One of these mornings

A beautiful film about the most important election day in American History in 2008. Filmmaker, Valery Lyman describes her goals in making the film in the text below. Click the link here to view the film. It is well worth it.

"I knew the feeling would be big as people went to vote for Obama, and wanted to make a real time recording of it. So I set up a phone line and asked people all over the country to call in right after they voted, saying whatever was on their minds. The idea worked. Some friends but mostly strangers, young and old, people called in from all over the country and while it all still hung in the balance, before results were tallied or anyone had the luxury of speaking in the past tense.

In my work I have often sought to describe an historical moment through the faces and voices of regular people who are experiencing it. I take to the streets, recording with my camera and genuinely seeking the thoughts and feelings of these ordinary folks, and then distill this documentary material into a poetic expression of that particular historical moment. This film is such an endeavor.

This film is not about Obama. Certainly it's not an advocacy or even a political film. It's about us. This film is a portrait of the feeling in the country on November 4, 2008. Regardless of what follows - whether Obama's Presidency is a failure, disappointment, or tremendous success - that day was a singular moment in American history. It is this spirit, as it was, that I have attempted to capture and preserve."

Ray Tintori and the new Video

This video is about the making of Time to Pretend by Ray Tintori who is now collaborating with Spike Jonze. The video was made very cheaply and represents the convergence of low-end special effects, video editing using a computer and Youtube as a broadcast medium. Time to Pretend has had close to fourteen million hits.

Experimental Video: Ed Emshwiller

"Sunstone is a landmark tape. Symbolic and poetic, it is a pivotal work in the development of an electronic language to articulate three-dimensional space. The opening image is an iconic face, which appears to be electronically "carved" from stone. A mystical third eye, brilliantly crafted from a digital palette, radiates with vibrant transformations of color and texture. Sculpting electronically, Emshwiller then transforms perspectival representation: the archetypal "sunstone" is revealed to be one facet of an open, revolving cube, each side of which holds a simultaneously visible, moving video image."

Some comments on How Images Think

Professor Pramod Nayar of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad comments on "How Images Think." This is a small selection of a longer review that appeared in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

How Images Think is an exercise both in philosophical meditation and critical theorizing about media, images, affects, and cognition. Burnett combines the insights of neuroscience with theories of cognition and the computer sciences. He argues that contemporary metaphors - biological or mechanical - about either cognition, images, or computer intelligence severely limit our understanding of the image. He suggests in his introduction that image refers to the complex set of interactions that constitute everyday life in image-worlds (p. xviii). For Burnett the fact that increasing amounts of intelligence are being programmed into technologies and devices that use images as their main form of interaction and communication - computers, for instance - suggests that images are interfaces, structuring interaction, people, and the environment they share.

New technologies are not simply extensions of human abilities and needs - they literally enlarge cultural and social preconceptions of the relationship between body and mind.

The flow of information today is part of a continuum, with exceptional events standing as punctuation marks. This flow connects a variety of sources, some of which are continuous - available 24 hours - or live and radically alters issues of memory and history. Television and the Internet, notes Burnett, are not simply a simulated world - they are the world, and the distinctions between natural and non-natural have disappeared. Increasingly, we immerse ourselves in the image, as if we are there. We rarely become conscious of the fact that we are watching images of events - for all perceptive, cognitive, and interpretive purposes, the image is the event for us.

The proximity and distance of viewer from/with the viewed has altered so significantly that the screen is us. However, this is not to suggest that we are simply passive consumers of images. As Burnett points out, painstakingly, issues of creativity are involved in the process of visualization - viewers generate what they see in the images. This involves the historical moment of viewing - such as viewing images of the WTC bombings - and the act of re-imagining. As Burnett puts it, the questions about what is pictured and what is real have to do with vantage points [of the viewer] and not necessarily what is in the image (p. 26).

Video/Film: From Communication To Community (3) Final Installment

Please see previous entry, last paragraph before reading this.

The ambiguity is produced through an important contradiction: as outsiders we can learn only so much about the reality of the Fogo Islands. We learn about these people through images, which do not provide us with a transparent connection to the subjective and highly complex views which the Islanders may hold of themselves. Neither their language nor the language of images have the kind of transparent relationship to the real which the Challenge for Change film and videoworkers so deeply desired. The voice of an Islander or for that matter of anyone interviewed or filmed talking in front of a camera is a transformed voice. In the same way to be filmed into the status of an image is to be transformed. The question is, with what result?

