Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Alex Juhasz, Jay Bushman, and Derek Kompare (Part One)

Friday August 5, 2011 Alex Juhasz 9:50 AM (via MS Word):

For about an hour and a half on Monday August 1, Jay Bushman and I had a typed conversation over Skype while Derek Kompare drove thousands of miles and was off line. Through previous email exchanges, we had learned that we had almost nothing in common with each other, and had little interest in acafandom. It is from there that we began the "conversation" that follows. As we typed, I also read from a novel, played Internet scrabble, worked on my YouTube art show, PerpiTube: Repurposing Social Media Spaces, and monitored my children who were playing Minecraft and Sims.

Monday August 1, 2011

Alex Juhasz 4:27 PM (via Sykpe):

Jay. Hi. My thought is we try to have an asycnch conversation about the issues for Henry's blog, and then use it as our submission. Given people's vacation schedule, this may be a bit complicated, but it's worth a go, just to shake up their format a bit, if nothing else.

Jay Bushman 4:27 PM:

Works for me. Perhaps a good place for us to start would be off of this provocation:

"How might the debates about the acafan concept relate to other debates in connected fields of popular culture studies, such as discussions about the emergence of the 'new games journalism' as a means of capturing the subjective experience of players?"

I work in what you could describe as the professional transmedia community, and the ongoing debate over the definition of "transmedia" is absolutely related to self-identity and a need to justify the right sort of hybridization--a strange attraction to purity for such a multi-disciplinary field!

The phrase "subjective experience of the players" caught my eye. I've been arguing that the output of the various competing factions vying for control of the term transmedia, when viewed from the perspective of audience/player experience, actually have very little in common.

Alex Juhasz 4:40 PM:

Although I don't play or study games, my kids do (12, 12, and 13. Don't ask! blended pomo family...) and I have lots to say about my own subjective if vicarious experience of everything from Sims, to Minecraft, to Mario: a strange attraction/repulsion. I also don't study or play with mainstream culture. So fandom (and acafandom) are way outside my sitelines, except again for the vicarious experiences of my children, and various life partners (all of whom watch a lot of TV). That said, self-identity and subjective experience have both been really important to my work as a feminist scholar of alternative culture (that is what I do like to watch, and play, and make, in the forms of films, documentaries, and lately YouTube videos and websites).

Jay Bushman 4:43 PM:

I live in Los Angeles, where "academic" usually means something different than what it does in the rest of the world. I'm called "academic" because I want to produce new media versions of classic texts like Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice and Moby-Dick.

Alex Juhasz 4:52 PM:

Do you have any fancy degrees? I'm an academic, I think, in large part because I have a Ph.D. That said, my method is often "artistic," in that I choose to make things as my critical, studied process and project. Also, given my interest in things "alternative," my work is thought to be in some sort of opposition to the "classic texts" you are committed to. Although, of course, like most highly educated people, I have a soft spot in my heart for many of the greats, which also puts me at odds with a lot of what I think acafandom is supposed to be about: finding highs in mainstream culture's lows.

Jay Bushman 4:55 PM:

"a lot of what I think acafandom is supposed to be about: finding highs in mainstream culture's lows." - I like that description. It reminds me of one of my favorite plays, Wallace Shawn's "The Designated Mourner." A major theme of the play examines real and perceived differences between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture.

I have an MFA in Film and Video production. I'm now working as a writer and designer at Fourth Wall Studios, where the boundaries between narrative design and game design are blurry. I wrote an essay about my experience playing the first Alternate Reality Game for the ETC, which is why, I think, I was invited to participate

Alex Juhasz 4:57 PM:

And speaking of games: I LOVE the board and card kind. I also am addicted to Facebook Scrabble. But none of the immersive kind at all. That for me is a book.

I feel like fault lines of the conversation are already hi/low, immersive/narrative, fan/artist or perhaps fan/maker? Does that sound right? How are experience and narrative related in your work? BTW I write a lot about the processes of making activist/art work within communities (as important as the text).

Jay Bushman 5:08 PM:

My work tends to be split along two very different lines. One would be the digital narrative with the emphasis taken almost completely off of interactivity. Things like twitter novels, serial blog fiction, stories where the different delivery mechanisms are used to convey different characteristics of the story. Matching medium to material. For example, I wrote a sci-fi adaptation of the Melville short story "Benito Cereno" that was written for and distributed via Twitter. "Benito Cereno" is all about the faulty perceptions of its unreliable narrator, and twitter was a great medium to use to force the reader to adopt the narrator's descriptions of events.

The other fork is hugely interactive, with very little narrative--basically collaborative realtime story events using Twitter (and other social media to a lesser extent). For instance, every year during the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, TX, I run a Star Wars-based story event. And on Halloween, I usually run some sort of spooky/horror themed experience - I've done ghosts and Lovecraft so far, and am in the planning stages for next October.

