Mediated Memory, Memory & Heritage, Representation

Emotionally Demanding Research in Lockdown

Lauren Cantillon

One definition of ‘emotionally demanding research’ is ‘research that demands a tremendous amount of mental, emotional, or physical energy and potentially affects or depletes the researcher’s health or well-being’ (Kumar and Cavallaro, 2017, p.648). There is an ever-growing literature on how to protect the mental wellbeing of a researcher or research team when working on emotionally demanding projects, but how may we take this knowledge and apply it in the lockdown conditions that many of us now find ourselves in? From speaking to colleagues, the isolation and general disruption of recent months has added a fresh layer of difficulty to already tough projects. By being upfront and honest about my own experiences I hope to encourage more public conversation(s) about how to work through what can sometimes be debilitating emotions and feelings. I also want to highlight a seemingly common gap in Arts & Humanities graduate/researcher training that no amount of resilience workshops can hope to fill.

After over a year of reading and listening to women remember sexual violence during the Holocaust, by March 2020 I thought I had figured out (on the whole) how to manage my own emotions in relation to my material. Then a global pandemic happened, and you know the rest. I write this from a privileged position; neither myself, my partner, or any family members have (knowingly) had the virus. The one friend who did catch it early on has fully recovered and is back at work. While I am facing a level of financial precarity in the long-term, many of my part-time jobs were already done remotely. I have no dependents (human or animal), but I do have access to a shared garden – as a Zone 3 Londoner in a one-bed flat I have never appreciated this outdoor space more.

The blurring of my home and my research project has always been something I worked hard to avoid; I worked from spaces on campus or treated myself to a few hours in a coffee shop. Now – my desk in the living room, no door to shut it behind – my project has spilled into domestic space, on many occasions dominating the home I share with my partner. Previously, keeping some form of separation enabled me to switch-off from thinking about research, but the lockdown has made it inescapable, relentless even in the space that is supposed to be where I rest.

With the closure of campus buildings also came the removal of the day-to-day support of my fellow CMCI PGR cohort. While we have somewhat migrated onto digital platforms (WhatsApp voice notes, Zoom/Skype/Teams video chats, and department efforts like CMC-Hi) it is not the same. It sounds ungrateful, but digital media does not, for me, allow for the spontaneity or intimacy of an in-person conversation. Recently I undertook some oral history training, during which the instructor discussed the importance of being able to pass on what you have heard after listening to traumatic memories (the idea being that the pain associated with the original story should be lessened with sharing). Coffees, meeting for lunch, agreeing to write in the company for a few hours have always been a vital outlet for talking about my research and listening to colleagues’ work in return. Without these opportunities at present, this has put pressure on my partner who, while never-endingly patient, supportive and a kind human being, is not equipped to take on what would normally be several peoples’ worth of offloading.

Lockdown was established at an unfortunate time for my project, colliding with my realisation that about 40% of the women who form my data were sexually assaulted underage. I (naively) did not anticipate this aspect to my project when setting out and am finding the literature relating to child sex abuse the most draining and upsetting thing to work through while isolated away from my normal support systems. With one newly arrived book, I can only manage 3-4 pages at a time, and in the days that follow I have experienced disturbed sleep, loss of focus, and a lack of motivation to re-engage with the material, which ultimately makes me feel like I am not being productive enough.

Luckily, I am supported by a supervisory team who fully appreciate the emotionally demanding nature of my research project and that the current pandemic conditions have only added to this. Maintaining a healthy mental wellbeing specific to working with memories of sexual violence and associated themes has been a priority from the earliest days of my project, but as I have noted above, these unforeseen conditions of lockdown have brought new challenges. Writing this blog has been an opportunity to re-examine the literature around safeguarding the emotional wellbeing of the researcher during emotionally demanding research. Not all the advice translates in our current world, but I was heartened to see parallels with my own organic attempts at self-care.

I try to avoid programmes that depict sexual violence (Williamson et al., 2020), a lesson learnt from watching three episodes of Mindhunter and becoming a sobbing wreck on the sofa. One day I will watch Unbelievable but now is not that time. Fresh air and exercise (Kumar and Cavallaro, 2017; Rager, 2005; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020; Williamson et al., 2020), as well as spacing interviews apart to avoid an intense working period (Coddington, 2017; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020), are also common coping strategies. With encouragement from my supervisors, I am trying to harness my emotions to power my research and analysis work. I am not always successful (I find anger and frustration much more galvanising than fear) but it is an interesting way to navigate the personal emotions heightened by the lockdown. Kumar (2017) describes something similar, in that her advisor encouraged her to value her emotional responses as part of the research process.

