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.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmerman, professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Meet Helen DeMichiel
Helen De Michiel has just left her position as codirector of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC), a position she has held since 1996, to pursue her innovative work in digital media, public media, arts public policy and administration, and engagement. She's also developing a groundbreaking documentary social media project called Lunch Love Community (more on that in a future posting). Helen's experience, knowledge and insights about the massive changes in the public media landscape and its new nodes spurred me to want to interview her to learn more about the challenges of this new topography. I'll post in three parts: a two part interview, and then an analysis of the significance of the Lunch Love Community documentary project. Stay tuned and join the conversation!
Helen De Michiel is a director,writer and producer whose work includes film, television and video installations. She is principal of Thirty Leaves, a media production company. Her 1995 feature film Tarantella, starring Mira Sorvino, has been shown, among others at the Seattle Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival, and won the Audience Award at the 1996 Torino International Woman’s Film Festival. After the theatrical release it was broadcast on public TV nationwide in 1997-98 through The Independent Television Service, and is currently available in home video and DVD. Her documentary, Turn Here Sweet Corn(1990) was seen nationally on the PBS series POV, and is in distribution to environmental organizations as an educational and organizing tool. It has received awards from Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Earthpeace International Film Festival and the American Film & Video Festival. An earlier work, Consider Anything, Only Don’t Cry (1988) received the “Best New Vision” Golden Gate Award at the 1989 San Francisco International Film Festival. Her documentary The Gender Chip Project, is one of the most innovative works exploring college age women and science careers, with enormous outreach and usage within STEM communities.
Her films are included in the media art collection/archive of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her video installation The Listening Project (1994), is part of Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center Permanent Collection and won the 1995 “Muse” Award in New Media & Technology from the American Museum Association. She has been the recipient of several NEA Awards and a Rockefeller Foundation Intercultural Film/Video Fellowship, among others. She has served as the National Director for NAMAC (The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture), the national arts service organization for the media arts field, form 1996-2010. In 2001 she was appointed to the board of The George F. Peabody Award for Electronic Media. She has an MFA in film and visual arts from the University of California, San Diego. She lives in Berkeley, California.
The Interview on New Nodes for Digital Futures
Patricia: How does the US public media landscape look different now than 20 years ago?
Helen: Let’s time travel a bit, since we both can still remember 1990. In 1990, indie filmmaking was new, fresh, and in ascendancy.
The Independent Television Service (ITVS) had just been funded by Congress. The Learning Channel was commissioning and running a 13-part series called The Independents, a curated thematic series showcasing independent films on cable. HBO was young, hungry, and willing to try out new projects. The MacArthur Foundation was pioneering the funding of media arts and public media organizations. Community media and public access were robustly funded by local franchise fees, and teaching citizens how to make and broadcast locally-based media.
In 1990, it really looked like emerging filmmakers could make work and bypass the clutches of the industry. It took twenty years. Now this idea of work outside the industrial system is more possible than ever thanks to the internet and broadband capabilities.
What I find so interesting is how this wave of cultural activity in public media in the 1980s and 90s set the stage for the digital revolution we are now immersed in. What artists and filmmakers were dreaming of and talking about then -- to be able to engage directly with audiences as users and participants in the media making enterprise – is now a reality.
Patricia: What significant changes have you observed in the public media landscape?
Helen: We are coming to terms with the fact that the “nodes of entry” to a media experience, or cultural experience, are wildly proliferating (that is, as long as we fight for net neutrality and protect a free internet).
We can listen to radio, or internet radio, or Pandora, etc. We can watch TV or record it for later. We can watch everything online, or download it. We can go to movie theaters and see movies…or simulcast operas. We can get news from anywhere online for free. We can comment, add images, videos, and sounds of our own to the collective mix.
All of this content can be delivered through devices we put in our pockets and can share globally in seconds. This is another way to think of “public media”—the nodes of entry are open to anyone: the whole idea of powerful gatekeepers is collapsing.
Since we are now curators of our own media experiences, it can be daunting and exhausting to stay on top of these choices and options. Here is a powerful emerging paradox: the “public” nature of a communal media literacy is weakening.
Do I watch an appointment television show, stream it on Hulu, get it VOD, or wait for aYouTube version? How do I watch and understand the work out there? As entertainment or education? When there is so much blurring and overlap, how do we discern between propaganda and advocacy?
As a media maker, I also have hard questions to think through. Do I toil for five years to make a long form documentary that public television may broadcast, but may not offer sufficient compensation or licensing fees. Or, do I test other ways to connect to different audience, who, although much, much smaller, are perhaps much more devoted to the concepts and issues in the work and who will support that work through small contributions?
We are also coming to terms with the hard reality that financial sustainability will not come from selling a media product. The new models emerging suggest that economic sustainability for producers will be peripheral to the media object itself.
