In our daily lives, formerly "analog" activities such as hailing a cab, making a phone call and buying groceries are now conducted atop a digital architecture. Even more exciting, nearly every means of human artistic expression now contains a digital component. To find a writer, musician or filmmaker who doesn't use digital tools is, in our technology-driven world, to find someone who's being left behind.
This weekend, tiny, bucolic Woodstock plays host to a festival that celebrates the many ways in which modern art and communication are shot through with digital tools of richness and complexity. On Friday, October 16, the Woodstock Digital Media Festival celebrates its fifth anniversary with speakers and events that revel in the possibilities of the digital age.
Speaking with Seven Days via Skype from London, festival founder and organizer David McGowan expressed pleased surprise that the ambitious event has made it to its fifth year. Digital art is a smaller component of the festival now than in years past, he says, noting that in 2012 the event grew larger than his team's ability to manage it. "So we decided that we'd be better off focusing on what we did best, which was digital media in the public interest ... And we define that in a pretty broad way. It's kind of a 'we know it when we see it' definition."
For most of the year, McGowan is a media and telecommunications executive who focuses on European markets. He's currently CEO of a Budapest-based telecom called Invitel. Woodstock, which he and his family made their home base long ago, has been the festival location from the beginning.
WDMF deviates from the "cram as many screenings as you can into a single day" model typical of film festivals. It's more like a symposium, says McGowan, with the emphasis on the exchange of new and exciting digital ideas. Most of the presenters and attendees use cutting-edge technologies in their professional lives, but everyone with an interest in new tech is welcome. All festival events are free and open to the public, though preregistration is required.
One of the marquee attractions this year is Phoebe Judge, the North Carolina Public Radio host who cocreated the popular podcast "Criminal." Judge, along with Vermont Public Radio's Angela Evancie and Jonathan Butler, will speak about using digital podcasting tools at one of the festival's several keynote talks.
Other keynote conversations high-light the works of digital luminaries of many stripes. One of them, author and activist Suey Park, attained notoriety in March 2014 for her Twitter campaign to cancel "The Colbert Report." Park was responding to a jokey but context-free tweet from the show's account that some construed as an anti-Asian remark. She soon found herself the recipient of vicious online brickbats and will speak at the festival about the double-edged sword of internet virality.
Other guests include the rabble-rousing conceptual artist collaborative known as eteam; and Jesse Kriss, a developer and designer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. "I think the work [Kriss] is doing is just fascinating," says McGowan. "He's working on how we would actually control robots on Mars ... What is the relationship between the interfaces involved and the real world out in outer space?" Kriss' presentation is titled "Outer Space, Undersea, and the Interstate — Making Robotics Work for Users."
Journalist Dan Archer will present on "Transmedia 101." A former student at White River Junction's Center for Cartoon Studies, Archer combines comics and interactive video with traditional journalism to create digital projects that viscerally explore human-rights issues.
If Archer's name sounds familiar, that may be because of his recent run-in with the high sheriffs of Apple's App Store. In September, his app Ferguson Firsthand was rejected by Apple for being "inappropriate" in ways that the computer giant refused to clarify. The app — whose Android version met with no opposition from Google — uses eyewitness interviews and virtual-reality computer re-creations to provide a multivocal perspective on the killing of Michael Brown by a police office in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.
Archer explains his motivation for creating the app: "A lot of the [news] coverage [of Brown's killing] fell short, at least in my mind, about how users were going to relate to the space and the narrative mechanics of uncovering a news story as disparate pieces of information came out — most of which were contradictory," he says. "I just thought that it would make the ideal opportunity to show people how blurred are the definitions and lines of 'truth' that journalists get to draw." Ferguson Firsthand is available for smartphones in virtual-reality and "flat" versions.
At the festival, attendees will be able to immerse themselves in Archer's work via several Oculus Rift headsets on hand. The highly touted virtual-reality apparatus, which provides wearers with a multisensory experience, could transform industries as diverse as video gaming, real estate and design. The headsets won't be available commercially until 2016, so the opportunity to test-drive them may attract people curious about the Next Big Digital Thing.
Whether that Big Thing is Oculus Rift or something else, it's almost sure to be discussed in Woodstock this coming weekend.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Woodstock Digital Media Festival Probes New Tech in the Public Realm"