Showcasing the Civic Media Project (2): Binders Full of Election Memes

This is the second in a series of three entires, cross-posted from the Civic Media Project website. Check out the site for many more examples of the ways groups around the world are using digital media to help foster civic change. The site was created by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the leaders of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, in anticipation of their forthcoming book for MIT Press, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice. 

 

BINDERS FULL OF ELECTION MEMES: PARTICIPATORY CULTURE INVADES THE 2012 U.S. ELECTION
Erhardt Graeff

Participatory culture handed the 2012 U.S. presidential election season a bumper crop of political memes. These “election memes,” largely in the form of image macros, took sound bites from the candidates’ debates and speeches and turned them into “digital content units” of political satire “circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users,” to paraphrase Limor Schifman’s definition of “internet meme” (2013, 177).

Image macros like the lolcat, feature bold text on top of an image, often a “stock character,” and like all Internet memes are “multi-participant creative expressions through which cultural and political identities are communicated and negotiated” (Ibid.). This case study focuses on three popular image macro-based election memes that came out of the 2012 US presidential election cycle: “Fired Big Bird,” “Binders Full of Women,” and “You Didn’t Build That,” and argues that sharing such memes is a valid form of political participation in the style of what Tommie Shelby calls “impure dissent” (forthcoming).
Case 1: Fired Big Bird

During the televised debate on October 3, 2012, Mitt Romney discussed ways he would reduce the deficit. One of which was the government subsidy to the non-profit public broadcaster PBS. He mentions the beloved character of Big Bird in course.
“I’m sorry Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. […] I like PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you too, but I am not gonna keep spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”
What emerges immediately is the proliferation of image macro memes, new Twitter parody accounts, and a significant amount of media attention.

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The memes played with the tropes of Sesame Street,

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Referenced earlier political discourse around Romney’s work at Bain,

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Referenced other popular memes like the “It’s simple, We Kill the Batman”—a very common practice,

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Referenced historical political imagery like “The Gadsden Flag,”

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Referenced other recent political movements—here to the Egyptian Arab Spring mantra “We are all Khaled Said,”

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And there was even an attempt at campaign messaging construction “comparing” the two candidates’ accomplishments and potential.
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We also saw Romney supporters enter into the discourse, exploiting the meme to make fun of Obama,

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Using the same tropes as jokes, to make it full circle.
This case sees political discourse play out as both Anti-Romney and Anti-Obama, with competing narratives when the meme hits some threshold of attention. And mainstream media plays a key role in amplifying the memes.

Using the media analysis tool Media Cloud, I found “pbs” among the most mentioned words in relation to “Romney” in stories from the top 25 most trafficked online mainstream media sources during the week of October 1, 2012.

Most Mentioned Words in Relation to “Romney” from Top 25 MSM Sources in Media Cloud during week beginning 2012-10-01

Then, I used Media Cloud to browse the specific sentences mentioning PBS in those “Romney” articles.
Sentences mentioning “Romney” in Media Cloud during week beginning 2012-10-01
A CNET article from the night of the debate discussed the social media discourse around the debate and Big Bird in particular. They even drop in one of the image macros shared on Twitter, with the caption “Credit: SadBirdBird/Twitter,” actually giving credit to one of the parody Twitter accounts. The NYT’s Lede blog, which covers the media, also included the memes and talked about how the Big Bird debate confused international election watchers.

The headlines and content of these articles addressed the meme directly, and journalists used the discussion of the shared image macros and parody Twitter accounts as part of their coverage of debate performance and public opinion. And while it is impossible to say that there wouldn’t have been a significant media event around PBS and Big Bird without the intervention of hundreds of memes and thousands of tweets, these indicators help make the case for memes as legitimate political discourse.

Furthermore, the Democratic Party and Obama Campaign immediately capitalized on the attention paid by the Internet and mainstream media to the Fired Big Bird election meme. The day after the debate the Campaign’s Tumblr account passed on two screenshots, one of a Fired Big Bird meme from The Democratic Party’s Twitter account and another meme from the Harris County Democratic Party’s Facebook page. Obama was also at a rally in Denver the day after the debate where he joked, “We didn’t know Big Bird was driving the federal deficit!” And six days after the debate, the Obama Campaign released a polished campaign ad about Big Bird.

Case 2: Binders Full of Women

During the second presidential debate on October 16, Mitt Romney responds to a question about pay equity, mentioning that when he was Governor of Massachusetts he was given “binders full of women” as candidates for positions.

“And I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?’ I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

23-year-old experienced social media manager Veronica de Souza was watching. And while parody accounts were springing up on Twitter, she went to Tumblr, registered bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com, and started making memes and inviting others to contribute.
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Many featured Trapper Keeper and Lisa Frank style imagery.
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There were some classic cultural references.

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People started photographing made-up binders in their places of work and posting them online.

People started photographing made-up binders in their places of work and posting them online.

This case was strongly centered around the specific Tumblr blog created by de Souza the night of the debate. She made it open to contributions and curated them. Tumblr is designed for sharing content through its “submit” and “re-blog” features that in one click allow content to be shared on a Tumblr blog.

Mashable, then interviewed de Souza after the fact. She talked about creating the Tumblr blog and a few starter memes: “It’s so easy to create a new Tumblr that is attached to your own. Creating a new Twitter account means you have to create a new email address…it’s more complicated. Also, with how fast Twitter was moving, it would be hard to break through” (Haberman 2012). She admits that she wanted to share and be noticed for her project.

De Souza also reflected on the political aspect of her meme curation: “People keep asking me politically charged questions. Will it swing voters? Maybe the original statement, but not the meme” (Ibid.). She continues, “I didn’t mean it as a political statement—I just thought it was funny and I knew it would be a thing” (Ibid.).

Even if de Souza didn’t believe the election meme would swing voters, the attention it drew to related issues was a potent opportunity for the Obama Campaign. Starting the night of the debate and lasting for the next three days they posted images and quotes to Tumblr highlighting the Obama’s stances on women’s equality and right to choose.

Case 3: You Didn’t Build That

President Obama gave a speech on July 13, 2012 at a fire station in Roanoke, Virginia. He was trying to make a point about the role of government and taking aim at the business credentials of the self-made Romney.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. […] Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own….”

Republican and conservative Internet users started generating memes, eventually pulling in the Republican Party, Romney’s Campaign, and mainstream media.
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Several of these election memes featured Obama dismissing famous American inventors.

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They skewered Democratic Party veteran Al Gore and Obama simultaneously.
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Conservative groups made their own branded image macros.
You didn’t build that
The Republic Party of Iowa released a branded animated gif from video of Obama’s speech.
And then the GOP itself, created a set of slick branded image macros.

After a few days of individual Internet users and independent conservative activist organizations creating memes, on July 17, the Republican National Committee’s opposition research team caught on and generated five GOP.com branded memes, sharing them on their Tumblr blog. That same day, Romney’s Campaign Facebook page offered a shareable image retorting “The Government Doesn’t Build Businesses… Hard Working Americans Do.” The next day, the lead story in the RNC’s research memo was “You Didn’t Build That.” The media coverage of this election meme was strong enough that the Romney Campaign held on to the message over the next two months with slogans like, “I built my business, Mr. President,” “Built by Us,” “We Did Build It!” and then theming the GOP Convention on August 28, “We Built It.”
The Power of Sharing

From the start, the popularity of these image macro memes derives in part from the relative ease of generating and sharing them. Image macro meme generator websites, like quickmeme.com, memegenerator.net, and imgflip.com, make it even easier by managing the process of uploading your own image and overlaying the classic bold white font with your own words added through a text box. They also host galleries of all of the memes created using the same image, which may facilitate their sharing. I argue the real power of this form of political participation is the ease of sharing.

Sharing or circulating a simple image macro via personal social networks, what Jenkins, Ford, and Green call “spreadable media” (2013), represents a political speech act itself. In the networked public sphere (Benkler 2006), barriers to entry have been lowered but so to have the barriers to sharing, with ready audiences on Twitter coalescing into publics around hashtags, on Tumblr through tagging and curation, and on Facebook through shared identity construction.

Shifman, Coleman, and Ward (2007) identified the growing importance of user-generated political humor during the 2005 UK general election as a form of online political participation, but the overwhelmingly cynical quality of the humor left the authors unclear on its utility to promote further participation. But looking at new social movement models like the Arab Spring, Occupy, and the Spanish indignados, Bennett and Segerberg (2012) identified the power of meme sharing, calling it the “linchpin of connective action.” They argue that sharing political memes can power “connective action networks” through personal expression shared over social networks rather than top-down forms of collective action. In some cases these networks can be organizationally-enabled through technological support and moderation to produce loosely coordinated, yet effective movements.
In the case of the 2012 U.S. presidential election memes, the organizations involved in the connective action are the campaigns. In past elections, they developed the capacity to curate attention toward and shape the framing around popular user-generated political content—most notably 2008’s “Yes We Can” video (Wallsten 2010). They now leverage networks of digital activists coordinating with celebrities who have large followings like those involved in the “Yes We Can” video, and backchanneling with savvy political operatives with prior campaign experience like Matt Ortega, the progenitor of several other 2012 election memes (Seitz-Wald 2012).

Although this corroborates the value of connective action and the argument that election memes represent legitimate political speech acts, it also calls into question the quality of personalized expression and grassroots mobilization involved. But “authentic” and even cynical political participation through memes can coexist with their adoption and exploitation by professional political organizations.
Election Memes as Impure Dissent

In a forthcoming paper, Tommie Shelby discusses hip hop as political speech act, and stresses that this form of dissent should not be understood on the model of civil disobedience: it is not meant to garner the notice of the state or other citizens to make a moral point, nor is it meant to demonstrate any moral purity or be respectable. Hip hop flaunts morally or politically objectionable content, which can lead to its dismissal by others: not unlike election memes which debase things or place them out of context to create humor.

Shelby cites Albert Hirschman’s classic text Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, in which dissent comes in two forms: exit and voice, which can be used in tandem as effective political action (1970). But in cases like resignation to the current political system, or an unwillingness to emigrate, voice is the only option. And voice is meant in most cases to influence power, to alter the status quo. But Shelby argues that we should expand voice to mean symbolic expression, which can still be highly political but not concerned with ultimate impact on those in power. This is how the creation and sharing of cynical election memes make for valid political participation.

The propagation of these politicized cultural artifacts may seem trivial and guilty of the slur of “slacktivism” online, but the sharing does real political work in terms of creating a moment and a networked public with power greater than the sum of its parts. Friends or followers are exposed to the sharer’s otherwise unspoken political opinions and given the opportunity to participate by forwarding the same meme they did.

Meme sharing indicates there is something worth paying attention to in that moment. Maybe it is just funny. Maybe it is a little too true, which underlies the humor and implores us to pass it on. A lot of memes act as shibboleths—they indicate that you are part of the in-crowd, you get the joke, you were there when it happened. This is the power of the meme speech act. It quickly creates a networked public from its in-group. That feeling of inclusion can inspire further and future discourse.

Shelby argues that the value of dissent may not be social or political but in how well it reaches its intended audience without having to incite them to activism. And dissent is a public act that creates a public among those it reaches. The messages of dissent call out to be agreed with, rebutted and sometimes acted upon, says Shelby, which is how memes are a form of impure dissent like hip hop, empowered by the act of sharing.

There is the fear that commercialization in hip hop or professionalization in internet memes undermines this power. Shelby argues that impure dissent is a personal act of expression and will always be judged by the audience, critiquing the attitude and justification of the source. Commercial rappers simply have less political credibility. While Stromer-Galley argues that cooption of participatory culture practices by contemporary campaigns have nothing to do with democratic practice and are just about winning (2014), there are real moments of political discourse that emerge through meme sharing—these are moments of personal identity construction and negotiation to return to Shifman’s definition of internet memes. There is room and a need for sharing election memes as impure dissent and as cynical political participation, which might be amplified by campaigns but cannot be replaced by them.

