Thursday, December 4, 2014

Everyday Stories

On the Digital Storytelling 106 site, the students created a page of inspirations:  which in turn inspired me to think about what stories had impressed me through the years:

In Search of Lake Wobegon - At the time this came out in 2000, I found it to be a compelling and innovative multi-media presentation. Unlike the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS), this story was produced by a well-known media organization, National Geographic, and told by a respected author, Garrison Keillor using professional photographs created specifically for the story.However, like CDS stories, this is a personal story and reveals the author's 'truth' behind his fictional town of Lake Wobegon.

This American Life, around the same time that I watched In Search of Lake Wobegon, I also was introduced to This American Life. I remember reading statements by Ira Glass explaining how his radio show was about ordinary, common American people and themes. Each show would be centered on a theme told in several 'acts' or stories, like the Babysitting episode. He also encouraged the journalists to share their personal reactions--of laughter, surprise, doubt. I like this quote from the website because it highlights what is different about radio stories: "This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page"  Unlike CDSThis American Life stories are primarily told through professional writers and journalists, a much different approach than the Radio Diaries movement. which sees the power in giving everyday people a microphone. Like CDS this movement is about DIY stories. The audio technology is fairly simple, and allows a certain amount of anonymity that visual story telling -- whether through photos or video lacks. Years later, I still remember listening to diary of a 21-year old women suffering from cystic fibrosis, "My so called Lungs," by Laura Rothenberg.

Similar to the raw emotions and ever-present mortality found in Laura's story, I was  touched by the YouTube video produced by Ben Breedlove telling about his near death experiences using not audio, but words written on cards. I was impacted by his serenity and how simple he told a profound story. A few other films worth mentioning include a short I saw at the Full Frame film fesival, Love Supreme (2001), the filmmaker depicted his mother preparing samosas (a common, everyday meal) without any narration or words. I was surprised to learn that the stylistic inspiration for this personal and loving film was Raging Bull. Another power festival film is Melba William's short story about her father and his experiences in the Vietnam War, A Thousand Words.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Refining the Poetics of a Documentary Film Interview

One of the most recognized and imitated documentary film conventions is the interview. Since the invention of portable sound equipment and the television, the interview has become an ubiquitous presence in the non-fiction genre for half a century. As a dominant documentary technique, the interview deserves rigorous study, and yet academic writings on this topic are insufficient. Film scholar Leger Grindon attempts to fill this gap in the literature by proposing an analytical framework in his essay, “Q&A: Poetics of the Documentary Film Interview ” (2007) Grindon begins an important dialogue on the principles and aesthetics of the interview, but his approach neglects to cover important principles and aesthetic elements.He also fails to adequately address key perspectives such as the contributions of female and minority directors.

Girlhood tracks the lives of Megan and Shanae, two girls locked up in a juvenile detention center. In the tradition of Jean Rouch, director Liz Garbus asks questions that seek to uncover personal truths.  Megan's honest and vulnerable responses testifies to the trust developed as Garbus stayed involved in Megan's life for several years.

The limitations and oversights of Grindon's scholarship create an opportunity to craft a more refined poetics of the documentary film interview, one that is applicable to filmmakers and spectators alike. While Grindon's five categories form the beginning of an analytical approach to the interview, he makes the mistake of discounting Bill Nichols significant contributions to the topic. Nichols accurately contends that, “Like the ethical issues concerning the space between filmmaker and subject and how it is negotiated, a parallel set of political issues of hierarchy and control, power and knowledge surround the interview.”  By applying Nichols theory to Grindon's five categories, an enriched methodology begins to emerge. In addition, each category should be scrutinized for limitations and inaccuracies, as well as strengths. Presence should include point of view. If perspective concerns setting then time period, as well as location, should be a factor. Pictorial context should take a deeper look into the unique ways documentary films juxtapose interviews and images. Performance should consider the director's motivations and manipulation of the interview. Finally, polyvalence, as well as all other categories should consider the ways in which the hierarchies between filmmaker and subject influence the individual interviews, as well as the overall effect. All of these five categories should be applied equitably to the contributions of both male and female documentary filmmakers, as well as to minority directors. The practice, as well as the theory, should consider the politics of power and strive for “conversation” and not “psuedo-dialogue.” 

