Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Blog cowritten by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festval, Ithaca College
PART THREE: Towards Provisional Ethical Working Principles of Social Media and Human Rights
Overarching all these questions of ethical responsibility – to the person, to the story, to action - is the change in relationships between the one-on-one negotiation of consent, rights and usage between a documentarian and a subject, a largely binary relationship or series of relationships, on an ethics of an image grounded in a particular relationship to a focus on an ethics of networks, of material circulating, re-combining and being re-used in multiple relationships between people often far distant from the source originators (the filmer, the filmed).
Some provisional principles might include:
We are now in a world of purposeful witnesses, of casual producers, documentary producers and advocacy producers, of governmental, corporate and non-governmental promoters of technology as panacea, of curators and aggregators, of citizen participants in projects of collective voice, and of re-mixers, re-purposeful witnesses and casual sharers of the spreadable and viral.
The question of ethical engagements between all of these sectors for human rights is the challenge we must all enter into, proposing both solutions and questions.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Blog written by Sam Gregory, program director, WITNESS, and Patrica Zimmerman, professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Fetival
Part Two: Topographic Highlights and Conundrums of Viral Witnessing
Human rights ethics, documentary tradition and new emerging communities of affinity intersect and challenge each other during the sometimes fractured, sometimes convergent participation that is at the core of the creation, sharing and use of social media in general and for and against human rights.
This is a moment of epistemological challenge for both human rights advocates and documentary makers and scholars. What does it mean when documentation is no longer the purview of human rights documentors, and where documentary is no longer the purview of documentary-makers? What is the meaning of ‘documentation’ (‘x did y to z’) and/or ‘documentary in an age of a thousand, a million, a billion documentors/ documentarians, where monopolies of power and categorization are being erased, lost, zig-zagged across, confused and obscured? Just as human rights workers and journalists are wrestling with their roles, so too what is the role of the documentary concept and framework in this changing environment?
Let us outline some of the ethical issues arising in the context of social media and consider how these are implicated, complicated and challenged by a range of the potential subject positions of engagement/non-engagement from curators, to (re)purposeful witnesses, to corporate promoters and governmental aggregators. Broadly these areas of ethical concern might be termed – responsibility to the person filmed, responsibility to the story, and responsibility to act.
First, responsibility to the person filmed
Human rights is rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. Human rights practice is often built around a victim/survivor-centered model focused on avoiding re-victimization, and grounded in lived experience that individuals who speak out or are filmed who are not victims or survivors, but bystanders or witnesses, are also at risk (vis. the people who were in the shot when Neda was murdered).
Yet when the witness-creators and re-creators of human rights media include those who are callous, caring and casual, perpetrators, committed and caught-up how do we protect a person from psychological re-victimization, and physical relation and re-victimization, as their image and words are shared in the circulatory networks of social medias, and in an environment of ubiquitous documentation and sharing where the absence of consent or the failure to secure fully informed consent will be increasingly commonplace?
Consider the footage from Egypt shot over the past few years – we have the iconic cases of police torture captured on cell-phone cameras by the policemen themselves such as the el-Kebir case (slide) where police documented their own torture of detainees, we have the serendipitous citizen footage collated on a blog like ‘Torture in Egypt’ (slide) in an act of virtual, empathetic witness and we have the purposeful documentation of human rights groups and documentarians from Human Rights Watch to Al-Jazeera to individual filmmakers. And in some cases the same images will appear in all three contexts.
Secondly, Responsibility to the Story
Within human rights field, there has recently been some discussion around what might be termed ‘responsibility to the story.’ Just as much as avoiding re-victimization how do we hold onto the integrity of the story of the person speaking from a position of challenge or oppression?
Narrative integrity springs both from the experiences themselves and how the person chose to represent them via words and images, but also from the surrounding discursive context and data that often shows what makes an emblematic or paradigmatic story representative of a bigger picture, or the internalized context of embedded metadata that places a testimony or evidentiary image in a particular time and place, and tracks its travels.
When we watch this video “Police Brutality – Police Get What They Deserve’ ( clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XExpnE-xPd8&feature=related ) which has been seen close to two and a half million times on YouTube, images of specific incidents of police and military abuse (including half-way through, and in this keyframe, an iconic incident of Egyptian police torture of recent years), stripped free of any internal or external context, are subsumed into a continuous narrative that loses the logic and individual circumstances of specific moments of violation. Surferknut23 – one of almost 14,000 people who have commented on the video - notes from one perspective and frame he places over the images: ‘all i saw when i watched this video was people who don't know how to listen getting their asses beaten’ while SplittingSkulls from a different perspective comments: ‘Gota love fucking stupid people. A bunch of random photos with no way of knowing what happened and videos from around the world where the laws are completely different then here adds up to police brutality? What a fucking stupid video.’
