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Wednesday 23 October 2013

I am the resurrection

Jason and Samara Jones-Hall Jason and Samara Jones-Hall

What are the common themes of events and presentations? You might think of the obvious ones (the technology failing followed by an over-reliance on PowerPoint) but a more fundamental one is that all of the speakers are alive. xHumed changes that. Taking some of the world's leading thinkers from the past and bringing them back from the dead is the job of Samara and Jason Jones-Hall. We asked them about xHumed and how the concept of "Dead Good Thinking" came about.


What was the thinking behind Xhumed? How did it come about?

JJ-H: I had been reading about H.G.Wells, his ideas on the World Brain and what he called The Open Conspiracy. Essentially, he was describing a model of the internet and what impact it might have on society. It was like reading a transcript of the kind of talk Clay Shirky might present at SXSWi or TED today, only this was written in the mid-1930's. Samara and I started discussing whether we could "xHume" H.G. Wells and other "Dead Good Thinkers" for a TED-style conference... sort of a "Dead TED".

SJ-H: xHumed is an umbrella term to capture all the current thinking and discussions around digital resurrection. xHumed BHX13 was originally formed as a company with startup support from Creative England and the Library of Birmingham Trust to explore the wealth of historical and cultural archive content that already exists and that which we are all habitually creating, uploading and sharing on a daily basis. We see little difference between the two, with significant shared issues and opportunities. This archive - both extant and ever-growing exponentially - is the fuel for xHumation.

This might include, for example, the tools, technologies and assets required for this, the ethics and philosophy behind it and the cultural, psychological and sociological significance of it.


Why use notable figures from the past? Is there something here about digital media's sense of permanence – that people are essentially stateless, that their personality is always present even if their biological selves are not?

SJ-H: Our interest lies in "Dead Good Thinking". Bringing back brilliant minds and putting them in a contemporary context... like Matthew Boulton, founding father of mass manufacturing, discussing 3D printing.

In many ways our ultimate goal would be for Matthew Boulton’s name to come high in the rankings when you Google “3D printing”. Why shouldn’t it? He has as much to say about the issues and opportunities of using technology for mass manufacturing to address global markets as many in the current industry.

In this sense, our xHumed speakers also serve as reminders that digital media - and the personas that we exhibit through it - is not as permanent or ever-present as we sometimes think. This is about rising above the noise. If you’re not pumping out content 24/7, you quickly find just how ephemeral the digital world can be.

Of course, Boulton and co aren’t online or pumping out content all the time, but they are digitised through the great work of Library of Birmingham, Birmingham Museums Trust and other cultural archives and institutions. The problem is that people tend to see these characters as existing only in that fixed context – museums, libraries, galleries. We see the context as being a lot more flexible and malleable.


How have you brought the alive speakers together with the dead ones? Was it their choice to partner up, yours, or both? What work are the live speakers doing to bring the dead ones to life?

JJ-H: This whole process has been as much about curating the context as the content. So through researching each of the xHumed speakers, we first worked out what was a fitting contemporary context and then quickly figured out who would be an ideal live speaker to pick up the theme. Jon Turney was a notable exception to this curatorial approach. He had recently written a working paper for Nesta entitled Imagining Technology that looks at the influence of Sci-Fi writing on innovation and also The Rough Guide To The Future, so we originally planned to pair him up with H.G. Wells. What we hadn’t factored in was that he also wrote Frankenstein’s Footsteps, which is a brilliant book that examines the long lasting impact of Mary Shelley’s work on science, society and culture, so he was really keen to be paired up with her.

SJ-H: The live speakers help bring the dead ones to life by helping provide the context. They act as examples and illustrations of how the issues faced by some of our xHumed speakers are reflected in contemporary society. For example, John Baskerville’s multiple exhumations after his death raise questions about ownership of the body and post-mortem identity rights of the individual, so these themes are picked up by Dr John Troyer when discussing digital identity rights after death. Part of the point of all of this is to show that in many ways we’re still struggling with the same issues and challenges as we always have. The best way to explain how it all fits together is to see it in action for yourself on November 5th.


How have endeavours such as the Samuel Pepys diary on Twitter helped us to understand notable people from the past and how their work can be recontextualised and/or reshaped for today?

JJ-H: Phil Gyford has done a terrific job at recontextualising and reshaping Samuel Pepys’ work. The cross-referencing and annotation work on Pepys Diary online is just mind-blowing – a real labour of love.

SJ-H: What we particularly like about Pepys on Twitter is it uses the orginal text while often having very subtle references to contemporary news stories. We wanted to take that a stage further with our own Twitter xHumation of Joseph Priestley in a way that we felt was really fitting for Priestley’s character and also had something to say about the current state of the medium itself.

Priestley would delight in using inflammatory language and making bold statements with highly controversial views, which resulted in him earning the nickname “Gunpowder Jo” and believed to have led to the Priestley Riots. We saw a really interesting connection here with twitter and twitterstorms. Like Gyford’s Pepys, we wanted to use original text to comment on contemporary news, but also to capture the essence of Priestley’s more confrontational and controversial approach, so subtle references were out of the window. Our secret weapon here is proud Brummie-born blogger and meme artist, Jon Bounds. He’s doing a fantastic job of bringing Priestley to life in this way as @JPriestley1733. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with it.

Are you intending to imply (or be explicit about) the fact that the thinking and work of many of the dead speakers remains true and relevant to 2013?

JJ-H: Explicit.

Are you seeking to extend xHumed into further events after the first one? Irrespective of your answer here, who would you like to bring back from the dead?

SJ-H: Yes, very much so! We are very happy and very pleased to have been picked for our SXSW panel, xHumed Bring Back the Dead with Mary Shelley et al, so we will be taking Mary Shelley and H.G.Wells for debut appearances at SXSWi 2014.

Arts Council England has also provided some follow-up funding in addition to the original support from Creative England and Library of Birmingham Trust, to further develop our core concept of “Speakers-in-a-Box”. Essentially this is about xHuming dead speakers to talk at events or cultural venues from original archive using artistic, technological or theatrical means. So if this gives us an opportunity to xHume the US sculptor, David Smith, he would be my personal choice.

JJ-H: We are in talks to be commissioned to xHume a notable cultural English icon early next year as part of a larger event and have recently been approached for events in London and Scotland. And, of course, SXSWi is a great launchpad internationally. So, to a certain extent, who gets xHumed next is driven by demand and access and availability of original archive source, although we try and get some of our personal choices in there when we can. I’ve recently finished reading American Prometheus, which was incredible. So if anyone wants to commission us to xHume Robert Oppenheimer for an event somewhere, I’d be a very happy man.

xHumed takes place at the Library of Birmingham on 05/11/13. For further information and to book, visit the xHumed website.

Paul is the publisher of Imperica.

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