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To bring it together in one distinct place

James Smith introduces his use of PubPub as an interfacing tool for a broad-ranging creative project, featuring port communities in the British Isles and the artists who define them.
Published onSep 13, 2023
To bring it together in one distinct place

AV. Thank you so much for joining me today to talk about Creative Connections! I'd like to ask first:

What is your community, and who is involved?

JS. Our work on PubPub, Creative Connections, is part of a big project. The project is called Ports, Past and Present, which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund through something called the Ireland Wales Cooperation Program. It's five port communities on both sides of the Irish Sea between Ireland and Wales and the UK. So there's Dublin, and Dublin port. There's Holyhead in North Wales. Then there's Rosslare Europort and the village of Rosslare Harbour in Wexford, in the extreme southeast of Ireland, which then connects up to Pembrokeshire in the South of Wales, where there's Fishguard and its twin town Goodwick and there's Pembroke Dock, the other port, a former naval dockyard town in the Milford Haven waterway. And they're all port communities linked together.

As part of that project, we're trying to reflect back the depths of history and culture and stories of these port communities. For the purposes of showing that they're places you want to visit, to experience, and that are very important to the communities that live there. They've traditionally been kind of stopping places where people get on the ferry, just pass on through, get onto the motorway. They funnel you out, basically, by design.

The general idea of the project is to build up, with other sister projects, a sense of these communities. There's films, and cultural heritage stories, and an app. As part of that, Martin and my other colleagues in that work package, who are coming from the Center for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, which is in Aberystwyth in Wales, they put out a commission call for creative practitioners. It was quite broadly construed, what that could mean. But they selected 12 different practitioners.

One thing that came up quite quickly is that, sure, they can create their material, but we needed to also be able to tell the story of its creation. And we can make exhibitions of it, which has happened: there's been this big traveling exhibition that Martin's been curating. Basically, moving around different cultural institutions, museums and galleries all around these port communities. And it varies: some of its born digital, some of its sound art or, you know, interviews and oral histories, some of its physical objects, so like sculptures, some of it’s film, some of it is printing books. Some of it is is actually a book, and you know, it really ranges a bit. It's also this huge mosaic on the wall of Pembroke Dock ferry terminal called A Sea of Stories, that's quite a large bisque fired mosaic of the sea between Wexford and Pembrokeshire, sharing all the stories that you can find in different bits of the ocean.

The commissions include photography, even postcards made with risographs, and all these kinds of obsolete printing technologies. So they vary. And, an audio play. So they vary very widely. And we knew that we could create it, and we knew that we could, say, archive it somewhere. So it's all going permanently on the digital repository of Ireland, which is a certified national repository where we can keep all these files and photographs permanently, so that they, you know, they can be preserved for posterity and found. And they all have DOIs, which are—as you know—unique identifiers. We also needed somewhere to talk about the process, somewhere distinct for the project that could allow curation and kind of rearrangement pieces because we didn't have a space for it at the time. The PubPub community was the place where we realized that we could not just showcase what had been created but also the process, which is basically what Martin and I have been doing recently.

We also had someplace to talk about the process, to document some of the process, which was important, and to bring it all together in one distinct place, where it wasn’t just the exhibitions in isolation, but it actually showed a bit of the journey about how these objects came to exist. That's what we specifically wanted to do with PubPub, is to show off a portfolio, which is something we didn't really have the capacity for. I've always been an admirer of PubPub, and I thought that it would suit our needs very well. It has so and we're growing into a next step stage, which I can talk about, where I think it will suit our needs even better.

AV. Yeah, I'd love to hear more about the next stages! It's obviously a really compelling project. And being able to use the interface of PubPub to navigate between all of these different artists, who are contributing to the project as a whole, has been really rewarding for us. It's really drawn us to your community. So I'd love to hear more about that. I'm also curious about your feelings about the “big brain” objectives of the project. You've spoken a little bit about this, and obviously it comes from a government initiative, as you're saying, to emphasize the role of ports as a geographic and cultural feature. But I think that we love the way that your community really operates with and emphasizes the principle of connectivity. And the idea that you can value these points of connection, simply because it's so linked to the way that your community operates on PubPub as well. So, maybe I can just ask that first:

What would you say is the main focus or goal of the project? How has that evolved?

JS. Is this specifically on PubPub?

AV. Or as a whole, I don't know: yeah!

