The AHRC’s ‘Digital Transformations’ theme is exploring ways in which engagement with digital technologies can transform research in the arts and humanities, enabling researchers to investigate new problems and (we hope) to change the nature of scholarly discourse. The theme also seeks to develop a distinctive arts and humanities perspective on issues posed by the increasing ‘datafication’ of society, such as privacy, identity and security. As theme leader fellow, I have the perfect job, since my role is to liaise with and visit many of the various exciting projects that the AHRC has been funding under this theme, so that I can develop a sense of the overarching lessons and messages which are emerging from their work.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to an inspiring event in the Cultural Quarter of Leicester, the launch of an AHRC-funded project called ‘Affective Digital Histories: Re-creating De-industrialised Places’ which seeks to gather memories about the period from 1970 when many traditional manufacturing industries disappeared from Britain’s towns and cities. The decline of British manufacturing is well known, but the personal stories of the individuals affected are often unrecorded and forgotten. The Affective Digital Histories project seeks to recover and preserve the hidden and untold stories of people who lived and work in former industrial buildings at two locations in the East Midlands: the St George’s area of Leicester, which was formerly the hub of the city’s shoe and textile trade but now forms Leicester’s Cultural Quarter, and Glossop, a mill town in north Derbyshire. The enthusiasm and energy of the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Ming Lim, and her team were infectious, and the way in which the project is a joint enterprise with community organisations such as the Phoenix Theatre is particularly fascinating.
There is a risk that the rebranding of areas like St George’s in Leicester as a ‘cultural quarter’ can increase the sense of alienation among people who worked and lived there, and who may feel that the area now has little to offer or interest them. The ‘Affective Histories’ project is exploring how digital technology can help local populations continue to feel engaged with areas affected by deindustrialisation. The sharing of memories is at the heart of this endeavour and the project will demonstrate how a digital environment enables such memories to be recorded and used on a scale which was hitherto unimaginable. This also enables the community to become fully engaged with research into a neglected but important part of national history. The ‘Affective Histories’ project is building up an online archive of memories, photographs and stories of Glossop and Saint George’s. In January, the project will place booths in the huge Highcross Shopping Centre which will offer the tens of thousands of local people who visit Highcross the opportunity to record their memories of these areas, creating a huge memory digital store of the St George’s area with an emphasis of the type of everyday memory and reminiscence which is often difficult to find in a conventional archive. It is unusual for arts and humanities research to take place in a shopping centre, but those who contribute their memories will help in preserving for future scholars insights into the profound changes which overtook Britain from the 1970s.
The project has produced two apps which are available for iPhone and iPad users from the App store and for Android users from Google Play, The first app is called ‘Sounds of the Cultural Culture’. Among the biggest changes which have take place in British cities over the past fifty years are environmental changes, including changes in the sound of everyday life. In particular, industrial noises which dominated life in British cities for nearly two hundred years have disappeared. The ‘Sounds of the Cultural Quarter’ app enables users to hear both past and present sounds associated with different places in the cultural quarter, and to recapture something of that lost industrial soundscape. The second app is called ‘Hidden Stories’ and presents five specially commissioned stories describing memories of life in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter. Users of the app can use the stories to follow a trail around the quarter, uncovering hidden histories associated with places such as the old Imperial Typewriter factory or Rowley’s Sock Factory.
The eye-catching aspect of apps such as these is naturally the digital wizardry of the local technology company, Cuttlefish, and in this way the project itself feds directly into the digital economy of the Cultural Quarter. But what struck me was that much of the creative excitement around the ‘Hidden Histories’ app derived from the commissioning of local writers to produce stories for the app. This is a reminder that cultural regeneration depends as much on the encouragement and promotion of creative talent as on technology. The ‘Hidden Histories’ app is attractively and robustly realised, but what makes the app compelling is the high quality of the writing it presents. This writing depends on the engagement of each of the writers with different memories of the area, which they supplemented by using the Special Collections of the University of Leicester and the City Archive, thereby achieving what one of the contributors calls a ‘deep mapping’ of the memory landscapes of this part of Leicester. This is a reminder that, in a digital economy, creative content – in such forms as novels, poetry, archives, drawings and sound – is a fundamental asset. Moreover, much of this creative content is rooted in and draws its values from memory.
Memory, as scholars such as Pierre Nora have shown us, animates many different aspects of the arts and humanities, from studies of classical civilisation through to contemporary history. The lifeblood of much of the arts and humanities consists of cultural memory. What is striking about the ‘Affective Histories’ project is the way in which it draws on memory to directly assist in the economic regeneration of this area of Leicester. Perhaps memories are among the most important assets that places such as Leicester and Glossop possess.
For much of my lifetime (I am a child of Harold Wilson’s white-hot revolution of technology), computing and digital technologies have been presented in Britain as an escape route from industrialisation – a means of replacing a dirty and physically demanding form of economic activity with cleaner, more modern and knowledge-based activities. I have suggested elsewhere that, from a historical point of view, the lines of continuity between the industrial and digital revolutions may be stronger than is often allowed. At the heart of the ‘Affective Histories’ project is the idea that memories of older industrial ways of life may feed in many different ways into regeneration. For example, archival materials and storytelling may provide raw material for some of the creative firms springing up in places like St George’s. Regeneration may also be fostered by encouraging the local population to share their memories, thereby promoting connectivity and creativity. Memories of small-scale industrial activity may also encourage the establishment of ‘pop-up’ activities linking new technologies with education and older tradition, such as the New Incunable Print Shop, developed with the artist collective Juneau Projects where visitors can make 3D-printed woodblocks based on their own drawings, and use them to create original prints and artworks. An activity like the New Incunable Print Shop uses new fabrication techniques to reimagine the older industrial and craft traditions of Leicester’s cultural quarter, creating an triangulation between memory, new forms of economic activity and regeneration.
It is easy to assume that, in the globalised world fostered by the internet, regional traditions will fade away and become irrelevant. Yet the ‘Affective Histories’ project suggests that local memory and identity may assume new and distinctive roles in a digital economy. The arts and humanities have an important role in fostering the digital world as a place of memory. The way in which the ‘Affective Histories’ project harks back to the days of hosiery, shoes, tanning and typewriters, and uses these memories to invigorate the cultural life of Leicester’s cultural quarter, is striking. But Leicester is not a unique case. In Sheffield, the cultural quarter similarly looks back to the traditions of the ‘small mesters’ of the cutlery and metalwork trades there. Another project recently launched in the East Midlands was a pair of GPS-enabled shoes designed by the artist Dominic Wilcox with Stamp Shoes and Becky Stewart. The shoes use GPS to guide the wearer home using a sequence of LED lights on the toes. These shoes were commissioned by Northamptonshire County Council as part of the Global Footprint project, and again echo the long-standing shoemaking traditions of Northampton. I was fascinated to hear Gareth Neal talk in the recent Make:Shift conference organised by the Crafts Council about the Bodging Milano project which sought to revisit the ancient furniture making methods associated with the bodgers. In another AHRC project, the University of the West of England, which undertakes cutting-edge work on the 3D printing of ceramics, is working with Burleigh Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the last remaining company to produce ceramic tableware decorated using the traditional printed underglaze tissue method, in order to find a means of restating this method of ceramic decoration in a digital environment.
These old traditions of small mesters and bodgers, of underglazing and hosiery, still have a great deal to contribute to the way in which we think about new economic activities, and arts and humanities researchers can help us reconnect with the memories of these traditions.