David McIntosh on: digital media, research, and creativity

David McIntosh is a visual artist, film producer, scriptwriter and curator in film, video and digital media, as well as an Associate Professor of Media Studies in the Faculty of Liberal Studies at OCAD U. McIntosh was the recipient of the first-ever OCAD Award for Distinguished Research and Creation in 2008, and this year he is a recipient of a major Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight grant, for QUIPUCAMAYOC, a major research and creation project he is leading.

SITE-SPECIFIC: In speaking about your work, Judith Doyle, Chair of Integrated Media here at OCAD U has highlighted that you  “continue to contest and redraw boundaries between art and academic research, activism and theoretical analysis”. Can you tell us more about what inspires you to approach your work in this way, and how it impacts your research and practice?

DAVID MCINTOSH: Over the years as writer, curator, visual artist and academic, I have been inspired by and involved in such a range of practices, and yes theory IS a practice, that at times I felt that they were working against each other, that various political, economic, social and audiovisual regimes could not be reconciled. How do I put together experiences living and working in contexts as diverse as Franco’s fascist Spain, Juan Velasco’s Marxist military dictatorship in Peru, Fidel’s communist Cuba, Lac le Croix Anishnaabe reserve in northwest Ontario, the Funnel Experimental Film Centre in Toronto, and last but not least the seemingly endlessly morphing OCA/OCAD/OCADU. One of the most important lessons I learned in dealing with seemingly incommensurate experiences came from Cuban film artist Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s astounding 1968 film “Memories of Underdevelopment” in which a post-revolutionary bourgeois man attempts to come to terms with his privilege in the face of the devastating racism, sexism and labour exploitation that permeate his world. (This brief summary doesn’t even begin to do the political and structural complexity of this film justice.) The line that I retain from that film, and I’m paraphrasing, but this is a pretty close paraphrase, is: underdevelopment is the inability to make connections and accumulate experience. In this sense, I see myself as permanently underdeveloped, aiming at some form of self-determined condition of development, constantly in the process of making connections and accumulating experience. Another concept that underpins the integration I attempt in all of my work comes from network philosopher Bruno Latour, who suggests that, and once again I am paraphrasing: networks are simultaneously real like nature, narrated like discourse and collective like the society. Taking on Latour’s concept has been crucial for me in understanding and engaging in proliferation of even more diverse experiences and works, and suturing them together simultaneously in a network of materiality, storying and social engagement. I think it is important to lay out these research processes, experiential and theoretical, as they underpin all of my practice with new and old media. And it is this framework that has taken me to the position where I always attempt to locate my work in the immediate environment that surrounds me. For example, a mobile locative media work I completed in Cuzco, Peru in 2010 titled Qosqo LLika, was a distributed documentary. It didn’t happen on a screen in a cinema or in your home, it happened in the streets. I worked with street vendors who sell cellphone calls, not unlike human phonebooths, drawing in 30 such street vendors into a new form of network where each vendor and their cellphone became a site for the public to hear the lost history of the exact place in the city where they were standing. In addition to this creative engagement with local technologies and associated practices, the content of the project concerned local history that had been subsumed by the needs of the tourism industry in Cuzco. You can see an archive of the materials from this project at www.qosqollika.org , in English, Spanish and Quechua, but what you see and hear online is not the project, it is an archive of sound and image from the project that you can download to your mobile device and recreate the original ephemeral experience of the project.

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 Game controller prototype 1, wind instrument, image courtesy David McIntosh

[image description: painting depicting prototype of a wind instrument game controller, a grey and yellow body supported by four black legs]

S: Your previous research has explored the rise of decentralized media structures and distributed networks. What are the possibilities of digital media as democratic mediums for expression and knowledge production?

M: Everyone reading these words is doing so via the Internet, more than likely on a mobile device of some sort. Integration into the web is now a global reality. In fact, digital communications structures underpin the last 20 years of free market globalization that everyone in the world has experienced. Despite this global reach, the possibilities of digital media are still taking shape. In 1982 I worked with the Canadian Film Institute to research and report on the possible impact of digital media on the Canadian film/video production sector. At that time, computers were exotic and beyond the reach of most people and the Internet didn’t exist. In the course of that researching for that report, it became clear to me that one of the great potentials of computers was to deconstruct traditional forms of making things, to allow for a complete restructuring and democratization of industrial processes and ultimately to distribute self-determining, self-expressive agency to more and more people. Thirty years after producing that report, I look back and think that my initial thinking about digital media was pretty accurate in some respects, but a bit naïve in others. Distributed communications networks that are characteristic of digital media and the Internet are paradoxical. They have the potential for total horizontal distribution of self-determining local agency – when we think about the number of different accounts, names and personas we have for various social media, gaming and news sites, we quickly realize that our identities are multiple and we are determining who or what all those identities add up to. But decentralized communications networks also have the potential to facilitate absolute hierarchical centralization of command and control structures. This paradox is reflected in the current distinction that some make between state and industry collection of “big data” via digital media – state agencies such as the National Security Agency in the US are seen as spying on us while corporations like Facebook and Google are seen as providing better services for us, even though both are engaging in virtually the same data collection activities. We have to be on constant guard to insure that the paradoxical nature of the global digital communications structure operates in the interests of user self-determination and local agency. It’s good to keep in mind the crucial work on this struggle for democracy in digital media by people like Chelsea Manning and Aaron Swartz.

