How to Watch a Fan-Vid

I am always fascinated when some bit of bottom-up generated "content" starts to get momentum and gain greater public visibility. This past few weeks, I have been observing a ground-swell of interest in a Star Trek fan video set to Nine Inch Nails's "Closer." Many of you will have already seen this video. It has already been featured by Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, by Susie Bright, and by Salon's VideoDog among others. As someone who has done work in the past on Star Trek fans, I have received multiple pointers to this video from friends all over the world. Many of the people who sent it to me and certainly many of the bloggers who have pointed to it seem to have little or no awareness that there is a much larger tradition of fan-made videos or that the video makers, T. Jonsey and Killa have produced a larger body of work that circulates within the fanvid community. As artists, they are known for their sophisticated techniques and intelligent use of appropriated materials as well as for their diversity of approaches to their subject matter.

It is the nature of YouTube that the work which appears there could come from almost anywhere and that it is often consumed outside of its originating content: YouTube is the place right now where work travels from one grassroots community or subculture to another. There are real advantages to such a site since it results in cross-influences and more innovation, experimentation, and diversity, yet there are also losses to this process of decoupling amateur media from its original contexts of production and consumption.

Technical Innovation and Grassroots Media

Given that I have been following the development of fan-made music videos for more than fifteen years now, I thought it might be helpful if I spelled out some of what I saw when I looked at this particular segment. Through the years, I have watched dozens of hours of these videos, produced within a broad range of fandoms. In fact, my book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, published in 1992, already contains a full chapter tracing the aesthetics and production practices surrounding fan music videos.

At the time I wrote that chapter, fan music videos were made using two vcrs and patch cords. The only real way for most participants to edit the material was through transferring from one machine to the other. The biggest challenges artists faced were rollback and rainbow lines. Making videos under these conditions took a great deal of preplanning and an even greater amount of patience. The best video artists were perfectionists who would redo their projects many times to insure the smoothest transitions. The typical video could take six to eight hours to produce and more elaborate ones might take a great deal longer. Despite these technical limitations, some of the top video makers produced many hours of these videos which they would show primarily at fan conventions. There was some limited distribution -- they would personally copy the videos one by one for people who asked really nicely. They actively discouraged recopying of their material to pass to others because it would further degrade the quality of their work but of course, a good deal of underground trading of this content took place. Digital production tools have allowed for greater formal complexity and visual sophistication, including layering of images through lap dissolves, superimposition, multiple frame shots, and other digital manipulations, subtle manipulations of speed, lip-syncing of words and images and other forms of "mickeymousing," and so forth.

Fifteen years ago, I was presenting the work of these video makers at places like Interval Computing and the MIT Media Lab arguing that we should be paying attention to what these amateur media makers were doing when it was hard, nearly impossible, to accomplish so that we might predict affordances that should be built into the next generation of media tools. Today, we are seeing amateur media makers everywhere. Sites like YouTube have emerged to support their work and there is a public interested in seeing amateur-made work almost without regard to its origins or genre.

The Aesthetics of Fan Music Videos

I wonder if this particular song video would have generated the buzz that it has if it was not set to the music of Nine Inch Nails. The urban cool and the rough-hewn images of this video contrast sharply with people's expectations about the aesthetics of Star Trek fan art. In popular mythology, Trekkers are geeks, not rockers. The earliest fan music videos might have reconfirmed those stereotypes: the most commonly used songs were slow-paced and sappy, pop not rock, though artists explained this was in part because of the difficulty of doing rapid edits using the tools that they have had at their disposal. As these fans have embraced new digital tools, the overall pace of fan made videos has quickened. This, and the emergence of a younger generation of fans with taste for alternative music, has broadened the choice of songs. We are seeing many more hard-edged songs find their way into fan culture.

For the book, I interviewed a pioneering video artist, identified in Textual Poachers as MVD. MVD described her videos as "half-and-half things," neither "a Reader's Digest of the shows we love" nor "fancy pictures to entertain the eye while we listen to our favorite music." She explained:

Images pull out the words, emphasize the words, just as the words emphasize the pictures. If I've done a good job with a video, I can portray an emotion and I can hold that emotion throughout the song. I can bring a new level of depth to that emotion through my images and I can make you think about the program in a different way.

