transit point

The weather turned cooler this morning: autumn is finally here. Thank you, god.

Every year, this transition works on me like the beginning of spring does on normal people – it’s the moment when fogginess and torpor give way to bright clarity.

This time last year I was doing my PhD confirmation and getting ready to head off to MIT; but now I’ve flipped a switch and transitioned into serious Writing Up mode. The tunnel vision that comes with that means I’m studiously ignoring any and all seductions re travel, conferences, side projects, and peripheral fascinations. Well, within reason, given the eclectic nature of my many enthusiasms – as evidenced by this morning’s quick-and-dirty experiment with scanner & photoshop imaging.

update from abroad

After a lovely, wintry European break, I’m now into the fieldwork I’m doing in the UK as part of my PhD. Spent an interesting day with the capture wales team at BBC Wales, as well as meeting some participants from canllaw online, who will be participating in the train-the-trainers digital storytelling workshop that I’m observing next week.

In one of the many transit queues I was stuck in last week, I got chatting to the guy in front of us. He turned out to be Mark Crick, the author of Kafka’s Soup, subtitled “A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes”:

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have dinner with Franz Kafka, Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler, this is the chance to find out. Literary ventriloquist Mark Crick presents 14 recipes in the voices of famous writers, from Homer to Irvine Welsh. Guaranteed to delight anyone in love with food and books, these witty pastiches will keep you so entertained in the kitchen that you’ll be sorry when the guests arrive.

With each recipe illustrated with an illustration in the style of an appropriate artist, Egon Schiele rubs shoulders with Hogarth, Matisse and Frida Kahlo.

Mark pulled out his battered doing-the-rounds-of-publishers copy, and I was very impressed – a really innovative repurposing of the arts and a great hybrid publishing idea. On a quick glance through, the way he captures the voices of the authors seems to be very sensitive too.

Activating the research ‘subject’

I’ve been aware of David Gauntlett’s ArtLab project at Bournemouth Media School’s Centre for Creative Media Research for a while, and keep meaning to post briefly on it.

The ArtLab studies represent a new type of research in which media consumers’ own creativity, reflexivity and knowingness is harnessed, rather than ignored. In these studies, individuals are asked to produce media or visual material themselves, as a way of exploring their relationship with particular issues or dimensions of media. Examples, which appear in the projects section, include research where children made videos to consider their relationship with the environment; where young men designed covers for imaginary men’s magazines, enabling an exploration of contemporary masculinities; and where people drew pictures of celebrities as part of an examination of their aspirations and identifications with stars.

It’s an innovative approach to media “consumption” research, and one which in many ways is the natural next step for cultural and media studies’ researchers who really believe in the active audience tradition and want to stop treating audiences as research ‘subjects’ and start treating them as research participants.

Two comparisons occur to me: one is to art therapy, where, through self expression, the subject both “works out” psychological/affective issues and makes them visible to the therapist – similarly, in the artlab projects, the participants “work out” some of their relationships between culture, media and identity through creative practice. These relationships can then be harvested as data, apparently providing some answer to the longstanding problem of how to ‘get at’ media audiences and consumers in something approaching a naturalistic, or at least organic, way.

The other comparison that springs to mind is with “action research”, or ethnographic action research, methods, where the process is designed to have some positive outcome for the participants, and the research is around the process of achieving that outcome. In both the art therapy and action research approaches, there is the assumption that the subject or participant benefits somehow. Likewise, I think it would be interesting for the artlab projects to articulate more explicitly whatever the outcomes (especially unintended ones) seem to be for their participants. There certainly seems to be something implied in the rationale as well as the project descriptions and reports about creative and critical media literacies – if there’s something more elaborated on the website and I’ve missed it, I apologise.

