Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A million miles a minute: on sources, communities and audiences

This week I was honored to be invited to work as part of the Bay Area Video Coalitions' Producers Institute, a 10-day workshop in which five projects for social good which are centered in film or interactive media come together to work on developing their projects into something that can be pitched to funders at a pretty high level. It's a super-fast, intensive experience, where everything seems to go a rocket-speed, and yet thoughtful, nuanced projects come out. The Institute draws on the Bay Area's rich network of technologists, artists, game designers, film makers, app designers, data visualization specialists and futurologists to help people bring their projects into the digital era - transcending the traditional format of documentary film (which most of the projects appear to arise out of), and really make use of the connections and people that contributed to the making of the film, and the connections and people who contribute to its reception.

Coming to it from a non-film background, I have been fascinated by the parallels and the contrasts between my work as a DJ and an anthropologist/ethnomusicologist.

Documentary practices, by which I mean the practices involved in making a documentary, share a lot, it seems to me, with anthropology, in terms of negotiating a relationship with a specific community or issue, in order to make a communicative work. Many issues around access, ethics, representation, technology, and trust seem really connected to my own processes as I spend time in the field. The purposes may even overlap as well: in this case, the projects all have a social goal, whether it is awareness-raising, retelling history, facilitating dialogue, encouraging changes in behavior or shaming authority figures. All of these are often explicit or implicit goals of anthropologists' work.

To be more specific: I'm especially concerned with my relationship to the communities I research,  personally (for immediate, self-interested reasons), and for my work and the effect I want it to have. Jamaican musicians, and the specific people and personalities I have been lucky enough to get to know, are not the owners or the controllers of what I do, but they are people who have shared something with me and I have to have integrity about what I do with what I have learned. Even if I end up pissing them off, I need to make that choice seriously and for reasons that hopefully they can understand. I do believe that folks I worked with who might disagree with me would still understand my reasoning for the arguments I make about Jamaican musical practices.

At the Producers Institute, the different projects have some really different goals, which I'm going to totally idiosyncratically summarize below, followed by the project names and descriptions taken from the Center for New media's blog post on the opening day.

1. Straight-up encouraging participants to change their behavior through recasting currently unpopular activities as fun
(Wikilakes: Empowering Kashmiri communities to preserve their environment through game think)
2. Inviting people to view themselves and others differently in a way that overturns stereotyping and fear
(Question Bridge: Transforming preconceptions about black males through video-mediated dialogue)
3. Fostering dialogue between opposing sides and interests while educating the wider world about how we are already involved in this debate without knowing its impact in a particular local setting.
(Equal Footing: Developing tools for Chiapas locals to communicate with government and institutions on sustainable environmental practices)
4. Personalizing a global issue through allowing folks to connect on an intimate level with scientific data about living things
(Rekindling Venus: Bringing awareness and attention to the extraordinary symbiosis of animal and algae in the coral ecosystem and the very real impacts of climate change.)
5. Spreading a forgotten history while making that history a starting place for mobilizing engagement with its aftermath and current incarnation.
 (We Were Here: Developing interactive curriculum that honors the memory of victims of the San Francisco HIV/AIDS epidemic.)

 Some of these have films associated with them and some do not. But it's been amazing to be a part of the discussion for how one engages with the various communities associated with these projects. There are lots of complexities that arise out of one's relationship to the communities - if one has a particular goal, how to achieve it collaboratively with communities? How is that goal shaped by the people you want to participate, by their attitudes, knowledges, and local situations?

But what about the people with whom you share your work after it is made (to the extent that you see it as a finished work)? Viewers, listeners, critics, students, dancers, experts, colleagues, competitors, fans?

As a scholar, I generally see my work in two ways: as a product (usually written) that seeks a venue, but also as an argument that is intended to convince people or at least share information that I hope people take seriously as they make their own choices about similar issues. So, besides thinking about how that argument/information affects the people and places I study (who are part of the audience), there is a larger audience for my scholarship of scholars, policy makers, technologists and music fans outside Jamaica. Here I am committed to making arguments that will be hard to use to reinforce the kinds of inequalities that are so much in force in Jamaica and globally. I want my work to make people think about what their assumptions are, whether they agree or not. I also know there are institutions in the world that depend on particular understandings of human behavior and meaning, and I hope my work doesn't too easily fit into the dominant ones. This seems to me something at least some documentarians and social-justice-oriented film-makers would be concerned with. But beyond that there are some different traditions in relation to the different media of music vs. film.

Thinking about music and how we enjoy it at my gigs, and how I have studied its enjoyment in different parts of the world has brought out a big difference with film: a different history and trajectory of the different medium. My impression is that film-making, including documentary film-making, has tended to rely on a pretty clear separation between what happens on the screen and what happens in the audience. that is, the audience is not considered much a part of the creative process. Certainly the way I hear film-makers talk is mostly about the message or the story inherent in the film, and how they want it to "reach" or "affect" the audience. The work is constructed in a rather totalizing way, as something that is  complete in itself, and the audience comes later.  While this isn't so different from a lot of scholarly work, it is completely different from my musical work.
Music starts from a very different place. At least for most people, I think music is a social experience - if there are recordings, the recordings are an element in musical experience, but even live performance in which not everyone has an instrument accords the non-instrumentalists a bit more action than in a movie theater. The conceptual separation between "author" and "consumer" is not quite as strong.  The  most important and common ways that people experience music is engaged with is more dynamic than sitting down in a dark room (I guess I should separate 'classical' music as it is currently presented, hmmm).

As a DJ, the role of the audience in creating a musical experience is crucial : I help create an audience, partly dependent on who is in the room, but the audience creates itself in interaction with me. I can't ignore or hector them into appreciating what I do. I have to invite them, and their response shapes how I move forward. How I invite people depends on my respecting them where they are, and trying to learn or intuit something about them - I have to figure out what they are likely to respond to. They are as much a part of the  musical experience as I am.

One of the terms that is floating around at BAVC (and more broadly) is "transmedia." Music has always been transmedia,* because most music has never been meant to reside in the medium in which it is recorded. Part of what I've found fascinating in the past few days is seeing filmmakers grappling with how to think about audiences as active participants, or breaking down the distinction between audience and producer in different ways. Although people make music with various goals, there is also a tradition, especially in ethnomusicology, of identifying the way music serves social functions without people necessarily being explicit about it. It doesn't have to be "message music" to represent a community, people make music that represents them in a more organic way than that. Although films serve social functions too, I wonder if the history of film-making as a capital-intensive tradition,  something expensive and time-consuming to make and distribute and show, made its social function more narrow? 

*actually, the concept of transmedia in itself reveals a standpoint that is outside of most people's lives - it sounds like a term used by people who are focused on media first, rather than people. People  engage with culture (music, movies, etc) in their lives, by means of media, but for most of them the specifics are not the point (which is not to say that the medium doesn't affect the message, but just that people's use of media is shaped by interests outside of the medium). The idea that there is an experience or a message which exists across different media is how we all experience culture, but also, different cultural forms have grown up around specific kinds of media engagement.