Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies, Ithaca College; co-director, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
I've never been more unsettled, confused — and excited — about documentary.
Everything I have ever theorized, historicized, analyzed, criticized, programmed, and written about documentary in its linear, argumentative, analog forms needs a serious gut job. A total renovation from the attic to the kitchen.
Over the past few years, when I've gone to film festivals or scholarly symposia, it's the new media sidebars — where no one wants to be called a director anymore and everyone is a convener or a designer — that yank me away from the movie theaters.
Example: Helen De Michiel's Lunch Love Community Project — a lush mosaic website of short collaborative videos chronicling the movement for healthy food in Berkeley, California, public schools, produced with the teachers, cooks, kids, and parents.
Three-dimensional spheres of place-based issues and people, these transmedia projects dismantle all of my previous theories — intellectual wrecking balls, if you will. Beyond the trendy tropes of mash-ups, crowdsourcing, user-generated, "produser," and marketing engagement through double-screening, open-space documentaries invite encounters with people, ideas, places and technologies.
Example: Saving the Sierra, produced by jesikah maria ross and Catherine Stifter — a collaborative project charting the stories and voices of Californians and environmental issues in the Sierra Nevada Mountains using radio, community meetings, and innovative story mapping.
Collaborative and shape shifting, these projects open up dialogue, convenings, stories, and a new form of collaborative, grounded space. They migrate fluidly across the analog and the digital, using adaptable platforms and inviting in newly interactive communities.
Example: The Cotton Road Project, by Laura Kissel with Li Zhen, tracing the supply chain of cotton from South Carolina to Shanghai manufacturing, with short video vignettes, multiple stories, and the innovative "sourcemap" that tracks supply chains of commodities through crowd research.
Although I still love their gutsy vigor, long-form doc features loom a bit like skyscrapers from the 1960s — overbuilt and probably not sustainable. In comparison, these more modest, open-space transmedia projects, seem more agile, more adaptable, more alive, more responsive, less predictable.
If you want to dig further into open-space documentary, you can join De Michiel, ross and Kissel for conversation at the working session on "Open Space Documentary" (I will moderate) at this year's utterly alluring NAMAC Conference, Leading Creatively, in Minneapolis, September 6-8.
This conference promises one of the biggest open spaces in the new media ecology.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Blog post written by Patricia Zimmerman, professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.
While democracy protesters jammed into Tahrir Square, the Egyptian government cut off and then opened up the internet and Facebook, and British students from the anti-cut movement mounted large demonstrations in the streets of London, the Documentary Now! Conference at the University of Westminster on January 28-30 staged some emerging, key debates about scholarship, exhibition and practice of documentary.
The conference opened with a screening of the feature length documentary 48 (2009) with Portuguese filmmaker Susana De Sousa. Composed entirely of still image portraits taken by various police and security forces of captured political dissidents during the Portuguese dictatorship (1926-1974), the film looks simple but isn’t. As De Sousa noted, she contrasted the official history inscribed in the images with the unofficial history of the sound of the resistance.
The voices of the prisoners, involved in different resistance movements both above ground and underground, describe their political work and how they survived physical and mental torture, including sleep deprivation where prisoners were kept awake for 18 days, endless bouts of dysentary, nails ripped off, bodies assaulted.
We never see current images of the political activists and internees who narrate their stories. Instead, we scrutinize the way the military and security forces rendered their faces into historical records. De Sousa explained that she decided to never show the people "because that would divide the film into times, the present and the past, and I wanted to bring the experience and memories to the present, in a more complex temporality with the images.” The film does not focus on individuals, but instead exposes the system of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, a history still repressed and silenced.
Organized by documentary scholars Alisa Lebow (Brunel University)and Michael Chanan (Roehampton University), the annual Documentary Now! Conference in London bills itself as a “conference on the contemporary contexts and possibilities of the documentary.” Lebow and Chanan have written extensively on the forms and function of the committed documentary.
Both have championed moving documentary film studies away from its American/Eurocentric axis: Lebow has not only advanced queer documentary, but Turkish Cinema, and Chanan is a leading figure in writing about Cuban and Latin American Cinema. The conference bears their imprint, because its organization refuses to accept safe categories or traditional thinking about documentary. For example, smaller symposia often feature mostly senior, established scholars. But Lebow and Chanan programmed almost as many PhD students as senior level heavyweights.
In the context of the mammoth job-marketing, career-advancing conferences mounted by the likes of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and the International Communication Association (ICA), the intense collegiality and think tank intensities of a smaller conference like Documentary Now function as a most welcome and much-needed respite. Documentary Now offers a place to test out new edgy ideas, connect with scholars and makers pushing the envelope of scholarship, and engage in conversations about ideas rather than about program cuts, tenure battles, and the end of the humanities as we used to know it.
The three days of panels and presentations mapped the unresolved political and ethical issues contemporary documentary studies engages. An outstanding, provocative panel called “Dis/Embodied Voices” featured scholars Bella Honess (England), Patrik Sjoberg (Sweden) and Laura Rascaroli (Ireland) probing how the fracturing of sound, voice, image, portrait, face challenge the documentary referent as unified, suggesting documentary form as a philosophical, rather than representational, enterprise.
