Category Archives: documentary

the really modern reader

Readers of this blog will probably find much of interest in Sucking on Words, a new documentary on conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith, as I’ve noted before, is the wizard behind the curtain at; this documentary, by Simon Morris, focuses on his work as a conceptual poet. Like much conceptual art, Goldsmith’s work tends to make many sputteringly angry; as he himself readily admits in the film, the idea of reading it can be superior to the act of reading it, and the exploration of his work in this documentary might be the best introduction to it that’s available.
A typical Goldsmith piece is to take all the text of a day’s edition of The New York Times – all of it, from the first ad to the last – and to put it into a standard book format: viewed this way, the daily paper has the heft of a typical novel. It becomes apparent from this that when we talk about “reading” a day’s New York Times, we really only mean reading a tiny subsection of the actual text in the paper. Our act of reading the paper is as much an act of ignoring. (Nor is this limited to print media; taking a typical page on the online Times, one notes that of the 963 words on the page, only 589 are the article proper: our reading of an article online entails ignoring 2/5 of the words. This quick count pays no attention to words in images, which would send the ignored quotient higher.)
Goldsmith starts from the proposition that there’s enough language in the world already. Like many in the digital age, he’s trying to find ways to make sense of it all; in a sense, he’s creating visualizations.

row after row after row after row

I want to tell you about one scene in a wonderful documentary, DOC, that just opened the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Doc Humes was the founder of the Paris Review. Made by his daughter, Immy, the film follows Immy as she tries to uncover the layers of her father’s complex life. At one point she finds out that he made a feature film and she tries to find the footage. She gets a tip that Jonas Mekas may have a copy at Anthology Film Archives in the east village in New York. She goes to visit Mekas and takes her camera. Mekas takes her into the vast underground storeroom and points at row after row after row after row of film cans. The point of the shot is that looking for the film on these shelves — even if it were known to be here, which it isn’t — is a hopeless task. Nothing seems to be marked; there is no order. Rather than a salvation for the rich film culture that came out of NY in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, it seems that the Anthology Film Archive may become a graveyard.
Seeing this made me wonder about the decisions we make as a society about what to keep and what not to keep. There may be important film in those cans or there may not be. How do we decide whether to gather the resources to find out?

new love meetings: “il primo film girato con un telefonino”

newlovemeetings.jpg Leafing through my hardcopy of the September/October edition of Filmcomment, published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I came across a mini-review of “New Love Meetings,” co-directed by Marcello Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi. First featured in The Guardian Unlimited, this story was newsworthy because this film is reportedly the first feature (93 minutes) entirely shot with a cell phone. “New Love Meetings” was filmed in MPEG4 format using a Nokia N90, and follows on Pasolini’s 1965 documentary “Love Meetings,” in which he interviewed Italian men and women about their views on sex in postwar Italy. Mencarini and Seghezzi used cell phones to interview about 700 people at regular meeting places such as bars, markets, the beach, etc.
Cell-phone short movies have become ubiquitous in the Internet, and they have achieved some visibility in film festivals, but Mencarini and Seghezzi’s premise is that even though they asked very much the same questions that Pasolini posed, the results of their film are marked by the medium they used to shoot it. The use of a cell phone, an instrument that belongs to people’s daily lives, produced an intimacy absent in Pasolini’s movie. In a way, the filmmakers were very much like normal people using their cell phones to preserve an instant. This leads people to be more spontaneous and open, making the dialogue more like a chat than an interview.
This technique underscores the fact that today, memories can be captured and disseminated instantly thanks to the nature of our networked world, and that the way we preserve them is not the realm of books, not even of traditional films. Memory is instant, intimacy is public, and we communicate more readily than ever before. People have used stone, scrolls, print, wax cylinders, film, and tape, to preserve and disseminate memories, “New Love Meetings” is yet another example of the permeability and plasticity of mediums within which we move today. We cannot apply traditional, orthodox aesthetic values to the hybrid products of the moment. Experimentation doesn’t follow a master plan.

documentary licensed through creative commons to play in second life

Route 66: An American Bad Dream is an independent documentary film starring three Germans road tripping across the legendary US highway. What makes this film notable is that they released the film under the Creative commons license. Also, it had its premiere in the virtual world of Second Life on Aug 10th. The success of that showing prompted them to host an additional viewing this Thursday August 31 at 4PM SL in Kula 4, which will be presented by its creator Gonzo Oxberger. In the Open Source spirit of this project, they are making the video and audio project files available to anyone with a serious interest in remixing the film.

