My book Technologies of History: Visual Media, and the Eccentricity of the Past has just been published by Dartmouth Press and is due for release in March 2011. The book examines alternative forms of visual history as constructed through film, television and digital media over the past 30 years. Integrating theory, historical research and textual criticism, I explore issues of cultural memory, textuality and the impact of digital technologies on our understanding of the past, focusing on works that challenge the conventions and forms of traditional historiography. My goal is to broadly reconsider the range of practices that should be regarded as visual history, drawing special attention to voices and forms of practice that have been left out of mainstream historical discourse. Overall, I argue that the primary aspirations of visual history need not be limited to the production of illusionist narratives but may include the creation of new critical contexts in which viewers simultaneously interrogate the past and rethink the entangled relations of history, memory and media. As an intervention in prevailing discourses of media and history, my aim is to rethink our fundamental relationship to history in response to a diverse and rapidly evolving media landscape that includes online video, science fiction, games and digital networks.
In conjunction with the book, I have also created a rich-media interactive history project of the same title that expands upon a single case study drawn from the book. This project allows for an in-depth exploration of the extraordinary diverse ways the John F. Kennedy assassination has been mediated and reinterpreted, ranging from the Zapruder footage to machinima videos captured from the game JFK Reloaded. For me, these two projects represents an ideal conjunction of scholarly modes, with the book allowing for the in-depth development of a more or less conventional academic argument in linear form. However, the project examines a genuinely diverse range of media texts, so that no reader could reasonably be expected to be familiar with all of the objects under examination. By creating a digital companion to the written text, I was able to perform a different kind of textual analysis, not simply through illustration of examples but by juxtaposing different threads of the argument with related media clips. The experience of navigating this database of critical and mediated works allows the user to experience the argument from multiple perspectives and in varying degrees of specificity.
This chapter examines the impact of digital technologies on the writing of history, arguing that the narrative logics of the database and search engine have resulted in two divergent movements – one that seeks to articulate a “total” history that is encyclopedic in scope and rooted in relatively stable conceptions of historical epistemology; another that exploits digital technology’s potential for randomization and recombination in order to accommodate increasingly volatile visions of the past. At the opposing ends of this spectrum are the Shoah Foundation’s Survivors Project, a randomly accessible archive of over 100,000 hours of video testimonies by Holocaust survivors, and the Recombinant History Project’s Terminal Time, an artificial intelligence apparatus that constructs infinitely variable historical documentaries based on audience biases and beliefs. Although these two projects represent competing conceptions of historiography, both are enabled by the proliferation of digital information systems.
This book chapter is forthcoming in Interactive Frictions, edited by Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson (University of California Press).
It is a truism of postmodern culture that the difference between truth and fiction is not what it used to be. But in Jesse Lerner’s Ruins, this is more than an empty slogan, it’s a point of departure. Ruins is a self-proclaimed “fake documentary” that exposes the persistence of colonialist ideology in pre-hispanic histories of Mexico and calls into question the processes by which the disciplines of archaeology and art history are constituted. In Ruins, Lerner is as much concerned with historiography – the processes of writing history – as with history itself. The film mobilizes a multiplicity of historiographical and documentary strategies, ranging from archival footage compilation and hidden camera interviews to cutout animation and fictional recreation. Ruins puts forward a scathing revelation of the racist and colonialist underpinnings of ancient Mesoamerican history and offers in its place an enlightened critique and alternate vision of the region’s past.
Published in F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited by Alex Juhasz and Jesse Lerner (University of Minnesota Press 2006)
The Visible Evidence documentary conference continues at USC through the weekend with several notable events in addition to an impressive, three-track array of panels and presentations devoted to all things documentary. I am especially excited about the presentation by filmmaker James Benning on Saturday night from 8:00 to 10:00PM in SCA 108. Billed as a “Multimedia Presentation” by Benning, who is best known for his uniquely rigorous body of landscape-focused structural films, the artist will be talking about his most recent non-film project “Milwaukee to Lincoln, MT,” which involved reconstructing the cabin built by Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond and the cabin occupied by Theodore Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) in the woods of Montana.
Known for his eclectic interests and fascination with notorious figures from American history (one of Benning’s early films mined the personal diaries of Arthur Bremer, Nixon’s would-be assassin who went on to shoot Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1972), Benning is one of the few artists who could pull off such a perverse, yet striking, juxtaposition without trivializing the subject through postmodern irony-mongering. Whatever happens when Benning goes on stage in SCA 108 tomorrow night, I promise you will not want to miss it.
