Is Ally McBeal a Thing of Beauty?: An Interview with Greg M. Smith (Part One)

Greg M. Smith (Georgia State University) argues that there is no word more “obscene” in television studies than “beauty.” Television studies has run away from aesthetic claims from its inception and in so doing, they contribute to (or at least do nothing to combat) the wide spread public perception that mainstream television has little or no aesthetic value. In his new book, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal, Smith offers a sustained reading of a single television series, demonstrating how key themes and images unfold over time, and how the intriguing parts add up to a most satisfying whole. Smith doesn’t avoid issues of gender and sexuality which have concerned earlier writers who have discussed this series, but he shows the complex ways that these issues get worked through across the entire run of the series, rather than pulling out one “representative” episode as standing for the work as a whole. Smith insists that we need to respect the particular character of television series as a kind of long form storytelling even if doing so places serious demands on a critic, especially in discussing a series which ran for more than a hundred episodes.

A died-in-the-wool formalist in the Wisconsin tradition, Smith is utterly fearless in his defense of applying aesthetic standards to talk about popular art both here and his other work (which deals with topics as diverse as the cognitive theory of emotion, the formal experimentation of Myst, the functions of dialog in the Final Fantasy series, the visual style of The West Wing, and the adaptation of The Maxx from comics to cartoon series). As this list suggests, Smith has been willing to apply his skills at textual analysis to film, television, games, and comics. Some years ago, Smith wrote one of the best answers I’ve ever read to the oft-heard protest of undergrads taking Introduction to Cinema classes: “But it’s just a movie!”

Smith has by now become accustomed to people asking “Why Ally McBeal?” It’s a question which he deftly discusses in the book’s introduction and in the interview below, he offers at least some of the rationale for this selection. In this first installment, Smith discusses the place of aesthetic evaluation in television studies, makes an argument for why we need to expand our canon as a field to include works which do not necessarily seem “cool” to our students or “worthy” to our colleagues, and offers a new take on the relationship between formal and ideological analysis. In tomorrow’s installment, we will explore more fully the lasting impact of Ally McBeal on American television.

You open the book with the observation, “Complexity of narrative or the beauty of construction can justify critical consideration of a novel or a film, but when a television show is no longer au courant, those considerations matter little.” Why do you think this double standard has persisted for so long and

how does your book attempt to address it?

Television’s low critical status is eroding, but like all erosion, the process is erratic.

Last week the Sunday Washington Post discussed the “dumbing of America” and laid the blame squarely on “video culture.” In the same week I went to dinner with someone who sniffed in derision when I said that my latest book was on Ally McBeal. “You can write a whole book on that?” He’d never have said the same thing about a novel or a play, even though there’s an awful lot of bad fiction and theater. But junk novels and crappy plays don’t get piped into your living room (unlike television), so they’re easier to ignore. As an aca/fan of television, you have to recognize the larger context of your work in society: the broadly held assumption that TV is crap.

Unfortunately, most academic writing on television has done little to combat this assumption. In fact, most academic writing on TV implicitly sends a similar message. that we can look through the television text to more “important” issues (race, class, gender, and so on). The construction of the program itself is the least important factor.

The reason for this has to do with how television studies grew up in universities. TV studies wanted to differentiate itself from film studies, a discipline deeply interested in the text, and so it adopted cultural studies as a way to clearly distinguish itself: “It’s not about the text; it’s about the context.” TV studies has greatly benefited from its alliance with cultural studies, but now the field is mature enough that we should create a space for criticism that focuses on the text itself: its complicated narrative construction, its interesting aesthetic choices. If we academics don’t do this work, then we leave the dominant social view of television unchallenged: that television isn’t worthy of close analysis unless you justify your work with other social concerns.

The best way to demonstrate that television is good is to proceed as if this were clearly true. Lots of people who are making this argument today: you can see it in popular magazine and newspaper criticism, in online writing by devoted fans, and even in online writing by academics (such as in the journal Flow). But the gold standard in academia still remains that old-fashioned medium: the single authored book. There are anthologies on TV shows, but none with a focus on the show’s aesthetics. A book like Beautiful TV (by its very existence) demonstrates that a contemporary television show can sustain a long, productive aesthetic analysis. It’s a small step toward eroding the big social assumption that TV is bad.

You’ve also been critical, though, of the formation of a cannon of “cool television” shows within the field of media studies, asking why we don’t study series, such as Jag, which are extremely successful over a long period of time but do not appeal to the same aesthetic criteria as those shows academics like to watch. Explain.

Television studies is a small field, and like any small town, there’s a tendency to be a bit insular. If you poll TV scholars, there’s a remarkable consistency in what we watch. We watch hip stuff like Lost and 30 Rock. And so when we write, we naturally tend to write about the shows that appeal to that particular sensibility.

The paradigm of cool TV for many of us was defined by Buffy: complicated, long-term storytelling with liberatory “go girl” politics, appealing to a diehard fan base. It’s great that we can have an entire subfield devoted to a single show like Buffy; that’s a step toward a more mature television studies. But the trap is in focusing too much on television that fits that mold (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the same kind of television that producers are aiming for: shows that inspire loyal fans to visit the website and buy the DVDs).

If we’re going to call our field “television studies,” then we should study all of television. If we just study the shows we think are “hip,” then let’s stop pretending and call it “hip studies.” Basically, television studies needs to become as broad as television itself. I would love to see us producing scholars who are sincerely interested in a show with not-so-progressive politics but which still has strong popularity: something like JAG or Everybody Loves Raymond.

I’m not proposing a field of “square studies” to counter our “hip” tendencies, but we need to be aware of our blind spots. Just as we need to make room for studies of TV aesthetics and narrative (as well as cultural studies), we also need to broaden our field to look at shows that are utterly middlebrow. One of the reasons I chose Ally McBeal was that it seems so squarely middlebrow: not as high-falutin’ as The Sopranos, but not Jackass either. If we can make the argument for the aesthetic importance of Ally, then that makes the discussion of TV aesthetics that much easier in the future.

Your analysis of Ally McBeal operates first and foremost as an aesthetic analysis of an innovative television series. Yet, you also explore what the series has to say about love, sexuality, and the workplace. What relationship do you posit between formal and ideological analysis?

When I was first writing this book, I sincerely tried to make it all about aesthetics and narrative just to prove that such an approach could be done. But I couldn’t do it, partly because of my training. Cultural studies has changed how we study film and television, and we can’t pretend that aesthetics exists in a timeless vacuum outside of culture. I realize that if I wanted to show an alternative to a cultural studies approach to television, I shouldn’t artificially ignore culture but instead should restore a balance to dealing with the text.

I had to talk about the place of sexuality in the workplace because that’s so much of what Ally’s storylines are about. If I kept my blinders on and didn’t talk at all about culture, then I would be doing violence to the show. I realized that my point was that I wanted to do television criticism that took the show seriously on its own terms, not justifying my criticism in “more important” issues that I brought to the text.

This allowed me to present one of my biggest justifications for studying Ally’s narrative. I argue that the show takes advantage of serial television’s ability to work through a complex set of issues over time. An individual episode can make an assertion about the nature of love in the workplace, only to have those assertions turned on their head in the next episode. Over time the show eventually makes a long-running argument about the tension between love and career in the modern workplace.

I don’t follow this argument because it deals with a big social issue; I write about this to demonstrate how serial TV narrative can make a complicated, subtle argument. I started this book when I realized that I loved Ally McBeal but hated all of the characters. What, then, brought me back every week? The gradual unfolding of an argument that was more intricate and captivating because it was staged in narrative.

Links for Those Who Attended My Tampa Talk

On Monday, I spoke in Tampa at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tech Forum. My central topic was on the ways that the new media landscape was enabling the emergence of new kinds of public intellectuals. I promised folks in the audience that I would provide them with links to some of the examples which I cited.

I began the talk with some thoughts about Marshall McLuhan as a model for what a public intellectual looked like in the 1960s — at a moment where mass media still was the only channel for reaching the public, when middle brow culture still embraced academics as part of the national culture, and when media studies was first forming as a discipline. I described the ways that McLuhan exploited mass media channels — from Playboy Magazine to Annie Hall — to increase awareness of his key ideas and developed the concept of the “probe” as a way of translating theoretical debates into effective soundbytes (“the global village,” “the Medium is the message.”) At the same time, I discussed McLuhan’s use of newsletters and recordings as looking towards more grassroots modes of communication such as blogs and podcasts.

I then argued that if there was a modern equivalent of McLuhan, it might be someone like Cornell West, who has made extensive use of mass media (from talk television to The Matrix Reloaded) to direct attention towards his critical perspective on American race relations. I referenced seeing West’s picture on a billboard in L.A. as well as his conflicts with Harvard President Lawrence Summers over some of his more “public” activities as an activist and as a hip hop recording artist.

I argued that one reason why there couldn’t be a McLuhan today is that there are so many other important thinkers about media change speaking from outside the academy, including game designers (Eric Zimmerman), journalists (Steven Johnson) Science fiction writers (Bruce Sterling), comic book creators (Scott McCloud), and sex activists (Susie Bright), to cite just a few examples. Each of these writers provide important perspectives on the mediascape, often with much greater impact on public perspectives than anything coming out of the academy.

I cited several important ideas about public intellectuals taken from an MIT Communications Forum event on Public Intellectuals featuring Alan Lightman and Steven Pinker.

I cited some examples of other academics and intellectuals who are effectively deploying participatory media, especially blogs and podcasts, to reach a larger public with their ideas, including:

Douglas Rushkoff, who has translated his insights into Biblical Studies into the Vertigo comic book series Testament, using the forums around the book to spark intellectual exchanges.

Howard Rheingold – Howard Rheingold’s Video blog and recent article for MIT Press/MacArthur book on using participatory media to increase civic engagement – has increasingly turned towards blogs and videopodcasts as a platform for what I call “just in time” scholarship, responding to contemporary debates and controversies from a theoretically informed perspective.

Alex Juhasz – interview on my Blog – has used YouTube as a platform to teach a class and frame a critique of YouTube’s particular vision of participatory culture.

Randy Pausch – Final Lecture on YouTube (Part 0, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10) and Blog – is battling terminal cancer. His public summation of his life’s work and his discussion of his life philosophy has enjoyed enormous circulation via YouTube, leading to his appearance on Oprah and a contract to produce a mass market book.

