Jin Sol Kim and Lulu Liu interview the Decameron 2.0, a Canadian collaborative made up of professors and artists who are inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s plague narrative The Decameron (1348-1353) to develop creative works during and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Decameron 2.0 is a collaborative, multi-modal research-creation group made up of professors and artists from seven different universities in Canada, with a variety of backgrounds, expertise and interests: Monique Tschofen (
Ryerson University), Jolene Armstrong (Athabasca University), Kelly Egan (Trent University), Lai-Tze Fan (University of Waterloo), Caitlin Fisher (York University), Angela Joosse (University of Toronto), Kari Maaren ( Ryerson University), Siobhan O’Flynn (University of Toronto), and Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof ( Ryerson University).
The project proposed herein takes its cue from Giovanni Boccaccio’s plague narrative The Decameron (1348-1353)--an experimental and complex frame narrative about a group of ten who flee a plague-torn Florence to a retreat in the country where they pass the time by each telling one story over ten days. Boccaccio’s work affirms the power of art in the face of disease and death at the same time as it playfully explores themes ranging from the sacred to the profane.
As part of its efforts, the Decameron 2.0 is currently developing an online and open-access exhibition to house its collective works in a way that can intersect practices of GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) with electronic literature, the fine arts, the creative digital humanities, and the future of multimodal and digital publishing. To do this, the group explores methods and practices that allow for interactive, immersive, and inclusive user experiences of the Decameron 2.0's works, in consideration of how these works tie into their epistemological foundations in feminist media practices.
LL: [00:00:00] Well then, let's get started. So hello everyone. I'm Lulu, and I'm one of the Co-Editors for this special double issue of ebr and tdr, which are the electronic book review and the digital review. And I am currently a senior at the University of Waterloo studying Systems Design Engineering. And another interviewer with me today is Jin Sol.
Jin Sol, if you'd like to introduce yourself as well?
JK: Hi, everyone. I'm Jin Sol, I'm also a Co-Editor on the special issue of tdr and ebr, "Critical Making, Critical Design". I am currently going into my fifth year of the PhD at the University of Waterloo. I'm in the department of English and I am studying the cross sections of critical race theory and digital photography.
LL: Cool. Thank you, Jin Sol. So let's start off with a land acknowledgement. So based in [00:01:00] Canada, the electronic book review would like to acknowledge that this land is made up of more than 630 First Nations communities representing more than 50 nations and 50 Indigenous languages. This interview is a part of a new ebr interview series called "Conversations" that was inaugurated in 2020. In the series, we speak to scholars and practitioners who are engaged in digital storytelling, electronic literature, and the digital arts amongst other topics. As a part of this new series, [besides individuals we've spoken to,] you are the first collective or group we are speaking to.
So as for everyone who is watching, we are joined here with seven members of the Decameron 2.0, a group of nine women scholars and artists here in Canada, who have spent the last [18 months] working on creative work, such as poetry prose, visual art and the like during and in response to COVID-19. They're inspired by the classical work of literature, the Decameron, about 10 people who left Rome during the black plague for [00:02:00] safety and who gathered to tell stories.
So welcome, Decameron 2.0.
Before we get started with our interview questions, I was wondering if you could go around and introduce yourselves with your names, preferred pronouns, and maybe two or three sentences about you and your practice. And just as a little fun thing, a verb that kind of describes your day today.
Let's start with Lai-Tze.
LF: Hello, I'm Lai-Tze Fan. I'm an Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I'm also one of the editors of the electronic book review and the digital review. My work is at the intersection of theory and practice, and I often think about questions of systemic bias in technological design. I also work in digital storytelling and interactive storytelling. Primarily, I would describe my work as interdisciplinary. A verb to describe my day... Rushed. No. Rushing. There we go.
CF: I'm Caitlin Fisher. I'm a Professor at York University in Toronto where I direct the Immersive Storytelling Lab. I'm also the vice-president of the Electronic Literature Organization. And yeah, a verb to describe my day? Lifting.
MT: I can go next. I'm Monique Tschofen. I'm at Ryerson University, which we are currently calling X university in solidarity with our Indigenous colleagues. And I work in the area of visual culture. My research all revolves around the question of whether an artwork can be an act of theory. I think it can. And the verb of the day, I think is dreaming.
JA: Okay, I can go next. I'm Jolene Armstrong. I'm an [00:04:00] Associate Professor at Athabasca University in Comparative Literature. I guess my main work in terms of what's relevant here is that I'm a multimedia artist, although not necessarily digital. And a verb to describe my day... I can think of lots of adjectives. Float, float, float, and floating, floating? Floating day.
KM: All right. I can go. My name is Kari Maaren. I am a contract lecturer at X University, the university formerly known as Ryerson. My area of expertise doesn't really matter because I'm a contract lecturer, but I do medieval stuff. So I guess this is appropriate.
I'm also an author and musician and a cartoonist, which is probably more relevant to what we're doing. And a verb to describe my day [00:05:00] would be "glare." I guess I'm a bit grumpy.
IPO: Hey, I'm Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof. I'm an Associate Professor also at the X University. I am a filmmaker and I work both with analog obsolete technologies and digital technologies, including working with some AI for the Decameron project, part of this collective. I don't know what else to say except for a verb that describes my day: reading. That's what I started doing first thing this morning.
LL: And lastly, I believe we have Angela on the phone.
