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).
This article maps two divergent trajectories within a narrowly defined sphere of short-form, time-based digital media created between 1995 and 2005. These works are considered in relation to the historical avant-garde – particularly the Structural film movement of the 1960s and 70s – and analyzed as responses to a range of cultural concerns specific to the digital age. The analysis identifies movement toward two terminal points: first, a mode of remix-based montage inspired by open source programming communities and peer-to-peer networks; and second, the emergence of a mode of imaging termed the “digital analogue”, which foregrounds the material basis of digital production.
Published in Digital Humanities Quarterly vol 1, no 2 Summer 2007
Download “Aporias of the Digital Avant-Garde”
As a recent contributor to the “Hitler meme” genre of detourned video parodies of the movie Downfall, I was inspired by the recent Rocketboom video with Kenyatta Cheese describing the steps to challenge a YouTube takedown. Rocketboom, in turn, was motivated by the recent wave of takedowns ordered by Downfall producers, Constantin Films, which resulted in the removal of hundreds of Downfall parodies, mine included.
My Hitler meme video Digital Humanities and the Case for Critical Commons was created to publicize the relaunch of Critical Commons, a site that promotes the fair use of media by educators. I was contacted by Alison Hanold of the Center for Social Media at American University, who was writing an article about YouTube’s takedowns of the Hitler videos and she generously included my my thoughts about the Downfall takedowns:
I found the latest round of Downfall takedowns to be unfortunate and poorly timed on the part of Constantin Films, which is now being subjected to disproportionate resentment and vilification. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be criticized, but there are many other much worse offenders among the copyright industries’ takedown trolls and it’s toward them that our real outrage should be directed. The shock-and-awe strategies that have been favored by members of the MPAA and RIAA for the past decade have had an impact on some people’s behavior and it has instilled fear and paranoia in many others. But, like military shock-and-awe campaigns, it’s short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive. The longer-term impact of such mass takedowns is organized resistance and legal efforts that will ultimately have a greater cost to the media industries than a mere public relations nightmare. Creators, students, educators, vidders (etc.) have unprecedented resources and support at their disposal in the form of the CSM’s Best Practices guides and a growing body of court decisions supporting fair use. Indiscriminate takedowns that ignore the legitimate protections of fair use are just as illegal as commercial piracy and it’s time for the industries to start being held accountable for their actions.
In retrospect, I think the real issue here is not the actions of Constantin Films, a relatively small player who has been swept into the current copyright wars, but the resulting wave of awareness about YouTube’s use of automated takedown systems, including ContentID, which was used by Constantin to order the Downfall takedowns. Of course, none of this is intelligible outside the context of the current Viacom v. YouTube litigation, which could significantly undermine current interpretations of the DMCA safe harbor clause that made YouTube a billion-dollar company and made online video a key part of the cultural vernacular for millions of creators. While automated takedowns and “fingerprinting” systems that sniff for copyrighted content while a file is being uploaded may have once seemed like the silver bullet to fight unauthorized uses of copyrighted materials, such systems are incapable of making nuanced determinations about the fairness of a given use. It will be no small irony if these automated measures, intended to deter and intimidate even legitimate users, turns out to be the “downfall” of the copyright industries’ last-ditch efforts to hold onto a fading business model.
On Friday April 16 as part of the HASTAC Grand Challenges and Global Innovations virtual conference, I will be “presenting” (live via pre-recorded video) a project from my class last semester titled “Interactive Experience and World Design: IKEA as ARG” in which graduate students from USC’s Interactive Media program infiltrated an IKEA retail outlet to analyze the spatial and narrative design of the store as part of an Alternate Reality Game experience. The video offers a summary of the course context and project assignment, focusing on the concept of “scripted spaces,” drawn from Norman Klein’s book The Vatican to Vegas. This video also marks the first time I have had content automatically removed from my YouTube account due to the inclusion of copyrighted material. In representing the transmedia context for this project, the video includes clips of television programs, feature films, advertisements and popular music, at least one of which was flagged by YouTube’s copyright-filtering system on behalf of the Fox/News Corp. media conglomerate. I have filed a counter-takedown notice with YouTube in the hopes of having the video reinstated for public viewing, but for now, it is viewable as a Quicktime file or on Vimeo.