Peter Ludlow – Second Life Herald – helped to establish a “town newspaper” for the virtual world, Second Life, and in the process, helped the community reflect on its own practices.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson – two distinguished film scholars, now retired – use their blog as an extension of their succesful textbook, offering real time responses to developments in contemporary cinema.

I referenced several young scholars who were gaining wide recognition for their work while still finishing off their PhDs through their public roles as blogger:

Jane McGonigal

danah boyd

danah boyd recently announced that she would no longer publish her work in any journal which “locks down” content, a gutsy move for someone at the start of their professional career.

I mentioned that many of our own Comparative Media Studies graduate students have also built wider followings through their blogging activities:

Ilya Vedrashko — Ad Lab blog

Michael Danziger — Visual Methods blog

Sam Ford — Convergence Culture Consortium blog

I described several recent projects in media studies where scholars were trying to use new media platforms to offer more immediate reactions to developments in the media landscape and in the process broaden the public visibility of their work:

Flow

In Media Res

A central theme of my talk had to do with my belief that part of being a public intellectual in the digital age is allowing yourself to be appropriated by various publics, becoming a resouce for their ongoing discussions, rather than necessarily exerting top down control over the circulation of your own ideas. As you give up control, you in fact achieve greater public impact. I cited, for example, what happened when I released my account of my testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and the ways it was picked up by diverse communities, representing very different ideological agendas but sharing a concern for the ways that political leaders and school officials were declaring war on popular culture. I pointed to the ways that my image, and that of other theorists, have been appropriated playfully through the practice of LOL Theorists, and I cited the ways that various reporters have projected alternative frames around my work, often radically different from my own understanding of who I am but opening the work up to audiences I might never have reached otherwise. And I described my visit to Teen Second Life at an event hosted by Global Kids and the ways that the youth group produced and circulated

a music video, which in the process spread the word about some of my thinking about new media literacies and participatory culture.

I made reference to a recent essay in Flow which compared my blog to Steven King’s columns for Entertainment Weekly, arguing that we need to offer a pithier style of writing if we want to be embraced by the general public. I suggested that some of the suggestions in the piece would require us to sacrifice what we as academics bring to the table that is potentially valuable to a larger public conversation about media change. I feel strongly that we do need to become more accessible but that accessibility was not the same thing as dummying down. It refers rather to the act of taking responsibility for giving the reader the information they need to follow our arguments rather than writing to a reader we assume is already inside academic conversations. As we do so, we can challenge them to think more deeply than they are asked to do by the popular press as long as we provide the scaffolding which will enable them to join the conversation.

Examples from My Blog

One of my goals for the talk was to describe some of the uses I’ve made of my blog to date. I see the blog as an ongoing experiment into how we can build bridges from the academy and the larger public. Some of the ways I use the blog are designed to serve the needs of the CMS program, some are designed to serve the larger discipline of media studies, and some are designed to serve a range of publics to which I feel a strong allegiance. Having a blog…

Comparative Media Studies Program online

The Comparative Media Studies has made a very strong commitment to public outreach, including the use of blogs to publish our research findings and to spark larger conversations in the field. Here are a few examples of CMS affiliated blogs:

GAMBIT

Project Good Luck

Portrait of an Aca-Fan as a Young Man or How I Became a Qwack!

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Recently, going through an old family album, I stumbled upon a photograph of Yours Truly in Seventh grade which I felt an obligation to pass along to my regular readers. Hillary Clinton famously dug out the evidence that Barack Obama has been talking about running for president since he was in Kindergarten. This photograph suggests that I might have had some inkling about my future profession as early as my 13th birthday.

A little explanation is in order: the young gentleman you see before you is a character, “Professor Heinrick Von Jenkins,” which I performed in my elementary school talent show. This particular Professor Jenkins was an expert on Children’s Literature who is obsessed with the themes of violence found in “Rockabye Baby,” “Humpty Dumpty,” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Unlike the modern persona of Professor Jenkins, known for his appearances on radio, television, film, and blogs, critiquing the evidence that media violence leads to real world violence, this earlier comic persona was convinced that reading children such stories would have a traumatic impact on their development. The performance was totally over-the-top but it also offers a snapshot of what I thought a professor was at a moment in my life when I would have known no academics first hand. (At the time, I imagined growing up to be a stand up comic.)

Unlike many of my classmates in graduate school or many of my MIT colleagues today, I didn’t grow up within an academic family. Indeed, I was the first member of my family to go to graduate school and certainly the first to become a university professor. The only professors in my life were those I knew from television — the kindly Mr. Wizard who taught boys and girls how to do experiments using everyday materials, the Professor on Gilligan’s Island who seemed to know everything about everything except where the heck they were, the narrator of all of those great Frank Capra science film which Bell Labs produced in the early 1960s, and most importantly, Professor Ludwig Von Drake, who introduced me to the Wonderful World of Color on the Walt Disney television series.

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You can see a certain resemblance to Ludwig Von Drake in the image above — including the glasses pulled down on my nose and the umbrella draped over my arm. (That’s not to mention the use of the Germanic, Heinrich, to refer to my fictional persona — in those days, so many of the experts I encountered on television had German backgrounds).

I always think of Von Drake as the forgotten duck. While comics fans have resurrected Carl Bark’s Uncle Scrooge comics, and Don Rosa has done a really wonderful series of new adventures for the character which respectfully integrate as many details from the original works as possible, there has been no such effort to respect the memory of the befuddled yet widely read fowl. Indeed, some years ago, I had a meeting with a top executive at the Disney corporation and suggested that resurrecting Von Drake might be the ideal way for the company to break into the serious games space, given the ways that he had emerged from the company’s response a generation before to the Sputnik crisis and the anxiety that young Americans were falling behind in the study of science. Unfortunately, the executive had no memory of the character and when I suggested that he had been modeled after Werner Von Braun, he called him a “Nazi.” Needless to say, the conversation didn’t go anyplace fruitful from there.

Von Drake 3.JPG

Rediscovering the theme song for the character, I was struck by the interdisciplinary nature of his expertise, including his deft bridging of what C.P. Snow famously described as the Two Worlds of science and humanities: “people say Ludwing what makes you so smart you know everything from science to art I’m forced to admit after study I find it’s just my superior mind.” Later in the same song, he lists the areas of his expertise: “I’m a wiz at calcalus, psychology, plain geometry and anthropology I’m the living end at entomology and at bridge I excel.”

He was indeed a renaissance duck — he needed to be in order to host the range of instructional specials which Disney ran in that era. In his first appearance, he celebrated the emergence of color television by taking viewers through an exploration of the nature of color. From there, he went on to explore history, geography, mythology, space travel, math, and even the psychology of one Donald Duck. Von Drake, as the song suggests, was egotistical, patronizing, absent-minded, self-bemused, and clumsy. He even once produced an album, Snore Along With Ludwig, which acknowledged that even the best academics sometimes put their audience to sleep. Often, he become so obsessed with the topic at hand that he becomes oblivious to what’s taking place in his immediate surroundings. But he also was entertaining and engaging even on topics that as a boy held little to no interest in me. If I now fight hard to bridge the gap between education and popular culture, I suspect some of it grows out of my still vivid memories of what and how I learned at the webbed feet of this highly superior mentor.

Perhaps it is wrong to imagine that the same Qwack could have that impact on the next generation of learners, as I imagined in speaking with the Disney executive, but there is still a great deal we should be able to learn by studying these earlier examples of edutainment which might shape our contemporary work in educational games or new media literacies.

If you share my fondness for the master of arcane knowledge, check out this great fan website dedicated to Ludwig lore.

Recent Discovery: The CBS Radio Workshop

A few months ago, I shared with my blog readers my discovery that Old Time Radio was offering full runs of classic radio programs on mp3 discs at remarkably low costs. Ever since making that discovery, I’ve been filling my ipod with vintage radio broadcasts, rediscovering series I had remembered fondly from the past but also making fresh discoveries of series which I had never even heard of before. By far, the best new discovery to date is the CBS Radio Workshop (1956-1957).

I knew I had found something interesting when the very first episode featured a two part dramatization of Brave New World, narrated by Aldous Huxley with a score by Bernard Herrman. Every subsequent episode offered something different, many of them exploring new directions for radio as a medium. One week, the series might offer a debate about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, another week it might debut the performance of a new opera, and still another week it might offer a documentary about a successful real estate tycoon, one which has the raw edged feel we will associate with Robert Drew and Ricky Leacock’s cinema verite documentaries. There are outstanding dramatizations of both classic and then-contemporary fiction, including performances of The Little Prince, Roughing It, The Green Hills of Earth,The Space Merchants. , and Spoon River Anthology. But there are also original radio dramas which rank alongside those of Arch Obler or Norman Corwin.

Many of the episodes seem designed to be taught alongside some of the classic social historical accounts of the 1950s, capturing many of the key transformations the culture was undergoing at the time — the move towards the suburbs (“The Ex-Urbanites“), debates about permissive child-rearing (“Only Johnny Knows“), the plight of the homeless (“Subways Are For Sleeping“), the deployment of polling data in decision making (“Figger Fallup’s Billion Dollar Failure“) Madison Avenue (“The Big Event,”), and the Cold War (“A Pride of Carrots“). One amusing episode featuring Vincent Price, “Speaking of Cinderella,” suggests the impact of On the Waterfront on American consciousness, exploring what method actors might do with a childhood favorite. The series invited Helen Hayes to introduce us to some of the “Lovers, Villains and Fools” from Shakespeare’s plays, Stan Freberg to offer a guide to the value of satire, Sophie Tucker to trace her career on vaudeville, William Conrad to read “The Highway Man” or to offer a guide to the “No Plays of Japan,” and Edward R. Murrow and Sen. John F. Kennedy to read “Mediations on Ecclesiasties.” One of my favorite episodes, “The Enormous Radio,” based on a John Cheever short story, depicts what happens to an average couple when the radio suddenly starts broadcasting sounds from neighboring apartments, forcing them to confront the harsh realities of everyday life. “Report from the We-uns” is an especially amusing representation of 1950s era popular culture as interpreted by anthropologists from the distant future. The series was surprisingly progressive in its politics, including a recurring emphasis on minority-centered stories, at a time when America was confronting some of the first dramatic stirrings of the Civil Rights movement — See, for example, “The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes” or “The Legend of Annie Christmas

If many of the episodes are fictional, there is also an ongoing interest in different modes of nonfictional programing. One astonishing episode (“I Was the Duke“) offers the confessions of a young delinquent, including frank and uncensored language which it is impossible to imagine making it past contemporary standards and practices. A series of audio portraits of New York, London and Paris, simply take recorders out on the streets to capture what urban life sounds like, heightening our awareness of the audioscapes which could be constructed on radio. Others, such as “Cops and Robbers,” might contribute to the pre-history of reality television: real cops are asked to apply their normal procedures to investigate a fictional crime. “A Writer at Work” represents a kind of auto-ethnography as Hector Chevieny takes us through his thinking process in composing a script for radio.