Rascaroli advanced the idea of the “interstice”, a textual and extratextual space, a “crevice that engenders something new.” Sjoberg’s paper queried how “hidden subjects” –like faces covered by the burqa, the mask, the veil, or rotoscoping and animation of social actors, bring to documentary an argument about hidden, defaced, distorted, destabilized identities which foreground voice over image.
In a fascinating panel on “Television and the Everyday,” noted British documentary scholar and intellectual pugilist Brian Winston returned to the Griersonian documentary, threading the relationship between acting, direction, and the realist documentary project. Noting the “utter directorial failure” of the films produced by Grierson for the General Post Office, Winston observed how a film like Night Mail “performed dialogue previously observed.” He contended that the failure of these British films from the 1930s to deal with fascism, war, and depression demonstrated how they ran “away from social meaning.”
A panel on "Musical Docs" raised issues of how music functions in documentary. Does it invoke and rework narrative deployments, where music connects with emotion, or can music function as another layer of textual complexity, challenging and reworking images? Julian Savage (Brunel University) explored how music travels between the exotic, the political, the colonial, the resistant, the postcolonial, and the imaginary in a documentary project about Tahitian music called Upa Tangi Reka. Tracing and tracking Tahitian ukulele bands, he argued for a concept of fissures between the colonized/ savage, the orientalist and the immersive.
Other panels and talks explored the persistent ethical tensions in documentary. At “Authenticity or Artifice” British scholars and practicioners (Angus Carlyle, John Wynne, Pratap Rughani, Paul Lowe) explored field recordings, sound art, documentary narrative, and photography. A panel called "Critical Perspectives" looked at documentary through the lenses of philosophers Walter Benjamin and Roman Jakobson. Michael Renov’s (USC) plenary lecture, “The Compilation Film: The Chorus of Bits and Pieces,” revisited the long trajectory of films constructed from other films as metatextual practices with a nod to Jay Leyda.
But documentary, as envisioned by Lebow and Chanan, has moved well beyond the flat-on-the-wall, fixed analog forms that are the stuff of documentary textbooks.
The complexity and proliferation of new media forms and interfaces not only extends previous documentary strategies, but also unhinges and troubles them. One senior scholar told me that new media and new technology functioned as just another form of “opium” but also conceded he/she would like to actually learn more. Elizabeth Cowie, an influential feminist film theorist, asked, in a spirit of intellectual generosity, how new media and installation can be considered documentary, in that their forms destabilize some central epistemological and definitional tenets.
Keith Marley (Liverpool John Moores University) and Geoffrey Cox (Huddersfield University) presented an ambitious but somewhat aesthetically and conceptually undeveloped live video performance inspired by Vertov’s city film mixed with club culture as an alternative to a traditional academic paper. The panel “From Viewsers to Activists” investigated the internet, YouTube, and Britain’s video activist movent.
The Open Space/New Media and New Documentary Forms Panel (which, full disclosure, I mounted and spoke at) looked at how new media, installation, and user-generated archives in Southeast Asia, a hub for new technology and digital arts, have shifted documentary into a more collaborative, horizontal, iterative modality where technology meets space meets people.
The panel featured Singaporean cutting edge new media artists Michael Tan and Jesvin Yeo from Nanyang Technological Unviersity (NTU), scholar/curator Sharon Lin Tay (NTU/Middlesex University), and filmmaker/curator Nikki Draper (NTU) discussing the Shaw Foundation/NTU funded new media curatorial project, Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia, mounted at the ICA conference in Singapore in 2010.
A closing session called “Video Activism Workshop” featured Ann Burton, from the Confederation of Trade Unnions in the UK, as well as Richard Hering and Hamish Campbell from VisionOn.TV, a user-generated, citizen media site, discussing how social media, cheap video technologies, and Web 2.0 revise the definition of “activist media”(note to readers: I’ll be writing another post on this panel, so stay tuned).
Documentary Now in London demonstrated that documentary constitutes one of the most malleable, shape-shifting, platform-crossing, politically-challenging forms of media. And it also showed that lively conversation and debate amongst a heterogeneous group of international colleagues offers maybe the most vital form of social media on the planet.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Meet Helen De Michiel
Helen De Michiel is a documentary filmmaker and producer, public policy media arts advocate and analysis, and explorer of the possibilites of new media for engagement with communities. She's had a long and vibrant career in all of these fields, with award-winning feature films and documentaries. Most recently (1996-2010), she served as codirector of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC). Her new multimedia documentary engagement project, Lunch Love Community, launched last week. Lunch Love Community explores healthy food for schools, and how documentary practice can be rewired away from preaching to communities, towards convening community involvement as a key part of the documentary project. More on Helen in my previous blog HERE.
The Interview Continues
Patricia: What are new developments in the media landscape that completely change our concepts, operations, and practices of public media?
Helen: Now, we are in a period when every citizen has a stake in defining the role of a public media sphere. Corporate media pounds us with diversionary fluff. Those narratives invade everyone’s consciousness and infect our public forms of discourse and reflection.
