Half-time at ‘Future States’

7th April 2020

John Wyver writes: for the past week or so I have been … what? ‘attending’, perhaps, or ‘participating in’, or ‘watching’, the Future States conference. I’ve posted before about this, and about its innovative online format, here and here, and I have been asked to offer some brief closing remarks for next week’s plenary session. So this is something of a try-out for that contribution – and I would be very pleased to hear from anyone else who may be experiencing the conference. Also, it’s not too late to register and be part of what I’m finding is a really interesting initiative.

The focus of the conference is ‘Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945’, and while I am most certainly not a periodical studies scholar, I am really interested in the methodologies being developed in this field as well as specific aspects of the topic. My interest before I started looking in a little more detail at readings for the conference, and also at the contributions, was most strongly focussed on Britain and interwar photography, and especially its intermedial links with documentary film and early television. But it has been productively enlightening to learn about magazines in Canada, the Soviet Union and Australia.

The heart of the conference is the line-up of online presentations which are freely available on Youtube (and which will remain as part of the record of the event). Contributors mostly read their paper in voice-over with Powerpoint slides, but a number also include self-shot performative video. Most of the presentations that I’ve watched included a truly rich array of images, magazine covers and layouts, in addition to quotations, references and structuring bullet points.

Contributions that I have especially valued so far include the following – although me highlighting them is largely a reflection of them aligning with my particular interests (and is in no sense intended to be any kind of grading):

• I really enjoyed Patrick Rössler’s Week 1 keynote, ‘Spearheading the iconic turn: A survey of illustrated magazines during the interwar period – the example of Germany’ – a broad overview of (mostly) the Weimar period, with stimulating ideas about methodologies.

• From the ‘Francophone Modernities’ panel, I was engaged by Laura Truxa’s ‘Visual modernism and its others in VU‘, considering the use of photography and photomontages, as well as innovative typographic choices in the French illustrated weekly between 1928 and 1940.

• I found Emma West’s paper about a British fascist weekly fascinating, ‘“The Greater Britain of Fascists”: Politics and photomontage in Action (1936-1940)’ – this is a topic about which I knew nothing.

• … and also from Panel 5, ‘The Power of Photography’, I got a lot from Josie Johnson’s ‘Mutable modernity: Margaret Bourke-White’s Soviet photographs in magazines’, which along with much else features some really remarkable images by the great American documentarist that were unfamiliar to me.

Alongside the presentations, the Future States website is set up for Q&A sessions serving each of the panels as well as a Noticeboard space for more general discussion. The former are working pretty well, with valuable complementary comments from many of the presenters, whereas the latter has so far not really found any traction. Discussion, both formal and informal, is of course essential to any conference, and so far I am only getting glimpses of an online replacement, with next-to-no sense of social exchange. Which, of course, is an especially tough expectation from any online offering – and never more so than in the current lock-down.

One of the aspects of this enormously valuable experiment that interests me the most is the temporality of the conference and of my engagement with it. A second set of keynotes and panel presentations was released yesterday, with the first group remaining online. I wonder quite what the organisers hoped for from scheduling this second ‘drop’, apart perhaps from avoiding a sense of overwhelming participants at the start. Questions of seriality – of the effects of weekly publication, of recurring features, of expectations – are so fundamental to periodical studies that I wonder if there are lessons to be learnt there about how to schedule a conference of this kind.

One might think that a lock-down is the perfect time to ‘attend’ Future States and its like, but of course the demands of everyday life, of work patterns, of real-world albeit highly restricted social exchange, have not let up, and I admit to finding it challenging to find the necessary dedicated time to pay close attention to the panels and Q&As. By (semi-)isolating participants in a real-world location, traditional conferences create a space out of time that participants sign up to, and there is no equivalent to that online. Or at least, to date, I have not found it.

Onwards, however, to Week 2, and to virtual visits to the periodical cultures of Latin America, various European countries, Turkey and Iran.

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