A Remediated, Premediated, and Transmediated Conversation with Richard Grusin (Part Two)

Aesthetics

RG:

Serendipitously, I, too, had been thinking of a video that might help delineate the distinction between transmedia and remediation–the Hype Williams video for “Gold Digger,” the Kanye West song featuring Jamie Foxx.

For me, the video’s remediation of the look and style of pin-up magazine covers as live videos is a clear example of an instance of remediation that I would see as distinct from transmedia. On the other hand the now longstanding practice of refashioning songs as music videos might be able to be seen as an example of both remediation and transmedia. Would you agree with this?

HJ:

I would agree that the “Gold Digger” video is an interesting example of how one could have remediation which does not necessarily become transmedia. It is also, as you note, a music video and thus as an amplification of the recorded song a form of transmedia. I would call it transmedia performance in this case rather than transmedia storytelling. My own early writing emphasized the storytelling functions of transmedia, but storytelling is only one function which is now conducted across media platforms. Performance seems the more pertinent category for thinking about music, though a series like Glee might send out some extensions which are primarily about performance and others that are about narrative.

We could, however, imagine a version of this music video that with very little changes would be pulled towards transmedia narrative (or transmedia play). Right now, the magazine covers function to comment on the situations being described in the song lyrics, but they also seem to construct a kind of world where the song takes place. Let’s suppose we built more of a plot into that world — not simply the story the song offers of failed relationships, violated trusts, and sexual tension. Can we imagine extending those core plot elements into a melodramatic plot and imagine the magazine covers perhaps referring us to other media where we learned more about these people and their relationship? Can we imagine the magazine covers as functioning as clues which led to a kind of alternative reality game, which then led us down a rabbithole where we started seeking out more information elsewhere on the web? This would pull us much more fully into a transmedia logic.

RG:

Yes, I suppose we could and I suppose it would. Your inclination to actively remediate or transmediate existing media forms is much stronger than mine. I see myself more as a cultural critic or media theorist than as a creator of new forms. Still I would be interested in you defining even further how you see transmediation differing from or extending remediation.

HJ:

Well, I think I intended this as a thought experiment at most, but your point is well taken. My work on transmedia has taken me into much closer dialogue with the creative community than I had expected and as that happens, I become much more likely to imagine other possible configurations of media that have not yet emerged in much the same way that Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck sought a kind of predictive or anticipatory aesthetics, mapping what could be done with the affordances of digital media she saw starting to emerge. And do not overlook the fact that Remediation has surely inspired many designers and artists, even if you have not yourself chosen to explore the creative practices implicit in your argument.

RG:

True enough. I like the way you describe your and Janet Murray’s work as imagining or anticipating new media futures. It reminds me that, in the context of my most recent work, premediation was already quite active in the 1990s. And yes, it has been very gratifying to see how Remediation was taken up by designers, artists, and other creative people–not to mention by new media scholars like you, especially in relation to transmedia.

Immediacy and Hypermediacy

HJ:

One of the ways I often think about your work in relation to transmedia is the different modes by which transmedia elements are constructed. On the one hand, they often present themselves as documents or documentaries, seeking forms of immediacy. We look through them to see into the world being depicted and the world of, say, District 9 becomes more real to us insofar as such materials adopt forms we associate with nonfiction. The early ARGS often insisted on there being nothing that signaled to players that they were playing a game and thus sought to blur the fake documents being produced back into reality. They were fictions which denied their status as fictions.

On the other hand, more and more, transmedia extensions represent themselves as advertisements for imaginary products, such as True Blood. They show us what the mediascapes of these fictional societies might look like, and so we achieve a kind of access to the fictional world through an heightened awareness of processes of mediation.

