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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:00PM   |  7 comments
Sun Yat Sen University

By Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, at Ithaca College

Monday afternoon in megacity Guangzhou, China, in Guangdong Province in south China,  for the American Film Showcase.

I’m popping Zyrtec and inhaling Albutorol daily to prevent gagging from pollution so thick my face and hands feel grimy all the time. My lungs feel like I smoked a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

Famous  in China for its cuisine rich in vegetables and complex spicing, Guangdong has become known  as a bit of a hotbed for its active  and courageous civil society in labor, women’s,  LGBT, and environmental issues and its bold investigative journalism that rejects party control and censorship. Guangzhou journalists are renowned, for example, for their fearlessness in breaking the story of SARS-- initially denied by the Chinese government-- ten years ago. Guangzhou was ground zero for this transnational pandemic.

Another long van ride through stalled traffic, grey particle-infused skies, and endless new highrises jutting out in every direction took me to Sun Yat Sen University, one of the top universities in Guandong Province. Professors and students road bikes around campus, an image summoning up older images of China before Deng Xiaopeng's  Opening and Reform policies instituted after Mao's death in the late 1970s got translated into “everyone needs to own a car.”

My presentation was entitled “Open Space Documentary: Participatory Media in Action,” a look at new ways of considering documentary as it migrates to online and interface forms.

My argument is simple. 

Documentary is undergoing a radical, tectonic change in form and format as significant--if not more so-- as the coming of sound.  Transmedia forms migrate across interfaces in digital, analog and embodied domains, recalibrating documentary practice and theories in the process.

At the opening of my lecture, I drew a large triangle on the board and then an arrow to an equally large circle.  

The documentary triangle of director, subject, audience has recalibrated into the documentary circle, where designers, participants, audience and form feed into and change each other.

The Chinese Department Building was comprised of 7 floors.  My lecture was in Room 207. Two architectural details confronted me immediately.

First, in contrast to the five star Garden Hotel with its Western-style toilets and marble, the Chinese Department Building bathrooms featured squat toilets.  Second, every single classroom featured fixed lecture hall seating with about twenty  rows on an raked incline, each with a long table for note taking.

At Ithaca College, where I teach, it’s hard to book one of the very few large lecture halls on our campus.  The emphasis in American higher education, at least at private (read expensive and “student-centered”) four year colleges, drills down into small classes in the round privileging discussion and student engagement.  At Sun Yat Sen, I saw only lecture halls. 

But even that cursory observation as we looked for the lecture hall ended up being more culturally complicated than I anticipated. I also encountered much better and more seamless smart classroom lecture podiums and projection than I have at Ithaca College.

I was slated to give a lecture on open space transmedia documentaries to undergraduates and graduate students studying theory in the Chinese department. I was not sure what “theory” meant in a Chinese university context. Was it Continental theory? Postcolonial theory?  Cosmopolitanism?  Or work in Freud, Marx and the poststructuralists?  I was intimidated and a bit insecure, not sure what to expect.

I had a bit of anxiety about whether the concepts of participatory new media I was exploring would connect with students of literary theory. I also had some anxiety about talking about new media projects in a country where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are blocked.Both anxieties ended up being ungrounded in unexpected ways.

Coached by the ever-generous and astute Janice Engelhart from the U.S Consulate in Guangzhou, my powerpoint was composed of two elements:  images and then short headlines of the theoretical concepts of open space. It featured screen grabs of the American open space transmedia projects like Lunch Love Community, Cotton Road, Preemptive Media Collective, Sourcemap, Triangle Fire Open Archive, Precious Places, The Counter Kitchen. Janice and her excellent editing skills helped me to craft a punchy title for my talk.

Uncertain whether the content would be blocked on Chinese servers, and uncertain as to whether the venues where I was speaking would have a live internet connection, I made my PPT (as it was referred to by my Chinese contacts) with screen grabs from these web-based projects. 

I worried that these exciting, user-generated projects would lose their vitality and “liveness” as they became immobilized  in a still image.

But I was wrong.

Instead, showing static shots of these various projects and headline concepts spurred the audiences to want to see more on their own. It also gave me space to show many more projects and examples.  

Dr. Wang Dun, associate professor of Chinese,  warmly greeted me and my fabulous and patient English to Chinese translator, Jean.  I could not read the computer as all the symbols were in Chinese characters, so Dr. Wang set up my PPT.  When I asked whether there was an internet connection, he apologized and said no. He then offered the more positive spin that students would not be surfing or doing social media networking during my talk.

But most importantly, Dr. Wang wanted me to provide him with two ideas:  first, my bio (which I had printed out just in case), and second, a short précis of my theoretical model so he could position my talk for these advanced  students.