Public media is no longer only NPR or PBS. How can digital natives—that generation that has grown up permeated by all forms of emerging media and platforms-- build up a new concept of public media that designs meaningful spaces among all the new nodes of entry?
This movement of public media practices within new platforms is happening at the cellular level of our emerging new communications system. Hybrid forms of journalism, filmmaking, and writing are being tested. With new interfaces and applications, broadband media makers are making mistakes and test piloting their way into the future.
In fact, social media may be the most salient public media form of this current period. It is driven by engaged individuals speaking and sharing virally. The challenge, however, resides in how to create the “story” of this new public media sphere. How do we connect the nodes and protect them from being crushed or marginalized?
For example, filmmakers can now gather and organize groups of interested fans and users online before a work is completed. They can invite their feedback, enter into meaningful dialogues, and make an interactive exchange of ideas and questions part of the work’s development. This kind of open inquiry approach will completely transform our legacy ideas of public media.
Patricia: What are some projects emerging in this new public media landscape that you think open up new ways of thinking about our digital futures?
Helen: I am deeply intrigued by the multiple public media/public art projects being organized by Jon Ippolito and Joline Blais < http://www.three.org/>, who teach new media practice at the University of Maine. They work with social networks, kinship systems, indigenous peoples, and environmental issues. I don’t always understand exactly what they are doing, but when I do, I am jolted by the new connections they are making. And that’s a good thing.
Perhaps readers of this blog can share projects they know about that open up new ways of thinking about our digital futures? I welcome more interaction on this topic. Let’s discuss!
Patricia: What is unresolved in this new landscape? What are some debates we need to consider and engage in?
Helen: The idea of resolution may be a pipe dream in this landscape with new nodes for public media futures. Perhaps the game will just go on and on, changing abuptly just when resolution seems at hand.
Here are some of the questions I continue to ruminate over:
1. How can artists get interested in and more actively engaged in the huge telecommunications and cultural policy debates of our time?
2. How can we encourage gamers to change the terms of what is public media and learn new ways to play our way into common spaces for dialogue?
3. How can I connect 20th century cinema and art practice to the new media forms I see emerging?
4. How is the burgeoning “maker’s culture” changing both technology and arts communities?
5. Where will the new public media reside in the coming decades? Will it still be defined primarily by television or radio – or the next medium after Facebook and Twitter?
6. How can we bring into focus the urgent need for digital literacy? How can we recognize digital media not only as a conduit for ‘content,’ but as a creative medium itself in the process of being defined?
And finally, for me, one of the most important pieces missing in these larger debates is seeing the variety of voices of creators articulating and writing about their own experiences in the digital environment, as artists and participants.What is working? What is not working? What are some of the values or ethics we need to articulate as creators in this space? What new connections are you making in your work?
There is no excuse anymore for creators and producers to not become engaged in the rebuilding of a public media space. As designer Bruce Mau wrote in “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth" :
"Organization=Liberty: Real innovation in design, or any other field, happens in context.”
Monday, July 26, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor of cinema studies at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
8 is a lucky number in Singapore, especially at Chinese New Year. During Lucky Draws at parties, a sort of raffle with a generous collective ambience where small gifts are dispensed (I won a bunch of neon highlighters!), any number drawn that has an 8 in it elicits hurrahs. 8 is auspicious: good luck, good fortune, good health, good cheer. My time at NTU was auspicious indeed, blessed with all four.
My six month appointment as the Shaw Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore bloomed with many 8’s.
Below is Part 1 of my list of my take-aways from my wonderfully engaged colleagues at SCI, in no particular order of importance, with my first four in this posting. They are highlights but also useful metaphors and maybe even benchmarks or conversations for US colleges and universities, now grappling with precipitious cutbacks and reorganizations from the GEC (the acronym Singaporeans bestowed on the Global Economic Collapse, barely felt in Asia):
1. The SCI Weekly Research Seminar. Organized by my colleague Marko Skoric, an intensely clear-thinking quantitative communication scholar from Serbia , the weekly seminar featured scholars from both SCI and across campus. 20-30 minutes of presentation, then discussion.
After the ferocious “let me make an intervention” battle calls of Northeastern US intellectual life, I appreciated the more collegial and less combative style. Maybe it was the round table we all sat around. Maybe it was the fact that the room was filled with faculty from so many disciplines and methodological schools in communications. Maybe it was the Asian value of harmony. Who knows?
I heard about remittance cultures in Asia and new media, about global Asian cities marketing themselves as new media and IT promised lands, IT access for development in Nepal and Indonesia, the problems of Asian communications schools teaching courses from a US perspective, the SARS epidemic and representation, internet law in Malaysia, social media and news in Germany.
I learned so much from these presentations because they exceeded my own discipline of film/media studies and historiography and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. It didn’t matter if there were 5 or 35 faculty in attendance. The ideas and research popped with freshness. The research seminar changed a lot of my ideas. And it was a great way to meet people for future lunches of dim sum or laksa.
