Guest Column with Dr Amelia Barikin

May 12 / 87

A few thoughts on public culture

One of the most urgent questions to emerge in recent years is to do with humankind's  relationship to the environment. Responsibility for shaping the spaces in which we live is not simply a matter for nation states, corporations, or regulatory bodies. Rather, it is a  question of culture.

As an art historian and curator of contemporary art, I strongly believe  forms of cultural communication are crucial to the making of worlds. Much of my research at the University is to do with analysing the intersections between public space, inter-cultural communication and large screen technologies. With our industry partners on the ARC Linkage Project 'Large Screens and the Transnational Public Sphere', we have been investigating the ways in which media technology and public space can contribute to the formation of a 'transnational' public arena.

Working in collaboration with The Australia Council for the Arts, the University of Sydney, Federation Square in Melbourne and Art Center Nabi in Seoul, one of the most exciting aspects of this research has been the generation of live media events that bring together publics in Seoul and Melbourne for real-time creative exchanges.

In 2010, we presented the SMS-based interactive 'SMS_Origins'  by Leon Cmielewski, in which participants in Seoul and Melbourne could collaboratively generate a real-time map of their family's shifting geographic locations by texting their 'origins' to the large screens (including where their parents were born and where they live now).

In 2011, we staged a collaborative public dance event and invited people to communicate through the screens by exchanging and translating physical gestures within the public arena ('The Hello Project', Becky Hilton and Soonho Park, 2011). At each of the events, participant responses are evaluated through surveys and interviews so as to test the quality of both physical and virtual interactions.

The process has involved ongoing reassessments of what constitutes a 'public address', enabling us to formulate new understandings of the ways in which technology and urban environments affect human interactions across countries and cultures. Within a globalised context, public culture acts not only as a vast repository of information, which can be accessed and drawn on to generate new modes of collective agency, but also as a complex political terrain in which the rights to visibility (or citizenship, for that matter) are under constant negotiation. 

From 2013, research into these kinds of questions will be further facilitated by the establishment of a new Research Unit for Public Culture at the University. Based in the School of Culture and Communication, this initiative will focus on transformations in public culture in Australia and internationally. Intended as a hub for research excellence, the Unit will also enable collaborations between creative industries, cultural institutions, research institutions, academic research centres and public communities.

Initial members of the unit span the disciplines of Law, Education, Media and Communication, Criminology, Cultural Studies and History and Philosophy, with plans for the membership base to be expanded.

From early 2013, the Unit will also organise a regular series of public forums, lectures and discussions around key issues shaping the constitution of public life. The public - as producers rather than receivers of cultural knowledge - are welcome to join the conversation.

Dr Amelia Barikin is a Senior Research Associate on the ARC Linkage Project 'Large Screens and the Transnational Public Sphere', and Sessional Lecturer in Art History at the University. More information can be found at www.spatialaesthetics.unimelb.edu.au

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