Playing Gozo

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Fellow Charting the Digital member Alex Gekker has put together a thoughtful piece over at his blog on the experience of devising and participating in a game for a group of undergraduate geographers. If you desire to know about the mechanisms of the game, please read Alex’s post. I also helped put together and play the game myself, and I offer up some of my own thoughts below:

THE PHOTO that heads this post was taken by me on the second stage of the game. In my hand is a geocache command given to my group from another set of students. As the group had chosen Catholicism as their guiding theme, the other group were tasked with devising a series of geo-located commands in order to structure their thinking on the theme. Gozo is a deeply religious island, as is Malta in general, and the inscription of Catholicism on the physical landscape is hard to ignore. Churches dominate the skyline, from wherever you are, and their red tiled roofs make them easily identifiable. Upon the Rabat Citadel we counted something like 12 red-roofed buildings. On the ground its influence is even greater. Madonna niches are on every corner – and I mean every corner. They are ornate, lighted and well-kept.

Religious mosaics, although less common, also provided an interesting talking point for my group. An earlier task on the first stage of the game required them to “eat a food with religious connotation”, and following some discussion (can we drink red wine?) we opted to head to a convenience store for some fresh bread and tinned anchovies (see below). Luckily none of us had an aversion to the latter, although on giving the same task to a later group, eating the anchovies provided a rather haunting experience!

2013-10-18 12.07.32 - CopyLater, after our delicious meal, we spotted a tiled image on the front wall of a small church. On investigation we discovered its rather delightful symbolism: the fish and basket of bread (below) depicting one of the classically retold miracles. The connection between the initial command (“eat something religious”), the performance of carrying it out (eating outside, on the floor, “humbly”) and the physical architecture (miracle as symbolic object) provided a wonderful opportunity for my group to really interrogate the pervasiveness of Catholicism on this tiny island. And as if to push this connection even further, to really ground the specificity of Catholic practices in Gozo, we discovered another tile – this time in marble on the floor outside the same church – of a desert island scene, complete with palm tree and olive branch-holding bird. It was almost too good to be true.

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However, therein lay a potential problem. In advancing an understanding of how Catholicism and island life were intimately entwined its importance became overbearing, if not downright wrong. Discussion spread to all manner of activity from family life and daily chores, to sports meetings, local council decisions, schooling and architecture. It became the explanation for everything and resulted in a kind of religious determinism. Although the island is genuinely one of the most avowedly Catholic places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting I, along with other PhD students and staff, was determined to explore a more pluralistic account of everyday life; one that took into account not only other religions alive and well on the island (yes there were some!), but also Catholicism’s own Paganistic beginnings more generally.

There were two particular moments or sites that allowed us to do so. Firstly, Gozo is home to a Neolithic, megalithic temple complex called Ġgantija. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest man-made religious structures in the whole world, dating back over 5500 years. Critically it isn’t a site of Catholic importance. It isn’t a church, shrine or a niche. In fact, it’s thought it was probably a site connected to a fertility cult. Phallic objects and animal carvings recovered from the site are now preserved in the Gozo Museum of Archaeology. So this early religio-spiritual site predates Catholicism on the island. It suggests an alternative, nuanced history of faith and human belief that does not relate directly to the now dominant religion. As part of our attempt to explore this history we hid a bottle at the location of the temples with a quotation from a journal article for my group to find. The quotation came from a paper by Kathryn Rountree in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute on ‘Localizing Neo-Paganism‘. A picture taken by Rountree of a Maltese Pagan praying at a Neolithic temple on the island on page 3 of the article draws the Ġgantija site and the journal text together beautifully.

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The second moment provided less fanfare, but in many ways was just as significant. On the return from a particularly exhausting journey “to the edge” (as part of our exploration of another group’s geocache on ‘boundaries’) I spotted, on an otherwise unremarkable street, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although far less ostentatious than any Catholic basilica, and far less majestic than any Neolithic ritual site, the Kingdom Hall for local followers was in fact no less important and no less central to the investigation of  religious practice and everyday life on the island. In what could otherwise have been a rather orthodox reading of Catholic life on the island just about managed to tease open a number of alternative narratives that scratched away at not only the embedding of island life within a longer historical framework, but also the contemporary nuance of religious practice. Although Catholicism certainly dictates large swathes of social and cultural life on the island, it is only half the story. The game acted as a practical device to tease open the thematic content of the island. We hope to tweak and re-run it next year with another group of willing participants.

Instagram REALLY wasn’t made for this…

















Some great posts on Dronestagram in the last few days. The Guardian ran a world news post on it this Monday, as did The Atlantic, here. Although David Gregory does the leg-work required to make sense of this over at his Geographical Imaginations blog, here. I’m going to re-quote what David has already quoted over at GI because it speaks to everything that’s critical about the kinds of technological distancing that goes on in drone warfare, and it’s by Dronestagram’s creator, James Bridle:

The political and practical possibilities of drone strikes are the consequence of invisible, distancing technologies, and a technologically-disengaged media and society. Foreign wars and foreign bodies have always counted for less, but the technology that was supposed to bring us closer together is used to obscure and obfuscate. We use military technologies like GPS and Kinect for work and play; they continue to be used militarily to maim and kill, ever further away and ever less visibly.

Yet at the same time we are attempting to build a 1:1 map of the world through satellite and surveillance technologies, that does allow us to see these landscapes, should we choose to go there. These technologies are not just for “organising” information, they are also for revealing it, for telling us something new about the world around us, rendering it more clearly.

History, like space, is coproduced by us and our technologies: those technologies include satellite mapping, social photo sharing from handheld devices, and fleets of flying death robots. We should engage with them at every level. These are just images of foreign landscapes, still; yet we have got better at immediacy and intimacy online: perhaps we can be better at empathy too.

I mean, come on, that’s such a rich chunk of text – a real, intelligent conceptualization of the US drone war project. James identifies everything that drone warfare pertains to be; bloodless, clinical, and distanced. He also brings together the war technologies of drone control and the play technologies of front-room computer gaming. He tells us that these technologies do more than ‘present’, more than ‘organize’: he tells us they engage and immediate and that we can do a whole lot better than confine them to other, a-sensorial worlds.  

Digital Play, Politics and Epistemology

Good looking conference at Utrecht University courtesy of the Centre for the Study of Digital Games and Play, 7Scenes and the Waag Society. Here’s what the organizers have to say about it:

With the advent of digital and mobile technologies scientific knowledge production has changed profoundly. As interactive, affordable, networked and ubiquitous technologies they invite people to engage with, alter and probe scientific ‘facts’. Play is essential to think about this new kind of engagement with science. It offers citizens powerful ways to become involved with and knowledgeable about scientific practices and offers subversive and exciting possibilities to actively contribute to and transform them. During this conference we therefore want to look at current citizen science developments through the lens of play. We will explore how the playful potential of digital media and cultures strengthen citizen’s scientific engagement and knowledge about their environment; and how the relationship between professional and laymen knowledge production is shifting through the ludic use of digital technologies.

Although the conference is invitation only for the first two days (25/26th June) there is an open public event on the 27th in Amsterdam featuring keynotes from, amongst others, Jeffrey Warren.