Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Friday, September 11, 2009
It’s not a transformation of the media ecology. It’s a total inversion.
In Baroque music, an inversion turns the melody upside down, flips chords, exchanges vocal registers, reorganizes intervals.
At this year’s National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture ( NAMAC ) conference, the outside jumped inside, and the inside hopped outside.
CommonWealth was not about transitions. It was about jacking conferees into a series of inversions. In the ladies room following a plenary, one conferee confided "This conference is beyond my comfort zone." I probed if that was good or bad. She said, "I’m somewhere else. I am not sure yet."
It’s a heady, confusing time when the tectonic plates of new technologies, changing public policies, economic collapse, job uncertainty, a new president, and enormous challenges in figuring out strategies in a multiplatformed environment are crashing together and disturbing the geographies of public media.
The ground is unsteady beneath our feet. The foundations from our public media past are loosened and wobbly, swaying under the pressures of new business models, emerging technologies, hemorrhaging audiences, depleted funding.
The questions are complex, the technologies confusing, the survival strategies unclear, the technologies proliferating, and the allies shifting.CommonWealth functioned like a primer on telecommunications policy challenges like net neutrality , low power, broadband, and arts stimulus packages while it provided navigational systems and clear mappings of digital media, social media, and new ways to think about outcomes in media arts funding.
Depending on where you stood at the NAMAC conference, you might see something completely different. Telecommunications public policy or creative arts. Social media marketing or questions of real live audiences. Grant funding or business models. Digital possibility or digital divide. The euphoria of the Democratic administration or the fear and panic of a bone-crushing, hope-smashing recession. User-generated content or business models for institutional survival.
But a smaller spatial configuration also emerged: open space sessions. The CommonWealth NAMAC conference might be the first public media conference to deploy this process of sitting in a circle with like-minded people unpacking a topic of mutual, pressing concern through focused conversation, a brainstorming strategy growing out of the open source community.
These open space sessions pulsed with urgency and new-found community around unresolved issues such as digital exhibition, disabilities, building audiences for events, youth media, boards, film festivals, youth media, volunteers, art house challenges, gaming. I sat in on two on film festivals. They energized me. I left with new ideas and new allies.
A range of panels on social media, social networking and digital technologies mapped significant inversions of our conceptual frameworks about public media. The audience is now a participant. Building audiences is now going to where audiences are. Limited access to media works is now dispersed unlimited access. A precious curatorial zone is now a user-centric community. Finished works that premiere have shifted into works continually in process and in public.
Engage, aggregate, collaborate, amplify, transform: that’s the new public media mantra for this recession-infected, panic-stricken digital age.
This strategy displaces the older independent media strategy of what I would call "the wedding model," where the big day is planned and fantasized for years with every detail from flowers to gowns in place and every guest and seating chart carefully considered.
Now, the new model resides more in what I might term "the cooking with friends model." Projects continually roll out in various states of completion, invite audiences in, change incessantly, and get served up across different platforms and in different iterations depending on the ingredients at hand. Temporality in public media changes forever: no longer discrete, it is continuous, fluid, open, and malleable.
Now for my own set of inversions on CommonWealth.
I was utterly engaged and stimulated throughout the conference.
I noticed that plenaries, panels and open space sessions were jammed with people obsessively taking notes on their netbooks, iPhones, and laptops. People seem to crave clarity and community.
However, I must share that I departed both clearer and more confused.
Questions about politics, ethics, and live humans pressed into me in more and more intense ways as the days progressed.
As someone who has been involved in pitched debates about public media for over three decades, I could not get my head around the lack of vigorous critique at the CommonWealth conference—it felt like my fellow conferees were installing the information like neutral, virus-free downloaded files on a USB drive.
I am struggling with the euphoria of digital technologies when 40% of Americans don’t have access to broadband and when governments around the world—and the US military in Iraq-- can shut down open networks with the flick of a switch.
I am still perplexed by the ethical questions of circulating images of other people’s suffering on YouTube and other user-generated sites—particularly if circulating their image means that some repressive regime might jail or beat them.
I’m disturbed by what I deconstruct as the vaudevillian spaces of the user-generated world, which sport lots of room for fun but not many spaces for more serious, gnarly, and chaotic social and political issues.
I am troubled by the reduction of everything to the digital simplicities of 140 character Tweets when the questions we must ask and the politics we must engage in around race, nation, gender, sexualities, disabilities, empire, war only get more and more complex.
I worry that in the brave new world of user-generated, social networked digitality, the only images and media that can travel the toll-free viral superhighways are ones that are fun, cute, clever, ironic, silly, inane, or mean.
I am really uncomfortable by proponents of social media slapping old fashioned capitalist economic models of acquisition and consumerism onto new digital technologies as they discuss monetizing content and growing "fans" and "followers."
I’m disturbed by hip social media practitioners selling me a push out model of media participation that seems recycled from the manipulative practices of commercial media buzz production rather than a pull in model of engagement and open space community building.
I am nervous when arts funding consultants and funders look for outcomes in audience numbers and programmers shift to more popular programming at the expense of more challenging experimental and political art forms.
I can’t get my head around public television entities working with producers in China and imposing an unexamined epistemological imperialism through their installation of a narrative model of character development and story arcs imported from the classical Hollywood studio system that effectively neutralizes cultural differences.
Boot camp and strategy session, CommonWealth superimposed telecommunication policy on creativity, technologies on arts organizations, and public media on cultural policy.
Pushing beyond the comfort zones, CommonWealth hurled out a 21st century public media game plan.
And… it contained a series of necessary and urgent inversions that still need to be plotted—and critiqued.