MVD suggested that the best fan videos could produce "layers of meaning," being accessible at first glance to anyone with a casual familiarity with the program, offering a deeper experience to anyone who knew the program well, and a still deeper experience to someone who has been part of the fan community's discussions around the show or read through the fan fiction surrounding a particular set of character relationships. MVD drew a distinction between convention videos, designed to be watched publicly in a general audience, and living room videos, designed to be watched in an intimate space by a group of friends who are already deeply immersed in the lore of a particular fan culture:

They can't take the complex ones in a large group. They get hyper. They aren't concentrating that deeply. They want to all laugh together or they want to share their feelings. So it's got to be obvious enough that the people around them will share those emotions....The living room video is designed to be so complicated that you'd better know everything about the show or it isn't going to make much sense. These videos are for a very small in-group that already understands what you are trying to say. It's like fan writing. You don't have to build up this entire world. You can rely on certain information.

MVD, at the time, could not have imagined what it might mean to watch a fan-made music video totally outside of the cultural context which fandom provided -- to come across it on YouTube or Boing Boing and not have any access to the conversations which shaped these particular appropriations. For one thing, "Closer" is apt to be understood within fandom as a "constructed reality" video -- that is, it creates a new story by linking together shots from the original series as opposed to using those shots simply to interpret or provide an alternative emotional perspective on events already depicted in the aired episodes. Such "constructed reality" works are extremely rare because they are so difficult to do well.

Such works certainly interpret the original series but not in a sense that would be recognized by most Literature teachers. They are not simply trying to recover what the original producers meant. They are trying to entertain hypotheticals, address what if questions, and propose alternative realities. Part of the pleasure of fan made media is seeing the same situations through multiple points of view, reading the same characters in radically different ways. The same artist might offer multiple constructions of the characters and their relationships across different works -- simply to keep alive this play with different readings.

As one fan quoted in my new book, Convergence Culture, explains,

What I love about fandom is the freedom we have allowed ourselves to create and recreate our characters over and over again. Fanfic rarely sits still. It's like a living, evolving thing, taking on its own life, one story building on another, each writer's reality bouncing off another's and maybe even melding together to form a whole new creation. A lot of people would argue that we're not creative because we build on someone else's universe rather than coming up with our own. However, I find that fandom can be extremely creative because we have the ability to keep changing our characters and giving them new life over and over. We can kill and resurrect them as often as we like. We can change their personalities and how they react to situations. We can take a character and make him charming and sweet or cold-blooded and cruel. We can give them an infinite, always-changing life rather than the single life of their original creation. We have given ourselves license to do whatever we want and it's very liberating.

"Closer," like other fanvids, was constructed as part of a conversation which the fan artists were having with the original text, with its authors, with other fans, and with themselves, whereas the video as seen outside of this context seems singular and unique. Or conversely, the video is read symptomatically -- as speaking for all Star Trek fans when in fact, it borrows in some ways and breaks in others from the norms of this community.

Recurring Images

MVD was one of a number of pioneering video makers who took on the responsibility to pass their skills onto other women interested in working in the medium. She would host slumber parties at her house in Western Massachusetts where women would bring their vcrs and tapes and learn from each other. As I suggest in Convergence Culture, a lot of fan culture looks like folk culture processes applied to mass media content and these gathering have the feel of traditional quilting bees.

Through this process, the community started to distill the hundreds of hours of episodes around a series like Star Trek into recurring shots which carried a greater deal of emotional resonance and meaning to members of the community. These shots get used again and again, combined in new ways, mixed with different songs and lyrics, taking on different connotations and associations. The best of them remained highly potent. When I first watched the "Closer" video, I was struck by what a high percentage of the shots used there were part of the vocabulary of fan music video producers of fifteen years ago. Don't believe me -- check out the photographs from MVD's "I Needed You" which I reproduced on pages 240-243 of Textual Poachers. Almost all of them appear in "Closer."

Slash This

One reason that so many of these shots reappear is that they evoke a particular interpretation of the original material. Keep in mind that in many cases, these videos are watched by people who are also reading fan fiction and thus have come to understand the relationship between Kirk and Spock within the terms of the fan subgenre known as Slash. I was struck by how many bloggers referenced slash in relation to this video -- the term is now known, but not widely understood, by many outside of the fan community itself. In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers (which collects my previously published essays on participatory culture), I include "The Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking," a collection of brief theoretical and critical statements about slash as a genre made by slash fan readers and writers which help to explain the persistence and popularity of this cultural practice.