REFERENCES

Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bennett, W. Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.” Information, Communication & Society 15 (5): 739–68.

Haberman, Stephanie. 2012. “Talking Internet Gold With Creator of ‘Binders Full of Women’ Tumblr.” Mashable, October 17. Accessed June 7, 2014. http://mashable.com/2012/10/17/binders-full-of-women-tumblr/.

Hirschman, Albert. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press.

Seitz-Wald, Alex. 2012. “Matt Ortega: The Man behind Mitt Romney Memes.” Salon, March 23. Accessed June 7, 2014. http://www.salon.com/2012/03/23/matt_ortega_the_man_behind_mitt_romney_memes/.

Shelby, Tommie. forthcoming. “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop and the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth.” In From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light.

Shifman, Limor. 2013. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shifman, Limor, Stephen Coleman, and Stephen Ward. 2007. “Only Joking? Online Humour in the 2005 UK General Election.” Information, Communication & Society 10 (4): 465–87.

Stromer-Galley, Jennifer. 2014. Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Zuckerman, Ethan. 2013. ‘Beyond “The Crisis in Civics.”’ Paper presented at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, Chicago, Illinois, March 14–16. Accessed June 7, 2014. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2013/03/26/beyond-the-crisis-in-civics-notes-from-my-2013-dml-talk/.

Erhardt Graeff is a PhD researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media and MIT Media Lab. His latest projects involve building civic technologies that empower people to be greater agents of change, performing quantified analysis of media ecosystems, and documenting new forms of civic participation enabled by digital media. Beyond academia, Erhardt is a founding trustee of The Awesome Foundation, which gives small grants to awesome projects. Erhardt holds master’s degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge and two bachelor’s degrees from Rochester Institute of Technology.

 

Connected Learning, Participatory Politics, and Civic Education: An Interview with Ben Kirshner and Ellen Middaugh (Part Two)

As I was pulling together these questions, I stumbled on a Politico news-story about the ways that the candidates and campaigns are actively courting teens who will be old enough to vote in the next presidential election for the first time. I am sure we will be seeing more such coverage of the youth vote in the months ahead. Based on your books’ insights on participatory politics and civic learning, what do you see as missing from this conversation?

EM: One thing that seems to be missing from the Politico article is a view of young people as constituents to be represented rather than voters to be turned out and persuaded. Participatory politics is about understanding the conditions in which young people can take advantage of the tools, practices and networks associated with digital media in order to introduce their issues and ideas into the public discourse. So many party-based and youth mobilization efforts treat voting as the beginning and end of civic participation.

With that view, targeting young voters through social media does bring a lot of risks. However, if we think as civic educators and not just political strategists, we know that voting is just one small piece of what it means to be an engaged citizen. Young people need opportunities to learn how to evaluate and analyze information that comes in all kinds of forms. If contacting youth through media is going to expose them to attack ads and propaganda, the answer is not to simply avoid exposure, but to educate them to interpret these media and ask critical questions.

Educators have for many years addressed the questions of propaganda. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress has questions about interpretation of political cartoons. We simply need to make sure that we update the genres and continue to engage young people in critical analysis of media. For example, a teacher associated with the EDDA project had their students analyze and create their own “rant” videos in the style of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman as a way of helping them think critically about current genres of news.

I personally like the idea of reaching out to potential voters. Being invited into the process is important, and given the diversification of communications, doing it through a wide range of networks seems important. Not all young people are on twitter nor do they all check email regularly. I would just hope that those who are mining data to reach out to future voters are interested in catering to the issues represented in those tweets and posts to learn about what youth care about and to represent them, and not just to their potential for showing up to vote.

On the other side of the problem, I think there is great need to not just teach youth to critically consume informaton targeted at them, but to produce information that can be targeted for public attention. This means not only learning how to share information and ideas through presentations or posters, but to share them in spreadable (a concept you’ve really helped elaborate, Henry) ways so that they are paid attention to and have a chance of influencing others.

A key theme in the book is what participatory politics can mean for those who have traditionally been excluded or marginalized from the political process. Doing so often requires meaningful scaffolding to help young people develop their civic voice and political agency. What approaches — in or outside the classroom — have you identified that seem successful in increasing political participation?

BK: On one hand, young people who experience exclusion or marginalization from politics respond to all sorts of opportunities, which can range from very conventional leadership program such as Jr. ROTC to less common spaces that privilege their voice and perspective, such as student voice initiatives and community-based youth organizing. In a book that is coming out in June I write about a distinction between procedural and issue-based opportunities for civic voice and political agency [Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, NYU Press]. Whereas procedural justifies itself because it creates spaces for “voice” and “deliberation”, issue-based approaches galvanize people around a specific problem that affects their well-being, such as immigration policy or the school-to-jail track.

Both are necessary, but the two appeal to different sets of experiences for young people. The former can be more unpredictable and appeal to youth whose primary grievance is age-based discrimination. The latter, while also undetermined, have a more explicit political agenda and appeal to youth whose primary grievance is tied to their experience as student of color or undocumented, for example.

Throughout the book, you draw on examples from established educational organizations, including Facing History and Ourselves, Global Kids, and Youth Radio. To what degree are you taking the “new” models of civic education you discuss from their established practices? To what degree are they rethinking their approaches in response to the new research that has been developed in recent years?

What I like about the chapters in this volume is that this truly isn’t an either or question, but that the practices are emerging in conversation. The programs we profile are both informed by and are informing research. For example, the Global Kids program grew out of Global Kids staff participation in a working group that I hosted on Service and Activism in the Digital Age where we brought together researchers and practitioners to identify some core principles of practice for civic education. Global Kids already brought a great deal of expertise for online leadership to the table and then built a new program that drew on some of the insights they gained from discussion with civic education and engagement researchers and developed the Race to the White House program.

Similarly Youth Radio and Facing History and Ourselves maintain close partnerships with the research community. These partnerships support an evolution of civic education that builds on what we have learned about effective civic education and adapts to meet the needs of the current society, rather than simply introducing “new” models to replace the “old.”

Ben Kirshner is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder and Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. Through his work with CU Engage Ben seeks to develop and sustain university-community partnerships that leverage the resources of the university to address persistent public challenges. Ben’s research examines youth organizing, participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. He is a Network Advisor for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network.

Ellen Middaugh is an Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University and Senior Researcher with the Mills College Civic Engagement Research Group. Her research focuses on how new media is changing the social context of adolescent development and the implications for educational practice. Current projects include studies of youth experiences with online conflict and of emerging classroom practices to support information literacy for civic underestanding and engagement.

 

Connected Learning, Participatory Politics, and Civic Education: An Interview with Ben Kirshner and Ellen Middaugh (Part One)

Over the past five years, the MacArthur Foundation has funded two large-scale, multi-disciplinary networks bringing top researchers together to focus on issues impacting the lives of youth. The first out of the gate was the Youth and Participatory Politics network, headed by Joe Kahne. (I have been lucky to be able to participate here). And the second, our sibling network, headed by Mimi Ito, focuses on Connected Learning. During the first phases of this work, the Networks have released a series of white papers, some of which I have featured on my blog. See, for example, this post exploring the release of the original Connected Learning white paper or this one about some of the initial findings on participatory politics.

We are now starting to see book-length studies and anthologies emerge from this research as the teams have started to consolidate their findings and sharing them with the world. New York University Press has launched a Connected Learning book series, which will among other projects, publish the book my research team has developed – By Any Media Necessary — which we expect to come out in early 2016. But there are many other books at very states of development and I am committed to featuring as many of them as I can via interviews on my blog.

Today, I am showcasing one of the first of those publications, #youthaction: Becoming Political in the Digital Age, edited by Ben Kirshner and Ellen Middaugh. This anthology brings together thinkers from both networks, as well as a range of other experts and practioners who are focusing on how we might re-imagine civic education for an age of networked politics and learning. This book offers a great introduction to core insights that have emerged around connected learning and participatory politics and what they mean for folks who are on the ground, working in classrooms and after-school programs.  The essays are highly readable introductions to some core projects and could not be more timely in their implications as we are about to enter into a new election cycle, where the youth vote is apt to be hotly contested, but also are in the midst of a range of protest movements, especially concerning race and gender, where young activists have taken strong leadership roles. Across the book, there are important questions asked about how the political lives of American youth are changing and the ways that school-based civic education needs to shift to be able to meaningfully contribute to the process by which they find their voice and learn to take action as political agents. We can think of this collection as an example of what happens when you “cross the streams,” that is, when these two networks, already diverse in their membership, work together towards a common goal: Middaugh has been involved with the Youth and Participatory Politics Network and Kirshner with the Connected Learning network.

Over the next two installments, I am going to be speaking with the book’s two editors, Kirshner and Middaugh, as they discuss some of the core lessons we might take from this book about the role of education in fostering the civic education and the desire to make meaningful change in the world.

 

You frame the book in relation to the concept of “participatory politics” as proposed by the multidisciplinary Youth and Participatory Politics network. What do you see as the key insights that have emerged from our research as they relate to the field of civic education?

EM: I think there are three critical things for educators to grapple with. The first is that social media is playing an expanded role in how young people get and share information about social and political issues. This has been a consistent finding in the YPP Survey project, Pew Internet and American life surveys, and the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age survey of youth in Oakland. This hasn’t replaced traditional broadcast media, but seems to be an added layer of information. This means it is easier for young people to get information without having to go seek it out and to see news accompanied by public opinion, but it also means that they may be getting false information, information that is heavily colored by opinion or even inflammatory commentary.

Schools are currently very good at teaching students about good sources and where to seek out information, but we see fewer models of teaching how to sort through the information that is circulated online and make decisions about how to put that information into context. Furthermore, as many schools ban social media, teachers aren’t even given the option to bring discussions of critical and responsible use into the classroom.

The second idea has to do with political discussions. Formal news is one source of information, but informal political discussions also play an important role in learning about political issues. Participatory media provides opportunities for young people to share their perspectives and to hear what others think. However, we see preliminary evidence through the YPP survey project that participatory media also exposes young people to a good deal of conflict in political discussions. The kinds of interest driven communities where young people are perhaps most likely to encounter diverse perspectives are also the communities where they are more likely to see (though not necessarily directly participate in) political conversation with outrage language and personal attacks (article under review).

While some conflict or difference of opinion is a natural outcome of discussion across political difference, it can also lead to the avoidance of political conversation, something that we see in Diana Mutz’s studies of political discussion in face-to face settings. If the online conversations that young people see are conflict laden, they may hesitate to take advantage of the opportunities they have to use new media for political expression. Or, more likely, we see some who are comfortable with heated conversational style (as 40% in our study suggested they were) take advantage of the opportunity for self expression and those who are least comfortable withdrawing from such conversations altogether.

While this may seem to be simply a matter of personal preference, civic educators believe that discussion of controversial issues is a skill to be practiced so that such conversations can be both honest but also inclusive and productive. We see in the classroom there is an established tradition of teaching for discussion of controversial issues, but we know a lot less about teaching for productive discussion online, where some of the qualities of conversation may be different. Chapter 8 by Justin Reich, Anna Romer, and Dennis Barr deals most directly with this question sharing Facing History and Ourselve’s design principles for using social networks to engage students in dialogue across difference. Chapter 9 by Katherine Schultz, Erica Hodgin, and Johanna Paraiso also share examples of how social network sites can be leveraged for students to engage in dialogue with outside adults and get experience with feedback from strangers.