AJ: Yes. Hello, I'm Angela Joosse. And I work [00:06:00] mainly in experimental film, both analog and digital, as well as installation. I did my PhD in the joint program in communication and culture at York and X University, and I'm going to start a Master of Information degree at U of T starting this fall. Wading. I think that's a verb to describe my day.
MT: And we have two people who are missing today. And I would introduce them anyway. Siobhan O'Flynn teaches at the University of Toronto and Kelly Egan is at Trent University.
LL: Alright. Thank you so much. So I guess we'll get started with our first question. And that would be: What motivated or inspired the new Decameron Collective project, and what would you say are its main objectives?
CF: I think Monique inspired it. So Monique should go first and then we should add.
MT: Okay. Well, I won't say I inspired so much as craved. We were [00:07:00] turning a page in history and going into lockdown, and it felt like a really alienating space. So I think I had this post on Facebook and I asked if anybody would want to join the Decameron 2.0. And to my great surprise, everybody here jumped into the project, and it was something that really found its shape as we began to meet, first over cocktails and yakking, and then we began to write together, and we've been doing this weekly, I think without exception since basically March 2020.
LF: This is something that was a part of Lulu and Jin Sol's introduction, that we were inspired by the original Boccaccio's Decameron--the story of people who were isolated and who fled--another verb, to flee--came together and sought the opportunity to develop a new community, [00:08:00] band together, inspire each other, tell stories. Some fun stories, some naughty stories, but they found, I guess, companionship in isolation.
And I think that has driven the spirit of this project, which didn't start out as a project, as Monique mentioned.
CF: Yeah, I love the idea of both, of the community and also the structure. So it really did appeal to me to have the regularity of the weekly meeting and also having sort of the intertext of Decameron as a form. I like the idea of regular storytelling and storytelling as sort of a practice to help to understand moments in our lives. So it seemed super apt. And I was really curious to see what kind of stories might come out of this time. So that's exciting.
KM: We did actually start off with the intention to read The Decameron, [00:09:00] and that didn't entirely pan out.
But I think one of the things that did was that we all did read the introduction to it. The sort of the frame narrative in which these people are gathering to tell the stories. And Boccacio was basically taking this description of the plague from many other plagues.
He took older descriptions of the plague and he bundled them into his description of the plague, but it's kind of convincing when you read it. And it sounds like what's happening now. I mean, he's talking about...some people just decided that they would party, and some people shut themselves in their houses and they never went outside.
And so it was what we were going through. And I think that actually helped, even if we didn't do exactly what Boccaccio was doing.
CF: I read it. I thought it was kind of crazy because it was filled with morality tales, but I actually thought [00:10:00] that it was, yeah, reading it as kind of like didactic texts to help to understand plague.
So I might've read it all, but I actually had it on Audible. So I got a lot of those stories.
KM : Many of them have monks doing bad things.
IPO: I guess the one thing I would like to also point out is it's just also wonderful to be surrounded by all these great women. And I look forward to that also weekly. And during the pandemic, it's been very difficult to kind of continue and be social. So this is not only, you know, this is very stimulating intellectually, creatively, but also emotionally.
So it's just been nice to bond this way. And another thing I would say is that after each session at the end of each session, we share the works we produce. And it's been [00:11:00] interesting to see the correspondences between some of the works. And also, I must say I've been inspired by many of them, so, yeah.
AJ: I joined the collective a bit later after a conversation with Monique, and I can say our weekly meetings became a real anchor for me. In the midst of lockdowns most of my daily routine shifted mainly to caring for others. Membership in Decameron 2.0 has helped me stay connected to a strong creative / intellectual community as well as creatively process the upheaval going on around me.
JK: That's very cool. It sounds like with the collective and Decameron 2.0, as you're calling yourselves, a lot of it is about companionship/community building and creativity. I see a lot of overlaps. Given the context with the original Boccaccio's Decameron, I'm wondering now, what are some of the key differences that you see between Decameron 1.0 (Boccaccio's Decameron) and Decameron 2.0?
CF: Fewer monks.
MT: One of the things I would start with is that in fact, the similarities. So obviously the scenario in which we have found ourselves retreated from the world of plagues and telling stories to each other is similar, and the form [00:12:00] is as well. So the original Decameron is part of a genre of narrative known as frame narratives. The 1,001 Nights is an example. Marguerite deNavarre's Heptameron is another. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is another. These are stories that work really well and are very compelling because they're all about the persistence of story against death.
So thematically, they really resonate with what it is we're doing and where we find ourselves. But they're also really great ways of catching heterogeneous stories in one envelope. And so in the original Decameron there are really naughty stories. There are really mean stories. There are stories that are fables.
The genres really switch and although each day in the Decameron has a theme, the kinds of materials that are accumulated there are very different one from another. And so that made it really appropriate for our forms of storytelling, because we've really had people contribute work in all sorts of genres.
I think you gave a bit of a survey, but our works include letters to the editor. [00:13:00] They include crafts. Knitting. Paper cutting. They include nature photography. One of our participants actually makes works out of leaves. And so to have a form that would hold all of these different expressions of our experience, but also, you know, of our inspirations, seemed felicitous .
But I would say one of the big differences is that despite being narrated by women, the original Decameron is not exactly feminist. And I think that was a much larger part of our mission to really create a space for women.
CF: I'd say too, one of the interesting things for me is because we met regularly over Zoom while we did have a time each week where we went and some of us wrote and some of us made film and some of us did other things.
