In December, New York Council for the Humanities Grant Officer, Lauren Kushnick, spoke with Alexander Provan, Editor of Triple Canopy magazine, about his funded grant project “The End of the Image as We Know It: 3D Printing before the Law”: A lecture series about the legal implications of reproduction technology such as 3D printing.
Looking over the amazing variety of projects that you’ve spearheaded and that we’ve been delighted to support at Triple Canopy, we were looking to learn more about the evolution of the “We Are All Anonymous” program. We figured we’d start there and then talk more about this latest project that you’re taking on about 3D printing. So starting from We Are All Anonymous, what inspired you to create this project?
The way Triple Canopy works is that we focus on the development of issues of the magazine which also act as research projects initiated by groups of editors. So with the We Are All Anonymous program—there was not an issue formed around that subject—it was a long-standing concern. Specifically, the way in which anonymity can allow for a certain political orientation toward digital technologies and the way they govern our lives.
So because of that interest we had been following Gabriella Coleman’s work for some years. She was one of the only people who was at that time writing about Anonymous and the various internet subcultures that composed it from a first-hand perspective. Most people had access to public information about the group but didn’t have access to the conversations between members of the group and she was allowed access to those conversations by the members because of her anthropological work.
Essentially, we were interested in having that work written about in a non-academic environment and also presented publicly in conversation. So we had spoken with her—I have no idea how long ago—quite a long time ago. At the same time she was developing this essay for us we were speaking with a technology critic David Ourbeck (sp?) who was similarly interested in the way that anonymity functions online. He was a bit more interested in the way that language functions within a subculture to create status, hierarchy, and cohesion. But also to repulse people who don’t understand that language or who find it objectionable. So the essays work very well together both in terms of their various approaches to the subject matter and in terms of how the political prospects posed by these subcultures both within and beyond the small groups that actually compose them.
I wonder what gave you the idea to bring this conversation from the digital sphere – I know you’re on a digital platform yourself—to the public space. What were your goals for that transition?
In certain ways our public programs serve as an enactment of the kind of juxtapositions of articles that occur in the magazine which we hope people encounter an issue of the magazine and read many articles but that doesn’t happen always so it seems to us effective to actually stage those juxtapositions in public. That of course also allows for people to have a greater purchase on the material and to ask questions that are not already answered in the essays.
Our process is—generally we take quite a long time to edit an essay—and we work quite closely with contributors over the course of months if not years and so inevitably many of those discussions don’t make their way into the essay so since there’s always so much more to talk about than what we end up publishing. It’s really nice for readers to know that and also to participate in that process so quite often we’ll present articles before they’ve actually been published and the conversations that occur at an event will effect the way that the article is written and edited. Other times the conversations at those events will inform the way that we commission or edit future essays whether or not they respond directly to the articles being spoken about in public.
That’s fascinating. And it’s not something that every online publication that I’m aware of really is concerned about – about making not only the work as strong as it can be but also being open to engaging people in the process of producing that work and making that conversation part of what ultimately informs the final product. So it seems like you are very comfortable navigating digital platforms and technology while at the same time balancing in-person relationships and ongoing research and public programs. That is not a small feat!
Yeah, I have to say that helps explain why we publish regularly but not frequently. Because we’re so concerned with establishing a coherent and legible context around the work we present and because so much thought and labor goes into producing each essay or article. Of course we’re deeply concerned with the material we’re publishing but we’re also deeply concerned that that material has a life that extends beyond the week or month in which it’s published and that readers are constantly reminded of the continuing relevance of that work and have a chance to revisit and reread it regularly.
That goes back to what you mentioned earlier about grouping your work, conversations, and events around a theme. Does that thematic arc evolve naturally? Do you have that in mind already when you pull things together or is it a combination of the two?
I would say it’s a combination. Sometimes we have interests that we are not aware we have until we’ve done related work for a year or two and then we suddenly realize there’s a sort of coherence that wasn’t initially evident to us. We’ve kind of changed the way we work over the past couple of years so now we really are focused on the development of thematic issues.
So previously it was more coincidental?
Maybe not coincidental but not so purposeful. For instance this upcoming conversation about 3D printing and the legal status of the image is part of an issue called Pointing Machines which we’ve been developing for over a year. We started having conversations that were animated by these concerns quite a long time ago and eventually they coalesced into this issue. It has a prompt that does not encompass everything we initially discussed but distills the ideas pretty effectively.