Anyway, these issues are interesting to me because of the important but problematic place that “practice” has in my predominantly cultural studies-oriented research. That is, the small amount of work I do as a digital storytelling trainer and creative practitioner functions not only as an ethnographic instrument, but also as a direct intervention into the field I’m studying. In conducting digital storytelling workshops in the community, I’m not only “observing”, I’m trying to collaborate with the participants to contribute directly and practically, not polemically, to cultural change. This is a challenge that, to be honest, my formal research training in English departments hasn’t really prepared me for at all, but which I welcome as a chance to contribute to the development of a cultural studies praxis that can effectively combine “critical” analysis, participatory research methods, and (yes, I said it) instrumentality.

Back to the writing deadlines…

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas

Well, the white christmas may not work out, because it doesn’t always snow in Dec/Jan, I know that. But the fact remains that I am going to be in the UK from just before Christmas until the end of January, so all my UK co-conspirators, colleagues and cronies, look out because I may lob on you for enthusiastic chats and cleansing ales.

I’m there primarily to do fieldwork on digital storytelling, proper details when I get absolute confirmation, but YAY for not having to spend January sweltering and being bored in Brisbane.

Further to that, let me just say I’m very excited about my PhD generally at the moment, not least because:

a. I think I have a robust thesis structure and something like a tentative through argument that I can bring into dialogue with the ways in which my research participants theorise their own “vernacular creative practice” (big nod to Thomas McLaughlin for showing me the light in terms of how to approach this); and
b. Armed with this conceptual and methodological framework, I’m finally going into a 4 month period of intense fieldwork, after which,
c. I am (un)reasonably confident of having it together to write up and finish well on time in Feb 2007. Focused immersion, here we come.

I’m confirmed!

So, today I fronted up and performed my PhD project in front of a whole bunch of friendly and informed interlocutors from the faculty. All went well, even my impromptu comedic voiceover to the video which mysteriously lost its soundtrack. All good. More photos at my flickr page – click on this one to get there.

Thanks to Paul for being thoughtful enough to bring a camera.

mapping vernacular creativity v. 0.1

[updated: see here]

Axel has asked me to provide a more concise definition of vernacular creativity so he can link to it, so here is a chunk from my recently submitted confirmation document that deals with what I mean by the phrase, and what I think it can do:

The Idea of Vernacular Creativity

This thesis examines the cultural implications of an emergent reconfiguration of the modes of production and consumption of media content: distributed, user-generated, non-commercial content creation, which I have organised under the conceptual framework of ‘vernacular creativity’. In the study, vernacular creativity describes creative practices that emerge from highly particular and non-elite social contexts and communicative conventions, mediated and transformed when brought into relationship with digital distribution, consumption and network technologies. The concept is intended to be both explanatory – encompassing a range of practices that are collected under different names, drawn from different discursive traditions (economics, mass communication, arts and music) – and to act as the key heuristic driver of the study – keeping the analytical focus firmly on the people who are supposedly empowered by new relations of production, consumption and distribution of creative content.

In settling on the term ‘vernacular creativity’, my intention is not to create neologisms, but to find a comprehensible terminology adequate to signify the conceptual territory of this study. The territory that ‘vernacular creativity’ describes, as a field of cultural practice, crosses over pre-existing categories derived from either structuralist accounts of society (high culture-popular culture), the cultural industries (artist/professional-amateur), or economics (paid-unpaid production), without being subservient to the discourses associated with any of these paradigms.

The most familiar meaning of the term vernacular is that of vernacular speech, thought, or expression, usually applied to the native speech of a populace as against the official language (for example, English in the Middle Ages), but now used to distinguish everyday language from institutional of official modes of expression. In the United States, the term is sometimes used especially to refer to African-American or ‘native’ people, marking a distinction between dominant or hegemonic cultures and minority or subordinate groups. See, for example, Houston Baker?s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory) (Baker, 1984). Thomas McLaughlin has also employed the term as a call to recognize the specificity and heterogeneity of the philosophical frameworks and knowledges of non-elite Western (sub)cultures (e.g. the new age movement, or particular occupations), as in his Street Smarts and Critical Theory: Listening to the Vernacular (McLaughlin, 1996). Beyond linguistic expression, there is vernacular architecture – an architecture of the people – characterised by buildings that are customarily owner- or community-built, or whose style represents ‘low’ or ‘folk’ culture rather than institutionalised or ‘high’ architecture. In ‘developing’ communities the emphasis is on buildings that utilise available or traditional, rather than imported, resources and methods (Brunskill, 2000; Oliver, 1997).

Building on this history, then, the term ‘vernacular creativity’ describes not only the mode or aesthetic of ordinary, everyday cultural production, but also its source field in terms of political economy and social structures, and the non-institutional modes of its distribution. Therefore, vernacular creativity is to be understood as, firstly, a field of cultural practices that are conceptually aligned because of their embeddedness in the everyday and because of their ordinariness; and, secondly, fields that are sociologically aligned because they are practices that are indigenous to ‘ordinary’ people in specific contexts and not to artistic or creative professions (while bearing in mind the long history of flows between art, the professions, and the everyday).

For anyone interested in reading what my PhD is about in a bit more detail (or chasing up any of the references in the passage above), you can read the confirmation document in its entirety here (pdf). It’s not as precise and careful as I’d like, but it had to be done by the deadline, so consider it public alpha – (gentle) feedback and suggestions very welcome.

Hypercreativity and Techno-Utopianism

So, the puzzle my Phd tries to solve (how creativity, cultural participation and the ‘democratization’ of technologies fit together) comes out of the hype around two converging ideas: the increased availability and production power of digital technologies for content creation and distribution (see Anne’s pointed mini-critique of some of this) and ‘creativity’ as life-fulfilling, as economic driver, as the means to participation and radical consumer-led cultural change (especially for the content industries). I want to find a way through this hype and try to extract what the possibilities actually might be, and for whom, and it what circumstances, and in whose interests, but first I need to say what I think is wrong with the hype.

So I love it when I find stuff like this, which contains every stereotype about creativity and every wrongheaded assumption about “production” and “consumption” I could ever wish for. Then I get depressed:

Generation C

[…] the C stands for CONTENT, and anyone with even a tiny amount of creative talent can (and probably will) be part of this not-so-exclusive trend.

So what is it all about? The GENERATION C phenomenon captures the tsunami of consumer generated ‘content’ that is building on the Web, adding tera-peta bytes of new text, images, audio and video on an ongoing basis.

The two main drivers fuelling this trend?

(1) The creative urges each consumer undeniably possesses. We’re all artists, but until now we neither had the guts nor the means to go all out.

(2) The manufacturers of content-creating tools, who relentlessly push us to unleash that creativity, using — of course — their ever cheaper, ever more powerful gadgets and gizmos. Instead of asking consumers to watch, to listen, to play, to passively consume, the race is on to get them to create, to produce, and to participate.

the fluff-piece goes on to gives lots of examples of how these manufacturers are “getting consumers” to “produce”.

See also Nations-Lite for an informative yet entertaining overview of “the most remarkable achievements and developments that are turning the UAE into a NATION*LITE* for prosperous HOME TROTTERS from Asia, the Middle East, the EU and South Africa”! Eek.

Creativity, play and communication

Thinking aloud here about some stuff that occurred to me while continuing to read Speaking into the Air this morning. You probably won’t want to read this unless you live inside my PhD with me (messy in there, isn’t it?). These thoughts also go some way to explaining what I was getting at with my heretical talk of ‘authenticity’ and ‘presence’ in my first post since getting hold of the book.

There is an axiom floating around at the moment that creativity is meaningful only in that it is communicative – Negus and Pickering built a whole book out of this apparently straightforward concept (it’s quite a good book too, despite others’ lamentations to the commentary). However, the axiom only looks straightforward if both the key terms are taken at face value – creativity meaning the cognitive process of innovative (usually cultural) production; communication meaning at least the transmission of information, at most the exchange of ideas. Negus and Pickering do a lot to unpack the genealogy and usage of the first of these keywords, but do much less with the second.