an important guide on filmmaking and fair use

best_practices.jpgThe Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use,” by the Center for Social Media at American University is another work in support of fair-use practices to go along with the graphic novel “Bound By Law” and the policy report “Will Fair Use Survive?“.
“Will Fair Use Survive” (which Jesse previously discussed) takes a deeper policy analysis approach. “Bound By Law” (also reviewed by me) uses an accessible tact to raise awareness in this area. Whereas, “The Statement of Best Practice” is geared towards the actual use of copyrighted material under fair use by practicing documentary filmmakers. It is an important compliment to the other works because the current confusion over claiming fair use has resulted in a chilling effect which stops filmmakers from pursuing projects which require (legal) fair use claims. This document give them specific guidelines on when and how they can make fair use claims. Assisting filmmakers in their use of fair use will help shift the norms of documentary filmmaking and eventually make these claims easier to defend. This guide was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media.

war machinima

Ray, Bob and I spent last week out in Los Angeles at our institutional digs (the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC), where we held a pair of meetings with professors from around the US and Canada to discuss various coups we are attempting to stage within the ossified realm of scholarly and textbook publishing. Following these, we were able to stick around for a fun conference/media festival organized by Annenberg’s Networked Publics project.
The conference was a mix of the usual academic panels and a series of curated mini-exhibits of “do-it-yourself” media, surveying new genres of digital folk art currently proliferating across the net such as political remix movies, anime music videos, “digital handmade” art projects (which featured the near and dear Alex Itin — happy birthday, Alex!), and of course, machinima: films made inside of video game engines.
wartapes.jpg As we enjoyed this little feast of new media, I was vaguely aware that the Tribeca film festival was going on back in New York. As I casually web-surfed through one of the panels — in the state of continuous partial attention that is now the standard state of being all these networky conferences — I came across an article about one of the more talked about films appearing there this year: “The War Tapes.” Like Gunner Palace and Occupation Dreamland, “The War Tapes” is a documentary about American soldiers in Iraq, but with one crucial difference: all the footage was shot by actual soldiers.
Back in 2004, director Deborah Scranton gave video cameras to ten members of the New Hampshire National Guard who were about to depart for a yearlong tour in Iraq. They went on to shoot a combined 800 hours of film, the pared-down result of which is “The War Tapes.” Reading about it, I couldn’t help but think that here was a case of real-life machinima. Give the warriors cameras and glimpse the war machine from the inside — carve out a new game within the game.
Granted, it’s a far from perfect analogy. Machinima involves a total repurposing of the characters and environment, foregoing the intended objectives of the game. In “The War Tapes,” the soldiers are still on their mission, still within the chain of command. And of course, war isn’t a video game. But isn’t it advertised as one?

Time Square, New York City (the military-entertainment complex)
There’s something undeniably subversive about giving cameras to GIs in what is such a thoroughly mediated war, a sort of playing against the game — if not of the game of occupation as a whole, then at least the game of spin. “I’m not supposed to talk to the media,” says one soldier to Steve Pink, one of the film’s main subjects, as he attempts to conduct an interview. To which Pink replies: “I’m not the media, dammit!”
In the clips I found on the film’s promotional site (the general release is later this summer), the overriding impression is of the soldiers’ isolation and fear: the constant terror of roadside bombs, frantic rounds fired into the green night-vision darkness, swaddled in helmets and humvees and hi-tech weaponry. It’s a frightening game they play. Deeply impersonal and anonymous, and in no way resembling the pumped-up, guitar-screeching game that the military portrays as war in its recruiting ads. This is the horrible truth at the bottom of the “Army of One” slogan: you are a lone digit in a massive calculation. Just pray you don’t become a zero.
Yet naturally, they find their own games to play within the game. One clip shows the tiny, gruesome spectacle of two soldiers, in a moment of leisure, pitting a scorpion against a spider inside a plastic tub, reenacting their own plight in the language of the desert.
At the Net Publics conference, we did see see one example of genuine machinima that made its own spooky commentary on the war: a hack of Battlefield 2 by Swedish game forum Snoken that brilliantly apes the now-famous Sony Bravia commercial, in which 250,000 colored plastic balls were filmed cascading through the streets of a San Francisco.
Here’s Battlefield:

