Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
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.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The Big Question
Film studies online? Impossible, you say?
This winter term, I took the dive. I gulped down the red pill and jacked into the matrix of online film studies.
And I am having one of the absolutely most transformative and best teaching experiences of my career as a film studies prof.
I have to thank Facebook for teaching me how to engage by asking questions and responding, rather than lecturing and having positions on everything…crazy, I know.
I nestled my intro film studies course into a participatory Web 2.0 environment. I decided to teach online. Insane? Not quite.
I figure, if students can argue about the delicacies of self-amputation in 127 Hours and the obsessive intricacies of anorexic, self-scratching ballerinas Black Swan on Facebook, they can handle some discussion about Battleship Potemkin and other, well, battleships of film history.
I tossed out all of my graduate-film-school-in–the-1970s-cinephiliac-film must-be- seen-in-a-theater–on-35mm-film-preconceptions along with all of my dog-eared copies of Christian Metz and various imaginary signifiers this winter.
And I dove into teaching an intensive two week winter term course called Introduction to Film Aesthetics and Analysis for Ithaca College. Online. All of it. And, I’m having one of the best teaching experiences ever.
Here’s some context.
Film studies is not one of those intimate, 10-15 person, sit in a circle, know your professor, talk-a-LOT-about-your-impressions kinds of experiences. The topography features a body of knowledge to learn, complex histories to understand, and methods for deconstructing films that require rigor. And reading. Lots of it.
At Ithaca College, our lower level film studies courses are large, like they are at most places that teach disciplinary based undergrad film. My Intro course had 155 students, with “small” (really?) break out sections of 32. I love the large classes. Programming films and ideas for a large, mostly eager, crowd entices intellectually.
But here’s the rub.
I’ve only taught smallish classes a handful of times in three decades of teaching—a couple of 24 person seminars at Ithaca College, and then, some seminars on new media during two different stints at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I’m one of those traditionalists, with lectures, books (more than one, and at least 100 pages a week ), and screenings on big screens, often in the local art cinema on 35mm.
So online, guess how many students I have? 5.
Yes, that’s not a typo. 5.
I know them all. They are reading more than Julian Assange at WikiLeaks.
They write EVERYDAY. I can drill into their exegetical work on the readings as well as their analytical work with much more precision and care than when I have so many more students.
In this context, I can coach them to become more sophisticated deconstructors of cinema, and more persuasive argumentative writers. I’ve seen these students make huge, huge leaps in just two days after absorbing detailed criticism from me in the form of track changes, a system I actually use when doing collaborative research with partners in different parts of the US.
For the last two years, I’ve been working with Sam Gregory from WITNESS, the nongovernmental organization working with human rights participatory media, on a large, on-going research project probing ethics in human rights social media.
We’ve been thinking quite a bit about questions of representation in participatory online environments where images and words circulate, remix, morph, change. In these networks, images can not be controlled.
So questions of who says what to whom in what channel--traditional research questions of communication-- and how and why it said--the domain of traditional documentary studies-- shift a bit. When social media meets human rights meets advocacy campaigns in RL (real life), the body enduring oppression and the bodies recirculating its images in Web 2.0 landscapes end up functioning as equal parts of the equation.
Production and consumption, representation and exhibition, giving voice and sharing voices, merge. And this blend is rife with ethical problematics. The human rights issues of protecting the dignity of the victim get amplified, as images can no longer be controlled, and representations are no longer fixed.
This research has prompted me to rethink how my students engage online with courses.
What parts of what they do in a class should be public, open for circulation and commentary? What parts should be shared in a controlled environment open only to the class? What parts should be private communiqués between professor and student?
Can thinking through the ethics of human rights social media and forms of engagement that connect to important advocacy campagins about rape in the Congo or water rights in Bangalore be mobilized to engage another group that is not part of the power elite, and can also be victimized by networks, i.e. undergraduates?
Is there a way to organize a course to traverse these different kinds of publics, respecting the dignity of the student in a human rights framework? And is there a way to think of teaching as advocacy work for serious intellectual engagement?
My tentative, provisional answer: yes
The third context emerges from my sabbatical teaching at Nanyang Technological Univesrity in Singapore, a country besotted with bad press and postmodern orientalism.
