Feature Researcher: interview with Olivia Guntarik

April 18, 2019

Olivia Guntarik is an Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT. Her research on digital and creative technologies seeks to draw connections between the past and present through the natural, built and cultural heritage. She brings a practice-led, comparative and interdisciplinary approach to questions of human geography, ecocriticism, and cross-cultural communication.

What are you currently looking at in your research?

I am looking at ‘slow knowledge’, knowledge that is acquired and built over time, and over generations. I am looking at the question of how we bring certain kinds of knowledges to the world in ways that make them usable, accessible and relatable to people. I am thinking about the evolution of historical knowledge about people and places more specifically; how we think of certain global crises, the mass movement of people around the world, and historical and contemporary forms of genocide and persecution. I am interested in how we think about these issues relationally and at the level of the local, national and global, how this relates to cultural difference, and why certain inequalities exist. I am looking at how all this relates to how we use pubic space, why we engage with certain ideologies and not others, why we tell stories in the ways that we do.

Much of this interest is global and historical in scale but usually begins at a very specific, localised level. This often takes me to interesting places such as Dja Dja Wurrung country in central Victoria (Bendigo) where I am working with elders to retell stories of water, land and the night sky and the significance of Dja Dja Wurrung knowledge to global environmental change, and why and how we use the land and water, what those uses mean for communities that are marginalised.

Later this year, as part of a European research fellowship, I am travelling to Barcelona and Marseille to look at questions of exile, dislocation and translation. I will do this through the work of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, tracing his footsteps through the various cities he lived and visited and as he made his final crossing to Portbou. This research forms part of recent work on Dream Writing (oneirography) and is concerned with how researchers can bring their ideas to a wider audience. Some of these ideas will appear in a special issue of New Writing, to be published later this year, under the title ‘Convoluting the Dialectical Image’. In two of the articles I experiment with fictocriticism (a way of writing that tangles journalism, ethnographic inquiry and memoir).

All of this work highlights my fascination for the forms in which different ways of knowing, being and writing emerge and move through textual evidence to broader ideas. At the heart of the matter is how we explore ideas – through language, through culture, through creative processes, through the different places we traverse, who we meet along the way. What matters to me is how all this in turn inspires us to speak about (and against) injustice, and the things we hear, sense and see around us.

What have you been doing or making that addresses your research question?

I have just completed making an audio-game walking tour called TIMeR with Hugh Davies and Troy Innocent. The app features stories of land, river and sky with Boonwurrung elder N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs, and players of TIMeR were led to various locations of historical significance in the city and presented with perspectives about different sites from various positions. In making the app, we were interested in how traditional and alternate knowledges of space could be presented through pervasive games, and how space itself can be seen as a platform carrying media.

A lot of my research is place-based, practice-led and collaborative with clear sonic, political and creative dimensions. Hugh is an artist and curator and I am curious about how he envisions the city as a board game that connects people and allows players to negotiate ethical dilemmas and shift their perspective. He brings a lot of his knowledge on the culture of games and play in the Asia Pacific into our considerations on this topic. Troy looks at how game design and public art can lead people to specific locations and conversations about place, experience, knowing and being. I am really interested in his ideas on ‘playable cities’ around the world and how he brings to our research a particular poetic dimension that situates games in more complex, layered relationships with culture and society.

This project allowed each of us to think deeply about our own practice, not only in terms of how we communicate Indigenous understandings of place to a broader public but what it means to engage with Indigenous issues from the various positions we were coming from as artists, writers and researchers. It was only through the process of making the game together that we discovered that the project was less about representing knowledge and more about the relationship we can have with this kind of knowledge, in ways that are political and agentic, and with people for which this knowledge matters. We are presenting on this research together later this year at the DIGRA conference (Game, Play and the Emerging Ludo Mix) in Kyoto and Freeplay (Independent Games Festival) in Melbourne.

I am also writing a book (in slow motion!), creating a series of short, interconnected stories about family, migration and place connected to an older homeland in Borneo. This is part of a longer-term ‘slow’ research project that began 10 years when I completed my PhD and which was the basis of my thesis. It brings together the longer-term genealogical work I have been thinking about on slow knowledge and what it means to develop an understanding of places and people over time and with the hindsight of wisdom, distance and maturity. This work is part of the Dream Writing project I referred to earlier with American scholar and poet Michael Angelo Tata with whom I am writing a double memoir, a braided narrative, where we playfully experiment with plot, point of view, style, character, voice and tone.

I can say that this approach gives a freedom that conventional academic writing does not afford. It has helped me consider my intentions as a writer, and to reflect on the obligations that I have to the people whose ideas I connect with as researchers, artists and activists. There are always elements to this process that take me by surprise but I am guided by history, especially when that history is enlivened by allegory and cultural critique. I am always inspired to think about how we bring the complexities of research to people at the grass roots and how we give ourselves over to ideas.