And here’s the original Sony ad:

McKenzie Wark doesn’t address machinima in GAM3R 7H30RY (which launches in about a week), but he does discuss video games in the context of the “military entertainment complex”: the remaking of postmodern capitalist society in the image of the digital game, in which every individual is a 1 or a 0 locked in senseless competition for advancement through the levels, each vying to “win” the game:

The old class antagonisms have not gone away, but are hidden beneath levels of rank, where each agonizes over their worth against others in the price of their house, the size of their vehicle and where, perversely, working longer and longer hours is a sign of winning the game. Work becomes play. Work demands not just one’s mind and body but also one’s soul. You have to be a team player. Your work has to be creative, inventive, playful – ludic, but not ludicrous.

Video games (which can actually be won) are allegories of this imperfect world that we are taught to play like a game, as though it really were governed by a perfect (and perfectly fair) algorithm — even the wars that rage across its hemispheres:

Once games required an actual place to play them, whether on the chess board or the tennis court. Even wars had battle fields. Now global positioning satellites grid the whole earth and put all of space and time in play. Warfare, they say, now looks like video games. Well don’t kid yourself. War is a video game – for the military entertainment complex. To them it doesn’t matter what happens ‘on the ground’. The ground – the old-fashioned battlefield itself – is just a necessary externality to the game. Slavoj Zizek: “It is thus not the fantasy of a purely aseptic war run as a video game behind computer screens that protects us from the reality of the face to face killing of another person; on the contrary it is this fantasy of face to face encounter with an enemy killed bloodily that we construct in order to escape the Real of the depersonalized war turned into an anonymous technological operation.” The soldier whose inadequate armor failed him, shot dead in an alley by a sniper, has his death, like his life, managed by a computer in a blip of logistics.

How does one truly escape? Ultimately, Wark’s gamer theory is posed in the spirit that animates the best machinima:

The gamer as theorist has to choose between two strategies for playing against gamespace. One is to play for the real. (Take the red pill). But the real is nothing but a heap of broken images. The other is to play for the game (Take the blue pill). Play within the game, but against gamespace. Be ludic, but also lucid.

corporate creep

T-Rex by merfam
smile for the network

A short article in the New York Times (Friday March 31, 2006, pg. A11) reported that the Smithsonian Institution has made a deal with Showtime in the interest of gaining an “active partner in developing and distributing [documentaries and short films].” The deal creates Smithsonian Networks, which will produce documentaries and short films to be released on an on-demand cable channel. Smithsonian Networks retains the right of first refusal to “commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collection or staff.” Ostensibly, this means that interviews with top personnel on broad topics is ok, but it may be difficult to get access to the paleobotanist to discuss the Mesozoic era. The most troubling part of this deal is that it extends to the Smithsonian’s collections as well. Tom Hayden, general manager of Smithsonian Networks, said the “collections will continue to be open to researchers and makers of educational documentaries.” So at least they are not trying to shut down educational uses of the these public cultural and scientific artifacts.
Except they are. The right of first refusal essentially takes the public institution and artifacts off the shelf, to be doled out only on approval. “A filmmaker who does not agree to grant Smithsonian Networks the rights to the film could be denied access to the Smithsonian’s public collections and experts.” Additionally, the qualifications for access are ill-defined: if you are making a commercial film, which may also be a rich educational resource, well, who knows if they’ll let you in. This is a blatant example of the corporatization of our public culture, and one that frankly seems hard to comprehend. From the Smithsonian’s mission statement:

The Smithsonian is committed to enlarging our shared understanding of the mosaic that is our national identity by providing authoritative experiences that connect us to our history and our heritage as Americans and to promoting innovation, research and discovery in science.

