I just blogged at fembot for their section called “Laundry Day” (“short, teachable pieces of feminist media criticism about ongoing controversies and issues.”) My writing is in conversation with Wendy Hsu and Carey Sargent, who write about “Grrrltronica, Plasticity, and Friendship ” for their entry for this special focus on “feminist media production.”

My entry focuses upon the many little media things I received from audience members after my talks last year, like this video by Wendy (after I spoke at Occidental college), who (like many others at many places) responded to my mantrafesto and other thoughts about feminist (and otherwise) online spaces.

(This is re-posted from my Online Feminist Spaces project)

I’m back from Colby College in Maine which also signals the almost-end to the six-month experiment I’ve been running on my Feminist Online Spaces project, and at real places across the country (Concordia in Montreal, UCLA, Rutgers in NJ, Yale in CT, Occidental in CA, Re:Humanities in PA, Feminist Documentary at Smith in MA , and Colby) as I attempt to use an Online Space to enact and hold a set of media objects and circular (Call and Response and Call Again) movements that might propel feminists from:

  • Reception to Production
  • Commenting to Connection
  • Production to Collaboration
  • and the Internet to the Real World (and back again)

The successes seem notable: the primary being the palpable sense of excitement, shock, playfulness, worry, and community that was produced in each and every place on my road trip when I unmade protocol by asking audience members to respond to my scholarly talk by making something quick and rudimentary that would last, that would become public, that would leave their place and sit on mine, that represented each one of them and their place and their ideas about feminism and place, and that would give them each some small piece of authorial control in a situation not typically structured to do so. Make they did, and many of the objects were quite extraordinary (especially given how quickly they were made), and all of them were generous and generative.

My main goal, however–again, I think successfully played out–was less things than process based: not to acquire the objects and more to turn the room into something holding interactions akin to those of the Internet, and then allowing the felt experience of this altered interaction to shed light on the different ways we form community and connection in live, digital, and their linked places.

But lots of this didn’t work so well, too, in ways that were informative. First off, there was a structuring power imbalance between me, the outsider (with the website, and the plane ticket and speaker’s stipend, and the carefully crafted and long talk) and the placed audience (who freely gave up their words but with only five minutes to author them) that most closely mirrors the imbalance of (corporate) websites. The impulse or call was mine and my feminist audiences playfully or politely responded. For the most part, they then produced the expendable, one-off objects that define most of our interactions online, albeit, in this case, more focused on one sustained question and politics.

This led me to try to imagine how I might enable more careful, and communal, interaction and towards this I began collaborating with some of the people I had met along the way, most critically with Wendy Hsu and Carey Sargent (Grapefruit Experiment), who I met at Occidental College, where they are post-docs in the Digital Humanities. I invited them to remix something from the Gallery of audience-made objects, which led to the “But I Like Kittens Remix,” and I then connected them to Marty Fink, at Concordia, who worked with them, and others from her local community, to make the song’s cover art.

Then, when I went to the Tri-College Digital Humanities Conference and to Women, Social Justice and Documentary at Smith, I tried (working with Wendy and Carey) to more strongly align community response towards building something together, and requested that people provide sounds that would be used in a song made again by Grapefruit Experiment. From this was made Kong Jian. At Colby, we asked for cover art, and got great stuff again.

Needless to say, while I love all the things people made, and even the process(es), I learned that the ownership, structure, impulse, and infrastructure, while certainly dispersed, stay locked or perhaps laced to me: the instigator and authority. While I am aware that seeds have been planted in many places by using the road, and planes, and rooms, and from those many theres, people will take these ideas and use them as they will, I am still interested in thinking about the best uses of on and offline spaces for making production, connection, collaboration and community, something yet unrealized (by me, online).

After my return from the Women, Social Justice, Documentary conference at Smith last weekend it took me awhile to name a certain disquiet that was raised for me there. Critically, my concerns had nothing to do with the strength of the presentations or the commitment of the community. It was reaffirmed for me there that:

  • women need documentaries that represent female experience from a feminist perspective
  • women hunger to make documentaries about their own worlds and experiences with their own voices.

However, Charlie Musser’s post about the same conference helped me to name some of my qualms through questioning how we know and frame this field of practice: are we women documentarians victims, adventurers, heroes, or champions? And if none of the above, what is or should be our trope or role of choice?

In other posts here, I have discussed how male documentarians (and fiction filmmakers in the documentary mode) often represent their documentary filmmaking about adventures as if they themselves were the hapless explorers, as if they were the rugged spelunker or fearless soldier; as if making a film was a war or a similarly endangering undertaking.  Keeping men’s fantasies about such rugged film roles in mind, it seems particularly noteworthy that many feminist documentarians, who are themselves making films about women’s oppression, voicelessness, and sometimes even physical or emotional danger and violence, cast themselves and particularly their filmmaking in this light: as if documentary making is a form of victimhood and suffering.

