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 with Vicki Patraka and Joanne Leonard). 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.

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Margaret Lazarus, Sally Berger, Patty Zimmerman, Karen Sanders, Joanne Leonard, Wendy Kozol, Jeannie Simms, Carol Jacobsen, Connie Samaras, Alex Juhasz, Meena Nanji, Regina Austin (Vicki Patraka not picture)

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
While these terms sign-post places that are still very much alive and operational on YouTube, what I had not mapped then is how YouTube, like the world itself, a world itself, and as one of the places that makes our world itself, now also, at the same time, holds unimaginable quantities of visible, uncloseted, never-closeted feminisms:
  • 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.

From class discussion, Learning from YouTube, 2015

From class discussion, Learning from YouTube, 2015

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.

Conviction: Janis, 2006

Conviction: Janis, 2006

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.

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Tarek Loubani and John Greyson were freed, last night, from prison in Cairo after spending 51 days in dire circumstances although never being officially charged with anything.

My friend and colleague and comrade in this struggle, Catherine Lord, sent me this exultant picture of our fellow friend and core activist in this struggle, Sarah Schulman

My friend and colleague and comrade in this struggle, Catherine Lord, sent me this exultant picture of our fellow friend and core activist in this struggle, Sarah Schulman

No matter how you count it, a lot of people contributed to this daunting, humbling, and ultimately victorious effort (and are now sharing the above-depicted relief and joy): hundreds of thousands of people helped (149,702 signed the Change.org petition), multitudes marched, protested, made buttons and artwork, hundreds worked tirelessly behind the scenes to locate or create press …

I could go on and on. And there’s good reason to do so: change occurs when people make it, piece by piece, little and big, and it’s not just crucial to name this to thank them (although that is important, and I’m doing a bit of that here), but to understand how successful organizing works. Here’s my friend and comrade, Matias Viegener, on our local TV station. It took many of us many days to get this small, and almost silly end result. (At the time, we wondered if it was worth it; my sister, Antonia, contributed a lot towards what ended up being seen as only this one segment)

It truly was a family, and also a community affair. A core group of Canadians (the Canadian “A team,” led by friend and fellow professor, Justin Podur, sister Cecelia Greyson, other family members and close friends, like Elle Flanders) was joined by scores of Canadian and international friends, colleagues, activists, and comrades. Very few of us had ever worked on a political campaign of this sort—life and death, international intrigue (although one of the behind the scenes projects was to get in contact with people who had; many of us contacted friends, and friends of friends, who worked at the State Department, consulates around the world, Amnesty International; man, you wouldn’t imagine the kinds of conversations film critic, B. Ruby Rich was having off the record). However, most of us who lent a hand, big or small, knew of either John or Tarek through earlier shared projects of activism and cultural politics (John programmed my first AIDS activist video into his seminal collection, Video Against AIDS, made in 1989 for Video Data Bank). With hind sight (given that it worked), it was stunning, and deeply moving, and just plain awe-inspiring, really, each day to see the collective knowledge, skills, and power of this diverse, eclectic, and ragamuffin group go at it, wherever we were, however we could:

These images are from the "See Our Support Section at tarekandjohn.com

These images are from the “See Our Support Section” at tarekandjohn.com

screen-shot-2013-09-14-at-9-02-08-pm ftaj_unicorn btdihwvcmaar_z8 ftaj_almirindah

But to be honest, there was also something deeply painful, knowing each day, and after every act by which we used all of our highly dispersed and cunningly eccentric cultural capital (and its associated real-world political power) that there were so many others in that very prison, or elsewhere in another prison, who do not and will not ever have such powerful, connected, capable friends and allies; their crimes no more real, their imprisonment no less unjust

Their less heard stories, and unknown humiliations, will always haunt my memories of these many days and actions.

