XVIII.5 September + October 2011
Page: 48
Digital Citation

Poets and blacksmiths

Joji Mori, Steve Howard, Martin Gibbs

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As a global audience, we regularly witness tragic events, such as the recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, unfold on news websites and online social networks. In the aftermath of such tragedies, there is a need to rebuild lives and livelihoods. Memorialization provides an avenue for grieving and remembering those lost, and for honoring the resilience of those who survived. At a local, neighborhood level, this may take the form of commemorative events and rituals, physical memorials (e.g., sculptures), and special places such as parks and gardens. Online approaches to memorialization that support global participation are typically limited to posting messages on bespoke websites or social networks such as Facebook. We are interested in the relationship between commemorative activities that occur at these local and global levels. To better understand what happens at a local level, we have completed a study of commemorative activities relating to the Black Saturday bushfires that occurred in Victoria, Australia, on February 7, 2009. From this study, we have identified attributes that will help guide the design of technology for global memorialization.

The Black Saturday bushfires devastated numerous towns in Victoria, resulting in 173 lost lives and more than 2000 houses destroyed [1]. It has been over two years since the fires and as these neighborhoods rebuild, memorialization activities in local communities have become common. We have identified more than 35 of these projects, including gardens, sculptures, art exhibitions, craft projects, events, and poetry books. To familiarize ourselves with memorialization at a local level, we interviewed seven people involved in projects in affected towns, attended events on the second anniversary of the fires, and identified other memorials and activities through searching brochures and websites.

back to top  Local Community Memorialization

Memorialization allows people to grieve and provides a way to commemorate the past. In our study, we did not draw a distinction between activities of grieving and those that serve as ways to remember (or forget) the past, since we found memorialization was often related to both. For example, the decorative letterbox project (Figure 1) allowed affected community members to come together and grieve as they worked to create the letterboxes, yet the output serves as a memento of a shared past.

A good example of local community memorialization is the Poetry Tree (Figure 2), located on the side of the road leading into Strathewen, a small town of approximately 200 residents significantly affected by the fires both in terms of lives lost and homes destroyed. All residents must pass this tree as they drive into town. Days after the fire, a surviving resident posted a poem on the tree. Touched by the gesture, other residents, some of whom had lost homes or loved ones, wrote their own poems and stuck them to the same tree. The Poetry Tree has existed as an evolving memorial ever since, displaying poems, messages, and images of the deceased posted by family members and other affected citizens. A large yellow ribbon has been tied around the trunk, and a garden bed has been added to the tree's base. The tree is regularly tended by residents, who protect the poems from the elements by covering them in plastic sleeves, or even rewriting one another's poems as the paper starts to disintegrate. This is an example of a memorial created and used by the community itself.

back to top  Global Memorialization

Global memorials extend beyond the local communities, allowing a wider audience to participate. Website memorials and online social networking sites have been created for the Black Saturday bushfires, allowing people to post messages from around the world. Another example is the Tree Project [2], facilitated by the Australian Blacksmiths Association (Victoria). The idea for a memorial was conceived through an online discussion forum in which blacksmiths wanted to do something for the communities affected by the bushfires. The concept was to have blacksmiths worldwide forge gum leaves (Figure 3) to send to Victoria, where the tree would be constructed. After the project began, a suggestion was made to allow personalized text to be forged onto the metal leaves. The general public could then contribute by sponsoring a leaf and adding text, such as their names, the names of the deceased, or other short messages. On the project website, users can see photos of leaves that have been created, which is another way for people to connect to the memorial.

The Tree Project shows how memorialization can be relevant to a global audience. It and other Black Saturday bushfire commemorative activities also allow us to explore such important attributes as: place and togetherness; physical objects; religion, symbols, and rituals; and arts and crafts. Here, we describe these attributes in detail and discuss both opportunities and challenges that arise for global audiences when memorializing using digital technology.

back to top  Place and Togetherness

Place is an important attribute of many of the commemorative activities we documented. As mentioned, the Poetry Tree is located on the road leading directly into the town of Strathewen. One resident commented that she would wave to the photos of the deceased on the tree as she drove past each day, perhaps not unlike how she might wave to passing neighbors. The importance of place is also evident in the commemorative events held in affected towns on the anniversary of the fires. The heavily affected town of Marysville has its anniversary services at the same oval used as a refuge during the fires, a reminder of how important that location is to its residents. Other memorials, such as sculptures and other artworks, have been thoughtfully placed in public areas like parks and gardens.