It is a characteristic of Western culture to presume a link between seeing and knowing. The role of sound must be added to that and we don't have to look any further than the notion of a tape or video recorder to get an idea of the underlying assumptions at the heart of the technologies of film and video. The specific practices which re-enforce the links between seeing, hearing and knowing are embedded in conventions which displace cross-cultural encounters into a relatively neutral register. In order to succeed these conventions must be carefully used so as to avoid any dilution of their authority.

Thus it is immediately apparent that the Fogo Island Films have been shot by professional cameramen with the result that they have a specific look and feel to them. It is also clear that the National Film Board would not have allowed the films into its repertoire if they hadn't risen to the aesthetic level expected of Board films. This aesthetic space which is so closely linked to the way in which the Board and its filmmakers legitimize their professional activities is not, of course, a space which could be opened up for the Islanders. Their view of themselves, at the level of images, would have been substantially different but they would not have been able to communicate that with the same authority, since the production of images is not one of their central activities.

Perhaps in response to this and with the acknowledgement of many of these contradictions the Challenge for Change program undertook another experiment which I will comment on here, briefly, because of its direct applicability to the question of video.

The availability of half-inch video in the early and middle 1970's opened up another set of possibilities. Perhaps the instrument (given its ease of use) could actually be put in the hands of the people in a given community. Challenge for Change set out to test this proposition in the community of St. Jacques in Montreal.

Let us look for a moment at the choice of St. Jacques. It was a disadvantaged part of Montreal. It was an area with high unemployment and a variety of social and economic problems. Why did it lend itself, at least in the minds of the Challenge for Change professionals, to this experiment in the democratic use of video? In part the answer can be found in the community itself which had formed a citizen's committee to push for improvements in health and education. It had developed, at least to some degree the advocacy tools which it needed to promote its own cause and to link the community with political action. The result was that when the idea of a video was proposed the people in the community center inmmediately formed a committee and helped run the project from the start.

The result is a video which has become justly famous because it was such an early experiment with a new medium and because it seemed to prove that the 'people' given the proper chance and channel could, in fact, participate in all facets of the production of a videotape.

However an unforseen result of the process was the creation of a hierarchy of videomakers and Film Board people who slowly invested more and more time in a project which community leaders soon realised served an immediate goal but not a long term one. In order to make the video useful and effective it had to be placed into a pedagogical context and this required quite a different infrastructure than the one provided by a video crew. To some degree, some members of the community had learned how to use the medium to picture a set of problems which everyone in the community knew existed anyway. The pictures were in need of a utilitarian context, a promotional space to enhance their ideological value, to propagate their point of view, to encourage audiences to understand the need for social and political change.

But beyond a certain point the image is nothing more than a vehicle for and of communication and irrespective of everybody's best intentions there is something very ephemeral about the way in which images communicate meaning. The video screen is after all neither a simple reflection of the reality it depicts nor a window onto that reality. It is a highly aestheticized if not partially closed frame which must be used if it is to be effective but that use must have a measure of authority to it and the question is how is that authority to be achieved?

So, once again we are back to a similar problem which arose with the Fogo Island Films. The conferral of authority by both the videomaker and the viewer is not possible unless the process itself is given a far greater value than it can ever have. It can attain that value if it can achieve a certain degree of portability, that is if it can be taken out of the immediate community and effectively used a device to communicate the community's concerns.

But this is precisely a way of eliminating the context out of which and from which it has come. The video in effect can package the community into an effect for others but that packaging makes the task of communication all the more difficult. The specificity of St. Jacques has to be diluted in order for it to transcend the boundaries of place and culture which paradoxically means that the original process which engendered the video recedes into the background. Yet it is this original process, this experience of democracy which the video is trying to communicate as being not only fundamental but necessary for change. Its lack of specificity is the fulcrum upon which it loses that crucial component of its communicative intent.

I will end with the following thought. Images, whether they be video or film, generate the possibility of meaning and communication. They invent and reinvent more often than they depict.