Hayden stated the reason for forming Smithsonian Networks is to “provide filmmakers with an attractive platform on which to display their work.” Yet, it was clearly stated by Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, “if you are doing a one-hour program on forensic anthropology and the history of human bones, that would be competing with ourselves, because that is the kind of program we will be doing with Showtime On Demand.” Filmmakers are not happy, and this seems like the opposite of “enlarging our shared understanding.” It must have been quite a coup for Showtime to end up with stewardship of one of America’s treasured archives.
The application of corporate control over public resources follows the long-running trend towards privatization that began in the 80’s. Privatization assumes that the market, measured by profit and share price, provides an accurate barometer of success. But the corporate mentality towards profit doesn’t necessarily serve the best interest of the public. In “Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression” (New Press, 2006), an essay by André Schiffrin outlines the effects that market orientation has had on the publishing industry:

As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind off revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do….

To meet these new expectations, publishers drastically change the nature of what they publish. In a recent article, the New York Times focused on the degree to which large film companies are now putting out books through their publishing subsidiaries, so as to cash in on movie tie-ins.

The big publishing houses have edged away from variety and moved towards best-sellers. Books, traditionally the movers of big ideas (not necessarily profitable ones), have been homogenized. It’s likely that what comes out of the Smithsonian Networks will have high production values. This is definitely a good thing. But it also seems likely that the burden of the bottom line will inevitably drag the films down from a public education role to that of entertainment. The agreement may keep some independent documentaries from being created; at the very least it will have a chilling effect on the production of new films. But in a way it’s understandable. This deal comes at a time of financial hardship for the Smithsonian. I’m not sure why the Smithsonian didn’t try to work out some other method of revenue sharing with filmmakers, but I am sure that Showtime is underwriting a good part of this venture with the Smithsonian. The rest, of course, is coming from taxpayers. By some twist of profiteering logic, we are paying twice: once to have our resources taken away, and then again to have them delivered, on demand. Ironic. Painfully, heartbreakingly so.


People have been talking about internet television for a while now. But Google and Yahoo’s unveiling of their new video search and subscription services last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas seemed to make it real.
Sifting through the predictions and prophecies that subsequently poured forth, I stumbled on something sort of interesting — a small concrete discovery that helped put some of this in perspective. Over the weekend, Slate Magazine quietly announced its partnership with “,” a web-based interview series hosted by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal, dealing with big questions at the perilous intersection of science and religion.
Launched last fall (presumably in response to the intelligent design fracas), is a web page featuring a playlist of video interviews with an intriguing roster of “cosmic thinkers” — philosophers, scientists and religious types — on such topics as “Direction in evolution,” “Limits in science,” and “The Godhead.”
This is just one of several experiments in which Slate is fiddling with its text-to-media ratio. Today’s Pictures, a collaboration with Magnum Photos, presents a daily gallery of images and audio-photo essays, recalling both the heyday of long-form photojournalism and a possible future of hybrid documentary forms. One problem is that it’s not terribly easy to find these projects on Slate’s site. The Magnum page has an ad tucked discretely on the sidebar, but seems to have disappeared from the front page after a brief splash this weekend. For a born-digital publication that has always thought of itself in terms of the web, Slate still suffers from a pretty appalling design, with its small headline area capping a more or less undifferentiated stream of headlines and teasers.
Still, I’m intrigued by these collaborations, especially in light of the forecast TV-net convergence. While internet TV seems to promise fragmentation, these projects provide a comforting dose of coherence — a strong editorial hand and a conscious effort to grapple with big ideas and issues, like the reassuringly nutritious programming of PBS or the BBC. It’s interesting to see text-based publications moving now into the realm of television. As Tivo, on demand, and now, the internet atomize TV beyond recognition, perhaps magazines and newspapers will fill part of the void left by channels.
Limited as it may now seem, traditional broadcast TV can provide us with valuable cultural touchstones, common frames of reference that help us speak a common language about our culture. That’s one thing I worry we’ll lose as the net blows broadcast media apart. Then again, even in the age of five gazillion cable channels, we still have our water-cooler shows, our mega-hits, our television “events.” And we’ll probably have them on the internet too, even when “by appointment” television is long gone. We’ll just have more choice regarding where, when and how we get at them. Perhaps the difference is that in an age of fragmentation, we view these touchstone programs with a mildly ironic awareness of their mainstream status, through the multiple lenses of our more idiosyncratic and infinitely gratified niche affiliations. They are islands of commonality in seas of specialization. And maybe that makes them all the more refreshing. Shows like “24,” “American Idol,” or a Ken Burns documentary, or major sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympics that draw us like prairie dogs out of our niches. Coming up for air from deep submersion in our self-tailored, optional worlds.