New business models for rethinking independent and public media production are still to be shaped, ones that offer a real and authentic experience. I do believe that in this over-stimulated and noisy media environment, our future will focus on building a public media space that perseveres to create real world dialogue and inquiry.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Blog cowritten by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festval, Ithaca College
PART THREE: Towards Provisional Ethical Working Principles of Social Media and Human Rights
Overarching all these questions of ethical responsibility – to the person, to the story, to action - is the change in relationships between the one-on-one negotiation of consent, rights and usage between a documentarian and a subject, a largely binary relationship or series of relationships, on an ethics of an image grounded in a particular relationship to a focus on an ethics of networks, of material circulating, re-combining and being re-used in multiple relationships between people often far distant from the source originators (the filmer, the filmed).
Some provisional principles might include:
We are now in a world of purposeful witnesses, of casual producers, documentary producers and advocacy producers, of governmental, corporate and non-governmental promoters of technology as panacea, of curators and aggregators, of citizen participants in projects of collective voice, and of re-mixers, re-purposeful witnesses and casual sharers of the spreadable and viral.
The question of ethical engagements between all of these sectors for human rights is the challenge we must all enter into, proposing both solutions and questions.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Blog written by Sam Gregory, program director, WITNESS, and Patrica Zimmerman, professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Fetival
Part Two: Topographic Highlights and Conundrums of Viral Witnessing
Human rights ethics, documentary tradition and new emerging communities of affinity intersect and challenge each other during the sometimes fractured, sometimes convergent participation that is at the core of the creation, sharing and use of social media in general and for and against human rights.
This is a moment of epistemological challenge for both human rights advocates and documentary makers and scholars. What does it mean when documentation is no longer the purview of human rights documentors, and where documentary is no longer the purview of documentary-makers? What is the meaning of ‘documentation’ (‘x did y to z’) and/or ‘documentary in an age of a thousand, a million, a billion documentors/ documentarians, where monopolies of power and categorization are being erased, lost, zig-zagged across, confused and obscured? Just as human rights workers and journalists are wrestling with their roles, so too what is the role of the documentary concept and framework in this changing environment?
Let us outline some of the ethical issues arising in the context of social media and consider how these are implicated, complicated and challenged by a range of the potential subject positions of engagement/non-engagement from curators, to (re)purposeful witnesses, to corporate promoters and governmental aggregators. Broadly these areas of ethical concern might be termed – responsibility to the person filmed, responsibility to the story, and responsibility to act.
First, responsibility to the person filmed
Human rights is rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. Human rights practice is often built around a victim/survivor-centered model focused on avoiding re-victimization, and grounded in lived experience that individuals who speak out or are filmed who are not victims or survivors, but bystanders or witnesses, are also at risk (vis. the people who were in the shot when Neda was murdered).
Yet when the witness-creators and re-creators of human rights media include those who are callous, caring and casual, perpetrators, committed and caught-up how do we protect a person from psychological re-victimization, and physical relation and re-victimization, as their image and words are shared in the circulatory networks of social medias, and in an environment of ubiquitous documentation and sharing where the absence of consent or the failure to secure fully informed consent will be increasingly commonplace?
Consider the footage from Egypt shot over the past few years – we have the iconic cases of police torture captured on cell-phone cameras by the policemen themselves such as the el-Kebir case (slide) where police documented their own torture of detainees, we have the serendipitous citizen footage collated on a blog like ‘Torture in Egypt’ (slide) in an act of virtual, empathetic witness and we have the purposeful documentation of human rights groups and documentarians from Human Rights Watch to Al-Jazeera to individual filmmakers. And in some cases the same images will appear in all three contexts.
Secondly, Responsibility to the Story
Within human rights field, there has recently been some discussion around what might be termed ‘responsibility to the story.’ Just as much as avoiding re-victimization how do we hold onto the integrity of the story of the person speaking from a position of challenge or oppression?
Narrative integrity springs both from the experiences themselves and how the person chose to represent them via words and images, but also from the surrounding discursive context and data that often shows what makes an emblematic or paradigmatic story representative of a bigger picture, or the internalized context of embedded metadata that places a testimony or evidentiary image in a particular time and place, and tracks its travels.
When we watch this video “Police Brutality – Police Get What They Deserve’ ( clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XExpnE-xPd8&feature=related ) which has been seen close to two and a half million times on YouTube, images of specific incidents of police and military abuse (including half-way through, and in this keyframe, an iconic incident of Egyptian police torture of recent years), stripped free of any internal or external context, are subsumed into a continuous narrative that loses the logic and individual circumstances of specific moments of violation. Surferknut23 – one of almost 14,000 people who have commented on the video - notes from one perspective and frame he places over the images: ‘all i saw when i watched this video was people who don't know how to listen getting their asses beaten’ while SplittingSkulls from a different perspective comments: ‘Gota love fucking stupid people. A bunch of random photos with no way of knowing what happened and videos from around the world where the laws are completely different then here adds up to police brutality? What a fucking stupid video.’
