It’s Complicated

These days when people people ask me what I’ve been up to, the answers can get quite convoluted. So in the absence of a FaceBook account here’s a sampling of some recent projects, and just enough back story to make it seem coherent.

Followers of this site will be familiar with my researches into the Marshall McLuhan fonds, work that some intrepid Berliners have recently revived by marrying a poor quality lecture video to the hundreds of images that were the crux of the original presentation. The result is the Hybrid Lecture Player.

We’re currently seeking support to go deeper (and go public) with this project. The hope is to make each image into a virtual slide down a documentary rabbit hole, for those who choose to explore. We were met with enthusiastic interest in recent conversations with the McLuhan family, and the Berliners have piqued the interest of universities in Europe and the US. All of this international attention may be enough to win the eventual support of Canadian institutions, including the LAC whose new director says he wants to revive the exhibitions and programming that have been conspicuously absent in recent years. With luck the promised exhibitions will expand beyond war and hockey.

In addition to that archival work I’m getting back into museums, by way of the academy and the internet. I’ve researched, catalogued, taught and curated in museums for much of my career, which took a downturn in summer 2011 when I was one of five curators laid off from the struggling National Gallery of Canada. The abolition of my position as Curator of International (i.e. non-Canadian) Art brought the total to seventy lost positions by the time I was out of the picture. That’s a conservative estimate, since it doesn’t count moribund positions like the curatorship of Modern Art, a role that I subsumed a few years prior to that. I found it rewarding to acquire 20thC works such as a unique Warhol print donated by a couple in Toronto and this crazy thing which I found at auction and paid for with repatriation monies from Heritage Canada.

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I also developed a deep respect for minimalist art while creating a glorious gallery for Judd, Andre and Flavin works that has since been dismantled. (No installation shots, alas, but you can read my pithy descriptions of all three artists’ works here.)

Like many surplussed knowledge workers I’ve found some pickup work in universities, including the Spring 2013 seminar (effectively a studio) in information design. The remarkably creative and varied results of my students’ work in that class can be found at

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That site and the one you’re reading were the first websites I’ve built since the dark ages of CuteHTML. In fall 2013 I launched a far more ambitious multi-platform enterprise called Slow Ottawa. This is a sustainability-themed advocacy site that now comprises a website (complete with audiocast) with hundreds of followers a day, the obligatory Twitter feed, and an urban design focussed Pinterest board with 4,825 global followers at time of writing.

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This is stimulating work with a wide reach, but how can one make a living? I suppose there may be some way to monetize Slow Ottawa through advertising, but I don’t want to commercialize or clutter the site. I would like to produce some cycling-related agitprop and safety equipment, if and when funds permit. But until that happens Slow Ottawa is really just a gift to its local and international followers, and a means to hone the kinds of communications skills I had long been teaching, but not seriously practising until recently.

Slow Ottawa has long advocated for strengthening communities through greater investment in local business.

I’ve been seeking opportunities to help local economies, and I’ve finally hit on a way to do in a way that also combines my interest in historical artifacts; my support for environmentally-friendly products; and my experience in web design and social media. It’s all happening on the website, which is devoted to helping Canada’s small museums and historic sites survive in the age of shrinking cultural funding and exploding social media.

There’s incessant buzz about the future of museums and historic sites these days, much of it devoted to new forms of community engagement and to the ubiquitous application of digital technologies. While my conservator business partner and I intend to engage such issues, we’re starting by assessing the basic safety of people and artifacts. Here’s a survey that we launched yesterday.

There’s a lot more to the new site, including an online shop where we hawk a wide range of museum-quality cleaning products. Lizz comes up with the products, including cleaning agents and cloths that she makes herself. I design and translate product labels, and I’ve set up an e-commerce section on the web site. It costs a lot to ship this stuff, so we’re now seeking small museums and historic sites with administrators willing to carry our products in their gift shops. If they do, we will put them on a list that will enable people to give them more supplies with the click of a button.

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