Third, we see that digital media provides wonderful opportunities for young people to produce and circulate media to share their perspectives on social issues(as we see in MAPP’S case studies of young activists embedded in participatory subcultures), but as you have written about in your comments on the digital participation gap and is reinforced by Jenn Schradie’s work on the digital production gap, we can’t assume that all young people will find their way to making use of digital tools and networks in empowered ways. Some will find their way through experimentation or informal peer based networks (as the MAPP team illustrates so well).

However, the question for civic education is how educators can create engaging opportunities to foster these skills. A number of chapters in the book share emerging efforts towards this end–Chapters 4 (Gutierrez, Nixon & Hunger), 5 (Vilchis, Scott, and Besaw), and 6 (Hull, Jury, and Sahni) highlight the power of youth learning to tell their own stories and frame their own narratives of their experience of community and the issues that they grapple with. Chapters 3 (Soep), 5 and 10 (Tynes & Monterosa) also stress how important the process of design and the habit of design-thinking is to student learning. In Chapter 7, Antero Garcia and I pay attention to the question of circulation and spread and consider how educators might incorporate these concepts into educational design.

 

MacArthur has also funded a sister network focused around the idea of Connected Learning, and their findings also seem to be in play here, both implicitly and explicitly, across a range of essays. What does “connected learning” mean specifically in the context of civic education and how does this concept shape the book’s focus on both informal and formal educational settings?

BK: Many of the chapters discuss projects that embody key elements of Connected Learning: they tend to be “production-centered” (especially using video or digital storytelling), “openly networked” (by connecting young people with audiences in the community), and embedded in “peer culture.” And, like many Connected Learning settings, several of the chapters discuss hybrid spaces that combine school-like features with more informal emphasis on creativity and student interests. [These terms are further defined here. ].

I have been particularly drawn to the ways that the language of “interests” can shape shift when deployed in a civic education context. In typical Connected Learning settings “interests” refer to hobbies or curiosities that motivate children’s learning. This meaning of interest can also animate youths’ civic activity when focused on a geographically distant problem, such as poor health care infrastructure. But for young people confronting structural racism or poverty in their everyday lives, political “interests” take on a different cast, more resonant with the language of “self-interest.”

Although for a long time self-interest had a negative connotation in civic research (where the assumption was that the goal was to get young people to care for others or become more altruistic), in the community organizing literature self-interest is the starting point for ordinary people to build political power…and eventually gain momentum through recognition of shared experiences and collective goals.

So to wind back to your question: in the context of civic education—depending on the setting and location—connected learning can also mean attending to people’s self-interests for quality schools or clean air, which has a less carefree quality to it. Mimi Ito and colleagues wrote about the connections between politics and interests in a terrific recent article in Curriculum Inquiry, where they unpacked the meaning of “connected civics.” I recommend it!

Ben  Kirshner is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder and Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. Through his work with CU Engage Ben seeks to develop and sustain university-community partnerships that leverage the resources of the university to address persistent public challenges. Ben’s research examines youth organizing, participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. He is a Network Advisor for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network.

Ellen Middaugh is an Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University and Senior Researcher with the Mills College Civic Engagement Research Group. Her research focuses on how new media is changing the social context of adolescent development and the implications for educational practice. Current projects include studies of youth experiences with online conflict and of emerging classroom practices to support information literacy for civic underestanding and engagement.

Bringing Critical Perspectives to the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Tara McPherson (Part Three)

A key debate running through the book has to do with whether digital media collapses or maintains medium specificity distinctions between older media forms. What do you see as at stake in this debate? Tara’s introduction calls out the persistence of formalist theories, which pushed aside other perspectives in the early phases of this debate. Does medium specificity necessarily bring us back to formal concerns or can this concept be used to work through some of the issues of race and politics which you want to raise in the second half of the collection?

I do not think that studies of form or of medium specificity necessarily push aside other perspectives nor are they inherently depoliticized. But I do think that a focus on form often has the effect of displacing long-standing insights about the dual imbrications of technology and cultural systems.

To return to the example of feminist film theory that I mentioned earlier, one of the key insights of research by scholars such as Laura Mulvey or Constance Penley was their fierce examination of the ways in which technological systems and aesthetic practices exist in tight feedback loops with cultural systems. Technological systems never exist outside of culture, yet many formal analyses of digital media in the late 1990s and early 2000s often seemed to replay the blindspots of structuralist theory.

Similarly, we see similar patterns today in certain formations of platform and code studies. There remains a persistent belief that race or gender or sexuality can be bracketed off while we attend to forms and technological systems. This belief is only possible because it tends to treat concepts like race or gender at the level of content rather than at the level of form or system. In such a paradigm, you might make a video game or an exhibit about race but would see the forms or technologies as neutral delivery systems.

“Nation on the Move,” by Minoo Moallem with Erik Loyer, explores the Persian carpet as a complex nexus of symbol, technology, nation, and identity.

“Nation on the Move,” by Minoo Moallem with Erik Loyer, explores the Persian carpet as a complex nexus of symbol, technology, nation, and identity.

I don’t believe that our technologies and aesthetic forms are neutral or innocent. If Mulvey helped us see that Hollywood cinema naturalized a male gaze, aligning technological form with cultural systems, we might also ask to what degree our computational systems both reflect and shape broader cultural systems of meaning.

In my work on the origins of the operating system UNIX, I argue that early developments in digital computing were also intertwined with shifting racial codes in the U.S. and beyond. The introduction of digital computer operating systems at mid-century installed an extreme logic of modularity and seriality that “black-boxed” knowledge in a manner quite similar to emerging logics of racial visibility and racism at that time.

There is something particular to the very forms of the digital that encourages just such a partitioning, a portioning off that also played out in new configurations of the city in the 1960s and 1970s, in the increasing specialization of academic fields, and even in the formation of many modes of identity politics. In that work, I’m interested in understanding race as an operating system of a different order, one that shaped the very development of computational systems. Race (and gender and sexuality) are not just relevant at the level of representation, i.e., as images on our screens. They also form the ground from which our technological systems emerge. I think it would be naive to imagine that our digital systems remain somehow pure and disentangled from broader cultural systems of meaning and power. Thus, I am very interested in media specificity; I just understand this specificity to always exist within and to be shaped by broader cultural and historical contexts.

 

This belief actually structures the technological development of software in our lab. Our work on Vectors very much aimed to integrate form with content, that is, to think through how a project’s formal structure and interface design reflected its content and vice-versa. So, a project like Kim Christen’s “Digital Dynamics Across Culture” models the unique systems of belief and of shared ownership that underpin Warumungu knowledge production and reproduction, including a system of “protocols” that limit access to information or to images in accordance with Aboriginal systems of accountability. The user experiences it constructs are partial, embedded, and provisional, sometimes barring access to specific images or performances in a manner consistent with the logics or protocols of the Warumungu people. The project’s information design as well as its aesthetic design (to the extent we can even separate these) render Christen’s argument differently than a print article would. Following her fellowship at Vectors, Christen went on to lead the team that developed Mukurtu, a content-management system that allows indigenous peoples to create collections of material that respect their cultural protocols and knowledge systems, limiting access when appropriate.

Scalar Platform — Trailer from MA+P @ USC on Vimeo.

Rather than assuming that technologies are neutral systems that need only be studied formally, humanities scholars should study technologies to understand how they shape and are shaped by culture. For instance, Wendy Chun’s recent book mines the connections between the rise of digital computation and of modern genetics. And we can do more than study technology. We can also participate in the design and building of technological systems that reflect both our ideological and our theoretical allegiances.

Over the past five or six years, the work in our lab has centered on developing Scalar, a new authoring and publishing platform that was released into open beta in spring 2013. Scalar allows scholars to create with relative ease long-form, multimedia projects that incorporate a variety of digital materials while also connecting to digital archives, utilizing built-in visualizations, exploring non-linearity, supporting customization, and more.

Scalar is a direct outcome of our work on Vectors as well as with our collaborations with many other scholars. We learned from those collaborations that the rigidity and hierarchal structure of many software platforms were ill-suited to the aims of qualitative humanities scholarship. Scalar is meant to be more flexible; its very technological design reflects years of work with scholars invested in feminism, post-colonial studies, activism, critical race theory, and post-structuralism. Scalar is also part of a larger network, the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, a partnership that includes several academic presses, archives, and humanities centers. One of our goals is to help push forward the conversation around open access in scholarly publishing. We also are deeply interested, as we are with Vectors, in emerging genres for scholarship, genres that move beyond a singular focus on text to explore other ways of knowing and of communicating information.

Tara, both here and elsewhere you’ve stressed the ways that digital theory often displaced issues of gender, racial, sexual, and class differences in favor of a kind of universialized subject. Why do you think this displacement occurred? What are some of the strategies you and the contributors to the book have taken to reassert a politics of difference into the conversations around digital media?

My previous response gets at some of the reasons why I think these displacements occurred, coupled with the limiting language of the digital divide that got deployed in the late 1990s (something I discuss in my essay in Transmedia Frictions.) As far as strategies go, several of the Transmedia Frictions authors reject a depoliticized approach to digital media theory, particularly vis-a-vis race. Some essays explore race and the digital through examinations of identity and representation, but others investigate the relationship of race to technology along different registers and also enrich our conceptions of the political.

Patricia Zimmermann and Josh Hess turn our attention to a series of digital documentary projects that activate a transnational imaginary that remains cognizant of the specificities of location and embodiment. They deploy the concept of the fold and of the sphere, powerful ways to think the relation of form to content, technology to culture, and past to future.

In his contribution, Herman Gray urges us to see the multiple valences of technological devices, recognizing their complicity within capitalism as well as their potential to (at least in the moment) crystalize new relations. John Caldwell and Guillermo Gómez-Peña/Rafael Lozano-Hemmer celebrate the possibilities of the low tech and the hybrid for ethnic cultural production, if in quite different ways.

Race in Digital Space

My frustration with the depoliticized nature of certain strands of digital media theory circa 1999 was a key reason I was so interested in collaborating with you, Anna Everett, Christiane Robbins, Erika Muhammad and others on the two Race in Digital Space events we organized at MIT in 2001 and at USC and MOCA in 2002. Those two events brought together such an incredible group of scholars, artists, activists, and policy makers. From Isaac Julien, Rubén D. Ortiz Torres, and DJ Spooky to Wendy Chun, Chela Sandoval, and Lisa Nakamura, and many, many others, those events captured the energy and momentum of Interactive Frictions but also centered their critical and creative force squarely on race.

There’s a recurring interest throughout the essays, in both parts of the book, in issues of cultural memory, the archival, and the documentary. What new models have emerged over the past decade for thinking about the relationship between the digital and our collective understandings of history?

Our everyday interactions with the digital these days are so often about managing data and building collections. The enormous popularity of Flickr or of Instagram reveals an archival impulse writ large across culture, even if this impulse does not always attend to preservation or to metadata in the ways our “official” archives strive to do. We found this attention to collections to be a strong trend among our Vectors’ fellows. Our scholars often came to us with desire to animate a personal archive of some type.

They may have collected a vast array of materials as evidence for a print project, as was the case with Alice Gambrell’s “Stolen Time Archive.” She aimed to attend with care to a trove of materials she’d brought together in working on a book project. Many of these materials would not be included in the book, but Alice wanted the materials to have a life of their own. Her Vectors’ project simultaneously structures the materials, staging an implicit argument, while also allowing the user to roam the materials in relatively open ways. Her argument subtly builds as the user explores.

The radical archivist, Rick Prelinger, brought to us a collection of ephemeral film materials. He’d woven these materials into a linear film, but for Vectors he wanted to break the film apart again, giving the materials new life in an interactive interface. His project, “Panorama Ephemera,” is also a manifesto about the archive in the era of digitality. In the piece and across his career, he argues that archives are justified by their use and urges us to move beyond our conceptions of the archive as a closed and cautious place.

The feminist scholar Jennifer Terry sought to make sense of a collection of videos created by U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war, often called the first YouTube war. Her interventions in “Killer Entertainments” are both as an aggregator who brought the materials together from various sites and as an interpreter or curator who helps provide critical context for our engagement with the visual productions of wartime. Across these and other Vectors’ projects, scholars and designers explored new interactive possibilities for the archive, rejecting the archive as a neutral space and instead articulating archives with multiple points of view.

“Killer Entertainments” by Jennifer Terry with Raegan Kelly, published in the Difference Issue of Vectors.

“Killer Entertainments” by Jennifer Terry with Raegan Kelly, published in the Difference Issue of Vectors.

Marsha and Lev Manovich have rather famously dueled over the relationship of narrative to the database in computation. The past decade definitely reveals to us that these two terms are relational, not oppositional. The digital archive (as database) invites narrative, but it also often exceeds the contours of narrative. It can be both a collection and the stories we tell about that collection.

We are very interested in the possibilities for the digital archive as we develop Scalar. In our engagements with the archive, we both draw from our team’s work on Vectors and from a long tradition of digital archive creation in the early years of the computational humanities. Our interest takes several forms. First, Scalar actually connects to a few digital archives as one of its core functionalities. When authoring in Scalar, you can easily search in collections at the Internet Archive, Critical Commons, the Shoah Foundation, and the Hemispheric Institute, among others. We’ve built formal relationships to these archives and technical bridges to their collections.

When working with materials from these collections, the digital object stays in the archive (even as it seems to be incorporated into Scalar), but Scalar grabs the metadata about the object, preserving a set of contextual materials. So often, the things we grab from around the internet lose their provenance. Our technical design director, Craig Dietrich, implemented Scalar so that context could be respected and sustained along several levels. Scholars can also work with materials from several archives (or anywhere on the web) within a single project. In this way, Scalar facilitates aggregation across archives.

Performing Archive: Curtis + “The Vanishing Race” by Jacqueline Wernimont, et al, is at once an aggregated archive and a series of scholarly interpretations of material in the archive.  It also is a sneak preview of Scalar’s new interface, forthcoming this spring.

Performing Archive: Curtis + “The Vanishing Race” by Jacqueline Wernimont, et al, is at once an aggregated archive and a series of scholarly interpretations of material in the archive. It also is a sneak preview of Scalar’s new interface, forthcoming this spring.

Volume 3

A second way that Scalar relates to the archive is that the projects designed in Scalar might themselves function like small (or large!) archives or exhibits. As with Vectors projects, some scholars we have collaborated with on Scalar are interested in allowing the users or readers of their research to engage with their primary evidence while also exploring the scholar’s own interpretation of that evidence. Scholars can collect sets of visual materials from various digitized collections into a Scalar project and then arrange the materials in multiple ways, creating interpretative slices or pathways through the collection. The project’s reader might simply browse the collection freely, but she might alternately follow the scholar’s analysis of the materials. Such a project is neither solely a book nor solely an archive, neither simply narrative nor database, but rather a hybrid space between the two that integrates scholarly analysis with a rich trove of primary materials.

Using Scalar’s built-in commenting features, the reader of the project can then add her own commentary, providing more context for the collection of primary materials or responses to the scholarly interpretations of the collection. One such project, “Performing Archive: Edward S. Curtis + ‘the vanishing race,’” brings together from several collections nearly 2500 image and sound files of the work of Edward S. Curtis, an early 20th century photographer. It presents the materials as a collection but also “slices” through the archive via several interpretative pathways authored by various contributors. Such work models a future for scholarship where our analyses might live more organically with our evidence, enriching the archival object and allowing viewers to test our interpretative claims. For humanities scholars, our archives are our datasets. The digital can afford us new ways to investigate, analyze and share these archives, alongside more traditional approaches.

Tara McPherson is Associate Professor of Critical Studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Studies. She is a core faculty member of the IMAP program, USC’s innovative practice based-Ph.D., and also an affiliated faculty member in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department. Her research engages the cultural dimensions of media, including the intersection of gender, race, affect and place. She has a particular interest in digital media. Here, her research focuses on the digital humanities, early software histories, gender, and race, as well as upon the development of new tools and paradigms for digital publishing, learning, and authorship.

She is author of the award-winning Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Duke UP: 2003), co-editor of Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Duke UP: 2003) and of Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts + the Humanities (California, 2014), and editor of Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected, part of the MacArthur Foundation series on Digital Media and Learning (MIT Press, 2008.) She is currently completing a monograph about her lab’s work and process, Designing for Difference, for Harvard University Press. She is the Founding Editor of Vectors, a multimedia peer-reviewed journal affiliated with the Open Humanities Press, and is a founding editor of the MacArthur-supported International Journal of Learning and Media (launched by MIT Press in 2009.) She is the lead PI on the new authoring platform, Scalar, and for the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. Her research has been funded by the Mellon, Ford, Annenberg, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as by the NEH.​

Bringing Critical Perspectives to the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Tara McPherson (Part Two)

Another key aspect of the original conference and to some degree this book was to broker a kind of conversation between experimental artists working with digital media and academic theorists seeking to imagine digital presents and futures. What do you see as the value of such interactions between artists and academics?

I see these types of interactions as incredibly important. I draw my inspiration in this regard from feminism and its engagements with media. We can trace decades of feminists blurring the lines between theory and practice, from Maya Deren to Laura Mulvey to Alexandra Juhasz and Sharon Daniel, among many others. Their work powerfully illustrates how theory and art exist in rich feedback loops. It is hard to imagine Mulvey reaching the insights of her landmark essay distinct from her engagement with practices of production. Such exchanges between theory and practice need not only happen at the level of the individual, of course. Something quite powerful can happen when theorists and artists work together.

The 1999 Interactive Frictions Conference brought together a diverse array of participants that blurred the boundaries between theory and practice.

The 1999 Interactive Frictions Conference brought together a diverse array of participants that blurred the boundaries between theory and practice.

One of my favorite classes as a graduate student in the 1990s was a course in feminist media that was team taught by the theorist Patricia Mellencamp and the video artist Cecelia Condit. The two came together to offer the class based on a friendship that grew out of Pat writing about Cecelia’s work. The course combined students from film production and from the film studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The film production department skewed toward experimental practice, while the film studies program was then part of the theory-rich Modern Studies track within English. Students were encouraged to stretch outside of their comfort zones and to work in the medium less familiar to them, be that print or video. The experience profoundly reconfigured how I understood feminism and collaboration and gave me a hands-on engagement with making that no doubt continues to influence me today. The films I worked on that term were not very good, but they opened me up to new ways of thinking about the materiality of production practices and to different aesthetic registers. They also modeled for me the generosity and commitment that collaborations across difference require, as both Pat and Cecelia actively engaged different ways of producing knowledge than those they’d previously worked within. I had the opportunity to collaborate with students who were primarily artists, and this experience was incredibly invigorating, even as it was often challenging.

The Perception Issue of Vectors.

The Perception Issue of Vectors.

In imagining what Vectors might become, I drew from these histories – both this personal history and those of feminism itself, including Marsha’s work on Labyrinth – to create an environment that combined theory and practice. Vectors is an online interactive project lodged between a journal and an exhibition space that features work that cannot exist in print. It began from conversations at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy (now morphed into our Media Arts + Practice Division). In this milieu, many of us were teaching with digital media and came to see rich possibilities for these practices in our scholarship, but there were virtually no venues in which scholarly interactive work could be reviewed and published. Dean Elizabeth Daley saw a real advantage in supporting this kind of project within the School of Cinematic Arts and provided our early funding. I worked alongside my colleague Steve Anderson to imagine the shape that Vectors might take. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to create a space where artists and scholars worked closely together. We soon brought Reagan Kelly and Erik Loyer aboard as Co-Creative Directors, and the fun really began.

“Objects of Media Studies” (Amelie Hastie, editor, with Raegan Kelly), from Vectors (http://www.vectorsjournal.org)

“Objects of Media Studies” (Amelie Hastie, editor, with Raegan Kelly), from Vectors (http://www.vectorsjournal.org)

In 2003 when we began our planning, very few humanities scholars had the skillsets they would need to produce digital scholarship. So we created a fellowship model that brought together scholars with our design, programming, and editorial team. Scholars came for a weeklong summer intensive for a kind of digital boot camp and then collaborated with one designer and one editor in a distributed fashion over several months. After the first summer workshop and as we worked on the first issue, Craig Dietrich joined our team as our technical director. The goal was not to build something for the scholar but to build something with the scholar.

“Blue Velvet: Re-dressing New Orleans in the Katrina’s Wake” (David T. Goldberg with Erik Loyer) from Vectors

“Blue Velvet: Re-dressing New Orleans in the Katrina’s Wake” (David T. Goldberg with Erik Loyer) from Vectors

Vectors was developed as a space for experimentation in screen languages, open access publishing, and collaborative design and authorship. Our projects were speculative in the sense that Johanna Drucker describes, committed to the richness that emerges when art and theory collide. They were also centered on the critical and theoretical questions that motivated the scholars with whom we worked, humanities scholars interested in questions of memory, race, gender, embodiment, sexuality, perception, temporality, ideology, and power.

Vectors engaged these themes at the level of content but also integrated form and idea so that the theoretical implications of the work were manifest in the aesthetic and information design. We were interested in seeing how you might immerse yourself in an article in multiple affective and sensory registers. We wanted to see if you could play an argument like you might play a game. We asked what might happen if scholarship explored the emerging vernaculars of the digital, drawing from both artistic and popular expression. The collaborative production process that resulted was highly iterative, based on careful listening and an ongoing give and take. The works we produced are deeply marked by these exchanges.

I was struck in 1999 by your effort to also create a space where artists working in the museum and gallery space were engaging with game designers working in more commercial contexts. This dimension seems to have dropped out of the Transmedia Frictions book altogether. What does this suggest about the continued roles of cultural hierarchies in the realms of digital art and theory?

Well, as you know, I’ve got a soft spot for game designers and programmers, since my husband, Robert Knaack, worked in that industry for over fifteen years and still designs software for the entertainment industry. Having seen his work in the games industry and in the animation business, I know that there is no firm line dividing experimental artists from those working in more commercial arenas. In fact, there’s a lot of give and take between the fields and creating a false binary between the arts and commercial games or animation conceals a deep history of interaction between Hollywood and more experimental artists.

I don’t think that binary serves us all that well if we really want to understand how aesthetic paradigms get developed and naturalized. Rather we might instead focus on movement between the realms (as well as on the plusses and minuses of those movements.) We even see this reflected in the various divisions at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. For instance, our Division of Animation and Digital Arts (DADA) deeply values experimental practice and technique, even as many of their students will go on to work in commercial animation. It’s probably not surprising that both the Labyrinth and Vectors teams have collaborated with graduate students from DADA.

Bodies Lie

At Vectors, we worked with then-MFA student Alessandro Ceglia for a couple of years. One interesting project he designed was a recreation of a Jenny Holzer exhibit at the Berlin Neue Nationalgalerie. Working with scholars Ehren Fordyce and Gwen Allen, Alex imagined a project with multiple goals. On the one hand, the piece combined video, animations, essays, and photographs, to create a multimedia catalogue of a powerful and important exhibition. On the other hand, the project moves beyond mere documentation to structure an argument about the relationship between evidence and interface. As we noted in the piece’s editorial introduction in Vectors:

In selecting what perspectives and artifacts would be included and in deciding how to structure access to these elements, the project privileges modes of presentation in dialogue with contemporary scholarship in performance studies, art history, and cultural studies. In detailing the sustained and collaborative labor involved in the construction of Holzer’s LEDs, the piece reminds us of the often-invisible work that underlies our experiences of media and of art, something much less obvious to the visitors immersed in the dreamy modernist spaces of the original installation. In that regard, it [has] a precise goal: the desire to always remember the material in our engagements with the ephemeral.