There's a huge component of oral storytelling on Zoom that I think really appealed to me. So the movement from Zoom as only a meeting place to actually being a creative place of oral storytelling. And I think we told each other a lot of stories that [00:14:00] are kind of the haunting of some of the work that will eventually be published.
There are a lot of things that are not captured that we told each other that seemed very, very much in the spirit of the initial frame narrative.
JK: That's very interesting. I was wondering about the digitality of it all. Meeting on Zoom every week, what would you say has come of this marriage of disembodiedness and presence, and how has that affected the creative work and processes apart from the oral storytelling within Zoom? Has it affected it in any other way?
CF: Well, I'll offer one little thing. So at various times we've also just kind of hit record. So we actually are able to capture what's happened in the room. I think sometimes I've even treated it as if it's like an extension or like a living room we're all hanging out in or we're all having cocktails.
But I also think being able to [00:15:00] capture those moments digitally was certainly part of you know, part of what happened, but let's see what others add.
LF: I'd say it really pushed the envelope for me in terms of thinking creatively and thinking of the medium or the platform through which I was starting to make, because it became similar to teaching online--easier for me to share certain resources, as opposed to sitting around in a café and saying to others, oh, well, I'll show you on my phone, or trying to draw it out or speak it out verbally.
I could start to play with some AI or software and just share my screen, share things I was creating. I'd never thought of myself as necessarily an artist in this variety, but this identity formation was aided by the scale and scope of various tools and platforms.
It was great to do that, but also to share it, and also to encourage others to say, "Hey, you should try out this AI or this [00:16:00] weird tool."
KM: We were also all in our own spaces. And I think that that actually matters because if you're in a writer's group that's meeting in a house somewhere, somebody says, "Okay, everybody write for 15 minutes." And everybody sits and writes for 15 minutes. And we did the same thing on Zoom, like "Everybody write for 15 minutes." And then I would be like, "I don't want to write, I want to improvise a song on the piano." And then I would record myself. I can't do that in a writer's group. Right? The possibilities kind of open up when we're all in our own spaces, surrounded by the things that we can access. We can access anything we want. So if somebody wants to do crafts, they can do crafts. If somebody wants to play a song, they can do that. So that was cool.
CF: Yeah, and like everywhere else in the world, it's all quarantine-inflected.
So we were half the time, like, all in our pajamas. I don't know if people were just like lying down, depressed on the floor half the time. I mean, you can't see once you turn off [00:17:00] the video to begin the writing. So I really kinda liked that as well, that it was sort of both, sort of this quasi-public meeting for this creative work, but at the same time, never outside of the rootedness of what it means to be sort of quarantined and in this moment.
MT: There's another thing about Zoom that I found really interesting and that's the chat. So there's been an addition to our face-to-face meeting and our screens off, your writing time, just a steady exchange that's going on in the chat. So we share poems and photos and links to software. And so that to me seems to be of a different piece, that that a sort of tangential and peripheral knowledge sharing has been part of it because we're academics and creative writers at the same time. And people with lives.
JA: I think that that's actually a really important point, the idea that we're people with lives. I think there's a tendency to think of using a [00:18:00] technology like Zoom or, or another type of distance technology that it's somehow by default, alienating because we're not all together in the same place. And I think what I found was that it actually created a very intimate space that allowed us to feel very close to each other. And maybe that was because of the organic nature of it. For example, sometimes we had kids and pets and, outside noises intruding on our meetings. And those sorts of natural interruptions, I think, made the Zoom space very intimate.
We really got to know each other in our own spaces. We took each other on house tours. We looked in people's closets. So we did all kinds of fun things like that. And that became part of the whole creative experience, part of creating a space that felt intimate, that we weren't just talking heads on a computer screen.
IPO: I [00:19:00] mean, for me, what's been also nice is you know, the capacity to be able to not be limited by physical distance and also save time on commuting to some cafe or elsewhere. It's true. I would just put on my pajama tops, which that, and I was ready. I wouldn't have to worry about, okay, I have to, you know, get myself together and go somewhere.
So it was quite nice for that, but especially because when I'm thinking about physical distance you know, half of the members. I mean even here, live in the same city. So it would be very difficult for us or for simply like-minded people to have the opportunity to weekly, you know, meet. So I know there's been a lot of discussion about the, you know, feelings of disembodiment through virtual presence.
Although one is never disembodied by [00:20:00] technology. It's a nice way to think about it. You cannot escape that. But I do think one thing that this brought out is actually you know, stronger communities of like-minded people. That's at least something that I've been able to find. Yeah.
CF: I also like in terms of digital storytelling, any form that lets you, or that encourages you to write weekly. And in some ways every week was distinct, but that's also because of the overarching frame, I really felt that we were cumulatively creating a lot of work. And I think of other kinds of you know, like, like email literature or anything where you're constantly sending stuff out and it lands sort of in its cumulative dimension. So it's kind of cool. After the first year I was like, wow, we're creating a lot of routine work. What the technology has enabled too is a [00:21:00] regularization of output. And you know, I started to think about potential readers and interlocutors to the work differently, too, after we hit the year mark.
LL: I think what Jolene mentioned earlier about that increased intimacy within the digital space, whether it's sharing your home or sharing your pets, all these tours--despite this lack of physical closeness, you gain intimacy in another respect that you lack if you had met in person.
I'm curious. Has everyone here met each other in person before? I guess not?