These processes of transformation may not naturally open up discursive spaces for audiences, may not lead to the kind of exchanges and interchanges which produce the possibility of social and cultural and political change. In fact, an argument can be made and perhaps it is high time that this argument enter into the discussions which film and videomakers have among themselves, that the medium itself may not have the importance which is so often attributed to it by social and cultural commentators, analysts and practitioners. We may all have fallen for the technological line, a classically twentieth century obsession, which suggests that the image (constructed by the right people) has enough authority to transcend precisely the very contradictions which it engenders. Or, put another way, if we interpret VTR St. Jacques and the Fogo Island Films with a bit more of a jaundiced eye we may discover that their aesthetic structure and their communicational concerns are more closely linked than may be apparent. This linkage transforms not only the reality under examination but the potential value of the entire process.

Video/Film: From Communication To Community (2)

The best known experiment carried out by the people associated with Challenge for Change occurred on Fogo Island off the east coast of Canada. Even at the present time the event is recalled with a great deal of fondness by Fogo Islanders. (Scroll down to the middle of the web page.)

Does this then suggest that we have a good example of the possible impact on the communities involved of work with media like film and video? On the surface it does. An often debated problem which arises needs to discussed however. What are the origins of the desire to go outside of one's own community and address the needs of others? How can we evaluate, and from which vantage point can we assess, the impact of a project like this one?

The answer to the first question is complex and cannot be fully explored here. Suffice to say that there are numerous examples of government organizations whose sole raison d'être is to nurture projects in poorer communities in Canada and elsewhere. The premise that these projects will improve the living standards of the community they are located in is fundamental to the thinking which makes them possible in the first place. Some of the projects arise out of pure necessity but can the same be said of film or video? Surely there is a substantial difference between the creation of images and the building of houses. But what is often overlooked is that the former is being created and sustained by an ideological concern to transform members of the community at the level of their own thoughts about themselves, and in a self-reflexive twist, about the way they have arrived at the insights which the process is encouraging. This could be put another way. Fogo Islanders were encouraged to examine what they were going through both as they were filmed and afterwards. They became viewers and producers of images. This foregrounded to them problems which they had perhaps thought about before but never really confronted. How did the Film Board respond to this changed reality? What continuing role did the Board play within the new context which they had helped to construct.

Clearly one of limitations of this approach is that financing will only be made available for as long as the project itself exists. Neither the government nor the Board could afford to stay in Fogo, to live the changes, to live with the changes and thus over time develop an in-depth evaluation of the long term impact of their work. Another limitation is that the reports we have on the changes come from the Board and from interviews conducted by Board members.

It should be clear by the now that the vantage point we can take to evaluate the process is not as easily constructed as one might think. Fogo Island remains very disadvantaged. The Film Board continues to make films and videos. The gap which first existed has only been marginally bridged.

What if we were to examine this project as educational and pedagogical in design and effect? Challenge for Change could legitimately argue that they provided tools of expression to people who'd never had them before. They could argue that there was an inherent democratic spirit to the process which at least opened up the possibility of political change. They could point to their experiment as a vast improvement on what is usually available through more conventional means and through mainstream media.

But there is another point. How can filmmakers from a city like Montreal know and understand the needs, the language, the intuitions, the perspectives of people from another community? The encounter between two cultures involves a complexity which the creative process often makes difficult, in part because of the complexity of the differences, but also because the instruments being used focus problems in a rather unique way. Colin Low has described how he tried to discuss the best approach to filming the Fogo Islanders with community leaders and other potential participants in his project. These discussions, he said, were the basis upon which the films were made. This strategy, which includes repeated interviews and evaluation of the results, is meant to provide a voice to people whose voices have been dispossessed.

Clearly there is a contradiction here since the dispossession is somehow being lifted by the arrival of the film crew. Why has their impact been such an important one? How do they know? Often, the desire to confirm and reaffirm the validity of the work leads to an attribution of effect simply because the media are experienced as exciting by the participants in the process.

The evaluative mechanisms which are available are extremely limited. Perhaps the films themselves should be allowed to tell the tale. Perhaps, as present day video workers so often assert, it is what the people do with the medium which should the basis for an evaluation of the import and effect of the projects undertaken. We can learn a great deal from how the videos are used in the community. But it is difficult to evaluate the experience of others, the different and multiple ways in which they translate their experience into words, into an intelligible discourse. And the crucial word here is intelligible, since it is the assumption of the videoworker that the communication must have some meaning. He or she expects a result which a non-participating viewer could and must understand in order to legitimate the project.

