Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Digital Writers’ Festival, February 13 - 24, 2014

An online carnival dedicated to what happens when technology and the written word collide.

At the moment there is a new festival happening in the virtual realm — the Digital Writers’ Festival. It is not only for those who consider themselves “digital writers” but rather it serves as a multifaceted invitation for all writers, readers, editors and wordsmiths to explore the digital as a space to connect, engage in conversation — and, yes, also to create. It runs as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, under the auspices of the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas in Melbourne, Victoria. 

As a concept, it might not be totally new, but the festival creators proclaim it to be the first writers’ festival of its kind —  in that it is both entirely online, and thoroughly inclusive. Within this space, hovering above the actual geographic locations of its participants, the festival seems to be both a place of global connection, while retaining a strong sense of valuing specific geographic locations, and this is what I believe makes it unique. Events include the panel discussion “Literary Collectives and Place” where writers examine literary collectives based around a particular city or regional area. “Cities of Literature: A Global Meetup” is a multi-national panel discussing what transforms cities into literary destinations, and how can they support their local creative scenes. In “The Tyranny of Distance” members of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Program Advisory Committee explore what it is to be a writer in rural Western Australia and the Northern Territory, far from more established literary communities. In “Crowdsourcing Translation: Bridges Across the Multilingual Web” translators reflect on web-based projects to create more options for building multi-lingual readerships, in a culture where “often – as English speakers – we forget, mistaking our provincial anglosphere for the world.”

But perhaps this choice of programming is not a surprise, considering the particular relationship we have to space in Australia. Australians grow up with a sense of landscape that is, arguably, different from other places — with most settlements (certainly all the major cities) hugging the coast, the core and heart of the country still being one that inspires awe, trepidation and myth. With few capital cities and its variety of much smaller regional centers, there has always been a strong sense of having to come to terms with vastness; humanity feels very small in contrast with the “far horizons,” driving 10 or more hours between major cities is considered normal. 

The Australian literary scene has been primarily located in the coastal cities, but over the last 10 - 15 years there has been an increasing effort to engage and reach out to regional areas, perhaps in large part due to a growing realization that the arts should not be seen as something that just occurs within places such as Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane. What is great about this festival is that it goes a step further than connection — it views writing from and in regional spaces as not only valid, but just as significant, and writers are being encouraged to use the digital space as a way to connect others in with their own landscape, not to leave that behind and be submerged in some homogenous digital (urban capital?) space. The global aspect of the internet revolution (if it can still be called that) has been argued as being a dilution of our unique voice and identity; this festival asserts the opposite. The conscious and spoken/written intention has been to bring people from many different countries and regional areas into the same “room” but not to leave their own locales, or identities borne from those landscapes, at the door.

So how is this working in practice? I participated in one workshop on Flash Fiction, run by Alice Grundy and David Henley from the publication, and the concept was fairly simple — a live writing workshop run on google hangout, participants sent in work to be read via email, and we could converse over Twitter using a common hashtag. I also witnessed a panel discussion on writing for the internet, and here a facilitator asked several different “screens” (each a writer in front of their computer, each computer in a different part of the world) to contribute, and again the audience commented/contributed on Twitter. To be sure, there was nothing too technologically radical in this process, but the intention is what makes it different and needed: here is a festival context in which they have harnessed technology that most people can access, and this use of the digital both begins and facilitates conversations, writing prompts, expertise and a greater sense that all writers, regardless of how experienced, are important. 

The festival continues until February 24. You need an internet connection, and time zone is not too much of an issue (as long as immediate participation is not what you are after) as all panels and workshops are put up on YouTube afterwards, and you can watch them at a time that suits. This also, incidentally, allows for revisiting of ideas and conversations, which adds another interesting layer to the festival experience that a bricks-and-mortar event (so to speak) may not provide. 

In so many ways, even though sometimes the technology is still a bit clunky — sometimes there are sound or connection drop-outs, for example —  here is a sustained and well-organized effort at democratizing the literary arts. The festival also attempts (successfully, I would say) a strategy that wrestles with issues of space, isolation, and using words (both analogue and digital) to connect writers, to assist them in building not only their stories, but also in developing a community that transcends individual locale, whilst still celebrating those specific, geographic places. 

It is not surprising to me that a festival such as this was initiated in Australia, a country known for rapid uptake of new technologies, as well as for purposefully exploring the issue of open access to the arts; physical distance plays such a significant factor — both in terms of regional versus urban areas, and Australia versus the traditional literary centers of Europe and the USA, for example. The Digital Writer’s Festival is using the virtual, online landscape to facilitate travel through a geographic and global landscape, and I encourage all those interested to join in on a workshop, experience the festival, and potentially see this as a model that can be transposed into many different contexts. Visit to do so. And enjoy!

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