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

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 12:34PM
Helen De Michiel, filmmaker, public media arts visionary, and innovator

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.

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