Alex brought a unique perspective to the Vectors team and enriched our collaborative work process, designing three projects over multiple issues. He now works as both a commercial and an experimental animator.

Pesce Legrady Kinder Laurel

The 1999 Interactive Frictions event honored this give and take between the experimental, the academic, and the commercial. Representatives of all three realms participated in the event, and that convergence greatly enriched the weekend. Someone like Brenda Laurel has moved back and forth across her career between commercial and academic realms, and it was very important to us that kind of movement could be discussed as part of the event’s larger dialogues.

Interesting collaborations also grew out of the weekend. As Marsha noted in her interview last week, Bill Viola was part of the conference and went on to work with USC’s interactive division on subsequent projects. David and Yoni Koenig, game designers (and partners in my husband’s company at the time, Gigawatt), presented at the conference and met curator and documentary filmmaker, Trisha Ziff. While both brothers have had long careers in the entertainment industry, David also has a Masters in History from Columbia, and Yoni is an artist who works across many media. Gigawatt went on to collaborate with Trisha on a virtual re-enactment of Ireland’s Bloody Sunday for Hidden Truths, a major exhibit at the California Museum of Photography. The event included historic documentary photographs, newly-commissioned art, and the virtual recreation built using their company’s video game technology. This was in 2000, a pretty early exploration of 3-D game technology for social documentary. The inclusive nature of Interactive Frictions helped seed such collaborations, as it refused to reinforce rigid binaries between art and commerce, even while encouraging rigorous and sometimes contested conversations about each.

 

A screen-grab from the Bloody Sunday re-creation created by Gigawatt Studios with their 3-D game engine for the Hidden Truth exhibition curated by Trisha Ziff at the California Museum of Photography in 2000.

A screen-grab from the Bloody Sunday re-creation created by Gigawatt Studios with their 3-D game engine for the Hidden Truth exhibition curated by Trisha Ziff at the California Museum of Photography in 2000.

Hidden Truths

 

As I mentioned earlier, Erik Loyer also presented at Interactive Frictions and later became a core part of our development team, joining Vectors as a Creative Director in 2004 (along with Raegan Kelly) and continuing on to the present. His career also illustrates the limited nature of artificial commerce vs. art binaries. His portfolio includes early interactive work now in SF MOMA’s permanent collection, Clio-winning work for Vodaphone, and critically-appraised apps such as Strange Rain. Erik brings this flexibility and vision to his work with Vectors and Scalar. Several of the projects he has worked on for Vectors experiment with the language and mechanics of video games in order to explore the possibilities of such dynamics for scholarly argument. I’d say that most of our work at Vectors and Scalar draws from equally from experimental aesthetics, popular digital vernaculars, and academic theory.

Games historian Melanie Swalwell worked with Erik Loyer on “Cast-offs from the Golden Age,” an exploration of video game history in New Zealand for the journal, Vectors.

Games historian Melanie Swalwell worked with Erik Loyer on “Cast-offs from the Golden Age,” an exploration of video game history in New Zealand for the journal Vectors.

 

Tara McPherson is Associate Professor of Critical Studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Studies. She is a core faculty member of the IMAP program, USC’s innovative practice based-Ph.D., and also an affiliated faculty member in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department. Her research engages the cultural dimensions of media, including the intersection of gender, race, affect and place. She has a particular interest in digital media. Here, her research focuses on the digital humanities, early software histories, gender, and race, as well as upon the development of new tools and paradigms for digital publishing, learning, and authorship.

She is author of the award-winning Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Duke UP: 2003), co-editor of Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Duke UP: 2003) and of Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts + the Humanities (California, 2014), and editor of Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected, part of the MacArthur Foundation series on Digital Media and Learning (MIT Press, 2008.) She is currently completing a monograph about her lab’s work and process, Designing for Difference, for Harvard University Press. She is the Founding Editor of Vectors, a multimedia peer-reviewed journal affiliated with the Open Humanities Press, and is a founding editor of the MacArthur-supported International Journal of Learning and Media (launched by MIT Press in 2009.) She is the lead PI on the new authoring platform, Scalar, and for the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. Her research has been funded by the Mellon, Ford, Annenberg, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as by the NEH.​

 

 

Bringing Critical Perspectives to the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Tara McPherson (Part One)

Last week, I featured an extended interview with Marsha Kinder, reflecting on her new book, Transmedia Frictions, and on her lifetime of cutting edge thinking and production in the space of the digital humanities. This week, I am following up with a second interview with her co-editor on Transmedia Frictions, Tara McPherson, who describes how the 1999 Interactive Frictions conference has helped to shape her own work in the digital humanities.

Tara’s interview begins with a description of the kinds of collaboration and institutional support she received through the USC Cinema School. Since Tara’s presence here was a big factor in my own decision to come to USC, this passage resonated especially strongly with me. It’s hard to describe almost two decades of friendship and collaboration. The two of us connected when McPherson was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and I was a young faculty member at MIT, having only recently completed my PhD at University of Wisconsin-Madison. I brought her to MIT for her first teaching job and from her time here, we joined with Jane Shattuc to edit Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, a book which was meant to identify and showcase the work of an emerging generation of cultural scholars (and has turned out to be pretty good at catching a bunch of current stars when they were on the rise.) When she left MIT to take up a permanent academic position at USC, we continued to collaborate helping to plan two conferences, one on each coast, exploring Race and Digital Spaces. And since I have come to USC, I’ve been able to deploy the Scaler platform which she helped to develop to build two online resources, one around Reading in a Participatory Culture, and the second around the forthcoming book, By Any Media Necessary. And of course, we’ve worked together on a range of dissertation and quals committees.

We have not always agreed, and our friendship is stronger for it. Her work starts from a more critical place than mine typically has, and as a consequence, she has taught me much through the years. Like any good friends, we can call each other out when we are wrong-headed, and when this is done in a constructive manner, it strengthens the friendship as well as the work that emerges from such conversations. She is one of the smartest thinkers I know about digital media, its potentials for humanistic scholarship, and especially about core issues around digital equity and diversity, which we need to keep in the forefront of our thinking. She has never been seduced by the shininess of the “new media” but has always sought ways to get underneath the hood, to know how it works, and to identify its consequences in a world already shaped by inequalities and injustices.

I am very happy today to be sharing this interview with a long-time collaborator and colleague.

Tell us about the 1999 Interactive Fictions conference. What were its aims? What do you see now, looking backwards, as its historical  importance in the development of digital art and theory? How did it inform your own subsequent works in this area?

The opening of the catalogue copy from the exhibition – “Sparks. Heat. Conflict.” — proved prophetic in many ways. There really was an amazing spark-filled energy at the event. Much of this energy came from the border crossing that the conference undertook: the mix of artists, industry folks, and scholars from several fields led to lively and provocative conversations. The late1990s was a period of incredible ferment for “new” media. This was the era of the full-on dot.com boom, and it was sometimes hard to see past the hype of Wired magazine and the denizens of Silicon Valley (or New York’s Silicon Alley or LA’s Silicon Beach.) We wanted to create an event that historicized this obsession with all that was “new” and that productively brought together those with a rich understanding of media history with those who were beginning to theorize the new forms of media that were so capturing the public imaginary. It was important then (and it remains important now) to situate digital media within a long historical framework.

Conference

Link: https://dornsife.usc.edu/labyrinth/interactive_frictions/conference/conference1.html

In linking past and present, we also wanted to connect the study of new media with the political agendas that had so animated film theory across the decades. Conference co-organizers Marsha Kinder, Alison Trope and I were all deeply engaged in ideological critique, examining film and media through the lenses of gender, race, sexuality, and class. We didn’t want to lose this energy and sense of political commitment in the move toward digital media. We carefully selected keynote speakers, artists, and panelists whose own work took up these issues in order to foreground their importance to an emerging field. Another form of border crossing was generational. Marsha has always been a fantastic mentor to graduate students, and this undertaking was no exception. We included graduate students in the planning, in the exhibits, and in the panels in order to stage as diverse a set of conversations as possible. Now-established scholars like Mark Hansen, Wendy Chun, and Ian Bogost were all at the beginning of their careers in 1999 when they attended Interactive Frictions.

Reconstructing Dixie

The conference had a profound effect on my own scholarly practice, as has the experience of teaching within a cinema school alongside artists and makers of many types of media. My training as a graduate student was as a theorist and writer with a strong focus on critique. My book, Reconstructing Dixie, draws from cultural studies and feminist theory to investigate the South’s role in the national imaginary and depends heavily on textual analysis. It did begin to engage new media but largely from the toolkits provided by my graduate coursework. I still value that training, but, in engaging digital media, I found that I needed to better understand its materiality. That is, in order to write about digital media, I needed to enrich my knowledge of how such media was made.

In the years leading up to the conference, I began to teach myself beginning production skills, enough to give me a basic literacy in design programs, HTML, and some computer languages. The conference sharpened my desire to extend this knowledge and also brought me into contact with several other scholars and artists who were beginning to work across the theory-practice divide. This has directly shaped the work that I have undertaken in the past fifteen years, first with the multimedia journal, Vectors, and later with the authoring platform Scalar.

It’s hard to imagine that I would have come to this work apart from the environment I’ve been in at USC, including the opportunity to work side-by-side with Marsha on the conference, where I learned from her example. Teaching in a cinema school has allowed me to observe first-hand the complexity of production. From feature and documentary films to experimental animation to video games, the site of production is multivalent and rich. I’m a better media scholar because I work in an environment where I interact each week with makers of media.

 

Vector Space

The Vector Space: An early experimental interface for exploring metadata in the journal Vectors. Editors: Tara McPherson + Steve Anderson; Creative Direction: Erik Loyer + Reagan Kelly; Technical Direction: Craig Dietrich.

I also got to know future collaborators through the event, including Steve Anderson and Erik Loyer, both of whom I have now had the privilege of working with for over a decade. The border crossing that the conference modeled shapes my own collaborations today, collaborations that tend to extend across individuals with a diverse array of skills, talents and interests. While humanities scholars often collaborate (even as we are usually mostly rewarded for the work we do alone), we tend to work with other scholars who are similar to us, that is, with colleagues with similar methodologies and areas of study.

In the years since Interactive Frictions, I have, of course, undertaken collaborations such as these, but I suspect I have learned the most from my collaborations across difference, be they collaborations with technologists and programmers, with artists and designers, with librarians and archivists, or with community organizations. These types of collaborations require all involved to craft a shared vocabulary and to extend an intellectual generosity toward ways of knowing that might seem alien or opaque at first. But they can also be enormously generative and productive, if you learn to manage the heat and the sparks in useful ways!

The first issue of the multimedia journal Vectors.

The first issue of the multimedia journal Vectors.

 

From the start, the project of Interactive Frictions was to situate digital media in a more precise historical context, to connect contemporary projects back to their pre-digital precursors. To what  degree do you think this project has been taken up over the past  decade and to what degree do you see this book as still having to push us beyond a presentist focus on digital media as somehow without historical precedent in the kinds of changes it has wrought?