JS. Well, I mean, probably the best way to answer that would be to start big and then go small. And I think one thing that obviously should be pointed out is that a lot of the portfolio work happened or is happening during what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a lot of our initial kind of options for traveling around and that about creatives who had to adjust their work, and you know, change their schedules, this kind of work, these kinds of reporting, you know, these pieces, these pubs were kind of what was available at the time, it was a way of showing people and now there's been this big flood of outputs, and all of this material is more available, and as a post-lockdown thing. If I would look at the project as a whole, it was it's a very people heavy project. The the idea was to go on lots of trips, talk to people build up relationships, and we had to fall back like everyone did to online modes of production, of networking, which to varying degrees was successful. There are some people that really there's no replacement for in person, getting to know people and to be in these communities. But that's also true of PubPub in that we used to platform to release some of the early material, but then also to document the Archive. And then we can also create connections to the Pub. It's that useful thing of being able to comment on another digital object that makes it valuable now. The Archive also has IIIF functionality, the international image interoperability framework. So we can actually pull in the manifest from that, and display it in different ways on PubPub.

We're thinking of making some exhibitions using different sets of media, and then that will give us somewhere to draw attention to those as well. So not only has it allowed us to capture some of the ephemera of that was very interesting. The artists or creatives were very interested in sharing to varying degrees, some of them had a lot more process than others. What we're doing now, which is basically showing the state of it as delivered, and then I think there'll be an afterlife, it's a place that anything that happens after the project can be put up there. For example, all of the creative content is now being aggregated to Europeana. Because it's very arbitrary that the project finishes when it does, you know. Cultural heritage doesn't work like that. It doesn't work like that it has very long tail on it. So in the future, it gives us an opportunity to talk about that. Another thing that it gives us an opportunity to talk about Martin was very anxious about is that a huge amount of work was put into, for example, there's a book, a coffee table book of all the artists contributions, some of their contributions are books that Martin actually put together, and like printed, it actually gives us a chance to talk about those objects as well. And also, you know, basically, to talk about the exhibitions and to basically, we’ve put up a photo gallery of the all of them in situ, because each space was very different, different sizes, different media, different space needs. And it was basically reimagined and new by Martin whenever he moved it. And it's been all the way around the Irish Sea. Now this exhibition is currently in Wexford. I think it's going home soon.

Read more about Martin’s perspective here!

But basically, there are things that work package did that would otherwise just disappear. I'm very much a kind of data management archiving type person myself, and I didn't want to see the process disappear. I didn't want to see ephemera lost. Part of why Martin did the artists book is so that the artists, the creatives could talk about their process. We wanted that book to be somewhere to talk about things that weren't literally what was paid to be delivered, which is not really how any kind of creative practice works. So it's given us all these options for things that otherwise we just really couldn't show. We wanted to invest in the careers and the kind of the ideas of the people involved as well.

AV. How do you begin to think about digital presentations for creative work?

As an archivist, or as you say, a data management person, what are the first stages of brainstorming these modes of presentation and preservation?

JS. Well, I mean, there's actually two versions of that. I mean, one of them, I think Martin would say this as well because he too is an artist, a digital artist, is that it's important to respect the way that people want their work to be archived, to be available. I spent some time making sure that some photographs on the collection had a surrogate copy that's web quality that you can look at, but also what's called a “preservation only asset.” That's the full quality image to make sure that both the artist isn't losing out on their ability to have some control over the reproduction of their work. This allows for a permanent version, but at the same time, it's about the use of Creative Commons licensing of making sure you have the non commercial clause so that they the creatives themselves and profit from their work, and making sure that the content is licensed in a way that's mutually agreeable, which we talked a lot about. And then of course, Pub Pub helps to set licenses as well. And it's very well integrated with the Creative Commons system.

So it's sort of a natural fit. Because we can also just license our pubs that we're just talking about, just CC-BY so they can have their own license and we’ve minted DOIs for the more substantial ones. Some of the other material the projects made is just default, you know, CC-BY 4.0, because we wanted it to be as open as possible, but it's closed as necessary. Other items are CC-BY NC SA 4.0. Part of that has been just shifting things around tuning them to make sure that everyone's happy. Then palpably, is the way that we can express different aspects of that and to point to different things that have been archived. Without it just being a database, or just a fairly dry description, just bring it to life, give it some give it a kind of visual identity as well.

AV. So what are the other tools you draw upon? I’m curious what would you say is the toolbox for Creative Connections as a whole. You've talked about CC licenses, and you've talked a little bit about your IIIF viewer options.

