Transmedia in the Digital and Networked Age

By Hanna-Riikka Roine

I started my postdoctoral research project, Convergent Worlds in the Digital Age. New Forms of Participation and Sharing in Transmedial Environments (2017–2020) in September at the Collegium. The project is based on my expertise as a literary scholar and narratologist. However, my aim here is to combine literary theory with research on digital media, social interaction, games and fan cultures in order to analyse the relationship between material artefacts and imagined environments in the art after the digital turn. In this blog post, I briefly explicate one of the key ideas of my project: why is it important to take the process of digitalization into account when analysing transmedia – and, vice versa, how might the analysis of transmedia help to understand the digital turn?

The Layers of Contemporary Transmedia

Although the ongoing technological change has been noted in transmedia studies, it has not yet been seriously addressed. To get a more thorough picture of the change and its effects on transmedia, I have coined the term transmedial environment, which is designed to cover both of the two layers of contemporary transmediality. Firstly, there is the layer that has already been observed in narrative theory and media studies and is often discussed through the concept of media convergence. It includes “transmedia storytelling”, the practice of using multiple media platforms to create narrative experiences, and the analysis of phenomena such as the transfer of media characteristics from one medium to another or narrative representation across media. Transmediality in this form is an age-old phenomenon, as the dissemination of Greek myth through various artistic media, for example, suggests.

Secondly, however, there is a more contemporary layer, which in the current context can be approached as a new environment for storytelling. It is the one of media hybridization: the way (previously separate) media and their techniques and properties get incorporated by the computer, becoming genuinely remixable as a result. Third concept that is often brought up in relation to transmedia is the conglomeration of media owners, but I will not address it here further.

Among the most widely known examples of contemporary transmedial environments are franchises such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Star Trek. All of these include novels, films, games, and so on. While they have been discussed in relation to media convergence and conglomeration (Star Wars, in particular), the fact that both authoring and using such environments are increasingly facilitated by the computational media has not yet been sufficiently addressed.

Quite a few transmedial environments are still created for the purpose of being “storytelling systems”. However, the ancient technology of storytelling is now enmeshed in a software-driven environment. This environment not only has the potential to “transmediate” all artistic media, but also differs fundamentally in its structure and strategies from verbal language, the traditional focus of narrative theory. It is therefore crucial to note that the logics of convergence and hybridization have not only enabled the rapid proliferation of entertainment experiences that combine affordances and properties of more than one medium, but are also being realized in contemporary transmedia.

The Effects of Digitalization on Transmedia

In order to understand the effects of computational environment on practices of storytelling, my project suggests that we look beyond the media objects and their content. Due to the ever-intensifying process of media hybridization, various originally print-based forms of media have begun to acquire properties of computational media. The two crucial markers of the computer’s ontology, the database and procedurality, have brought about a multiplication of narrative and the interplay between a single instantiation and the archive of many possibilities.

As a result, there is a definite shift of focus away from objects with a beginning and end towards the underlying patterns on which varied instantiations can be based on. For example, the basic elements of stories – such as characters – can be viewed as process-based instead of being understood as parts of an authored environment that is fixed and not open to variation. This development concerns the processes of both creating various media artefacts and engaging with them. Furthermore, it urges us to challenge the notion of transmedia as centred on a single narrative and content with clearly defined boundaries.

In my view, the shift away from beginnings and ends is visible on a larger level in the form of networks. The model of network also means that there is not centre – there are only nodes, connecting to one another, capable of endless expansion. This well illustrates the nature of contemporary transmedia in the sense that the author, the “originating transmitter” is quite impossible to define, giving way to the more communal, networked forms of authoring and creating. From the viewpoint of storytelling practices, this change marks a considerable shift from the model of transmission – and, especially, transmission of complete messages – towards the model of circulation and manipulation of content.

Instead of only looking at the ways in which elements such as characters can be transferred (or transmediated) from one medium to another, we could examine processes the characters and the ways they are maintained are based. In many transmedial environments, which can accommodate material indefinitely, new interpretations and instantiations of content are constantly created – and debated, as the heated criticism towards the reimagination of the Klingons and the Federation technology in a new Star Trek television show, Discovery, illustrates.