Despite the range of things the series was trying to do, the quality is consistently high. I have only been bored a few times so far, having listened to roughly forty episodes to date. The series included scores by composers like Herrman, Alex North, and Jerry Goldsmith, and if that’s not enough, voices actors included William Conrad (Ironsides), Maison Adams (Lou Grant), Hans Conried (5000 Fingers of Dr. T) and Daws Butler (Huckleberry Hound).

I’ve provided links above to some of the highlights from the series, which you can find online, but for only $5 you can buy the complete series (83 episodes in all) on mp3 from Old Time Radio.

Learning From YouTube: An Interview with Alex Juhasz (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first installment of a two part interview with filmmaker, activist, and cultural critic Alex Juhasz. In the first part, we focused primarily on a course she taught this fall on YouTube, describing some of the pedagogical issues she encountered, and some of the ways her course got distorted through mass media coverage. Today, she is focusing more fully on some of her concerns about profoundly “undemocratic” aspects of YouTube, concerns which her teaching experience brought into sharper focus. While Juhasz and I start from very different perspectives, I see her critique as a valuable starting point for a conversation about the ways that YouTube does or does not achieve our highest goals for a more diverse and participatory culture.

You’ve expressed concerns about the blurring between education and entertainment in the Youtube environment. What concerns does this pose for you?

We are clearly living in a time where conventionalized methods must be re-thought because of the increased functions of the media. Teaching and learning are two conventions that will adapt in the face of web 2.0. Now, I’ve been an advocate of critical pedagogy my entire career as a professor. In particular, I have been keen on refiguring power, expertise, and objectivity in the classroom attempting instead to create more collaborative, imaginative pedagogic interactions where there is a self-awareness about how embedded structures of power (race, class, gender, age, expertise) organize classroom participation, and access to learning. That said, while trying to learn through YouTube, there were significant challenges posed to the traditions of teaching that both my students and I experienced as obstacles. So maybe I’m not as radical as I pretend!

Before I enumerate these, I would beg your readers to consider whether these are hold outs to a lost and dying tradition, and good riddance (as some of my students believe), or whether there are certain tried and true approaches that were developed and nuanced over time because they work: methods of teaching and learning we don’t want to lose even as technology brings us new possibilities.

We found that just what defined YouTube as good entertainment — its compelling lack of depth and expertise, and its all but disappeared procedures of coherence, order, and forced attention — made it poor for education. Of the many surprises and challenges of this class, it was most dumbfounding for me to find how resistant my students were to the loss of discipline, authority, and structure in the classroom. They hated the amount of process this demanded; disliked that I wouldn’t just tell them stuff; were reluctant to do course work in a new format in which they lacked training; and generally wanted me to take control so that they could attend to other things and know what they needed to do to satisfy me.

Why, we might ask, do they enjoy the aimlessness and devaluing of authority on YouTube, but still want it in their education, even as any student would say, in a heartbeat, that they wish school was less boring, more fun, more entertaining? We found that the rigorous, controlled, contained, and rationale argument is key to learning; not the flow, but the building of knowledge. Meanwhile, ease of acquisition, while comforting, and perhaps numbing, to my mind can never meet the sheer joy of a challenge, and the prize of the steady, often communal and hard work of growing complexity. While its nice to wast time on YouTube, people want to get something (hard) from a class!

Your students pointed towards a fairly limited range of representations of race and gender in YouTube content. Why might such stereotypes persist in what is in theory an open and participatory channel? More generally, what factors do you think limits the cultural and ideological diversity of current digital culture?

I ended up learning a lot from this class (particularly from its unique YouTube-like structure) and even more from its students (which is where I started, I did believe correctly that on this subject they could educate me). Their keen observations about the down-side to user control were a revelation to me, lefty media activist, who has made a career around expanding media access. YouTube uses its users for almost everything: they create content, sort it, judge it, and censor it, all the while producing the revenue which runs the company by producing both its content and its consumers. There are incredible opportunities this affords us as a society: primarily unparalleled access to the thoughts, experiences, interests and documents of the daily life of real people, as they wish to be seen and heard. However, two other key results are less beneficial, especially if we want to think of YouTube as a democratic commons, which is certainly how it sees itself and is broadly understood. First is the idea of mob-rule, and how it functions for censoring.

Currently, on YouTube, if a few people flag a video as being objectionable, down it may go, within an opaque system and with no recourse. My students have learned that controversial opinions, outside the norms of the society, are often so flagged and censored. This is not a commons, where everyone has a right to a voice.

Furthermore, my students found that the system of user-ranking, or popularity, has the effect where normative or hegemonic ideas rise to the top of YouTube. The society’s already accepted opinions about race, or politics, are most highly valued, receive the most hits, and thus are the easiest to see.

Meanwhile, there is a lively world, just under the surface on YouTube, where opinions counter, or critical, to those of the mainstream are articulated. However, given that the search function relies first upon popularity, this niche-tube is hard to locate, and is currently playing a small role in the conventionalizing standards of this new form. As I’ve said before, access is only one part of an equation of liberation. In this case, I’d highlight education in media literacy, aesthetics, theory and history as equally formative.

Many critics have praised the role of confessional video in the hands of feminist and avant garde filmmakers (the works of Sadie Benning for example) yet you seemed critical of the ways that this mode gets deployed on YouTube. What differences do you see between the two?

Patty Zimmerman’s Reel Families traces the various factors which have historically turned amateur media content into “home movies,” locked away in the domestic sphere, ridiculed as uninteresting to anyone beyond the immediate family. Whatever else one may say about Youtube, however, it has

brought amateur media content into broader public visibility, allowing it to circulate well beyond its communities of origin and in ways that allow greater control for contributors than found in, say, America’s Funniest Home Videos, an outlet Zimmerman ridiculed. Would you agree?

These two questions are closely linked in my mind. Of course I agree that YouTube has opened access to video production and distribution, and that many of these newly allowed videos appear in either the home or confessional mode (a sub-set of the YouTube staple, the talking-head or rant). But this is where my particular project interfaces with, or perhaps veers from, that of the study or use of the home movie (or mundane, or DIY media) rather than the activist or art video. I am less interested in the fact of who produces, as much as I am how she does so and in what context. I am most interested in media cultures that allow regular people not simply to document their lived experience, not merely to reflect their experience through and to the norms and values of the dominant culture, but to create art and/or opinions about their lives and culture, in the name of a stated goal (of world or self-changing), and to an intended community.

Learning From YouTube: An Interview with Alex Juhasz (Part One)

What does it mean to learn from YouTube and what would it mean to treat YouTube itself as a platform for instruction and critique?

Alex Juhasz taught a course about YouTube last term at Pizer College, a small liberal arts school in California. As she explains below, Juhasz and her students adopted novel strategies for not simply engaging with YouTube content but also for using the YouTube platform to communicate their findings to a world beyond the classroom. In doing so, they took risks — inviting outside scrutiny of their classroom activities, bringing down skepticism and scorn from many in the mainstream media which itself plays such a central role in the cycle of self promotion and publicity which surrounds the platform and its content. They became part of the phenomenon they were studying — for better or for worse.

Earlier this month, I served as a respondent on a panel at USC’s 24/7 DIY Video Event on a panel during which Juhasz shared her experiences. I felt that both her pedagogical approach and her critical perspective on Youtube would be of interest to readers of this blog. I should warn you that Alex Juhasz comes at these questions from a very different perspective than I do. For those used to my blatherings about the virtues of participatory culture, you will find her skepticism about much of the content on YouTube a bit bracing. But she raises many of the concerns which we will need to address if we are to achieve a truly participatory culture. Over the next two installments, she raises important questions about whether a participatory platform necessarily insures diverse, meaningful, or innovative content. Juhasz approaches YouTube from the perspective of someone who usually writes about independent, avant garde, and documentary film practices, from someone who speaks from the vantage point of an activism and an experimental filmmaker. She is reading YouTube against both the goals and the accomplishments of other movements to foster greater democracy through media production and finds YouTube lacking in many regards.

Be sure to try out some of the links here. Many of them will take you to work that Juhasz and her students have produced for distribution on YouTube. These videos offer some interesting model for the forms that critique might take in this new media environment.

What can you tell us about how you approached the challenges of teaching a course about YouTube? What methods of analysis did you apply to its content? How did you select which materials to examine given the vast scope and diversity of Youtube’s content?

I decided to teach a course about YouTube to better understand this recent and massive media/cultural phenomenon, given that I had been studiously ignoring it (even as I recognized its significance) because every time I went there, I was seriously underwhelmed by what I saw: interchangeable, bite-sized, formulaic videos referring either to popular culture or personal pain/pleasure. I called them video slogans (in my blog where I engage in reflections on YouTube and other political media): pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption (especially given how much on the site is made by or refers to corporate media). I was certain, however, that there must be video, in this vast sea, that would satisfy even my lofty standards (although search words couldn’t get me to it), and figured my students (given their greater facility with a life-on-line) probably knew better than I how to navigate the site, and better live and work with this recently expanding access to moving and networked images.