How is your PubPub community working in concert with other tools?

JS. Well, I think part of it has been just having someone—in this case, Martin—taking a lot of photographs, a lot of photographs. Photographic documentation is an absolutely crucial part of the toolkit, understanding how best to archive and preserve the quality of say audio and video content. I've noticed that most creatives have very specific: they're very attuned to the quality of the audio files they send, how they want things to be captured, so we’re trying to respect that and preserve things the way that they're intended. Having a sense of but also just people managing expectations. There's potentially a lot of distrust, I think, sometimes between commercial actors and creatives, because there's this debate at the moment about AI and art and music, you know, just things being appropriated without your control. I think it's if an academic is involved in this process, it's important to have respect and to understand that you're meeting halfway, and that you need to have a dialogue and make sure that everyone's needs are kind of balanced. It's a lot of it's about people and about, that's what Martin and his colleagues, Liz (Edwards) and Mary-Ann (Constantine) have spent a lot of time working on Creative Connections. It's about answering questions, about being there to support the creatives as they work with your. It's about, you know, making sure everyone's happy, and a lot of collaboration. So a lot of soft skills, I would say have gone into it.

Check out Series 3.1, Tools, Tech, and Media, on Commonplace to read more about how journalists and artists are combating and working with AI to generate trust.

AV. So talk a little bit about the other members of the team. Obviously you’re working a great deal with Martin.

Are there other members, apart from the artists that you've commissioned for the project?

JS. Yeah, so I can just summarize my colleagues in this work package. So there's Mary-Ann Constantine who's a professor who works a lot on Welsh literature and on the Irish Sea, and on travelogues and things like that. But she's also been very involved in this kind of grassroots community creative stuff, and has put a lot of effort into the idea of stimulating, you know, creative work at this level. And she's the lead of that work package. And Martin is a has a very interesting skill set. He's an academic who his speciality is things like stained glass, and medieval art history, essentially. But he's also a professional photographer, and a designer who's been doing web design and graphic design for like, 20 plus years. But yeah, he's also an artist himself, and he does, he makes these amazing pieces. He gets photographs of medieval tiles, which you get in a lot of Welsh churches like near the altar, like ceramic tiles, and then he remixes. Martin colors them and creates digital artworks out of them. It's his route. He's a man of many talents. And we've used all of them in this project. And then some, but I don't think that this work package could never have been possible without the fact that Martin's a real kind of all rounder with a wide skillset, like he's done a bit of everything. It’s been invaluable. And there's his website, you can see a bit of his work there. Yeah, but he's very talented.

Another person is Elizabeth Edwards, who is the coordinator of that work package. And she's also an early career researcher. And she's a literary scholar. But I think like a lot of us she's really expanded her skill set over this project. Like she's she's got into all of this, managing events, managing everything. Talking to other creatives we're currently doing the last of the creative commissions, which is, for our app, we've put some of the creative stuff made it into born digital app experiences, but we're chopping up all these oral history interviews at the moment to make a project called Cloud of Voices. We've had to all of us have had to kind of extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone. And I think everyone in that work package has. The last person worth pointing out is Catherine Agnew, who's at Wexford county council, who is also a partner in it. And she's very much a kind of events, marketing people person, she's, she's made a lot of events happen. And being really, she also had an interesting example where during lockdown, she actually was the only one physically able to visit some of the people that like the stakeholders in the project. So having her on the ground has always been valuable. And they've worked together as a team really well. So like a range of different talents and different different skill sets, I think went into creative connections. Mostly come in as the digital backup kind of, you know, to help get everything in a in a place where it's visible, and to make sure things aren't lost, which often means me saying, Well, why don't we take a photo of this? Or why can't what can we put this in the, you know, the repository as well. So, yeah, I'm involved in that capacity.


Will you speak a little bit about the app that you're developing, or have developed, and what that is?

JS. Okay, I'll do that. So basically, the app is called Port Places. And it was from a work package with the project that’s about bringing the past to life.

See snapshot at time of publication here.