2. The SCI Book Exchange. On the fourth floor of the SCI building, a faculty lounge offered coffee, tea (always my favorite, the stronger brew of Lipton Yellow Label, hard to procure in the US), snacks, a continuous news feed from Channel News Asia, and, my favorite, a book exchange.
Across Asia, you’ll see these book exchanges in hotels and hostels. Books are heavy to carry, and, very expensive in Asia. The book exchange at SCI struck me as both practical—books are expensive so why not share ?—and symbolic—ideas circulated and were shared.
Spy, thriller, suspense, historical, and literary novels, travel guides to countries in Southeast Asia and communication books, jammed the shelves. There was also plenty of trash reading, although as an former English lit major, trash is not to my taste.
I borrowed quite a few literary novels—Marguerite Duras (who wrote feminist novels about sexuality and Vietnam), Amitav Ghosh, Aravind Adiga, John Burdett (who writes detective novels set in Thailand), Jhumpa Lahiri. And I left books there as well.
I liked how the book exchange idea was pirated from backpackers and then adapted. I wondered why more US based departments don’t adopt this practice. In a puritanical and individualistic culture, maybe we can’t admit we read novels --or anything--for fun and relaxation. They remain secret pleasures.
3. Continuous Discussions about Pedagogy. By US Carnegie criteria, NTU would be considered a Research institution in Tier 1.
In the US, an ideology persists that only four year student-centered institutions care about teaching, with those student-remote research one schools focused exclusively on publication.
What I discovered at NTU was that a lot of these schools in the US claiming to focus on teaching actually focus on catering to students, student evaluations, student centered learning and the potential market for future students—a big difference from pedagogy. Students in the US often are figured as simultaneously customers, a market, and clients. I wish we could think of students as burgeoning intellectuals. My former dean, Thomas Bohn, once told me when I was a young assistant professor that our job as faculty is to invite students into a larger disciplinary based conversation. Quite a different idea from a service-centered pedagogy....
Not a day passed at NTU without a substantive and deeeply intellectual discussion about pedagogical issues, whether it was with colleagues or administrators: how to deliver an effective curriculum, how to update courses with new research, how to structure courses around ideas and their development, how to build intellectual critique and good writing skills. Research and teaching were always intertwined, like the yin and yang symbol so prevalent across Asia.
A continuing topic of discussion was the question of laptops and various electronics infiltrating the classroom, with some students doing continuous Facebook updating during class! My colleagues Mark Cenite and Nikki Draper confronted this menace to engagement as an intellectual conundrum that needed careful deconstruction culturally, socially, economically, ethically.They were not dismissive of these students, but wanted to understand what was happening in the cultural shift towards ubiquitous social media in order to structure their classroom time to maximize engagement.
In cinema studies at IC, we have suffered through this same problem given extensive campus WiFI and a requirement for laptops in the School of Communications, and instituted a Laptop and Electronic Device Policy that effectively bars all devices during classtime. It’s on our syllabi, and gives us the right to ask students to suspend their social media practices. SCI Faculy were interested in this policy, and wanted to instituted something similar. I felt quite useful sharing our cinema studies laptop policy. Big thanks to my colleague Matt Fee who popped the current version over to me.
4. International Faculty: The Real Deal. Over the last ten years, the word “international” works like a barnacle attaching itself to the boats of higher education.
It appears in so many mission statements, strategic plans, assessments, and facilitated brainstorming sessions that no one ever seems to ask how it is defined and actualized—at least in the US.
Most US faculty I know figure these incantations of "internationalism" present a contradictory moment.
On the one hand, in the shifting and increasingly volatile terrain of transnational corporate life, graduates (and institutions) no longer have the luxury of isolationism and English-only. On the other hand, with twenty years of globalization, post-colonial, cosmopolitan, critical race, and other theories of the periphery, research and teaching are much more carefully situated within global flows and power relations, so new faculty are pushing curricula away from its American-centeredness.
At NTU, I experienced a different way of considering “international.” Faculty in SCI came from 18 different countries, including England, Burma, India, Malaysia, the US, Singapore,Serbia, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Mexico. I didn’t find one course based on a single country. Courses seemed to be structured around salient issues and important trajectories. And I rarely heard a research presentation on a single country.
Maybe it is because Singapore is so small, with only 5 million residents. Maybe it is because Singapore has always been an entrepot, a port in global flows reaching back a thousand years.
Whatever the reason, working in an environment that was this international rerouted my vectors, my teaching, my curatorial work, my writing, my ideas, my reading, my theoretical orientations, and what I read in the Singapore Straits Times and the International Herald Tribune. It was exciting. And, it was intellectually invigorating, like going to a spa for one's mind, getting the kinks kneaded out and the toxins flushed.
I looked forward to going into my SCI office everyday, wondering who I would talk to and what we would talk about. My days were filled with questions, rather than answers. And maybe, in the end, it reconnected me to why we all became academics in the first place.
Stay tuned for Part II, and more auspicious take-aways.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, Ithaca College
“Gossip moves faster than the internet,” observed Gustaff Harriman Iskandar, arts, writer, curator and founder of Common Room and the Bandung Center for New Media Arts in Indonesia.