Thus, as often as we discussed documentary-making as achievement, I heard this feminist mode presented as an expression of oppression: in that the industry is patriarchal, funds are scarce, the nation is conservative, and infrastructure is capitalist. And of course, all that is true. Many of the battles of current feminist filmmakers are the same as those of the generations before us; and in some arenas, it seems we’ve seen as much backlash as we have growth. And certainly, many women have and still come to their filmmaking as a first stop after, or as a response to lived oppression. However, the disadvantages we might encounter as women in film are similar to but not the same as the human rights violations we might document, or even the voicelessness that may have brought us to the medium, and when we tell the story of our film practice only using the disempowered tropes and experiences that brought us there we end up failing to build upon, yet alone even acknowledge, the successes we have made: the many, many films, careers, awards, institutions, festivals, books, or classes in the field. For, the conference also confirmed that:

  • the history of earlier work, makers, and institutions are lost unless we reconstitute them
  • and harder to admit, we get something from this perpetual losing

Which is to say, that once we do have some (more) power than we did, when we do have foremothers (now across a few generations) and a robust, generative, diverse, and amazing body of film, now that we are feminist documentarians with a real history and future (evidenced at the conference through the fire power of the “new” generation: Sonali Gulati, Anayansi Prado, Michelle Medina), how might we enact our self-representation as a field through and with power?

What are the metaphors and practices for having and using an empowered feminist voice amongst many?

We don’t have look far! Here’s just a small sample of some of the inspiring models presented at the conference:

Cynthia Wade: links her power with responsibility.

Barbara Hammer: lusty adventurer with politics.

Su Friedrich: angry citizen challenging film and social norms

Rea Tajiri: loving daughter and respectful neighbor reaching out with poetry

Lourdes Portillo: mother-maker opening our hearts in service or memory, justice, and complexity

This afternoon, my graduate student in Cultural Studies, Ana Thorne, successfully defended her dissertation, Framing a Blaxicana Identity: A Cultural Ethnography of Family, Race and Community in the Valley Homes, Lincoln Heights, Ohio, 1955-1960. It was an emotional experience: Ana turned 65 this year, and wrote compellingly in her dissertation about how the racial segregation experienced by citizens of her her all-black town, Lincoln Heights, had initially limited her access to education as a girl. Now, she’s Dr. Thorne!

In this original, creative, and elegant study, Ana presses her family’s (and her embodied) stories of the pleasures and dangers of crossing and blending racial categories within the oppressive historical regimes of racial oppression and segregation to allow us to understand that even in an “all-black” context, race is more mobile, dangerous, complex, and contingent then we like to remember.

She writes: “This research will draw its conclusions regarding the construction of a Blaxicana identity by using a critical, self-reflexive method of inquiry that incorporates the author’s memories, impressions and artifacts from the 1950’s.  The author’s interracial family experience, defined by an African American father from Nashville, Tennessee and a Mexican mother from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, presents the opportunity to examine what was then, considering the time and place, an uncommon combination.”

Home after back-to-back events where I wore one hat that just might be construed as two (an interesting slip [of the tongue] or tip [of the hat] that helps point out some of my unease with [my place in] the “Digital Humanities,” more on that to come).

The first was just that: Re:Humanities, a student-run undergraduate conference where a day of really impressive student presentations were book-ended by addresses by professors (myself and Katherine Harris) who spoke on our own pedagogic commitments to undergraduate research.

While there was much to note here, I’ll focus my observations on the related themes and contradictions of expertise, authority, authoring, and professional(ism)(ilization) in the realm of the digital (humanities). We enjoyed polished, first rate and diverse student presentations on topics ranging from the mapping of Soweto, to websites devoted to postcolonial feminism, Paris monuments, and global street-art, to pleas for better digital design or citation practices, to the digitizing and narrativizing of rare books. It was crystal clear that digital humanities opens up a place, multiple methods, and voice for qualified young participants who would otherwise not be so readily enabled to “publish” or circulate their work while also being so creative and impassioned about both the content and forms of their fledgling scholarly endeavors. Many of the students commented that doing work for an audience larger than one professor (and maybe their Mom), promotes a higher degree of commitment, professionalism, and passion then they feel when writing a paper, and this reminded me of something I already knew and already do…

The subject of the second conference: Women, Social Justice and Documentary, held at Smith College. Granted, this group of faculty, artists, and students had not really heard of the “digital humanities,” although they were also interested in thinking about the relationship between making things like documentaries, and their academic (arts and humanities) studies, and (feminist) passions and commitments. In this case, a decades-long struggle to find and circulate a voice by those deauthorized by gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of patriarchal oppression has created a substantive history of media objects, and an infrastructure that holds them (including distribution, festivals, scholarship, and pedagogy).

