13 July 2022

MDOH: The Forward-View with Machteld Venken and Elspeth Brown

The third in the Multimodal Digital Oral History seminar series welcomed Machteld Venken from the University of Luxembourg and Elspeth Brown from University of Toronto, Canada.

The recording of the seminar can be accessed here: Multimodal Digital Oral History: The Forward-View Seminar – 4

Firstly, Machteld’s paper, titled Talking borders, history and digital hermeneutics, introduced her research arising from an interdisciplinary citizen science experiment hosted in Vienna on the centenary of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This entailed Citizen Scientists (CS), bachelor students in the humanities studying at different border region universities throughout the ex-Habsburg area, talking to each other or to a Border Scholar participating in the Association for Borderlands Studies World Conference as equals about the meaning of borders. Machteld explained the set up of the exchanges, which took place in person and were followed by a Digital Café for 100 days after the event. She described the unexpected shifting of dialogues from between CS and Border Scholar to CS talking to CS about their experiences of life and history in border regions, and the different dynamics and non-academic, affective quality of discussion that this led to. The Digital Café allowed users to post a memorable quote from the exchanges as a spark for discussion and comments, and the paper focused on one participant who was particularly engaged with this forum and who demonstrated an arc in their perspective on received history throughout the exchanges. The second major aspect of the paper was to discuss the potential for such oral histories to be presented in the newly established Journal of Digital History (De Gruyter & University of Luxembourg), which uses a novel form of digital publishing that layers narrative, hermeneutics and data and allows for more expansive presentation of the research process, not simply the results. Machteld and her colleagues on the project have been using Clarin Elan to annotate and analyse these oral testimonies. They are now exploring how they might present their oral histories and their analysis as both a narrative layer and hermeneutic layer, whereby the reader can see the analytic process in the publication rather than static screenshots.

Secondly, Elspeth’s paper, titled Is there anybody out there? Multimodal research creation and queer oral history, raised three challenges in doing multimodal digital oral history and anchored these provocations around the Pussy Palace Oral History Project a collaboration between the LGBTQ Digital History Collaboratory and The ArQuives and the first of it's kind in Canadian history. 'Pussy Palace' was a lesbian and trans bathhouse event that was raided in 2000. The three challenges Elspeth raised were:

  1. How can we make our oral histories accessible in meaningful ways, beyond simply putting them online?
  2. How can we queer oral history interviewing strategies to facilitate narrators’ sensory engagement with the past?
  3. How can we sidestep the colonial logics of research extraction through an ethical collaboration with narrators in the creation and circulation of research findings?

Elspeth discussed the use of research creation, ethical collaboration, and a multimodal, multisensory and site specific methodology while working with narrators to explore their memories of the Pussy Palace as an event and as a physical space, and later to co-produce creative materials for presenting and sharing those memories. Elspeth asked: 'Why not make the most of these rich sonic and visual sources from our complex, multi modal sources and create shorter form creative works, based on the oral histories, with the goal of engaging community members in the research project and directing them to longer form versions if those might be of interest?' She raised some unsettling realities throughout the paper and in the subsequent discussion, notably the extent to which oral history recordings are actually listened to or watched, if at all, and how little data we have to assess end-user engagement. Furthermore, the consequences of making LGBTQ oral histories accessible online where they may be weaponised and misrepresented by anti-LGBTQ groups in a volatile political climate.

Questions that followed concerned the possibility for reconciliation in politically fractured borderlands such as the Italian-Slovenian one through dialogues such as the Digital Café; what ethical issues might arise in doing multimodal oral history projects around queer histories; and future possibilities for representing paralinguistic features using software like Clarin Elan and publishing such data in a live form such as in the Journal of Digital History.

- Hannah K. Smyth, 26 July 2022

13 July 2022