At an institutional level there is little (at KCL) specific to emotionally demanding research in lockdown, however generic guidance on ‘looking after yourself’, procrastination, and worry, rumination and insomnia may provide some support. The Doctoral College have put together an online mental health ‘toolkit’ available via KEATS, but it too is a generic offer for PGRs across the college. As there was a gap for training around emotionally demanding research for Arts & Humanities Faculty PGRs prior to lockdown it is little surprise that a gap remains today. Fellow CMCI PhD researcher Linda Clayworth and I have designed a workshop series to try and begin the conversation at KCL. Other groups at Sheffield, Edinburgh and Exeter are also working to raise awareness around the need for more training and support.

Navigating emotionally demanding research in lockdown is not easy, but it is less difficult if faced with others. I am not the first to say (write) this, but from my own experiences of feeling isolated and from talking to other people in similar positions I think it needs repeating – louder and louder until we are heard by our institutions, the friends and family who want to support and help us, and each other, researcher to researcher.

Digital Culture, Memory & Heritage, Representation

Understanding contemporary Chinese national identity formation through Taiwan

Andong Li

Scholarship of nationalism studies has been trying hard to respond to the paradox that nationalist sentiment sharply surges in many countries while the world is becoming more digitalised and globalised. It seems to be increasingly obvious that the cosmopolitan promise of globalisation and digitisation has failed, and cross-Strait (Chinese mainland-Taiwan) relations might be a ‘great’ case to exemplify this argument. However, an abstract definition of the ‘Chinese nationalism’ as top-down, arbitrary brainwash would be nothing but an oversimplified moral judgement that prevents observers from nuancedly understanding people’s everyday experience of the Chinese nation. Therefore, my PhD research takes the perspective of national identity formation on the individual level to investigate how individuals nationalise themselves in socio-cultural contexts. From this point of view, there is no singular ‘Chinese nationalism’ but heterogenous ‘Chinese nationalisms’ dependent upon the national identity-making of individuals.

The Chinese mainland and Taiwan have long been separated after World War II, with barely any channel for people-to-people exchanges until recent years. The internet, especially social media, provides platforms for people from both sides to directly communicate with each other. Social media also give voice to individuals, enabling them to make public their own narrative about Taiwan. The growing amount of user-generated content may indicate a ‘decentralization of history’ which challenges the official historical narrative. On the other hand, China and Taiwan agreed on group travel permits to Taiwan in 2008 and individual travel permits in 2011. Although the number declined from 2016 when the independence-leaning politician Tsai Ing-wen became the president, the Chinese mainland has always been the top source of tourists to Taiwan since 2010. Unprecedently since 1949, permission to travel to Taiwan brings sharply increasing opportunities for Chinese people to set foot on Taiwanese soil, providing them with embodied experiences of the island that one could rarely have in the past.

Considering these increasing opportunities, my research sets out to investigate how university students in the Chinese mainland make sense of their national identity by remembering and imagining Taiwan through two interrelated foci: everyday uses of social media (as mediated memory) and travel to Taiwan (as embodied memory). As mentioned above, these two aspects become salient ways of encountering Taiwan in the global-digital age.

In July 2019, I conducted my pilot research in Beijing where I did eight in-depth interviews and two focus groups with eight university students (four are undergraduate, the other graduate). Four of them have been to Taiwan. The pilot research looks at how they remember and imagine Taiwan through social media and tours, what is the relationship between these two forms of encounter, and how they make sense of their national identity by remembering and imagining these encounters. Interview questions are regarding the ways they get to know Taiwan, their memories relevant to Taiwan, their impressions on Taiwan and Taiwanese people, and their opinions on cross-Strait relations. Preliminary findings of the pilot research may be helpful to explain the paradox I described at the beginning – the tension between globalisation, digitisation, and the rise of nationalism.

Whereas social media and transnational tourism do provide mainland Chinese university students with more possibilities to interact with Taiwan, frequent interactions do not necessarily lead to mutual understanding. Instead, these interactions could also be chances to discover conflicts and reproduce nationalist sentiment. In terms of social media, more university students tend to critique highly militant and nationalist comments online while they also stand for unification between the mainland and Taiwan. All the informants find the discussions on social media about Taiwan quite political and aggressive. Seven of them express negative feelings to the ‘little pinks’ (nationalist young people who defend the government and actively engage in online communities of popular culture) on social media, but they also think that Taiwanese people and government have been increasingly unfriendly than before.

In terms of travel, more university students are inclined to remember their tours to Taiwan politically, regardless of whether their experiences are politicised or not. This reveals that experiencing and remembering the experienced are two separate steps. The latter is not time travel to the exact past but the reconstruction of the past at present. For example, most informants in group discussions claimed that Taiwanese people were ‘too easy to be satisfied with little happiness (小确幸)’ and lacked ‘entrepreneurial spirit’. These critiques are framed into a hierarchy that celebrates and reconfirms ‘the modern Mainland’, as one of the informants put it, ‘after going to Taiwan, I feel like Taiwanese people are really nice, but Taiwan is under-developed and inconvenient, not as modern as my expectation… the pace of life there is so slow. It is not suitable for young people to live in such an atmosphere. In the mainland, things are much better.’

Globalisation and digitisation should be understood not as cosmopolitan forces against nationalism, but as socio-cultural contexts that cultivate a certain kind of nationalism. These contexts influence individuals’ national identity formation along with other non-negligible contexts in China, which I am not able to demonstrate further in just one article. For instance, the party-state-leading patriotic education launched in 1994, the introduction and generational re-interpretations of the western concept ‘nation’ in the modern history of China, and more recently the trade war between China and the United States – all of them are significant elements in the shaping of Chinese national identities.

Drawing on Taiwan as a lens for examining contemporary Chinese nationalism, I provisionally propose a term ‘empathetic nationalists’ to conceptualise the paradoxical mindset of nationalised individuals in global-digital China. Being open-minded thanks to globalisation and digitisation, some well-educated, middle-class young people now have more chances to encounter Taiwan and the world – either digitally or bodily – but are still nationalist. Those ‘empathetic nationalists’ adopt a comparatively mild version of nationalism, sticking to ‘One China principle’ (the principle insists that the People’s Republic of China is the only sovereign state under the name of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China) while empathising but not accepting Taiwanese people’s national identification.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Memory & Heritage, Museum Curation

The new activist museum agenda: an interview with Dr Red Chidgey

Protest has become a popular topic of interest in the national arts and heritage sector.  In the past year alone, The British Museum hosted I object, an exhibition dedicated to protest objects running from graffiti on a Babylonian brick to a recent anti-Trump Pussyhat. The Imperial War Museum celebrated peace activism in People Power, and the People’s History Museum commemorated the Peterloo Massacre with a Protest Lab encouraging visitors to design collective actions.

Some have called this a ‘social turn’. Here the myth of political neutrality is exploded, and heritage and arts practitioners embrace the challenges of a new ‘activist museum’ agenda. In this blog post, we talk to CMCI’s Dr Red Chidgey, Lecturer in Gender and Media, about their new book Feminist Afterlives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and why there is an activist turn in cultural institutions.

Representations of protest are often considered negatively in the mainstream media, and have been conspicuously absent from galleries and museums. Why this resurgence in interest?

A cultural shift is currently happening: social movements have erupted across the globe tackling institutional racism, climate change and sexual violence, as well as a rise in populist movements. What is striking is how this activism takes place. Everyday citizens are getting socially involved, who do not necessarily identify as activists. Social media has facilitated this, of course. There is also an interest in ‘doing the right thing’, which has been picked up by brands in the creative industries. Within the arts and heritage sector, the focus rests on community collaboration and the need to represent broader demographics. Not only are we seeing more events around protest and activism, but cultural institutions are now offering exciting new ways for visitors and communities to act as agents and provocateurs within the museum space.

In your recent book Feminist Afterlives, you talk about the ‘restlessness’ of social movement memories. Can you tell us more?

Rather than being disavowed, feminist activist histories – and their circulation in photographs, artefacts, and slogans – have been achieving a magnificent afterlife across public and digital spheres. A good example being the Edwardian militant Votes for Women campaign, which, as I was researching and writing the book, was experiencing a veritable popular memory boom.

