On finding the plot again

Last month I came across a post on Twitter by Venkatesh Rao. It was he who back in 2017 introduced me to the idea of rhizomatic versus arborescent growth in organizations in a way I finally understood, almost a decade after Nancy Proctor tried to explain the distributed museum as a rhizome. This epiphany led, in no small part, to my Useful Dialectics series of posts, and then Hannah Lewi et al asking me to write the chapter that became “The distributed museum is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” that appeared in The Routledge International Handbook of New Digital Practices in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Heritage Sites. It’s funny the life a single interaction can have. Sometimes an idea can act like a virus; it spreads and mutates and is carried far beyond the initial point of infection.

I’ve followed Rao ever since. He’s an interesting thinker, and I’ve often found him provoking in a good way. And then last month, he posted a diagram of his experience of living through COVID times. I redrew it above and the label writer in me had to iron out some of the language, but here it is, sans a zillion arrows all going from each step to the next.

“Find the Plot Again” really went right through me when I read it. 2022 has felt like a long, hard year of going through the motions of living and working I did in the Before Times, only they don’t quite feel right anymore. Every meeting, every trip, has felt a little perilous and unfamiliar, like I’m going through the motions and reading my lines, but they’re for the wrong movie. In Rao’s trajectory, I feel like I’ve made it through the first seven steps and am now struggling through the eighth. How can I find the plot again, and what does that plot require of me?

I’m not there yet, but glimmers of the plot have emerged over the past few months.

It’s important to have interests

Way back in the Spring during AAM 2022, the folks from AAM asked me if I’d write something for the magazine. My feelings toward the organization are decidedly mixed, but as a relatively new business owner, getting the company’s name out there was enticing. Plus, I generally don’t lack for things I’m dying to get off my chest. So I said I’d write something from the long-suffering book project that continues to percolate ever so slowly. I settled on writing something about immersion and how museums could use it. Given the amount of ink spilled over the latest craze for immersive art experiences it seemed like a no-brainer. So I said “Yes”, they said “Great!” and I slotted it into an August already jammed with deadlines. And I thought that would be it. We’d get some coverage around the end of the year, and maybe some new business next year.

While I was writing it, pulling bits out of the chapter on immersion, looking for more recent research and commentary, etc… I was reminded of part of the plot I’d forgotten; being interested in things that weren’t attached to immediate work deliverables. In my institutional life up til 2020, having broader interests in practice and exploring them through research and writing was a staple part of my work life. Since starting my post-institutional life, that piece had been misplaced. Everything was about business development, and then once that started paying off, it was all about client work. Writing 1,800 words on something interesting and not directly tied to a current project felt like flexing a muscle I hadn’t exercised in a long time. I was out of shape, and luckily for everyone AAM hires great editors, so the final article is much tighter than it would’ve been otherwise.

It’s good to hang out

One of the best things about AAM 2022 for us was having the opportunity to host an event for all our friends and colleagues who were in town for the conference/superspreader event. Thanks to Annie’s extensive network, we were able to secure a spot at the Lawn on D, right next to the convention center, where we tried our hand at whipping up some conversational alchemy. We were clear we didn’t want to have a “sales event” where we wooed prospective clients, but rather an opportunity to just hang out and catch up. The joy of seeing old friends and meeting new ones was a balm for the soul. Just eavesdropping on the conversations our guests were having with each other was a thrill. In the hustle and bustle of the conference, it was a relatively chill moment, too.

Of course we called our event “Alchemy”. Photo by Bob Packert

Unfortunately, AAM is only once a year. How to hang on that “hanging out” magic? Fast forward a few months, I got an email from Douglas Hegley, announcing an imminent visit to Boston with a Met colleague and a suggestion; maybe have a Drinking About Museums? The pandemic has not been kind to the kind of loose, low-impact socializing that DAM specialized in. We’d tried a couple of Zoom events early on, but it wasn’t the same. One event over the summer didn’t draw, but having a special guest, and a #musetech celebrity like Douglas always boosted attendance in the Before Times, so I figured I’d give it a whirl. In many ways, it was much the early days of DAM a decade ago, emailing and DMing people directly, trying to build a critical mass.

On the appointed day, we had an intimate and lively group of ten people yakking away at each other about whatever, and it was great! Old faces and new ones, some gossiping, some complaining, and a healthy dose of “And what do you do?” The Met folks had seen the King Tut thing as part of their travels, so of course the conversation turned to projector shortages, projection mapping, and immersion.

Looks kinda formal, but really it’s just that Long Bar is wicked classy.

After having stared at my immersion article for weeks it felt strange to discuss it out loud with other interested parties. “You haven’t read ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’!?” “What kind of immersion are we talking about here? Different researchers have proposed different kinds of immersion.” It became clear to me just how far down a rabbit hole I’d gone in my isolation, typing and retyping. Getting out and having to talk out loud about things I’d only ever seen on the screen. It made finishing the AAM article a lot easier.

But far and a way the best part was renewing those social ties. We talked about new jobs, big deadlines, children and partners and families, existential struggles. It reminded me why Drinking About Museums has been so important to me. Playing a small part in creating spaces for interesting people to meet other interesting people is always gratifying.

Thought partners makes a big difference

While at DAM, David Nuñez shared that one of his methods of finding the plot again had been to start experimenting with Twitter Spaces. Along with storyteller Dan Boyd, he’d decided to tackle a variety of “Future of…” topics of interest to him and one he wanted to tackle was the “Future of Immersive Experiences”. I had thus far managed to avoid trying Twitter Spaces, so the opportunity to get some experience with it with some more experienced hands was appealing, but most appealing was just having conversational partners whose views were different than mine and whose opinions I valued. So he and Dan proposed some questions, I sent them some thoughts, and on the pointed day we had a good chat on the subject. Spaces is an interesting beast, kinda like Clubhouse, a bit like a Zoom lecture with an active chat. The most surprising thing for me was how reticent the audience was to use voice. The questions that came in, came in via chat despite several invitations from Dan and David to speak up. It reminded me how much of an intimate medium audio can be, and how scary that is for many people. The barrier to entry can be quite high.

In many ways, it was a great warmup for an event I’ve been looking forward to for some time. My dear friend Dr. Lauren Vargas has been co-hosting a podcast about the future of human networks called Cohere for a couple of seasons, and asked me if I’d join her and Bill Johnston as part of a series of episodes on AR/VR to talk about digital and physical immersive experiences. As a deep thinker, she’s at the top of my list, and her PhD research and later work with One By One in the UK has always inspired me. Plus, I’ve missed the experience of podcasting since Museopunks has gone on hiatus. It’s a powerful medium and a great way giving voice (literally) to people.

I look forward to speaking with her and Bill, and particularly the questions they’ll ask. Figuring out how to do our work better in the future is a group exercise and having the right partners to do it should be a regular part of the endeavor.

Putting the Big Picture Back Together

So, those are few of things that have come together as part of my pandemic/endemic journey. It feels like a good start, but by no means the end of the road. Among the big loose pieces still without a home are my book and teaching. Where do they fit into life in 2022-23? Do they? I think so, but a renegotiation, and in the case of the book, a complete revisit of chapters I wrote two years is in order. Luckily, it feels manageable. What used to feel like one, huge unmanageable mass has turned out to be a bunch of smaller ones. Like Anne Lamott’s brother, I just needed to take life “bird by bird.”

So that’s where I am in early September 2022.

What are you doing to find the plot again?

What’s working or not working for you?

What does the plot look like for you?


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