According to : “Last night, a small group of artists and activists installed a series of subtly tweaked Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) advertisements in two train cars in the New York City subway system. The five replacement ads, made to blend inconspicuously into the MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign posters — which feature brief testimonies from New Yorkers who’ve alerted agents to suspicious objects — boast tweaked quotations and more pointed prompts like “Call your elected officials and make yourself heard” and “Stay aware, not afraid. Scared people are easy to manipulate.” Each poster also includes the number for the MTA’s safety line and the hashtag #Resist.” (Artist Remixes ‘If You See Something Say Something’ Posters in NYC Subways)

“‘I have no problem with the MTA campaign; it’s smart and it’s responsible — it was a backpack that was involved in the Boston bombing, so we should be on the lookout for suspicious bags, and I didn’t want to take that away from the ads,’ the artist explained. ‘But to me, a campaign that’s telling you to be vigilant, but just say something when the problem’s already in front of you, is kind of useless. Let’s try to get a little bit more upstream from the problem. Where is the root of this problem?'”

See More Culture Jamming:






I recently received an unexpected but timely invitation (from editor Catherine Halley) to write an article for JSTOR Daily.  Her email request arrived when indeed I had something pressing I wanted to say. I was not sure I could say it, or that the time was right, or what the ramifications of my writing it would be, but I did very much want to think critically (and in public) about why I wasn’t watching the viral live feed videos of black death that began circulating and multiplying last week.

With Halley’s close help, and that of many friends and colleagues, that article was published today: How Do I (Not) Look: Live Feed Video and Viral Black Death. My writing, and thinking, occurred in conversation, actual and in my head, with a great many friends and scholars who I’d like to point to here, in no particular order and most likely forgetting some, less for reasons of intellectual property and more to name that my/our understanding of momentous social, technological, personal mayhem and change occurs in communities of care and practice and thought: Natalie Bookchin, Gabrielle Foreman, Robert Reid-Pharr, Cheryl Dunye, Kemi Ilenanmi, Alisa Lebow, Jenny Terry, Roopali Mukherjee, Marta Zarzycka, Jen Malkowski, Lisa Cartwright, Marita Sturken, Nick Mirzoeff, Patty Zimmermann, Sam Gregory,  Deirdre Boyle, Safiya Noble, LaCharles Ward, Ellen Scott, bell hooks, Paola Bacchetta, Tina Campt,  Inderpal Grewal,  Caren Kaplan, Minoo Moallem, Susan Sontag, Henry Jenkins, Sherri Williams, Jodi Dean, Michael Gillespie, Stephen Winter, Theodore Kerr and Diamond Reynolds.

I write in honor of Reynold’s work and in the name of our shared witnessing of the death of Philando Castile and so many others.

I am sure my friends and colleagues above will not agree with all of my thoughts on this volatile and horrible matter, nor would I want them to, but I do hope they will understand how critical their voices (and long term work on issues of violence, visibility, video and racial injustice) have been for me during this time.

Aca-Fandom: Who Me?

August 19, 2011

Although not an aca-fan (or ACA fan dancer) myself, I engaged in a fun and serious conversation with Derek Kompare and Jay Bushman as part of Henry Jenkins’ summer-long conversation, “Aca-Fandom and Beyond,” on Confessions of an Aca-Fan. Our conversation moves from play, to corporate ownership, to the interactive/narrative fault-line. Hope you’ll take a look.

This is some of my talk for “Sensory Communication: Expressive Culture and Youth Media” at UCSD, April, 2010.

I will also present it to my CGU Cultural Studies Graduate course, Visual Research Methods, as an example of new media scholarship on “digital storytelling” and hope they will respond with some tough questions and insights that track some of the ideas of our course (so make sure to read comments!)

This is a Fake Fred. Too many Freds. It’s violence. Chaos! The camera spins. Gravity and gravitas lost. White suburban boys in a basement Rec Room doing what they do best: bad imitations of popular culture with slow descent into a pile up; and a magic wand. Only difference is that we can see it (all 117 of us) because it was taped and put on YouTube. But why, other than for this talk on Freds’ Fan’s Videos, would I want to watch this? Sure, Hillsforyou had fun making it. But did they learn anything, grow, become artists or citizens; and what of me, what is there for me to be taught… It’s time for Fred wars! No. No. Ow. Ow. Go to black. “Watch out for the TV!” “Yeah Kyle, get the ball out of here, I mean Fred.” Pummeling. Slapping. Another attack. I’m having fun. I’m having fun. And more fun! Fun time with Fred. Stairs and screams. TV. Ping-pong table. Wall-to-wall carpet. Fake Fred is over!