I spent the morning catching up on some recent talks by Lawrence Lessig in anticipation of my Critical Commons presentation at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference next week. Two excellent illustrated lectures have gone online (and were also amusingly taken down thanks to the automated DMCA trolls from Warner Music Group) in recent weeks: one from Lessig’s address at TEDxNYED last weekend in New York; another from last month’s “Wireside Chat” organized by the Open Video Alliance. USC was a local host of the OVA event, which was broadcast live via the internets from Harvard Law School. The two talks include some duplication of examples, but, in combination, give evidence of a significant shift in Lessig’s thinking about fair use. A few years ago, when we were first conceiving of Critical Commons, Lessig’s negativity about fair use rang loudly in my ears — his oft-repeated statement that “fair use is the right to hire a lawyer” — hardly seemed like a principle worth fighting for, but his preference for the tiered licensing of Creative Commons was of no use to educators wanting to teach with copyrighted media. It was only after a subsequent talk by American University’s Peter Jaszi, the legal mind behind the Center for Social Media’s Best Practices in Fair Use guidelines, that we decided to move forward with the project, focusing on the advocacy and expansion of fair use. Lessig’s current, pro-fair use stance seems to be motivated in part by the fact that court decisions have been weighing heavily and consistently in favor of fair use these days. In his typically erudite fashion and signature style of wryly synchronized keywords and graphics, Lessig celebrates the emergence of remix cultures across the internets, likening it to the kind of shared, non-commercial cultural production that is characteristic of pre-industrial societies. Lessig also links the power of remix to a commitment to free code and free codecs. But in the end his real message was about politics. Attempting to sidestep the polarization of the liberal/conservative binary, Lessig made the case for conservatives as agents of support for common culture; citing the abysmal record of democratic politicians in enacting substantive legislative change. Indeed, Lessig’s key argument was to support political action in congress rather than rely on the courts and to continue to enrich culture via fair use.
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
The interactive iteration of Technologies of History is a case-study, an opportunity to put into practice some of the arguments I have been developing over the past few years thinking about the entangled relations among media, history and memory. These arguments, in fact, may only be fully articulated through media. By this I do not mean simply taking advantage of the digital format for providing media supplements or illustrations, but literally aiming to think through the media under analysis, developing relationships between media elements themselves, rather than privileging the discursive affordances of text over images. Technologies of History draws substantially on the ideas developed in my book manuscript of the same title, but the interactive format allows for a much more detailed and nuanced form of engagement with the historiographical models under consideration. In some ways, then, this project is not primarily about the JFK assassination; but the dense layers of mediation to which this historical event has been subjected provide a particularly rich set of opportunities to think about the construction of history itself.
Although certain aspects of the design may initially appear to resist easy navigation, our aim is neither to frustrate the user nor indulge in aestheticized design experiments. The project presents several clearly defined modes of exploration, beginning with the “Analyzer,” in which media elements are subjected to a process of tracking and fragmenting designed to simultaneously reveal and obscure the contents of a film or video clip. The user may then follow connections that are suggested by either the video segment or its accompanying text to explore further text arguments or a connection between two media clips. Each connection that is made is logged in the user’s history and may be revisited at any time. The experience of moving through the project is therefore intended to be partly experiential and partly curatorial; users may select from categories of content that are based on genre, format or (primarily) threads of historiographical concern. The multiplicity of opportunities for revelation or chaos function as both a metaphor for history’s own lack of resolution and as a rhetorical strategy for resisting narrative closure.
Would you start a war? Loot a pension fund? Circumvent the Constitution? Monopolize the media? Unless you are a government official or a corporate executive, chances are, YOU WOULDN’T!
You Wouldn’t is an activist resource and DIY hacking guide to encourage the creation of political remix videos. It includes links to some of the most important organizations and individuals doing work in the field of copyright reform and cultural production that relies on the protections of fair use and it informs site visitors how to create their own remix videos and distribute them through covert channels. The site launched anonymously in July 2006, along with the video Abuse of Power.
I apologize for this break in protocol – Jonathan McIntosh’s new election remix video is just too brilliant to exclude for not being “interactive” on the eve of the election.
If it’s participatory culture you want, I also recommend Moveon.org’s excellent viral video engine to increase voter turnout. In a few seconds you can send a message to all your friends encouraging them to vote…and not for just anyone.
Just a reminder that there is exactly one week left to complete your submissions to Project Remix. DVDs must be received at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at 746 W. Adams Blvd by 5:00PM on Monday November 26!
Thanks, Peter, for this moment of zen. It has indeed been a long time since I sat and did nothing and even longer since I sat and watched someone else doing nothing – probably since Andy Warhol’s Eat, a 39 minute film of artist Robert Indiana eating a single mushroom. As with your video, about half way into the film, Indiana’s cat jumps onto the couch where he is sitting, curls around the artist’s neck for a few reels, then moves on. Eliding the important differences between them, the key to durational film and video is settling into a work’s internal temporal logic. When the cat enters frame after 15 minutes of Eat, it is as ecstatic as any cinematic experience I have ever had. Something similar happens in James Benning’s Sogobi when the helicopter appears after 20 minutes of static shots of unpopulated wilderness. Without 20 minutes of minimalism preceding it, the shot loses its power. Sadly, the days of durational film and video are numbered if not gone altogether – a Google search for Eat returns a YouTube video of a single, decontextualized reel with the cat, which seems to me to be missing the point entirely. And so, in the spirit of perversity, I offer the following remix of your excellent video for those who will not rise to your challenge, distilled to one minute, with a perky score by Bongwater, and converted for handy viewing on the iPod. How’s that for missing the point?