‘Responsibility to the story’ intersects with the role of the ethical witness as outlined in contemporary scholarship on testimony and witnessing. As Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas put it in the introduction to their book The Image and the Witness (2007) such an ethical witness carry the ‘memory of suffering… in a manner that empathizes with, rather than violates, the silent victim’.
Integrity of the story is also relational – how does an individual story relate to an aggregated collection of stories? This question becomes particularly relevant when we consider the aggregative nature of social media and of the structuring of multiple stories in an interface. Jane Gaines has written – in the context of the Iraq war - about the prejudice of our culture against documentary images; how we are seen to be ‘bombarded with images’ rather than ever ‘bombarded with the written word’, and how moving beyond this position is critical for us to engage meaningfully. This comment seems particularly relevant in the context of the aggregative impulse. Here we enter the realm of digital and database documentary and software design. A range of sense-making mechanisms have been deployed recently by human rights and social justice curators and aggregators – beyond the generic interfaces of such sites as YouTube, the Hub, Facebook Walls and other video, social-networking and information-sharing platforms, they include tools like Ushahidi, used to aggregate text, video and photo from situations as diverse as Kenya’s elections and slums to Haiti post-earthquake, and present them on a mapping interface; as well as other forms of mapping mash-up and video-walls that collect and aggregate multiple voices into a collective statement and a whole range of other locative and interactive media formats. Here, we face ethical questions about how these frameworks and tools preserve the integrity of individual voice.
And this curational voice is not always creating from a position of activist challenge. In London last year during the G20 protests when a bystander was assaulted by police during the protests, citizen curators painstakingly aggregated what had happened from citizen and news media camera, cellphone and photographic images
But in the same year, following on from the legacy of British police’s use of Forward Intelligence Units to constantly film peaceful protestors, police acknowledged that they the tracked the activity of organizers for events such as the G20 protests and Climatecamp on Facebook. And in Iran last year, the Iranian security services, curated pictures gathered from YouTube videos and Facebook on their Gerdab website
And crowd-sourced identification of those involved, as well as asking people to share emails, videos and photos who have ‘broken the stability of Iran after the elections’.
Both of these principles mentioned above – that of the integrity of the victim/survivor’s experience, and that of the role of the ethical witness with responsibility to the story – are made problematic by the possibilities for remixing, re-appropriation, aggregation, curation and recirculation. These possibilities pull the material farther and farther from its source testifier and/or witness and from its original context – even as that process of translation may increase the chances that the footage will find an audience (even an unexpected one) that may be willing and able to respond.
WITNESS has been involved in promoting acts of (re)purposeful remixing and witnessing, supporting student activists within the US-based student anti-genocide coalition, STAND to re-edit a template video making the call for effective legislation to prevent genocide. Student chapters took the template video, as well as other footage made available to them from inside genocidal situations worldwide, and additional footage they shot within their state with local opinion-formers, as well as material they found online and re-purposed. With these materials they crafted individualized videos that spoke to the particular interests of their Senator.
To share some examples, students from Florida introduced their videos in their own voice and made personal appeals to their Senator’s Christian faith, but also identified Lost Boys from Sudan living in Jacksonville, Florida to join them in making a direct request to their Senator. Videos from California and Wisconsin expressed personal thanks to their respective Senators for their actions to date through montages of high school and college student voices; highlighted prominent community figures who the Senators would know and respect (for example, a respected academic and an award-winning humanitarian); and urged them on to do more. Other videos ranged from fully remixed videos to direct-to-camera video introductions and calls to action from student and influential community leaders in the Senators’ States.
Although in this case the video material was largely re-purposed within a tight framework the underlying question that occupies us as we contemplate this project and other acts of documentary remixing of human rights media and social media is how to balance responsibility to the victim, and responsibility to the story with the potential of remix approaches to speak to the personalization and creativity that will generate activism in a younger digitally-literate generation, and to craft highly personalized narratives for advocacy audiences. How does this remix ethos relate to a human rights culture concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors and about the role of ethical witnessing – a culture that also has a strong sense of control over its material.
Responsibility to action
Finally – and there will not be time to consider this in depth in this paper - we need to consider what we might term an ethical ‘responsibility to action’ - the ways in which different forms of social media create effect on their audiences or participants, moving them to action (since ultimately, at least from a social change perspective, this is the goal). To what extent do they create political mimesis, to what extent do they engage the interstices between emotion and rationality, to what extent do they coherently outline spaces for action and solutions for change to respond to emotional and rational reactions by their viewers? To what extent are they coupled to political action?
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog posting written by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
For the last two years, we (Sam Gregory and Patricia R. Zimmermann) have been collaborating on theoretical and analytical research, protocols, and best practices in the burgeoning world of international human rights social media. We've published some essays, we've organized panels at the Visible Evidence Conferences on Documentary, we've written several papers, and we've participated as featured guests on the <Empyre> new media art listserv, moderated by digital theorist Tim Murray and digital artist Renate Ferro.