the year in ideas

In developed nations, and in the US in particular, high-speed wireless access to the Internet is a given for the affluent and an achievable possibility for most. In the rest of the world, owning a computer is a dream for a community, and a fantasy for the individual. At this moment, away in the central mountains of Colombia, I am virtually disconnected from the world, though quite connected to the splendor of nature. I’m writing this relying on uncertain electricity that, if it fails, will be backed up by a gas generator that will keep food fresh and beer cold, the hell with the laptop. Reading one of last week’s Medellín’s newspapers, I was surprised to see news of the advent of the BlueBerry as a technological advance that will reach the city in early 2006. Medellín is a booming, sophisticated Third World city of more than 3.5 million people. This piece of news made clearer for me, more than ever, how in the US we take technology for granted when, in fact, it is the domain of only a small minority of the world. This doesn’t mean that the rest don’t need connectivity, it means that if they are being pushed to play in the global monopoly game, they must have it. From that perspective, I bring the New York Times Magazine’s fifth edition of The Year in Ideas” (12/11/2005.) As always, it examines a number of trends and fads that, in a way or another, were markers of the year. Considering the year at the Institute and its pursuit of the meaningful among myriad innovations, I’ll review some of the ideas the Times chose, that meet the ones the Institute brought to the front throughout the year. Beyond the noteworthy technological inventions, it is the human contribution, the users’ innovative ways of dealing with what already exists in the Internet, which make them worth reflecting upon.
The political power of the blogosphere is an accepted fact, but it is the media infrastructure that passes on what is said on blogs what has given the conservatives the upper hand. Even though Howard Dean’s campaign epitomized the power of the liberal blogosphere, the so called “Net roots” continue to be regarded as the terrain of young people with the time in their hands to participate in virtual dialogue. The liberal’s approach blogs as a forum to air ideas and to criticize not only their opponents but also each other, differs greatly from that of the conservatives’. They are not particularly interested in introspection and use the Web to support their issues and to induce emotional responses from their base. But, it is their connection to a network of local and national talk-radio and TV shows what has given exposure and credibility to the conservative blogs. Here, we have a sad, but true, example of how it is the coalescence of different media what matters, not their insular existence.
The news media increasingly have been using the Web both as an enhancer and as a way to achieve two-way communications with the public. An exciting example of the meeting of journalism and the blog is the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Before Katrina hit the city, they set up a page on their Web site called “Hurricane Katrina Weblog.” Its original function was supplemental. However, when the flood came and the printed edition was shut down, the blog became the newspaper. Even though the paper’s staff kept compiling a daily edition as a download, the blog was brimming with posts appearing throughout the day and readership grew exponentially, getting 20 to 30 million page views per day. The paper continued posting carefully edited stories interspersed with short dispatches phoned or e-mailed to the newspaper’s new headquarters in Baton Rouge. In the words of Paul Tough, “what resulted was exciting and engrossing and new, a stream-of-consciousness hybrid that combined the immediacy and scattershot quality of a blog with the authority and on-the-scene journalism of a major daily newspaper.”
Joshua M. Marshall, editor of the blog, decided to ask his readers to share their knowledge of the ever spreading Washington scandals in an effort to keep abreast of news. He called his experiment “open-source investigative reporting.” Marshall’s blog has about 100,000 readers a day and he saw in them the potential to gather news in a nationwide basis. For instance, he relied on his readers’ expertise with Congressional ethics code in order to determine if Jack Abramoff’s gifts were violations. What Marshall has come up with is a very large news-gathering and fact-checking network, a healthy alternative to traditional journalism.