After much celebration, and its associated sadness, fear, and introspection, I’ll also continue to think about how both my queer/ documentary/activist/scholarly film community and our use of social media played an impotant, complex, and contributing role to this highly successful effort, given that this is something I study, engage in, and often criticize. This is where my subtitle comes in. In the last days of the effort, I was working closely with Jonathan Kahana, Shannon Kelley (from the UCLA Film Archive), and many other film profs, curators, programmers (like Jenni Olson and KP Pepe), to organize a Day of International Screenings for John and Tarek. We decided to organize on Facebook (because it was there, and easy, and so many of us had met on it, even though I have quite recently written about the most progressive act being LEAVING Facebook and other corporate-owned platforms that we get for free but that limit our abilities in their very structures). Within a day of setting up a Group we had over 100 members, and Matt Soar, Communications Prof. at Concordia College (who I met in real-time during this effort online) had designed the poster below for our effort (Chris Durrant, Out Twin Cities Film Festival Director, made the first effort within just a few short hours of the group’s formation):

GreysonScreeningsOct5

I felt both really humbled and really frustrated working on this effort via Facebook. Online, via Facebook, we moved this idea so quickly, so many people came on board, the poster got made in what felt like minutes, and yet, this self-same platform has written into its core structures, and accepted uses, that some significant majority of the people who joined did so to “like” the group. Hear me, these friends were doing nothing wrong by joining; they were following Facebook’s logic of seeing, spreading, liking, and knowing. But this made me prickle because I found it harder to use Facebook towards the deeper, harder, more intense and labor-intensive norms of the very social justice organizing that had brought me and others to John, Tarek, and each other, and that were what was most needed for the effort I was working on. To make global screenings occur within about 10 days, what we most needed was for people to DO THINGS IN THE WORLD (find a room, get a copy of a film by John, invite a speaker, get bodies to that room). Just as was true for the Arab Spring, social media connected us, spread the word, and gave us an instantaneous and satisfying feeling of support and community, but good old fashioned community built from deep relationships formed and cemented in real places and over long term efforts was what finally supplied the muscle, the meaning, and the deep, take away truth of this awesome effort: Tarek and John are free because we (like they) can make the change we need by working with each other every day, in the places we live, and work, and love. How we can sustain this work, how we can again make local connections move nations, how we can use dominant/corporate social media forms as well as our own networks and technologies to make the world we want, these will be the questions I will continue to ask after this much-deserved party ends.

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Swoon at 20

February 4, 2012

I had the pleasure of attending the first in a series of screenings at the UCLA film archive that will be revisiting the original films of “the new queer cinema” as so heralded by B. Ruby Rich in 1992. We saw my dear friend Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and Sadie Benning’s Jollies (1990), with Tom, lead actor Craig Chester, and B. Ruby Rich in scintillating attendance.

I suppose that a happy but emotionally nuanced privilege of living into one’s middle age is to see the work of one’s friends and generation revisited, commemorated, celebrated, and memorialized (just last week I spoke at a similar event for The Watermelon Woman, 1996: a comer those few years later into this history, as Rich noted even then, because it took [black] lesbians just a little longer to move from video to film). For, it turns out that this year is not only the 20th anniversary of the (beginning of the male) NQC but also a sort of cultural watershed in relation to filmic revisits to AIDS activism of the same period (United in Anger, Sex in an Epidemic, We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague, Vito). Maybe distance makes us/AIDS activism/then seem safer, softened as it all seems by a rosy wash of loss, nostalgia, and the inevitable mellowing of age. I’ve certainly found it interesting, when on the road myself with such revisits, to find that contemporary audiences are not as open to returns that stay as defiant, angry, political, and anti-sentimental as our work was then. This may explain why United in Anger, a film that attempts to represent this period from the voice, analysis, and method of the time–from the point of of view of AIDS activists–is seeming the hardest to sell of the commemerative bunch, given directors Hubbard and Schulman’s commitment to not soft-peddling for the present (the film opens MOMA’s documentary fortnight in February, but has not had as easy a run of it in the A-level festival circuit).

Watching Kalin’s film these many years later (and Benning’s too) it is remarkable to see how dark, critical, theoretical, political and formally inventive is the work, ways of filmmaking that seem to have been largely absented from independent cinema in the past twenty years, arguably because of the evacuation of public funding from this sector. From where we sit today it seemed more incredible to see the funders of this film during its credits–the NEA (who also funded WMW in its last year of film funding), NYSCA–then what at the time seemed like the big conquest, its ultimate industrial home with Fine Line Features. On the long drive cross town to the screening, I was explaining to my friend that what made NQC queer to me was its home in a cultural millieu and friendship network that was inhabited by men and women (take the critical role of Christine Vachon in both Kalin and Haynes’ careers, for instance) who were equally inspired by a recent art school/liberal arts education in “critical theory” by way of a critique of gender and sexuality through feminism, and who happened to have to live our requisite moment of youthful exuberant artmaking during a plague that felled our remarkable friends and altered our lives. Ruby and Tom reiterated this vision of an uncompromising, challenging, art-like NQC from the stage. Films that were queer, as Ruby said last night, not so much because they were gay or lesbian but because they were inspired by AIDS, cheap rent, camcorders, and Reagan.