Gustaff was presenting about the new media practices of Common Room on the Open Space Panel “ The Contingent Spaces of Performance, Performativity and Soundscapes" at the International Communication Association (ICA) conference last week in Singapore.
“Gossip is important,” Gustaff observes. “It is part of oral culture, and oral culture is very important in Indonesia.”
Common Room is an initiative and a civil society practice in Bandung, Indonesia, designed to convene people, new media technologies, and conversations to make public space and interactive conversation accessible. It produces exhibitions, discussions, workshops, screenings, operating within what Gustaff called “contingent spaces and contested realities.” A central concern of Common Room is how to make networks—both virtual and real—work.
Founded in 2003, Common Room contends that conversations matter. Gustaff identified this practice as “the politics of listening": to facilitate space to recognize different situations and different realities through discussion. “In Common Room, we try to be invisible to facilitate the needs of people who enter conversations. Small interventions make everything happen by itself,” Gustaff said. As a result, Common Room floats in between institutions and communities, a forum for oral histories.
Resolutely locally situated, Common Room works in mapping practices, projects that make connections between civic empowerment, environmental sustainability, and urban ecology. The members of Common Room see themselves as artists initiating ideas and activities as political gestures based on dialogue and listening to people to facilitate their needs.
Against what Gustaff called “historical dementia,” urban distress, gentrification, and “wild capitalism” in Indonesia, Common Room advocates for open commons, smart mobs, gift economies, knowledge, creativity and freedom. Gustaff contends that “wild capitalism” is rampant in Indonesia, where transnational corporations in the oil, logging and mineral extraction businesses operate without rules and regulations.
Although the democratic reforms and social revolution of reformasi in 1998 loosened up censorship, many Indonesian activists and artists have noted the enactment of a systematic process of forgetting and state-sponsored amnesia, where the nation erases history by changing names of buildings, streets, places. For example, in 2008, 11 people were killed in a concert hall in Bandung. The building was renamed.
At ICA, Common Room created a live installation based on the web 2.0 notion of the “meet up” in the Suntec Conference Center to bring the academics assembled into a collaborative Indonesian space. With mats, computers, microphones and live streaming, their site-specific live, interactive performance functioned as a meet up in the middle of the conference. Common Room activated direct audience engagement, encouraging connections across national borders and arts/scholarly practices.
Flanked by the conference rooms and then new media art installations, Common Room put straw mats on risers in the hallway. One of the mats was white and shiny—it was woven out of recycled toothpaste tubes. Laptops adorned with stickers sat on low teak tables.
Common Room members Reina Wulansari, an arts exhibitor, Addy Handy, a writer and death metal band vocalist, and Gustaff sat cross legged on the risers throughout the conference. They interviewed the academics who ambled by to rest on the platform, and then streamed the interviews over the internet.
I asked Gustaff what the academics were chatting about with him. “Ghosts,” he said. “And a lot of introspection about spirituality.” I was struck by the contrast between these interviews and the social science-oriented, quantitative methodology, power points on media research that dominated the conference.
“Practitioners are switching from working as artists to functioning more as facilitators,” explained Gustaff. Common Room energizes public engagements. It’s not designed for personal work, but positioned as an institution that creates open platforms in real space.
“In Indonesia at the moment, arts culture is very contingent” Gustaff said. “Because there is an absence of state power in the arts and an absence of an institutional apparatus for the arts, artists and facilitators must make their own way.” Working commercially to make a living, Gustaff, Addy and Reina collaborate on Common Room initiatives to convene people around ideas. Common Room is actually located in a house in Bandung. “Creativity is a sign of poverty and not wealth,” asserted Gustaff.
During the three days of ICA, many academics—mostly from the so-called west--sat on the Common Room risers, fixated on their laptops with their presentation powerpoints, their backs facing Gustaff, Reina and Addy. The hallway offered no place to sit as conferees waited for panels to end. As a result, the academics used the risers as a sort of academic lounge.
On Thursday, I noticed that a white American woman in a brown suit (rather hot for the tropics) and a white European man in a blue sport coat and khaki pants (also heavy for the tropics) closed up their laptops and turned their bodies into the risers. Open Space interns and other Open Space artists sprawled across the risers, reclining into conversations.
Reina sat cross legged across from them, holding a microphone and recording their conversation for live streaming. I heard numerous papers on cross cultural communication and I read many power points on differences in media systems. But none of these papers stayed with me as long as this image of Common Room members from Indonesia sharing conversation with academics.
This interaction evoked the power of moving away from the professionalized solipsism of obsessive laptop usage and edging towards re- positioning new technologies as contingent public spaces and open platforms. This performative gesture of collaborative conversations across differences recalibrates new technologies like live streaming as necessary and urgent open spaces.
And for me, this image of "western" academics suited up in professional outfits that were out of sync with the climate here chatting with Reina and Gustaff materialized Common Room’s politics of listening. Gradually, the powerpoints and the netbooks are closed, and unofficial conversations open up.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Ayisha said to tell the driver that Jaaga was across from the hockey stadium.
