lit life: feb 14

| Arts & Culture, Writing & Publishing

Early Feb

I spoke at the Next Wave Jump Mentoring Breakfast Club and got to chat with a very talented young cartoonist, Stuart McMillen – one to watch.

I was also thrilled to meet Dolly Parton at the launch of her Imagination Library in Australia. Alison Lester was equally thrilled – it turns out she is a big Dolly fan. (Ok who isn’t.)

Middle of month

I celebrated 14 Feb by seeing Ash Flanders’ one-woman show Special Victim at Hares & Hyenas. Of the performance, Rebecca Harkins-Cross noted that the threads tied into a glittering package.

It wouldn’t be a Melbourne month without (too?) many festivals. At a Pause Festival VIP party I discovered a new (to me) rooftop space at the gorgeous Hassell studio. I enjoyed spending a Sunday morning at the festival’s Startup Stage, especially Nigel Dalton’s speech about the way REA Group is facilitating play and experimentation for its staff. Less impressive was the festival’s speaker lineup: only six of the 41 presenters were women.

I got lost in Crown on my way to the Melbourne Queer Film Festival launch but the party was worth the delay. In her speech Festival Director Lisa Daniel noted that although it’s considered gauche to talk about money, the festival needs it, and entreated everyone to not only buy a ticket but to bring a friend along too.

The shuffling crowds at White Night limited the desire to explore. We popped into Digital Writers’ Festival’s Book of the Night and saw a chapter of The Turning at Queen Victoria Women’s Centre but spent most of the evening at The Moat and Troika. The completed Book of the Night (pdf) captures some of the strangeness of the night.

Late Feb

Digital Writers’ Festival hit screens but the activity I caught was mostly offline. A highlight was the final event (video here): Kate Larsen and Abigail Gorman talking arts access, with Auslan interpreters facilitating the discussion. The Cities of Literature hangout and real-life breakfast was fantastically inspiring. It was nice to have so many lit VIPs in the room to watch the discussion, as City of Literature sometimes feels more like the elephant in the room. But I’m reliably informed that we will not be asking ‘what is happening with the City of Literature’ for much longer: the long-awaited/eagerly-anticipated/much-overdue office will be announced soon. No doubt the newly-established role (Officer of Literature, I hope) will be hotly contended by Melbourne’s literati.

City of Literature was a hot topic at the NGV Melbourne Now forum I hosted on Writing Now. I was joined by Connor O’Brien, Fiona Wood and Warren Bonnet, and all agreed that this is an extraordinarily friendly city for literature, but the question of how we evolved this way remained unanswered (something in the water?). The thought that stayed with me after the discussion was Connor’s: Until every person’s story is told there will be room for more books and festivals. Peak literature? Not yet.

At a Porter Novelli Digital Insights breakfast I picked up their 10 Commandments for 2014. Later that day I was on the rooftop at Tonic House for the launch of Spectrum, the re-vamped Life&Style section of the Age. Have Melbourne’s rooftop bars jumped the shark? Perhaps ask Monica Dux, who staked out territory under one of two space heaters available.


I have been trying to catalogue my reading this year but it seems I’m reading all advance copies all the time at the moment. I will try and remember to add them to Goodreads as they launch.

Artistic purpose

| Arts & Culture, Career, Writing & Publishing

In February I was invited by Next Wave to talk at a JUMP Mentoring Breakfast Club. The topic was A relevant artist is a ___ artist.

Among other things, I spoke about relevancy at an art form level. I have a strong purpose in my career and I don’t talk about it often so I enjoyed verbalising it over coffee! As I said on the day, it can feel cheesy or even embarrassing to stand up in front of people and confess your big dream, but it’s important to articulate it to yourself and others. This is kind of what I said:

Alongside running Melbourne Writers Festival, my biggest professional challenge is how to make literature as an art form relevant, interesting and exciting to more people. That’s important to me because I really believe in the power of literature to transform, inspire and delight.

When I started at MWF the first thing I did – like any good CEO! – is put a strategic vision in place outlining our organisational goals and values. During a consultative process we articulated the mission of MWF as being: to use literature enhance and enable the creative and intellectual potential of all Victorians. So a core question in my work at the moment is how do I make this writer’s festival more welcoming to people who don’t consider themselves bookworms, or who don’t read, or who aren’t literate? Working for an organisation whose values and goals align with my own is not only extremely fulfilling, but a great motivator for me to always strive for better and bolder outcomes.