There is certainly an ongoing tendency to think of digital media as “new” media. This obsession with the new is built into the short shelf life of our digital devices, as the release of the latest version of the iPhone propels waves of consumerist frenzy.   The temporalities of many social media practices also skew toward a presentism, encouraging our immersion in a kind of expanded, stretched-out now. This kind of always-on, perpetually-connected present dovetails neatly with the conditions of labor in late capitalism. Our devices and web platforms encourage us to stay connected all the time. Our email and our Twitter feeds always beckon. Our work time and our leisure time blur together. We write reviews on Yelp or Amazon, and our labor is harvested. On the one hand, this constant churn makes it hard to think historically; on the other hand, it’s all the more important that we do just that.

“The Stolen Time Archive” (Alice Gambrell with Reagan Kelly) appeared in the first issue of Vectors and examined the temporalities and gendering of text work across the twentieth century.

“The Stolen Time Archive” (Alice Gambrell with Reagan Kelly) appeared in the first issue of Vectors and examined the temporalities and gendering of text work across the twentieth century.

Scholars and artists have an important role to play here, calling our attention to the various ways in which today’s digital media both is and is not like earlier media forms. Emerging forms of immaterial and affective labor are relatively new, closely tied to the ascendancy of post-Fordist forms of capital. It’s crucial that we study what’s different about today’s labor patterns so that we can understand how they help support the growing income inequality and casualized labor practices that so shape our era.

The transformations of finance in the era of databases, simulations, and algorithms are significant and important, and we need to examine the differences between these forms of capitalism and those that categorized the industrial era. I find work of several scholars to be very helpful here, including David Golumbia, Trebor Scholz, Tiziana Terranova, and Lisa Nakamura. But that doesn’t mean that these patterns of immaterial labor or networked finance have nothing to do with earlier forms. A longer historical view will bring into sharper relief what really is changing and what continues on.

Transmedia Frictions

Transmedia Frictions clearly plots a longer historical arc for digital media. Many of the authors in the volume take great care in mapping both continuity and change, from Kate Hayle’s examination of print vs. code to Yuri Tsivian’s turn to early cinema to Eric Gordon’s focus on cityscapes. This longer historical framework also extends to the methodologies that contributors put into practice. For instance, Holly Willis takes up issues of feminism and embodiment in the work of new media artists, but her approach draws from and develops decades of feminist media theory. She attends with great care to the historical legacies of feminism for emerging media practices. These strategies can help us to resist the rush of the new and constant present of our increasingly digital lives.

 

Tara McPherson is Associate Professor of Critical Studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and Director of the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Studies. She is a core faculty member of the IMAP program, USC’s innovative practice based-Ph.D., and also an affiliated faculty member in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department. Her research engages the cultural dimensions of media, including the intersection of gender, race, affect and place. She has a particular interest in digital media. Here, her research focuses on the digital humanities, early software histories, gender, and race, as well as upon the development of new tools and paradigms for digital publishing, learning, and authorship.

She is author of the award-winning Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Duke UP: 2003), co-editor of Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Duke UP: 2003) and of Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts + the Humanities (California, 2014), and editor of Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected, part of the MacArthur Foundation series on Digital Media and Learning (MIT Press, 2008.) She is currently completing a monograph about her lab’s work and process, Designing for Difference, for Harvard University Press. She is the Founding Editor of Vectors,  a multimedia peer-reviewed journal affiliated with the Open Humanities Press, and is a founding editor of the MacArthur-supported International Journal of Learning and Media (launched by MIT Press in 2009.) She is the lead PI on the new authoring platform, Scalar, and for the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture. Her research has been funded by the Mellon, Ford, Annenberg, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as by the NEH.​

 

Wandering Through the Labyrinth: An Interview with USC’s Marsha Kinder (Part Four)

Since the conference, you and your co-editor Tara McPherson have gotten deeper into work around the digital humanities. I’d love to hear you talk about the visions underlying these projects and the somewhat different agendas for digital humanities they each embody.

One of the goals shared by Labyrinth, Scaler and Vectors, is to make the digital humanities embrace visual and audio culture as equally important to the word. We all are involved in making multisensory works that are as intellectually rich, rigorous, and subtle as any traditional essay or book.

Another shared goal is to encourage and validate collaboration both among humanities scholars and with artists, scholars and scientists from other fields. Although we have different models for the scope and range of such collaborations (partly based on issues of scale, funding and who is involved), we all recognize its importance and realize that it’s always a touchy subject. While most academics and administrators are usually willing to support collaboration verbally, the problem arises when it’s time to make decisions on promotion and tenure. Suddenly issues of credit (who’s doing what) become insurmountable problems.

Labyrinth’s collaborations usually involve a small team of theorists, scholars, artists, programmers and designers who (with the help of student assistants from Cinema) make a specific database narrative that provides a new model of digital scholarship. Each work requires a different collaborative team and individual funding. Sometimes we include interns from other nations and cultures, or volunteers from other departments or schools. The team is tailored to the specific project. These goals are narrower than those of Vectors and Scaler, which, through the development of unique user-friendly software, enable humanities scholars from across the nation to produce their own individual digital projects.

In developing different signature genres (e.g., digital city symphonies, interactive memoirs, archival cultural histories, health-science education), Labyrinth engages in an on-going process of reframing. For example, although its first science education project, Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California, was an installation in the Skirball Cultural Center’s major exhibition on the famous scientist, it combined an interactive memoir (Einstein’s complex relations with six different communities) with a digital city symphony (Los Angeles in the early 1930s).

Einstein in California

Though it told us more about the contradictions in his life than about his scientific discoveries (which were covered by other installations in the Skirball exhibition), it led the way to Labyrinth’s next signature genre—the health-science-education project.

Produced in collaboration with molecular scientist Dr. Jean Chen Shih from USC’s School of Pharmacy, A Tale of Two MAO Genes: Exploring the Biology and Culture of Aggression and Anxiety, was another translational work in science, but this time designed for use in the classroom. The project used live action video and 3-D animation to cover basic molecular biology and to explain Dr. Shih’s pioneering research on MAO A and B. The project’s strongest elements were 3-D animations (by USC animation student Debra Isaac) of protein folding and other biological processes, visualizations that were both extremely beautiful and rigorously accurate.

To fulfill its secondary goal of encouraging youngsters to become scientists, it includes a brief biography of Dr. Shih and interviews with several scientists explaining how they entered the field. The project was translated into Mandarin and is being used as a model both in China and Taiwan.

Both of these earlier science-education projects laid the groundwork for a video-based website called “Interacting with Autism,” a collaboration with documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris that drew on an impressive list of scientific consultants who are specialists in this expanding field.

Interacting with Autism

Funded by grants from AHRQ (the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality), it was launched on-line in September 2013. This bilingual website (in English and Spanish) is now being translated into Mandarin so that it can be used more productively in China. It is also being tested by an evaluative group at the Rand Corporation, who seek to use it as a model for comparable websites on other health disorders. We’ve had particularly good response to the brief animated film that shows what sensory overload feels like to some individuals on the spectrum.

While working on this website, I became very interested in neurodiversity, a key issue in the cultural debates between autism activists on the spectrum and those who see it autism simply as a disorder to be cured. We were determined to include the points of view from those on the spectrum—on both sides of the camera.

While working on these science translation projects, I realized it was possible to reframe many of the issues I had dealt with in previous works within a new conceptual framework. That’s the book I’m working on now, which is titled Narrative in the Age of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.

Kinder New Book

Marsha Kinder began her career in the 1960s as a scholar of eighteenth century English Literature before moving to the study of transmedial relations among narrative forms. In 1980 she joined USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she continued to be an academic nomad, with narrative as her through-line. Having published over one hundred essays and ten books (both monographs and anthologies), she is best known for her work on Spanish film, specifically Blood Cinema (1993); children’s media, especially Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games (1991); and digital culture (including her new anthology Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts and the Humanities (2014), co-edited with Tara McPherson. She was founding editor of innovative journals, such as Dreamworks (1980-87), winner of a Pushcart Award, USC’s Spectator (1982-present) and since 1977 served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly. In 1995 she received the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Scholarship, and in 2001 was named a University Professor for her innovative transdisciplinary research.

In 1997 she founded The Labyrinth Project, a USC research initiative on database narrative, producing award-winning database documentaries and new models of digital scholarship. In collaboration with media artists Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang and Scott Mahoy, and with filmmakers, scientists and cultural institutions, Labyrinth produced 12 multimedia projects (DVD-ROMs, websites, installations and on-line courseware) that were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Kinder’s latest work, Interacting with Autism, is a video-based website produced in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and Scott Mahoy. Since retiring from teaching in Summer 2013, Kinder is now writing a new book titled Narrative in the Era of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.

Wandering Through the Labyrinth: An Interview with USC’s Marsha Kinder (Part Three)

I was struck in 1999 by your effort to also create a space where artists working in the museum and gallery space were engaging with game designers working in more commercial contexts. This dimension seems to have dropped out of the Transmedia Frictions book altogether. What does this suggest about the continued roles of cultural hierarchies in the realms of digital art and theory?

When we planned the Interactive Frictions conference, we wanted to be as broad and inclusive as possible, which meant including games. I had hoped someday to finish the Runaways game as a Labyrinth project, once we had sufficient grant support and more sophisticated programmers. It was not that we looked down on games as unworthy of critical and cultural attention, but rather that we simply didn’t have the resources to do a first rate job.

We made a stab at it in our on-line courseware project, Russian Modernism and Its International Dimensions, an archival cultural history which unfortunately we never finished—even though we had the assistance of Jenova Chen, the most successful student to emerge from USC’s Interactive Media Division; a grant from NEH; and first-rate Slavic Studies scholars (Yuri Tsivian on film, from University of Chicago; Olga Matich on literature, from UC Berkeley; and John Bowlt on visual culture, from USC). Set at the 1896 Russian Expo in Nizhni Novgorod (where cinema was first screened for the Russian public and where the Tsar and his court were in attendance), this project provided students with three ways of engaging with these historical materials.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 4.02.22 PM

They could explore a virtual 3-D model of the Expo and its pavilions, where they could play a game called Montage: A Russian History Game of the Masses.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 3.47.20 PM

The game enabled them to engage with experimental art, subversive politics, or new technology—the three forces that made modernism so distinctive in the Russian context.

Or, they could visit GUM, (Glavnyi Universalnji Magazin), the “main universal store” in Moscow’s red square from the 1920s, whose innovative glass-roof design was also featured at the 1898 Expo. Like consumerist flaneurs strolling through a modernist arcade, here students could stop at several shops, each presenting an illustrated interactive lecture on a range of topics (e.g., nothingness, velocity, the bomb, the expo, St. Petersburg: the novel and the city, etc.) by leading scholars both from the U.S. and Russia.

Or, they could visit the archive in GUM’s basement, an extensive database of artworks that students could use in their own projects. Since the courseware was not finished, students were invited to help build the rest of it, as if they were constructionists, learning by doing. The project was designed to show how aesthetic concepts from Russian modernism (such as, dialectic montage, constructionism, and synaesthesia) are still useful in developing our own era of digital multimedia. The basic conception is still sound and challenging, but we don’t have the resources to produce it.

By the time we published Transmedia Frictions, the academic world of game studies had already developed its own trajectories. Of course, there were exceptions like Bill Viola (who attended the original Interactive Frictions conference and had an installation in our IF exhibition). Later, in collaboration with specialists in our Interactive Media Division, he developed a game about a journey of Buddhist enlightenment. Although he originally proposed a collaboration with Labyrinth, we didn’t have the resources to develop it at the time. We were moving in the opposite direction toward museum installations, particularly because we had had such a difficult experience with the Montage game at the heart of Russian Modernism.

There’s a recurring interest throughout the essays, in both parts of the book, in issues of cultural memory, the archival, and the documentary. What new models have emerged over the past decade for thinking about the relationship between the digital and our collective understandings of history?