I explained my model combined documentary theory, new media theory, and postcolonial historiography, particularly ideas from Ranajit Guha and the subaltern school.  It was not based on one theory, but an intersection of ideas, like a good stir fry, I offered. He said he was very happy that my talk would have theory, since that would be more congruent with the students work.

My talk argued for a consideration of these new forms of documentary as participatory rather than as arguments from a director.  Rather than taking on large events, these projects focus on microterritories like good food in Berkeley schools in Lunch Love Community by Helen de Michiel,  or deconstructing the chemicals in hair products in Brooke Singer's The Counter Kitchen.

Open Space transmedia documentaries utilize combinatory, user-generated storytelling to create mosaic forms.  I emphasized to the students that these projects move from pushing out an idea or an argument towards a pulling in of participants.  In this way, they are constructed on ideas not of fixity but of permeability. 

The audience surprised me.

First, out of over 100 students ( I multiplied the number of rows by the number of seats in each row), only six were men. 

Throughout my lecture, I noticed students smiling at me warmly, nodding their heads, and taking notes with a ferocity and focus I do not see in my American classrooms. In the US, not a week goes without a student pulling down their baseball cap, stretching out,and sleeping during a lecture or even a small group discussion. Almost every week I need to ask a student to stop texting during class--and I have an strict electronic gadget policy.

At Sun Yat Sen University, not one student texted on a smartphone or surfed on a computer while I spoke.  Jean asked me to say a few sentences and then wait for her to translate.  This process helped me to focus on expressing myself clearly and slowly, a challenge since I tend to lecture rapidly. The students all spoke English, but the professor, Jean, and I decided that the theoretical ideas and digital works would be clearer to the students with some assist in translation into Mandarin.

At the end of my lecture, I asked if there were any questions.  In higher education, the stereotype of Chinese undergraduates never speaking, writing down every word, and obediently memorizing constitutes a powerful meme in the so-called "west." However, when deconstructed for its colonizing phantasmatic, it only serves to reinforce an somewhat unexamined ideology of United States academic superiority founded on individuality, feeling, consumerism, and opinions. 

I actually found myself charmed by the respectful lecture hall environment at Sun Yat Sen Univesrity, where the students seemed more interested in how these works provoked "civil society" and "participation" than in dismissing anything not related to internships or careers as inconsequential because it was not instrumental.  It was exhiliarating to be with students interested in big philosophical questions--and ones that China as a rapidly developing world economy is grappling with, such as the tensions between state control, the global market, human rights,  and emergent civil society.

These students complicated the Chinese stereotype advanced in places like The New York Times and The Economist.  Many hands popped up with questions. 

How did these projects get people to participate? Did the designers ever fear going to jail?  Why did they combine analog and digital?  How did they use social media?  Why did they reject documentary as a form a propaganda to tell people what to think?  Were there projects like this in China?  How did the designers and communities use social media networks to get their projects out?  What if too many people wanted to participate?  How did the designers figure out how to embody a polyphonic historiography?  Did the government pay for these projects or did the designers? How does one think through and structure many ideas and arguments instead of one idea from a central source?

At the end, Professor Wang  thanked me for my presentation . He then lauded the students for their active participation in the  discussion. Three young women dressed in black came down and asked to photograph me with their friends.  They  snapped photos of me with their smartphones. I noticed one smartphone case was decorated with glittering orange and purple sequins. The orange sequins were a Chinese character.

These young women thanked me for sharing ways to design encounters for participation and told me that social media networks in China crackled with “issues that were the same but looked different.”

These women students shared in private that they could find any of these projects or even shorts on YouTube with their “secret” networks, which I assumed were VPN (virtual private networks with servers outside China).

Then one asked me something that I do not think I have ever encountered in an American college classroom.

“Professor Zimmermann, “ she inquired “would you mind if we copied your PPT to this flash drive before you leave?  We want to study the examples and the theories and see if there is a match in China. We want to discuss more.” 

I said, of course, ideas are to be shared and circulated. 

They quickly inserted a purple flash drive into the university PC, downloaded my slides, and then slipped out of the room while I spoke with Dr. Wang about the challenges of teaching theory.




Thank you for sharing this interesting entry. I enjoyed reading it. Your essay suggests that China is grappling with the tensions between individualism and collectivism, perhaps trying to embrace the best of both approaches to economic development and civil society, while undergoing change at a rapid and not always controlled pace. The stakes are high for those in China who have the rare privilege of attending university.

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China’s current educational system also reinforces class portability boundaries. There is a vast divergence between the educational opportunities managed urban students versus their country peers. Basically, students in urban schools go to more pleasant, preferred staffed schools over their understudies in rustic groups.

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