The New Media://Visible Evidence exhibition showcases several examples of mainly Los Angeles-based documentary practice that employ disparate new media forms. The exhibition will include examples from the Web-based portraits of LA and its inhabitants produced by Juan Devis for the KCET series titled Web Stories; media artist Natalie Bookchin’s Mass Ornament, composed entirely of clips from YouTube videos; and several interactive DVD-ROM documentaries created by USC’s Labyrinth Project under the leadership of Marsha Kinder. The show also includes Erik Loyer and Sharon Daniel’s interactive documentary Blood Sugar; The Iraqi Doctors Project: Research and Remix, which envisions remix as a scholarly practice and was produced by Virginia Kuhn, DJ Johnson and students in IML 340; Mobile Voices, a project created by and for day laborers using the MMS feature on cell phones; as well as several examples of database documentaries made using the Korsakow System, including Matt Soar’s Almost Architecture and Florian Thalhofer’s Forgotten Flags.
In addition to showcasing the projects in the School of Cinematic Arts Gallery, the exhibition will also include three lunch-time presentations during the conference, with Bookchin appearing on Friday to talk about Mass Ornament, Marsha Kinder and Scott Mahoy on Saturday to talk about the Labyrinth Project, and Katie Mills on Sunday to talk about Web Stories. We invite you to experience some of the innovative work produced in Los Angeles – the gallery showcasing the projects is located on the first floor of the Lucas Building in the School of Cinematic Arts; the lunch-time talks will take place between 1:15 and 1:45 in the gallery.
Jennifer Terry’s Killer Entertainments presents challenges to both designers and users on many levels. How to critically address videos shot by soldiers engaged in combat without sensationalizing, decontextualizing or trivializing them? How to provide access to such a diverse and extensive range of work? How to insert commentary, context and background information while preserving the raw power of the original videos? In response to these challenges, author Jennifer Terry and designer Raegan Kelly developed a rhetoric of connection and accretion which resists linearity and the seductiveness of a single argument illustrated with evidence. Users are led toward no single interpretation; no replacement ideology takes over from that of the Administration’s party line. Indeed the text allows for and even encourages responses based in idiosyncracy and uncertainty. The source material presented here all comes from “the Internet,” but what does that mean? What can it mean? Which of the sites hosting these materials are “real” and which are run by counter-intelligence agencies hoping to track usage patterns among potential dissidents via IP addresses?
Terry’s text also refuses the screen-media convention of text that has been reduced to digestible lexia. The micronarratives, profiles and backstories that make up Terry’s analysis, like the unedited videos themselves, insist on a certain investment of time, thought and connection-making. Curiosity and patience are rewarded with a rare feeling that one is not simply the conduit for one of several predetermined responses being called up by mainstream media or academic commentary. In an age when the Google search engine can claim to return over 6 million references to “iraq war” in “(0.11 seconds),” the issue no longer seems to be gaining access to information so much as knowing what to do when we have it at our fingertips. Part of the power of Terry’s commentary lies in the flat understatement of her text. When she drops raw figures — such as the fact that coalition forces have fired more than 250,000 bullets for every “insurgent” killed in Iraq — the number seems to hang impossibly on the page. The point is not to dramatize, shock or dismay, but to suggest the importance of educating ourselves out of our narrowness of concern. The Iraq war is happening now — with men and women killing and dying in our names whether we like it or not. We owe it to them, at the very least, to watch, read, listen, think, and then decide for ourselves exactly how we intend to act.
No treatment of the theme Ephemera would be complete without considering Rick Prelinger’s work over the past two decades to preserve, archive and recognize the value of Hollywood’s “other,” the obscure and sometimes surreal world of ephemeral films. The San Francisco-based Prelinger, who has been collecting advertising, educational and industrial films for more than two decades, in 2002 sold his collection of over 50,000 films to the Library of Congress. He has since turned his energies to advocating a renewed conception of archival practice that involves actively pushing works out into the public, rather than simply storing them passively.
In 2005, Prelinger completed a feature film titled Panorama Ephemera, a meditative chronicle remarkably free of the camp humor of many ephemeral remixes. The images and sounds presented in Prelinger’s film are treated with meticulous respect for their materiality and status as signifying objects. Each shot or sequence in the film forms part of a “cognitive map” of American history, revealing patterns of obsession that orbit around such mundane but foundational themes as growing food, Westward migration, the transformation of landscape, and the development of democracy, as well as relationships among animals, humans, nature and civilization.
The online version of Panorama Ephemera, created in collaboration with Vectors Art Director Raegan Kelly, is similarly devoted to preserving the integrity of individual media elements, while interweaving them with Prelinger’s own personal and professional trajectories, milestones and musings. Perhaps most interesting is the opportunity this project provides to explore Prelinger’s personal history via the artifacts by which his career has been defined. In foregrounding Prelinger’s personal history as a lens through which to view the films, Panorama Ephemera models a form of historiography, that underscores the inevitability of authorial intervention in the process of assembling a historical narrative.
