DIY Dilemmas

October 24, 2008

I went to an inspiring talk by Ian Mackaye, of long-time punk and more recent Fugazi fame. Since the 1980s he’s quite successfully run an underground record label, played in bands, living his life by his own private ethics as an artist on the outside and in opposition to corporate, media, military culture.

I’m wasn’t there as a fan, although I understand why people would be, I attended because I thought he might be able to help me with my concern about the current ubiquitous use of the term “DIY”—one which I credit to punk, rightly or wrongly—towards any-old user-produced digital stuff: fan vids, remixes of The Hills, odes to Naruto or Apple. I asked him if the term “DIY” necessarily included a critique, a counter-cultural attitude, an anti-corporate agenda, of it it really just meant “stuff people make.” He answered that if people make stuff off the expressway of dominant, corporate culture, and they instead choose to wend their way around the small slow back roads of craft (the transportation metaphors are his), outside the rules and goals of the market, that this “was political,” whether the maker had a political position or not, whether the user celebrated corporate culture, or no.

I had to stop and look at my dogmatic position once again. These guys are challenging to me, given how they’re much more inclusive and open to the real likes and activities of regular people than I seem to be able. However, Mackaye himself spoke about finding himself, finally, as a lonely teenager (who would found the band Minor Threat at like 14) in punk because there, for the first time, he was in a room with the freaks, and outsiders, and political people, and artists who knew that they would not be satisfied or recognized or fully realized within the stuff and ways of the slick, fast, highway to nowhere (or to more vapid stuff) of dominant culture. Let’s face it, I asked the expert, he’s lived a real DIY life (although, in many ways I have, too. All my video, and academic work, really, falls outside corporate mechanisms of production and reception) and he’s ready to accept it all.

But then, I read Tomas Guiterrez Alea, for my Media Praxis class and he also speaks to me around questions DIY: “When I refer to ‘contemplative’ spectators, I mean ones who do not move beyond the passive-contemplative level; inasmuch as ‘active’ spectators, taking the moment of live contemplation as their point of departure, would be those who generate a process of critically understanding reality (including, of course, the show itself) and consequently, a practical, transforming action.”

I want to find, celebrate, and believe in the possibilities of a critical DIY culture that activates us to a process of understanding reality from whence we are then compelled to practically, actively transform. What might the less-than-critical DIY culture need to move from contemplation to activation? Why can’t more of us be like Ian Mackaye?

I just read Zigzagger‘s (check this out, he’s the guy who taught me how to make these very links to other web sites on my blog!) article on “ze frank and the poetics of web video” published on First Monday. It’s got me thinking. Here’s his conclusion:

“The interactive form of the The Show is a product of the Internet’s affordance, as a network of users, of bringing like–minded but geographically dispersed people together in an common, online creative space. Furthermore, with grassroots media production, producers and their audiences typically share the same basic creative idioms and the same technologies, all being do–it–yourselfers. It is crucial in the case of Ze Frank and his audience that there was a minimum of aesthetic and technological distance between producer and fan, so that all could feel like participants in the same creative community. Frank might be a singular figure, a gifted performer, a rare talent, but the sportsracers added immeasurable value to The Show.

DIY media are engendering a shift in popular taste. No longer is professionalism assumed to be the norm and standard of quality. The notion that do–it–yourself amateurism can stand on equal ground with media industry professionalism signals a democratic challenge to hierarchies of aesthetic value. And at the same time that amateur media are gaining ground, so is the communitarian alternative to traditional, top–down mass media distinctions between production and reception. Communities like the one that came together around The Show comprise artists working in a vernacular format of creative expression, using amateur tools and a primitive aesthetic. Art is always the product of what Howard S. Becker calls a “network of cooperation,” [16] but artists and their support personnel have traditionally been seen to occupy separate spheres [17]. Our contemporary mediascape threatens this notion of the autonomy of the solitary artist, revealing ways in which creative communities can function as increasingly egalitarian networks.” End of article

His findings go against several of mine, in particular those about community (which I find untenable on YouTube) and the elevation of a user or DIY-aesthetic to be on par with that of corporate media (which I understand to be separate but equal). But this, in turn, raises two significant thoughts:

1) I am certainly overstating my theory, writing manifesto-like, to allow some things to be clear (the limitations of the site and the forms it fosters), while obscuring others (like the shows and communities that are forming, like Ze Frank’s and that around my course, for instance). Can one imagine a theory of YouTube that accounts for the possibilities of resistance and re-purposing while also insisting upon the strong forces of consoidation, capital, and conformity which are already encrusting around this (new) form?

2) talent: I have been dancing around the role that talent plays in all this, as does Newman, above. What does it mean to create theories of an art form around the exemplary practices of those who are capable of pushing the form forward as opposed to thinking through the form in relation to its common vernacular (what most people do with it)? And can something by truly DIY and exceptional at once, or is this really an oxymoron?

(I just got to read Chuck Kleinhans’ paper for Consoleing Passions, “Webisodic Mock Vlogs: HoShows as Commercial Entertainment New Media” which will is under revision for  JUMP CUT no. 50. Theorizing the mediocre is his stated project: “I don’t think the HoShows have decisive meaning or are a significant contribution to the aesthetic, cultural, or institutional nature of screen media.  This stuff is profoundly mediocre.  But then, why consider it?  I think it notable as precisely a moment, a passing fancy in screen technology.  This lets us have some insight into those things, which are similar in one way or another, and the very fact of living in a rapidly changing “new media” present.  You can step in the river, but it keeps flowing. Today technological change, institutional and regulatory change, industrial change, and audience adaptation flow together in new patterns, with changing currents and interesting eddies.  So, while the specific example is not very notable, the larger trend it is a part of is worth considering.” He goes on to speak about the sit-com narrative, sex appeal, and the short form. Make sure to check it out upon publication.