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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Digital Remembrances (Inspired by a week at UC Berkeley)

I spent last week at the University of California, Berkeley, where I attended the Advanced Oral History Summer Institute, the third stop on an itinerary that so far has included the Media in Transition (MIT4) Conference at MIT (see June 30th entry) and the Transliteracies conference on online reading at the University of California, Santa Barbara (see July 8th entry)—three interdisciplinary events that have contributed to my research on innovative approaches to autobiographical and biographical representation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I’m particularly interested in how documentarians, writers, artists, and performers are using new media technologies to record, preserve, frame, shape, evoke, archive, disseminate, and transform memory on both individual and collective levels. Are they “remediating” genres from other media (Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin), “navigating the database” (Lev Manovich), constructing a “possibility space” (N. Katherine Hayles), or doing something else?

Although studies of new media, such as the texts I referenced by Bolter and Grusin, Manovich, and Hayles, help to contextualize digital experiments with memory, so do studies of personal narratives, such as the book Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, by literary theorists Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (University of Minnesota Press, 2001). Life narrative, the term Smith and Watson recommend, signifies self-referential practices that challenge norms associated with traditional, Western, canonical autobiography as a master narrative that celebrates “the autonomous individual and the universalizing life story” (3). Smith and Watson identify fifty-two genres of life narrative, including auto/biography (a/b), autoethnography, autofiction, case study, collaborative life narrative, confession, diary, letters, meditation, memoir, oral history, relational autobiography, self-portrait, survivor narrative, testimonio, trauma narrative, travel narrative, and witnessing (183–207). Media used for telling autobiographical stories also cover a broad range: “short feature and documentary films; theater pieces; installations; performance art in music, dance, and monologue; the painted or sculpted self-portrait; quilts, collages, and mosaics; body art; murals; comics; and cyber art” (74).

I support Smith and Watson’s notion of life narrative, but in my work I want to recognize biographical modes, too, especially memorials, shrines, and portraits of others. “Life writing,” the broader term, which does recognize biographical modes (3), emphasizes writing at the expense of other media and is therefore usually too restrictive for my purposes. I tend to use “personal narrative” as a general term and vary my terminology according to context. So far most of my work has addressed autobiographical texts, a tendency that probably will continue. In my studies of video, some of the most interesting work I’ve seen has blended autobiographical and biographical modes (a/b), thus blurring generic distinctions and producing creative hybrids.

My research continues, so please feel free to recommend projects and Web sites.

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

“Googled! Will the Internet Come Back to Haunt You?”

Yesterday afternoon on the KCRW/PRI radio program To the Point host Warren Olney moderated an interesting discussion called “Googled! Will the Internet Come Back to Haunt You?” Participants included Elizabeth Spiers, freelance journalist, editor-in-chief of, and former editor of the blog; Pam Dixon, writer, executive director and founder of the World Privacy Forum, and technology editor for ClearChannel Newstalk (1460 KION); Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), professor of information privacy law at Georgetown University Law Center, and chair of the ABA Committee on Privacy and Information Protection; and Danah Boyd, PhD student in the School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS) at UC Berkeley, researcher at Yahoo! Research Labs-Berkeley, and specialist in articulated social networks (e.g., Friendster), blogging, and other social software, particularly in relation to youth. The discussion addressed privacy issues raised both by the practices of popular search engines, such as Google, which track users’ activities online, and by individuals who post personal information about themselves (and others) in blogs and elsewhere on the Net.

As the participants made clear, notions of private and public continue to shift in cyberspace, often leading to a range of hurtful and helpful consequences in real life. Regarding the sociological aspects of Net users who openly disclose personal details about their lives, I found Boyd’s comments on adolescents and teens especially insightful. To learn more about her research, I visited, where she blogs, and discovered additional background as well as information that broadened the scope of the debate initiated on To the Point and introduced new concerns.