An interview with film archivist Rick Prelinger, focusing on his recent work as an artist and activist at the forefront of the copyright wars.
For over two decades, his name has been synonymous with “Ephemeral Films,” but ever since Rick Prelinger turned over his collection of 50,000 advertising, educational and industrial films to the Library of Congress to be (ironically) preserved as part of our national heritage, he has continued his work as an artist, activist, litigant and librarian at the forefront of the copyright wars. In addition to serving as president of the Internet Archive and co-plaintiff (along with Brewster Kahle) in a pro-public domain lawsuit against the US government, Prelinger completed the all-public domain feature film Panorama Ephemera, which has received acclaim at festivals around the world. Most recently, he and his partner Megan Shaw Prelinger have opened an “appropriation-friendly” library in San Francisco that houses some 40,000 volumes. In all of these efforts, Prelinger remains committed to the value of cultural preservation, contemplation and recombination and a thoughtful engagement with the artifacts of the past.
Published in Res Magazine Sep/Oct 2005
An article examining the historical, political and technological implications of the open source movement for cinematic production.
February 24, 2004. Also known as Grey Tuesday. Over 100,000 copies of DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album are downloaded from hundreds of sites across the Internet. An estimated million copies of this celebrated remix of the Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album are traded over peer-to-peer networks within 24 hours. A symbolic gesture perhaps, but the electronic civil disobedience of Grey Tuesday eloquently speaks to both consumer frustrations with increasingly restrictive copyright laws and the growing power of peer networks to subvert the enforcement of those laws. Clearly the battle lines have been drawn for the culture wars of the 21st century. At stake is the continued existence of a meaningful sphere of free culture called the public domain. The battle promises to be epic, bringing cherished American ideals of originality, creativity and the ability to profit from one’s labor into seeming conflict with equally powerful desires for freedom of speech and expression. And what happens when the movie industry finally has its own Grey Tuesday? In spite of its demonstrated ineffectiveness, the MPAA appears determined to follow the music industry’s shock-and-awe strategy of indiscriminate prosecutions. All of which means more lawsuits, more bitterness, and ultimately, more effective tactics of resistance.
Published in Res Magazine Jan/Feb 2005
An article examining the movement toward new storytelling sensibilities in interactive artwork at the intersection of cinema, video games, and networked computing
With the flick of a mouse, we glide effortlessly down the gloomy corridors of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, floating past cavernous ballrooms and windows overlooking elegant gardens and swimming pools. Around each corner and behind each door, ghostly figures replay events from a past that is at once real and imagined. A Kennedy died here, along with countless villains and plots of Hollywood noir. The number of possible paths through this story space seems limitless. Even familiar rooms tell different stories with each visit and earthquakes periodically rumble through the dilapidated building, triggering a barrage of images and hurling us into new spaces and times. This is the world of Pat O’Neill’s Tracing the Decay of Fiction, a DVD-ROM made in collaboration with the Labyrinth Project at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, which for the past five years has been a key player in the loose global network of digital artists and designers charting new territories in the field of interactive database narrative.
Published in Res Magazine Jan/Feb 2004
Review of The Five Obstructions, directed by Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth
Ever since the widespread publication of photographs showing American soldiers torturing Iraqi captives in the Abu Ghraib prison, Michael Moore’s Oscars night exhortation that “we are living in fictitious times,” somehow no longer rings true. The times we are living in seem all too real and, against all expectations, the proof seems to lie in a few dozen grainy digital photographs e-mailed from half way around the world. For a long time now, postmodern culture has comforted itself with the thought that our age is defined by the simulacrum, an exact copy for which there is no original. But even in the midst of a media culture obsessed with remakes and franchising of familiar products, the works that transcend are those which bother to explore in a non-trivial way the relations between people; reality and artifice; old and new, the mixed-up muddle of construction, conceit, authenticity and belief that is contemporary media.
Published in Really Good Films 2003
A profile of industry iconoclast and experimental film legend Pat O’Neill
A new film by Pat O’Neill is to the experimental film world what a planetary alignment is to astrophysicists, a rare and momentous event, promising a glimpse into the workings of laws of light and movement – perhaps even a new way of seeing the world. For O’Neill to complete two projects at once – a 35mm film The Decay of Fiction and a DVD ROM Tracing the Decay of Fiction – is more like a supernova colliding with a black hole: the convergence of two extraordinary phenomena in a single moment – a nearly inconceivable occurrence from a man who thinks nothing of waiting an entire year to photograph a ray of sunlight shining through a window at a particular angle.
Published in Release Print September 2002