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Conference report (Aarhus): general report

Conference report (Aarhus): general report

The second conference for the COST action “Slow Memory – Transformative Practices for Times of Uneven and Accelerated Change” took place in Aarhus, Denmark from June 12th-16th, 2023. We had 34 participants in the training school and 60 for the conference with 35 countries represented in all.

The focus of the conference was on methodologies: considering the barriers, blocks, flows and flux in working with and through slow memory practices and the conference provided space for trainings, reflections, workshops, excursions and shared meals.

The conference was divided into two sections: a training school organized into two tracks under the broad categories of “storytelling” and “ethnography” – with a uniting focus on “moving methodologies” (i.e. walks and talks). The second section was a series of meetings and activities for all Action members with a focus on shared methodological challenges and synergies across Working Group themes. The format offered key insights (rather than keynotes) from academics and practitioners working in Denmark on issues relevant for slow memory – which were then discussed and responded to by the Working Groups. The final day was reserved for Working Group meetings on next steps and deliverables.

Taking place in Denmark, we incorporated salient national themes of welfare and trust and being located in Aarhus (“the second city”), we made good use of local space, sights and possibilities. We continued the “Portland practice” of walking everywhere (with the occasional use of public transport) which allowed for informal exchanges along the way and we adhered to the role-playing principle “never split the party” by organizing space for shared meals every evening (optional of course).

We began the training school with a “train-training”. We had booked out a full train carriage on the Copenhagen – Aarhus service for an en route reading with the Human Library. The Human Library is a not-for-profit learning platform. It consists of a collection of books (human individuals) who represent marginalized or stigmatized groups in society and who you can read (as open books) by asking questions and listening. Their motto is “unjudge someone” – a spin on the moniker of judging a book by its cover. On the train we had 6 books and a librarian and everybody got to read two books.

The experience was very intense, both because of the subject(s) matter and the confined, moving space, but also because some of the carriages on the train were cancelled due to an impromptu strike and we had to improvise a new safe space.

The readings led to many subsequent discussions about ethics, impacts (on both “the book” and the reader), the power of titles and categorization and public visibility of different stigmatized issues. One participant expressed surprise that it was possible for some of the books to not just talk openly about mental health issues in public, but also to trust the state for support.

Upon arrival in Aarhus, we did trainings in how to use walks and talks, photo-elicitation and artistic and ethnographic film-making to both access and give shape to slow memory. The walk and talk approach aimed at highlighting embodied research practices as a way of exploring the slowly formed and intimate relationships between people and their familiar locales. After an interactive introductory session, we walked in small groups, conducting our own walking talks, and considered this method as a means to gain distinctive forms of knowledge about place. The photo-elicitation approach showcased a long-term approach of how to work with and alongside people whose memories are shaped by the changing social categories, policies and institutions of the welfare state (i.e. care leavers). The ethnographic film-making approach explored subjectivity, qualitative research practices, the role of power structures and how to recognise “standpoints”, fluidity, and how to stay curious when engaging with participant and themes. The workshop discussed how these participatory practices legitimize and validate the experiences of marginalized groups, situating them in the role of collaborators as opposed to being subjects.

These different approaches all highlighted the importance of taking time in qualitative research. Time to listen, reflect, engage, be creative – but also thinking about how time can be a scarce resource that is not evenly distributed. All this, of course, has consequences for how we imagine “slowing down” our practices.

More working group members arrived late Tuesday and on Wednesday and Thursday we were introduced to Danish research projects that combined our Working Group themes in different ways. We heard from the “Cattle Crossroads”, which investigates the Danish agricultural sector’s animal “production” and the slow structures and enduring assumptions that make it very hard for this sector to change and react to the imminent climate crisis. We heard from the Truth and Reconciliation in the Nordic Countries project, which studies the slow processes of determining official mandates to deal with colonial pasts and indigenous rights across the Nordic countries. Finally, we heard from the project Entangled fluid cities: Material politics of urban water, Copenhagen 1860 – 1975,  which explores how the body and environment of the ”welfare-citizen” has been shaped in the long 20th century.

None of these projects are specifically defined as “slow memory” research but each hold the potential to enrich our understanding of slow memory through ideas of “critical junctions in knowledge structures” (i.e. as an alternative to focusing on events); “timing institutions” (i.e. underpinning new temporalities) and “slow moving mandates” (i.e. for peace-building, reparation, reconciliation and/or transformation). The presentations were interspersed with long semi-structured discussions in the working groups and plenary debates aimed at developing a shared conversation across the action and its working groups. There were very fruitful discussions about the politics of time/scale, metabolism as a form of embodied memory, affordances of slowing down and how to apologize in the anthroposcene. (Read more about the specific discussions in the WG reports, upcoming working papers and inspiring practice guides.)

Each of the invited speakers’ research showcased different bridges into stake-holding communities (the agricultural sector/business, the heritage/museum sector, and foreign/cultural policy advice), thus modelling different forms of engagement beyond academia.

Every day ended with an excursion of some kind: to the outdoor museum “The Old City” and to Moesgaard Museum outside the city, where a delegation walked through the woods for a memorable evening swim in Aarhus Bay. The serious and physical engagement with the broader local context (getting out of auditoriums and seminar rooms) has become an important part of the action.

On Friday there was a session on cross-cutting themes (Language and Educational materials) and final meetings in the working groups on deliverables and future planning.

At the end of the week, we had developed a sizeable supply of different slow memory methodologies and their corresponding ethics of engagement. These will now be teased out and presented in a series of inspiring practices guides.

//Sarah Dybris McQuaid

a poster with notes for a meeting on it

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