In our current project (recently presented at Visible Evidence in Istanbul, Turkey), we are interested in upacking the ethical engagements of human rights social media in international networks. We ask, are these forms spreadable, contagious, viral, malleable, fluid, ubiquitous, dangerous? Or all of the above?
Our work here is organized in three parts as an opening up and exploration of the topographies and ethical issues of witnessing with mutable, spreadable, viral, and/or contagious media. In the hopes of generating a more international conversation, we've decided to post our recent work on the Open Spaces blog, to crowdsource ideas, debates, and best practices in the international human rights and documentary communities about social media formations and practices.
Part One develops a definition of social media and human rights, outlining our assumptions, and mapping some significant shifts. Part Two provides some international examples from the variegated topography of social media for human rights in terms of a set of potential ‘responsibilities’. Part Three elaborates a provisional set of working principles and protocols for ethical practices of human rights social media, where production, distribution and exhibition are collapsed into new formations. We share this last part in the hopes of inviting all of you into sharing your ideas into the ethics of circulatory networks and human rights.
Part One: Definitions, Shifts and Assumptions
Everyday witnessing and documentation of human rights violations around the globe are increasingly commonplace along a continuum of amateur to professional, casual to committed. Much is shared within a context of social media. We define social media as work that integrates Web 2.0 technology with social interaction, user participation, dissemination, sharing and feedback discussion. It incorporates a range of technologies such as social networks, blogs, and peer-to-peer modes as well as the cell-phone, in a world where there is now one cell phone account for every 1.5 persons.
The following significant and salient historical shifts have prompted our investigation into the issues of social media, human rights documentary, and viral witnessing. These include:
This topography constitutes a new, exciting, contradictory landscape for human rights documentary and documentation work. On the one hand, dissemination and engagement offer ways around limited access to information and images and engage new publics, on the other hand, their malleability, accessibility and fluidity can be dangerous.
At the same time as many of the participatory engagements of social media are contained within consumerism and state agendas so, in their more bottom up, localized, pull-in forms, these user-generated social media forms have propelled an abundance of both raw and produced social change media. With spreadability, malleability, and fluidity their operative modalities, these social media multiply opportunities for transparency, participation and action, but also provoke concerns about authenticity, factual accuracy, point-of-view, and how images transform into action, outcomes, as well as danger.
These contradictions of social media continue traditional documentary and activist documentary debates about the ethics of image making and interaction with subjects (and here we acknowledge the important writing of Brian Winston, Tom Waugh, and Bill Nichols) and open up new areas of exploration into the questions of circulatory networks, and repurposing
As visual media is reworked, remixed and re-circulated by many more people (amateur, professional, and prosumer), what responsibilities do we have as producers, circulators, curators, advocates, aggregators, re-mixers and viewers?
Stay tuned for Part II and Part III. Until then, we hope you'll join the conversation here on Open Spaces.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Blog written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and professor of cinema and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Ithaca College
I’m sitting in the back row of the banquet room on the tenth floor of the upscale M Hotel in downtown Singapore.
I’m freezing—the air conditioning is so crisp and cold it’s almost an electro-shock after the 93 degree heat and humidity of walking through the business district in Tanjong Pagar.
I’m listening to speakers from Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Germany, the United States and Malaysia describe the changing topography of journalism in Asia.
Summary: the future of journalism is…business and marketing on 24/7 social media platforms.
This gathering is an intense two day working conference for news organizations and news professionals called The Future of Journalism and News Media, sponsored by the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers (WAN IFRA), Nanyang Technological University and the Asian Journalism Fellowship.
Go to Where the People Are
“Media are no longer about a brand and people coming to you,” asserted Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York graduate school of journalism . “Now you have to go where the people are—media are more distributed than centralized.” On vacation in Florida, Jarvis was skyped into the conference.
Over 100 journalists from Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bhutan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, France, Germany and the United States crowd the round tables. I talked to a lot of them at the cocktail party, which featured copious amounts of satay and sashimi. I really liked and admired the people I met.
The q and a sessions after each session feel more like press conferences where journalists drill into undeveloped points for clarification and exposure. It’s a long way from academics in the US who often start their questions with “let me make an intervention” or “I’d like to problematize your position a bit.”
I like their agility in cutting to the bone of ideas. A spirit of harmony and collegiality pervades this conference.
Malaysiakini, Passion and the Internet
Malaysiakini.com is a website that pushed the boundaries of press freedom in Malaysia, explained Premesh Chandran, one of its founders. The Malaysian government loosened press censorship on the internet in the late 1990s when it was pushing its multimedia corridor—Malaysiakini took advantage of this opening and launched in 1999.