We snaked through the dense, unending, hive-like traffic of Bangalore. Car horns beep constantly, a persistent avant garde percussive opera of noise and rhythm. I was worried whether Vreni, our driver, would find Jaaga, and if we would get there on time for me to set up my powerpoint on a computer.
I had rolled up a black dress and a purple and pink striped silk scarf in my blue and yellow checkered Envirosax bag so I could switch out of my loose fitting, crumbled, sweaty and dusty pink linen capri pants and baggy top once we arrived. With traffic as dense as bricks, it was impossible to return to The Green Path, our eco-activist hotel, to freshen up and change into a more formal lecture outfit.
An experimental filmmaker, writer, archivist, arts activist, Ayisha Abraham is an old friend who lives in Bangalore. She had invited me to give a talk at Jaaga.
After reading about this arts, technology and social change workspace, with Ayisha’s guidance, I decided to do “The Open Space Project: Towards a Theory of Open Space Documentary “ a research, writing, multimedia and public speaking/activist project I’ve been working on with American filmmaker and arts activist Helen de Michiel for the last year. It’s also the theme of FLEFF 2010. Ayisha and I met at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar about 16 years ago and immediately bonded over our passion for preserving amateur film. She’s helped to connect FLEFF to activist documentary and experimental film in India.
In Bangalore, she and her husband, Jittu, a molecular biologist, invited my family (Stewart, my partner, and Sean, our 16 year old son) over for a dinner of home-made chapattis, chicken curry and mango chutney the night before. I had gotten a bit sick from the pollution and some food I had consumed earlier, and could not eat. They knew the remedy: ayurvedic medicine—isabgol powder in water and organic mint pills. The combination was miraculous: it worked immediately. I could speak the next night.
Founded by technologist Freeman Murray and visual artist Archana Prasad, Jaaga is an “urban community arts technology experiment,” according to their website. It contains a workspace, a café, and modular, adaptable public space. Built on land donated by Bangalore-based architect Naresh Narasimhan, Jaaga mobilizes open design, collaboration, modular, low cost building materials, and social entrepreneurs to build sustainable, eco-friendly, high density buildings. Built from pallet racks, plywood and metal, Jaaga looks like some morph between a movie set, a jungle jim, and a high tech tree house. Translated from Kannada, the language in Karnataka, Jaaga means space.
But these mission statements only tell half of the Jaaga story.
When we arrived, we were not sure where to go. The main floor was gravel. Women in saris, women in jeans, men in workboots, guys in dress shirts, and backpackers from Europe and the US in baggy cotton clothes to beat the heat milled around on virtually every floor, talking and working.
We climbed to the second floor. People were moving pallets and pipes. My son Sean was immediately drafted to help move a bunch of 50 foot long pipes with a crew. Stewart found a spot on the second floor pallet to dump our backpacks.
We explored the structure. I think Sean was initially somewhat resigned to hearing another talk in Bangalore. But once he started climbing around the mobile structure, exploring from floor to floor between work tools, sleeping bags, laptop computers, and tents, he casually mentioned to me that he could have a great time at Jaaga with his Ithaca friends, hanging out and building structures.
A New Way to Do Media, Arts, Activism
I realized that changing into my black dress was…uh…unnecessary. Jaaga felt like a construction site, but it also felt like an edgy new media think tank. A long black tank dress and heels was about the worst outfit imaginable for this space, which pulsed with people, computers, tools, conversation and construction.
The exhilarating range of activities at Jaaga map how much international public media and activism has changed in the last five years: a Facebook developers group, a photo exhibition, a brinjal (eggplant) four way cooking contest, an experimental film festival, a dance event, an entertainment industry meet up, activist circle sessions on Indian microfinance.
A new category of public media practitioner has emerged: technologist, a person who helps people and organizations mobilize digital media for blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and online advocacy. Separations between technologies, art forms, politics, experimental work and industry, new and old media, are remnants of an older, more staid, disintegrating media landscape.
Stewart pointed out that this place epitomized open space and was probably the best venue imaginable for my talk. But I started to worry that I was at the wrong place, because I could not figure out where the lecture would be, and if there was a screen, a projector and a computer. All I could see was gravel floors, stacks of plastic chairs, and tarps hanging from the pipes to fashion make-shift, movable walls. The sound of cars horns blaring from the busy street overwhelmed everything.
Suddenly, the entire space changed.
Ayisha arrived. She started to move chairs into the space. Kirin D, a former builder who had worked in Texas but moved back to Bangalore who I had met at some Bangalore Film Society screenings the day before, carried in a plastic table and a projector. A group of people rearranged the red plastic chairs. The computer didn’t work. Someone went to get a PC laptop.
Another woman got a microphone and positioned it at the table with the computer so I could sit and chat easily, looking at the computer and the audience. A sound system amplified my voice to drown out the traffic noise. A young women inserted my thumb drive into the computer and there it was on the screen: my first slide, The Open Space Project. Kirin had me check that the wireless was working so I could show websites in my talk live.
The room was suddenly packed with people, spilling out of the structure on all sides. Sean and Stewart grabbed bean bags and perched themselves on the second floor, peering down. Before I could fully absorb the transformation of the pallets and pipes into a lecture space, Ayisha was introducing me and the crowd was gathered around me in this space, now transformed from a workspace into a new media meet-up.