It turns out that actually having a free cultural heritage app is actually very useful for the creative content as well. And we've found so one of the one of the commissions is what's called a theatrical audio tour is this is Rua Barron and Hannah Power in Dublin. They did this five point theatrical audio tour, and we put that into the app. And it's got like interesting little sound scapes in different parts of the Dublin dark clams. And like I said, there's another one by Kathy D’Arcy, who is another of the creatives who has done this amazing set of little vignettes and interviews called Cloud of Voices that we're currently just going to be our last thing for the app. So it's got walking tours in it, it's got things you can look at during the three crossings, but heritage tourism, like there's one about the South Wexford coast, which is a biodiversity hotspot, a town trail that was created in the mid 2000s, and then abandoned in print form, and we've kind of resuscitated it digitally. And there's been a few like that.

They're all different. Part of that has been thinking about which creative Commission's best fit in an app. Another useful thing with PubPub is that we can just point to the experience on the app and create another connection to it. It lets us call out digital objects all across the internet, as well as writing original blog-style content, which is incredibly useful. And that's partially like, we're going into what's called closure period for the next few months. And a lot of what I'll be doing is writing a few short pubs calling out different things that have happened to make sure that they're all pointed to within within the community.

AV. So what can we do to help this process?

What kinds of features would you like to see from PubPub to support the work you’re doing here?

JS. Some of the things that have happened organically have been very helpful to us, like the Custom CSS was very useful. There's a feature going in at the moment, to suppress all of the versions of the pub that aren't the current version, so that you don't end up with loads of previous drafts coming up, because a few of these we've had to iteratively update. So PubPub currently very good for journals, conference websites, and project related communities, and academic writing style things. I'd say that's seems like the core. But there's so many different things to toggle between different uses. There's loads of creative uses for PubPub. Obviously, I think PubPub is an excellent option for galleries and portfolios, so one thing actually that seems lacking now is there's no native photo gallery support. I've been using this thing called Albumizr, and then just doing a iFrame to it, and it works alright. But actually having like things like native, like photo box style things in there. So basically just what's already happening with Pub Pub, but more rich media, as well as good, solid, interoperable media support. I think that would help create not just like a blog style experience, but so much more with like multiple levels of multiple menus and media embedding.

I feel like Pub Pub is just showing, it's a really powerful swiss army knife. And I think it's starting to embrace that. And just the ability to meet new projects. I mean, I've just been watching a few power users like the COPIM Project which I know is like epic power user of PubPub, but they are always trying a new thing. And I think it's just really helped to prove how flexible it is at documenting, which is encouraging for us to then find the balance between documenting and exhibiting, and that sometimes those two things aren't mutually exclusive. And really, it's there's no reason why you can't do both of them in PubPub. So that that will be my hope is just media support, essentially.

AV. It's great. It's just wonderful to hear how in line you are with our own perspectives on these issues, since we are talking constantly, perhaps obviously, about the “what is a pub?” kind of question, and what media issues that encompasses. Then wondering: how we should represent images? Either as pubs, or within pubs: how does it change their communicative power to represent them this way? What is the hierarchy of objects that can exist in PubPub, and how we can manipulate that according to the faceted dimensions of the platform? I hope that you'll be in touch with us, and participating in those conversations as we move forward. I would also love to point you to Robert Barsky’s communities, Barsky being a professor based at Vanderbilt University who operates multiple PubPub communities [including Contours and the Baudelaire and Modern French Studies], but who is now working up a public art project with the city of Atlanta’s Beltline, which feels in some ways so related to this approach: the project is site-based; a kind of large, interactive experience based on a long poem that he's written, which will also be represented in a concurrent presentation on PubPub. It feels very copacetic to the approach that you've taken here. And then, it also feels so unique in some ways, to think about the way that you're sharing, or even exhibiting art, in an open fashion online. I sometimes feel that so much of what happens in the world of art specifically, maybe even moreso than academic publishing in some ways, is very, very closed by virtue of its ties to physical space: it is almost necessarily closed. So, for example, if you're not able to be physically present for this film screening, or for that display of this large-scale ceramic installation, you're never going to really see the work.

Can you talk about how publishing openly has influenced Creative Connections?

JS. That's an interesting one, because as the as the kind of project that we are, we have a duty to document what we've done. I think it's frankly, disgraceful to let things that were created with regional public money, disappear or hide, or I think you have like a duty of care and stewardship, I feel a duty to make it available. For us, PubPub is a dedicated space to point to, there's just so many types of creative work that were made out of the project, and being able to sign posts, but also document and display an exhibit. Like having something that it's really important because and we also wanted it to be something that didn't felt like it was tacked on, that it was a space that these these 12 creatives created. Just because you say something's a non-commercial license doesn't mean that there are people that are going to exploit it. But then at the same time, it's the same thing about the debate around open access, where there's this mixture of bad faith kind of criticisms of openness, warring with legitimate concerns control privacy. And it's a big, big, big debate. I think it's the same in the creative world, and that there's a need to protect creatives and their work. But at the same time, sharing an openness actually creates future commercial opportunities or like abilities to make a living for creatives.