Yes, I guess we'll elaborate on this in a later question, but I'm curious about the structure: whether you are interested in staying in the Zoom digital structure later on or maybe meeting in person, and what that's going to be like, whether that's going to shake up the relationship there.
This is kind of a side question, just to give a little bit more context for viewers, perhaps. So you mentioned in the very beginning, the collective initially came together in hopes of actually reading the original Decameron and then eventually evolved to creating.
I'm curious as to what the schedule was like, this weekly schedule. If you could tell me a little bit more about that, that creation process to stay on this routine.
MT: Well, it's super simple. We meet usually Fridays after work and we yak a bit, then we turn off the screen and give ourselves a spell of time to write, and then we meet again and we read our works to each other. And it seems to be very good organic rhythm, but it works really well.
LF: We show or we play. And to add to your question, if we do ever meet there will be ballgowns [00:23:00] involved, I think.
JA: We'll all have to shower!
KM: Or sometimes we get distracted. And then we talk about eyeballs. Like we had this one meeting where we just told horrible stories about people's eyes being destroyed. I don't know why.
CF: It was a perfect kind of digital moment had we recorded all of that. 'Cause it was like handing the baton. It was really like, you know, being around the fire, every single person had a horrible, eye disaster story. And I bet everybody listening to this also can imagine a horrible, eye disaster story. So if you ever... yeah, it was good. But that's where I think too, that there isa lot of oral storytelling that might not be captured in whatever ends up being the final product for this collective.
LL: Right. Recording the meetings that you have together would have captured these little [00:24:00] moments of just living through the pandemic together as well. In these weekly sessions, would everyone work on something that's different or continue what they worked on last time? Or I guess there's really no structure. Or is there a structure?
CF: We often did have a structure. We often would have a theme or something that we would toss out and then routinely people would move outside of that, which is great. But we often did have a structure to help to guide us. And that also comes from the Decameron. The idea of that there there's a prompt that would start things off.
LF: I think it started when we had wanted to do a version of a Secret Santa in December 2020, in which we sent each other prompts for creation. That started to change the ways in which we created and thought about creation because there were constraints.
I'd get something from Kari that would say you're not allowed to use words. "You thought you would get to write? Nope!" So that would encourage me and also challenge me. And those prompts started to be really fun. Better than sitting and being like, "what do I hate most about my day? I'm going to write about that."
I liked to think outside the box when someone else was even saying keywords. I don't know: tree, witch, forest. Go!
AJ: Our initial conversations also seemed to serve as prompts at times. Even though these conversations were unstructured and moved freely from politics to childhood memories to domestic routines to art history to pop culture, at times they acted as provocative launching points for our creative work. Where they launched each of us would be very different, but I think the freedom we found to be honest and even vulnerable in our conversations was helpful in opening up space for continued creative work.
KM: I think at the beginning we wrote more about the plague, about COVID, and then as time went on, we started not doing that as much. Expanding, telling stories that were more about other things, more like Boccaccio.
IPO: Well, I guess I seem to be kind of the strange member of this collective, because I've been mostly making films. And also I think I've ever written only two texts and the [00:26:00] rest of the things have been rethinking and reworking existing recipes. Anti-plague recipes. So using recipes from other pandemics. And so in some ways, I guess on one hand I appreciated the prompts, but I always have difficulty with following direction.
So this was my way for it to be still related but taking I guess the project in different directions and different narratives, if you will.
CF: One of the things that was really very rich and also perfect for the digital is that it was able to, I mean, you kind of talked about this earlier, but everybody's work could be shown then. You know, it's inherently multimodal, but it was super easy to see people's visual art as well as moving image.
And even like the glitchiness … like sometimes, you know, when you're sharing film over Zoom, it looks great to the person who's sending it but it kind of can [00:27:00] be really stuttering. And so, you know, I think we got a bit of glitch art in there too.
JK: Okay, that's great. So it sounds like you kind of started with something that had a structure, but then you were okay with it developing more organically. So this is kind of a related question in terms of structure, I guess, but the formation of the collective or Decameron 2.0.
So Boccaccio's Decameron consisted of 10 members who passed time during the plague by telling stories. And if I understand correctly, they each had a day. So it was over the course of 10 days. We're wondering how you determined who would be a part of Decameron 2.0. So did you have a vision for it going into it and is there any significance with the number? There are nine of you -- seven here today -- but does the number hold any sort of significance to the structure?
MT: It was good fortune. We were actually, I don't think we'd even did a count until very recently when we were trying to assign the digital [00:28:00] spaces that needed to be designed and we realized we did not have 10 people. We really were just open to any people who were interested in joining us. But the larger number of people who've come and gone at different moments in their lives when they had more or less time has meant that there's always enough energy. You know, the more the merrier.
CF: And there's always room for one more. I mean, I always kind of did think 10 is kind of a good size for something, but it wasn't stressful to have to go out and find a 10th member. I always say there's room to have 10 though.
IPO: At the same time, nine is a beautiful number. You have three trios.
And so, you know, the nine speaks to the COVID-19. I think that there are -- we can think of various connections as well, but yeah.
MT: In the digital space we're going to be designing we've been talking about the 10th space that doesn't have a curator [00:29:00] being the space of missing people. And so that does correspond quite nicely with the overarching themes of both survival and what is the reality of the pandemic that a lot of people's loved ones are not around.
LF: Maybe we could speak to that because it's the first time in this interview that we've actually addressed what the outcome is of those works. The idea was where does this work go? To whom
does do they go? What shape or shapes will it take?
