May 21, 2015
I taught Learning from YouTube (LFYT) for the fifth time this year. The first iteration was in 2007, fresh into the early years of the still short life of YouTube and social media more generally. I taught the course again this semester, after a several year hiatus, because I was interested in two things: accounting for what has changed in these 8 years as well as for the confounding relations between social (in)justice and social media (which I have reflected upon twice at Lady Justice a part of New Criticals committed to “reconsidering gender and technology in the age of the distributed network”).
While the most obvious changes on YouTube are 1) its unimaginable and consistently escalating scale (seemingly as large as the world, or at least the world of media, more on this later), which itself is connected to the ever shortening time-scale of memes (see video above by LFYT student, Samantha Abernathey, one of several videos made for 2015’s Meme Project) and 2) the marked consolidations of its professional and financial infrastructures and outputs (allowing for new modes of mediamaking and their monetization that sit precociously between amateur and expert media and which actually do make people/corporations/YouTube/Google money). What I will focus on here is another glaring, although perhaps more variegated change, 3) the nature of feminism on YouTube as a way to think about the massive cultural, political, and personal shifts associated with the rapid maturation of social media. In the brief observations that follow, I will press my course (which, surprisingly [definitively?] was taken by 14 women, “feminists” all, and 2 men, probably “feminists” too; whereas in its past iterations it had been dominated by male students, often [definitively?] basketball players, probably not “feminists”) into conversation with another example of feminist media pedagogy, a memorable symposium I just attended at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan: Feminist Video Documentary Strategies in Social Dissent and Change (organized by Michigan art professor, Carol Jacobsen). There, in Ann Arbor, in conversation for three intense and fully-scheduled days with eleven hand-picked feminist scholars, artists, and activists, ranging from their mid-forties to mid-seventies, fully-formed, carefully-schooled, and highly– and deservedly-vetted for their diverse and stunning bodies of activist feminist documentary work, built in some cases beginning in the 1970s, and occurring all over the world and in regards to feminist issues as diverse as prison reform, domestic abuse, racism, homophobia and Chevron, and the dreams of female Indonesian domestic workers in training—an anti-YouTube if ever there was one—I encountered a feminist media space that itself put the changes at YouTube into another form of stark release.
In 2010, thinking about my teaching and writing about YouTube within my video-book about this, I suggested that my feminism, and feminism more broadly on YouTube, was closeted. With a tip of the hat to both film scholar and critic, B. Ruby Rich and feminist poet and theorist, Adrienne Rich, I attempted to create sign-posts to better mark and see the “nowheres and everywheres” of this new closet, one which I named as holding many hidden-away in plain sites for feminisms:
- ARCHITECTURAL or ARCHAIC feminism occurs at a deep and structural level
- UN-NAMED feminism that in so doing sees itself newly
- MORPHING feminism transforms to encapsulate other beliefs in feminism’s name
- FRAMING feminism that umbrellas the social justice work of trans, anti-war, anti-racism and other activisms
- ASSERTIVE or INSERTIVE feminism that names its relevance in places where it wasn’t deemed important
- COMMON-CULTURAL feminism that assumes feminism is the shared space of production
- ACCESS feminism that doesn’t only speak to feminists and also speaks to feminists by opening access to unusual places
- TECHNO feminism that engages in collaborative, goal-oriented, placed, critical self-expression online
- ASSUMPTIONAL or PRESUMPTIVE feminism that always assumes that feminism counts and that feminists speak
- OVERT feminism that names itself proudly and often attached to equally proud descriptors (i.e. Black, trans, queer)
- TRENDY feminism that attaches to memes, celebrities, and products
- WARRING feminism that pits feminists against each other
- TWITTER and TUMBLER and INSTAGRAM and PINTERST feminisms that spread, link and grow transmedially
- TROLLING (against) feminism that harasses, stalks, demeans, threatens, bullies and endangers
YouTube is truly a (corporate) space where everything and everybody is (with notable blind spots both self-chosen and socially deployed). As proved true for the feminist demographic and associated conversations within my 2015 class, YouTube has become a place of, for and by feminists and this overt engagement has brought clarity and confusion. My students, like all of us who are engaged with social media, name an anxiety, cynicism, and consumerism that is core to their new media experience even when they are being “political” (in the production, or more definitively consumption of overtly “feminist” media) but especially when they are not, when they are taking a much-deserved break from the onslaught of “feminism” that now greets them there and so are watching the innocent, fun, funny, trivial (corporate) content that surrounds the feminist media also readily-available.
Meanwhile, the Michigan feminists also attested to a level of fatigue, anxiety, and hard-to-manage overwhelmedness brought on by new and social media consumption practices. I suggested that media production and its feeding feminist process, now radically accessible to so many, is a final feminist frontier in that it can maintain attention, ethical conditions, non-corporate environments, and clearer boundaries of commitment that now seem nearly impossible in the space of new media reception given the noise, hyper-visibility, and corporate domination of this space. As you see, these conversations circled around architectural metaphors and material considerations attempting to describe possible feminist media spaces, norms, and histories that might be defined by counter-, concordant-, and/or immersive YouTube practices (a project I have being pursuing in my Feminist Online Spaces work).