One of our big things is this the very high quality 300+ megabyte image. In the case of A Sea of Stories, I've had loads of inquiries about people wanting to have like a print of it. Robert Jake's the artist is the only person who can do that. So we're just going to point it all his way. But basically, it's shown to be the case in open access publishing, open book publishing, that it actually drives print sales as well. I mean, a lot of the presses that are involved in COPIM, actually, that I mentioned before, it increases your print sales. And I think, I think with certain except, I mean, it's very hard to stop unscrupulous people from, you know, appropriating or, but I guess there is an issue with things that are visually pleasing that you could, you could put it on a shirt or what you know, there are certain issues, where I think you have to basically make it as open as the creative the artist is satisfied with, but try and see it as an opportunity. These are public artworks as well. So they're a bit different to account. They have a slightly different kind of ethos to them. So I'm not sure this will be more widely true, but in this case, there's definitely it's about looking after the creatives, but at the same time, making sure that their work is available to people that they can be part of it, like participate in it, and that they're not physically separated from it.

AV. We started out by talking a little bit about the influence of the COVID pandemic, and I feel that that plays into this so much. Just the idea, for instance, that without physical presence, you can still maintain a connection with the kinds of their the creative output that these locations germinate. Thank you so much for talking with us today. I'm wondering if you can maybe close by by speaking about

What's inspiring the next step in the evolution of Creative Connections? And—basically—how has it changed over time? What's next?

JS. I mean, part of the answer to that is that the the artists in question that that careers go on. And I think the project is actually showing that old Commission's lead to new Commission's. So just to return to Robert Jake's, again, he did a series of these engraved plaques, for a book of the town trail that is actually the one we did on the app. And that pasture, there was part of his journey to wanting to apply for funding for the mosaic. Now, there are people like him, and other artists in Pembrokeshire who are very well known in the community, because they've done successive commissions for the community. And often they're all for the community, I think the real future of it will be that those people are community artists, and that was part of the reason why they're chosen and their careers will go on. And they will grow and change with it. But we're also making sure that people are really invested in some of this work, some of its postcards that can be printed and shared. Some of its the mosaic, some of it is app content, it's usable art, it's not just art, on display, it's some of it's actually you can actually interact with it. It's all going to have a permanent home somewhere, the ones where they're a unique item, they're all going to have a home, and you know, somewhere, but also, we’ve captured the look of them as well to try and make them into something that people will remember. And I imagine that part of the future will be that those artists will go on to win more commissions and continue to build on their work. Ultimately, for the whole project, that's the future where people live in these communities, they invest in their communities, they care about them, they want to show them off to best advantage. We're just a blip, like all of these projects are just a blip on the radar, a short term thing, all we can do is contribute while we can, like create what we can provide it make it accessible, and they're the ones that are going to go with it. And that's the same, I think for all public art and sculptures: they become part of the makeup of the community. And I think that's really where it's gonna go. But what I wanted to make sure is that by the time we're finished, there's just a really good account of kind of what it was like to make these things too. And then what they turned out like that beyond the book, which is a work in progress. It's very, it's a nice book, but a bit more of a maximalist approach to that, where people can see some of what went into that story. And then when it goes somewhere, next, they can look back and see how this particular phase of it played out. So I'm sure it will inspire future academic work as well.

AV. I love that you use the positive sense of being a “blip” within the trajectory of artists, for an evolving practice that is deeply tied to a community. A deep way of closing this. Thank you so much for your time, and we're going to look forward to those statements that you're authoring for your community.

JS. I mean, basically it's just going to be some things talking about the deposits on the DRI, new Pubs, and basically, it'll mostly be connections to other objects that just draw attention to them. Martin will include some more of his exhibition photography, because there's hundreds of pictures of them in situ. And I think it's more than just capturing the work. There's something about the physical act of adapting it multiple times to different spaces that is so fascinating, that I think people would be interested in.

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Responding to time and space
Responding to time and space

Martin Crampin describes the artistic side of Creative Commons, featuring port communities in the British Isles. How did they commission, curate, and exhibit a project highlighting five ports across two countries all while making it digital?

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