One thing that we really do want to do is create a web-based or virtual interactive gallery or exploratory space in which we can house all of our works collectively and have them be a new form of storytelling and [00:30:00] digital form of storytelling.
We're imagining 10 rooms or spaces in which the works get thematized. As mentioned, number 10 will be a kind of memory space. I think it symbolizes everything that Monique had just said, especially because I've written two obituaries, it was also a space of remembering people lost during the pandemic, either because of COVID-19 or because, unfortunately, a lot of people have passed away in this time. I think something that is shared is that a lot of the time I wasn't able to see those people or the time I spent with them was cut off because I could not physically move places to see them in the end. The memory space represented by the tenth space is a mourning space that has anchored our creation, including for the world as it was and no longer is, so number 10 is kind of a pillar, a keystone. Chronologically the tenth space is the last, but for me, it's also the center.
JA: Hmm. It's a space too, where even if you didn't personally lose somebody during the pandemic, there was a lot of loss, nevertheless, of all kinds of things and all kinds of ways of living. I think we are all feeling this heavy loss. And we have to think about how we're going to be moving forward after the pandemic is over. What do we take with us from the pre-pandemic world into the post-pandemic world and what do we leave behind, by choice or by necessity? And I think moving through that, there is a process of mourning that we're all going to go through, whether because we lost someone dear to us, or because we lost an idea or an ideal, values and just a way of living.
I think we're all in our own ways processing that loss. We're going through a period of mourning. [00:32:00]
LL: While the Black Plague influenced the Decameron 1.0, we were curious as to how specifically the COVID-19 pandemic informed and shaped your work this time around?
MT: I think a lot of the works we've produced are very much about the culture of everyday life. And so, you know, a lot of them describe what it is to be in one's kitchen, what it is to not leave one's property. There's a lot of work around gardens and gardening. And so, there's a log of every dailyness, that is every day because the pandemic really put these constraints around our lives.
There's probably less of an overt sort of metareflection on what is out there. And so we haven't done a lot of work that you know virologists maybe would understand or appreciate. But the pandemic is always present. It's always at the borders of what we've produced.
CF: There are quite a [00:33:00] few works though that are in direct response to daily life in the context of COVID-19 and, you know, we've heard, like there are some that are obituaries. I also thought it was really interesting, that I think probably at least because of intertext of the Decameron, a lot of interest in looking back historically across the plague. So as Izabella mentioned, really looking at like recipes of plague time, but there've also been a lot of focus on like spells. Angela has this incredible series of spells.
I'm thinking of- yeah... I mean, there's sort of like that idea of what happens when everyday life is shattered in particular ways and what kind of magic is possible in there? There've been a number of obituaries or sad stories. So, I think some of them are actually in direct conversation with COVID-19 and some of them are in direct conversation, I think, with just ourr history, what it means to have your life upended in particular ways and examinations of solitariness. I imagine there were a lot more themes, but those are kind of the ones that sort of jump out at me.
KM: And [00:34:00] sometimes COVID has created new stuff. My response to COVID-19 was apparently to get a DSLR camera and learn to use it and then take pictures of every bird. Like, I go to the Don Valley every day and take pictures of every bird I can find. And that's what I do now. And I make stories in my head about these birds. It just naturally happens. The Killdeer are clearly wizards because they have red eyes, and the other birds are kind of scared of them. And the Cardinals are always hiding their faces behind sticks because they're scared of the Killdeer wizards, and every Yellow Warbler hates Greg. Who is Greg? I don't know. They just all hate Greg. So, the stories kind of grew out of this weird new thing I was doing that I would never have done if COVID hadn't happened. I would never have picked up a serious camera.
CF: Become a performance artist.[00:35:00]
JA: I think it's safe to say that even the works within the body that we've created that don't specifically address or mention the pandemic directly have been driven by the pandemic. They wouldn't have come about if we hadn't created this space, and if we hadn't been thinking of ways in which to cope and understand what's happening, and understand this moment in history and somehow make some sort of impact because of it.
I think we often asked ourselves, how do you go through something like a pandemic and not make some kind of grand gesture, I guess, in the sort of historical tradition of grand gestures. This is our grand gesture of what it was to live through this pandemic. Even if we're not specifically talking about it.
CF: Yeah, I like that. And I like also the contrast between the idea of the grand gesture and just these as documents of dailyness during a very, very odd time. And I think both of those poles, and I'd say too, just also coming back to the Decameron, being [00:36:00] able to use this framing structure feels really brilliant now.It really does feel coming full circle around what we might've been able to take from Decameron and the way in which you can have so many different kinds of texts and voices and practices. And somehow they all make sense? And there's such a range: digital, analog, different kinds of practices, fiction, poetry, obituaries, these spells. And being able to structure them into these 10 spacesall of a sudden gives it sort of a narrative backbone where these, I hope, will be intelligible to people and will be able to exist in the same universe and make sense and land creatively.
IPO: The series of films that I made actually use present images of COVID.
And some of it includes the virus itself and others [00:37:00] of just people around the world. But because I'm using an AI program, it processes these images and surprisingly, one of the common themes that I've been seeing, or an image that emerges, are birds. So, I don't know. There must be something with birds and COVID because it seems to be an ongoing kind of fascination. And I guess for me, it also started with the mask of the doctor during the Black Plague. And so maybe that has kind of permeated our psyche, so we associate that. But it's such a strong image and has been so visible at the beginning of the pandemic. So maybe that's why I'm seeing everything turning into birds in the videos that I'm making.