I gave a talk last week at Berkeley’s Gender Consortium that points towards the (non)place, and yet somehow real focus and locus, of my future work: the nowheres and everywheres of feminism in on-line, user-generated, social networked spaces of web 2.0 and its scholarship and pedagogy. I will be speaking on issues related at the Women in View: SexMoneyMedia conference in October in Vancouver, and then again, in a course I will be offering at USC’s Critical Studies program this Spring while on sabbatical.

This new project comes on the tail of the YouTube video-book, (Learning from YouTube, to be published very soon with MIT (contract signed at last!) taking some personal account, in a sordid if necessary form of feminist self-criticism, for the absence, or hide-n-seek nature, of feminism in my current project. Namely: what is the nature of work by a feminist scholar that is neither about a “feminist” topic (YouTube) nor set in a feminist space (the internet)? Especially given that I usually intentionally work in more marginal spaces of shared commitment, community, and criticism, my new project will seek to understand what might be the feminist implications of my not-overtly, hardly-even feminist project as a way of thinking more generally about the no-places of feminism on-line.

In the talk, I looked self-critically at how the “cyber-closet of on-line feminism” defined my work on this project and on the web much as the closet had functioned for gays and lesbians before me: as a structuring absence, always knowable in its felt presence, a hidden frame through which to see newly. I looked at the many ways and places that feminism was implicit in my work: largely working as a set of underlying if unnamed methods, theories, and operating procedures that assumed a political, communal, ethical, and personal stance that often foregrounded the knowledge, experience, and skills of women, family, and home, yet without ever calling this out. Unnaming and not saying as ways of being seen by new audiences, as tickets of entry to new places, and as permission to speak more globally about democratic media, corporate culture, and radical self-expression.

I also looked at the places where my feminism was explicit: flags unfurled for my mainstream users to avoid miscommunication and misdirection and not to unduly raise techno expectations. Yes, I would be talking about war, gender, sexuality, race, transgender, and all those other identity- and left-based issues usually eschewed in the squeaky clean, apolitical spaces of the on-line. Interestingly, while I found that “predictably, a feminist methodology including reflexivity and collaboration, an action orientation and activist stance, and an affective focus on the everyday is demonstrated across the work,” I also saw that often when I began to work explicitly on a feminist topic, person, question, or thematic, I would nevertheless veer to the implicit, or general, or global, making larger points about form, structure, ownership, organizing. Somehow, on-line, on YouTube, I couldn’t quite keep my sites clear on women and feminism, even when I tried.

I concluded that I hope to study these nowheres and everywheres of feminism in on-line user-generated spaces. How feminist methods and tendencies define the space for all: practices defined by reflexivity, the affective, the everyday, and self-growth, expression and healing. And yet, the internet’s no-frame of corporate control excludes, de-nudes the possibilities for interaction and action given that it can never be that safe space so necessary for building community.

With thanks to B. Ruby Rich’s “In the Name of Feminist Filmmaking,” an earlier naming project that called forth these terms for her times and media—Validative, Correspondence, Reconstructive, Medusan, Corrective Realism, and Projectile—I name my own names towards future studies:

ARCHITECTURAL or ARCHAIC feminism occurs at deep and structural levels

UN-NAMED Feminism: That in so doing sees itself newly

MORPHING feminism transforms to encapsulate other beliefs in feminism’s name

FRAMING feminism umbrellas the social justice work of trans, anti-war, anti-racism and other activisms

ASSERTIVE or INSERTIVE feminism names its relevance in places where it wasn’t deemed important

COMMON-CULTURAL feminism assumes feminism as the shared space of production

ACCESS feminism doesn’t just 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 on-line

ASSUMPTIONAL or PRESUMPTIVE feminism always assumes that feminism counts and that feminists speak