I tracked these cultural memories across films, exhibitions, magazine articles, commodities, political speeches and contemporary acts of protest. By ‘restlessness’, I evoke the idea that history does not stay put: different actors draw on memory resources and put them to use in the here-and-now in unwieldy ways. Historically, suffragettes were seen as terrorists; today these campaigners have become exemplars of democratic struggle. Such histories are restless because they are endlessly undone and re-imagined. This is how collective memory works: its key emblems and narratives must be picked up, re-energised, and put into conversation with the urgencies and demands of the present. All the time telling partial, interested stories.

The protest momentum within the arts and cultural sector doesn’t seem to be winding down. What can galleries and museums do to strengthen their commitment to activism and social justice?

A few years ago, Sharon Heal, the Director of the Museum Association, suggested bravery, passion, empathy and activism as core values the museum sector should embrace. Last spring, I organised an event at King’s around ‘Curating Protest Memory’, which brought together activists, curators and archivists from Tate, Platform, Bishopsgate Institute, Queerseum, and other institutions. We discussed these challenges and came up with some recommendations. Most importantly, it is not enough for museums and galleries to curate temporary exhibitions around activism. There is a demand, coming from activists and workers most strongly, for cultural organisations to demonstrate a social mission throughout their operation – whether this means relinquishing corporate sponsorship from major oil companies, or ensuring cleaners and front of house staff are paid a living wage. There is also an appetite for cultural institutions to engage with current activism rather than presenting an archival and aesthetic version of settled movement pasts.

I am co-investigator of an AHRC-funded network called the Afterlives of Protest, which is holding its final conference in September 2019. Students and researchers can tune into live tweets at @protestmemory as we document debates and discuss actions. The key point is that memories of protest cultures are not just mementoes of a distant or fleeting past. These cultural reminders can, ideally, provide a tool-kit in creativity and strategy for actively labouring for a just society. And through institutional and public recognition of protest past and present, we affirm the kinds of cultural values required for more equitable futures.

Digital Culture, Memory & Heritage

Reflections on the Cultural Memory Group: Forgetting in the Digital Media Ecology

Taylor Annabell  

At a recent session of the Culture Memory Group, Professor Andrew Hoskins from the University of Glasgow invited us to consider the significance of forgetting in understanding memory and in particular, approaching memory in the digital media ecology.  In my PhD project I have followed the path of memory studies in focusing on memory yet thinking about the entanglement of memory and forgetting sheds light on the way young women engage in digital memory work in my case study.

 

Hoskins suggests that forgetting is memory’s silent partner, which remains elusive in research.  How do we begin to conceptualise what forgetting is and how might this be represented?  The challenge is to move beyond forgetting as loss of memory or as absence and erasure. It is also connected to latency and the potential for something to become memory.  Digital forgetting is dynamic, not static because the flows of digital data reshape how we think about presence and absence.

 

A key theme in digital memory studies is the increased potential and uncertainty for digital traces to be discovered and disseminated unpredictably after the moment in which they were recorded or archived, as part of the entanglement of machine, human, and memory.  Hoskins dubs this as emergence.  The past lurks in new and unpredictable ways.  It emerges.  On a personal level you may experience this when Facebook reminds you ‘On This Day’ five years ago, you posted this, or you receive a notification that someone has scrolled back and retweeted an old opinion you wish you never had.  The conventional expectation that media stabilises, strengthens and secures memory is undermined as the digital renders the past as more uncertain.

 

Nevertheless, we are lulled into a false sense that we can achieve total memory and that this can be controlled through the apps, platforms, and devices we use. Forgetting can occur through the erasure of traces.  Hoskins situates this as part of a mode of digital forgetting, the present made past.  The present is recorded and instantly archived.

 

Reflecting on the pilot research I am conducting, I can see empirical support for this.  Participants discussed the way they actively performed digital memory work on Facebook and Instagram through sharing practices.  The present is continually being made the past.  Interestingly, the need to digitally remember bleeds into the experience of the present.  This is exemplified through the way that one young woman reflected on her Instagram posts and stories of a trip to Paris with her friends.  The digital memory work was not confined to the platform or reflection of the past experience in the present.  Rather, it was part of the trip itself.  Some of the places they went, outfits they wore and how time was spent was in anticipation of the recording and archiving that would occur.

