Melissa Terras' 2020 reflections
Despite the fact that festivals have been unable to go ahead this year in their usual form, the university has still been able to produce a fantastic amount of events. Melissa Terras contributed to our collection of reflections illustrating some of the ways the University of Edinburgh has supported cultural life in the city this year.
- Please tell us about yourself and your role at The University of Edinburgh?
I joined the University of Edinburgh in 2017, to be the academic lead for a lot of the College of Art, Humanities and Social Sciences' digital research activity. I’m an academic - a Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage, and my own work is about the digitisation of the past, working a lot with galleries, libraries, and museums. I’m very research active in this area, but there’s also been huge opportunities to help grow both the community and use of digital research methods across the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2019 we formally launched the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society, which is the hub of a community of practice in using applied data-led methods in research across CAHSS disciplines whilst also showcasing the vast amounts of high quality research in CAHSS that depends on digital. In addition to this, I’m the Director of Research for the Edinburgh Futures Institute, helping support the growing cross-school research community in data-led research that aims to support societal flourishing.
- Had 2020 been a standard year, what work would you have traditionally been working on with regards to the city’s festivals?
Another role I have is Co-Director of Creative Informatics, a £10m investment into data and the creative industries in Edinburgh and its regions, aiming to build links between the software sector, and things such as the Festivals. We had a wave of things planned, working with the Fringe and Edinburgh International Festival, and I would have been supporting our researchers in making sure they were on top of hosting events, interviewing people, and getting feedback, etc. We were also going to put on our own show, ImprovBot, juxtaposing AI and improvisation, getting the supercomputer to mash up old Fringe programs data and generate new show descriptions, that the student improv troupe, the Improverts, would do live improv around. This would have showcased the kind of new products we could create from old data… but the live show was not to be…
- How did that change for you in the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic?
First, with Improvbot, we decided to run it online. We tweeted out a new “show” hourly, and once a day the Improverts did an improvised show, based on these - all put out over social media. You can see the record of this over at https://improvbot.ai and https://twitter.com/improvbot_ai. It was a big hit, and even got a 4 star review from The Stage! But we had to walk a fine line - it turned out to be an elegy for a Fringe that didn’t happen, holding that temporal space and running for the same time as the Fringe usually would. It was sad and funny, reflecting the old Fringe - will it ever happen again like that? - through a glass, darkly.
On a more serious note, we had to pivot a lot of work for Creative Informatics to think about capturing “what happened when the Fringe didn’t happen?”. We worked with our five RAs but also a series of paid student interns, to capture and write up the activity that was happening around the festivals -and there was a huge amount of activity online - both to provide a record but also to get some recommendations out to others putting on online events, and trying to keep that revenue stream flowing through the sector. We’ll be reporting on this very soon, and it's great that we managed to find a way to help the festivals and creative industries at the moment, in our own way.
- What have been your observations of working during lockdown?
I’m one of those folks who have primary school aged children in the house, so its been a juggle! We tried to keep to a routine, and do some decent schoolwork with them every day - which meant I had less time at my computer, but that’s just that, and family has to come first. Since the schools have gone back in I’m getting more done. What I have also found fascinating is the psychology of this all, and how even if we have the time, our brains (or at least my brain) has not had the capacity to operate “as normal”, so things have taken longer than usual, and concentration can be an issue. But, we are struggling through… same as everyone. Its time to be kind, and to ask if things are really that very important in the scheme of things before you kick up a fuss over necessary delays.
- Have the projects you have been working on surprised you in any way?
I was surprised at the reception for ImprovBot - I think we hit a nerve about the growth of digital and the fact the festivals didn’t happen this year - but it was great to see a small idea have such reach and impact. Otherwise, it's been great to be able to change activities with Creative Informatics to help support the creative industries in Edinburgh just now. And, thinking more widely, my own research area - the digitisation of cultural heritage content - is really having its moment in the sun. There have been a few folks who have thought “what’s the point of digitising collections” along the way - now, most access for many people is digital, and getting people the source material and information they need via digitisation looks like its going to be the new normal for a while, so its an area that is suddenly more important than ever, and I’m glad to be contributing to the organisations I help and sit on boards of, as they increase their commitment to digitisation.
- What else have you learnt from this situation?
It’s a long game, so we need to look after ourselves. I was thinking back to a talk we saw at the Highland Zoo about “enrichment” and how they stop the animals getting depressed, so I’ve been actively trying to do a new thing every day, and while we are still allowed, actively making the effort to see people for a chat in real life: I’ve been actively looking after my mental and physical health in a way I haven’t done for a long time, which has to be a positive, as usually we are all so busy. Amidst all the existential dread and grief there has to be hope that we can rebuild our own lives, families, work, and communities in a way which is healthier than before, and we must stay hopeful and try to actively build that different world.