Seeing and Going: Documentary and other Tools for Being There

August 14, 2016

I will be giving a brief presentation at the Visible Evidence documentary conference in Bozeman Montana on one of two workshops concerning the teaching of documentary.

Preparing for this, I realize: I don’t teach “Intro to Documentary” (Studies and/or Production), and never have in my twenty-five years of praxis-based collegiate instruction committed to making, historicizing and theorizing activist media practices with my students and related communities. Thus, I decided to use my invitation to contribute to the panel, and its field-centered conversation, to figure out where, in fact, I had and have located my teaching about feminist, queer, activist, AIDS and internet media. My title for the panel, written well in advance, had been “The Axis of Praxis.” This placed- and action-based metaphor still provides a reasonable framework in that the space I have been doing my work in, about, and for is indeed, not really documentary but rather, this place: a media place, a lived place, a practice place at the (always anticipated and endlessly unfulfilled) axis of community, commitment, making,  seeing and representation.

That is, the internet, and its wild collections, its multiple possibilities for media (what Helen De Michiel named as “a cutting loose from legacy 20th century production and distribution practices”), its linking and unlinking of networks of self and community, and its breezy possibilities for making and sharing. The internet: with its corporate ownership, neo-liberal paradigms of labor, self-production, promotion, and commodification. The internet: a place we don’t need to go to see.

In my presentation (my power point is here), I will discuss how my work has been situated not in documentary, per se, but rather: between film and media studies by way of documentary, and more particularly activist, community-based media; in DH by way of queer and feminist and anti-racist studies; and in critical internet studies by way of placed-based interrogations of the embodied experiences of communities of practitioners. This inter-disciplinarity helps me to better see this place. At Visible Evidence, thinking about documentary with theorists and practitioners in Montana (for now), I learned, face-to-face about the values of lived embodied space.

13920563_10154809601099316_8166273746383273395_oJanet Walker‘s opening keynote, “Mapping Documentary,” set the stage for my experience of a series of provocations about documentary, place, and digital technologies, including the internet, that she and her graduate students and fellow faculty members at UCSB have been developing and refining for many years (I have joined them here and elsewhere) and which I then heard across the conference from many others (just a few listed below). She understands documentary “as mapping in and of itself,” by way of geo-locative tools that combine with more traditional media and their linked practices (i.e. documentary) and material, daily, lived experience and knowledge of place. Her reading of how and why these representations move on and off media, including the internet, what she calls “a deep mapping,” is a practice at the axis of praxis.

I’ve also been attempting to do and theorize this kind of engaged, active, seeing, going and reading with my students and others, albeit often by first (creatively/politically) building or entering a digital place, that is always also a material place, that is to say that is one place—the world and its internet; this place—with all the particularities of the local and the global, the material and the digital making it impossible to pin down.

Helen De Michiel‘s presentation on a panel about contemporary participatory media practices, looked to her current documentary practice (on Lunch Love Community) that is “enmeshed in social lived encounters … folded into public settings” and that Patty Zimmerman went on to name as “small-scale media interventions that permeate in and through communities,” at once “digital, analogue, and embodied.” In this panel, Aggie Bazaz noted a set of documentary-linked practices where “films receded into the background of events,” that Reece Auguiste called “a way of being in the world,” that is collectively “for oneself and for others.” What matters most to me here is their descriptions of carefully navigated movements from lived embodied reality to digital/media representation as the most critical part of activist multimedia practices. This is done with care, attention, love, and self-awareness.

These placed based ideas of my colleagues, learned and shared as they were in a place, Montana, have led me to believe that I have not, indeed, been studying, teaching or making documentaries for these past many years as I have been trying rather, to use documentary, and a related series of linked tools, processes and methods, histories and theories, to build with others (often my students) a way of being, doing, and changing in the digital material world that is currently our home. From this, I realize that documentary, like the internet, is simply a set of technologies at hand; certainly one with rules, histories, best practices, theories, communities, and infinite possibilities (limited by many forces). But for me, it has always been the doing towards the living and being and changing that has mattered the most, and I thus am drawn to makers and theorists (in whatever fields) that try to understand this, as much as I am to the texts that inspire it.

Here are links to five such projects of my own, using documentary as practices and theories and histories, to be sure, but along with other tools and ways of being and knowing, that have pushed me to reconsider my place at the axis of praxis of documentary and other fields:

  • Learning from YouTube: my class and video-book on and about this site
  • Visual Research Methods: my class teaching grad students in the humanities about the legacies and affordances of critical digital making as a humanist and artistic mode of inquiry and writing
  • FemTechNet: a place for asynchronous, collective, distributed teaching about feminist views of technologies
  • Feminist Online Spaces: a project aimed at researching, teaching, talking about and otherwise building-towards online spaces that are defined by feminist and other progressive principles of community, visibility, discourse, and politics
  • Ev-ent-anglement an experiment in digital embodied collective feminist media praxis



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