While reading some recent posts—including an entry about the radio interview—I became aware of the BlogHer Conference ’05, which took place in Santa Clara, California, on July 30th. (See entries in Boyd’s blog on July 30th and 31st.) The day-long conference was sponsored by BlogHer, “a network for women bloggers to draw on for exposure, education, and community.” The BlogHer site covers many issues concerning women online. So does, another site that Boyd’s blog led me to. Devoted to women and technology, this weblog, for which Boyd writes, celebrates women’s contributions to computing and identifies opportunities and challenges for women in the field.

To learn more about Yahoo! Research Labs-Berkeley, which Boyd mentioned, I visited the project’s Web site. There I learned that the partnership between Yahoo! Inc. and UC Berkeley is designed “to explore and invent social media and mobile media technology and applications that will enable people to create, describe, find, share, and remix media on the web.” Marc Davis, the founding director of the corporate-academic collaboration, is currently on leave from SIMS (the graduate program at UC Berkeley that Boyd attends), where he directs Garage Cinema Research, a research group “focused on creating the technology and applications that will enable daily media consumers to become daily media producers” and thus bring about “a ‘Garage Cinema’ revolution in which people use computational media to communicate with each other every day.”

Following more links and losing myself in cyberspace, I also learned about CNM: Center for New Media, at UC Berkeley, which strives “to understand the full philosophical, aesthetic, practical and historical significance of the information-age transformations in which we are now immersed and to place our institution of liberal education at the center of this cultural and technological revolution so we can inform and help direct the design of future media.” CNM is one of the sponsors of the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium, a multidisciplinary lecture series that discusses “contemporary issues at the intersection of digital media, emerging technologies, and aesthetic expression.”

UC Berkeley has been on my mind, since I plan to spend time there next week. I guess it’s not surprising, then, that my free-associative linking has led to the virtual counterpart of where I’ll soon be in real life.

P.S. The radio program “Googled! Will the Internet Come Back to Haunt You?” is archived online; it is also podcast.

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Enigmatic Fascinations: Re-viewing Memory Texts

Since reading the “memory texts” Annette Kuhn published in Family Secrets (which I commented on a few days ago), I’ve been thinking about various work I’ve created that shares her concerns: photo collages, a home-movie compilation, an abandoned autobiography, a “postmodern scrapbook,” a computer graphics series based on my childhood diaries, video transformations of the computer graphics, and fictional pieces inspired by many of these texts. Spanning a time frame from high school to the present—earlier if the childhood diaries are counted—this work has been reserved mainly for private viewing, with little or no circulation in the public sphere. Packed in boxes (work that still exists) or stored in my memory banks (work that’s been lost), this largely undocumented material exerts a profound influence on how I approach both critical and creative projects today, as well as how I engage with new media.

Contributing to my personal archive, the memory texts I’ve created have themselves taken on the characteristics of family albums and memorabilia, resources that usually instigate the type of memory work Kuhn practices, rather than document its progress as mine have. These dynamics became clear to me while viewing a new DVD copy of “In the Beginning,” a two-minute compilation of 8mm home movies from my childhood that I made for an introductory film class many years ago. Little did I know then that the shots I spliced together with Scotch tape would someday be the only moving-image footage left from my youth. (Although probably rendered unviewable by the splicing technique I used, the reels of home movies from which I appropriated the found footage were eventually lost.) Fortunately, the original compilation I made, which was transferred to VHS several years ago, remained sturdy enough to survive another dub, this time to DVD.

In this format the class exercise captured my attention once again. I thought about the film while reading Kuhn’s book, which claims, “Anyone who has a family photograph that exerts an enigmatic fascination or arouses an inexplicable depth of emotion could find memory work rewarding” (7). With the four prompts described in this book as a rough guide (8), I decided to initiate some memory work of my own, starting with “In the Beginning.” I soon realized, however, that the case history I was constructing involved double readings at least, given the text’s elusive parameters. So when I considered the human subject(s) represented, the context of production, the context in which these kinds of images would have been made, and the text’s audiences over time, I contemplated scenes both from the early years of my life in the 1950s, of which I remember almost nothing, and from my undergraduate college years in the 1970s, which I do recall.

