the designed artefact. Her work on the humanaquarium project has been a great focal point for Peformative Experience Design, and it features in John McCarthy and Peter Wright's new book, Taking [A]part: The Politics and Aesthetics of Participation in Experience-Centered Design. If you're remotely interested in this area and haven't run across Robyn's work before, you should definitely take a look.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Digital Creativity paper

Michael Nitsche edited a really exciting special issue of Digital Creativity (24:2) that explored the emergence of a truly substantive, productive mix of performance art and digital media.

Our contribution to that special issue is titled 'Performative Experience Design: Where autobiographical performance and human-computer interaction meet'. It was written about halfway through the project it is based on, but it's pointing in the right direction.

You can find it on my academia.edu page for that paper, free for the first however many downloaders, by clicking the 'tandfonline.com' link towards the top of the page.

I'd say the whole issue is worth a good look, though.

Monday, 16 February 2015

teaser for HCI folks

The background for Performative Experience Design in an HCI context was set out in this alt.chi paper. In it we basically take to task every poor soul working in HCI or interaction design who has ever tried to use performance as an input or structure for their design work, and very few emerge unscathed. This isn't necessarily because we think this work was done badly - but we do think it could have gone much, much further.

So if you'd like to read a paper that could have been subtitled 'Why Most People Get Performance and Performativity Totally Wrong' - written by, I promise, the sweetest three people you're likely to meet in a given day in academia - have a look.

But don't forget, this is a very short paper addressing PED in a very lopsided way - only talking about how HCI people have used performance in the past. PED sits in the space equidistant from both HCI/interaction design and performance studies. I'll blog more about the performance side of things soon.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

what's this all about?

We don't 'consume' technology. We experience it. McCarthy and Wright had that insight over a decade ago, and they're not alone.

But when it comes to digital media technology - photos, videos, songs, social networks - we don't just experience. We perform.

With every snapshot we share and every line of text we post, we become a little bit more of who we are, or who we are trying to appear to be.

'Performance' has nasty connotations of falseness or manipulation. This might be the case sometimes, or in some small way most of the time. But what would the opposite be? Authenticity? Is there really a snapshot or a tweet that captures the essence of a human being? That might be the case sometimes, or in some small way most of the time...

Performative Experience Design (PED) is the design-oriented study of ways of interacting with digital media technology that focuses on the experience of that interaction among the person, her digital media, and the other people who become aware of that interaction. PED doesn't look at the technology itself, or even at the interaction between the technology and its 'user', but at the ways the 'user' experiences herself in relation to her digital media and the people with whom she shares that experience. And that relationship is a performative one.

'Performing' doesn't necessarily mean jazz-hands-and-bright-lights theatrical performance. The words 'performance' and 'performativity' also conjure up J.L. Austin's performative utterances, Judith Butler's discourse that trumps even biology and leaves precious little room for resistance, Victor Turner's study of ritual performance, Erving Goffman's theatrical metaphor of the presentation of self, Richard Schechner's wonderfully pithy 'showing doing', Jill Dolan's utopian performatives, research on embodiment, research on situated interactions, research on audiences and spectatorship - and this is just off the top of my head. In fact, a large part of the project of PED is to unpack exactly what we mean by 'performative' and where those different definitions might lead us.

When I put a picture on Instagram, I'm doing a performative interaction. When I show you my holiday photos on my phone over lunch, I'm doing a performative interaction. When I take to the stage and project a video about myself, I'm doing a performative interaction. When I use my digital photos and social networks as inspiration for a performance that has no digital elements at all, I'm doing a performative interaction.

These things matter. A billion Facebook users and counting. Careers made on YouTube. Lives threatened on Twitter. Lives ruined over Snapchat. The important thing isn't just the technology, or the interface, or in a way even the content. The important thing is how we use this technology to experience our lives and perform those experiences, for ourselves and for each other.

That's something worth studying. Worth designing for. Worth playing with.