Podcasting has become another alternative to broadcasting which provides the ability to access audio and video programs as soon as they’re delivered to your computer, or to pile them up as you do with written media. Now, through iTunes, we are experiencing the advent of homemade video postcasts. Some of them have already thousands of viewers. Potentially, this could become the next step of community access television.
The mash-up of data from different web sites has gained thousands of adepts. One of the first ones was Adrian Holovaty’s, a street map of Chicago from Google overlaid with crime statistics from the Chicago Police online database. Following this, many people started to make annotated maps, organizing all sorts of information geographically from real-estate listings to memory maps. The social possibilities of this personal cartography are enormous. The Times brings Matthew Haughey’s “My Childhood, Seen by Google Maps,” as an example of an elegant and evocative project. If we think of the illuminated maps that expanded the world and ignited the imagination of many explorers, this new form of cartography brings a similar human dimension to the perfect satellite maps.
Thomas Vander Wal has called “folksonomy” to tagging taken to the level of taxonomy. The labeling of people’s photos, on Flicker for instance, gets richer by the additions of others who tag the same photos for their own use. Daniel H. Pink claims, “The cumulative force of all the individual tags can produce a bottom-up, self organized system for classifying mountains of digital material.” In an interesting twist, several institutions that are part of the Art Museum Community Cataloging Project, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, are taking a folksonomic approach to their online collections by allowing patrons to supplement the annotations done by curators, making them more accessible and useful to people.
The effort of Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the MIT’s Media Lab, to raise the funds to have a group of his colleagues design a no-frills, durable, and cheap computer for the children of the world is a terrific one. Having laptops equipped with a hand crank, in absence of electricity, and using wireless peer-to-peer connections to create a local network will make it easier to access the Internet from economically challenged areas of the world, notwithstanding the difficulties this presents. The detractors of Negroponte’s effort claim that children in Africa, for instance, will not benefit from having access to the libraries of the world if they don’t understand foreign languages; that children with little exposure to modern civilization will suddenly have access to pornography and commercialism; and that wealthy donors should concentrate on malaria eradication before giving an e-mail address to every child. Negroponte, as Jeffrey Sachs, Bono, Kofi Annan, and many others, know that education along with connectivity, are key to bring the next generation out of the poverty cycle to which they have been condemned by foreign powers interested in the resources of their countries, and by every corrupt local regime that has worked along the lines of those powers. The $100 laptop, accompanied by a sound and humane program to use them will bring enormous benefits.
A. O. Scott’s review of the documentary as a genre that supplies satisfaction not from Hollywood formulas but from the real world, reminded me of Bob Stein’s quest for thrills beyond technologically enhanced reality. A factor of the postmodern condition is the unprecedented immediate accessibility to the application of scientific knowledge that technology brings, accessibility that has permeated our relationships with and towards everything. Knowledge has acquired an unsettling superficiality because it has become an economic product. Technology is used and abused, forced upon the consumer in all sorts of ways and Hollywood’s productions are the obvious example. 2005 was the year of the documentary, and I suspect this has to do with a yearning for the human, for the real, for the immediate, for the unmediated. A. O. Scott eloquently traces that line when he praises Luc Jacquet’s “March of the Penguins” as the documentary that hits it all; epic journey, humor, tenderness and suspense, as well as “an occasion for culture-war skirmishing. In short it provided everything you’d want from a night at the movies, without stars or special effects. It’s almost too good to be true.” With that I greet 2006.

