Heavy Data, Cultural Memories: Lessons from the AIDS Memorial Quilt Digital Experience Project

 >  > Heavy Data, Cultural Memories: Lessons from the AIDS Memorial Quilt Digital Experience Project
Anne Balsamo

Anne Balsamo

The New School for Public Engagement
@annebalsamo
MITH Conference Room
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
12:30 pm

“Epidemics, like wars, mark a generation for life.”

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was created 25 years ago as a work of community activism to protest the appalling lack of attention by the US health agencies to what was then, in 1987, an increase in improbable fatalities among previously healthy gay men in the United States.  Its first inception unfolded in October 1987 on the National Mall in Washington DC as part of the March for Gay Rights; it included 1,920 Quilt panels.  Now 25 years later, the Quilt encompasses more than 48,000 panels, representing 60 countries and commemorating more than 93,000 names.   It is the largest living memorial of its kind in the world.

The Quilt is also an “activist archive” of the late 20th century.  The activities that gave rise to the Quilt in 1987 are part of the history of the campaign for gay and lesbian rights in the US. The Quilt literally stitches together a million memories, a million stories, a million lessons about the relationship between individual lives, public culture, and political activism.  In its textile form, it is an unwieldy archive.  If laid out in its entirety the Quilt would cover more than 1.3 million square feet.   It weighs more than 34 tons.

This presentation discusses the creation of an interactive memorial that was designed to augment the viewing of the textile Quilt.  I will demonstrate three digital experiences:  1) an open-source mobile web application called AIDS QUILT TOUCH; 2) a tangible tabletop interactive that enables viewers to SEARCH the database of Quilt images to find a specific image and to BROWSE the archive of Quilt panel images; and 3) a community sourcing application that engages people in analyzing and archiving information about the Quilt.

This effort is framed by my recent transmedia book project called Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination At Work.  In creating the Quilt Digital Experiences I was interested in exploring the cultural work of public interactives, to examine how they are implicated in practices of cultural reproduction—remembering, witnessing, archiving, and educating.

Dr. Balsamo is a groundbreaking national leader in media studies, a scholar and media-maker whose work links cultural studies, digital humanities, and interactive media. She received her PhD in Communications Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and began her faculty career in the School of Literature, Culture, and Communications at Georgia Tech, where she published a distinguished book about the cultural implications of emergent biotechnologies, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. In 1999, having grown interested in the practical linkages between technology and culture, she accepted an offer to join the celebrated Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), collaborating in the design of media for reading, exhibition, public art, and cultural projects. In 2003, Dr. Balsamo moved from Silicon Valley to USC, where she had been jointly appointed in the Annenberg School of Communications and the School of Cinematic Arts. She directed the Collaborative Design Lab within the Interactive Design Division of the School of Cinematic Arts. She has been a leader in the growth of digital humanities nationally, serving on the Advisory Board of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Co-laboratory) since its founding in 2003. In 2011, she published Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, a transmedia book (with accompanying DVD and web linkages to interactive media projects) that synthesizes and theorizes the links between her cultural studies scholarship and digital media projects.

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All talks free and open to the public. Attendees are welcome to bring their own lunches.

Contact: MITH (mith.umd.edu, mith@umd.edu, 301.405.8927).