My talk argued for a new collaborative, horizontal model of documentary that is modular and continually changing in fluid ways across multiple technologies, that rewires social media and new media to open up space rather than to push out ideas. As Helen and I like to explain, open space is where technology meets place meets people. About ten minutes in to my explanations of open space concepts, I looked out at the people assembled and had an intuition that I should speak shorter rather than longer, focusing on the “people” part of open space.
Technologists, NGOs, Arguments, and Car Horns
The dialogue that ensued post-talk featured the kind of vigorous debate that forms the core of arts, activism and civil society in Bangalore. A former producer who now works with a NGO dealing with HIV intervened that new media was perhaps out of reach and not effective in the kind of work she did, where radio was accessible and could reach rural communities. Another documentary producer shared how difficult it is to collaborate: many arguments erupt, stalling the process and often damaging the utopian goals.
A man in the back raised a point about the central issue of social media for activist purposes is the tension between curation and aggregation. A technologist in the front who works with NGOs dealing with housing and sustainability shared the challenges of moving from social media campaigns to social media spaces.
People argued with each other, debating low end technologies versus digital media, different forms of making work, different ways of thinking about embodied performance and disembodied social media, new technologies and civil society. Someone wondered if social media was simply first world privilege, where people talk to like minded people but never encounter difference. Another camp contended that social media needed to be apprehended and hacked. Everyone seemed to agree that understanding new technologies--their glories and their contradictions--was a necessity.
After the talk, the space emptied out.The blare of beeping horns crescendoed. Jaaga means space. Making space, rearranging space, building, shifting space, opening space.
Monday, February 15, 2010
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
We seek submissions for a curated online and on-site exhibition exploring the theme of Open Space. This exhibition will be showcased at the International Communication Association (ICA) Conference in Singapore from June 22-26, 2010. Open Space is mounted as the digital arts exploration of the conference theme Im/Material.
WHAT IS OPEN SPACE?
Open Space imagines a zone of horizontality mobilizing collaboration, participation, complex interactive dialogues, process, permeability, and community. The term open space originates in landscape design, where space is privileged over mass to stage meaningful and often surprising encounters and interactions. It has also emerged as a key environmental concept in the greening of global cities, in architecture, and in international organizational design. Indeterminancy, flexibility, and contingency constitute key strategies in open space.
Open Space proposes a relational mode rather than a fixed object. Open Space suggests work that mobilizes an ethics of convenings and encounters in a sustainable zone. Open Space spurs collaborative knowledges and produces new provisional microterritories through engagement. Open Space is where technologies meet people meet spaces.
WHAT ARE WE LOOKING FOR?
We seek works and makers exploring the concepts and practice of Open Space in Singapore and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, and Indonesia). We are particularly interested in makers, artists, collectives, and collaborative projects from these regions. Works that are transnational and translational with a central concern of Southeast Asia as nexus will also be considered.
The Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia exhibition is looking for digital arts and design projects in any of the following forms/interfaces: online art projects, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), social gaming, creative robotics and digital devices, locative media, mobile applications, ambient screens, user-generated community narratives and maps, innovative digitally-based cartography projects, web-based archival projects, social media interfaces and projects, installation, live DJ/VJ remixes.
Additionally, any other digital and analog forms that engage a collaborative aesthetic and participatory ethics are eligible for inclusion.
PRACTICAL DETAILS FOR PARTICIPATING PROJECTS
Deadline: March 3, 2010
To submit work: Please send a short, one paragraph description of your project, a short bio, and a link to your project or documentation of your project in an email inquiry to Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, at firstname.lastname@example.org no later than March 3, 2010
Exhibition: Projects will be featured on the ICA/WKWSCI website as the Open Space Exhibition. A limited number of artists/makers/collaborative teams will be selected from the overall exhibition to present at sessions and venues at ICA in Singapore June 22-26, with airfare and accommodation provided.
Patricia R. Zimmerman, Nikki Draper, and Sharon Lin Tay, at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore with Wenjie Zhang.
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATION
The International Communications Association (ICA) (http://www.ica2010.sg) is the largest international academic association for scholars interested in the study, teaching, and application aspects of human and mediated communication. ICA has over 4,500 members from 76 countries. Over 2,000 scholars, writers, and communications practitioners from around the world attend the conference. ICA 2010 is the first time in seven years that the annual conference will be held in Asia.
ICA 2010 CONFERENCE THEME: IM/MATERIAL
Communication is in many respects im/material because it constitutes the very nexus where the material and immaterial dimensions of our world meet each other. Communication is indeed spectral or ghostal because our interactions consist of making present what could have remained absent from a debate, a discussion, a conversation and so on. (from the conference website: http://www.ica2010.sg/conference.html)
WEE KIM WEE SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION
NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY, SINGAPORE
The host for ICA 2010 is the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI)(http://www3.ntu.edu.sg/sci), at Nanyang Technological University (NTU)in Singapore. Ranked as one of the world’s top 100 universities, NTU(http://www.ntu.edu.sg) is a research-intensive university with globally acknowledged strengths in science and engineering. WKWSCI is one of the premiere institutions for research and teaching in communication and information in Asia. It houses the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre , the Asian Communication Resource Centre, and the Singapore Internet Research Centre.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Torquing Documentary Form
Top ten lists of commercial films, high end art exhibitions, and books from the big publishers jam the press and commercial news websites this time of year.