JK: That's interesting. [00:38:00] The growing obsession with birds might have something to do with the Decameron 2.0 too. It's through the creative works that there's a lot of reflection going on, right? I would imagine this in terms of the symbolic aspect of birds and freedom--especially with the multiple lockdowns that we've had globally, feeling trapped and not being able to experience that freedom to do just the everyday things that we used to do.
I can see how that resonates with a lot of people, as well as with what you said about the Decameron 2.0's projects that have to do with both everyday minute things and grand gestures about the pandemic. One thing that we find interesting is that the Decameron 2.0's collected project is going to be published, hopefully I want to say, at the tail end of the pandemic, right? What do you hope will become of this project? And what do [00:39:00] you want people to take away from it now that we're kind of getting to the end of the pandemic?
MT: So I'll let other people talk about this as well, we've always talked about having it live in different locations. One of the possible versions of it is very analog. We've been talking about boxes in the spirit of Aspen[LL3] magazine--the Fluxus magazine from the 1970s, where there were records, and there were recipes and all sorts of architectural blueprints and so on.
So there's this idea that we still intend to follow up on, where there will be a kind of object that is a gift. And we want to put some of those in archives and keep some of them in our own shelves. But then the digital version we've always talked about it as "rooms." So whether this is an immersive space or a web space, our Decameron builds on the original Decameron's use of the ancient idea of the pleasant place, the locus amoenus.
And so [00:40:00] these rooms that we want to design are really pleasant places that are kind of an anti-pandemic space. We will invite people to be with us and with the works that we've produced, and sort of co-inhabit them. And that I think is part of this larger, you know, hope that we have for the future, where people can come together, strangers included, and engage with our work's places and spaces.
JK: Yeah. I love that, especially just going back to the whole, how you're gathering together on Zoom weekly. It's like the Zoom room is developing these other kinds of spaces.
MT: That never even occurred to us, but yes.
JA: I think for myself, what I'm hoping is that people can come into these spaces and interact with our work in whichever form they happen to encounter. The pandemic is something that everyone in the entire world has experienced [00:41:00]; it's the common thread that we can truly say has been a global experience.
And what I'm hoping is that when people interact with our work in the spaces that we create, that they have an opportunity to reflect on that experience. And also, maybe find some joy from that time period that there has been something positive that can come out of an experience like this. Despite the loss-- that's not to dismiss those negative things, but to recognize that our lives weren't on hold for that time period.
Life continued and things continued to happen, and that time is still meaningful. So, while we may feel like our lives were on hold for that time period, because we were in isolation and we couldn't do the things we normally do, we were still living our life. We have to find some kind of joy-- or at least meaning-- from that time period. We have to remember this time somehow as not just being empty and that perhaps there's something [00:42:00] meaningful that can be found from this time period that we can take with us into our memories in the future of this time.
CF: I also think that the opportunity to sort of create work, like to actually imagine an audience for this work is also an opportunity for us to engage in another act of research creation, and going back, and having a sense of over the course of a year and a half, finding the works, re-engaging with them, finding the patterns, finding the birds, finding the plague masks. But also finally being able to sort of flip that question back to ourselves around what we hope, what did we make, what did this enable us to think? My general sense is that personally, this is a way I really like to work, to find out what meaning might there be in these texts and in the exercise in which we've engaged that we might be able to find that out through this final making.[00:43:00]
LL: I think those are some really great points as to reflecting on this time and the work that you've all made together. So while we look in reflection of the work that [you've] made, we're also curious as to what shape or direction you see this project taking on in the future? And what do you think will become of this collective as the pandemic now comes to a close?
MT: Well, my hope is that we never stop. It's just been so transformative for every part of my life, you know, personal and intellectual and creative. And there's something to be said about moving from (we're all academics) a university in which we really are kind of solipsistic and we write for ourselves or for strangers, and we are all a bit neurotic about it, to understanding that there are these audiences: first, each other, and then, people who might actually be interested in what we say, because the works are full of life [00:44:00] and full of care.
And so that for me has been just the biggest gift of it all. Knowing that there are people, and people who listen and that creates space that we all need, I think.
CF: Yes, I hope there will still be more writing and more cocktails.
CF: I want to say too, it's been such a pleasure to meet -- there are a couple of people who I knew sort of, I know some people well. Some just from online and some totally new to me. And it's been really fantastic thinking of people from different parts of the country, different parts of the province, different places in the academic system. I think we often fail at creating spaces where we can both be mentored and mentor people and existing community across academic departments, across academic rank. And I think it's a cool [00:45:00] feminist moment.
LL: From what I understand, Decameron 2.0 identifies itself as a feminist media collective. So, what does that mean for all of you?
LF: People will have different interpretations than us. Even people here might have different interpretations than me, but I think a lot of it is about community, and rather than thinking about dynamics of power, it's about thinking about dynamics of exchange, altruism, but through tools.
Actually, this is how I originally got into the field of electronic literature, because to me, it seemed very feminist. Largely, it's a group of--not all of them, but many--women who may have decided "I'm not interested in the traditional publishing avenue and [00:46:00] all of the gatekeeping that may happen, the exclusivity." They had thought about unique, emerging, accessible, low-cost tools--add on adjectives as you please--and used that as the means to vocalize, to have a voice. So, I think the additional 2.0 in our name also signifies what this continues to look like, as emergent tools continue to be the means through which we make.