With this paradox in mind, it is good to see the work of a number of art and design students that I have had the pleasure to teach at OCAD developing a range of creative strategies that engage contemporary deployments of digital media. For example, Integrated Media graduate Mike Goldby repositioned instagram selfies as a new reproduceable style that was readily subsumed to corporate purpose that undermines self-expresssion, while DFI MDes graduate Faysal Itani created a hybrid game/blog for training activists engaging with the Arab Spring. To tie back to my comments earlier about hybrids and proliferation as the life blood of self-determining agency, we are seeing a proliferation of such hybrid works being produced at OCAD, by students at all levels and by faculty.

S: You mention that where you go in your research will be propelled by questions of post-colonial reinterpretation and provocative ways of engaging with gaming.  Can you tell us a bit more about QUIPACAMAYOC in that context, and how those questions will be taken up through this this project?

M: The full title of this new research and creation project, which I’m very pleased to have just received major funding to develop, is “QUIPUCAMAYOC: transmedial, translocal game creation with two Andean communities.” In short it is a multiplayer game that merges interactive public performance/installation with a live action gaming platform. And the game is situated geographically in two sites –Cuzco, Peru, and Buenos Aires, Argentina – and situated historically and culturally in the Andes of pre-Colombian Peru.

To go into the question of post-colonial re-interpretation a bit, the narrative foundation for the game is the Quechua text known as “Huarochiri” (1608) which chronicles of pre-Colombian culture and belief systems in the Peruvian Andes. In fact, the text was commissioned by a catholic priest at the time to catalogue Andean rites, ceremonies and belief structures in order to then eliminate them. In addition to the game action being derived from this text, which abounds with transformation and mutability, the project is organized around the central of the quipucamayoc, the Quechua term for a cadre of the Incan court who were “data keepers,” storing data about life in the empire in string and knot notation structures known as quipu that they strung on their bodies – they literally wore data. The wearing of this elaborate computational system by the datakeepers and storytellers of Andean cultures has inspired the formulation of game controllers as data sets worn by the game players. The outfit worn by each player will also function as a musical instrument. As the player moves, sensors and fabric elements activated in the costume will produce and receive a series of sounds, from electronic to acoustic, and drive the game play. In reading across materials produced before colonization of the Andes by Europeans, materials produced at the peak of colonial power and materials related to contemporary digital media, the intent is to involve people in Cuzco and Buenos Aires in public game play that supports their reinterpretation of these materials. As well, the project is designed to be played simultaneously in two spaces, Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca empire, and Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina where there is now a very large expatriate community of approximately 250,000 Peruvian Andean migrant workers, many of them living in exploitive communities. The game is being designed with those Andean two communities to reconnect them by experiencing and interacting with each other through their common histories.

This is a complex work that has just started and will unfold over the next three years, but I think you can see from this brief description of some of the core elements of the project that it challenges a range of colonial constructions of identity while it challenges contemporary commercial gaming precepts.

Quipu, Museo Inka, Cuzco, image courtesy David McIntosh

[image description: photograph of a quipu, a structure built of strings and knots to record data]

S: What is the role of creativity and imagination in advancing equity?

M: Equity has deep roots in creative practices, theoretical inquiry and embodied action. And I think that looking at equity’s historical roots can help us understand the crucial need to approach equity from creative, theoretical and embodied perspectives together. I offer the example of the development of queer culture over the last few decades and the impact on equity. In the 1940s, self-representing agency for queer folks shifted dramatically with the introduction of polaroid instant photo technology, a development that expanded in the 1970s with the introduction of home video production and consumption technology. Collectively, we were in a position to engage in acts of self-representation through early distributive technologies. In the 1980s, queer collective embodied action was crucial in advancing the parameters of equity, with riots in the streets after police raided Toronto bath-houses and arrested hundreds of gay men. And of course, the 1980s saw massive embodied and creative mobilization of queers everywhere, lead in most cases by queer artists, to fight AIDS/HIV, a mobilization that has shifted in focus over the last decade, but remains crucial to our wellbeing. To locate this history at OCAD, I developed and taught the very first Queer Theory course here in 2000. Human rights and equity processes developed alongside these other embodied actions, creative practices and theoretical approaches, and we all benefit from these actions. But the struggle for rights and equity is not over. Queer kids still experience discrimination in their on-line and face-to face lives, and trans people still experience inordinate abuse and discrimination. Creative responses remain a key form of promoting and expanding rights and equity. I think it is each person’s choice to theorize, represent, militate for rights, and imagine themself as they see fit, and this is the basis for new collective action. Once again, proliferation of new creative forms, new ways of seeing and being, new conceptual frames, are our best tools for moving forward with equity.  As a person with a recently acquired disability, I’m understanding in new ways that the struggle for rights and equity continues to take on new challenges that will certainly be met with equally challenging creative responses.

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