The twenty-five year plus bodies of work shared by many of our group who have devoted their careers to ongoing, careful, connected, personal and political media projects help refine vocabularies for feminist media practices that can and do share the broader media ecology with YouTube and social media. For instance, our host, Carol Jacobsen, has been making photo and video for over twenty-five years as part of her work as the Coordinator of the Michigan Women’s Clemency Project, advocating for the human rights of women prisoners and seeking freedom for women wrongly incarcerated. Her feminist media work has been shown in galleries, used by activists, lawyers and policy people, and contributed to the release of nine wrongfully-incarcerated women. Some of it is on Vimeo while also sitting elsewhere across the Internet.
I would like to conclude by thinking through the experiences in Michigan (where we sat for two-plus days in an isolated, quiet, and window-less conference room while each participant took an hour or more to present her work, and we listened and responded with heightened focus) as a way to also see some of the notable dark spots that are by definition lost to the eye within our (new) place of feminist hyper and over-visibility. Critically, these eleven women were significantly older than your typical “YouTube feminist.” Each had an institutional home that she may have fought to achieve over most of her career, that she had made herself by creating this counter-institution on her own or with others, or that she was precariously connected to or even retiring from. But notably, the diverse feminist media activism of this group shares certain core values, practices, and infrastructures quite different from the ones I have mapped through YouTube thus far, ones which signal time, space, connection and attention as core:
- SEQUESTERED feminism where the environment to share the work is small, closed, respectful, and supportive.
- SLOW feminism during which we took time, were not rushed, and no one multitasked; we listened, watched and were focused (thanks to Meena Nanji for this term and the previous one).
- RESEARCH feminism where work is anchored in (often) funded and mostly multi-year engagements
- AESTHETIC feminism where the refinement of a personal practice takes place in conversation with other artists and traditions
- HISTORIC feminism that knows and marks where it comes from
- PLACED feminism grounded in and connected to a lived or political community
- VERSIONED feminism occurring over time and in conversation with other work, changing audiences, and history
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already suggested that everything and everybody is on YouTube, which by definition puts all of these women, their methods, and projects there, too (or not if they inhabit the dark space by choice or exclusion).
Furthermore, a significant subset of “Hashtag” or “Twitter” feminism functions quite similarly to what I have named above. Lisa Nakamura’s recent work on This Bridge Called my Back on Tumblr being only one of innumerable examples of such practices. I am not suggesting that social media can’t or doesn’t attend to architectural, historic, or sustaining feminisms. Rather, I am curious about how these many feminist modalities map onto or next to each other, how they feed or frustrate us, how we can build experiences and media for feminisms with intentionality and purpose given the conflicting norms of the many media spaces that are now available to us. Thus, the current state of YouTube feminism is not a matter of medium (or age or even institution) and entirely one of métier: taking the time, making the space, producing the architecture, community, and history from which to make, receive, and relish our very best work.
February 22, 2013
Natalie’s film is an inspiring mix of digital storytelling and artistic vision. Hope to see New Yorkers there!
“How can we understand this moment of ‘AIDS Crisis Revisitation’, exemplified by the success of films like United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague. Video artist, activist, and academic Alexandra Juhasz provides some insight.
Making and thinking about AIDS activist video since the mid 80’s, Juhasz coined the term “Queer Archive Activism”. In this first of two blog post Visual AIDS interviews her about her term and in the next post we flesh how Queer Archive Activism works in the world. Visit Alexandra Juhasz’s website.
Visual AIDS: Can you tell me about your phrase Queer Archive Activism? What does it mean? Where did it come from?
see my answers on Visual AIDS’ website!
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.
February 1, 2012
Yesterday afternoon, I had the decided pleasure of partaking in a conversation with Natalie Bookchin, the amazing new media artist who is my friend and even sometimes collaborator. We spoke together with the Critical Digital Humanities group at UC Riverside about space, quotation, and community in relation to our critical media practices.
A highlight in our conversation addressed how we both conscientiously move and link our work between “real” and “cyber” spaces always anticipating how they are co-constitutive (thanks to April Durham for this clarification) while trying to maintain a shared, and admitted commitment to the “real” in the last instance (what I called a complex three-way). But I was most inspired by our interactions about the voice, body and structure: how Natalie explains the ways that her voice is visible in the system, tensions, arguments, and connections she draws from the indexical images of faces and words of others from YouTube, while my online feminist mantrafesto didactically insists that the (feminist, raced) body of the user must be seen. Bookchin’s unseen but anchored presence as artist may be the out I’ve been looking for, as participants at my road show have consistently been critical of these lines:
All voices want a body. A body needs to be visible
Visibility allows for warranting
November 3, 2011
“THE CHAOTIC DIVERSITY of ‘PerpiTube’ is perhaps best encapsulated by the contribution of Sue Bell Yank, whose video, An Icarian Fall, explores seemingly contradictory images of Los Angeles as seen from a distance in a panoramic view, which belies the complexity of the city below, and the fragmented, street level discontinuity. Together they produce a rich, if also overwhelming experience. In her mediation of these paradoxical portrayals, Yank refers to Michel de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” and economist Jeffrey Goldstein’s theory of emergence. Calling the totalizing vision encapsulated by the panoramic view a fiction, De Certeau contended that the Icarian fall into chaos is necessary to comprehend the intricacy of the city. In presenting Goldstein’s idea of emergence, defined as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems,” Yank suggests a resolution to the antipodes of totality and fracture…”
see the rest at Christopher Michno, Artillery Mag
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: