VirtualDayz

I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

MIT4

I’m still processing impressions from two conferences I attended recently: Media in Transition (MIT4): The Work of Stories, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, MA (May 6–8), and Transliteracies: Research in the Technological, Social, and Cultural Practices of Online Reading, at the University of California, Santa Barbara (June 17–18). I’ll discuss MIT4 today.

As the title suggests, the conference focused on Media in Transition, and the theme this year was storytelling in its many forms: “as a cultural practice, a social and political activity as well as an art form” (MIT4 Web site, “Mission”). The scholars, journalists, artists, and media professionals who participated crossed disciplinary boundaries to debate trends in both traditional and “new media.” Because several different papers were delivered simultaneously in various locations on the labyrinthian MIT campus, I heard only a sampling of the presentations, which were grouped according to themes such as Narrative Theory, Migratory Stories, Transmedia Narrative, Indigenous Voices, Journalism, Bombay Cinema, Activism, Stories and Identities, Games, Travel and New Media, Reality Television, Comedy and Parody, Digital Storytelling, Understanding Comics, Fans and Fan Fiction, Mobile Storytelling, and Collaborative Communities. Abstracts, and in many cases entire papers, are posted online.

I gravitated toward presentations that dealt with new media, such as “Voices from Everywhere,” by Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media, De Montfort University (UK), and founder of trAce Online Writing Centre, where she served as Artistic Director until December 2004. Drawing on trAce’s extensive Web archive, Thomas revisited five international writing projects that offered “narrative snapshots of everyday life.” Her comparative analysis of Noon Quilt, Lost, Home, Migrating Memories, and Dawn Quilt South Asia accentuated common threads. Although time constraints prevented Thomas from examining any of the collaborative projects in depth, members of the audience had that option, since the projects remain online. The talk complemented Thomas’s book, Hello World: Travels in Virtuality (Raw Nerve Books, 2004), and served as a counterpoint to “Writing and the Digital Life,” an international listserv she started in February 2005 to explore “the impact of digital technologies upon writing and lived experience within an interdisciplinary context.”

Another informative talk was “Digital Storytelling at the National Gallery of Art,” by Joe Lambert, Founding Director and Executive Director, Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS), and Julie Springer, Coordinator of Teacher Programs, National Gallery of Art. In addition to reviewing “the goals and results of the digital storytelling tutorials for K-12 teachers that took place at the National Gallery of Art's Teacher Institute in the summers of 2003 and 2004,” Lambert and Springer presented a compelling introduction to the theory and practice of digital storytelling as an international movement with widespread appeal. Lambert elaborated on his views during MIT4’s final roundtable. On the populist notion that informs the approach he and his colleagues at CDS have developed, Lambert has written, “The tools of digital technology should be used to democratize voice and therefore empower more people than the prior set of analog tools in contemporary communication” (see dStoryNews, Sept. 20, 2000). His book, Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community (Digital Diner Press, 2002), serves as a comprehensive guide. The Digital Storytelling Association, an international organization founded in 2002 and housed at CDS in Berkeley, CA, suggests the scope of the field.

Since I was already familiar with both trAce Online Writing Centre and the Center for Digital Storytelling, I was able to deepen my understanding of what these organizations entail. Other presentations, however, introduced forms of storytelling that were new to me, such as Mobile Narratives, an emergent genre covered in two talks: “Narrative Archaeology: Reading the Landscape,” by Jeremy Hight, new media artist, writer, and theorist based in LA; and “Narrative and Mobile Media,” by Scott Ruston, PhD student in Critical Studies Division, School of Cinema-Television, University of Southern California (USC), and by Jen Stein, Program Coordinator, Interactive Media Division, School of Cinema-Television, USC.

Hight’s talk coincided with Lambert and Springer’s discussion of digital storytelling, but both presentations happened to be in the same building, and only a few doors away, so I was able to catch some of Hight’s talk and then hear him speak later during the panel discussion. Essentially, Hight explained how he and his collaborators Jeff Knowlton and Naomi Spellman used Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology, in combination with their notion of “Narrative Archaeology,” to design 34 north 118 west, an award-winning project that let users “read” historical layers of a selected urban space in downtown LA as they walked through it. According to Hight, “The new paradigm of narrative utilizing locative technologies is one akin to archaeology, but of narrative and place. Now, the layers in time are unseen until discovered in the author’s research and then placed into narrative to trigger at key physical locations. The details, events, patterns shifts, etc may be from 1945 on one corner and from 1914 a few hundred feet away” (“Narrative Archaeology” paper, MIT4 site).

Ruston and Stein, who referenced 34 north 118 west, supported the premise that “the rapidly increasing use of mobile communication technologies, especially within urban spaces, offers a new medium for telling stories, reading cities and personal authoring within these spaces.” They provided an intriguing overview of Tracking Agama, a student project described as “an alternative reality fiction in which participants access pieces of the story by mobile phone” while traveling to designated locations in LA (“Narrative and Mobile Media” paper, MIT4 site).

Locating Story: Collaborative Community-based Located Media Production,” presented by a team from Bristol, UK, also addressed located media production made possible via GPS and wireless technology. The work they discussed was developed by the Mobile Bristol project, an association of Hewlett Packard Research Laboratories, Bristol; the University of Bristol; and the Applicance Studio. Unfortunately, I missed this presentation and only heard about it afterward when several people were discussing it with enthusiasm.

Another one of the many presentations I wish I could have fit in was "Construction of Spatial Narratives in M.D. Coverley's Califia," by Burcu S. Bakioglu, PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, Indiana University. Since its early stages, I’ve followed the development of Califia, a highly acclaimed hypertext novel published by Eastgate Systems in 2000 and distributed on CD-ROM. M.D. Coverley (aka Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink), former president of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), has continued to produce innovate digital stories.

One of the highlights of MIT4, which I did attend, was the roundtable held in Bartos Theater called “New Media Projects: Demos from the Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies,” which featured work by faculty and students at MIT. I especially enjoyed the presentation by Thomas DeFrantz, Associate Professor, Music and Theater Arts, and a specialist on African American performance, as well as a director and a choreographer. My favorite demo, though, was given by Kimiko Ryokai, PhD candidate in the Tangible Media Group at the Media Lab. She discussed the “I/O Brush,” which she created so that users of all ages could turn their environment into a color palette to paint with. Thanks to extensive documentation of the young children she observed, she was able to show the brush—and the painters—in action.

Before leaving MIT4, I bought some books from the vendors who had set up tables outside the Bartos Theater to promote the speakers’ publications and other relevant texts. Reading material for the flight back to LA included: Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, a collection of essays edited by two MIT professors who played instrumental roles at the conference, David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins (MIT Press, 2004); Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, edited by Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc (Duke U Press, 2002); From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (MIT Press, 2000); and Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age [on Walter Benjamin], edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan (Stanford U Press, 2003).

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