Closely related to place is the importance of togetherness, which has been a key component for Black Saturday memorialization. On the second anniversary of the fires, the first author attended three commemorative events. The first was an invitation-only event of about 50 people, with live music, a barbecue, and a showcase of photos. The second was a larger, more traditional ceremony held in Melbourne, presided over by a religious leader and dignitaries such as the prime minister and other members of Parliament, along with affected community members and the general public. The third event was a ceremony held in the fire-affected town of Kinglake, where area residents gathered for a short service. These events provided an opportunity for people to socialize and reflect on the impact of the bushfires and subsequent rebuilding efforts.

Togetherness, however, is not just important on anniversaries. Since the fires, a number of groups whose sole purpose is to connect those affected have been created. There are groups from affected towns who have worked on craft projects, attended song-writing classes, and even started musical groups. Through these examples, we can see that memorialization benefits from the proximity to places of significance as well as from its relation to togetherness, allowing people to grieve and commemorate as collectives.

back to top  Physical Objects

Physical objects were common in memorializing the bushfires. For the Poetry Tree, the physicality of a poem written on a piece of paper, inserted in a plastic sleeve, and nailed to the tree is significant. Over time, exposure to weather disintegrates the paper and the poems become difficult to read. This has prompted some residents to protect, or even rewrite, one another's poems before they become illegible. Two of the residents commented on this act as being symbolic of the care shown throughout the community after the fires.

Leanne Mooney, an artist commissioned to work on a project called the Memory Box [3], encouraged individuals from affected towns to salvage personal items from the fires (such as jewelry and cutlery) or create new objects to include in a memorial of their homes and lives, which were displayed in boxes (Figure 4). The memory boxes have been presented at various art exhibitions around Victoria and will eventually be returned to each of their creators. This project allowed people who lost homes to include objects retrieved from the fires and present them in a personally meaningful way.

Craft projects, such as decorating letterboxes or forging metal leaves, resulted in physical objects that were also an important part of the anniversary services. At the Melbourne service, attendees were invited to write a message on a yellow ribbon and place it on a tree. At the Kinglake service, residents could light candles or dip their hands in paint and place them palm down on a large canvas, where they could also write commemorative messages. Some of the interactions with these physical objects relate to religion, symbols, and rituals.

back to top  Religion, Symbols, and Rituals

Numerous religious services were held soon after the fires to help individuals make sense of their experiences and come to terms with their loss. Services were also held on the two subsequent anniversaries, both in the affected towns and in Melbourne. In addition to the religious traditions, secular symbols and rituals were also evident. Trees were used as a symbolic reminder of the destruction and as signs of resilience and regrowth, as seen in the blacksmiths' project and the Poetry Tree. Another symbol often incorporated into commemorative activities is the yellow ribbon, like the one tied around the Poetry Tree, while small ribbons are worn (especially on the anniversary of the fires) by individuals. The ribbon is also consistently displayed on paraphernalia and websites relating to the fires.

Rituals provide a means for people to participate in commemorations rather than remain passive observers. For example, many of the anniversary events adopted the practice of a minute of silence for reflection. Religion, symbols, and rituals provide communities with ways to remember and potentially even cope with the devastation. This is made clear in a saying often uttered at commemorative services: "Words do not express our feelings adequately." It is a phrase that not only relates to religion, symbols, and rituals but also hints at the memorializing potential of arts and crafts.

back to top  Arts and Crafts

We came across many arts and crafts projects in communities affected by the fires. The first author attended an art exhibition called "Emergence" [4] in Melbourne on the second anniversary of the fires. Various artists from affected towns showcased their bushfire-themed works, which included paintings, sculpture, and jewelry, while a stage was set up for performances by musicians, dancers, poets, and storytellers. Attendees ranged from those directly affected by the fires to the broader Melbourne population and casual passers-by.