It’s my life ambition to bring literature into the mainstream but it will take time. Every festival I do is about chipping away at that ultimate goal. And when I’m tired and stressed and overworked, my ambition keeps me going and keeps me sane. It’s a guiding principle for my professional life, one that I will always come back to when I have decisions to make in my career. Even though I will move jobs and roles across my career, I will always be keeping my work relevant to my own big dream of bringing literature into the mainstream.

My provocation for the emerging artists at Breakfast Club was – what is your guiding mission? What do you want to transform about your artform?

Reflection: EWF Director

| Life & Stuff, Writing & Publishing

Lisa Dempster

My job at the Emerging Writers’ Festival is currently being advertised.

Strange – I have done so much at the organisation, but it stills feels like yesterday that I started. When I look at the role of Director, all laid out in the position description, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride. Before I started in the role, I had barely imagined myself as someone who could do all of those things. But I am. And I was then, too, I just didn’t quite know it yet. But the EWF knew it – and I am so grateful for that.

Since taking on the role at the start of 2010, I have felt that three years was a natural time frame to be in the position. And so it has turned out to be; with three festivals under my belt (and three roadshows by the time I sign out in November), I believe that both the organisation and me have gotten all the best bits out of each other, and we both need new perspectives in order to keep growing – for me, a new job challenge, and for the EWF, fresh insight from a new director.

I have been incredibly spoiled as EWF Director. The freedom, flexibility and creativity of the director role is simply amazing. Right from the start, the Emerging Writers’ Festival made me feel that my potential was limited only by my imagination. But even then, I couldn’t imagine the places it would take me. Physically – Edinburgh, Abu Dhabi, Ubud and Sharjah (twice). Professionally – Aus Co Emerging Leaders Development Program and British Council BookCase Conference. Personally – and perhaps most importantly – the festival has equipped me with confidence and courage. To work in a job that supports you to be audacious, express your individuality, experiment and take creative risks – well, we all know that kind of role just doesn’t come along every day.

I think any arts organisation benefits greatly from staff renewal. When I look back at the history of EWF and I can see the mark that each Festival Director before me made. The Emerging Writers’ Festival in particular is known for freshness – of ideas, people, and delivery – and although I will miss the role immensely, I can’t wait to see how the festival grows under the fresh gaze of a new director. (Could that new director be you?)

I keep getting asked, will I miss the festival? The answer is, of course, no. I’ve been a part of EWF for six years now – as an audience member, a panellist, a Programming Advisory Committee member, and as Director – and I look forward to being a part of the ongoing evolution of the festival; as a patron, perhaps, or maybe once again as an inspiration-seeking punter.

Future Bookshop @ NGV Studio

| Arts & Culture, Writing & Publishing

One of the things I was most excited about at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival was curating an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Future Bookshop.

I got the idea after last year’s festival when I was visiting MoNA. What would I put in a gallery if I had one available to me? Future Bookshop was the result, and I was very lucky that NGV Studio loved the idea and invited me and the Emerging Writers’ Festival to exhibit with them for three weeks.

Part art installation, part library and part interactive playground, Future Bookshop is a space for lovers of the written word. Bring a laptop, bring a smartphone, or just bring yourself and experience the ways we will be reading, writing, publishing and engaging with texts in the coming years.

Explore, ponder, read, write and imagine the future of books – then add your own ideas to the exhibition before you leave.

Featuring literary predictions from Emerging Writers’ Festival, Express Media, Freeplay, if:book Australia, Paper Radio, People Collective, SPUNC, Matt BlackWood and more, Future Bookshop imagines the brave new world of reading in a digital age.

Also at the Future Bookshop as part of Fed Square’s Light in Winter festival we have about 20 people doing a Words in Winter writing residency. Until 17 June we will be in there, writing, working, collaborating and dreaming. Our outputs will be displayed in the gallery and also online at the EWF blog.

There is plenty to play with and ponder at Future Bookshop. I’ll be there most days also. Please come and say hi!

EWFdigital: Stories in your Stream

| Arts & Culture, Writing & Publishing

A few days ago I wrote about Digital participation at the literary frontier.

On Sunday, EWF launched EWFdigital, an online writers’ festival dedicated to discussing the topic of ‘digital writing’.

EWFdigital is a completely free festival with plenty to explore – an interactive keynote address, panels, a round-the-world blog exhibition and loads of conversations.

It’s a festival, online. Get into it.


Literary Participation at the Digital Frontier

| Arts & Culture, Writing & Publishing

It constantly surprises me that there is a such a slow uptake from literary organisations into the growing field of digital programming. I founded EWFdigital three years ago now (case study here) and remain one of very few people and organisations working in that space in literary Australia. The following is an excerpt from an article on online literary participation in the Digitalism issue of Island Magazine.