Together, the incorporation of various, previously distinct media by the computer and the network model inherent to the society powered by electronic information and communication technologies prove the importance of digitalization to the contemporary art and entertainment. Especially interesting is the question of narrative multiplication within the larger frame of social networking: while the new forms of participation and sharing do facilitate the fragmentation of old, “culture-defining” stories, the stories told within distinct communities are, more often than not, extremely standardized.

Hanna-Riikka Roine is Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her doctoral dissertation in Literary Studies, Imaginative, Immersive and Interactive Engagements. The Rhetoric of Worldbuilding in Contemporary Speculative Fiction (University of Tampere, 2016) pursues speculative worldbuilding as a rhetorical and communicative practice beyond textual fictions to digital, interactive, transmedial, and fan fictions. Her current research project combines narrative theory with research on digital media, games, and fan cultures, and aims to provide an innovative way to analyze both the poetics and the collaborative aspects of new creative practices.

On travelling as an ex-IAS director

By Jo Shaw

The title needs a little explanation. Before taking up my one year EURIAS fellowship at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, I was privileged to spend more than three years as Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh. Before that, to give my journey even more context, I was Dean of Research of what is now the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. I was therefore familiar with IASH’s work before I became Director. And I am a connoisseur of Institutes of Advanced Studies!

During my IASH directorship, I had the opportunity to involve myself in the work of a number of international networks in which we participate, including CHCI, UBIAS and ECHIC. I even came to a meeting at HCAS a few years ago. One of the huge pleasures of my time as director was organising and hosting in Edinburgh the 2017 ECHIC Conference under the rubric of inside/OUT. For me, this showcased the best of what humanities centres and institutes (and here I include not just humanities in the narrow sense, but all of the human sciences) can do. The plenary lectures were engaging and broadly focused, highlighting the strong links, for example, between fields of cultural studies and the social science disciplines of political science and sociology. Our shorter presentations and lightning talks were just that: short, punchy, informative. We fostered engagement between scholarship and broader society, with two broader panels focused on populist politics and on IASH’s Dangerous Women Project (another achievement of which I am incredibly proud). And we linked colleagues from universities across Europe with senior colleagues in humanities and social sciences management in Scotland and Ireland, in a very supportive encounter at the Scottish Parliament.

At the end of my term of office, I thought it would be good to spend time on the other side of the IAS fence, as a consumer of the values of interdisciplinarity and scholarly community that are the distinctive facets of Institutes of Advanced Studies wherever they are found. I can confirm, HCAS truly is a great place to rediscover your scholarly habits and to (re-)lay the foundations for a research programme. I’m sure it’s an equally apt destination if what you are looking for as a scholar is somewhere to finish a project and to write up some research for publication.

It is interesting to muse for a moment on the similarities and differences between my Edinburgh and Helsinki experiences, quite apart from the huge contrast between being director and being a fellow. Obviously the two universities are quite different in terms of history, heritage and organisation, although they are partnered together within the League of European Research Universities. There is, as a result, quite a bit of traffic between them, at the level of senior management and deans, as well as a number of research collaborations that I am aware of. An event was organised by colleagues in Edinburgh’s School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures to mark #Suomi100, highlighting research on Finland or by Finnish scholars in Scotland. During my time as Director of IASH we have regularly hosted scholars from Finland, especially those benefiting from Academy of Finland funding comprising a mobility element. There seems to be quite a lot less traffic in the opposite direction, as far as I can see, although I would be happy to be corrected by others with better data. This is despite the more general interest in Finland as a relatively young, rather small and fiercely independent state that exists in Scotland. I think there are regular visits here from the Scottish government and Scottish public bodies, interested in the many things that Finland gets right and which Scotland could do better at (education and innovation being two such things). Scotland has recently adopted the baby box initiative. The UK as a whole, which has a terrible homelessness problem, has shown an interest in how Finland is tackling the scourge of homelessness.