Director Sarah Polley uses a reflexive approach to interviewing her family members and friends in "Stories We Tell."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Persistence of Vision: Donna Haraway

“Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women's movements have constructed 'women's experience', as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility.”  -- Donna Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto, 1985

More than a decade after Haraway's manifesto the popular movie "The Truman Show," explored our anxieties and fears, as well as our hope for liberation from a digital, constructed, and manipulated world. The lines are blurred between fiction and reality, objectivity and subjectivity, and the possibilities of escape and transcendence. In these constructed worlds, who is King and who is a pawn? And who is observing the game?

While Truman ultimately sees and escapes his Hollywood world, Haraway addresses the ways in which technology has become invisible to us and hence as harmful and limiting as the fabricated town of Seahaven. Throughout her manifesto she predicts in amazing precision the future of today: “Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible ...  Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile...  The ubiquity and invisibility of cyborgs is precisely why these sunshine-belt machines are so deadly. They are as hard to see politically as materially.”

Amber Case, a self-proclaimed cyborg anthropologist, probes this invisible space and explores how we are all cyborgs. In her 2010 Ted Talk she demonstrates how technology extends not our physical self (stronger, faster, heightened senses ), but our mental self as well (communicating faster, access to information). Cell phones mentally transport us creating an ambient intimacy. We have come to treat them like our children--we feed them (re-charge), attend to them when they cry (ring), and panic when we can't find them.

Beyond just extending physical and mental capabilities, Haraway postulates in her manifesto that “these  communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies. These tools embody and enforce new social relations for women world-wide.” In the cyborg world, nature has been trumped, but not by an objective science.

In her essay,
The Persistance of Vision, Haraway continues to challenge objective science and vision by countering that visualization is a politics of positioning. How and what do we see? What defines rational knowledge?  In response, she argues for a doctrine of feminist objectivity or situated knowledge.

Recognized as one of today's innovative figures in the field of visual technology is digital artist Jer Thorp. In 2009, he created Good Morning! a visualization of all the "good morning" tweets going out across the world. This view from above gives us a sense of transcendent knowledge, but from a feminist objective the video demonstrates the politics and limits of data collection and interpretation. What is implied in the negative spaces on the globe?  Who has access to technology and communication?  Why is this data being gathered, and who is interpreting this information? What viewpoint is being represented? Who is left out? Does this data reflect or consider the “new social relations for women world-wide?”

A recent news story in the Huffington Post highlights the nuances and complexities inherent in communication technologies and biotechnologies as tools for the recrafting female body. Attempting to blur the lines of science-fiction (think Total Recall) and reality Jasmine Tridevil proudly exhibits her three breasts. She claims the motivation for a surgically created third breast was to make herself hideous to men, but her words and actions can be seen as both contesting and agreeing to notions of beauty and femininity:

 “Most guys would think [the extra breast is] weird and gross. But I can still feel pretty because if I wore makeup and cute clothes, I can still, you know… feel pretty.”

She wants to be unattractive to men, and yet she invests in the dominant female construction of beauty by using make-up and clothes to feel pretty. She has also created a fantastical female body image that both repulses and fascinates others in order to receive attention and fame. Adding another layer of complexity to the interpretation of this photograph is the fact that it is a hoax. This is not a surgically implanted breast but a prosthetic. So why did newspapers print this story and why were readers (including me) willing to believe it? 
 In 1990, I had no reason to believe the three-breasted woman in Total Recall, was anything but special effects in science-fiction movie. However, over the past decades, as a society we've seen tremendous progress in plastic surgery, to the point that what used to be myth is now a possible reality. 