The idea is to devise a simple ruleset with a light narrative throughline, and get participants to create their own stories within that world. I ripped off a description that I heard Douglas Rushkoff use to describe this - Throughline and Magic Circle - where the throughline represents tradition narrative structure, surrounded my a magic circle of interactivity and participation.

Alex Juhasz 5:18 PM:

So interactive/narrative is another split.

As an activist/artists/academic of alternative culture I think of the living, doing and making of things as immersive and interactive. I use narrative to structure and re-present representations of the activities and actions that are important to me in the living and doing of them. However, my new work is about the living and doing of online experience, which, I think of as already representation, and which I do not use narrative to structure. Hmm.

Jay Bushman 5:40 PM:

Well, one of the neat things about online/interactive storytelling is that you can throw out a handful of almost random data points, and the audience will tie them together into a narrative for you. Although sometimes, that doesn't work out the way you'd want.

Alex Juhasz 5:47 PM:

Audience/user, another faultline? Can you give an example that worked, and one that failed?

Jay Bushman 5:51 PM:

There's a somewhat well-known story from the A.I. ARG (aka The Beast.) Where the same piece of stock photography was accidentally used to depict two different characters - a successful executive, and robot geisha. The players immediately found the mistake, but decided to turn the error into a conspiracy theory about how the executive was secretly a robot in disguise. The game designers took this player-created theory and ran with it, incorporating it into the story. That one is both a failure and a success: failure of execution in the regular game leading to a remarkable, opportunistic success.

Alex Juhasz 6:06 PM:

Interesting. The work I make has neither players, nor fans. Teaching has students. Documentaries have viewers. Websites have users. And collaboratives have doers. When we make, we play, for sure. Mistakes usually happen because we lack budgets, then jump great hoops for coherence (i.e. $20K collaborative lesbian feature, The Owls, 2010, that had no coverage and half the story left unshot after grueling five day shoot, and yet still a narrative feature got made, and even got micro-distribution: First Run Features.) We played to make it work with our tiny budget and for our tiny microcommunity of makers, and slightly larger group of "fans" or maybe "friends."

Gotta make dinner for the kids. Any way that we might share this with Derek, let him voice in, make something of it, finish it off, and be done (and yes, this had been play: thanks!)

Friday, August 5, 3:40 PM

Derek Kompare (via MS Word)

I apologize for missing this intriguing discussion; as Alex said, I was driving with family across the US southwest. Rather than retcon myself into the above, I'll briefly respond to what I consider the most significant point.

As the member of this triad who most identifies with the usual conception of "acafan," it was refreshing to see how the term looks from its outside. As Alex and Jay suggest, we all have hybrid identities that affect our work and our play. But the modes and mediums we use in either are also parts of those identities. A "game" thus means different things to Jay, Alex, Alex's kids, Jay's "players," etc.

There are many ways of "doing" culture. Moreover, there are many ways of explaining how culture is done. My main issue with the term "acafan" is that, while it has certainly loosened the boundaries between those ways, it has itself established new expectations and restrictions. As Alex and Jay's work respectively shows, cultural engagement is not always about "academics and/or fans," and it's time we started to acknowledge that more.

Jay Bushman is a transmedia story designer. Writing under the name "The Loose-Fish Project," he's produced a series of Twitter-based interactive story events around subjects including Star Wars, H.P. Lovecraft and famous ghosts. Jay is also the author of The Good Captain, a Twitter-based adaptation of Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," and Spoon River Metblog, a modernization of "Spoon River Anthology" in the form of a group blog. His essay "Cloudmaker Days: A Memoir of the A.I. Game" appeared in Well Played 2.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning from ETC Press. Jay is currently a writer/designer at Fourth Wall Studios and the co-coordinator of Transmedia Los Angeles.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College. She makes and studies committed media practices that contribute to political change and individual and community growth. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1995), Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing, co-edited with Jesse Lerner (Minnesota, 2005), and Media Praxis: A Radical Web-Site Integrating Theory, Practice and Politics, She has published extensively on documentary film and video. Dr. Juhasz is also the producer of educational videotapes on feminist issues from AIDS to teen pregnancy. She recently completed the feature documentaries SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age (2008), Video Remains (2005), and Dear Gabe (2003) as well as Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video (1998) and the shorts, RELEASED: 5 Short Videos about Women and Film (2000) and Naming Prairie (2001), a Sundance Film Festival, 2002, official selection. She is the producer of the feature films, The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997) and The Owls (Dunye, 2010). Her current work is on and about YouTube: Her born-digital on-line "video-book" about YouTube, Learning from YouTube, is available from MIT Press (Winter 2011).

An annual attendee of both the SCMS conference and the San Diego Comic-Con, Derek Kompare is an Associate Professor in the Division of Film and Media Arts at Southern Methodist University. His research and writing is primarily focused on how media forms develop, and can be found in the books Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television (2005) and CSI (2010), several anthology and journal articles, and online at Antenna, Flow, In Media Res and (occasionally) his own blog.