Thus the Fogo Island films should be able to cross the boundary between Newfoundland and Montreal and Toronto and Vancouver and other smaller regions of Canada, should communicate across a complex social and cultural divide. This imperative to communicate must be understood as one of the driving forces behind the experiment. Paradoxically,the Fogo Islanders are being put in a rather ambiguous position because of it.

To be continued.....

Video/Film: From Communication To Community (1)

In the late 1960's and early 1970's Challenge for Change was a program at the National Film Board of Canada whose primary mandate was to provoke social change through the use of video and film. Broadly speaking this desire to use the medium as an instrument for an activist relationship to Canadian society, grew out of the recognition that the Film Board needed to be involved in more than the production of films. It needed to connect with and better understand the audiences it was addressing. The audience became an obsession at the Board with specific people assigned to develop polling methods and questionnaires for distribution to the populace at large. After certain films were shown on television, for example, the Film Board phoned people at random to see if they had watched and to pose questions if they had. The case of Challenge for Change is a very interesting one since the premise of their work was pedagogical, but dramatically different from the usual applications of educational film or television.

This issue of connectivity, of the relationship between production and distribution is what distinguishes the Film Board from so many similar organizations elsewhere. The traditions developed during the heyday of the Challenge for Change period were improved upon in the late seventies when the Board decentralized and opened up a series of regional centers across Canada in an effort to build closer ties to the communities it was serving.

I bring up this central issue of connectivity to the community because it is presumably at the heart of the communications effort which people working in video want to establish. However, as the filmmakers associated with Challenge for Change discovered, the task is an extremely difficult one.

What does it mean to try and create a cultural object which will provoke fundamental social changes? Let me speculate on the complexities of this question as I try and explore its implications.

The best known experiment carried out by the people associated with Challenge for Change occurred on Fogo Island off the east coast of Canada. As the producer Colin Low said at the time, he wanted to recount the history of the people living there through their own words. He felt that what they had to say was more important than what he could put together as an outsider. So he interviewed them but he didn't use any hidden cameras and did his best to put the people at ease. He never shot without permission and he gave the interviewees the chance to view the footage and to remove whatever disturbed them. This interactive approach created more and more discursive spaces in which the local people could examine not only what the filmmakers were doing but also question their own orientation and direction. It is generally agreed that Fogo Island changed after the work of Low and his partners. Even at the present time the event is recalled with a great deal of fondness by Fogo Islanders. (To be continued)

With reference to THE EDGE, see the following article:

The Story of an Instant-Science Experiment By Marco Iacoboni

From Community Media to International Networks

This blog entry proposes to briefly explore the transformation from the local context of community media to the creation of national and international information networks. This move from traditional community-based forms of media expression to digital, computer mediated communications systems foreshadows not only a shift in social processes, but a profound change in social structure. My objective will be to suggest possible approaches to research in the transitional areas that encompass what we now describe as virtual communications and for which neither our governments nor our lawmakers have developed clear policies. I believe that we need to develop a new agenda of research about exemplary community-based communications systems (of which FreeNets are excellent examples). The research has to be historical, theoretical and pragmatic in orientation. We need to account for the synergistic relationship between the history of people’s lives in communities and their use of a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and with the outside world. This research agenda should combine an intimate knowledge of the social and interpersonal processes that have made it possible for members of different communities to work together, with an analysis of the political context of participatory democracy.

I would like to propose that urban (and in many cases, rural) FreeNets and community-based networks, of which there are many in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe, have generated a radically different public sphere, whose structure and organization presage a profound realignment of what we have traditionally understood as community and as local communications. Shifts of the kind that I am discussing here are never as dramatic as one would assume from the more general claims made about the technology itself. To translate the potential of locally-based digital forms of communications into action and to have some effect, requires the same kind of time and commitment which has always been a characteristic of earlier forms of community activism with and without the media. However, the potential for inter-connection is now so much more developed and profound that the orientation of community activism is more directly linked to the use of media and communications tools.