Thus, Learning From YouTube was my first truly “student led” course: we would determine the important themes and relevant methods of study together. I had decided that I wanted the course to primarily consider how web 2.0 (in this case, specifically YouTube) is radically altering the conditions of learning (what, where, when, how we have access to information). Given that college students are rarely asked to consider the meta-questions of how they learn, on top of what they are learning, I thought it would be pedagogically useful for the form of the course to mirror YouTube’s structures for learning–one of the primary being user, or amateur-led pedagogy. So, the course was student-led, as well as being amorphous in structure within a small set of constraints, for this reason of mirroring, as well. As is true on YouTube, where there is a great deal of user control within a limited but highly limiting set of tools, I set forth a few constraints, the most significant being the rule that all the learning for the course had to be on and about YouTube (unless a majority of the class voted to go off, which we eventually did for the final). While this constraint was clearly artificial, and perhaps misleading about how YouTube is actually used in connection with a host of other media platforms which complement its functionality (which is really nothing more than a massive, easy to use if barely searchable, repository for moving images), it did allow us to really see its architecture, again, something that the average student would not typically be asked to account for as part of the content of a course. Thus, all assignments had to be produced as YouTube comments or videos, all research had to be conducted within its pages, and all classes were taped and put on to YouTube. This immediately made apparent how privacy typically functions within the (elite liberal arts) classroom setting, because YouTube forced us to consider what results when our work and learning is public. This produced several negative results including students dropping the class who either did not want to be watched as they snoozed or participated in the class; or did not want their class-work to be scrutinized by an unknown and often unfriendly public. Furthermore, students realized how well trained they actually are to do academic work with the word — their expertise — and how poor is their media-production literacy (there were no media production skills required for the course as there are not on YouTube). It is hard to get a paper into 500 characters, and translating it into 10 minutes of video demands real skills in creative translation of word to image, sound, and media-layers.

This is all to say that the methods and materials for the course were selected by the students, who were forced by me to be atypically creative and responsible, and that they ended up inventing or recycling a wide range of methodology for academic research and “writing.” Surprisingly, the themes of the course ended up quite coherent: looking first at the forms, content of videos (see research projects and mid-terms), then the function of popularity (see popularity projects), and finally the structures of the site (see finals). Furthermore, and quite impressively given their lack of skills and deep initial qualms, the students devised a series of methods to do academic assignments in the form of video. I would briefly characterize these styles of work as: word-reliant, the illustrated summary, and the YouTube hack, where academic content is wedged into a standard YouTube vernacular (music video, How To, or advertisement).

Finally, it seems important for me, at this earliest stage in the interview (and I hope this will not alienate some of your readership), to identify myself as someone with a very limited interest in mainstream or popular culture, even as I am aware and supportive of the kinds of work you and your readers have done about the complex and compelling (re)uses of dominant forms. While I, too, focus on the liberating potentials of people’s expanded access to media, I have specialized in (and made) alternative media connected to the goals and theories of social movements. This is a lengthy, and formative history within the media (what I call Media Praxis) that includes some of the best media ever made, like early soviet cinema, Third Cinema, feminist film, AIDS activist video, and a great deal of new media. I continue to be concerned about why I am not seeing more on the site that is influenced by, and furthering this tradition, and my orientation in the course was to push the students to consider why serious, non-industrial, political uses of the media were not better modeled or supported on the site. Another way to say this is through a concern I have articulated about the current use of the term “DIY.” I think it is being used to identify the recent condition of massive user access to production and distribution of media. My concern is that the counter-cultural, anti-normative, critical, or political impulses behind the term (as it came out of punk, for instance), drop out of the picture–just as they do in most DIY YouTube video–when access to technology occurs outside other liberating forces. I believe that for engagements with the media to be truly transformative, the fact of expanded access to its production and exhibition is only one in a set of necessary conditions that also include a critique, a goal, a community, and a context. I’ll get to more about this in my later answers, but one of my great fears about YouTube is that it consolidates media action to the video production and consumption of the individual (this, of course, being a corporate imperative, as YouTube needs to get individual eyeballs to ads).

You also sought to use Youtube itself as a platform for pedagogy. What limitations did you discover about Youtube as a vehicle for critique and analysis?

My hope that the students would be able to see and name the limits of this site as a place for higher education were quickly met. By the mid-term, we could effectively articulate what the site was not doing for us. Our main criticisms came around these four structural limitations: communication, community, research, and idea-building. We found the site to inexcusably poor at:

  • allowing for lengthy, linked, synchronous conversation using the written word outside the degenerated standards of many on-line exchanges where slurs, phrases, and inanities stand-in for dialogue.
  • creating possibilities for communal exchange and interaction (note the extremely limited functionality of YouTube’s group pages, where we tried our best to organize our class work and lines of conversation), including the ability to maintain and experience communally permanent maps of viewing experiences.
  • finding pertinent materials: the paucity of its search function, currently managed by users who create the tags for searching, means it is difficult to thoroughly search the massive holdings of the site. For YouTube to work for academic learning, it needs some highly trained archivists and librarians to systematically sort, name, and index its materials.
  • linking video, and ideas, so that concepts, communities and conversation can grow. It is a hallmark of the academic experience to carefully study, cite, and incrementally build an argument. This is impossible on YouTube.

Given that the site is owned by Google, a huge, skilled, and wealthy corporation, and that all these functionalities are easily accessible on other web-sites, we were forced to quickly ask: why do they not want us to do these things on this particular, highly popular, and effective site? This is how we deduced that the site is primarily organized around and effective at the entertainment of the individual. YouTube betters older entertainment models in that it is mobile, largely user-controlled, and much of its content is user-generated (although a significant amount is not, especially if you count user-generated content that simply replays, or re-cuts, or re-makes corporate media without that DIY value of critique). The nature of this entertainment is not unique to YouTube (in fact much of its content comes from other platforms) but it certainly effectively consolidates methods from earlier forms, in particular those of humor, spectacle, and self-referentiality. As YouTube delivers fast, fun, video that is easy to understand and easy to get, it efficiently delivers hungry eyeballs to its advertisers. It need provide no other services. In fact, an expanded range of functions would probably get in the way of the quick, fluid movement from video to video, page to page, that defines YouTube viewing. Of course, this manner of watching bests older models of eyeball-delivery, which is not to even mention that users also rank materials, readily providing advertisers useful marketing and consumption information.

Your course drew the interest of the mass media. In what way did this media coverage distort or simplify your goals as a teacher? What advice might you offer to other educators who found themselves caught up in a similar media storm?

The mainstream media attention served as a huge distraction and energy-drain for the course, while also being highly informative about one of the main functionalities of YouTube: popularity/celebrity. I must admit, it was downright baffling to me how my students initially could not seem to see the systems of popularity or celebrity as constructed, as made to keep them distracted. No matter how I approached it, they would only understand the concept, “you do something to get more hits, to be seen by more people and become more famous,” as innately and inherently true, the reason to be on YouTube, the reason of YouTube. When our pretty massive visibility led to prying cameras that took up a lot of classroom space and time, but never bothered to see or understand our project with any depth, and a media culture that ridiculed us without interviewing us, the idea of celebrity as an unquestionable good in itself was easily cracked open for the students. I must also add here that we were handled with much more sophistication in the blogisphere.

As for advice: I learned I’m glad I am a professor and not a pundit because I do best when I can talk in length, in context, and in conversation. While I’ve been critiquing YouTube for its inadequacies in these respects, mainstream television and radio pale in comparison, and remind us about how YouTube really does differ from these earlier corporate models. Outside innate skill, hiring a handler, or wasting all your time memorizing and practicing blurbs, I am not certain how a garden-variety professor like myself could make mainstream media attention really work for her.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz, Professor of Media Studies, Pitzer College, teaches video production and film and video theory. She has a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from NYU and has taught courses at NYU, Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr College, Claremont Graduate University, and Pitzer College, on women and film, feminist film, and women’s documentary. Dr. Juhasz has written multiple articles on feminist and AIDS documentary.

Dr. Juhasz produced the feature film, The Watermelon Woman, as well as nearly fifteen educational documentaries on feminist issues like teenage sexuality, AIDS, and sex education.

Her first book, AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1996) is about the contributions of low-end video production to political organizing and individual and community growth.

Her second book is the transcribed interviews from her documentary about feminist film history, Women of Vision, with accompanying introductions (Minnesota University Press).

Her third book, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited with Jess Lerner, is recently out from University of MN Press. She is currently completing her first “book” on the web, Media Praxis: A Radical Web-Site Integrating Theory, Practice and Politics.

Obama and the “We” Generation

Several years ago, I heard my colleague and friend Justine Cassell sum up what she had learned after more than a decade of tracking the lives of hundreds of young people from around the world she had been helping to facilitate through the Media Lab’s Junior Summit. These young leaders had been working both face to face and via electronic communications to try to bring about changes in their society, focusing their energies on problems both local and global, and finding solutions through both policy and technology. Cassell is a linguist so one of the things that interested her was the language these young people used. Adult leaders, she suggested, tend to rely heavily on the first person pronoun: ‘Here’s what I will do for you‘, ‘this is my position on the issues,’ ‘I have the experience needed to do the job.’ By contrast, the youth leaders tended to deploy a third person language: ‘what do we see as the problem here,’ ‘what do we want to do about It,’ ‘what are our goals for the next steps.’ The young leaders were interested in the process as much as the product, trying to make sure that every perspective got heard and weighed appropriately before reaching a decision. They pooled information from multiple sources, valuing diversity of input because of what it would contribute to the final outcome.

All of this came back to me as I have been listening to Barrack Obama in recent weeks. Commentators have noted his tendency to use “We” far more often than first (“I”)or second person (“You” pronouns, often with only minimal understanding of what is at stake in this language choice. Some of this no doubt emerges from Obama’s experience as a community organizer, a very different role from Hillary Clinton’s early experiences as a litigator or legal council for nonprofit organizations.

Obama has constructed not so much a campaign as a movement. Campaigns are very much top down organizations focused on short term results — let’s get this person elected president — while movements are constructed bottom-up with more long-term goals — let’s reshape the American political landscape. What Obama has been building can last longer than the individual campaign because it is as much structured around connections between voters as it is around connections between the candidate and the electoriate. We see this in the use of MySpace, Facebook, and other social network sites, which both build on the set of social ties (of all kinds) that link voters together and also enables new people to get into contact with each other. I predicted in Convergence Culture that the parties and the political leaders were going to lose control of the campaign process in a world where the general public was increasingly taking media in its own hands. In a campaign season strongly influenced by grassroots media contributions, it is striking how many of the so-called “viral videos” — from the 1984 ads and the Obama Girl spots through to the recent “Yes We Can” music video were dedicated to supporting Obama’s efforts. Grassroots media makers seemed to be welcomed into the political process by Obama’s staff and he seems to inspire more people to apply their craft as contributions to his efforts.