With passion and commitment to breaking stories on government and business scandals, Malaysiakini focused on fast news underrepresented in the mainstream and offered diverse viewpoints.
Chandran contends that where you publish is irrelevant now. Brand name and credibility are Malaysiakini’s number one asset. By 2004, the website was profitable. By 2008, it was ranked #1 for news in Malaysia.
A lot of the questions volleyed here seem to pivot around how news organizations in Thailand or Indonesia can steer through the swift-moving rapids of multiplatformed social media. J
Journalists here wonder out loud how their jobs will change from doing stories to branding themselves as specialists across blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.
Old Dead Tree Journalism and New Social Media Journalism
I’m jamming my notebook with percentages on everything from who reads newspapers (older people) to who uses Twitter (younger people), aphorisms about social media engagement strategies (twitter and blog and post 24/7) and exhortations to invent a new business model for journalism (make money by branding and sponsoring meet ups and trainings).
The old journalism (what some here call dead tree journalism) of a daily newspaper, loyal readers, and highly trained journalists with authority is extinct.
The new journalism (an endlessly swirling concoction of citizen journalism, blogs, Twitter, engagement strategies, branding, mobile interfaces and aggregation) is in Darwinian ascendance. But it doesn’t yet have a viable business model for what many speakers call “monetization.”
Some Facts and Observations on the New Landscape
Consider the following facts and arguments offered at this conference about the future of journalism:
* Journalism is not a product but a process, and journalists must adopt an “entrepreneurial spirit” to capitalize on low cost platforms, according to Jeff Jarvis
* The South China Morning Post, a major high prestige Asian newspaper, is now competing with blogs, contends Reginald Chua, editor in chief of the Hong Kong-based paper. Large organizations may, as a result, be handicapped in this new landscape.
* In Singapore, 1 out of 2 people trust blogs. Chew Ming, editor of the Singapore-based, user-generated site Stomp, pointed out that citizen journalism captures news as it is happening—a much different timeline than traditional journalism. But it’s better at who , what, when, and where, than why and how.
* Creation is aggregation—use people as our agents to spread our brand, claimed Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review.
* Listen, plan, engage, amplify, optimize, urged Thomas Crampton, a former New York Times and International Herald Tribune journalist now Asia Pacific director fo 360 Digital Influence, Ogilvy, Hong Kong. Journalism is a “three legged stool” of online, in person, and in print.
* People will pay for quality journalism, argued Premesh Chandran from Malaysiakini.com
* “Leisurization” is a growing market for online news. 91% of people in a recent survey think the internet is the most effective way to get leisure information. People want and need to escape, and these desires can be “monetized” online, according to Jerome Doncieux, co-CEO of AFP Relaxnews in France.
Where do nonprofit news/public affairs organizations fit in?
Walter Lim, who helped launch the imaginative, compelling and useful Singapore heritage project Yesterday.sg, and I are the only speakers from the nonprofit realm. His user-generated historical archive--which had several fans and users in this esteemed audience--is funded by the National Heritage Board of Singapore.
I guess I represented what we in the US call “public media,” that range of works that open up concerns and debates about civil society. I asked the audience to consider shifting from considering business models to the conceptual, philosophical and ethical models of this new social media landscape—all of which are unresolved and thorny issues despite the euphoria over twittering in Iran.
My colleague Cherian George, himself a former Singapore Straits Times journalist who is now a professor at NTU with a Ph.D., invited me to speak about an on-going research and theoretical project I am collaborating on with filmmaker , writer and non profit arts administrator Helen de Michiel called the Open Space Project, a theoretical model of collaborative, participatory relational practice that pulls in community rather than pushes out ideas.
I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure how this model for nonprofit social media mobilization might mesh with the rhetorics of business models, entrepreneurialism, branding, and pushing out ideas to capture eyeballs for advertizers.
I didn't want to alienate the audience, but to invite them into a slightly different conversation. Open Space media, in our model, is where technology meets people meets places.
Social Media in Asia and the US: Similiar and Different
In the end, I’m struck by how the pumped-up-pitch-man rhetoric, the engagement strategies, the euphoria about new media, the multiplatforming, the evangelism that the old forms are dead and the new forms need our embrace, and even the adoption of the “indie rock model” to commoditize ancillary products at live events, is almost identical to what I heard from the nonprofit social media pundits at the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture Commonwealth Conference last August in Boston.
The only difference was that the nonprofit NAMAC crowd shuffled around the term sustainability, while the for-profit WAN IFRA group lobbed the term monetization. An uncritical optimism about social media coupled with horror-film like warnings about ignoring it pervaded both the WAN IFRA and NAMAC gatherings.
At NAMAC after hours, at the hotel bar, nonprofit administrators described how they spent most of their time chained to laptops sending out Tweets and being clever on Facebook updates and pumping out e-blasts and building dynamic websites. They shared they were exhausted by it all and missed the days of engaging audiences and ideas more directly.