As science and technology progresses at an exponential rate, Haraway's assertion that we need to “reclaim [sight] to find our way through all the visualizing tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies that have transformed objectivity debates”  becomes increasingly applicable. Since the release of Total Recall breast augmentation and plastic surgery has become more common, accessible, and discussed in the media. The 1990s was a decade of Baywatch bodies and Joan Rivers face lifts--the myth and images of Goddess and youth beauty materialized. In the 21st century, the application has expanded as more men and women undergo surgical procedures to claim their true gender identities that nature denied them. Last year, Angelina Jolie made headlines (and continues to make news) over her choice to under go double mastectomies and breast reconstruction after being diagnosed with the BRCA1 gene. These female images may be interpreted simply as “heroic feats of techno-scientific production,” but Haraway argues for a practice of feminist objectivity favoring contestation, deconstruction, reconstruction, and transformation. Women and men use biotechnologies to subject themselves to ideals of beauty, but there is also room for transformation, control and empowerment over our bodies and identities. According to Haraway, what we see and how we see, are subject to “the science and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering, and the partly understood.”   

Haraway concludes her essay, by stating that Science becomes the paradigmatic model not of closure, but of that which is contestable and contested. Science becomes the myth not of what escapes human agency and responsibility in a realm above the fray, but rather of accountability and responsibility for translations and solidarities linking the cacophonous visions and visionary voices that characterize the knowledges of the subjugated... We seek the knowledge of partial sight and limited voice.

In Dec 2008, Time Magazine declared President Barack Obama Man of the Year, and  printed a digitally created photomosaic of him using photos of people attending his rallies. Viewing the image we may only see the dominate visual of the President against a backdrop of the American flag, the figure raised during his inauguration speech declaring that Out of Many, we are One. Or if we have the tools and a high resolution copy, we may be able to see the individual faces. Interpretations of the image then and now also demonstrate how we see, and the politics of visuality. In what ways does this image represent power, racial politics, and contested identities?  Unlike the views from above, this is an image not of the God-trick, but of partial views, contested realities, limits and contractions.

Additional Resources

These references further explore Haraway's arguments presented in a Cyborg Manifesto and The Persistence of Vision: “Microelectronics mediates the translations of labour into robotics and word processing, sex into genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, and mind into artificial intelligence and decision procedures.” and “We need to find our way through all the visualizing tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies that have transformed the objectivity debates.”
  • Sleeper: The Orgasmatron What happens when machines replace human physical interaction?
  • Sleeper: Interpreting Visuals How might today's images be re-interpreted in the future?
  • The Bionic Woman: After an accident Jaime's body is rebuilt to include bionic legs, right arms, and hearing. A retired tennis player, she is a teacher and secret agent.
  • Tan Le shows how a headset can read our brainwaves and record our emotions.
  • NannyRobot learns how to read and react to your emotions
  • Final Cut - In the future, video cameras can be installed in our heads at birth and will record the sights and sounds of our entire lives. Upon death the videos of our life will be edited into a “Remembrance”  for our living loved ones to watch.
  • Robin Williams discusses his views of new technologies and their impact.
  • Jer Thorp is a data visualizer for the New York Times, Among his various projects he has tried to visual data from social networks.
  • Hubble Site GalleryCreating color images out of the original black-and-white exposures is equal parts art and science.
In 1985 Haraway explores how “Modern war is a cyborg orgy, coded by C3I, command-control-communication-intelligence, an $84 billion item in 1984's US defence budget.” Today modern war is also lived through video games have become notorious for their male domination, violence, and abuses against women. Fiction and reality become blurred, and heated debates occur over “rational accounts” in the gaming world. Below are a few samples.
  • 5 best enhanced humans - All males with enhanced killing abilities.
  • Gaming is a Male Privilege - a sampling of unique male privileges in the gaming world.
  • Bullying in the Gaming World The digital and virtual gaming worlds become new environments for misogyny--both in fictional and real-life situations. Male characters are dominant, frequently heroes and killers while women are often subjective--strippers, prostitutes, victims, and silly and/or annoying. The lines become blurred when male gamers target verbal abuse, threats, and cyber stalking towards female gamers.
  • GTA5 a review by Carolyn Petit began a mass media dialogue about misogyny and bullying in the gaming world.