ways of seeing, ways of writing – a conversation

The following discussion about a proposed exercise for a high school or college class began in an email exchange yesterday with Bob, Virginia Kuhn and Karl Stolley (Virginia and Karl are both teachers of rhetoric and composition and great intellectual partners of the institute). We thought it was getting interesting so we decided to slap it up here on the blog as a thought experiment. Please join in the discussion in the comment stream.
Bob Stein wrote:
karl and virginia:
this is an idea for an exercise for a high school or college class. i’m wondering if you think it would be interesting/valuable for both students and for those of us interested in understanding the relation of different media types.
*Ways of Seeing, Ways of Writing*
class is divided into four sections. one given pad and pencil. one given digital still camera. one given audio recorder. one given video camera*
the class is asked to “write” about a place (local historical site, downtown street corner, mall, supermarket, cemetary, etc. etc. )
or asked to “write” a response to a question, e.g. “was the response of the federal govt. to the rescue of New Orleans residents affected by the fact that the people needing rescue were mostly poor and black.”
each group “writes” their description of the place or answer to the question using the particular media assigned to their group.
the class reviews all responses, then each group is asked to make a synthesis piece using media captured by all groups.
*if resources aren’t a problem, it would be great if each of the groups with electronic capture devices has more than one.
Karl Stolley replies:
Hmmm…this assignment does offer interesting possibilities. But I guess I’d be interested in the rationale behind splitting the media-producing and -capturing activities between groups. On the one hand, from a teacherly point of view, it’s quite convenient. But viewed from the analogy of a cooking class, it would be like giving each group a set of ingredients plus a kitchen appliance, and then asking each group to take some of the results and make a dish out of it. I know that’s riddled with all kinds of logical holes, but I have to try and interrogate this somehow.
The thing that bothers me most about the assignment is that there is a serious disconnect between the artful choices required to both capture/produce AND compose/orchestrate, as though those activities can be discreet and separate (that disconnect is what tends to make a lot of multimedia assignments feel like the old Surrealist “exquisite corpse” drawing game; if that’s the rhetorical goal, then fine–but that’s limited to a particular kind of stance towards orchestration).
Instead, wouldn’t it be better to give students the question, and then consider which kind of media would be most effective to capture based on the rhetorical situation they’ve been confronted with, have the groups delegate that task amongst themselves? Beginning with the distribution of media before the question is putting the media/genre cart before the rhetorical horse, I think.
Bob replies:
thank you for your very thoughtful reply. before make specific comments, perhaps i should explain the origin of the idea.
ashton (girlfriend) and i try to spend as much time at her godmother’s place in sardinia as possible. one of the big draws is an island, actually a big hunk o’ dolomite – two miles long and 1500 feet high- that dominates the view from the shoreline. because tavolara’s rockface is mostly white and gray it changes color all day with the sun. (a few photos from recent vist here.) i literally can sit and watch it for hours. it’s been a dream to bring a group of artists to capture its beauty. this year i was thinking that it might be interesting to bring a writer (think someone like john mcphee), a painter, a photographer, a video artist or filmmaker, and an experimental interactive artist like mike naimark or josh portway and let them all have a go at it. my guess is that each would be inspired and the results while quite different would all get at some aspect of the beauty.
at the same time i was thinking about capturing tavolara in various media, i was thinking a lot about the increasingly nettlesome text vs. image (especially moving image) debate. i’m pretty sure the solution is not to give up words in favor of images, but rather begin to appreciate the value of all media and work toward new forms of _expression which call on different media types at different points or which merge them in useful new ways. i was also thinking about how the insitute might start to play a more active role.
thus the idea of coming up with a series of exercises that might be used in college and high school which helped students begin to understand the relative value and utility of different media types and also begin to experiment with how to use them together.
Specific comments:

Hmmm…this assignment does offer interesting possibilities. But I guess I’d be interested in the rationale behind splitting the media-producing and -capturing activities between groups. On the one hand, from a teacherly point of view, it’s quite convenient. But viewed from the analogy of a cooking class, it would be like giving each group a set of ingredients plus a kitchen appliance, and then asking each group to take some of the results and make a dish out of it. I know that’s riddled with all kinds of logical holes, but I have to try and interrogate this somehow.

i think a better kitchen analogy would be giving everyone the same ingredients (in the sense that tavolara or a question is the same ingredient) but ask one group to use a grill, one group to use a pan on a stove, one group to use only a cuisinart etc. but anyway, the pedagogical reason to get the students to use one media type is so that they can appreciate its properties on its own.

The thing that bothers me most about the assignment is that there is a serious disconnect between the artful choices required to both capture/produce AND compose/orchestrate, as though those activities can be discreet and separate (that disconnect is what tends to make a lot of multimedia assignments feel like the old Surrealist “exquisite corpse” drawing game; if that’s the rhetorical goal, then fine–but that’s limited to a particular kind of stance towards orchestration).

my instincts are that one of the problems with “multimedia” is that few of us really understand the components, that is we don’t really know what the different types can do on their own. i guess i don’t think we are so far advanced that we can conceive of a new media type which is multimedia. e.g. i don’t think people intuitively grasp how impt. sound is to a movie until it’s pointed out and they have an oppty to focus on it.

Instead, wouldn’t it be better to give students the question, and then consider which kind of media would be most effective to capture based on the rhetorical situation they’ve been confronted with, have the groups delegate that task amongst themselves? Beginning with the distribution of media before the question is putting the media/genre cart before the rhetorical horse, I think.

i’m not wedded to my schema, but it still seems like there would be some fantastic discussions in the classroom as students look at the different results and debate the advantages and disadvantages. it seems that experience would be helpful when they later start to create full multimedia projects.
and then of course there is the issue of interactivity which complicates everything exponentially.
The conversation continues in the comment stream.