At a WAN IFRA luncheon where I ate lamb laksa and fish curry, I listened to seasoned journalists from four different countries in southeast Asia worry that younger journalists never leave the newsroom or make phone calls—they google and surf the internet and then remix what they find. They have not done the “death knock”—where someone dies and you interview their family or friends.
The Future Needs Restructuring
Both conversations give me pause.
It seems like social media is actually not social—in the Habermasian sense—at all.
Perhaps it has created a cordon sanitaire around ideas and news that matter, trapping nonprofits, for-profits, and entrepreneurial freelancers from both sectors in a digital quarantine. As a result, the traumas, pain, messiness, and conflicts of the powerful and the powerless--defining features of journalism, public affairs, documentary, and nonprofit public media around the globe for at least two centuries--are cordoned off, outside, far away, unnecessary, neutralized.
So maybe the future of journalism and nonprofit media in Asia and the United States are the same: a tectonic restructuring of the relationships between producers, users, institutions, technological platforms, labor, and business models .
And maybe the future of journalism and nonprofit media everywhere should also include some vigorous discussion of the whys and hows of ethics.
And what it means to get away from your iPhone and into the streets again, interacting with, uh, that old platform which is always new, called real people.
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.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Social, Viral, Buzz
Social media, viral marketing, buzz marketing, social networks: these four archetypes of a new world jack in to the neural WiFi system of postindustrial capitalism in recession and collapse. The new digital snake oil, Web 2.0 and its social media offspring promise visibility, relationship seeding with proactive consumers, fast cash, reconfigured jobs, and a new world of engagement and fun with products.
It's digital vaudeville where all that is messy, conflictual, problematic, unresolved, liminal, and non-consumerist, is yanked off the stage with a free new app rather than a cane. It's a place where mobile no longer implies mobilization, but now means having something in your hand so you can consume 24/7 and never be away from work.
Let’s face it. We’re all scared about the future here in the empire in decline that is the United States post Madoff, post Lehman Brothers, post AIG, post bailout. Everything is precarious. The economy and our jobs--if we still have one-- feel ambiguous, despite New York Times reports that recovery is sprouting up here and there. It’s hard to fight back and organize when everything is diffuse and vague and ephemeral, like a cloud that spreads across an upstate New York valley but disappears once the sun rises.
Better than Xanax, the hype and hucksterism of social media smoothe over the edges of panic and anxiety to pave the way for excessive consumption and easy PayPal to snap up slap happy credit cards for infinite upgrades and premium services after free software and free everything is exhausted. Search engine optimization replaces the messiness of meet ups where argument, discomfort,conflict, a perpetual state of open space relationships, and unconferencing are for all intents and purposes normative—but currently disparaged and maligned.
Networks, Newness, Niceness and Naughtiness
In the last year alone, a plethora of books and webinars from the left, the right and the wired have surfaced like submarines in the Arctic, breaking through the unknown, frozen depths of Facebook and Twitter and cracking through the ice-locked lands of Digg and D.e.lic.ious. For those not anointed digital natives, these mighty tomes promise a world of networks, newness, niceness and some naughtiness, like playing World of Warcraft with Chinese goldfarmers to recover from the work speed ups and job panic at your corporate job or cruising Second Life for extra marital affairs with avatars while on furlough from your university or government gig.
It’s a world where instead of using the internet to find a date or hook up with some other like-minded souls when you move overseas (the goal being, in a quite old fashioned way, embodied messy interaction in the sensorium which is the world around us), social media ask you to have a personal relationship with a PRODUCT. In this brave new world, we’re all dating clean machines and launching romances with iPhone apps, Blackberrys, and PowerPoint. Talk about cylons…(this part is for Battlestar Galatica fans)
As Dutch digital theorist Geert Lovink argued at the recent Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities Symposium at Cornell University (mounted by Tim Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities ), Web 2.0 necessitates an urgent need for a critical intervention as we move from MP3s to Napster, from personal websites to blogging, from publishing to participation, from taxonomies to tagging. He sees the contradictions in the current moment: we all need these social networking tools even more when the job market collapses and it’s necessary to be in touch with our professional networks, and when we no longer live where we grew up and want to remain in touch with our communities.
Yes, I admit it: I’ve devoured many of these books like Free by Chris Anderson, Viral Loop by Adam L. Penenberg, Viral Spiral by David Bollier, Fans, Friends and Followers by David Kirsner. And I’ve red- penciled and covered with neon orange Post Its books sporting lots of academic footnotes advancing more criticality: Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff, The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second lLfe and Beyond: From Production to Produsage by Axel Bruns .