At NTU, one week of every term is MANDATORY (yes, you read that right, MANDATORY) online education, called e-learning week. This week where faculty are instructed NOT to appear in their classrooms was not prompted by some marketing firm telling an institution of higher education to get with the dizzying apps of Web 2.0, or any dreams of creating a profit center to offset the Great Recession.
A small country at the equator, Singapore also boasts of the best public health systems in the world.
Connection, you ask?
Well, it turns out that e-learning week is designed for emergency preparedness in case of punishing monsoons or the need to quarantine to stall the outbreak of deadly diseases like SARS.
Full disclosure: I was quite skeptical about doing film studies this way. But this was a case study in the lessons of cyber-Buddhism. My students taught me something I would never have learned in an e-learning seminar--they loved it.
They wrote more, argued more, watched more, dug in deeper, and engaged complex ideas in a more systematic way. They studied media produced around the war in Vietnam, which, in Southeast Asia, is actually called The American War.
IMPOSSIBLE to hide, and IMPOSSIBLE to not participate (well, I required participation by specifying the number of postings required on Blackboard. ) students just keep on writing, and writing, and writing. I learned that how I structured the discussion board questions made a huge difference: questions need to eschew easy, instrumental answers.
I also learned to just keep asking questions. That’s my Facebook apprenticeship (shout out: my friend and writing collaborator Helen de Michiel pushed me to get on FB about two years ago. She told me to imagine it as a “cocktail party” not a “soapbox.” Thanks, Helen!)
Since I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s, the discipline of film/media studies has pushed and pushed to frame cinema as a “text.”
The convergence of semiotics, structuralism, Marxism and feminism argued films were constructions that obscured power relations, meanings, and ideologies. Doing a decoupage of a film, cutting it apart shot by shot to unpack its structure and meaning, was central.
We were all a bunch of decoupage junkies. The thrill of the deconstructive kill. But back then, it was really hard to do: you needed an archive with a flatbed editor.
As film theorists Charles Acland, Barbara Klinger and Dale Hudson have pointed out, cinephilia has changed. Films no longer function as rare objects in archives. Screens multiply, shrink, blow up, expand, migrate.
Films are finally, after all these years, TEXTS. Literally, figuratively and metaphorically.
Netflix functions as an archive, but then, so too does Amazon, Ubuweb, archive.org, and Facets Media. Films live on DVD and also get streamed.
And, in the space of about five years, it's no longer a Hollywood-only environment—my students purchased Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven, Deepa Mehta’s Earth, Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, each for the cost of sending five text messages from London to Ithaca on Verizon.
In film studies, we have moved from cinema as a place of aesthetic worship to cinema as an object you can collect, dig into, discard, trade, loan, slow down, speed up, take apart.
Rather than lamenting the end of film rental budgets that often support modernist ideologies of artifactual fetishization, maybe we need to explore what possibilities this proliferation of images in a new technological dialectic might offer us. I doubt any of us film profs out there will have our once-ample budgets restored.
And, we can now move cinema studies online, and finally, three decades after the “linguistic” turn in film studies, film is finally, at last, a text. Students can buy them like textbooks or CDs of their favorite indie bands, do close readings, and learn the addictive thrills of decoupage as undergrads, all while jacked into their Macbooks.
In my online class (full disclosure, it’s running while I type these words and students are posting on the use of color in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad ), I can work much much more closely with students on developing exegetical skills to describe structures of arguments and deployment of facts.
In a world of quick status updates and sharing feelings, systematic exegesis is, uh, undeveloped. A lost art. So is deductive, analytical writing, where one drills into a film (read text) and works through how it negotiates a concept or a history derived from readings in a systematic way.
It’s not about whether you “relate to” or “like” a work ( refrains I hear repeatedly from my hordes of first year students who are experiencing analytical film studies for the first time), but how you engage its structures, and find patterns,and think about meaning.
These two skills—exegesis and analytical writing—constitute the most necessary professional skills for any job, whether in the entertainment industry or selling stocks.
Both require time, detail, patience to learn, a pas de deux of trial and error, gentle coaxing and hard critique, between teacher and student. With less students, it’s possible to function more like an Olympic coach of a top athlete than as a police officer of syntax. And my five students respond like world-class, elite mogul skiers, adjusting and recalibrating based on my constant feedback.
I will admit a few things to you. Teaching film studies online differs from the embodied version. They are not equivalent. They offer different gifts.