We can see how the immediacy and hypermediacy come together by looking at something like MNU Spreads Lies , one of the websites created to help promote District 9. The website proports to be the home page for an Alien Rights organization. Much of the text is in an alien alphabet, though we can convert it to English. My favorite entry is one called “I’m Speechless” which is halfway down the page. Here, we have a mocked up government video on the aliens reproduction system, complete with imitation grain and scratches, clearly intended to achieve a certain degree of immediacy, though the focus on the buggyness of the footage uses properties of mediation to allow us to achieve that level of immediacy. The text around it shows a fake resistant reading of this fake documentary — the alien rights organization has captured this footage from the government and is offering a shocked and outraged reaction to what they are seeing. Here, we are invited to be aware of the processes of mediation and contestation that have emerged around the video — for me, this would seem to represent a kind of hypermediation. As you note in the book, at a certain point, as our everyday reality is shaped by our interactions through media, the lines between immediacy and hypermediacy blur. We achieve immediacy by way of hypermediacy.

Interactivity and Participation

RG:

The Tru Blood commercial is fantastic! It is an exemplary example of a kind of faithful or respectful remediation of a Budweiser commercial. But it is even more interesting, as you suggest, as an example of how the urge to transmediate deploys strategies of remediation in constructing new, participatory mediations of imaginary worlds.

But as the District 9 promotions make evident, transmedia isn’t always fan-based or participatory, right? It is increasingly a technique of corporate infotainment media, whether in fictionally remediating participatory media like blogs or in distributing elements of specific media narratives or worlds across multiple media formats. What makes the MNU Tells Lies site different (and especially interesting) is that it continues the documentality of the District 9 film into the blogosphere. This is, I think, an advance on the transmediation of the Matrix franchise, which I have discussed in terms of the concept of a “cinema of interactions.” The distribution of the narrative of The Matrix across the Enter the Matrix video game and some of The Animatrix contributions (particularly the archival pseudo-documentary about the back story of how the machines took over Earth), while interesting in terms of the continued decline of medium specificity, does not trouble the border between fictionality and reality in the same way that the MNU Tells Lies site does. But in both of these examples, I would agree that your robust concept of transmediality (or my more sketchily developed notion of a cinema of interactions) is more useful and informative than the concept of remediation. That being said, one could certainly (as you do above) approach either of these from the perspective of the double logic of remediation.

HJ:

Both the True Blood and the District 9 materials were generated by the producers (or those working for the brand) rather than the fans. They certainly are responsive to genres and themes which may have originated within fan culture. (We are just beginning to theorize how fan productions might or might not be understood as part of the transmedia system around a given media property). Transmedia is part of a larger shift in the logic of the media industries to place a greater emphasis on engagement, which in turn values fans as the ideal audience for their productions. Part of what first drew me to look at transmedia storytelling was the ways that it seemed to represent a commercial response to key aspects of fan culture: such as the desire to extend the world, to construct backstory, to focus on secondary characters, or even to construct alternative versions of the original characters. But ultimately, these materials claim the status of canon and not fanon, and that has consequences for how they are read.

If they are participatory, it is on the level of reception and circulation rather than on the level of production, though we are seeing some kinds of transmedia production which apply crowd-sourcing or user-generated content models to build out the fictional world further. So, yes, these are part of a new commercial logic. My argument, though, is that they are not simply commercial products; they are also creating new opportunities which gifted storytellers and artists are exploring in ways that deepen our possible engagement with these fictional universes. You could read both the District 9 and True Blood examples as promotional: they are designed to spread word about their affiliated media properties. But they are both expansive (adding to what we learn in their respective works) and expositional (helping to inform our experience once we see their affiliated works) in ways which go beyond what we would expect from a movie trailer. We go into District 9 with different expectations (even a different moral orientation or emotional identification) and have a different experience if we’ve visited the MNU Spreads Lies site than if we have not. Given this, I don’t think we can simply dismiss them as promotional materials.

RG:

Thanks for clarifying. I agree that promotional materials should not be dismissed out of hand. Kracauer wrote that we can learn much about any historical moment by making sense of what he called its “surface phenomena.” But where Kracauer explains how these ornamental surface phenomena are of a piece with the structure of monopoly capitalism in the 1920s, you treat transmedia surface phenomena as creative opportunities for artists and designers which deepen the 21st-century consumer experience. Kracauer is making a claim about history, while you are making a claim about how transmedia enhances the creation of fictional universes.

Richard Grusin is Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies and Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of California-Berkeley. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and four books, including (with Jay David Bolter) Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, 1999) and most recently Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (Palgrave, 2010).

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