For the moment, let's say that slash is a form of fan-generated romance which centers on the relationship between two same sex (most often male) characters appropriated from the realm of popular fiction. Kirk and Spock were probably the original slash couple but slash did not become slash until the idea of same sex relations moved from Kirk and Spock to a whole range of other pairings. Before that, it was simply K/S with the slash standing in for a sexual relationship. K&S would have referred to a passionate but asexual friendship between the same characters. The people who write and read slash are mostly women -- women of varied sexual orientations and interests -- who see their work as bringing to the surface emotional dynamics that were masked in the original material.

Think about all of the times that Kirk would woo some blue-skinned woman and then abandon her again, insisting that his obligations to his ship and his crew would outweigh his personal romantic interests. Then consider what happens again and again across the series and the films whenever Spock is put at risk. Kirk will sacrifice his ship, his crew, his rank, everything he has, to get Spock back. There's no question that his emotional commitment to Spock is the most important relationship in his life, even if the two men rarely speak directly about what that friendship means to them.

One of the most powerful moments in all of Star Trek comes in The Wrath of Khan when Spock finally puts into words his friendship for Kirk and gives his life to save the Enterprise. This scene seems key to understanding the emotional dynamics of slash, as I suggested in the Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers essay mentioned earlier:

When I try to explain slash to non-fans, I often reference that moment in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan where Spock is dying and Kirk stands there, a wall of glass separating the two longtime buddies. Both of them are reaching out towards each other, their hands pressed hard against the glass, trying to establish physical contact. They both have so much they want to say and so little time to say it. Spock calls Kirk his friend, the fullest expression of their feelings anywhere in the series. Almost everyone who watches that scene feels the passion the two men share, the hunger for something more than what they are allowed. And, I tell my nonfan listeners, slash is what happens when you take away the glass. The glass, for me, is often more social than physical; the glass represents those aspects of traditional masculinity which prevent emotional expressiveness or physical intimacy between men, which block the possibility of true male friendship. Slash is what happens when you take away those barriers and imagine what a new kind of male friendship might look like. One of the most exciting things about slash is that it teaches us how to recognize the signs of emotional caring beneath all the masks by which traditional male culture seeks to repress or hide those feelings.

Slash is a form of erotic writing, which differs from traditional male-targeted pornography, because it is more interested in the emotional rather than the physical lives of its characters. Readers and writers get off imagining the characters having sex in part because they see sex as enabling a form of intimacy between these men which is denied them on the program and denied most men within our culture. The construction of slash depends on reading certain looks and gestures exchanged amongst the characters as showing some hidden emotional truths and so song videos are often presented as visual evidence in support of a slash hypothesis about the series. Fans can point to the screen and say that you can see it in their eyes, these men really care about each other.

How Far to Pon Farr?

The opening title to "Closer" asks "What if they hadn't made it to Vulcan on time." This title references a specific tradition of pon farr stories. Pon Farr is the Vulcan mating season which occurs every seven years and is deeply disabilitating (can drive people insane or kill them if they do not make it back to their home planet and mate.) This concept emerged in the Classic ST episode, "Amok Time," written by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon. Many of the earliest K/S stories used pon farr as a device to push Kirk and Spock into bed with each other. Kirk surely would overcome his inhibitions about gay sex if doing so would allow him to save his friend's life. As slash became more widely accepted, there have been far fewer pon farr stories; the characters are no longer seen as requiring extreme situations to get them in bed together. So, in adopting this pon farr frame, "Closer" pays tribute to the foremothers of slash.

Pon Farr stories often contain suggestions of sexual violence -- as does "Closer" -- themes which remain highly controversial inside fan circles. I am certain that the images of sexual violence here (specifically drawn from the use of the Vulcan Mind Meld in the original series accompanied by lyrics about "violation," "desecration" and "penetration") account for why some viewers outside of fandom found this particular video disquieting. This video is disquieting to many fans because of its strong suggestion of rape.

Ose and More Ose

One striking feature of "Closer" is its angsty tone -- created in part by the choice of soundtrack, in part by the ragged and grainy reproduction of the images, and in part by the selection of images which stress the emotional distance rather than closeness of the protagonists. Fans have a term, "ose," that captures this emotional quality: it comes from the expression "ose and more ose" (i.e. morose).