The online class slants more towards very very close readings of both the films and the books. While it deemphasizes group viewing, it amplifies writing, an epistolary engagement rather than a performative structure.
The students write so much more than they do in a traditional course. It’s harder. They can’t sit back and plug in their iPods and cruise FB and pretend to listen. They write in public on FLEFF blogs, they write in semi-private on discussion boards, they write to me privately with their assignments. Like my thinking about social media and human rights, it's a process of exchange and respect for what circulates.
I have a suspicion that they are learning something new about how to think about and how to see cinema in a way that differs from their multiplexed pasts.
And I have finally learned, after all the traumas and insecurities of graduate school, that all those theorists from the 1970s had it right: film, and film studies, is a TEXT.
In case you're thinking I'm a cinematic heretic, l do believe adamantly in the power of cinema as a collective experience that can jolt your senses and mind like lightning in a theatrical setting.
Of course. That’s why we became film professors in the first place, its why film festivals intoxicate us, and its why we so passionately and often desperately want to invite our students into a larger conversation about cinema that exceeds the limitations of commercial blockbuster intoxications.
Maybe online film studies teaching can function a bit like e-harmony, a sort of online dating service with conceptual ideas about cinema that are bigger than you, but that you eventually want to meet in the flesh. Or on celluloid!
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
When we started thinking about programming Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia to explore new media in the region last fall, I sent frantic emails to friends who work in international human rights independent media. Well, it was more a cry for help, as I was programming this exhibition from half a world away and not moving to Singapore until January. I was anxious.
My colleague and writing collaborator Sam Gregory from Witness, dedicated to collaborative and user generated human rights video and social media, suggested—more accurately, insisted—that we contact EngageMedia, a non profit organization based in Indonesia and Australia working with new media and social justice issues in innovative ways.
Many emails, website searches, and phone calls later, I finally connected to Enrico Aditjondro, from Indonesia, the Southeast Asia Editor for Engage Media. We’ve invited Enrico to present on our panel on human rights and new media at the Open Space exhibition and ICA next week. We’ve also curated the Engage Media site as one of ten featured organizations in our online exhibition. You can visit here: http://www.ica2010.sg/openspace/view.html
Enrico has lived and worked in Indonesia, West Papua, the USA, Australia, and Timor Leste. He started his journalism career in 1998 when he joined The Maritime Workers’ Journal in Sydney, reporting on labor issues and the shipping industry.
Seeking more excitement, he moved to Jakarta and joined the Southeast Asia Press Alliance in 2000. He traveled and worked in Timor Leste with UNESCO and UNTAET. Enrico also campaigned around corruption issues for Transparency International-Indonesia.
In 2005 he was the Southeast Asia Representative for the International News Safety Institute. In the same year he co-founded and became managing editor of Paras Indonesia, one of the country’s leading bilingual social-political website at the time.
Enrico was a fan of EngageMedia before joining the group in May 2009. He is now based in Jakarta, writing, producing films and maintaining the Southeast Asia content for EngageMedia . You can meet him in person next week at ICA 2010 in Singapore.
Patricia Zimmermann: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you initially got involved in EngageMedia?
Enrico Anditjondro:I've been a journalist and media consultant for a little bit more than a decade. I started in texts and photography, and gradually started to use videos and began filmmaking.
From the start, I've been a firm believer that objectivity is a myth, although in reporting, there are principles and ethics to follow. So, when I found EngageMedia.org, I was impressed with its ideas of voicing the voiceless with videos - well produced videos preferably, and became a fan of it immediately.
Later on, as my ideas and struggles are continued to be limited or even obstructed by the mainstream media I was involved in (i.e. I was tired of the ABC News's quest for Islam fundamentalism stories in Indonesia), EngageMedia became even more relevant and decided to join when the opportunity arrived.
PZ:Can you provide a snapshot of the work of Engage, for readers who might not be familiar with your organization? How is Engage similiar and different from other NGOs working in social justice issues?
EA: EngageMedia's flagship is www.engagemedia.org, a video sharing site on social justice and environment issues in Asia Pacific.
In shorter words, we like to think ourselves as YouTube for activists.
Aside from the site, we organize skill sharing workshops on online video distribution strategy, and video archive; video camps; research; and capacity building programs for organizations. We have similarities with Witness and its Hub, but we focus more on already published videos. We urge people more on distribution strategy and better use of videos in social justice and environment campaigns.