You see it in the contrast between Obama’s embrace of Martin Luther King (himself a veteran of movement politics) who brought about change from below and Clinton’s embrace of LBJ, a consummate political insider who brought about change from the top down.

There is a sharp contrast to be drawn here with the ways that Bill Clinton changed the language of American politics a decade ago when he embraced the informality and intimacy of the town hall meeting, stepping to the edge of the stage to get as close to the voter as possible, repeating their name as part of his responses, trying to forge links between his experience and theirs, and channeling their pain as he offered a more empathic version of old style policy wonkism. Clinton was praised for embracing and incorporating his questioners into the discourse of the campaign. Yet, the Clinton approach still was very much focused on the connections between the politician and the voters as individuals (“I feel your pain”) and the recognition of a still tangible division between the two. This can be seen as the last gasp of a broadcast era model of the American public.

What Obama embodies is something different — a networked model of the relations amongst all of us who are involved in the process of transforming American society. The differences between Obama and Clinton have less to do with issues of policy but rather differences in process, in notions of governance, in cultural style, though the subtle differences in policy may reflect differences on these other levels, as when Clinton wants to require everyone to buy health insurance (top-down) and Obama seeks to make insurance accessible to everyone (bottom up). Those of us who are passionate about Obama (and yes, I’m an Obama boy) are responding to an alternative vision of the country — one based less on fragmentation around identity politics or partisan differences than one which values diversity of perspectives as opening up the possibility of refining our collective organization and enabling us to solve problems together which defeat us as individuals.

In this context, the fact that the vision is blurry and not yet well defined is a virtue rather than a limitation: it is a virtue if we set up processes which enable us to collaborate to find further solutions. I look on Obama’s more vague statements as something like a stub on wikipedia — an incitement for us to pool our insights and to work through a range of possible solutions together.

After eight years which have sought to revitalize the once discredited notion of an Imperial President, it is refreshing to imagine a more open, participatory, and bottom up process. In such a model, the experience of the leader is less important than the ability to channel all of those voices and the commitment to make sure that everyone is heard. This is like the difference between older notions of expertise (based on monopoly and control of information) and newer notions of collective intelligence (based on creating a self-correcting and inclusive process by which we collect, evaluate, and distribute knowledge.) This may be what commentators are groping towards when they talk about a generational shift or discuss Obama as the candidate of the future. It is certainly what is implied when Obama makes fun of the Clinton as wanting to build a bridge back to the 20th century, a comic reversal of the contrast they had set up a decade ago between the future-oriented Clinton and the backwards-leaning Dole. It may be this focus on a different kind of political process which resonates so strongly with younger voters who have, like those Cassell described, grown up in a networked culture and have developed different processes for working through problems together.

This is why Obama’s “Yes, We Can” slogan resonates so powerfully. As Stephen Duncombe pointed out to me when we appeared on stage together recently at Otis College, the slogan comes from Cesar Chavez’s migrant workers movement and thus can be understood cynically as an attempt to engage the Hispanic voters who have not yet embraced the Obama movement. Yet, Duncombe suggests, the music video based on this speech only uses the Spanish version one time and otherwise seeks to demonstrate the value of the concept to the society more generally. We can see this as a bottom-up contribution to a national discourse rather than as a localized appeal to identity politics.

When I first heard the “Yes We Can” speech, I was struck by the ways that Obama was linking his campaign to a range of other historic struggles for social justice, most of which are better captured by the image of bottom-up movements rather than top-down campaigns. (These aspects are accented even more fully in the Black Eye Peas music video, where Obama’s lone voice is expanded through a singing chorus.) I was impressed with how he integrated those various fights together to offer a shared vision of America’s past and future, breaking out of the more fragmented understanding of these incidents within different chapters of the history of specific minority groups. In many ways, his language recalls that of Walt Whitman whose Leaves of Grass sought to develop a synthetic construction of what America was like as a nation, linking together a range of individual experiences, memories, perspectives, sense impressions, to create a vision of the nation as one big organism. Here’s Obama:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballots; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality.

Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity.

Yes we can heal this nation.

Yes we can repair this world.

Yes we can.

Here’s Whitman from Leaves of Grass:

We wield ourselves as a weapon is wielded,

We are powerful and tremendous in ourselves,

We are executive in ourselves—we are sufficient

in the variety of ourselves…

These States are the amplest poem,

Here is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation

of nations,

Here the doings of men correspond with the

broadcast doings of the day and night,

Here is what moves in magnificent masses, care-

lessly faithful of particulars,

Here are the roughs, beards, friendliness, com-

bativeness, the soul loves,

Here the flowing trains, here the crowds, equality,

diversity, the soul loves.

Race of races, and bards to corroborate!…

Weather-beaten vessels, landings, settlements, the

rapid stature and muscle,

The haughty defiance of the Year 1—war, peace,

the formation of the Constitution,

The separate States, the simple, elastic scheme,

the immigrants,

The Union, always swarming with blatherers, and

always calm and impregnable,

The unsurveyed interior, log-houses, clearings,

wild animals, hunters, trappers;

Surrounding the multiform agriculture, mines,

temperature, the gestation of new States,

Congress convening every December, the mem-

bers duly coming up from the uttermost

parts;

Surrounding the noble character of mechanics and

farmers, especially the young men,

Responding their manners, speech, dress, friend-

ships — the gait they have of persons who

never knew how it felt to stand in the

presence of superiors,

The freshness and candor of their physiognomy, the

copiousness and decision of their phrenology,

The picturesque looseness of their carriage, their

deathless attachment to freedom, their fierce-

ness when wronged,

The fluency of their speech, their delight in

music, their curiosity, good-temper, open-

handedness,

The prevailing ardor and enterprise, the large

amativeness,

The perfect equality of the female with the male,

the fluid movement of the population,

The superior marine, free commerce, fisheries,

whaling, gold-digging,

Wharf-hemm’d cities, railroad and steamboat lines,

intersecting all points,

Factories, mercantile life, labor-saving machinery,

the north-east, north-west, south-west,

Manhattan firemen, the Yankee swap, southern

plantation life,

Slavery, the tremulous spreading of hands to

shelter it — the stern opposition to it, which

ceases only when it ceases.

For these, and the like, their own voices! For

these, space ahead!

Writing at a time the union was still in crisis, Whitman constructs a unified vision of America, one which may seem overly nationalistic by modern standards, but one which sought to be inclusive of many different kinds of Americans. Obama is charting a map of the future by mobilizing what is most valuable, most precious in the nation’s past. In doing so, he is constructing a shared mythology which speaks to us across historic divides in our national consciousness. Nothing could be further removed, say, than Edward’s talk of ‘Two Americas.’ In Obama’s version, there are at once many Americas, each self contradictory and refusing to be reduced to stereotypes, and one America, a collective intelligence ready to process all of that diversity and arrive at shared solutions to shared problems. Obama is speaking for this ‘we generation’ in the closing moments of that speech:

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

……….. We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

Now the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea –

Yes. We. Can.

Think of the speech as a mash-up of JFK, RFK, Ceasar Chavez, and Walt Whitman, delivered with the candences of Martin Luther King. Think of it as thus a new synthetic mythology for a new kind of knowledge culture. It may be the most powerful remobilization of historical and contemporary perspectives since the Popular Front movement of the 1930s. The music of Aaron Copeland, the art of Norman Rockwell, the films of Frank Capra were unafraid to mobilize historical images towards constructing a contemporary model of our shared experiences. We can criticize that model today for who and what it excluded, yet most of us are still touched by the emotions embodied in that art.

My hope is that Obama’s rhetoric may evoke a similar response in future generations and in that sense, it will be, to use a word Obama likes to talk about, ‘transformative.’ Historians regard the campaign of Barry Goldwater as ‘transformative’ in that sense — transforming the directions of American politics, paving the way towards the modern conservative movement and the so-called ‘Reagan Revolution’ even in defeat. As an Obama supporter, I certainly hope that this new movement achieves its immediate political goals but my sense is that as a movement which is larger than the individual candidate it paves the way for a modern progressive movement.

This is certainly what I felt as I stood in the freezy cold with some 8000 other Obama supporters in Boston on the eve of Super Tuesday, an experience which gives new reality to the news report of turnouts across the country as this candidate has addressed the public. Then consider that few of those people were there because of mainstream media coverage; most were there because of text messages, social network sites, e-mails, blogs, podcasts, and cellphone calls. They weren’t there because of a message broadcast from above; they were there because someone they knew within their existing social networks contacted them and encouraged them to come. My wife and I were among the oldest people there; the hall was packed by young people, many of whom had never voted before.

This is what politics looks like within the ‘we generation.’ This is what politics looks like to “We The People,” circa 2008.

Editor’s Note: I have from the first chosen not to take partisan positions through this blog, hoping to reach out to conservative, libertarian, and independent readers. I have taken stances on particular policy issues which deal with the communications infrastructure and I have tried to frame these in ways that include rather than exclude those with other political perspectives. I don’t see this post as representing a change of these policies. I just felt that there was something that needed to say about the intersection between Obama’s style of campaigning and my own work on participatory culture. I express above my support for Obama in the name of full disclosure and not out of an effort to get any of my readers to change their minds about the candidates. I do hope, however, that any of you who are American citizens will exercise your right to vote.

Secret Asian Man and the Art of the Comic Strip: An Interview with Tak Toyoshima

Every year, I ask the students in my graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to interview a media maker and to try to get a sense of the theoretical assumptions underlying their work. In part, this exercise is designed to give students some experience in conducting and interpreting interviews. In part, it is intended to get them out of the classroom and testing how the ideas we’ve been exploring in academic terms throughout the course relate to what’s happening on the ground. I featured one such project at the end of last term – Whitney Trettien’s profile of embroidery artist Jenny Hart. Today, I share another – this one focusing on the realm of indie comics.

Secret Asian Man and the Art of the Comic Strip

by Lan Xuan Le

Tak Toyoshima is the creator of the comic Secret Asian Man, a national daily strip in the United Features Syndicate. UFS, which acquires titles like Toyoshima’s, promotes and sells comic strips to newspapers around the world and nationally distributes series like Dilbert, Marmaduke, and the Peanuts Classics. In a recent move to deliver more diverse content, UFS added Secret Asian Man to its list of comic features, making it the first nationally syndicated comic strip featuring an Asian-American protagonist. Secret Asian Man started in 1999 as two-page spread in Shovel Magazine, an alternative publication that would later become Boston’s Weekly Dig newspaper. Appearing both in print and online at Toyoshima’s website, Secret Asian Man gained a broad, popular following that eventually vaulted the comic strip onto the national stage this year.