Why, we might ask, doesn’t Digital Humanities know about the work and struggles and conquests of (see Hammer Retrospective at the Tate above) the speakers at the second conference like Lourdes Portillo, Barbara Hammer, or Rea Tajiri who have been interpreting their impassioned, politicized ideas into forms of media and pedagogy for decades and this to an enthusiastic audience who has responded in kind with criticism and media production of our own?

I’d have to say the answer to this is why I don’t whole-heartedly embrace the digital humanities (while I’m happy to be embraced by them). The “field” does the amazing potentially radicalizing work of asking humanities professors (and students) to take account for their audiences, commitments, forms, and the uses of their work. But this was always there to take account of, merely being obscured by the transparent (and patriarchal) protocols of publishing and pedagogy that have suddenly been miraculously revealed because of the confounding force of the digital. However, this turn is occurring, for the most part, as if plenty of fields, and professors, and artists, and students, and humanists hadn’t been already been doing this for years (and therefore without turning to these necessarily radical traditions of political scholars, theoretical artists, and humanities activists).

I wrote just such a comment recently on Miriam Posner’s blog:

“Just got turned on to your blog. How thrilling! When I think (and write and d0) about doing as making as thinking I have often made videos as well as books, and more currently “ video-books” (which are really just big web-pages), so what I think has been lost in this “all Digital Humanities are communities of practice speak” (and particularly that this is a radicalizing moment for humanists) is not simply that people crafted before in that twee sense, but that academic writing is and always was doing, as it was craft, and that these added digital technologies have merely exposed that scholars were always making things, in ritualized ways, for particular users, with machines and for special(ized) uses (and now actually have to be accountable for this). I spoke with Victoria Szabo about this at length for a panel she co-ran recently, Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates at the 2012 MLA Convention. I love your four points at the end for the reason that it marks practice as political, and hope you’ll take a peek at some of the similar principles I’m working through at my Feminist Online Spaces site (a work in progress to be sure).”

Out in Public

March 9, 2012

I was driving home from the opening of Natalie Bookchin‘s amazing multi channel video installation, Now he’s out in public and everyone can see with fellow “video artists” Rachel Mayeri and Anne Bray and we were commenting on how hard it must be to make something that eloquent and prescient and beautiful—the result of two years of hard thinking and feverish work—and to live with the knowledge that the only people who will ever really see it are those lucky enough to walk through the doors of Hollywood’s LACE Gallery between the dates of March 8-April 15, 2012. Just look where YouTube has taken us to …

We want to believe that (like “video art” but so much more) all of our work can and should  last forever, move where it must, and be seen by all who need it. This promise—that each and every one of our words, opinions, and voices will play a part of the cultural dialogue—is also (one of) the sad stories of Bookchin’s piece: a minimalist, refined statement upon the current and changing power of place and placenessless, circulation and stagnancy, video and sculpture, and voice and agency via YouTube. Eighteen monitors seem to float, hanging elegantly as they do from cables and hooks, suspended across a large blackened and muffled gallery in a dumbfounding materilazation of circuitry, a compelling literalization of cyberspace, freeing visitors to walk into and through the multiple competing screens that usually sit so flat in front of us. While her other recent work (seen most recently at LACMA) begins to disperse one story across a sea of embodied voices—none of them her own, all of them eerily in synch, mouthing one way of being and knowing, even as each one of us retains our autonomy or not, lost as we are in a sea of undifferentiated testimony

the new project fractures and sprays these “scatter-shot online voices” across the room, forcing the viewer’s body (not the computer screen) to hold all this variation, and pain, anger, desire, and loneliness. By forcing the work to be and stay room-, place- and time-bound, known as it will be only in and through our bodies (and sometimes those bodies dancing together across the room), Bookchin reminds us that speaking into the void (and being saved by the Internet) is no replacement for the beauties of ineffable place.

Afterthoughts PerpiTube

October 25, 2011

On Friday we spent a fruitful day discussing some of the ideas raised by, work made for, and communities engaged within PerpiTube. The day’s structure moved us from a panel about curating on/about YouTube, to artists talks about making work for this show (and its varied gallery and YouTube iterations), to small group discussions that looked closely at a few of the (many) videos in the show, to a closing conversation about the lived and practical effects of moving voice via YouTube to communities (like former prisoners and recovering drug addicts, and others deemed marginal or unauthorized) who were once outside media discourse but always part of this show, and now can (more) easily access these tools and their audiences.

Given that they day was so packed with intelligent, complex, and competing dialogue, this post does not serve as a recap, but rather a highlight of four concepts that stuck with me.