Craft projects, as distinct from art projects, were also common and provided another opportunity for community members to come together. For instance, a group of women in Strathewen knitted cuddly woollen chickens for children in various bushfire-affected towns. They came together and grieved, and in the process produced something with a nurturing value for children. Additionally, numerous projects have been set up in which groups of individuals worked to create mosaics, an example being community members in St. Andrews designing and assembling a mosaic chair to be placed in front of the community hall. While artistic expression has been important for local communities, craft projects allow groups of people to gather, learn the craft, and produce something of value to the community.

back to top  Discussion

After researching community commemorations, we outlined attributes that allowed us to begin thinking about the challenges and opportunities for memorialization using digital technology, in which large, distributed populations may participate. The tree made of metal leaves forged by blacksmiths demonstrates how people from around the world can contribute to a memorial by creating physical objects. However, there are limitations to how many of these objects could feasibly be included in a memorial. Digital and online memorialization, on the other hand, provides opportunities for capturing and presenting large amounts of personally meaningful content in the form of text, imagery, audio, and video from people all over the world. However, it is unclear whether websites can provide a sense of place and togetherness similar to that of the Poetry Tree. The significance of the physical nature of this tree is also seen in the weathering of the poems, something a website cannot typically emulate.

Kirk and Banks have been exploring physicality and memorialization using digital technology through the development of Technology Heirlooms—physical, interactive devices that include digital content related to a deceased person and are used to commemorate a life [5]. One example is the Timecard, a touchscreen housed within an aesthetically appealing wooden box. A family member may interact with the Timecard by navigating a chronological timeline and selecting digital images of their loved one. While this artifact demonstrates the use of digital technology placed in significant places around a home, it is not too difficult to conceive of ways to extend these ideas for global audiences. By installing memorials that use digital technology, are connected to the Internet, and are situated in significant areas such as bushfire-affected towns, we can begin to explore the benefits of bringing together locally affected and globally interested audiences in commemorations.

Religious expression can sometimes be seen through prayer and simple expressions such as "God bless you all," frequently scattered throughout memorial Web pages. Within an international audience, there are likely to be a variety of differing religious customs and traditions. This gives rise to significant challenges in designing sensitively for disparate groups. As an example of symbols and rituals, we witnessed the lighting of candles at an anniversary service in a local community. For global memorialization, virtual candles can be lit, with each expiring in 48 hours [6]. But questions remain as to whether this type of action is as meaningful as lighting a physical candle and whether communities will enthusiastically adopt such a practice to commemorate significant events.

The Poetry Tree afforded artistic expression within one community we visited. For global memorialization, this opens up opportunities for online platforms to host large audiences who create and share artistic works for commemorations. Crafts, on the other hand, allow groups to come together and grieve while creating something of value for themselves and others, such as the decorative letterboxes. In a global context, it is worth exploring the potential of using technology to help coordinate activities of large populations, in which items of both practical and commemorative value may be created for the affected local community.

We have discussed local community memorialization in the context of the Black Saturday bushfires. As global populations continue to experience such devastating events through the Internet, there will be a growing need to provide better ways for large, distributed audiences to participate in memorialization. We believe that current practices of global memorialization can be improved through digital technology that considers the opportunities and challenges arising from place and togetherness; physical objects; religion, symbols, and rituals; and arts and crafts.

back to top  Acknowledgements

We thank those from bushfire-affected communities who gave their time to help contribute to this research. They donate their own time and money to sensitively commemorate Black Saturday, and we have seen firsthand the benefits of these activities for all those affected.

back to top  References

1. 2009 Victorian bushfires Royal Commission; http://www.royalcommission.vic.gov.au/Commission-reports/Final-report/Summary/Interactive-Version

2. The Tree Project; http://www.treeproject.abavic.org.au/

3. The Memory Box Project; http://www.rav.net.au/storyboard/blog/christmas-hills/posts/the-memory-box-project

4. Emergence Art on the Move 2011; http://www.emergence2011.com/

5. Kirk, D. and Banks, R. On the design of technology heirlooms. Proc. of the International Workshop on Social Interaction and Mundane Technologies (Cambridge, UK). 2008

6. Light A Candle; http://www.gratefulness.org/candles/enter.cfm?l=eng

back to top  Authors

Joji Mori is a Ph.D. candidate in the Interaction Design Group at the University of Melbourne. He has recently worked in industry as an interaction designer and usability consultant. His research interest is the role of digital technologies in society with a current focus on community memorialization.

Steve Howard has worked in many areas of HCI, including usability engineering, user-centered innovation, and post-usability interpretations of user experience. Howard's current focus is IT in the wild, specifically mobile and pervasive computing applied to problems of real social need.

Martin Gibbs is a senior lecturer in the Department of Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. His current teaching and research interests lie at the intersection of science, technology studies, and human-computer interaction and are focused on the sociable use of interactive technologies.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The letterbox project.

F2Figure 2. The Poetry Tree.

F3Figure 3. Forged gum leaves for the Tree Project.

F4Figure 4. A memory box.

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