The comic strip Secret Asian Man focuses on the life of Osamu (SAM) Takashi, a second-generation Japanese-American, and his friends and family. SAM is loosely based on the creator and is the mouthpiece for Toyoshima’s views on race and marginalization as it functions in the United States. Often shocking and bald in its indictment of racism, sexism, and general intolerance, Secret Asian Man is the only national daily comic strip that regularly focuses on the lives and relations of marginalized groups that include homosexuals, the otherly abled, people of color, and religious minorities. Especially interesting is the strip’s representation of discontent Asian-Americans and the ways in which people of color selectively reject or deploy racialized media representations to their advantage.

Medium and Message

For Toyoshima comics are not just funny pictures. They are sequential art. “I’ve always loved comics, specifically comic books. Sequential art is one of the oldest forms of storytelling dating back to cave paintings. As a child I was always drawing. My dad was an artist, my older brother also enjoyed drawing so it seemed natural. I also loved telling stories and creating characters and adventures which is probably why my brother and I ended up playing thousands of hours of Dungeons and Dragons. The art of comics brings both of those things together. A really good sequential artist can convey a story without any dialog and make that story open to anyone in the world.”

The discursive power of comic strips is due in large part to its accessibility. Toyoshima sees a unique intensity in people’s relationship to comics, and tries to reach people through this link. “Despite its innocent appearance, comics have a very strong effect on people in a very everyday kind of way. People will cut out comics and tape them to their door or office cubicle. People identify with comics and feel a sense of connection that is very different than other forms of art. It’s a very practical medium and a very accessible one. Everyone from kids to the elderly read comics.” Comic strips can be read in newspapers, online, or in book compilations, making the physical access to them much easier. The material barriers to the comics medium are also much lower than media like film and radio, requiring at its most basic pencil, paper, and a perhaps a photocopier for distribution.

“Having never been a big newspaper comic strip fan growing up (I read more comic books) I never gave the impact of comic strips much thought. To me most of them were not funny and were just filling the space they were given. There is a safety to the comics page that never appealed to me. Even now, many papers have a 1950′s moral code when it comes to their comics despite the fact that they have some gunshot victim on the front cover and a half naked woman on page six.” It may be exactly this perception of the comic strip’s “1950′s moral code” that gives Secret Asian Man the power to reach people. Comic strips have traditionally been a source of comfort and ritual for many people in their daily lives, the introduction of difficult issues via a familiar, reassuring medium may work to Secret Asian Man‘s advantage.

Toyoshima also considers very carefully the balance of social critique and humor in his strip, especially in light of his commitment to quality. He must because of the charged nature of his subject matter. “The key is to know how to get messages about touchy subjects like race across without scaring everyone away. If I ran in there screaming about racism and injustice I’d be canceled in a week. On the other hand I don’t want to pander to their audience and just replace some other safe comic strip with my own.” Indeed, pandering is its own danger, because Secret Asian Man would become just another empty gesture to diversity, raising the attendant specter of affirmative action.

Awareness of audience was an aspect that developed over time for Toyoshima, especially as the comic strip moved from the Weekly Dig to newspapers across the nation. “I never had a specific audience in mind. I knew that there would be a natural Asian American following but I didn’t intentionally go after them . . . In later years of the weekly strip, I did start to broaden the subject matter to include the racial experiences of other groups. You can only bitch about kung-fu movies so many times before it gets played out.” While commitment to and repetition of a core thematic issue works for ongoing comic strips, the repetition of particular jokes is not. The comic artist’s challenge is to find the balance between familiarity and freshness.

Being a daily medium, comic strips are very much in dialogue with its audience. It is a relationship that forms over time. “Once you figure out the level of the audience you have to earn their trust. Once you do, you have a very powerful tool in influencing a lot of people. Just being the only Asian on the page is already powerful. Over time I have realized the truth in the saying ‘You can catch more flies with honey.’ No one likes to be yelled at. I want to entertain people but not without leaving them with something to think about.” Again, the comic artist must maintain a tight balance between his message and the entertainment factor, and it is in this productive tension that humor lives. Humor, which has long been the way in which we express pain, is as much the comic strip’s medium as newsprint.

The central theme of Secret Asian Man really lies in the interplay of identity, power, and the politics of imaging-making. “The comic strip now focuses on groups and how they shape our identities and perceptions of each other. Everyone belongs to groups and every group has preconceived notions about other groups. Race, religion, sexual orientation, politics, sports teams, economic brackets…etc. . . .That’s the dynamic that I love to explore because it’s our everyday actions and attitudes that make the world go round.” There is room in the daily comic strip to explore the nuances of issues like race and marginalization, to capture the shifting negotiation between groups. In many ways, serial comic art could be a natural home of complex ideas because comics live beside us over months and years in a way that many media do not.

Ultimately, for any artist, Toyoshima values the time it takes to develop one’s artistic sensibilities. “You have to have patience if you want your message to be effective but it’s also important to go through the brash teen years of your artistic career to help you realize where to go from there. Some people get stuck there for fear of being called a sell-out when they progress, but I think stopping your progression for fear of what others will think of you is the ultimate sell-out move.”

Medium and Process

Toyoshima, like most artists, begins with the idea. “The writing comes first. Ideas come at random times so I usually keep a pad and pen handy. Either that or I e-mail myself story ideas and go over them later. The ideas can be as short as one word or as complete as a finished dialog.” But each concept requires a different kind of timing and layout to make the humor work. “From there I look at the idea and flesh it out, give it a solid ending and pace it out. Some ideas are best executed in a single panel. Others require some set up and delivery.” The wide variety of stories and jokes that must exist to keep a daily comic strip interesting requires that the comic artist have a wide repertoire of narrative techniques from which to draw, which means he must be as able a storyteller as he is a visual artist.

Despite the profusion of digital technologies, ink and paper remain Toyoshima’s media of choice. “I’m still a hands on kind of guy but I do use the computer as well. All the roughs and finishes I do with pencil, brush, tech pen and ink. The digital part comes in after the final inks are done and scanned in. Then I take the ins into Photoshop, clean them up and color for Sundays, grayscale for dailies.” But art is more than just the product, it is also the process. “The romantic in me loves the feeling of paper and the smell of ink. The experience feels so much more real and personal. Whether it shows in the final product I don’t know but it’s something I imagine I’ll always do. I have very mixed feelings about completely digitally done artwork.” Toyoshima really values the materiality of making art, which implies that he sees art as both a physical process and an imaginative process.

The process of creating the artwork, for Toyoshima, is visible in the art itself. It leaves a trace that you can see. “I love the idea that there is an original one of a kind piece out there, not some source file. I love original art and have bought pieces from artists I love (or can afford) and to stare at the artwork an inch away from my face I can learn so much about the artist’s process and I get a much deeper appreciation for the piece.” Focus on process also implies finding value in craft and the innovation that arises out of mastery of craft.

Toyoshima once worked as the inker for The Tick before starting Secret Asian Man and finds that there are differences in how each format shapes his artistic process. “For years I worked on comic books where you get pages and pages to tell your story. In comic strips you often have less than a quarter of a page to get your point across. I try and reserve the more wordy strips for special occasions.” Length and format, he learned, strongly shape the kind of content that can be featured, and consequently the resulting audience. “Building stories is also different. With comics you can tell a continuous story for issues at a time. There is an assumption that readers have been following the series. In comic strips, you can have an ongoing story but you have to reset the story every day just in case someone missed the previous day. I look at the Spider-Man comic strip and to me it’s unreadable because it moves so slowly compared to the comic books!” Despite the serial nature of both comic books and comic strips, the length of each format molds the core assumptions about speed, time, and narrative style.

The reduction of length between formats also forces Toyoshima to concentrate on efficient, creative communication of meaning rather than creative use of the comic frame. “The format switch from comic books to comic strips was a little difficult, mostly because of the adjustment to the space allotted. Also, when you draw comics, your canvas is a lot bigger and you have more opportunities to do fun things like break panels, have action bleed to another panel, vary panel sizing etc. With comic strips you’re pretty much limited to three to four panels max. You have to set it up, build it up and deliver the punch line very quickly. It can be a challenge to not fall into the habit of doing gag jokes. Just uninspired stuff that fills in the space that day.” The reduction in length also requires an increase in the precision of message delivery, especially because each format favors different kinds of content and narrative technique.

Some lessons, however, do carry over between different kinds of comic art. “My experience on The Tick taught me a lot about the art form in terms of knowing what will reproduce well in print, how to add depth to B+W at and most of all it built up my endurance for drawing.” Reproducibility on newsprint favors certain robust, bold drawing styles, affecting everything from the level of detail in drawings to the depiction of depth. Print culture, in a way, defines the visual aesthetic of comic strips, favoring simplified, iconic art.

The frequency of a comic strip’s publication also creates expectations and parameters about content. The more frequent and popular publications tend towards more conservative values. “Weekly newspapers allow for a lot more freedom in terms of language and subject matter. I look back of a lot of the strips I did for weeklies and there no way they could run in a daily paper. But it also made me realize that sometimes I used bad language unnecessarily and relied on shock humor a little too much. It’s easy to get a reaction from people. It’s harder to earn their respect.” Toyoshima must again balance the tension between broader appeal and addressing his core message.

While a single author can be credited as the creative impulse behind a comic strip, the process involves collaboration and multiple inputs. “Once I pace it out, I rough the strip in pencil, scan in the rough, lay it into a lettering template, add the lettering and word balloons and send a PDF off to my editors at United Features Syndicate. They then turn around some edits, we fight and cuss and the end result is almost always better than the original. They do a great job there.” Conflict between creative minds can be a valuable process, especially when it challenges the artist to examine their assumptions. There is value, however, in the way Toyoshima becomes an authorial brand, especially with his presence on the web. Toyoshima is a regular, frank blogger, which allows his audience deeper into the creative process and creates a sense of closeness and community with the creator.

Comics as a medium is defined by its physical constraints – length, avenue of distribution, frequency of publication – as well as its social and aesthetic environment – the type of publication, audience, content, and collaborators. These factors already shape what the comic artist can do with his or her medium, leaving a somewhat defined space in which the artist may work. But out of these constraints creativity may often arise, giving us innovative series like Secret Asian Man, which makes visible – both physically and discursively – the bodies, voices, and experiences of marginalized people.