  • Quality and authorization: How does the white box of the art gallery bestow authority, and how does YouTube erase it? How are the qualities we might want from “art video” seen in a gallery related to what we need from YouTube videos watched at home? In this, the comments at the symposium from some of the female participants from Prototypes seem quite critical: the stature of Pitzer, and the assumed prominence of PerpiTube, contributed to a perception of quality or authority, validity, and purpose connected to their participation that would have otherwise been deemed inconsequential (perhaps to themselves and certainly to perceived outsiders). In other words, if many of our participants had been able to speak on YouTube on their own already, outside the frame of the show, would anyone have listened or cared or does the connection to Pitzer and PerpiTube’s other artists raise the value (if not the quality) of the work?
  • Reception and production: In what ways are the consumption of YouTube videos productive or purposeful? In what ways are making videos unproductive? What happens in a room, with an audience, within a rarified discourse that can not happen when watching work alone on YouTube? How does private contemplation, close viewing, and individual control better and build our perception? Ineffectual and unstudied making (like most of what we see on YouTube) is not in itself a higher form of media interaction than careful reception, but how does one build a studied and purposeful reception?
  • Montage and re-contextualization: Is a YouTube practice best-suited by self-referentiality and appropriation? What is lost as we move media objects willy-nilly? Is the (best) work of a YouTube artist to provide context and meaning (or purpose) to other YouTube video through the act of montage or through the practices of curation, discussion, or framing?
  • YouTube literacy: Given that our show is about and now on YouTube (and no longer in a gallery), and questions YouTube’s possible uses for expression and interaction, how much sophistication do we demand of our viewers about YouTube’s architecture? Our show is viewed through playlists (the only way to organize things on YouTube unless one has larger institutional privileges), but many of our viewers are not familiar with playlists (or channels) given that their only experience with YouTube is to watch one video at a time, often found somewhere else. Furthermore, YouTube literacy improves the quality of work and reception, and the possibility for connection. What does it mean to smack a traditional “art video” into the YouTube space, and what makes a work best-suited for YouTube (humor, summary, self-reflexivity, montage, etc)?

Soon, the videos that recorded this day will be added to the unruly chaos that is already the YouTube show. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll take some time on your own to watch the conversation as it unfolded, and decide how you can purposefully engage as Dr. Strangelove did here, through a video:

AIDS Feelings

October 19, 2011

My talk at Concordia stirred a lot of feelings in the community: an intended effect of my “mixed reality experience” produced through the experiences of real bodies, watching digital materials, in real rooms. I didn’t expect the anger, however. Here’s a review by Jacob Roberts, from The Link, that gets to some of those complex responses.

PerpiTube Symposium

October 18, 2011

11_NIC_Perpitube_Flyer (please feel free to distribute, or better yet come… Panels will be taped and put on YouTube, of course.)

HIV/AIDS Concordia

October 13, 2011

I’m in Montreal, getting ready to give a talk “Remembering AIDS Online: Networking, Viruses, Virality, and Arteries” as part of Concordia University’s eighteen year old, multi-disciplinary, year-long undergraduate course and lecture series: HIV/AIDS Project. As my host and Project founder, Tom Waugh explains, the Project links students to internships, the community, and AIDS scholars and activists. I’m honored to be a part of it.

I’ll be sharing my most recent work that is attempting to theorize the distinctions and through-lines of the online documentary by looking at how my earlier activist AIDS video project (and those of many of my peers), as well as our associated projects of memorialization, have moved from linear video (and other materials) to new digital platforms and uses. I make wacky use of power point to create a “mixed reality experience” (this term comes from Anne Balsamo’s Quilty project, which I discuss, a digital interface that she is building that allows the AIDS Quilt to be viewed on a hand-held, table-like device). Their attempt to repurpose and repopulate an old memorial material becomes the quilt metaphor (and practice) that I will point to and attempt to embody in a room with others during my talk tonight.

Over the course of 40 minutes, 37 power point slides, many quotes, and a handful of AIDS media old and new, I plan to focus upon four tangled lines of thinking about the changing shape of documentary and memorials, and how they contribute to or shape our shifting perceptions of AIDS. I will consider:

1) How AIDS documentaries change as they move from the linear form of video used by myself and others when the AIDS crisis began in the 1980s, to today’s online documentary forms.

2) How memory and memorials are dependent upon their forms and materials

3) How documentary and other memorials have and might continue to serve AIDS activism

4) How “public mixed reality experiences,” using documentary to build temporary memorials, in lived and live offline rooms, might also serve AIDS activism, and its memory.

The talk will next become a more traditional essay that I will publish in the Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Documentary Cinema that I am co-editing with fellow AIDS video activist and now documentary scholar, Alisa Lebow.

Tomorrow, I also get to work closely with a small number of students and activists from Montreal and Concordia in a hands-on multi-media workshop where I will introduce them to,and ask them to participate in, my new work on Online Feminist Spaces. It looks to be an exciting couple of days in Canada.

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