A number of writers have suggested that they expected to laugh and were instead moved or disturbed by what they saw in this video. Fan music videos adopt a range of different tones -- some do indeed welcome the uncomfortable laughter when one first starts to reread these images outside of their original heterosexual inflections and start to appreciate the pleasure of appropriating these shots for alternative interpretations. Others affectionately poke fun at the protagonists, choosing their most foolish or clumsy moments or choosing images that look especially suggestive out of context. (T. Jonesy and Killa have produced a number of other Classic Trek vids which adopt these more comic and playful tones.) Others play it more seriously, teaching us to respect the emotional truths they find through their recontextualizing of these images. For me, "Closer" has a kind of emotional distance -- despite all of the angst -- that sets it apart from many other fan-made videos. Ironically, it is perhaps this emotional distance which has allowed many who are not Trek fans to embrace the aesthetics of this particular work. Many slash vids are hot -- this one is cool.

Porn Again?

Another striking feature of "Closer" is the insertion of porn shots amidst the footage taken from the original series. I have certainly seen this (relatively uncommon) practice among some fan music video makers but historically, such explicit videos did not circulate outside the fan community, so it was striking to see this practice out in public view. This is perhaps illustrative of what has happened as slash and fan vids have entered a networked culture. New people have been drawn to the form at a rate that strips the ability of the community to inculcate them into their norms. Old taboos are being shattered right and left often in highly public ways that would distress older fans who felt they had reasons for avoiding such public scrutiny.

Another striking aspect of "Closer" is that it is being circulated as publicly as it is. Several years ago, I sparked some controversy in the Star Wars fan cinema world when I argued that the rules of the official competition hosted by Atom films were gender-biased because they recognized forms of media production -- parody and documentary -- most closely associated with male fans and excluded outright those forms -- most notably music video -- most closely associated with female fans. Many of those angry by these statements asserted that they had never seen any films made by female Star Wars fans and that they were certain such works did not exist. I saw that as validation of my argument because I had seen a large number of music videos produced by female Star Wars fans which had not been able to get into public distribution. Those who had seen some of the music videos argued that they did not belong in the competition because they were "derivative," that is, because they used found footage. In fact, though, "Closer" shows pretty well that these fan media makers can generate original interpretations through their manipulation and recontextualization of these images. Whatever you want to say about it, "Closer" makes a statement about the original material.

When I did Poachers, the music video makers were the only fans who asked not to be named in the book: they were concerned because their raw materials drew clips directly from the films and television episodes but also drew songs from top recording artists. They felt most exposed to legal prosecution and felt they had the weakest case that their works would be protected under Fair Use.

Today, some of these women do share their videos via the web but without much fanfare, on sites that are only known within a relatively closed fan community. Fans have learned how to use the web to make their content accessible to those already in the know while decoupling their content from access via most search engine. It's quite likely that in the current case, the artists lost control over the circulation of "Closer" and that it went more public than they intended. That's also part of living in a world where amateur media often circulates virally and without any direct attribution. Few of the blogs which have mentioned "Closer" even acknowledge the artist's names even though they are featured prominently in the video itself and there may not have been an expectation that whoever posted it to YouTube needed to respect the artists' choices about where and how it should be distributed. We still accord much greater respect to commercial artists than grassroots artists. This is a video which has been circulating within fandom for some time without getting this level of public notice and so many fans have been started by its sudden visibility.

The circulation of "Closer" outside of the fan community is apt to be causing concern not only for the original creators of this material but also for many others within the fan community. I suspect their reactions are mixed.

On the one hand, it is exciting to see some work within this tradition get some public visibility and respect. On the other, its visibility increases the likelihood that the Powers that Be will come crashing down on the whole practice of fan music videos, there must be disappointment that it is being discussed outside of the larger context of many people producing work within this tradition, and there will be some concern that this work includes some controversial practices -- such as porn inserts or the themes of sexual violence -- that may further enflame the situation.

You may note that I am not offering links here to other fanvids. I have made it a policy not to send people to fan-produced material, even if it is on the web and therefore theoretically "public" without their permission. I am sending pointers to this video only because it is already the subject of such public circulation and discussion that not doing so would amount to closing the barn door after the cow have already gotten out.

Thanks to Cynthia Jenkins for her help in preparing this post.