The effects of this change on the policy environment and the ways in which citizenship is defined in an information-oriented society, will have a significant impact on the democratic rights of individuals and communities to pursue their visions for the future. Conventional notions of advocacy, community work and planning will alter as the practices and efforts of community activists become more and more dependent upon a variety of digital and virtual tools of communication. It will be essential to both recognize and analyze the fact that community activists are making use of a variety of mediums and that each of these mediums has a set of characteristics that both influence and shape the nature of the communications process.

Community oriented digital networks developed as a response to the lack of access to traditional broadcast media provided to community members, but also because of a desire to increase the quality of communication between citizens of different communities who shared similar interests. However, the process moved far beyond its initial objectives into political engagement, as community networks became the home of activism and information exchange about social, political and cultural issues. This has implications for how we think about structuring the policy and regulatory environment. The issues of political and commercial control as well as the ability of community members to freely engage with new forms of communication and emerging technologies of information and interaction means that conventional regulatory policies will have to change. How does one respond to material that may be controversial? How does one define local and national interests in the light of community needs? What are the boundaries between regulation, freedom of expression and the priorities of the community?

Community-based networks are defined by a spirit of volunteerism and a dedication to the common good. There are similarities between radio stations on university campuses, community television channels, cooperative radio stations and computer-mediated forms of communication such as FreeNets. In Canada, electronic bulletin boards evolved out of the first thrust of Internet development in the middle of the 1980’s. FreeNets developed from bulletin boards and now a variety of web-based interfaces exist alongside previous efforts to promote grassroots participation in the community. In general, regulatory bodies in Canada have been running behind the rather fast-paced evolution of these networks. In particular, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has tended to see the use of emerging technologies for communications from the rather jaundiced eye of regulatory policies that are based on broadcasting models. Although the CRTC has recognized the fundamental redefinition of communications processes brought about by technologies such as the Internet, it remains focused on issues of globalization and Canadian content. “The advancement of communication technologies, along with the abundance of information in today’s knowledge-based society, is creating a new, integrated ‘global’ information society. While globalization offers vast opportunities for marketing cultural products, it also provides regulatory and policy challenges that demand new approaches to support domestic cultures. Achieving a successful balance between the demands of the open market, and the need to maintain and promote cultural sovereignty and national identity, reflecting Canada’s cultural diversity and linguistic duality, will be key to maximizing gains from the global information society.

Yet, the community-based use of digital forms of communications is not necessarily in competition with global interests. Nor is the orientation of these networks defined by commercial gain. The CRTC tends to bundle the entire communications infrastructure into one rather homogeneous whole. The assumption of convergence, in this case, the combination of a variety of different communications industries, obscures the urgent need for the grassroots to define its own mode and modality of interaction. The CRTC is a good example of what can go wrong with regulation in the Internet age. Its policies reflect a desire to sustain and encourage the development of Canadian content. At the same time, it has no understanding of how digital forms of communication transform content and introduce new and unpredictable political and social alignments. These cannot be defined through the use of the traditional parameters of nation and locality. Community in an information-oriented environment can mean people getting together from many different nations through common interest and common cause. It is about spontaneous linkages that create networks. Some of these networks sustain themselves over time and others disappear. The underlying policy framework for this process has to be defined by a recognition of its fluidity. We have also have to recognize that the freedom to communicate does not come without costs. In saying all of this, I am not advocating a free- for-all strategy. I am suggesting that the conditions upon which new kinds of policies can be devised are being changed on a continual basis by the activity of networking. At the most fundamental of levels, the Internet should allow if not encourage the continual development of innovative approaches to communication and policymakers will have to reflect this level of innovation in their efforts to create flexible regulations. To do this, they will have to alter their research agenda. They will have to ensure that the “freedom to communicate" is not decided upon by the telecommunications giants while at the same time encouraging more and more communities to take responsibility for what they say and how they use the networks they are building.

What is happening to this Blog?

Well, the answer is not that simple. Work, fatigue and many other things, but in reality, it is difficult to write meaningfully on a continual basis. So, rather than add to the dross, rather than simply write for writing's sake, my approach will be to write when there is something important to say.

In addition, I will be adding some video log work to this site in the form of Quicktime clips. I can't promise the actual timing of this, but hope that VLOGS will become a regular part of what happens here. I am particularly interested in clips about the Emily Carr Institute and what is happening among students.

I will be posting more details on my new book, The Age of Six Feet Under over the next week or so. Thanks to those of you who have emailed me over the last while asking me when I will be posting again.