I've always been inspired by a lot of those women and the ways in which they thought, "If you won't let me, I'll find another way. I don't need your money." It's very actually Virginia Woolf if you think about it. In 2020, I wrote a talk about this called "An Electronic Room of One's Own" which is along those lines. What tools do I have that allow me to connect, to create, to vocalize, to have a platform? I'm using the term "platform" [00:47:00] doubly, right? The platform of the tool, the platform to leverage and raise myself and others. That's my interpretation.
JA: It's also about creating a space for people to feel safe to create and to experiment and do things that they may not necessarily feel comfortable explaining to the general public or even their close friends. But for whatever reason, in this space, it felt comfortable. We created this zone where this is specifically a creative space and whatever idea you had, whatever, kooky idea you decided to bring to this space, everybody had something supportive to say, or offered an idea, "have you tried this?" And , "what about doing this?" So it didn't really even feel weird when you'd come to the space and say, "so I'm printing things on teabags." And people would be like, "oh, cool! Let's see [00:48:00] it." You know? And it's just this space where anything goes and it was okay. And if it didn't work out, well that's okay, you could start again.
But I think that there was this feeling that we could bring these ideas, and we could work through some of these problems, and we could help each other out. No one ever said, "oh, that's a terrible idea.". Like that never happened. Even if it was a terrible idea, I don't think anybody ever vocalized it. So, it just was an anything goes kind of space.
CF: I think also that kind of form, I'd argue there is something inherently feminist in it. When you can already depart from particular kinds of narrative line. I mean, this is what I've always sort of loved about the electronic literature community anyway.
But I think once you can say you're departing from particular forms, or that you're outside of forms, or that you're trying to find shapes that can sustain multivocal participation... if you're trying to find ways of relating in ways of making [00:49:00] together, that can co-exist across difference... when you are trying to not sort of smash everything into the same shape, but rather, say, okay, well we've got a room, but within that we can create all sorts of shapes.
So, I think there's a really nice play between the affordances of electronic literature, and about being able to create even with the open questions of whether these will finally find some kind of place together in an immersive environment, or whether they're going to be web-based or whether they're forms that hold open possibilities and contradictions. And I like the messiness of that. And I think that there's something inherently feminist in that kind of media making.
KM: But also, we could complain about stuff without feeling bad about it. Or as if we were imposing on people with our terrible lady complaints. You could just be sad if you wanted to be sad [00:50:00] or say that the world was terrible and we didn't like it if we wanted to do that.
CF: We're also consciousness-raising group 2.0, it's true. It's like right back to like 1971. We had, like, check-ins.
MT: Yeah. And I think that you know, you asked about what the digital space facilitates. Another big part of it is just listening:textual spaces don't create that intimacy. There's something about having people sort of pause and turn on their ears that's very feminist as well. And so, you know, the feminist work extended from listening to the poems to listening to thecomplaints about the day. But being there with your ears is a really important part of a feminist practice.
IPO: Well, one thing I should mention that hasn't really been mentioned, is that one thing that COVID-19 afforded is the digitization of so many archival collections. And I [00:51:00] dove into those collections.
And so one aspect of, I would say for me, at least as a feminist practice is also looking and retrieving the forgotten women. So for me, this has been, I mean, I am looking at recipes of pandemics and coincidentally, those recipes are written in the same recipe books as food, and women were usually the ones creating these as opposed to, you know, scientists were mainly known as men, right? So it's interesting to look at that, but also... this also compelled me to look even deeper and into Medieval Studies and look more at the image and text relationship. And then also, look at the recent scholarship on feminism during the Middle Ages about which not many are, you know, that that well aware.
So I [00:52:00] guess I'm always interested in kind of bringing back the forgotten, and especially the woman that one always wants to look up to or have been written out. So, this has been a great opportunity to do that during the pandemic, but I would say that it's this collective that's inspired me to do that.
The creativity and the brilliance of these women just made me think, wait a minute, you know, I'm going to be looking when I'm examining all these images, I'm going to be looking for presentations of women and seeing, you know, who were the illuminators right? Many of them were women. They weren't only monks, nuns were doing the same thing.
So this is, I guess my kind of side or that's kind of how I interpret the feminist, at least how it is present in my practice.
AJ: I feel there is something feminist in the way the collective formed and came together. Rather than uniting over a shared formal aesthetic or project, here we seemed to come together more through a commitment to creating a shared space where difference can thrive. We all happen to be artist-scholars, but we come from different practices, disciplines, and means of expression. I feel we sculpted a space, together, that is invigorating and stimulating, but also deeply caring, accepting, and heterogeneous. Personally, I know I've developed variations and shifts in my own creative voice that I can attribute to my experience of the shared space we fostered as a collective.
JK: I think that's a very important point that you bring up. Apart from the [00:53:00] Decameron 2.0 coming out of the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic itself, I think one thing that COVID-19 has illuminated is just the amount of invisible labor on the part of women. With work-from-home and not having childcare available, and with women having to take care of their families, even though society is a lot more progressive now, we still kind of fall back into those gendered roles. So I think, looking into the work that women have done and where that's been erased or hidden--I think that's very timely and relevant to this.
I think Caitlin mentioned affordances, and looking at this more broadly, I want to look at the digital medium of Decameron 2.0 and how it lends itself to connectivity across the globe. You've already mentioned that the pandemic has been a shared experience globally.