Access and the Rest of the Globe
But...the definition of access changes when you move your vectors from the United States to the rest of the globe. Access in many parts of the world means access to clean water so you don’t die from diarrhea, which kills more people than AIDS. Denial of service in other parts of the world means living in perpetual fear of violence, kidnapping, floods, rape, droughts and shootings. A slow connection in many areas of the global south means a roadblock with guns and delays where you can’t ask how long it will take until service is restored because, well, you don’t speak the language or the machine guns just are too big.
Emergent social media fascinates me as a historical continuation of the promise of amateurism to extend production and self-expression and to generate new publics beyond corporations, governments and institutions. I like the idea of constantly evolving technologies that shed their proprietary matrices. I like gadgets, devices, gears,software, and machines, even though they drive me crazy.
I like and use social media. I like thinking about its possibilities for human rights work, for new forms of connection and collaboration, for new ways to invite people into big messy concepts and debates that transcend borders and nations. But this same social media perplexes me. And worries me.
For example: in early October, the FBI raided a Queen’s New York house for 16 hours, arresting a man for using Twitter at the G20 protests in Pittsburgh. His crime? Tweeting to spread information on police movements he tracked through a computer and police scanner in his hotel room. Since 2004, mass texting and twittering have become valued tools of mobilization among protesters. Funny, the state department hailed Twitter as a missionary technology bringing democracy to Iran in June. But stateside three months later, well, that’s another civil liberties story all together.
Left, Right, Wired
Unlike a brilliant-younger-than-me-humanities scholar at a recent digital symposium I attended who proudly came out as a technophobe, I’m more of a techno-interrogator living in endless techno-bafflement. I like this riparian zone (to quote Helen de Michiel) between asking about and not quite understanding Twitter democracies, UGC fantasies, Iranian digitopias, and the gnarly webs of contradictions imbedded in virtually all new technologies.
Whether on the left, the right or the wired side, all of these books I've mentioned argue for a new utopia on the other end of the broadband rainbow, defined either by consumption (the business side) or by democratic engagement (the side for the rest of us in that hazy subterranean world of the insurgent and the questioning).
Obama is crowned the Web 2.0 president of the universe, the digital messiah who marshaled the power of many through YouTube viral videos, user generated websites and the promise of a rebuilt digital infrastructure. He’s the new school cool dude who beat those crotchety old school Republicans by hiring some viral marketing gurus from Facebook to translate and update hard core, Saul Alinsky, Chicago-style neighborhood community organizing into a national viral-buzz-social media marketing strategy.
Most of these books I've been devouring are penned by BWMGNs (Big White Men of the Global North). Even the corporate books need to flaunt their love of equality now that the Bush regime is reduced to a digital file on a USB stick, so they worry about broadband access, net neutrality, digital divides, data mining. For many, remedying the digital divide (which is changing at an astonishing rate as cell phones and cheap netbooks penetrate the least developed countries) is just a euphemism for UNTAPPED MARKET. Translation: Asia, India, Africa, Latin America.
And most are utterly silent about any of the gut wrenching human rights issues migrating across the globe where the messiness of race, class, genders, sexualities, ethnicity, immigration, war, torture, and oppression raises incredibly complex issues about the ethics of circulatory culture that extends way beyond the ethics of witnessing through representation. None of the BWMGNs are talking about the ethics of circulating Neda’s death in Iran. None of the BWMGNs are talking about the cell phone images of the monks demonstrating in Burma uploaded on various social media sites that were then used to put those same monks in jail.
Hillary, The State Department and Social Media
But Hillary Clinton and the State Department are talking: they are so excited about the possibilities of social media to reroute trouble in the streets into digital community engagement flare-ups in social networks that they recently sponsored a summit on social media for NGOs who work with youth in Mexico, a country on the verge of descending into civil war and becoming the next Colombia. The Alliance of Youth Movements, comprised of individuals from the private sector, the NGO community, and “some of the most successful digital movements around the world” met in Mexico City, one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous cities in the world, just two weeks ago to “explore the role of technology in connecting young people working to end violence.”
And guess who sponsored this social media confab? An A-list of the new gods of the viral and the buzz: Facebook, Google, MTV, MySpace, WordPress, YouTube, and…the U.S. State Department.
*a big shout out to Helen de Michiel for sharing research and conversation culminating in this blog posting
Friday, September 11, 2009
It’s not a transformation of the media ecology. It’s a total inversion.
In Baroque music, an inversion turns the melody upside down, flips chords, exchanges vocal registers, reorganizes intervals.
At this year’s National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture ( NAMAC ) conference, the outside jumped inside, and the inside hopped outside.
CommonWealth was not about transitions. It was about jacking conferees into a series of inversions. In the ladies room following a plenary, one conferee confided "This conference is beyond my comfort zone." I probed if that was good or bad. She said, "I’m somewhere else. I am not sure yet."
It’s a heady, confusing time when the tectonic plates of new technologies, changing public policies, economic collapse, job uncertainty, a new president, and enormous challenges in figuring out strategies in a multiplatformed environment are crashing together and disturbing the geographies of public media.