PZ: Can you explain how EngageMedia mobilizes the intersections between user-generated content, social and political issues, aggregation, and new technologies/interfaces? What opportunities and challenges has Engage encountered?
EA: EngageMedia chooses to have closer relations with its users.
Our editors frequently talk to users, suggesting ideas, and on the other hand, susses out who would seek technical advice as well requests to promote specific videos.
All of videos in EngageMedia are licensed under Creative Commons also, and the download feature is easily accessible, therefore campaigners and educators who need special videos can search and find videos easily and download them in high quality for their purposes (although still bound by the Creative Commons license conditions chosen by the filmmakers).
And since EngageMedia is run by its own Plumi software, we provide updates to users for new versions or features. One big agenda we have forward is to develop more mobile based technologies in our scope of work.
PZ: What do you see as some of the biggest issues and debates confronting new technology and social justice concerns in Asia and the Pacific?
EA:The fast rise of internet users in Asia and the Pacific is not followed by the equally fast internet infrastructure.
Nowadays, internet-able devices are very common all over but slow bandwidth remains an issue.
In Indonesia, half the new internet users are actually people using mobile devices for social networking applications. This trend is also followed by the overflow of pushed information, and decreases in the quality of reporting accuracy as reporters (and reporter-wannabees) try as fast as they can to post articles.
Facebook status unfortunately became another source of information, and often their inaccuracies have created problems. However, this phenomenon could also become strengths if used tactically. The other issue to be debated is the digital technology revolution which does not favor the marginalized societies who have very little technological access.
PZ: What are some projects and initiatives that you have worked on for Engage that you see as significant or that have had interesting outcomes?
EA:Being the Southeast Asia Editor for EngageMedia gives me the opportunity to watch hundreds of videos produced by filmmakers from the region.
The role also allows me to meet many of them during our Online Video Distribution Strategy Workshop in Singapore and various cities in Indonesia.
More and more filmmakers are now familiar and capable of using online tools for their video distribution and archiving, and slowly, EngageMedia is becoming a source for information and videos for journalists, educators, campaigners and filmmakers looking for inspirations.
PZ:.What are some of the issues that Engage and you confront in relationship to new technologies and on the ground issues and politics?
EA: In areas where government restrictions are prominent, the internet is a very useful alternative for many media makers.
However, in some places, the internet has also become a target for scrutiny - unfortunately this is caused by pornography and social networking applications. Therefore, more discussions about media regulations and cyber-law are needed so that the restrictions can be diverted.
On the other hand, filmmakers and campaigners are often enjoying so many iterations of these technologies that many have forgotten that the people they are fighting for have limited access to it.
The good old transmitter radio still works wonder in many remote places, much more than YouTube-- or even EngageMedia.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Old Hollywood/New Hollywood
Old Hollywood operated on a proprietary monopoly on its stars. New Hollywood holds a proprietary monopoly on its computer code.
May the force be with you—but it better be highly encrypted, absolutely secure, totally secret, never released to anyone outside the company, and protected by security better than the United Nations.
That’s the lesson I learned from listening to a presentation by John Sanders, Head of Production Resources, from Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore. He was presenting at the Research Techno Plaza, a sort of new technology innovation hub here at NTU. Xavier Nicolas, General Manager of Lucasfilm in Singapore who has worked all over the globe, was also on hand.
In Singapore since 2005, Lucas Film Animation spells out computer code, animation, and special effects for films like the Star Wars franchise, Star Trek, Iron Man. George Lucas’ media empire might just be larger--and more complex--than anything the Warner Brothers could have concocted.
Lucas Film launched in 1971. Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects powerhouse that has worked on over 300 feature films, started in 1975. Skywalker Sound began in 1975. Lucas Licensing, the part of the company that controls copyright on toys, a highly lucrative enterprise and more predictable than the film industry, emerged in 1979. Lucas Animation commenced in 2003.
Lucas Films Singapore, according to Sanders, exploded from 20 to 400 employees in five years. It works on animation, visual effects, games, and features.
The New Code Warriors
But why Singapore, an entire ocean away from San Francisco, the pastoral home of the Lucas empire?
An appealing location in Southeast Asia, a growing talent pool, an English speaking country, and a developed business infrastructure drew Lucas to Singapore. But the biggest carrots were low taxes and intellectual property security, something rather, uh, elusive (I’m being delicate here) in China and India.