One of the new models that has emerged over the past decade is the genealogical search for family and cultural roots. We can find it in the growing popularity of a website like ancestry.com and in the television shows hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., African American Lives (2006) and Finding Your Roots (2012), where he helps celebrities discover the truth about their roots. We can also see it in the current fascination with Selfies and with the impulse to upload your own home movie fragments on YouTube. And one can also find it in new works on home movies—in a marvelloous book like Patricia Zimmerman’s Mining the Home Movie, and in the extraordinary films of Hungarian media artist Péter Forgács.

In 2000, Labyrinth embarked on a collaboration with Forgacs to turn his sixty-minute, single-channel film, The Danube Exodus, into a large scale, multiscreen, immersive installation, which opened at the Getty Center in 2002 and continued to travel worldwide until 2012. It was one of our three projects in the “Future Cinema” show, and is discussed by Stephen Mamber in the anthology. Largely as a result of this exhibition, Forgács received the prestigious Erasmus Award, for an artist in any medium who has made an exceptional contribution to culture in Europe and beyond.

Having been aired on European television in 1997, Forgács’s film provided intriguing narrative material: a network of compelling stories, a mysterious river captain whose movies remain unknown, a Central European setting full of rich historical associations, and a hypnotic musical score that created a mesmerizing tone. Now that we had 40 hours of footage to draw on, there was an intense struggle for narrative space: between the European Jews who were fleeing the Third Reich in 1939, attempting to get a ship in the Black Sea to take them to Palestine; and the German farmers who were returning home to Germany in 1940 after the Soviets had confiscated their lands in Bessarabia; and the Hungarian river captain who ferried both groups into history by documenting their journies on film.

As in Forgács’s other films, the home movies enriched or contradicted what we thought we already knew about history. Sometimes the home movie footage was juxtaposed with excerpts from official newsreels, but it always introduced an alternative vision. To see the fragile home movie footage displayed on television is one thing, but to see it projected in a museum on five large screens (each 6ft x 8 ft) is something else. This is the way superheroes or villains (like Napoleon or Hitler) are usually displayed, not domestic home movies with their humble characters and banal events.

This collaboration was the first time Labyrinth had actually designed an installation from the get-go—as opposed to making a DVD-ROM that was later included in a museum exhibition. Of course, there were several DVD-ROMs included in the show, plus a related website (produced by a group in Europe), and a related exhibition of maps and artifacts from the Getty Collection. We began to think of this work as a “transmedia network,” one that linked several spaces and many collaborators together.

Intrigued by the use of vintage home movies and the richness of what could be gleaned from their visuals and physical gestures, we were inspired to do another transmedia network for our next project. Titled “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity and Intermarriage,” it consisted of a museum installation which premiered at USC in October 2011 as a Vision and Voices event

JHGH:USC

and then ran for several months in 2012 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The exhibition featured three large screens, even larger than those we used in The Danube Exodus, on which we projected home movies of Jews living in Los Angeles.

There was also a bank of computers with the website, which enabled users to upload their own family stories and photos and to hear histories of others. The home movies displayed on the large screens and the website all addressed the subthemes of immigration, identity, and intermarriage, which were also emphasized in quotations that were posted on the walls. Mainly derived from 8mm and Super 8 footage, the home movies were collected in a series of “home movie collection days,” which enabled us to form productive collaborative relations with those contributing the footage.

After interviewing members of the family, we edited the footage and added sound. In the exhibition space we also screened a series of short documentaries about Jews in Los Angeles, a display that evoked a comparison between these two forms of non-fiction.

Both of these installations made me think of Patricia Zimmerman’s inspiring statement, which was prominently displayed on the walls of the exhibition: “Amateur films urge us all—scholars, filmmakers, archivists, curators—to re-imagine the archive and film historiography. They suggest the impossibility of separating the visual from the historical and the amateur from the professional…. We need to imagine the archive as an engine of difference and plurality, always expanding, always open.”

 

Marsha Kinder began her career in the 1960s as a scholar of eighteenth century English Literature before moving to the study of transmedial relations among narrative forms. In 1980 she joined USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she continued to be an academic nomad, with narrative as her through-line. Having published over one hundred essays and ten books (both monographs and anthologies), she is best known for her work on Spanish film, specifically Blood Cinema (1993); children’s media, especially Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games (1991); and digital culture (including her new anthology Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts and the Humanities (2014), co-edited with Tara McPherson. She was founding editor of innovative journals, such as Dreamworks (1980-87), winner of a Pushcart Award, USC’s Spectator (1982-present) and since 1977 served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly. In 1995 she received the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Scholarship, and in 2001 was named a University Professor for her innovative transdisciplinary research.

In 1997 she founded The Labyrinth Project, a USC research initiative on database narrative, producing award-winning database documentaries and new models of digital scholarship. In collaboration with media artists Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang and Scott Mahoy, and with filmmakers, scientists and cultural institutions, Labyrinth produced 12 multimedia projects (DVD-ROMs, websites, installations and on-line courseware) that were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Kinder’s latest work, Interacting with Autism, is a video-based website produced in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and Scott Mahoy. Since retiring from teaching in Summer 2013, Kinder is now writing a new book titled Narrative in the Era of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.

Wandering Through the Labyrinth: An Interview with USC’s Marsha Kinder (Part Two)

Marsha, you coined the term “transmedia” in your 1991 book, Playing with Power, where you used it to describe an emerging entertainment supersystem. Your phrase has been widely picked up and applied to everything from transmedia storytelling to transmedia learning to transmedia branding to transmedia mobilization. You have chosen to use it as part of the title of this book. To what degree is this an effort to reclaim and redefine the term? Why did you find this an appropriate framework for thinking about the debates in this collection?

Yes, in choosing to use “Transmedia” in the title of our anthology, I was reclaiming the term I had coined in 1991 in Playing with Power. But, in no way do I object to the way the meanings of transmedia have expanded—that’s the way language functions. In fact, Tara and I were also redefining the term “transmedia,” for it creates an opening for those new media that our anthology didn’t cover in depth—including smart phones—and those that haven’t yet been invented.

We were also using it as a substitute for the term “interactive,” whose definition and connotations are no longer hotly contested. Transmedia, on the other hand, evokes the issue of medium specificity (still very much in contention), without supporting one side or the other. Yet, as some of the essays in our anthology suggest, it also evokes the historic transformation we are now experiencing, in which all movies, videos, TV programs, and music are being redefined as software or data, a conversion with seismic financial and cultural consequences.

Playing with Power

In Playing with Power, instead of using the popular buzz-word convergence, I coined the term transmedia because I saw it as a deliberate, dynamic move across media. This definition partly arose from my own transmedia experience—of having completed a doctoral degree in 18th century English literature in 1967 and then publishing my first article two months later, not on Henry Fielding but on Antonioni’s Blow-up. This move from literature to film led one of my literary colleagues to accuse me of having “betrayed the 18th century.” Though flattered by the charge, I realized this move was not always freely chosen.

In Playing with Power, I linked this term “transmedia” to a new kind of postmodernist subjectivity that could be historicized. Priding itself on mobility rather than stability, this new protean subjectivity was embodied in those popular transformer toys and in the myth of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,

Playing TMNT

where all four words in their name emphasize this kind of movement—whether it was natural growth from childhood to adulthood; or a de-novo mutation caused by urban pollution; or a fluid transnational identity linked to Japanese ninjas, California surfers, and Italian Renaissance artists; or an evolutionary move by amphibians from sea to land. Given this hyper-plasticity, the only fixed aspect of their identity was their masculine gender that depended on having the right toys and gear, which meant kids could buy into the system.

The turtles acquired their own cultural capital by becoming (what I called) a “transmedia supersystem,” whose fluid movement across many different media (from comic books, to games, to television, to movies, and to a slew of licensed products, all with substantial financial rewards) made them even more worthy of imitation. In fact, you could find this transformative subjectivity not only in children but also in transnational CEOs of the time—like Akio Morita, the founding chairman of Sony, who said shortly after his company’s 1989 purchase of Columbia Pictures:

Playing Sony

Interestingly, Morita’s statement identified transmedia movement not only with transnational moves but also with play, which led me to explore its connection with a particular kind of developmental psychology. Specifically, I relied on L.S. Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” an area of accelerated learning created through play where a child always behaves beyond his average age and beyond Piaget ‘s fixed developmental model. According to Vygotsky, when play is guided by an adult or more capable peers, the interaction could function as an accelerant. I argued that interaction with popular media (like television, films and computer games) could also fulfill this function, which is a basic premise of Sesame Street. Thus instead of echoing the dire warnings of many psychologists about the harmful effects on youngsters of watching television, I claimed TV could serve as a developmental accelerant that taught youngsters a form of transmedia literacy, which enabled them to bridge the gap between domestic and public space. For, ever since television became pervasive in the American home [a position now challenged by computers, ipads, smart phones and other digital devices], this medium had accelerated children’s acquisition of a fluid postmodernist subjectivity marked by constant change—a subjectivity that helped explain the popularity of transformer toys and transmedia heroes like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Another key aspect of the original conference and to some degree this book was to broker a kind of conversation between experimental artists working with digital media and academic theorists seeking to imagine digital presents and futures. What do you see as the value of such interactions between artists and academics?

I have always been convinced that there’s an important interplay between artistic experimentation and theoretical breakthroughs. This is true in older art forms—such as literature, as much as in film and digital media. For example, in the 18th century although Dr. Samuel Johnson realized that Shakespeare’s mixture of comedy and tragedy violated Aristotle’s rules, he concluded there must be something wrong with the rules, and he attributed his own theoretical insight to Shakespeare’s artistic experimentation. We can find this same kind of interplay in those artists (such as, Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Duras, Marker, and Akerman) whose experimentation is so radical that it transforms any theory applied to it or inspires the creation of a new one—the way Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu inspired Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, or Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Peter Greenaway’s avant-garde films helped shape Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media. And we find a similar interplay in those figures who combine theory and artistic practice in their own work—such as, Eisenstein, Vertov, Pasolini, Deren, and Godard.

In the early days of The Labyrinth Project, I purposely sought out collaborators who were already experimenting with non-linear, open-ended narrative and associative structures—artists who (I thought) could bring a new level of sophistication to this new medium. Since we had no track record, I had to begin with artists I already knew and with whom there was mutual trust. Thus I chose my friend John Rechy, the gay, Chicano novelist whose City of Night mapped the gay cruising zones of the nation, whose Numbers focused on compulsive repetition in Griffith Park, and whose Sexual Outlaw was an edgy, non-linear fictional documentary.

I also chose independent filmmaker Pat O’Neill, whose brilliant multi-layered films I had been writing about since the 1970s.

Our first signature genre was the digital city symphony, an update of the modernist city symphony with its avant-garde associations. Focusing on contested urban space through layers of time, it deliberately eroded the line between documentary and fiction. In Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill, the exploratory space was the Ambassador Hotel on the Miracle Mile in midtown Los Angeles, where the downtown power-brokers and Hollywood moguls first mingled. It was also the site where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and where other historical traumas, both personal and cultural, took place.

In Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986, an adaptation of Norman Klein’s cultural history, The History of Forgetting: The Cultural Erasure of Los Angeles, documentary and fiction vied for control over this multi-tiered narrative. The contested space was a three mile radius in downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood known for both its real-life ethnic diversity and fictional on-screen violence.

Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 (2002) from Rosemary Comella on Vimeo.

Another of our early signature genres was the interactive memoir, which preserves the unique web of memories and associations that an individual builds over a lifetime and that inevitably unravels with old age and death. These works encouraged users to interweave this personal material into a broader tapestry of historical narrative. Thus we chose vintage subjects who had complex relations with several different communities. As we’ve seen, Mysteries and Desires: Searching the Worlds of John Rechy features a gay Chicano novelist whose works purposely blur the line between autobiography and fiction.