The ground is unsteady beneath our feet. The foundations from our public media past are loosened and wobbly, swaying under the pressures of new business models, emerging technologies, hemorrhaging audiences, depleted funding.
The questions are complex, the technologies confusing, the survival strategies unclear, the technologies proliferating, and the allies shifting.CommonWealth functioned like a primer on telecommunications policy challenges like net neutrality , low power, broadband, and arts stimulus packages while it provided navigational systems and clear mappings of digital media, social media, and new ways to think about outcomes in media arts funding.
Depending on where you stood at the NAMAC conference, you might see something completely different. Telecommunications public policy or creative arts. Social media marketing or questions of real live audiences. Grant funding or business models. Digital possibility or digital divide. The euphoria of the Democratic administration or the fear and panic of a bone-crushing, hope-smashing recession. User-generated content or business models for institutional survival.
But a smaller spatial configuration also emerged: open space sessions. The CommonWealth NAMAC conference might be the first public media conference to deploy this process of sitting in a circle with like-minded people unpacking a topic of mutual, pressing concern through focused conversation, a brainstorming strategy growing out of the open source community.
These open space sessions pulsed with urgency and new-found community around unresolved issues such as digital exhibition, disabilities, building audiences for events, youth media, boards, film festivals, youth media, volunteers, art house challenges, gaming. I sat in on two on film festivals. They energized me. I left with new ideas and new allies.
A range of panels on social media, social networking and digital technologies mapped significant inversions of our conceptual frameworks about public media. The audience is now a participant. Building audiences is now going to where audiences are. Limited access to media works is now dispersed unlimited access. A precious curatorial zone is now a user-centric community. Finished works that premiere have shifted into works continually in process and in public.
Engage, aggregate, collaborate, amplify, transform: that’s the new public media mantra for this recession-infected, panic-stricken digital age.
This strategy displaces the older independent media strategy of what I would call "the wedding model," where the big day is planned and fantasized for years with every detail from flowers to gowns in place and every guest and seating chart carefully considered.
Now, the new model resides more in what I might term "the cooking with friends model." Projects continually roll out in various states of completion, invite audiences in, change incessantly, and get served up across different platforms and in different iterations depending on the ingredients at hand. Temporality in public media changes forever: no longer discrete, it is continuous, fluid, open, and malleable.
Now for my own set of inversions on CommonWealth.
I was utterly engaged and stimulated throughout the conference.
I noticed that plenaries, panels and open space sessions were jammed with people obsessively taking notes on their netbooks, iPhones, and laptops. People seem to crave clarity and community.
However, I must share that I departed both clearer and more confused.
Questions about politics, ethics, and live humans pressed into me in more and more intense ways as the days progressed.
As someone who has been involved in pitched debates about public media for over three decades, I could not get my head around the lack of vigorous critique at the CommonWealth conference—it felt like my fellow conferees were installing the information like neutral, virus-free downloaded files on a USB drive.
I am struggling with the euphoria of digital technologies when 40% of Americans don’t have access to broadband and when governments around the world—and the US military in Iraq-- can shut down open networks with the flick of a switch.
I am still perplexed by the ethical questions of circulating images of other people’s suffering on YouTube and other user-generated sites—particularly if circulating their image means that some repressive regime might jail or beat them.
I’m disturbed by what I deconstruct as the vaudevillian spaces of the user-generated world, which sport lots of room for fun but not many spaces for more serious, gnarly, and chaotic social and political issues.
I am troubled by the reduction of everything to the digital simplicities of 140 character Tweets when the questions we must ask and the politics we must engage in around race, nation, gender, sexualities, disabilities, empire, war only get more and more complex.
I worry that in the brave new world of user-generated, social networked digitality, the only images and media that can travel the toll-free viral superhighways are ones that are fun, cute, clever, ironic, silly, inane, or mean.
I am really uncomfortable by proponents of social media slapping old fashioned capitalist economic models of acquisition and consumerism onto new digital technologies as they discuss monetizing content and growing "fans" and "followers."
I’m disturbed by hip social media practitioners selling me a push out model of media participation that seems recycled from the manipulative practices of commercial media buzz production rather than a pull in model of engagement and open space community building.
I am nervous when arts funding consultants and funders look for outcomes in audience numbers and programmers shift to more popular programming at the expense of more challenging experimental and political art forms.
I can’t get my head around public television entities working with producers in China and imposing an unexamined epistemological imperialism through their installation of a narrative model of character development and story arcs imported from the classical Hollywood studio system that effectively neutralizes cultural differences.
Boot camp and strategy session, CommonWealth superimposed telecommunication policy on creativity, technologies on arts organizations, and public media on cultural policy.
Pushing beyond the comfort zones, CommonWealth hurled out a 21st century public media game plan.
And… it contained a series of necessary and urgent inversions that still need to be plotted—and critiqued.