My talk is about the failures of Fred’s Fans. I’m not suggesting that these particular boys are failed people, or even failed video artists, although, as we will soon see, a significant variety of this body of video is itself, self-reflexively about the failure of these very videos and/or their makers and/or Fred, but rather, that almost nothing that has been euphorically projected about the possibilities for youth produced media is visible in this huge body of youth produced video: “Fake Fred” being only the first video from this huge body of youth media that I will share with you today thereby demonstrating my negative stake in this game. I have nothing more critical to add then what they say for themselves: too many Freds. It’s violence. Chaos. Fred wars. I’m having fun. And more fun! Fake Fred is over.

Compare this to the academic fantasia about youth media. Henry Jenkins writes: “If we want to get young people to vote, we have to start earlier, changing the processes by which they are socialized into citizenship. One way that popular culture can enable a more engaged citizenry is by allowing people to play with power at a micro-level, to exert control over imaginary worlds.”  Admittedly, here and also later, I will be using Jenkins from his multi-platinum Convergence Culture as a foil, for, in fact, I do believe that much of what he admires in fan culture can be true. Thus, the question motivating this talk serves to nuance Jenkins’ findings: what might truly regular youth culture need to be as productive, enabling and empowering as that which Harry Potter fans have found or made for themselves?

I have spent too many hours in preparation for this talk looking at uncountable, vapid videos like leafzkikass’ about which I have nothing useful to say other than that, I suppose it is true that he too is playing with power at a micro-level and exerting control over an imaginary world, or that the work is so banal, I just don’t care enough to work hard on making it make sense, thus introducing the “I don’t care” modality which will enter our lexicon a little later. I can attest that there is no evidence here (or in the previous “Fake Fred”) that this fan cultural production is producing young citizens nor critical culture. What is visible to me in these childish power plays—too much fun! Chaos! Fred wars!–is only an unsatisfying this: Freds’s Fan’s Videos are a jumble of juvenile works that make fun of Fred motivated by jealousy and through an almost uniform project of ambivalence, or even nihilism, that refuses to know the differences between a host of critical binaries, in particular those of being mean and being nice, people that suck and those who have talent, the deserving and the undeserving, caring and not caring, losing and winning, stopping or even “killing” versus tolerating, and criticizing and copying.

In the talk, I detail the words Fred’s Fans give to their own videos: parodies framed by ambivalence, striving for subscribers, that suk (intentionally?), are organized by parodic? violence, are failures (intentionally?), and don’t care anyway, because Fred is Gay or at least (not) Cool (watch the video for real proof).

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins devotes a chapter to youth media literacy by way of Harry Potter. He suggests that empowering moments of media convergence happen in this fan culture because a value placed on education is part of the text they play with and because these fans participate in and give quality feedback on each other’s writing, ultimately creating an affinity space where an “educational scaffolding” can take place: meaning their ideas and interpretations build and improve through dialogue. He explains that other skills for convergence can be readily found in many fan cultures including: the pooling of ideas to create collaborative knowledge, the sharing and comparing of value systems, making connections across scattered information, the exposing of interpretations and feelings, and the circulating of all this.

My talk attempts to show that while ready circulation has been irrevocably enabled by new technologies like YouTube, without the other conditions Jenkins lists (like a value on education, the possibilities for productive feedback, a structure for the sharing of values, interpretations and feelings) what is left is the Failed Fred Videos we’ve seen and the Fred Rant with which I’ll conclude. This and any Fred Fan Video sits in a sea of juvenilia with only the self-reflexive direction and education of Fred and his fans, who are not good teachers because they are still learners, kids, or faux kids. Fred’s Fans Fail because YouTube can not be the educational or media literacy scaffolding that developing, maturing, mediamakers deserve. Freds Fans need history, theory, community, and literacy tools that include the production of an argument, an understanding of structure and style, and a commitment to something other than hating Fred. Without this, Freds’s Fan’s Videos (like most people-made product on YouTube) will remain an uninspiring, uninteresting, unproductive jumble of juvenile works that make fun of Fred motivated by jealousy and through an almost uniform project of ambivalence, or even nihilism, that refuses to know the differences between a host of critical binaries, in particular those of being mean and being nice, people that suck and those who have talent, the deserving and the undeserving, caring and not caring, losing and winning, stopping or killing and tolerating, and criticizing and copying. At least, so vinforthewim and I rant.

Documentary Travels

February 27, 2010

My Netflix queue has recently deluged me with a slew of migratory films that track from fiction, to documentary, to stage, and back again: Grey Gardens, Trumbo, Every Little Step.

One might readily ask, why does a really good thing in its form and in its time (a play, say, “A Chorus Line”) need to be turned into a mediocre documentary or visa versa (a great documentary into a good play into a lousy fiction film, “Grey Gardens”)? The easiest reply would be to turn to the economic model currently dominating mainstream media: the familiar re-packaging of familiar forms to service a lazy audience (Transformers, Spider Man) and timid industry. Another answer turns to digital-media studies, and Henry Jenkins’ celebrated theories of convergence: new media now readily allows players (big and small) to move texts across platforms to reach audiences and satisfy their insatiable consumer hungers (for Harry Potter, Twilight, or campy carnival). A third answer would point to the continuing growth of interest in documentary (or really, reality programming) as both economic and formal favorite: take something from the theater to a documentary and grow your audience from the crusty white middle aged denizens of 42nd Street.

