March 23, 2012

Attended a midnight premier of Hunger Games.

Granted, not my usual fare. Because I live it, I don’t usually “study” teen culture (save for my Fred work.) I was one of at most ten moms in a palace of 800+ teenage girls (and their occasional boy companions). It was a delight to engage with this committed, bookish bunch, who eagerly anticipated each move, and joyfully cheered on both girl-power and dreamy (if reality-TV-supported) romance.

Which brings to mind a more typical  film experience enjoyed at a more rational hour of that very same day. My colleague, Ming-Yuen Ma and I hosted Campbell X at our Media and Sexuality class, where we are currently teaching Jose Munoz’s Disindentifications about the experimental work of queers of color. Campbell had proven to be one of the real delights a few summers back during our collaborative production of The Owls, flying in from London and working wherever we needed her in support of director Cheryl Dunye’s vision and the work of queer of color cinema more generally. She is in town to premier her new film, Stud Life, at Outfest’s Fusion.

Campbell’s inspiring artist’s presentation made what may at first blush seem as surprising links to the Hunger Games. Most critically is her infectious and generous understanding of influences (from her mother to Ma Rainey,  Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien and Cheryl Dunye). Campbell explained that given that queer people of color have so few images and image-makers to fall back on, her hungry gaze makes over and good use of even the little bits that our culture provides us. And certainly the delight of the many girls of color at the theater (including my daughter) in the moral and physical strength of the female lead(s) in this film must count as one such minor inspiration (it even kinda passes the Bechdel Test). On the second hunger/stud connection, when I asked Campbell her thoughts on Disidentifications she admitted that her cultural work and research of the moment is mostly on the Internet these days, where she currently runs two websites of interest to queers of color. But don’t be fooled, her Radical Film Manifesto includes this advise:

  • Read books. Can’t afford them? Then borrow them/order them from the library.
  • Raid the classics – literature and films.

I had the pleasure of attending 2/3 days of this impressively large and diverse symposium organized by my friends and colleagues, Ming-Yuen Ma and Carol Stakenas from LACE. This post is not a review, but rather an attempt to crystalize connections between some of the work and conversation that I found most provocative. After this word, I couldn’t help but begin where the conference did, with the work of Wafaa Bilal who has created several interactive media projects based upon a shared logic and structure of first-person shooter games and our current war in Iraq.

Waafa’s work inspired fruitful dialogue at the symposium about the significance of context and other authorial controls within the field of contemporary video art or video art within a new media environment, (here meaning video practices that are networked, mobile, and viewable across platforms rather than stand-alone in a museum or monitor). Whereas some “old-school” video artists might have been done when they crafted the discrete piece, new media conditions have forced focused artistry around extra-textual questions–about building (and managing) audience and supporting information, as well as systems of interaction and engagement–that might have only once been on the map of “activist” videomakers. Waafa explained that he made “dynamic” not “didactic” work that created a new public forum, mirroring life, where critical questions could be played out and with. While many of us were concerned that this allowed participants to primarily publicly restage their already strongly held positions, desires, and commitments Waafa seemed satisfied with this outcome (that, for instance, a large portion of the players on his piece, Shoot an Iraqi, came to it–and him–as paint ball enthusiasts rather than through an engagement with  war, zenophobia, or racism).

I continued to think about these questions contextual in relation to seeing Natalie Bookchin’s Trip (2008), a 63 minute video installation composed of moving landscapes shot from cars, often with music accompanying, and culled from Youtube. Bookchin told us that after many years of highly successful tactical media work with the groups @rtMark and Yes Men, she’s needed to move things OFF of mainstream media platforms, to restage them in the real world, where there is less noise, and in counter-distinction to Waafa’s work, more room for authorial and spectatorial structure (and perhaps contemplation and even dialogue). Later, we also spoke together about the waning power of satire (a staple for tactical media) as it becomes the dominant tonality, and my recent concern (expressed in posts below) that YouTube media, specifically, has to strive to say what it means, rather than relying on smug reference and repetitive asides.

Finally, along this vein of context, place and tone, I watched a productive encounter between video artists Maria Diaz and Alex Villar. os_hydrant

Both artists videotape the placement of their own bodies into difficult spaces. However, where Alex’s are the hidden in-betweens of generic offices and city spaces, where he uncomfortably but artfully wedges his body, Maria’s are entirely personal and local sites: a field in Guatemala where she walks and carries her pre-adolescent daughter, a central town square where she produces poetry for passers-by. The project of inserting oneself tactically into the ubiquitous flow of daily media military corporate life is quite distinct from the intervention (Jennifer Doyle’s term) of a specific body, with an overt position, into a particular place.

It seems critical, but also a little difficult, for me to note how highly gendered these divergent (but related) practices played out for me at the symposium: women artists insisting upon the specificity of their bodies and beliefs (ho hum), and male ones making larger more open-ended claims about the gendered and raced but mediated body (we’ve been here before!). Men using humor, women getting serious. I am the first to acknowledge that none of these strategies are in and of themselves gendered, but I will also affirm that for the three days of Resolutions3 they played out for me, fruitfully, in these terms.