The Gathering Cloud Wins The New Media Writing Prize 2016

My recent hybrid print- and web-based work The Gathering Cloud won the Main Prize at the New Media Writing Prize 2016. Winners were announced at the New Media Writing Prize Award Event, which took place at Bournemouth University 18 January 2017. The award, now in its seventh year, saw entries from around the world from across a variety of different styles and media including poetry, non-fiction, digital novels, web-based works, and trans-media pieces.

The judges admired Carpenter’s grasp of digital and non-digital elements, and found her piece, about the relationship between the digital and the natural, beautiful and engaging.
The Literary Platform

Research for The Gathering Cloud began in 2015 when I submitted a proposal to the inaugural Dot Award for Digital Literature, sponsored by if:book. I proposed to create a new web-based work in response to the storms which battered South West England in early 2014, resulting in catastrophic flooding in Somerset and the destruction of the seawall and rail line at Dawlish. Reading the news in the months after these storms, I was struck by how difficult it is to evoke through the materiality of language a force such as wind which we can only see indirectly through its affect. I began to explore weather, and wind in particular, in all its written forms.

Winning the Dot Award enabled me to explore the intertwined topics of language, weather, and climate change in a freer and more open-ended way that I might otherwise have been able to. I looked through mountains of private weather diaries held at the Met Office Library and Archive in Exeter. One thing I figured out pretty early one is that it’s hard to study only one kind of weather. On one single page of a weather diary it is possible to see noted thunder, lightening, lilacs, a meteor, and hyacinths in full flower.

Detail of a private weather diary held at the Met Office Archive in Exeter
Detail of a private weather diary held at the Met Office Archive in Exeter

During the first week of August 2016 I was a principal performer in the South West Poetry Tour, along with Steven Fowler, Camila Nelson, John Hall, Mattie Spence, and Anabel Banks. Each night we performed new works written in collaboration. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to generate new writing on weather. In my collaboration with John Hall (video) I used classical texts on weather as raw material, and in my collaboration with Anabel Banks (video), we worked with two texts on clouds. She drew upon Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide, written in 2007, and I used Luke Howard’s classic Essay on the Modifications of Clouds, written in 1803. Howard was the first to standardise the names of clouds that we still use today. Anabel added one tricky constraint to our collaboration, that we write in hendecasyllabic — eleven syllable lines.

In September 2016 I was commissioned by NEoN Digital Arts Festival in Dundee to create a new web-based work in response to the theme “The Spaces We’re In”.

Physical urban space and virtual information space are inseparably intertwined. How does being digital change our sense of our spatial surroundings? Can we play in or animate the hybrid or glitched spaces in-between? Is there negative space in cyberspace? […] NEoN will interrogate the materials that make up our built environment – from air and glass, to cardboard and concrete to circuits and steel – and the designed devices we use to navigate it. As buildings and bridges seem to emerge readymade from the screen to real space, NEoN’s programme will help us figure out how ‘the digital’ helps us through the transition, or at least helps us to understand and critique it.
NEoN Digital Arts Festival 2016

When the festival’s curators told me about the theme I knew immediately that I wanted to call attention to the environmental impact of so-called ‘cloud’ storage. I’ve thought a lot about the complex relationship between biological and digital memory in previous work. The scale of the digital cloud is too vast to think about in terms of the body. I had to think bigger, so I turned to the clouds in the sky.

I decided to continue to build upon the structure of Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modifications of Clouds, to incorporate more recent texts on cloud storage and media theory, and to stick with the hendecasyllabic constraint. The resulting work, The Gathering Cloud launched to a crowd of 350 people at a Pecha Kucha Night in Dundee on 8 November 2016, the night of the US elections. I hadn’t intended for the title to wind up sounding quite so ominous, but I do think that now more than ever we need to find ways of talking about the enormity of climate change in human terms that we can understand and act upon.

Many thanks to everyone at the Informatics Lab at the Met Office, all the performers on the South West Poetry Tour, the curators and staff at NEoN Digital Arts, and everyone involved with the Dot Award and the New Media Writing Prize, with special thanks to Michael Saunby, Kay Lovelace, Chirs Meade, and Jerome Fletcher.

Further reading:

NEoN speaks with JR Carpenter

JR Carpenter takes the big prize at the 2016 New Media Writing Prize Awards

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