 

The erasure of digital traces can also be interpreted as a form of digital forgetting.  For example, one participant removed images of a previous romantic relationship or posts that had made sense at the time in which they were uploaded but no longer did.  In my work I had framed digital memory work around selectivity, belonging and trust.  Forgetting offers another way to tease about the affective dimension of remembering.  The expectations cultivated among users is that social media spaces should be used for sharing positive and celebratory memories.  One participant summarised this as sharing highlights, not only referring to her use of Instagram Stories Highlights but the way posts reflected the best moments of her life.  The selectivity of digital memory work means that certain types of memories do not belong in this social space.  These are forgotten.

 

My observations of the way young women navigate, post and interact on Facebook and Instagram examines their performances.  If digital memory work also involves forgetting, how do I capture this in the design of my research?  Already I have observed in the case of one participant a removal of previous Instagram posts prior to 2019 but only due to its magnitude.  This echoes Hoskins question of how forgetting is represented.

 

For Hoskins an interdisciplinary and collaborative project with the artist Shona Illingworth called Topologies of Air is helping him think this through.  In one art piece, there are layers of images, YouTube stills, drone vision, maps and shattered glass over an aerial depiction of Aleppo.  The clustering of images across time and space, he suggests, allows him to consider how events are remembered and forgotten within this context.  Extending this, a participant’s social media profile could be considered as a slice that could be layered upon one other over time.  There are also layers of memory attached to each post.  The memory of the experience the post refers to, the memory of posting and the memory of re-engaging with posted content.  Attending to these layers of memory may allow for forgetting to emerge in new and useful ways.

 

As I continue to engage with pilot research that will guide the larger study, I carry a greater awareness of the way that intersections of digital forgetting and remembering might advance my understanding of the dynamics of memory and social media platforms.

 

 

Cultural Memory Group is a reading group based at King’s College London for postgraduate and early career researchers to gather to discuss concepts and theories in the field of memory studies.  Through funding from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities in 2018/2019 the group has hosted a series of workshops and sessions with speakers centred on specific themes.

 

 

Creativity & Cultural Labour, Memory & Heritage

Troubled Waters, Stormy Futures: heritage in times of accelerated climate change

The winter storms of 2013-2014 set new precedents of coastal damage in the UK, forcing government, heritage bodies and local communities to seriously reconsider the future management of coastal heritage. Relevant organisations were seemingly unprepared for these events, and communities were possibly surprised by what had happened, as well as by their own emotional response. Over 8200 miles away, in the low-lying island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, over 100,000 citizens face the possibility of permanent relocation due to climate change and sea-level rise which threaten homeland and heritage. Troubling in itself, Kiribati also presents an unsettling visualisation of a collective future. These diverse settings are brought together in this project through the exploration of the current and potential loss of heritage in times of accelerated climate change.

Photo Credit: Heritage Research (https://heritage-research.org/case-studies/troubled-waters-stormy-futures-heritage-times-accelerated-climate-change/)

The interdisciplinary research project ‘Troubled Waters’, funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), was developed after a lively conversation between Sara Penrhyn Jones from the field of media communication and practice, and two academics focused on heritage, Bryony Onciul and King’s CMCI’s Anna Woodham at an AHRC early-career event in December 2013. Each of them was drawn to this ‘Care for the Future’ event by one question: how do we view, transition towards, or even shape the future, through the past? A professor in the Environmental Humanities, Kate Rigby, based (then) at Monash University in Australia, also joined this newly-formed research team.

This research project focused on three distinct sites in order to explore the effects of current and projected climate change on coastal communities: Durgan, in Cornwall, Porthdinllaen in North Wales, and Kiribati, a low-lying island nation in the Pacific Ocean.  At the same time, the project team conducted interviews with heritage organisations across the UK to find out if and how they viewed a role for themselves in communicating climate change to the public. The research also engaged with several archives and libraries to gage whether there was any current effort to proactively gather or document heritage potentially under threat from climate change, for an imagined audience in the future. Was this a feasible or desirable cultural strategy? Matthew Gordon-Clark from the State Records of South Australia worked with Anna Woodham to evaluate the current situation with archives in Kiribati.

Find out more about the project here

Watch Sara Penrhyn Jones’ film ‘Trouble Waters’, which thinks through heritage and climate change via the experience of Kiribati inhabitants here.

Photo Credit: Heritage Research (https://heritage-research.org/case-studies/troubled-waters-stormy-futures-heritage-times-accelerated-climate-change/)