Triple Canopy is deeply engaged with the politics and culture of technology and those concerns are ongoing regardless of whether or not we’re working on an issue that addresses them directly.
What kind of purpose, if any, does the humanities play in framing your planning process?
Generally when we think about these things we start with the humanities and we come to incorporate various other approaches over time. Part of what we like to do is build a body of knowledge and invite academics who are engaged with the humanities as well as artists and scientists to both contribute to that body of knowledge and also benefit from the knowledge that we’ve developed which may not otherwise be available or obvious to them.
Most of us are pretty humanities-centric. I don’t know how you or I might define the humanities but to me I consider it to be a certain approach to thinking. How do you define it?
In the context of a planning process it is about contextualizing the ideas, taking critical inquiry to an issue, addressing it from multiple angles and pulling together multiple perspectives. That sounds like a lot of what you’ve been talking about—it seems inherently built into your process.
I think it’s especially important when it comes to issues of technology, which are often difficult to comprehend or to get some purchase on if you don’t have that expert knowledge. We’re generally not so satisfied with the sort of discourse that takes place in digital humanities programs although our approach might have something in common with many of those programs.
What is called digital humanities is really young and changing constantly. I don’t even know if people are still using that term because people in the humanities are already so familiar with digital culture now that maybe digital humanities is an anachronism.
That’s an interesting question. To put you on the spot: what does the phrase ‘digital humanities’ mean to you now?
I don’t know if I could do that! Maybe that is why I have some wariness of digital humanities programs because I never seem to know what is being defined as digital humanities. Is it humanities digitized or is it some brand of the humanities that exists within or emerges from the thinking that happens in relation to the digital? But then I have a hard enough time defining digital. People seem to use it in a way that describes a certain cultural realm which to me often takes place or is concerned with digital technologies but is certainly not circumscribed by those technologies.
So that’s why I’m not an academic I guess. I don’t have a good answer.
I think you’re illuminating a big question mark around the whole thing. Sometimes labels are relevant for a moment in time and then are phased out as we realize the delineation around that label is no longer applicable. Inherent to all the work you’ve been doing, you and your organization have demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of how to facilitate conversations. That’s something, be it in a digital sphere or in person, that is truly an art. Based on all of your various experience, what do you think makes a good conversation?
That’s a difficult question, too. For us, I do think that—not to boast—but we often have really good conversations at events we organize and I’m never quite sure how or why that’s happening. It’s not like the same person is moderating every event and its not that our space is particularly comfortable, accommodating or convenient. I think it has to do in part with this continuous effort to make the editorial process transparent and have it include readers and the public so that you have a sense that if you come to an event your engagement is not entirely superfluous. You’re not just being brought there in order for someone to tell you what that person already knows.
I also think it has to do with the fact that Triple Canopy consists of many people and so many additional people have contributed to the magazine in some way or another over the past seven years. We have a built-in audience that has a strong and personal connection to the project and those people tend to attend events pretty regularly. They bring friends and those people bring friends so in part it’s about a palpable affinity. Our space is fairly small and intimate so while these conversations are ultimately broadcast to a much larger audience when we do them at our own space there are never more than 75 people in the room so that size seems to help in facilitating conversation.
That’s a great starting point and a great message for any organization: make sure the audiences being invited are truly welcomed into the conversation. Our facilitation models tend to be with smaller groups of about 20 people maximum so I’m curious how you facilitate a conversation with 75 people.
I think the way that people are arranged in the room makes a difference. We don’t have a stage. We generally have people seated at a table and the audience is arranged in a semicircle around them so there are never more than three or four rows of chairs on any side. I feel like whether I am editing or moderating the conversation or working with a contributor those are all a kind of facilitating so maybe all of us have just over time have gotten pretty good at becoming intimately acquainted with the work.
Within the work we’ve seen you tackle we’ve been impressed by your ability to navigate difficult and sensitive subjects. If you were to give any advice to facilitators who wanted to tackle a current issue that was divisive or in the news, what kind of tips might you offer?
I think it varies depending on the subject and who is addressing it and who is in the audience. For We Are All Anonymous that subject is contentious but the conversation itself was not. Also I think we rely on people in the audience to ask difficult questions and we often end up not asking those questions but rather moderating responses.
It sounds like you were thinking through what those difficult questions might be in advance so that you were prepared for the conversation should it arise.