Arranged in loose chronological order, with some mixing back and forth, the film brings together fleeting images from the first six or seven years in the life of an American girl, the first-born child of young, working-class parents who never appear visibly in the montage. (Unidentified adults are evident now and then from the shoulders down.) I speak of the girl in the third person, as though the protagonist of this story, a silent film, has nothing to do with me, yet knowing she does. The assemblage includes only exterior shots, thus excluding from inspection family dramas that unfolded inside the home. The girl’s father took all the movies with his 8mm camera.

On TV I see a happy blue-eyed, blonde-haired toddler crawling on the lawn, taking her first steps, riding a merry-go-round, petting a dog, dodging waves on the beach. And then there’s a stunning three-year-old girl posing for the camera(man) with her newborn sister, a dark-haired child. A few years later, wearing a light winter jacket, the elder girl’s performing acrobatics on the slide in her backyard. One summer close in time—it could be earlier or later—she’s wearing a bathing suit and sliding into a plastic swimming pool; afterward, she turns and smiles at the camera, as though looking for approval. Many birthday parties are commemorated, probably the first six; they’re all staged in the backyard of the family’s modest house. For some reason, I’m drawn to two scenes in which the protagonist as a young girl performs. In one scene, maybe from her third birthday celebration, she’s running deliriously in circles amid friends. In the other scene, apparently from her fourth birthday party, she’s blowing out the candles on her birthday cake (five candles, with one for good luck); she and the friends who surround her are all wearing party hats. At another birthday party she’s pinning the tail on the donkey after being blindfolded and turned around. Later, she and her sister are twirling hula hoops, and so on.

Toward the end of the piece, unfamiliar footage appears—shots of mountains, a waterfall, a burning cabin, and a few clips from what looks like a ride at Disneyland. Maybe these latter shots represent the college student’s attempt to insert oblique commentary, to experiment with the potential of editing and the juxtaposition of images. To me now, the footage seems to be tacked on as an afterthought; the technique doesn’t work in an aesthetic or a critical sense, yet the images do hint at a story I wanted to tell but didn’t pull off. (I notice that I’ve slipped into first person.) Since most of “In the Beginning” highlights ordinary scenes from conventional home movies—a better title might have helped—I can understand why my film professor thought the piece was banal. After all, he didn’t design the assignment as an exercise in memory work; he wanted to challenge us creatively, and on that score I disappointed him, and myself.

To study how people developed as individuals and as members of society, an interest that informed my approach to “In the Beginning,” I switched my undergraduate major to psychology and put media studies, as well as creative explorations of any kind, on hold. I found, though, that my fascination with the media arts persisted, and my urge to experiment creatively—rather than as a social scientist–grew stronger over time. After many trials and errors, with several chance encounters thrown in, I found my way back to the media arts and to explorations of autobiographical narratives—other people’s and my own. From my current vantage point, the journey I took from that introductory film class to graduate studies years later makes perfect sense, as though I had planned the itinerary in advance, but as I’ve often said, I improvised most of the way, or so I thought. I wonder now whether on some level I could have known where I was going?

When I think about “In the Beginning” and other “memory texts” I’ve constructed over the years, including the examples mentioned earlier, I sense that these seemingly random and disparate projects, which I’ve felt compelled to create, somehow resonate with one another and if interlinked would tell a story I’ve overlooked, for all these projects, despite differences involving media, theoretical frameworks, and the circumstances under which they were produced, provide traces of ongoing performances I’ve been repeating and refining most of my adult life, usually in private. These performances have added continuity to an otherwise discontinuous life story. I imagine that the significance of these acts—variations of the memory work Kuhn describes—has more to do with the intellectual and creative processes that have been set in motion than with the apparent subject matter I’ve addressed. Hence I’m tempted to connect the dots, to interlink my disparate memory texts, and maybe discover an alternative personal history, a parallel narrative with strong emotional valence. Kuhn’s book helped me see the value of doing this. . . . As a postscript I’ll add that my rediscovery of “In the Beginning” occurred about two years after my father died, an event that has affected my reading of the film—and the cameraman—in subtle ways. I’m grateful to him for leaving behind remembrances of my childhood, traces of a past that pre-dates my memory.

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