This week’s post focuses on Dr Rob Gallagher. Rob is a postdoctoral researcher with the Ego Media Project and a teaching fellow in literature and the digital at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity was published by Routledge in 2017.
Rob’s Ego Media research has explored the cultural functions of digital avatars and the nature of the networked voice, and has broken down into five subprojects:
“There’s my work on ASMR videos on YouTube, there’s some work on grime music and gaming, there’s the book project – which is about videogames and identity – there’s a project called Moving Past Present, that was a collaboration with Janina Lange and looked at reanimating the Gaiety Girls as digital avatars. And there was a project with Ana Parejo Vadillo, which produced a digital edition of a poem from 1892 that we thought about as part of the prehistory of digital identity work and avatar play.”
The Gaiety Girls
The Gaiety Girls project came about, in part, because of Strandlines – the online archive that runs out of the Centre for Life-Writing research here at King’s. Strandlines looks at all aspects of the history of the Strand.” Rob had seen works of Janina’s that used digital motion capture technologies to remediate performances by early female film comediennes like Sarah Duhamel. “I knew that the Gaiety Theatre been on the Strand, and that the Gaiety Girls were, in some sense, early mass media personalities, and through our discussions we thought it would be fun to do a project reanimating them digitally, and drawing out some of those parallels between 1890s media culture and contemporary self-branding and performance.”
Both women began their careers on the stage, and transitioned into film as that technology developed. “Obviously, with early film, there’s no sound, there’s a certain kind of stutter that has to do with the frame rate. So there were all these ways in which the technology writes itself into the performance – something Janina’s very interested in as an artist.
And that resonated strongly with a lot of critical work on digital media, and how aspects of technologies – whether it’s resolution or frame rate, whether it’s the 280 character limit on Twitter, other kinds of affordances, and limitations – elicit certain kinds of performance and modes of identity work.”
Rob’s project with Ana Parejo Vadillo – an academic at Birkbeck who researches proto-modernist poetry, and has looked at the role of railways and photographic reproductions in connecting cosmopolitan cultural networks – developed after he read her work on the possibility of using digital technologies to reframe fin-de-siecle literature. “We were both very interested in poets Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley who wrote together as Michael Field, and in how, in some respects, their work anticipates digital culture. They wrote poems using Renaissance paintings, figures from Renaissance paintings, as avatars, really, for exploring some of the questions around identity that mattered to them. They’ve become queer icons online for certain communities. So we wanted to explore that relationship.” See some of the gifs from the edition.
ASMR stands for ‘autonomous sensory meridian response’. The term was coined to describe a tingling sensation that certain people seem to experience in relation to particular audiovisual triggers. Having begun to share accounts of this sensation and given it a name, online communities started creating and sharing media designed to elicit it using platforms like YouTube and Reddit. Part of Rob’s research has entailed exploring that culture and talking to people who make those videos.
“I became interested in ASMR in part because I don’t experience it myself, so I only had this kind of second-hand access to it through these accounts that people were sharing online, through which they determined that they were describing the same thing. I had done some work on videogame role-plays, where people on YouTube perform as their avatars, because I was quite interested in how the voice was being used there, where it’s obviously the person’s actual voice, but they’re performing a role, but the role is one they’ve created for themselves. And there turned out to be overlap between this genre and the actually much bigger online genre of ‘whisper videos’ or ‘trigger videos’ that people with ASMR consume. And at that point I thought, oh this is a fascinating phenomenon, this whole culture has sprung out of the internet, I should look at it.
So I worked with two ASMRtists who make videos on YouTube, and produced a series of texts that they read for a podcast, and then we talked about the ideas in the texts.”
In all three collaborations, Rob found it really valuable working with people who employ technologies with which he isn’t particularly familiar. “You can obviously get people to talk about their process, or about these platforms and technologies in the abstract. But if you’re working together to produce a particular product, it gives it a frame of reference and a concrete goal. And that’s really illuminated types of practice and types of technology that I didn’t know too much about.”
Combining theory & practice
For Rob, theory and practice both have a role to play in studies of digital culture. “There’s sometimes a tendency to place too much emphasis on practice at the cost of theorizing and thinking. It was a useful duality for me to try to address the ideas both of the level of abstract arguments in articles, and at the level of these projects, or these artworks, or performances that try to convey them in another form.
Also, working with both theory and practice, provides you with at least one example of what you’re trying to talk about. And I also think there’s an ethical dimension with studies of digital culture where rather than appropriating something someone else has made, and not necessarily knowing the context from which it emerged, or whether they would be happy with what you’re doing with it or saying about it, you’re inflicting that on your own creations.”