That’s also just a matter of Triple Canopy being a magazine and we as editors work with people for a long time so we’ve generally asked every possible question ourselves. Whichever difficult questions you might have about a subject or someone’s work we’ve had in advance of presenting the work to the public. Which is not to say we’ve sufficiently answered those questions, but they certainly should be on our minds.
Many of the grantees or applicants that we see coming in to us lately seem to be grappling in the same sphere mentioned earlier of making your work relevant and highlighting not only your process but the process resonating to you in terms of conversations happening in your community. It sounds like you’re already so integrally connected to your community that it’s part of your ongoing process. These public programs seem like a natural extension of that.
That’s a nice way of putting it.
Related to this, we’ve noticed a trend among public programs coming out of our network of groups turning to partners to diversify audiences and strengthen multiple perspectives. Have you found partnerships to help shape your projects or work at your organization? Have you worked in this way?
I have to say we generally use institutional partnerships in order to stage events in a way that we otherwise couldn’t given the limitations of our space which includes presenting work to a broader audience. Our space only fits 75 people so we assume the best audience will find us or we’ll work to find them. And when it comes to cultivating an audience other than our existing one we tend to develop programs unlike ones we’ve developed before. Our solution is to think of it in terms of participation and content.
That makes a lot of sense. Venue has so much to do with what makes or breaks a program in some cases. That features into the kind of audience you’re hoping to pull together as well. Since you’ve worked with us over the years, if you were to offer any advice to a new applicant what would you give as core advice?
Besides shoot for the stars?
That’s a great starting point!
What we do we do because that’s what we’re interested in. We spend quite a lot of time reading and researching to determine who could best address these issues and often those people are not the obvious ones. One problem I imagine people encounter is they think of an idea, they think of someone who could address that idea, and they often settle on someone who has essentially already come up with an answer to the questions you’re asking. We try very hard to not organize a program that will deliver answers but rather juxtaposes various questions in a way that will deliver a satisfying experience and hopefully peek people’s curiosities leaving them wanting to know more. And that hopefully will lead them to read the magazine.
That’s a great demonstration of your vision of how to excite people to dig deeper into subject matter. One of the things that has so impressed us about your organization is your willingness to start conversations and explore innovative new ideas and I love that phrase of “not organizing a program that will deliver answers.” That’s great.
I think that’s also the difference between having a conversation and reading an article. I would always rather read an article than attend a conversation if my sense is that the conversation will deliver essentially the same information as the article. There has to be a sense of the unexpected.
Speaking of unexpected: looking ahead, what kind of themes and topics are on your wish list? If you could develop any public program what would you do?
The one you just gave us a grant for is one that we’ve been excited to produce for a long time. We’re also working on another issue of the magazine devoted to standards and standardization and we’re planning an event for that.
For the 3D printing project what are you most excited about?
On a basic level I think this is an unsettled area of the law which has a really important connection to the way people experience art and culture and as far as I can tell hardly anyone is discussing it I think in part because it combines law, history, and technology and the law especially just doesn’t know what to do with this material and I’m excited because it seems someone futuristic but also requires really deep thinking about art history and legal precedent and it does have a serious effect on who owns culture and how culture is accessed. I’m excited because as far as I know no one has had a conversation like this before.
Uncharted territory is always exciting.
Yes. That’s part of the reason it’s taken us quite a while to develop this program. We kept looking for someone who could tell us what to think and we haven’t been able to find that person yet. The people involved have a lot to say about this and the prompt was very exciting for them. It seems like an opportunity for them to extend their thinking.
How do you know if the event has been a success?
A good indication is if the people involved feel like this is an event that can genuinely contribute to their own thinking and their own work. That’s a great sign. That excitement resonates with the audience as well.
Do you think this is a conversation you might want to have again in a couple of years? Would this be something you’d want to look back on and revisit?
Yes, I think so. I certainly think this area of technology and law, who is thinking about it and how is evolving very quickly so it would be fun to revisit the subject in a year or two. What we occasionally do is commission someone to respond to a conversation we’ve had immediately and then six months or a year from now and that can often prompt an additional conversation.
In general, as you’ve been navigating this sphere of digital public technology, who inspires you in your work? Who do you look to for inspiration?
We’ve talked a lot about the history of various new media publications from the 60s to the present. Especially one called Aspen which has been a significant influence for us. There are so many exciting magazines and arts organizations especially in New York. I feel like everyone we know is involved in some way with one or another. The ecology in New York is really rich and exciting.
It’s a fun place to be a part of. Thank you Alexander for sharing all these experiences with us and talking shop today.
I appreciate your interest and support.