But returning closer to home, it’s worthwhile reflecting on how the two institutes/bodies fostering ‘advanced studies’ continue to flourish in university environments where so-called key performance indicators are becoming the dominant features of everyday life. It is very hard to count the value of giving scholars space and community to flourish. The collaborations that flourish in the environment of an institute of advanced study often take years to come to fruition. In a world obsessed by causality, can we really claim that the residency in the IAS ‘caused them’? New research grants or research collaborations which enrich the university may have been fostered by cross disciplinary discussion and debate within the IAS, or between IAS fellows and scholars in the Schools and Faculties of the host university, but again it is hard to pinpoint causality, or to highlight just what benefit or reward should flow back to the IAS as a result of its contribution to the university’s mission. And notwithstanding the ‘pure’ scholarly nature of the space and time to think offered by each of the two IASs, it is also the case that both Helsinki and Edinburgh are committed to public engagement and to taking the insights of the work of scholars to broader communities. Both IASs see the intense benefits that come from the juxtaposition of different types of ‘creative’ impulse, bringing creative arts fellows into dialogue with those on working within more ‘academic’ schemes.

I am convinced that for a university to maintain and develop an IAS it needs an a priori commitment to fostering the benefits of autonomy and scholarly enquiry that are intrinsic to their flourishing. A reductionist and calculating approach to benefits (‘does it wash its face financially?’) is liable to result in the downgrading of one of the most valuable aspects of international academic community, without appropriate staffing and funding. Management structures that integrate the IAS into the host institution, whilst preserving academic independence are vital. That said, IASs, their staff and their fellows also have responsibilities to intensify their collaborations within and beyond the host university and to tell the world all about it. They can no longer be, if they ever were, quiet inward-looking places. Websites, social media, blogs and more traditional scholarly communication mechanisms all have a role to play. In addition, former fellows and other stakeholders need to be kept in touch with and activated for their support, through newsletters and annual reports (pdf), particularly at key times, such as in the run up to anniversaries (hint: IASH goes 50 in 2019!).

In my still limited experience, I’m happy to say that both Helsinki CAS and IASH Edinburgh fit neatly into that model which brings together the inside and the outside; I sincerely hope that both will have many years of fruitful work ahead of them, based on their respective mottos of being the place where ‘ideas grow’ and offering ‘freedom to think’.

Jo Shaw holds the Salvesen Chair of European Institutions in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh and is a EURIAS Fellow at HCAS for the academic year 2017-2018. Her research interests lie in the field of citizenship, and you can find out more about her current work by following her blog.

The Tree Calendar or Performing with plants in the parks of Helsinki

By Annette Arlander

Performing with plants is an artistic research project, which started with the question how to perform landscape today, focusing on plants and especially trees. It soon evolved into exploring what it means to be “performing with” entities unlike us. For Michael Marder “the dispersed life of plants is a mode of being in relation to all the others, being qua being-with” (Marder 2013, 51). “Living with” is a core task for humanity (Marder 2013, 53), or, as Donna Haraway writes: “We become-with each other or not at all” (Haraway 2017, 4). Learning from plants could be a way to start. How can we live, exist, act or perform with creatures, with whom we cannot communicate directly, or even ask for their consent for posing for a camera with them?

The plant kingdom – to use a term that refers to the so called great chain of being with rocks at the bottom and humans at the top and plants just a few steps above the rocks – is so large, that it is hard to imagine any general way of performing with plants. To perform with blue algae and with a pine tree is very different, I suppose. Although we all do collaborate by exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide and other chemical substances in the atmosphere. As an artist, I take that common knowledge for granted, and leave it to colleagues working in the field bio art to figure out how to perform together on a molecular level. In my own work, I stick to the level of everyday actions, like sitting or standing in, on, with and next to trees. Since my year at the collegium is ending, it is appropriate to look at what I have been doing.

In terms of “performing with” I have tried to follow at least some basic rules of thumb in these experiments, like
• Try not to hurt the plant – choose plants that are bigger than you, stronger than you, plants that can share some of their energy with you – like trees
• Visit the plant where it grows, respect its particular relationship to place.
• Spend time with the plant, visit it repeatedly, although you cannot share the temporality of the plant, respect its relationship to time.

Most of the material generated during this project so far is archived on the Research Catalogue (RC), an online database and publication platform for artistic research, together with my plan and my presentations in various contexts. See here

Have I found something new? After all, I have worked with a specific mode of rough time-lapse videos for many years now, returning to the same spot, placing the camera on a tripod in the same place and framing the image as like as the previous ones as possible, and doing this for regular intervals, either once (or a few times) a week for a year or every two-hours or three-hours for a day and night. My basic practice has been to gather material for this type of time-lapse works in Helsinki and in Stockholm, for the duration of a year. I have visited two trees (a group of Elm trees and an alder stub) in Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki a few times every week and two trees (a sycamore in Humlegården Park and a beech in Djurgården Park) in Stockholm once a month or so. These visits are documented with video stills on the RC, but I have not yet edited the videos. Based on my earlier works I have a rough idea what to do and how it will turn out. The trees in Stockholm I will visit once more before Christmas, and the trees in Helsinki a few more times, and that is all.