I devour these lists. I end up saving them for my Netflix queue and my travel reading.
That said, I find myself a lot more energized by projects that jack me into thinking about archives, history, concepts, politics, real people, real struggles and documentary practice in new ways. Sites that seduce me to keep coming back to see what’s new. Projects that prod one sentence: gosh, I wish I could think like that.
The projects on my list engage some common strategies: collaborative, interactive, merging the digital and the real, the urgent and the imaginative. These are not auteurist projects—they are convenings.
And they are in alphabetical order, in no particular ranking of importance.
A big huge shout out to the ever-inventive, open space afficionado Dewey Schott at the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, who conjured up this great idea of ten best lists of the year for public media so that the mainstream press can't maintain its monopoly on curation and aggregation.
1.The Hub, by Witness (an NGO based in NYC)
A user-generated, issue-focused, easy-to-search portal for uploading videos from around the world documenting a staggering array of human rights including armed conflict, labor, children’s rights, prisons, sustainable development, discrimination, violence, health, women’s rights, humanitarian issues, justice. A model of ethical, collaborative, social media, where uploading and sharing means taking action and campaigning for real world change for real people, not avatars or products.
2. Iranian Social Protest on Facebook
The Zapatistas wrangled the internet for politics. 15 years later, the Iran protest movement has nabbed social media and grabbed attention for turning recent updates into something more than your favorite youtube video or latte hang out. Despite the US state department’s enthusiasm for toppling regimes by any digital means necessary, Facebook and blogs have rendered the separation between the local and the global inoperative. Check out the link above for news about the men in head scarves movement.
3.Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, Nunuvut, Canada
From Zacharias Kunuk and Ian J. Mauro, an exciting, interactive web project the gathers centuries of Inuit knowledge by elders and hunters on climate change in the Arctic, featuring blogs, multimedia, raw footage, live internet shows and skype. Say farewell to Al Gore and his multimillion dollar power point films.
4.Post Secret, by Frank Warren
This community art project is simple: people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard. But the results are complex: condensations of psychic fissures and social relations. Images and words are posted on the blog daily. Several books have been published from this material and hit the NYT bestseller list. But it’s still a model of engagement worth taking a look at..and, according to its own website, it’s the largest advertising free blog in the world. Send one in. Noone will know it’s you.
5.Public Secret, USA, project conceived by Sharon Daniel in collaboration with Justice Now
A massive collaboration between digital artist Daniel, the Vectors Journal at USC, Justice Now, and incarcerated women. It explores gender, family, and the prison industrial complex with an elegant, spared down design that remaps our preconceptions all the first three. It also cuts through decades of documentary debate about images, victims and ethics with more clarity than most scholarly essays on the subject.
6.RMB City, China, by Cao Fei, aka in SL China Tracy
A project spanning RL (real life) and SL (Second Life) that satirizes overdevelopment and overbuilding in China through avatars and buildings in Second Life, and a web site promoting the RMB city including press releases, city channels, manifestos, maps, city views and a blog. Strapped for cash? You might want to book your next weekend getaway in RMB City…
7.Sarai, Delhi, India
The go-to hub in South Asia for cracking open the liminal zones between the digital and the real with the edgiest new media theory around, practical and concept-changing on the ground projects mapping urbanism, and endless innovations in convening people and ideas with art shows, editable and free CDs, books, audio, free software, publications, translations and dialogue across languages (Hindi and English), and cybermohallas (you gotta love it—exploring the alley ways and corners of communities and cities.)
8.Saving the Sierra, California, USA, project coordinated by Catherine Stifter and jesikah maria ross
A compelling, elegant, clear-sighted regional project chronicling the culture, economy and environment of the Sierra Nevada as it confronts development challenging sustainability. It marshalls public media, radio documentary, citizen storytelling, and story mapping. The multiple and diverse voices in this project as a mighty and awe inspiring as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and the sequoias, the spectacles and clichés of the Sierras.
9.Soweto Uprising, South Africa, project by Ismail Farouk and Babak Fakhamzadeh
An interactive website creating a living archive and new cartography of the student uprisings on June 16, 1976 with participants and people living in Soweto, with video mapping, blogs, routes that are tagged, Flickr projects for image uploading, comments on the maps of the routes.
10. Transborder Immigrant Tool, A Mexico/US border Disturbance Project by Ricardo Dominguez, Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, and Jason Najarro
A mind-blowing and controversy-igniting project where cell phones as digital coyotes meet phone apps meet GPS to help immigrants from Mexico cross the border. Before they’ve been built, they’ve generated a lot of blowback all ready. Start googling and find out what all the fuss is about. And then, start thinking apps and maps as a new media form.