Lan Xuan Le

Swarthmore College, BA Biology and Asian Studies 2004

Boston University, Masters of Public Health 2007

Lan Xuan Le, who has BAs in both Biology and Asian Studies from Swarthmore College (2004) and a Masters in Public Health from Boston University (2007), has been part of the “games for health movement,” conducting a qualitative study and co-authoring a white paper for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the use of games to combat childhood obesity. She also has a strong interest in the globalization of media and the construction of alternative understandings of what it means to be Asian and Asian-American through popular culture, an interest which led her to design, research and execute a library exhibition of anime and manga for Swarthmore’s McCabe Library. She wrote an undergraduate thesis on problematic gender and sexual representations in Japanese popular culture with a particular focus on Card Captor Sakura, a paper which won the Swarthmore College Asian Studies Program’s top writing prize.

From YouTube to WeTube…

Last week’s 24/7 DYI Video Conference at the University of Southern California represented a gathering of the tribes, bringing together and sparking conversations between many of the different communities which have been involved in producing and distributing “amateur” media content in recent years.

Mimi Ito and Steve Anderson, the conference organizers, have worked for several years to develop a curatorial process which would respect the different norms and practices of these diverse DIY cultures while providing a context for them to compare notes about how the introduction of new digital production and distribution tools have impacted their communities. The conference featured screenings focused on 8 different traditions of production– Political Remix, Activist Media, Independent Arts Video, Youth Media, Machinima, Fan Vids, Videoblogging, Anime Music Video. The inclusiveness of the conference is suggested by the range of categories here — with avant garde and activist videos shown side by side with youth media, machinima, anime music videos, and fanvids. The curators were not outsiders, selecting works based on arbitrary criteria, but insiders, who sought to reflect the ways these communities understood and evaluated their own work. Paul Marino, who directed Hardly Workin’, and who has helped organize the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, put together a crackerjack program which took us from the very earliest use of games as animation engines through the most contemporary and cutting edge work, spanning across a range of different gaming platforms, and mixing videos which are about the games world with those which have a more activist or experimental thrust. Laura Shapiro, an experienced video-maker, brought together a range of fan music videos, again representing a diverse cross-section of fandoms, while Francesca Coppa offered informed critical commentary which identified the schools represented and their aesthetic and thematic goals for their works. Tim Park, an experienced AMV producer, put together a program of anime videos drawn from more than half a dozen different countries.

Even in those categories I thought I knew well, I was familiar with only a fragment of the works shown, and even where I thought I knew a work well, I understood it differently when read in the context the curators provided. In some cases, these materials were being shown outside their subcultural community for perhaps the first time. Having written about fanvids since the 1980s, I was delighted to see them gain a public exhibition in this context and for media students to get a sense of the aesthetic complexity and emotional density that is possible working within this form. Again and again, speakers at the conference urged us to place our current moment of participatory culture in a larger historical context, and so it was refreshing to see that a larger historical trajectory was incorporated into most of the programs. The fanvids traced their traditions back to Kandy Fong’s slide shows at the early Star Trek conventions; the program on political remix video (organized by Jonathan McIntosh) included some works from the late 1980s and early 1990s; and the program on activist documentary (Curated by Jon Stout) took us from the people’s media movements in the streets of Chicago in 1968 through the Indie Media movements of more recent years through a shared focus on works documenting protests at the presidential nominating conventions.

In introducing the fan vids panel, Francesca Coppa quoted a recent news story which traced fan videos back to “the dawn of Youtube” before citing more than 30 years of productions by fan women repurposing the content of television shows and insisting on the importance of this history being part of our understanding of contemporary remix culture. Again and again, speakers at the conference referenced much earlier efforts by citizens to take media in their own hands, as well as the challenges which they faced in gaining distribution and audiences for their works.

One of the things that has excited me about YouTube is the ways that it represents a shared portal where all of these different groups circulate their videos, thus opening up possibilities for cross-polination. Yet, as many at the conference suggests, the mechanisms of YouTube as a platform work to discourage the real exchange of work. YouTube is a participatory channel but it lacks mechanisms which might encourage real diversity or the exchange of ideas. The Forums on YouTube are superficial at best and filled with hate speech at worst, meaning that anyone who tries to do work beyond the mainstream (however narrowly this is defined) is apt to face ridicule and harrasment. The user-moderation system on YouTube, designed to insure the “best content” rises to the top, follow majoritarian assumptions which can often hide minority works from view. Perhaps the biggest problem has to do with the way YouTube strips individual works from their larger contexts — this was an issue even here where “Closer,” a fanvid considered to be emotionally serious within slash fandom, drew laughter from a crowd which hadn’t anticipated this construction of same sex desire between Kirk and Spock. This conference, from its preplanning sessions which encouraged people from different communities to work together towards a common end, through the main conference screening which finally juxtaposed videos around shared themes rather than respecting the borders between different traditions, and through conference panels and hallway conversation and hands-on workshops, created a space where different DIY communities could learn from each other (and perhaps as importantly, learn to respect each other’s work).

Throughout the conference, there was some healthy questioning of the concept of DIY (Do It Yourself) Media from several angles. One group, perhaps best represented by Alexandra Juhasz, was questioning the expansion of the term from its origins in countercultural politics and its connections with an ongoing critique of mainstream media to incorporate some of the more mundane and everyday practices of video production and distribution in the era of YouTube. I find myself taking a different perspective, drawing on the old feminist claim that “the personal is political” and thus that many of the films about “everyday” matters might still speak within a larger political framework. A case in point might be a disturbing video shown during the youth media session (which was curated by young people from Open Youth Networks and Mindy Farber): a young man had been filming in a school cafeteria when a teacher demands that he stops; when he refuses, she leads him to the principal’s office, berating him every step along the way, and then the two of them threaten to confiscate his camera, all the time unaware that it is continuing to film what they are saying. The young man distributed the video via YouTube, thus exposing what took place behind closed doors to greater scrutiny by a larger public. Read on one level, this is a trivial matter — a misbehaving youth gets punished, rightly or wrongly. But on another level, the video speaks powerfully about what it is like to be a student subjected to manditory education and the strategies by which adult authorites seek to isolate the boy from any base of support he might have in the larger community of students and feels free to say and do what they want behind closed doors. Even where videos remain on the level of sophmoric “jackass” humor, there’s no way of predicting when and how these filmmakers may apply skills learned in these trivial pursuits towards larger purposes. We may never know how many of the activists involved in the indie media movement learned their skills recording skateboard stunts or capturing their grafitti exploits. And that’s why there’s something powerful about a world where all kinds of everyday people can take media in their own hands. As we saw at the screenings of Fan Vids or Machinima, the line between the political/aesthetic avant garde and more popular forms of production is blurry. Works in these programs might engage in quite sophisticated formal experiments or may deal with political issues at unexpected moments.

A second critique of the phrase, DIY, had to do with the focus on the individual rather than on collective forms of expression. Some called for us to talk about DWO (Doing It With Others) or DIT (Doing It Together). I argued that there was a fundamental ambiguity in the “You” in Youtube since in English, You is both singular and collective. When we talked about YouTube, then, we often end up dealing with videos and their producers in isolation, while many of them come from much larger traditions of the kind represented on the currated programs. I ended up one set of remarks with the suggestion that we might think about what it would mean to have a WeTube, rather than a YouTube.

I am writing this post on the airplane on the way back from Los Angeles and am still warm with afterglow of the conference. I was inspired by fellow speakers, such as Marc Davis, Howard Rheingold, John Seely Brown, Yochai Benkler, Joi Ito, Juan Devis, Sam Gregory, and so many others. Ulrike Reinhard has posted some segments from the plenary panel, Envisioning the Future of DIY, which I highly recommend to anyone who missed the event. I was inspired even more by the broad range of different kinds and modes of video production I saw throughout the screening program at this event. I am sure to be drawing on this experience in the weeks and months ahead.

Ordinary Men in Extraordinary Times: An Interview with Iranian Underground Band, Kiosk

If you have seen the film or read the graphic novel of Persepolis, then you will recall the joy that the young protagonist took in listening to western Rock music and the risks that she was willing to take to get access to tapes of recent heavy metal or punk recordings. In many ways, music was the gateway into her political consciousness. Talieh Rohani, an Iranian-born CMS graduate student, recently wrote a paper for my Media Theory and Methods proseminar which shed light on what has happened to the rock music scene in her home country and suggested the ways that new digital tools for production and distribution were impacting the Iranian underground music scene. These insights emerge from an interview she did with Kiosk, an Iranian underground band which recently immigrated to America.

An Interview with Kiosk

By Talieh Rohani

The 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran brought so many social changes and so much repression to the lives of Iranians including the decision to ban the western music. The young generation found it impossible to access any music from the rest of the world. As a result, pop music abruptly stopped progressing in Iran. At the same time in the Western World, the progressive rock scene was allegedly terminated by the arrival of punk rock, because many punk admirers incorporated progressive elements and were inspired by progressive rock bands.

Although the Iranian youngsters had already been influenced by progressive rock music from the late sixties to the late seventies, the war years made it irrelevant for the younger generation to listen to and embrace this musical goldmine. But with the arrival of satellite the Iranian young generation became aware of the current world rock music. The introduction of the Internet and the possibilities it presented allowed the Iranians to participate in the music scene.

Iranian underground music became an alternative to the mainstream pop Persian LA music. Most Iranians started to recognize this revolutionary movement. Underground bands like 127, Hypernova, Kiosk, and Abjeez have received great support in their debuts outside of Iran. And as a result, a new taste in music has emerged within Persian communities that are no longer satisfied with the mainstream LA music. What you’ll be reading is an interview with the underground Iranian rock band Kiosk conducted in Boston in November 2007. Kiosk is a Persian Blues/Rock/Jazz band established in Iran’s basements. The band’s first album Adame Mamolli (Ordinary Man), released outside of Iran by Bamahang Productions, was known as one of the most successful of Iran’s underground music recordings.

Over the past few years, Arash Sobhani, the founder and the lead singer of the band, left Iran to US and released his second album Eshgh-e Sorat (Love of Speed) in May 2007. What distinguishes “Kiosk” from other Iranian bands are the social commentaries in their lyrics. The music video clip for Love of Speed has been viewed almost 400,000 times on YouTube.