I really, really, really wanted to dislike these two. They were transnational capital, big media, purveyors of death and destruction, sycophants to the fantasies of teenage boys, destroyers of cinema with action films drunk on special effects. In short, the Darth Vaders of Cinema.
Instead, I liked both of them enormously. They were clear thinkers, smart, highly educated in art and cinema history, affable, gracious, intellectual, passionate. Their deep and complex understanding of cinema—commercial, art cinema, and experimental—should give any communications student who thinks critical studies, history, and theory are useless compared to hands-on production skills something to think about. Sanders was ABD in art history. Nicolas spent a lot of his free time in Singapore pursuing art cinema.
Sanders and Nicolas seemed at home in the university environment with their slickly produced powerpoint with imbedded clips of Lucasfilm action flicks, even though Lucasfilm corporate policy prevents them from revealing anything at all about the code, the software, the mathematical functions, the algorithms or the technologies Lucasfilm develops.
Multidisciplinarity and Innovation
If you removed the name of the company, much of what they discussed eerily echoes many higher education mission statements rolled out in the last decade.
Lucasfilm Animation Singapore is a center for experimentation and innovation, what Sanders called “a petri dish.” They needed to reengineer themselves as multidisciplinary for cost effectiveness, efficiencies, and new ideas. Fast turnaround , compatible toolsets, and constant assessment are paramount. Their technological and computer code innovations need to be easily shared between studios in Taiwan and the US. Smaller than the parent company, agility and adaptiveness defines them.
Lucasfilm, Sanders and Nicolas argue, is not a technology company but a creative company. It’s international, multinational, transnational. It boasts a multicultural workforce of “artists” (they won’t call these folks computer animators or engineers) from around Asia.
Proprietary means Total Power
But horizontal structures for innovation aside, the DNA of Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore resides in proprietary software.
They build tools for their “artists” to make their jobs faster. It is important to remember that digitality in cinema restored power to the studios. The digital in the entertainment industry basically removes actors from the equation, standardizes labor, controls all aspects of production, and centralizes both creativity and business.
Sanders and Nicolas pointed out the production hierarchies in Lucasfilm: at ILM, everything is proprietary; for the television enterprise, off-the-shelf technologies are adapted. ILM's goal: to make images never seen before. Plus, work goes on 24/7 across the globe--sustaining efficiencies and profit maximization.
It’s a global pipeline of scalable and reusable innovation engineered to share assets across platforms. It’s hard for any independent or artisanal filmmaker to compete with this juggernaut.
About 40 engineers, scientists, and technologist from NTU attended the talk. They repeatedly probed about the code, the software, the technologies, the inventions. They also wanted to know how long it took to make the films and television shows. The answer: one minute of computer animation could take a month with many people working.
Sanders pointed out that he could not discuss any of these innovations—maybe five years from now, when they are no longer innovations but standard operating procedures, he could reveal a little something at a SIGGRAPH conference. The engineers were frustrated but seemed seduced anyway. Maybe it was all the clips of animated science fiction figures being sliced apart, blown up, dismembered, or maybe it was the sheer spectacle of details in computer generated imagery of hair, skin, eyes, and clothes in the incredibly violent clips. One of my colleagues from mathematical sciences , an Israeli visiting professor, commented to me that everything Lucasfilm showed glamorized violence.
Sanders explained that students in Singapore could apply for internships, or could join the Jedi Master’s Program, a special training initiative which he hinted was a pipeline to future employment with the company.
The Photoreal and the Stylized
Sanders and Nicolas offered an important distinction between the photoreal and the stylized. The photoreal was reserved for big budget films that went theatrical—films where the details of texture, surface, lighting, mise-en-scene glistened. These works require more time to produce. The stylized work was the mode for television with its rapid production timelines, where more simple, abstracted images are much easier to produce. These images blend together a German expressionist look with extreme lights and darks with Japanese anime.
While the digital animations dazzle and reinvent the cinematic, the underlying structure of prestige pictures with higher production values and B-pictures (a form which has migrated to television) with a quicker turnaround emulates the classical Hollywood studio system of the 1940s.