I also recorded two days with specific trees, with two-hour intervals, on my travels, in August on Lofoten (Rainy Day in Rekdal) and in September in Nida on the Curonian spit (Sunday with a Pine). But that is nothing new, the technique was the same as in earlier works, only my tree partners were unfamiliar.

One thing that is new, in some sense, is a tree calendar, based on the ancient Celtic lunar calendar, where each month is named after a specific tree or shrub. The tree calendar was not part of my original plan, it just occurred to me I could try to create one in January when I thought of various possibilities. This turned out to be more of a hobby, something extra. I decided to find each tree of the month in Helsinki, preferably somewhere near the shore, and spend 5-10 minutes sitting in it, standing next to it or in some other manner performing for camera with it, depending on the tree.

Thinking of the project now, when the video recordings are completed, I realize it did not appear out of the blue; I have worked with Celtic tree lore before. The same trees that form the calendar also serve to mark the letters of the alphabet (beth-luis-nion or birch-ash-rowan). Some of that material was used in creating small site-specific audio plays or recorded monologues to be listened to from headphones hanging from specific trees in a series called Trees Talk or Talking Trees. It is also archived on the RC, here.

In the Celtic tree calendar, not all the plants are trees, in the same sense that we are used to think. For instance, the vine, the ivy or the reed are not even shrubs or bushes, strictly speaking. Another challenge is the fact that some of the trees, like the holly, do not grow as far north as Finland. But with some adjustments, like performing with a holly in Kajsaniemi Botanical Garden, with a creeper or “wild vine” (villiviini) instead of a vine, and with an ivy in a pot, I managed to complete all thirteen months. The small videos created each month are available online, here.

Looking at the sites of the tree calendar on a map of Helsinki, it seems I chose many of them close to home, and one of them, the alder, although it is a very common tree on the shores of Helsinki, for some reason in the neighbouring city, Espoo. The dates of the months in the list below are based on the following version, in Celtic Tree Months.

1. Birch – January (24.12.-20.1.) in Munkkiniemenranta
2. Rowan – February (21.1.-17.2.) in Särkiniemi, Lauttasaari
3. Ash – March (18.2.-17.3.) in Kaivopuisto Park
4. Alder – April (18.3.-14.4.) in Mellsteninranta, Espoo
5. Willow – May (15.4.-12.5.) on Harakka Island
6. Hawthorn – June (13.5.-9.6.) in Observatory Park
7. Oak – June (10.6.-7.7.) in Eugen Schauman Park, Kulosaari
8. Holly – July (8.7.-4.8.) in Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden
9. Hazel – August (5.8.-1.9.) in Herttoniemi shore
10. Vine – September (2.9.-29.9.) in Tehtaankatu yard
11. Ivy – October (30.9.-27.10) at home
12. Reed – November (28.10.-23.11.) in Arabian ranta park
13. Elder – December (24.11.-23.12.) in Kaivopuisto park

So now I have short video clips and images for all the months of the calendar. The next question is, what to do with them? Where to show them and how to write about them?

My recent publications deal with previous projects related to landscape, not plants. And the book I have been editing together with colleagues, Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact focuses on performance as research, not vegetation. Texts on performing with plants, however, will hopefully appear in due time, and will be listed here. And perhaps one of them will describe the making or discuss the implications of this strange tree calendar in Helsinki.

Marder, Michael (2013), Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, New York: Columbia University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. (2016), Staying with the trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Annette Arlander, DA, is an artist, researcher and pedagogue, one of the pioneers of Finnish performance art and trailblazers of artistic research. She was professor of performance art and theory at Theatre Academy, Helsinki (2001-2013) and professor of artistic research at University of the Arts Helsinki (2015-2016). In 2017, she has been a postdoctoral fellow in the arts at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, engaged in the artistic research project Performing with Plants. For artworks and publications, see