Yet, while all useful, and undoubtedly true, these all seem too utilitarian to me. Artists and audiences move to the documentary form because it has pleasures and strengths in it own right: and most of these have been missed or messed up in these translations. “Grey Gardens” makes the case most poignantly. The original documentary of two expressive, outlandish, troubled women catches the trashy, witty surface of how they live, what they say, what they remember and choose to tell. A play or fiction film gets to fill in the blanks through artful reenactments, showing us what was never recorded (the past of the house and its inhabitants in their prime) but the pleasure and power of documentary is that all of reality can NOT be recorded and is not recordable and it is those very gaps that provide meaning, pathos and structure for the best documentaries. “Every Little Step” demonstrates a reverse logic. What started with a documentary impulse, to record the thoughts and conversations of dancers, became a play because this form was best to fill in the feelings, affect, and movement that is often hidden or impossible to record in the superficial self-conscious staged interview-based performance of self often enacted for a documentary camera. To move it back to a documentary that shows a lot of auditions without any of the “deep” backstory that the play itself so artfully provided marks another great loss across today’s easy genre-shifting.

I am not saying artists should not move from documentary to fiction, but rather, that when doing so pay more attention to the distinct pleasures, powers, and limitations of the varied forms, not melting them into each other in the ready by unthunk place of convergence mediocrity.

In the same Learning from YouTube class where two students presented their fake documentary about convergence culture and The Hills (see video, True Life: I’m addicited to ‘The Hills’ on-line forums, embedded on the previous post below, Pushing Around Henry Jenkins), two other groups presented on political convergence culture. They made videos about their research on regular people using YouTube to enhance their participation in our current election.

I lead with the circle for two reasons: first, while the Hills project ridicules girls for wasting time engaged in close-readings of bad television, the politics projects celebrate YouTubers for doing the same. Can you have it both ways and no way at once (going round and round and round in the circle game…)?

The second round reference is to the breasts that feature prominently (if unintentionally) and centrally within all the videos featured in this intelligent, if un-critical compendium of the formats used for YouTube political convergence culture:

As we build collective intelligence about this election (and otherwise), should we be satisfied with the sexism and satire that undergirds much YouTube discourse? Is a reliance upon, and use of (even if sarcastically) often stupid popular culture even understandable as intelligence? My students suggest that moving (circling) bytes of media from one platform to another (convergence), raising its exposure and hits, is a, no the form of contemporary political participation. Given, they say, that politics is merely cynical spin, and thus there is no distinction between media about the world and the world itself, then watching and passing on videos, and sometimes commenting on them, is activism.

No more circling, I will be direct in my criticism: while any participation, and passion, and action is better than none, we must be bold enough to name ideals for the best of people’s culture (not just getting stuck in the fact of it), and retro enough to state that there remains a world outside the media hall-of-mirrors. Which is to say that participatory culture can benefit from both teachers and theorists (who pass along ideas and structures to allow for deeper engagements with culture) and reality (where the criticisms of real people leave the looking glass and alter  lived experience). As I lectured my students yesterday: there is a war, and a depression. Some bodies don’t get health care. Bodies must vote to be counted in this election. Sure, they may only know these things through parodic YouTube videos, but some bodies actually do feel these effects, and actual places and experiences are altered due to media relays. Politics is not just spin, nor is participation. Paul Willis put it this way: “the point is to increase the range, complexity, elegance, self-consciousness and purposefulness of this involvement.” (Common Culture, p. 131)

Agree? disagree? Join the YouTube dialogue, here or there.

So, I’ve been teaching the second Learning from YouTube class this fall. The more normal one. The one with books. And lately, we’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, after learning from Paul Willis’ related and anticipatory Common Culture. (A quick aside about the use of books in this course: while it allows for a more focused discussion–the professor makes sure the students get the ideas in the readings–it has clearly limited their YouTube creativity–their analysis is inserted into the ready-made framework of an expert).

That said, we had a really interesting class yesterday, and I wanted to share some of our work with Jenkins. When I say we were pushing him around, I use this both as a catchy title, but also to note something more meaningful, something about the linked tone, content and process of our YouTube studies. Which is to say that with Jenkins’ ideas, like seemingly everything else they think about, the approach and take home conclusions are a kind of cynical circling:  the students hover near his ideas, prodding at them gently, perhaps sarcastically, while offering their own criticisms ambiguously, circuitously. Analysis as ironic presentation. Criticism as parodic re-play. I keep asking them to STATE their opinion, and this is their opinion: unsaid, smug, vague, readable both ways. Like the YouTube videos they learn from, their point of view is expressed through self-reflexive and soft satire (note: the videos I linked to here, under soft satire, are from others students’ Jenkins research, you can see more of these projects on our class page:

Agree? disagree? Join the YouTube dialogue, here or there.