Although digital technologies change images, the underlying structures of production replicate the hierarchies of the old studio system. In the Old Hollywood, the coupling of stars and genre sustained efficiencies, economies of scale, and product differentiation. In the New Hollywood, code replaces stars and software programs replace genres.
The Dilemna of the Global Digital and National Identities
And just like the Old Hollywood, concerns about national identity in the midst of viral internationalization percolate through the cybersheen.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority has mounted an international animation fund, an initiative conceived to stimulate the creative economy of the nation state and to develop talent. It offers up to $5 million a project in production incentive funds. An April 15 editorial in The Straits Times called “Animate the Singapore Story as well” cautioned that all of this internationalization and commodification might overlook that animation is also a cultural product. The editorial suggests that “uniquely Singaporean” content should be promoted in these various co-production deals and schemes.
The force may be with the code warriors crusading for the New Hollywood. In the 1920s, as Old Hollywood acccrued power by controlling technology, distribution, and exhibition, many countries worried about a loss of national culture. Those gnarly issues about whether the globalization of cinema eats away national identity persist.
No computer program I know of (unless Lucasfilms or the NTU engineers are hording a secret prototype) can erase these necessary debates between corporate globalization and regional identities, a much more complex plot line than the good vs. evil narrative structures of Star Wars.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Singapore is green.
Plants we from colder zones call “exotic” grow here in almost surreal profusion. They are giant, thriving avatars of plants difficult to grow even as houseplants in upstate New York. These large, healthy lush plants bubble off balconies of HDB flats. They mark out outdoor dining places. They line the PIE (Pan Island Expressway).
Even the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information Building at NTU, where I work, has an open air atrium. Every single floor sports pots of orchids, chillis, dieffenbachia. I see both faculty and cleaning people watering the plants and turning them so they grow evenly.
In the tropics and the rainforest, plant life is sped up. You can see the plants grow.
We decided we needed some plants for our apartment since it was the Lunar New Year. Well, to be perfectly honest, our apartment is rather sparsely furnished (our voices echo in it). Our balcony felt a bit empty and sterile. We thought that plants might mitigate the institutional feel of the place. We went to a wet market in the neighborhood.
The wet market at 502 Boon Lay in the west end of the island is huge. Stalls crowded with light cotton shirts, plastic buckets, flip flops, rambutans, pineapples, durian, mee (noodles), pharmacies, fresh fish like shrimp and sea bass, mutton, gai lan, kang kong, snake around beneath the HDBs. Hawker stalls make roti prata, kway teow, nasi padang, mee goreng. The smells of chillis (so ubiquitous in Singapore they are for all intents and purposes the national mascot) and soy sauce abound. Several of the stalls sell plants—orchids, ferns, palms, chilli padis, lucky bamboo, star fruit, and of course, the tall plants sporting oranges, the symbol of prosperity.
This time of year, the two week Lunar New Year which launched on last Sunday, Singapore is also red. It is the Year of the Tiger. Red is happiness. Red is good luck. Red is tradition. To celebrate the Lunar New Year, Singaporeans buy plants for their flats and for their balconies. They hang red hong bao, (little red envelopes filled with money in multiples of 8 that adults give to children and single people) red pipecleaners, and red tassles from the plants.
Madame Lim, who sells organically grown plants at the Boon Lay wet market, told us that the best Lunar New Year plants come from Malaysia and not China. Malaysia, she said, is tropical like Singapore—sunny, hot, humid, monsoons. China is more temperate. She said the orange trees from China look good for two weeks--and then people toss them. We bought a duat selmat tree instead. Madame Lim said that if it grew too fast on our balcony, just trim it down and coax it to grow in a new direction. It will adapt, she said, if we listen to it.
A week later, we took a cab out to Sungei Tengah in the northwest, one of six agrotechnology parks in Singapore, to buy more plants directly from the growers. At Prince’s, a famous garden center, one of the salesmen approached us to give us a tour of the plants. I suspect he felt a bit sorry for us—we were the only ex-pats (code word for white foreigners) there, and we were clearly overwhelmed by the football field of rainforest plants. We didn’t know where to begin.
Like Madame Lim, he warned us that plants not grown on the Malaysian Peninsula or in Singapore would not thrive here. He said we should wash the leaves with milk to make them shine. “If you touch your plants on your balcony everyday”, he shared “you will be more in touch with nature—and you will understand your plant , where it should live, in shade or sun.”