‘Responsibility to the story’ intersects with the role of the ethical witness as outlined in contemporary scholarship on testimony and witnessing. As Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas put it in the introduction to their book The Image and the Witness (2007) such an ethical witness carry the ‘memory of suffering… in a manner that empathizes with, rather than violates, the silent victim’.
Integrity of the story is also relational – how does an individual story relate to an aggregated collection of stories? This question becomes particularly relevant when we consider the aggregative nature of social media and of the structuring of multiple stories in an interface. Jane Gaines has written – in the context of the Iraq war - about the prejudice of our culture against documentary images; how we are seen to be ‘bombarded with images’ rather than ever ‘bombarded with the written word’, and how moving beyond this position is critical for us to engage meaningfully. This comment seems particularly relevant in the context of the aggregative impulse. Here we enter the realm of digital and database documentary and software design. A range of sense-making mechanisms have been deployed recently by human rights and social justice curators and aggregators – beyond the generic interfaces of such sites as YouTube, the Hub, Facebook Walls and other video, social-networking and information-sharing platforms, they include tools like Ushahidi, used to aggregate text, video and photo from situations as diverse as Kenya’s elections and slums to Haiti post-earthquake, and present them on a mapping interface; as well as other forms of mapping mash-up and video-walls that collect and aggregate multiple voices into a collective statement and a whole range of other locative and interactive media formats. Here, we face ethical questions about how these frameworks and tools preserve the integrity of individual voice.
And this curational voice is not always creating from a position of activist challenge. In London last year during the G20 protests when a bystander was assaulted by police during the protests, citizen curators painstakingly aggregated what had happened from citizen and news media camera, cellphone and photographic images
But in the same year, following on from the legacy of British police’s use of Forward Intelligence Units to constantly film peaceful protestors, police acknowledged that they the tracked the activity of organizers for events such as the G20 protests and Climatecamp on Facebook. And in Iran last year, the Iranian security services, curated pictures gathered from YouTube videos and Facebook on their Gerdab website
And crowd-sourced identification of those involved, as well as asking people to share emails, videos and photos who have ‘broken the stability of Iran after the elections’.
Both of these principles mentioned above – that of the integrity of the victim/survivor’s experience, and that of the role of the ethical witness with responsibility to the story – are made problematic by the possibilities for remixing, re-appropriation, aggregation, curation and recirculation. These possibilities pull the material farther and farther from its source testifier and/or witness and from its original context – even as that process of translation may increase the chances that the footage will find an audience (even an unexpected one) that may be willing and able to respond.
WITNESS has been involved in promoting acts of (re)purposeful remixing and witnessing, supporting student activists within the US-based student anti-genocide coalition, STAND to re-edit a template video making the call for effective legislation to prevent genocide. Student chapters took the template video, as well as other footage made available to them from inside genocidal situations worldwide, and additional footage they shot within their state with local opinion-formers, as well as material they found online and re-purposed. With these materials they crafted individualized videos that spoke to the particular interests of their Senator.
To share some examples, students from Florida introduced their videos in their own voice and made personal appeals to their Senator’s Christian faith, but also identified Lost Boys from Sudan living in Jacksonville, Florida to join them in making a direct request to their Senator. Videos from California and Wisconsin expressed personal thanks to their respective Senators for their actions to date through montages of high school and college student voices; highlighted prominent community figures who the Senators would know and respect (for example, a respected academic and an award-winning humanitarian); and urged them on to do more. Other videos ranged from fully remixed videos to direct-to-camera video introductions and calls to action from student and influential community leaders in the Senators’ States.
Although in this case the video material was largely re-purposed within a tight framework the underlying question that occupies us as we contemplate this project and other acts of documentary remixing of human rights media and social media is how to balance responsibility to the victim, and responsibility to the story with the potential of remix approaches to speak to the personalization and creativity that will generate activism in a younger digitally-literate generation, and to craft highly personalized narratives for advocacy audiences. How does this remix ethos relate to a human rights culture concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors and about the role of ethical witnessing – a culture that also has a strong sense of control over its material.
Responsibility to action
Finally – and there will not be time to consider this in depth in this paper - we need to consider what we might term an ethical ‘responsibility to action’ - the ways in which different forms of social media create effect on their audiences or participants, moving them to action (since ultimately, at least from a social change perspective, this is the goal). To what extent do they create political mimesis, to what extent do they engage the interstices between emotion and rationality, to what extent do they coherently outline spaces for action and solutions for change to respond to emotional and rational reactions by their viewers? To what extent are they coupled to political action?
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.