Digital Writers’ Festival 2015: A wrap
The second Digital Writers' Festival — an online project of our residents, Emerging Writers' Festival — ran from 4–21 February this year. Festival director Connor Tomas O'Brien shares his highlights.
Around this time last year, we were breathing gigantic IRL sighs of relief over at the Emerging Writers’ Festival: the first Digital Writers’ Festival had just wrapped, and, with the exception of a few requisite video-chatty glitches, had provided a space for dozens of incredible digitally-mediated video chat conversations that were unlike any we’d seen at writers’ festivals before.
The panels might end, but the tweets keep flowing.
One of the themes of the first year of the DWF was enabling ‘impossible or improbable communication’. Through the potent (albeit still notoriously finicky) combo of a webcam, wireless broadband connection, Twitter account, and a tablet or PC, the DWF put a broad range of internationally-based artists face-to-face with one another, and in front of an invisible at-home audience, transcending tyrannies of distance and barriers to accessibility. As is the case with most writers’ festivals, of course, the events themselves were most often simply excuses to bring interesting people together and enjoy the fruits of wide-ranging, wonderfully discursive discussions. All that was different, fundamentally, was that we selected artists who would never be able to, for whatever reason, be in the same physical place at the same time.
Still, there is no doubt that the videochat format can be truly odd, if you run with it - and in 2015, the bumpy strangeness of the format was well and truly embraced. In 20 Minute Cities: Edinburgh, one of the first events of the Festival, we met Scottish writers Viccy Adams and Jemma Neville in Looking Glass Books, nestled in the middle of the city’s literary quarter. The pair sipped their tea and chatted about their city’s literary heritage before heading out the door, down Middle Meadow Walk in the footsteps of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie, past Greyfriars Bobby, and toward The Elephant House, a point of pilgrimage for fans of the Boy Wizard.
As writers face their webcams and begin spilling their secrets, it’s difficult not to feel as though they’re really staring out at you.
Throughout the DWF, emerging writers armed with smartphones and mobile data connections led us on a range of short excursions: through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s Dey House (20 Minute Cities: Iowa), running into Pulitzer prizewinner Paul Harding (apparently entirely unaware of his involvement in the exercise); to the spot in New Zealand’s Dunedin where a bankrupted Mark Twain once praised the city in hope of a pay cheque (20 Minute Cities: Dunedin); to the path from London to Norwich that William Kempe Morris danced across centuries earlier (20 Minute Cities: Norwich); to a late-night bookstore in Reykjavik, where audience members across the planet were regaled by an intimate late night Icelandic-English poetry reading (20 Minute Cities: Reykjavik).
The Digital Dinner Parties event, similarly, was based on a desire to exploit another quirk of the video chat format: the ability to be in the same kind of space as a partner, while being somewhere else entirely. On the second Friday evening of the Festival, after setting their devices down on their kitchen benchtops, food writers Kylie Maslen and Rebecca Slater took to discussing food culture while audience members cooked along with the pair, tweeting and Instagramming their progress.
Bedroom Recordings — an event featuring songwriters Brendan Maclean and Will Cuming (LANKS) discussing their craft — had a similarly intimate feel to it, with the musicians performing (and dissecting) acoustic renditions of their work from their living rooms. Audiofiction Experiments, a Sunday evening live collaboration between writer Justin Wolfers and sound designer James Brown, took this kind of video chat performance to a new height of strangeness.
There is something inherently (though almost inexplicably) cosy about video chats — as writers face their webcams and begin spilling their secrets, it’s difficult not to feel as though they’re really staring out at you … especially so when events are running live. In any format, Presenting The Stella Prize Longlist would have been incredible — nine of the year’s most esteemed and incredible women writers, reading snippets from their longlisted works. But there was something particularly delightful in being able to watch, say, Maxine Beneba Clarke delivering her story ‘Big Islan’ in her gentle, lilting patois, in a unique environment in which very little — beyond a screen and some distance — stood between reader and performer.
Events in which artists directly engaged with how we read and write online were especially popular at the DWF this year. How to Argue Better, featuring opinionated editors from The Saturday Paper, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free and The Lifted Brow, predictably generated a robust discussion on Twitter, as our culture of think-pieces and hot-take churnalism was variously dismantled, denounced, and defended. In Blogging as a Feminist Issue, the relationship between intellectual snobbery, gender and blogging was interrogated, with a panel of incredible female writers taking the unceasing Jonathan Franzen - Jennifer Weiner feud as grist for a broad discussion on how discrediting new media platforms can function as a means of stigmatising dissent.
As with the first DWF, there was a palpable sense this year that, as each event concluded and artists slowly stepped away from their webcams, the discussions generated throughout the festival would continue. At a traditional writers’ festival, audience members and artists part ways as events conclude. With the Digital Writers’ Festival, there is much less that sense of separation – the panels might end, but the tweets keep flowing.