At Evershine, next door, we bought a large palm tree with crinkled leaves, a plant with leaves veined like a skeleton, a large succulent with many stems unfurling, and several pots of orchids over three feet tall. Orchids are one of my favorite flowers. They are incredibly expensive in upstate New York--and very difficult to grow. Mine bloomed once. Here, orchid plants have four or five stems of flowers and bloom constantly. The orchids cost $12 Sing, or about $8 USD.
We asked the Evershine gardener how much to water the plants—everyday he said, sometimes twice a day. “You will know,” he observed, “just listen to your plant and see if it is happy where it is. If it is not happy, move it.”
The word “green” around the globe has transformed from a color to a one-stop, one-word branding of sustainability . “Green” encompasses everything from bringing your own bag to upscale expat grocery stores like Cold Storage, using public transportation (Singapore's MRT is one of the cleanest , cheapest and most efficient systems in the world), not littering, and cleaning up standing water and leaves that might carry dengue fever.
But perhaps “green” covers up much more complex micro-ecologies like those in Malaysia and Singapore with a large, amorphous, overly universalized, easily coopted word.
In Singapore, a densely populated global entrepot crammed with postmodern corporate skyscrapers, elaborate condos, and HDB flats, the profusion of so-called “tropical” plants (well, tropical to those of us who live elsewhere, but here, they are simply local and indigenous) in pots almost everywhere you look defies the international stereotypes of this city state as a concrete fortress exclusively for transnational banks, high technology and shipping.
In the micro-ecology of Singapore, there seems to be no concept of “house plant” or “exotic plant”. There is no dividing line between an indoor plant and an outdoor plant. Whether a purple orchid grows in the garden or on your balcony, it still needs you to touch it, and to listen to it. And to figure out the right place for it to grow.
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 email@example.com 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.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Consider this image: a snazzy, gleaming, Taipei skyscraper adorned with two young hipsters with spiky hair photoshopped at the top like flags, their bodies defying gravity.
But there is more to Asian global cities than the space-age ultramodern architectural wonders and young information technology (IT) professionals whirling in a device-driven cosmopolitanism on endless overseas flights ornamented with their iPods, iPhones, Blackberrys and purple netbooks. They live both somewhere and nowhere.
The IT revolution in Asia is now over two decades old.
Researchers Dr. Alan Chong (S. Rajaratnam School of International Stgudies at Nanyang Technological University) and Dr. Faizal Yahya (South Asian Studies Program at National University of Singapore) have mounted a very large, multi-authored book project to “probe beneath the surface of the grandiose image of IT (information technology) in Asia.”
Asia’s networked formations differ from those described by theorists like Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells. Diasporic cultural networks, remittance cultures from white and blue collar expats, propagandizing globalized information cities, hacker and techno-elites form a new technology landscape that differs from what scholars based in the US and Europe have theorized and analyzed. The distinctions are significant.
Chong’s most recent book is Foreign Policy in Global Information Space: Actualizing Soft Power (Palgrave, 2008). Yahya just published Economic Cooperation between Singapore and India: An Alliance in the Making (Routledge, 2008).
I've just plopped myself into the weekly research seminar here at in the School of Commucation and Information. I note that the assembled faculty address the speakers as Alan and Faizal. Their project maps the little understood and often obscured interactive relationships between IT, politics, and society in very specific formations, such as Taipei, Bangalore, Malaysia, China. India might market itself as an ultramodern, new technology wonderland, but it still confronts severe, continuing, on the ground problems like illiteracy, poverty, and lack of clean water.
I’m sitting in the fourth floor conference room at the research seminars for the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI )organized by my new colleague Marko Skoric, an intensely engaged scholar originally from Belgrade who also studied in London and Michigan. Marko researches new media and social and political change from a social science psychology perspective.
Before the session starts and the power point gets powered up, Alan and Faizal cruise around the large oblong oval table and introduce themselves individually to the 20 or so professors and graduate students assembled. I’m struck by the collegiality and sense of comaraderie in the room, how social interaction and connection on a human level generate a shared feeling of openness and exchange.
My experience in the US is that most speakers (including myself) would be obsessively checking power point slides, media clips, and notes, focused on ourselves and our arguments, inward directed. Here in Singapore, I notice that the speakers immerse themselves in the people in the room, shaking hands, chatting, extending themselves. Immediately, I feel part of the group. I ask Alan and Faizal if they would be comfortable with me blogging their session. They say okay.
