Expression, Ecology, Identity

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Stealing, Welding, Making (a Mess)

My final project on digital storytelling for CLST 355 Visual Research Methods is due soon. I’m fishing around online for digital storytelling about which I might want to write, my insecurity – I mean, er, self-reflexivity – is flaring. In particular, I feel the tension between writing about things other people have made and making original work. Why am I commenting on other people’s work instead of making my own “original work”? Or, is making original work what I’m doing here?

What it is that I can say about people’s blogs that the blogs themselves are not communicating? And, even if my comments on the digital storytelling of others are valid, are they useful? Am I offering anything new to the conversation about digital storytelling? Or, are my comments just a mash-up of pre-existing concepts – the blogs I’ve researched, what I’ve read for this class, other people’s comments in class – remixed in a peculiar way? Is this blog, for example, like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox and the ideas with which I’m working have less and less integrity each time they’re are reproduced?

Or, is my remix more than the sum of its parts? Does the stealing and welding and reshaping of ideas I’ve found interesting form something unique – an original work?

In my search for the blogs of digital storytellers, I happened upon the site of one artist who would say “yes.”

In class, we discussed the possibility of using a blog as a place to try out ideas, to have unfinished thoughts, to make a mess. At the beginning of this blog, I made a post about how uncomfortable I was using this space that way. I was loath to post anything that wasn’t “finished;” as soon as it was “out there” it could be graded and judged. I didn’t see the blogosphere as a place where I could ask dumb questions, or sift through ideas without having fully articulated my arguments. But Kleon’s blog – for better or worse – made me feel a little more free to think of ideas as a jumping-off point for mine; to not wait for perfection before making something – even if what you make turns out to be a mess.

Messes – the many, many awful ideas you try out before reaching one you think you like – seem a necessary part of the creative process, but it’s one I think the schools I’ve attended have encouraged me to keep to myself. The web offers thinkers the opportunity to do the opposite. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet, but I’m giving it a try. I’m basing this take on my academic work on the suggestions of a non-academic. Here’s to letting everyone see you sweat.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Digital Storytelling: Amateurs and Experts

Knut Lundby defines digital storytelling as small-scale "amateur, personal stories" focused on self-representation (Digital Storytelling, Mediated Stories,1). Berkley, California's Center for Digital Storytelling describes a "digital storyteller," as "anyone who has a desire to document life experience, ideas, or feelings through the use of story and digital media. Usually someone with little to no prior experience in the realm of video production but time to spend a few days attending a workshop and developing a story with creative support and technical assistance from compassionate, highly experienced facilitators."

I'm intrigued by the idea that digital storytelling is usually done by someone with "little to no prior experience in the realm of video production" but who's work can be assisted by "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators." For me, these definitions beg the following questions:

What makes an "amateur" digital storyteller?
How is the amateur digital storyteller different from the expert digital media-maker?
At what point does an amateur become an expert?
What is the role of the "experts" - the "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators" in that transformation?

The CDS's definition suggests a digital storyteller is usually new to creating digital media. But, what that actually means is, necessarily, a moving target that shifts with digital technology, its popularity, and its availability. As recording and editing devices crop up in a range of portable devices - laptops, phones - fewer and fewer adults are completely unfamiliar with the means of digital media production.

The same is true for the self-ethnographic forms employed in digital storytelling. As institutional anthropology becomes more self-reflexive and collaborative, it shifts further away from the notion that people's stories can only be told about the "other" through and for the scholarship of the dominant culture. Indeed, as Lundby points out, humans have been telling self-reflexive stories for ages. The "mediatized" extension of storytelling is new, but the practice of storytelling isn't.

If technological and anthropological tools once reserved for the elite are now in the hands of many amateurs, what, then, is the role of the expert? What is the role of the visual anthropologist?

The Center for Digital Storytelling offers one possible response when it describes storytellers' work as "facilitated by "compassionate, highly experienced facilitators." The support being offered by these experts has to do with the process of mediated self-reflection and self-expression ("creative support") as much as it has to do with using unfamiliar software and equipment ("technical support"). These professionals are not just teaching video-production, they are also educating participants in a particular way of understanding their own experiences.

Here is what one example of this work might look like. This a collaboration between Dominique Peltier and (interestingly) unnamed facilitators from the Center for Digital Storytelling. The video was created for the "Italians of Denver" digital media project. Though the video is framed as a memorial to Peltier's grandfather, his story is largely told in the context of Peltier's own life as influenced by her relationship with her grandfather.

"Put Down Your Camera and Join Us"

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I saw this sign through the roiling sea of faces, voices and signs that made up the 10/15/11 Occupy Movement's International Day of Action. It was scrawled in black marker on a ragged piece of cardboard carried by a teenage girl.

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I passed her in the crowd several times and never without a jolt of discomfort - probably because, each time, I was video-recording her holding her sign.

I had come to the Occupy LA site that day to protest corporate "personhood" under the law, to challenge corporate corruption of the democratic process and to advocate for participatory democracy. My interest in the movement grew from a conviction that "business as usual" is destroying the landscape on which we collectively depend for survival, that for everyday community-members to abdicate democratic power is to invite tyranny.

But, while I considered myself to be one of “the 99%,” I also saw myself as a recorder and interpreter of these events. Clutching a low-tech camera the size of my hand, I was now a newbie filmmaker. I intended to help tell the story of this moment from the inside out, to contribute my one, admittedly idiosyncratic, perspective to the creation of a collaborative narrative about the Occupy movement.

The footage I was taking was meant for the group video project for a CLST 355 Visual Research Methods course at Claremont Graduate University (above). My collaborators and I set out to make a video that explored the “demand for a list of demands” that mainstream media had imposed on the Occupy movement. Certainly, criticisms of the movement as having either no demands or too many demands, were ubiquitous in televised news. But was this the right question to ask? Who would gain from extracting a list of demands from the movement at this stage?

“Put down your camera and join us.”

I could understand why this sign-maker protester might assume that those holding cameras were not on her side. But, the same coverage of the Occupy that may have led her to be skeptical of media-makers inspired me to bring my camera to the demonstration. The notion that reflection on and scholarly interpretation of current events should be left to disinterested observers has been around a long time. But, I’m not sure I buy it. Since we are never entirely able to check our biases and our own agendas at the door when interpreting human behavior, “pure scholarly objectivity” is largely a myth. I agree with those, like cinema verite pioneer John Rouch, that developing practices of self-examination in shared anthropology is not just possible, it is vital.

Further, I do not believe it is necessary to wait for someone else to interpret our actions for us. We can and must participate in that work ourselves. Making media is a way of engaging that task; it is a vehicle for self-expression but also of self-reflection.

Finally, believe that scholarship and activism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are necessarily connected. Once we engage in scholarship, once we attempt to know the world around us, we must decide what to do with that information. That choice of how – and when and whether - to employ knowledge, is always a political act, whether or not we intend it to be.

“Put down your camera and join us.”

It doesn’t bother me that I might disagree with my co-protester on this. We in the movement are still working out how to represent ourselves, just as we’re necessarily still working on how to articulate the complex system of changes we want to see in the world. I only wish I had spoken to her about this at the time. We might have talked about why we agreed and explored the areas where we didn’t. Indeed, conversations like this are a critically important part of the work of the movement. Perhaps this video can help to say what I wish I had said to her that day: that I – and my camera – had joined her.