The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing was the interactive version of a print memoir by Carroll Parrott Blue, an African American photographer from an independent black community in Houston.

And we also did one on Albert Einstein, called Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California

Presented as DVD-ROMs, websites, and installations, these database narratives from Labyrinth were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Three of our early works were included in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, a major exhibition co-curated by Jeffrey Show and Peter Weibel, which ran from 16 November 2002 – 30 March 2003 at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, and subsequently travelled to Helsinki and Tokyo.

Despite many exhibitions (both on-line and in museums) of such works and those by others over the past twenty years, there are still very few critics, historians, or theorists who are writing about them—partly because the production process is opaque. I remember when Kevin Thomas, who was then Film Critic for the Los Angeles Times, came to our Labyrinth studio and was interested in writing about Mysteries and Desires. He said he was surprised that John Rechy could draw so well and was so good as a visual artist. When I started explaining who did what, he lost interest in writing about the project. Another time we were delighted to find that Bleeding Through Layers of Los Angeles was positively reviewed by David Ulm in the L.A. Times Weekly Book Review Section. Yet we were horrified that he wrongly assumed Klein’s brief fictional pamphlet that accompanied the DVD-ROM was the primary source of our interactive project, which was merely a visual adaptation. Though several of the essays in our anthology address such experimental works, the history of projects like these still needs to be written. The pace of technological innovation and obsolescence is so rapid that it’s difficult for academics and cultural historians to keep up—both with the specific works being produced and the digital futures they project. But we included some attempts in Transmedia Frictions.

 

Marsha Kinder began her career in the 1960s as a scholar of eighteenth century English Literature before moving to the study of transmedial relations among narrative forms. In 1980 she joined USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she continued to be an academic nomad, with narrative as her through-line. Having published over one hundred essays and ten books (both monographs and anthologies), she is best known for her work on Spanish film, specifically Blood Cinema (1993); children’s media, especially Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games (1991); and digital culture (including her new anthology Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts and the Humanities (2014), co-edited with Tara McPherson. She was founding editor of innovative journals, such as Dreamworks (1980-87), winner of a Pushcart Award, USC’s Spectator (1982-present) and since 1977 served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly. In 1995 she received the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Scholarship, and in 2001 was named a University Professor for her innovative transdisciplinary research.

In 1997 she founded The Labyrinth Project, a USC research initiative on database narrative, producing award-winning database documentaries and new models of digital scholarship. In collaboration with media artists Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang and Scott Mahoy, and with filmmakers, scientists and cultural institutions, Labyrinth produced 12 multimedia projects (DVD-ROMs, websites, installations and on-line courseware) that were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Kinder’s latest work, Interacting with Autism, is a video-based website produced in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and Scott Mahoy. Since retiring from teaching in Summer 2013, Kinder is now writing a new book titled Narrative in the Era of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.

Wandering through the Labyrinth: An Interview with USC’s Marsha Kinder (Part One)

In 1999, the University of Southern California hosted the Interactive Frictions conference, organized by Steve Anderson, Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson, with participants including some of the leading digital theorists, artists,  and game designers of the period. Among those featured were: Edward Branigan, Justine Cassell, Anne-Marie Duguet,Katherine Hayles, Vilsoni Hereniko, Henry Jenkins (that’s me!), Isaac Julien, Norman Klein, George Landow, Brenda Laurel, Erik Loyer, Peter Lunenfeld, Lev Manovich, Patricia Mellencamp, Pedro Meyer, Margaret Morse, Erika Muhammad, Janet Murray, Michael Nash, Marcos Novak, Randall Packer, Mark Pesce, Vivian Sobchack, Sandy Stone,  Yuri Tsivian and many others. I speak at many conferences each year, but this remains in my memory a defining event in terms of my own thinking about digital media and a conference where I met a whole bunch of folks who I have ended up working with over the past decade and a half.  For me, the conference brings back memories of the launch of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, which I was able to discuss in my remarks at the event, and also represents the first of a series of interactions with the USC faculty that led ultimately to my decision to move here almost six years ago.

Last year, Kinder and McPherson revisited this conference with a new book, Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts, and the Humanities, which brought together many of the original participants, who shared essays that built upon, but also artfully revisited, their original contributions at the event. The result is a great opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the digital arts and humanities across the intervening years,  allowing us to test our original impressions and to reformulate them in response to so much that has happened since.

A key signal about what has changed is reflected in the title of the book — a movement from a focus on interactivity to an emphasis on transmedial relations. Here, Marsha Kinder is reclaiming a term she introduced in her 1993 book, Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Asked to write a blurb for this collection, here’s what I had to say: “As someone who attended and participated in the 1999 Interactive Fictions conference, which in many ways consolidated more than a decade of theorizing about and experimenting with digital media, I was uncertain what to expect from Transmedia Frictions. What I found was a rich collection that looks both backward to reconstruct the paths not taken in digital theory and forward to imagine alternative ways of framing issues of medium specificity, digital identities, embodiment, and space/place. This collection is sure to transform how we theorize—and teach—the next phases of our profound and prolonged moment of media transition.”

Few scholars are better situated to reflect on those shifts than Marsha Kinder, who was among the first in cinema studies to embrace digital tools for presenting her scholarship and who has overseen some remarkable collaborations with leading creative artists over the past decade through the Labyrinth project.  She has been a friend and mentor across these years, someone who was always leading the charge and inspiring younger scholars to think about new ways of doing and presenting scholarship, and someone who has bridged between theory and practice in bold new ways.  Our work has been complexly entangled through the years, given our shared interests in children’s culture, transmedia, games, and digital humanities.  What began as an interview about her new book has turned into an amazing retrospective on her body of work in the digital humanities, which, true to her vision, is presented here in a multimedia fashion.

I will be following up this interview with Marsha with a second interview with her co-editor Tara McPherson, who has also been a friend and collaborator of mine over the past two decades.

Tell us about the 1999 Interactive Fictions conference. What were  its aims? What do you see now, looking backwards, as its historical  importance in the development of digital art and theory? How did it inform your own subsequent works in this area?

InteractiveFrictions:CatalogCover 

In 1997, I was asked by USC’s Annenberg Center to direct a research initiative that would explore the potentially productive relationship (rather than rivalry) between cinema and the then-emerging digital multimedia. I saw this transmedia focus as an opportunity to combine the immersive and emotive power of cinema with the interactive potential and database structure of new digital forms.

KinderFilmReels

Although I had already developed my concept of database narrative, I was just beginning to engage in production myself, making companion works for my two most recent books. For Blood Cinema, my book on Spanish cinema, I collaborated with my doctoral student Charles Tashiro on making the first scholarly interactive CD-ROM in English language film studies, which led to a bilingual series called Cine-Discs.

BloodCinemaDisc

And, for Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games, I collaborated with another grad student (Walter Morton) on a video documentary showing kids interacting with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

When I asked one of the kids in the arcade why they couldn’t play as April O’Neil, he said, “That’s the way the game is made!” Of course, he was right. And that made me want to make my own feminist game on gender.

The next step was making a prototype for an experimental electronic game called Runaways…

Runaways Cover

Runaways Interface

which I co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed with documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and which you, Henry, kindly featured at your conference on Gender and Computer Games at MIT and in your anthology, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat.

content

Those projects enabled me to become the founding director of The Labyrinth Project, and to decide it would function both as a research initiative generating new theory and as an art collective making works that would advance the creative potential of the new digital media.

Labrinth Project

But to do this, I needed to quickly assess what had already been done and what was still emerging both in theory and practice. I also needed to find the most productive collaborators, and to discover which issues were driving the cultural debate and generating the most “friction.”

InteractiveFrictions:CatalogCover

Being an academic, I decided the best way to perform that quick assessment was to host an international conference. Calling it “Interactive Frictions,” I knew it had to be very inclusive—with filmmakers, photographers, installation artists, animators, game designers, programmers, theorists, critics, cultural historians, curators, media scholars, and entrepreneurs. And because its scope was to be so expansive, I definitely needed innovative collaborators to help run the events. So I asked my colleague Tara McPherson and our graduate student Alison Trope to be my co-hosts at the conference, Holly Willis to co-curate the exhibition, and Steve Anderson to write the program. To emphasize the creative energy emerging from these new combinations as well as from their historical precursors, the conference was intentionally structured like a three-ring circus, featuring not only keynote speeches, live performances, and scads of panels but also a group exhibition in the Fisher Gallery including work from a wide range of artists—some well-known like Bill Viola, George Legrady, Vibeke Sorensen, and Norman Yonemoto, and others–including some of our students—just getting into the game. Amidst this array, we also showed three works-in-progress from The Labyrinth Project—collaborations with gay chicano novelist John Rechy (aka The Sexual Outlaw) and independent filmmakers Nina Menkes and Pat O’Neill. Here’s how I described the exhibition in the opening paragraph of our catalogue:

 “Sparks. Heat. Conflict. This is what friction generates. Using friction as a catalyst, our exhibit features work produced at the pressure point between theory and practice. It brings together artists from different realms, at different stages of their careers, working both individually, and in collaboration in an array of different media: installations and assemblage art, independent film and video; traditional and computer animation; photography and graphic design; literature and music; computer science and interface design; websites, CD-ROMs, and other hybrid forms of multimedia. Coming from different domains, the pieces challenge and contradict each other. What unites them is the focus on interactive narrative.”

IF Exhibition

We received fabulous feedback on the conference, claiming it had energized all those who attended and broadened their conception of what digital multimedia could be. Despite this success, I decided not to make this conference a recurring event. Instead, I wanted to start producing experimental works in collaboration with others—works that could realize some of the possibilities that were discussed at the conference. So I put together a creative team of three media artists—Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang, and Scott Mahoy– and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past seventeen years.

Labrinth Team

But, now that so much time has passed, that conference represents a valuable snapshot of what the discourse was like in the 90s. For, some of the essays in our anthology are even more revealing now than they were then—especially those that were foundational for the field (like Katherine Hayles’s “Print is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis”) and those that presented historical precursors (like the pieces by narrative theorist Edward Branigan and early cinema scholar Yuri Tsivian). And it’s important that, not just the artists and editors, but most of the contributors to our volume went on to produce multimedia projects. We hope our “Interactive Frictions” helped make them do it.

Marsha Kinder began her career in the 1960s as a scholar of eighteenth century English Literature before moving to the study of transmedial relations among narrative forms. In 1980 she joined USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she continued to be an academic nomad, with narrative as her through-line. Having published over one hundred essays and ten books (both monographs and anthologies), she is best known for her work on Spanish film, specifically Blood Cinema (1993); children’s media, especially Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games (1991); and digital culture (including her new anthology Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts and the Humanities (2014), co-edited with Tara McPherson. She was founding editor of innovative journals, such as Dreamworks (1980-87), winner of a Pushcart Award, USC’s Spectator (1982-present) and since 1977 served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly. In 1995 she received the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Scholarship, and in 2001 was named a University Professor for her innovative transdisciplinary research.

In 1997 she founded The Labyrinth Project, a USC research initiative on database narrative, producing award-winning database documentaries and new models of digital scholarship. In collaboration with media artists Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang and Scott Mahoy, and with filmmakers, scientists and cultural institutions, Labyrinth produced 12 multimedia projects (DVD-ROMs, websites, installations and on-line courseware) that were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Kinder’s latest work, Interacting with Autism, is a video-based website produced in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and Scott Mahoy. Since retiring from teaching in Summer 2013, Kinder is now writing a new book titled Narrative in the Era of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.