“There is an image of Asia as a technofrontier,” begins Alan. “But this technofrontier contrasts with old politics and perennial problems that coexist with cutting edge communications, where technologies are embedded with society.”
Alan points out that cities like Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Bangalore, and Singapore have instituted international marketing campaigns to promote themselves as globalizing information technology cities.
The Singapore government was an early adopter: it pushed to match the leading trends of international capital and advocated computerization in the early 1980s. It is now 30 years into this initiative, a successful strategy for a small island nation with limited land mass and a small population of about 4 million people. Malaysia, under Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, instituted the multimedia supercorridor in 1996. In defiance of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Malaysia continued building.
“Did global cities in Asia develop out of IT, or these propaganda campaigns? “ queries Alan. “The development of every new technology is almost always financially supported by some wealthy interests that would in turn seek the cover of political patronage,” he continues.
Faizal and Alan deploy the term alterity to describe the strategy of privileging the hitherto marginal or subterranean aspects of the capitalist world order through a multiple dimensions approach. Their book project is divided into four sections: psychological politics and cultural ownership of technology, governmental interventions, internet communities, and virtual cultures as political subcultures.
Subcultures, contend Alan and Faizal, are extremely varied in Asia. Adapting the theories of Manual Castells, they suggest that IT subcultures in Asia might not be so straightforward, where some function as appendages of the mainstream, others as circles of political autonomy. For example, remittance cultures among expatriate workers like the Tamil speaking Indian day laborers in Singapore suggest how IT’s global flows are not all located in frictionless cybercapital.
Faizal offers another compelling example. India has branded itself with IT. Yet, in the 2004 elections in Inida, the IT ministers were booted out. These reverse global flows defy globalization as emanating from countries of the global north. The Indian diaspora is returning, but living in self-contained “gated communities” where power and water are supplied. “It is like a bubble, one of the paradoxes of India” continues Faizal.
Across Asia, the networked global economy sequesters techno-elites. Global cities in Asia fashion high-end, Disney-world like environments attractive to cosmopolitan professionals to attract human capital. Boasting expensive condos with marble floors, grocery stores with expat foods, the arts, new airports with good connections, the city itself transforms from the complex, messy layers of life located in a specific locale and interaction across difference into a magnet for transnational development.
In the very interactive, engaging post talk discussion, another new colleague, Cherian George, a well-known journalist formerly with the Straits Times as well as a scholar of internet based alternative press in Southeast Asia, joins in. Cherian wrote one of my favorite, must-read books on the region, Singapore: The Air Conditioned Nation , so I’m eager to hear what he has to say. He points out that new technologies are often ripe for insurgence and then become recolonized.
Insurgency, he pointed out, can also simply be escape. The globalizing flows of economic power and the dislocations of new media also create a situation where elites—highly educated locals as well as expatriates relocated to Asian global cities by their transnational companies—can escape social and political obligations, leaving those dependent on the local behind.
Of course, being in Asia right now, the case of the Chinese hackers who infiltrated Google is a big story in the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times) and the Straits Times, the Singapore daily newspaper. Arul Indrasen Chib, a colleague who studies information and communication technologies for development and mobile phones in relation to health care in places like China, India, Indonesia, Peru, Thailand, Singapore and the USA, offers an intriguing twist on the case: Who is hacking who? Arul inquires. Who is being insurgent? Who is dominating? The old oppositions don’t necessarily apply, he points out.
Rather than vertical oppositions heldover from old school ways of considering social and political relations, I am wondering if we need to consider layers of more fluid horizontality that endlessly interact, blend, mingle and circumvent.
I realize at Alan and Faizal's seminar how much I really don’t know about Southeast Asia. There is so much to learn beyond the hawker stalls selling roti prata and the cheap, clean taxis delivering me to an elaborate production of Puccini’s La Boheme at the extraordinary Esplanade Theater with red silk covering the walls .
I’m thinking about how much I like sitting at the oval table in open space exchange with a small group, rather than in the audience where intellectuals from the so-called “global north” perform at the podium as gladiators with large shields, hurling concepts and theories like spears.
To inoculate myself against the culture shock of reintegration into northeast US academic life in September, I think I’ll plan on sitting at that oval table every Wednesday afternoon.