Babak Khiavchi is the founder of Bamahang Productions, which aims to help Iranian underground music gain recognition across the globe. He is also one of the main guitarists of Kiosk. Babak talks about the restrictions that were enforced on the Iranian Music Scene. He says he finds the red lines invisible but he cannot ignore their existence. According to Babak musicians cannot address certain things in their lyrics. In order to produce an album, the musician needs to get permission to start a band from Iran’s Cultural Ministry. He will also need to get permission for the lyrics, the music and even the vocals of the singers. If the ministry feels that the band is imitating a famous Persian singer in Los Angeles, it probably won’t give them permission to sing unless that music promotes the government. Babak talks about something called Laleh Zar Mafia that basically controls all music productions and distributions in Iran. This mafia knows both the audience and the market and has a monopoly on it. He refers to O-Hum group. Their lyrics are all from Hafez and Rumi and there is nothing illegal about that. However, O-Hum could not get permission for production in Iran because it was trying to fuse traditional Persian music with Rock music. This is something that is not acceptable in Iran.

According to these red lines, any presentation of Western values and style is considered decadent. Babak doesn’t face such restrictions in the American music scene. When he started working in the IT industry about 10 years ago, he decided to help his friends in Iran who were trying to get their music recorded and heard.

Babak claims that Kiosk’s Ordinary Man album was probably the first Persian underground band that was officially released and copyrighted here and he managed to add it to the iTunes catalog. He thinks that is a big step and it gives a lot of motivation to all these underground musicians in Iran to know that there is a channel for underground music on the Internet and there is an audience there for the music they are producing.

Babak believes that one of the significant things about O-Hum is that their sound engineer, Shahram Sharbaf, recorded everything on his home computer using Pro-Tools software and some other sound engineering devices. He showed everyone that they can do this at home and they wouldn’t have to go to a multi-million dollar studio. Babak strongly believes that it is the content and the idea that matters. From his perspective, it is okay to have a low quality production. But the originality of styles and ability to integrate culture into music makes it attractive to people. Babak claims that everyone followed O-Hum example and learned how to use the software and started recording. “The qualities aren’t good,” he says, “They are mostly demo quality. But even the demos have so much raw emotions.”

He compares it to the LA music market. From his point of view, the underground Persian music has so much emotion that the audience tend to forget about the quality. “You really feel the pain and frustration that these musicians burden and how they found music as an outlet to express themselves,” says Babak.

Arash sees a life that is going on in Iran underground. He describes the ways people meet and socialize with each other in underground parties. Arash says, “What you see on the streets and on TV is different than what the true life is”. This reminds him of the movie Underground. “The majority of people in Iran live underground,” he says. Arash believes that most Iranians do not live according to the values that are reinforced on TV or the Islamic values that the government wants people to live with. So he finds underground music as a medium that is exposing the emotions of those people who cannot talk on TV or newspapers to reflect their opinions to others. That’s why “These people turn to underground music and blogs…This gives voice to majority of people who do not have access to any kind of media to get heard,” Arash says.

On the other hand, Babak finds the restrictions imposed on the music scene to be the main reason for the emergence of underground music. According to him, the music produced and distributed in the LA area, although they have many resources available to them without any limitations, has no content. “What suffers here is art itself. If art is the means of self-expression, and if you can’t do this through the legal channels, and the channel that gives you the most audience, you just have to go and find your own channel underground and express yourself the way you want to be heard,” says Babak.

Some people commented that their two albums have major differences in terms of culture and restriction. The first album, Ordinary Man was made in Iran facing government restrictions. The second album, Love of Speed was released here in the US facing none of those restrictions. It took Arash three years to write the lyrics of the first album. It covers three years of his life when he was going through “different emotions,” he says, “than when I moved to San Francisco”. Most of the social commentaries of Love of Speed were created in Iran. And he only polished them here. He calls it the process of growing up. Different things are more important for him now than four years ago. I wonder what those different things are. Arash says, “Nostalgia”.

When Arash was writing the lyrics of Ordinary Man, he never planned on recording and releasing this as an album. He used to write for other people to sing and after Babak heard his demos he told him that he had to sing it himself instead of giving away such good songs. When he was writing Love of Speed, he knew he had more room to express himself. There were fewer limitations. He knew he had a chance to talk more about the social issues instead of just on a personal level.

Arash does not see the existence of censorship within his personal life in Iran as a positive factor in forming his music. He says that he did not plan to release the first album when he was writing it. He was doing it for himself so the red lines didn’t matter to him. He claims that after Khatami’s presidency, many people felt sorry for waiting for 8 years to see a progressive stable change in the society. And after, this guy, Ahmadinejad, came and took over and ruined everything. So he does not have that much time for personal songs anymore, he explains.

Kiosk received two major criticisms from people within the underground music scene. First, many people consider Mohsen Namjo Music revolutionary because it introduced new sound and rhythms to the Iranian Music. Some people believe that Kiosk has nothing new to offer other than the lyrics, and it’s an imitation of Dire Straits and Bob Dylan. Secondly, many people believe when the underground musicians moves from Iran to US, they can no longer be a part of the underground music scene. In order to be known underground, the music will need to remain underground. Kiosk no longer suffers the restrictions and limitations in underground music scene in Iran.

Arash accepts that his music sounds like Dire Straits but he says he is proud of that. “I don’t know any band that wasn’t under the influence of any other band,” says Arash, “And I don’t know any good band that wasn’t influenced by Bob Dylan.” According to him, the challenge was to use the Farsi language in a rock context, using guitar and bass. Adapting Farsi with its own music. Arash describes that this challenge started in the 70s with Koroush Yaghmayi, Farhad and Faramarz Aslani. They tried to challenge different angles. He says that the best they could do was to take poems from Rumi, Hafez and other traditional songs and mold them to Rock music.

Kiosk’s success is that it adapts Farsi lyrics to Rock and Blues. In the second album, Love of Speed, they were trying to find their own sound, similar to other rock bands that are always looking for their unique sound. “Dire Straits’ first album was influenced by JJ Cale,” claims Arash. From his perspective, everyone starts with an influence. “The important thing is that everyone is trying to find his own sound” Arash says. He thinks the second album was a big step for Kiosk in trying to establish a new sound and he finds himself hitting in a right direction.

In Babak’s opinion, if you want to get the audience’s attention, the best approach is to start from an angle that the audience is familiar with. “If you listen to “Dailiness(Roozmaregi)” you might think that it sounds like Dire Straits but it actually reflects Iranians’ social issues,” claims Babak. He argues that in Love of Speed there is a lot less influence of Dire Straits.

Babak considers Kiosk as an underground band still. He explains that they always try to call themselves an alternative to mainstream Persian music generated in Los Angeles. “Not that there is anything wrong with LA music. We all like to dance,” Babak says. Apparently Andy played in his wedding. Babak argues that Kiosk is trying to give people another alternative. “People are fed up with recycled ideas of the same old cheesy lyrics about eyebrows, eyes, lips and how tall she is,” claims Babak.

Babak mentions that they are not promoting themselves through any mainstream channels. All their concerts are being organized by grass roots support. They rely a lot on Persian student organizations in all cities that they go to. They approach them directly and ask for help. Students volunteer to do the CD sales and T-shirts. “You never see any of the big Persian promoters backing us,” says Babak.

I wonder if they know their audience and if they define underground as an alternative to the LA Mainstream music, what they would tell those people that think that Kiosk has lost the reality of Iran by immigrating here and can no longer be the voice of the underground life. Arash is concerned about that. But he believes that fortunately or unfortunately, many things has happened to him in Iran that he has content to write for many more years, he says it while laughing hysterically. But he is concerned that sooner or later he will be talking about things that people in Iran can no longer relate to. He is trying not to fall in that path. “Once we become distant from contemporary Iran we will also join others to write about hips and eyebrows.” he laughs.

Babak recalls when they started in basements. He says that they are trying to stay close to the vibes that they came up with in the basements. According to him, they were never concerned about the audience. They just did it for themselves. Fortunately there seems to be a wide range of Iranians all over the world who could relate to their music. They are from all ages. “We hear from them through emails, fan communities and social networking sites,” says Babak. They have some fans that are analyzing every word in their lyrics. He believes that no one ever sees Persian lyrics being analyzed this much. “If people would analyze LA Persian music, maybe they could do better by now,” he says sarcastically. He says that the first feedback they have got was from Persian middle-aged divorced men. Recently they have had a much younger audience. Arash thinks that is because people got exposed to their music through the Internet. They were underground and they couldn’t be played on radio or TV. So their audience was among those who had access to the Internet. Mostly educated and mostly divorced!

Arash explores more the issues regarding the restrictions on music in Iran. He reminds us that Iran has the youngest population in the world. The Islamic republic is backing up inch by inch. He remembers the time that VCRs weren’t allowed in Iran. And when satellites came around the government removed restrictions on VCR and video clubs. And then Internet came and they accepted it. So Arash believes that the government is giving room but very slowly. And the young generation wants more. They want more concerts and more music and this is not something that the government has allowed. This is because Iran is young and they need music and Radio Payam is the best they can get, says Arash. There are no other resources available to people. In Arash perspective, that’s not even what people want.

Babak recalls an incident in Iran. There was a raid at a party in Karaj (a city close to Tehran). It was a private concert in which two hundred people participated. The police arrested all of them. And the news agency announced that it was the gathering of the devil worshipers. Babak believes they were just a rock band and maybe someone was wearing an Iron Maiden metal t-shirt. In his perspective, this proves that there is a demand for rock music.

Traditional Persian music just wouldn’t satisfy Iranians. He believes that people need to have the energy of Rock music. The government knows that there is a big demand for this. That’s another thing that is pushing the boundaries in his opinion. So he believes that in the long term it might work out.

Talieh Rohani studied filmmaking at Soureh University in Tehran, Iran, before going on to do a BFA in Image Arts/Film Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto and to pursue an MFA in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University. She has directed four short films and worked, variously, as a director, art director and production designer, cinematographer and editor. She is interested in the emergence post-revolutionary popular culture in lives of young Iranian women and in the larger impact of technology on the development of a new global imagination. She sees CMS as a place to broaden and strengthen the ideas and skills that she hopes to bring back to her flimmaking practice.