Technology is no longer separate to creativity and culture; art happens in a variety of spaces, both online and off. Within five years – perhaps even less – it will be just as commonplace to ‘go’ to (or rather, participate in) an event in the digital space as it currently is to head to a traditional venue for a programmed event.

Modes of digital engagement - how sophisticated is your use of the online space?
It would be rare to find a literary organisation that doesn’t accept that the internet is a key method of reaching and connecting with audiences. Most organisations and groups tweet, maintain a website, send out e-newsletters and set up Facebook pages. But while the interest in and understanding of online marketing and audience development have grown in the past decade, there has been little corollary interest in digital programming.

There are three ways that literary (and more broadly, arts) organisations are working in the online space. It is helpful to look at them as levels of sophistication, noting that the stages outlined below are not mutually exclusive. An organisation does not ‘graduate’ from one level to the next; rather, those who are working most successfully online are doing so by operating across all three modes of engagement.

Present: marketing (talking about you)
Marketing is the entry point for online engagement. At this level, online interaction is (mostly) limited to an organisation talking about itself. They might use their online channels (such as e-newsletters, websites or social media) to publish information about upcoming events, make organisational information accessible, and profile their artists. The internet has been a boon for arts marketing – especially for organisations with limited budgets – as it can reach larger and broader audiences. However, this level of online engagement is the bare minimum an organisation should be aiming for.

Engaged: community building (talking with audiences)
If basic marketing is about talking to an audience, a more sophisticated method is talking with an audience. Organisations in this category use the internet to connect with audiences (and potential audiences) in a way that is meaningful and sincere. It differs from a traditional marketing model of advertising in order to get bums on seats, and instead is a long-term process of developing a community of people who may be interested in coming along to your events (or joining your organisation) – or who may just want to talk about it. Community building often happens in conjunction with offline events – for example, having audience members use a hashtag at an event will encourage discussion about the topic in the online space as well.

Another common tactic is to publish dynamic content (such as blogs, video) that speaks to its audience, and facilitating discussion about that content (such as comments). Organisations succeed at this level when they become a hub for discussion and interaction within their area of expertise.

Sophisticated: artistic programming (creating literary experiences)
Programming goes beyond using the internet to promote and connect; it is about actively creating artistic activity in the online space. Online-only events and programming that cross over between digital and traditional spaces apply here. Online artistic programming creates literary experiences for audiences that are accessible through digital platforms.

Online learning is a good example of effective digital programming, and is a powerful tool for connecting and engaging remote or non-traditional audiences.

Another good example is the Queensland Writers’ Centre dynamic Rabbit Hole event, a thirty-hour writing frenzy where participants come together and attempt to write 30,000 words. Writers are also welcome to join the event by ‘playing along’ at home, and this online engagement is facilitated via a Facebook group, with interaction between the at-home and in-person writers taking place across the weekend. The Rabbit Hole demonstrates how traditional events can be complemented by running concurrent digital programming.

Digital programming is about actively creating pathways for audiences to interact with literature and literary activity online. Despite being the most exciting and creative area of potential literary engagement, it is also the least utilised, least understood, least tested and – in my opinion – least valued segment of programming potential.

A decade ago, the remit of a creative producer, festival director or program manager was relatively straightforward: create events that were so compelling, writers and readers would leave their desks and lounge rooms to buy a ticket and come along. Engage audiences, sell tickets, get bums on seats: this has been the model of literary activity for decades.

The rise of the internet has shaken this model to its core. No longer do arts audiences need to leave their home to take part in literary activity. They can talk to fellow readers online (even connect directly with their favourite writers), take part in discussions about literature, and access videos of their favourite authors reading or in conversation. It is not enough to hope or assume that audiences will continue to come to traditional events. Instead, literary organisations need to actively consider how they might better serve the evolving needs of their audiences.

With the rise in smartphone technology – aka the internet in our pockets – the distinction between digital and traditional programming is becoming increasingly porous. Technology is no longer separate to creativity and culture; art happens in a variety of spaces, both online and off. So why are most literary organisations limiting their online reach to marketing and community building, rather than experimenting with artistic programming in the digital space?

In other words: digital convergence is here. Literary organisations – and the bodies that fund them – would do well to keep up.

This is an excerpt from an article published in the latest DIGITALISM issue of Island Magazine. The article goes on to discuss What digital programming looks like; Audiences: the changing face of literary programming; Barriers to digital experimentation and Where to from here? You can buy the mag online here or download the article in pdf form from Island Magazine.

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