In my PhD research, my two detailed case studies are Apple’s iLife suite and digital storytelling. In trying to explain how these two case studies relate to each other, I’ve started to think about them in relation to two very different constructions of creativity – creativity as productive play, with no necessary relation to the social (the dominant one); and creativity as communication, which is less dominant, but far more central to my own arguments. [Before I go on, let me say quite clearly that there is no reason these two constructions of creativity should be exclusive: in fact, I might go far as to say that the kind of creativity I mean when I talk about “vernacular creativity” is precisely an articulation of play and sociality.]

But anyway, this is how I’m thinking of how my two case studies sit in relation to all this:

The iLife suite and the discourses around it structure creativity as productive play (play meaning childlike fun – I would need a whole paragraph to unpack ‘play’ as well). The dominant metaphor apple uses is, as I see it, the toybox: the interfaces all look like etch-a-sketches made of candy, and garageband is a bright tasty box of sonic lego blocks (and I wish it were play dough). To be creative in this universe is simply to make media, and to have fun making it. (there’s more to it, but you don’t want the whole chapter here)

Digital storytelling, fun as it is, productive as it is, goes much further towards the kind of communicative creativity that I think constitutes meaningful agency in the ‘network of networks’ of contemporary culture. The kind of communicative creativity I am talking about is not to be understood in the sense of communication as the exchange of information or ‘ideas’, but as social action – the test of effective communication in this sense is a kind of being there, a kind of becoming real as a participant in the network. I think this understanding of creativity avoids the emptiness of the rah-rah celebration of it as the driving force behind the ‘new economy’, which is one good thing, and it opens up the concept so that it is no longer about the expression of the creator’s interiority, but actually privileges collaborative creativity – another good thing.

Real thesis thoughts

Late in the day, two readings from my own field helped me to place some bricks in the hole where my sanity and my conviction about the political importance of “ordinary” grassroots cultural production used to be: Jim McGuigan’s The Cultural Public Sphere (MS Word), and Chris Atton’s The Mundane and Its Reproduction in Alternative Media.

McGuigan traces the development of the Habermasian public sphere and takes issue with neo-Habermasians’ dominant emphasis on the cognitive over the affective dimensions of public life and democratic participation:

The concept of a cultural public sphere refers to the articulation of politics, public and personal, as a contested terrain through affective – aesthetic and emotional – modes of communication

. McGuigan’s cultural public sphere is literally that – imagined as a central space filled with mass mediated cultural texts, a space fringed with “ordinary” cultural consumers; I want to imagine it as boundless and interconnected, and filled with networks of “ordinary” cultural producers who may or may not reference those same mass mediated cultural texts; I also worry continuously about how the almost purely affective domain of (electronic) music will fit in to even this fluid model; but it’s a start.

Chris Atton’s (2001) article on the representation of the mundane in personal homepages is significant to me because it disarticulates “resistance” and the mundane or banal in studies of media and everyday life, i.e. he refuses to find extraordinariness in depictions of the ordinary. And because there are some characterisations of such media so close to what I’ve been getting at that reading them feels like coming home. I particularly like this argument about what might happen when we place attention on mundane alternative media:

What happens when ‘ordinary’ people produce their own media? I want to explore some aspects of ‘popular’ media production and its intersection with everyday life. To do so will be to […] take to the notion of ‘everyday production’ and its place in identity-formation to a different place: to that of the originating producer within everyday life. Popular media production might then be considered a primary form of everyday cultural production

Exactly. Although…apart from worrying that such media might escape our notice, he never really gets to the consumption and evaluation of these media: it seems to be enough for the producer simply to produce.

Going a bit further than both of these arguments, I want to push (at least conceptually) for a viral, networked model of a public sphere where everyday cultural production is both a matter of course and a peer-legitimated field of cultural practice. But it’s nice to find familiar voices in cultural studies in sympathy with my barely articulate notions. Happy now.

a picture of the inside of my head

mindmap.jpgAs if anyone needed further proof that the pathway to a complete PhD is far from smooth…

Here’s a mindmap of the current conceptual state of my thesis, made in a fit of OII-stimulated inspiration on the train to Brighton while sleep-deprived a couple of weeks ago.

It’s been sitting crumpled at the bottom of my bag ever since, hence the added patina (signifying mental effort and creative authenticity, I’m sure).