But the experiences are still, while universal, different depending on what country you're in, where you are across the globe. So I was wondering about what you're [00:54:00] anticipating in terms of the reception of this publication. That can either pertain to a global audience or earlier you mentioned scholarship and academia. What do you think will happen in terms of a global reception or a reception by the general public for this project?
CF: I don't know. I'm curious to see. I think it's very different, and I've just- I don't have a full answer. It's an interesting question. I think it's very different when you start the kind of project and you know who your audience is and you know you're writing for publication and you know you're pitching in a particular way.
I think that's a very, very different process than the process with which we were involved, where we're kind of immersed in a moment, responding to it creatively and as a secondary by-product, thinking possibly this is something that we will put out as a document in the world. I [00:55:00] would like, I'm thinking it's a very small piece of the world that exists as one document that will be, you know, reproduced in so many different places, in so many different ways. I see us as being like a tiny, tiny part of that.
At the same time, I'm super curious. It emerges from, what I think has been a very, very interesting process. And I've really liked that it hasn't been at the forefront of my mind, at least for most of our time together thinking "oh, where will this be published? Oh, who will be interested in this?". Because it was actually both writing as kind of a life-saving thing for ourselves and our own sanity. And also sharing here first. I don't know what other people think. I have no crystal ball to see where this will land.
JA: So I just, I want to pick up on something that Caitlin kind of touched on. Although she didn't use the word, it's very personal. I think that a lot of the creations that we made were started with a very personal idea [00:56:00] or it came from a very personal space. And I think that will make it important in terms of when you talk about the global experience of the pandemic and how different those experiences can be, even though we all experienced the same pandemic. We didn't. And of course, that cuts across all kinds of different lines of socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, and gendered classes.
And I think the problem with trying to set out to talk about the pandemic universally, is that inevitably somebody's experience is going to be left out. And I think when we're starting from a personal space, we don't have to worry about that as such, because we're not trying to say this is the universal experience of the pandemic. This was our personal experience. And we want to share it with you, and you can take it or you can leave it. You can relate to it or you might not relate to it, and that's okay.
So I think that might make what we're doing a little bit more accessible too because we're not trying to universalize that [00:57:00] experience and not trying to say this was The Pandemic. Well, this was our pandemic. This is a space that we're inviting people into, to share our creations and responses with people and to allow that exchange just to take place.
LL: I guess we're reaching the end of this interview. For our last question, we wanted to ask if there's anything else you'd like to add or share that we haven't really touched upon.
LF: Do we want to talk about methodology or mentorship, friendship? I'm thinking of other themes that have come up over the last 18 months.
LL: Sure. Yeah. What are some takeaways methodologically? [00:58:00]
LF: I don't know that there are strict rules. The methodology question we can definitely address, but I also wanted to say that the process couldn't be regulated. I apologize for throwing out a question and being like "actually". But because it was a pandemic, sometimes it was exhausting--the pandemic itself was exhausting. We could see the changes in our work and inspiration through the time. What's interesting is the final work--I don't believe we intend to present it chronologically, but it might be nice to show the unpredictability of the day, of the dailyness.
MT: [00:59:00] We have different ways of thinking about this work, depending on which hats we're wearing. But one of the big takeaways I would want people to have is just about community practice as a way of seeing and a way of being, and as a way of opening up some doors into things that might not have been observable before. You know, I really think that it has attuned us and hopefully some other people as well too, both inside things and outside things, and big things and little things, and political things and personal things.
So, it's really an optic that I think carries into scholarly and creative domains. But you know the Aunt Edna test? I was wondering what would happen if somebody who doesn't, you know, play with digital texts and who doesn't read a lot, can come in and find something in the work that we've produced? I think that's the test of a good body of writing, right? That there's sort of something in the works that create an orientation that will [01:00:00] hopefully leave a little bit of a sweet spot in some people's lives.
CF: I think I'll add too, that part of the reason if people are listening to this and wondering whether they should maybe engage with the work.
It's not just that you know, we met, we like each other, we've got this way of working that I've really valued. I think there's some really fine writing and some amazing art. So I would also, yeah, I wouldn't want the interview to end without saying, it's partly, absolutely about the process, it's about finding form.
It's about creating community. There are all these cool things that happen. It's about being in conversation with the moment. It's about leaving some kind of trace of this time. But I think there's also some really fine writing and some really beautiful art. So, I hope people engage with it on that level too.
MT: I would just add that, you know, in terms of the quality of the work, it's really interesting to see how the threads [01:01:00] connect things to one another. So that there are these themes that move between these incredible films and these incredible teabags is just really interesting.
KM: I was just doing the comedy-Kari thing and saying: and also lots of birds. That's all.
CF: There's definitely lots of birds.
KM: Pooping, pooping birds. Yeah.
JK: You shared with us that normally you meet for your weekly writing sessions Friday after work; I'm guessing that that's the time you shared with us today. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your motivations and the inspirations behind Decameron 2.0. It's really encouraging to see that despite how awful the COVID-19 pandemic has been, there have been some good things like this collective and the work that has come of it as well. We really look forward [01:02:00] to seeing this interview launch in September, along with the other projects in the special issue of tdr and ebr. And thanks again for doing this.
MT: Thank you. Thank you so much.
LF: Thank you, Lulu and Jin Sol for interviewing us today, for your thoughtful questions, and for allowing us to kind of think aloud and to have a conversation.
JK: You're welcome. It was a lot of fun.
LL: Thank you for sharing this time with us.