Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Sign-Off

by: Dan Leopard / St. Mary’s College of California

KTLA Prime News

KTLA Prime News

Two memory fragments. The first, from a few years ago, recalls a screening of the classic pop structuralist film by Andy Warhol, Empire (1964). Having spent considerable time reading about Warhol's film from essays, catalogues, and critiques (and having spent considerable time studying the single image that appears with most articles on the subject), I decided to attend a screening of the film held during a retrospective of Warhol's work sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I didn't have the stamina to watch all eight hours of the film, but I figured that I would arrive around four in the afternoon and take in the second half of the movie (the start time was announced as noon). Arriving at the screening I nestled into the soft theater seat, and as my eyes acclimated to the surrounding darkness I could see hazy silhouettes of a few other audience members. An occasional cough alerted me to their continued presence as I sat staring at the image on the screen in front of me. The image flickered occasionally – a scratch appeared here and there – but essentially the film image as it unreeled over the next several hours was the now familiar static shot of the Empire State Building as captured by Warhol and his cameraman, Jonas Mekas, one summer night in 1964.

Empire - Andy Warhol 1964

Empire, Andy Warhol, 1964

I found myself fixating on aspects of the image, in particular the blinking light from the building that stands in the background just to the left of the Empire State Building itself. After three hours had passed and I had grown accustomed to the image (perhaps, grown dependent on the image to guide me through the unreeling of time), the lights illuminating the Empire State Building abruptly went dark, leaving me with a seemingly blank screen. Faintly, I could still perceive the metronomic flashing light of the building in the background, but overall the frame remained black save for the intermittent specks of light revealed by scratches in the film emulsion of the print. Moments after the image went black, the single remaining audience member, other than myself, quickly stumbled towards the exit. It seemed that for this person the end of the image signaled the end of the film. With the snuffing out of the image – my visual anchor against a river of undifferentiated time – I found myself taking deep breaths to counter the effects of a profound sadness which had crept in as I sat alone in the darkness of the theater.

The second fragment of memory material, from the early sixties, recalls a late evening spent watching The Invisible Man (1933), James Whale's classic Universal horror film, on Movie 12, the late show on KPTV Channel 12 in Portland, Oregon. In the opening scene, Jack Griffin, swathed in stark white bandages, flings open the door to the quiet English pub as a cascade of snow blows in behind him. Men drinking an early evening pint and playing darts gape at the strange face of the intruder as he rudely enters the pub.

As a young boy watching Whale's film, I was horrified as much by the disfigurement of Griffin's gauze-covered face as by the power of Griffin's deranged terrorism directed at simple country folk. I spent most of the two hours that followed squinting at the image on the small black and white television through gaps in my intertwined fingers. Jack Griffin's disappearance as he unwraps his bandages made me only more apprehensive – this act of revealing an absence suggests a loss of the self as it unravels along with the Invisible Man's bandages. At the conclusion of Movie 12 (at around 12 AM most nights in the early 1960s) KPTV ended its broadcasting day by airing a short patriotic clip accompanied by an inspirational playing of the national anthem. Following this clip a gravelly male voiceover intoned, “We now conclude our broadcasting day; we will return at 7 AM with our morning telecourse…” Static noise followed as the cycle of television snow continued throughout the night.

The Invisible Man - James Whale 1933

The Invisible Man, James Whale, 1933

What links these two screen experiences is the emptiness – felt as a sadness or dissolution of self – that accompanies the loss of presence through the loss of the comforting chatter of images and sound that represents the television flow. In one case, the static image of a building on a large film screen blinks out, leaving only darkness. In the other, the sound and image of the small television screen erupts into a static fuzz of noise and a swirling sea of white spots against a black background. If, as Raymond Williams has said, flow “operates, culturally, following a given structure of feeling” then this cessation of flow operates as a loss of structure. Each of these experiences suggests a sensation regarding the flow of images that has been so far taken for granted by those in the field of television studies. We speak of the schedule, the programming, the flow, but little is said about the existential crush (the “silence” as Ingmar Bergman would have it) that follows from the cessation, or lack, of the image flow.

A generation ago in almost all regions of the US, as in the example described above, television stations concluded their programming day by signing off the air. Most television viewers under thirty – perhaps some who are older – have never seen a television station sign off. I recently mentioned the notion of “sign off” to a seminar of undergraduates, and although they vaguely knew of the concept – having seen dead air late at night on some local independent channels in the area – none of them had ever seen an actual “sign off.” The sign off, as a cultural and media form, has been relegated to the margins of knowledge about the medium by viewers of contemporary television (or at best has been cast as a relic of elite aesthetic affect as in Warhol's epic and its final black reel).
There is the engineering aspect of the sign off – the harsh sound and the screen of snow – and then there is the content of the actual program that constituted the close of the programming day for many stations. A popular sign off that aired consistently through the late seventies on many stations and into the early nineties in smaller media markets features a poem filled with kitsch images of flight described in purple prose by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a former military pilot, read by a gravel voiced narrator accompanied by stock video footage of jet airplanes soaring above the clouds. As the narrator reads the final lines, “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” Old Glory waves superimposed over jets streaming across the sky, concluding the sign off.

This excess of banal patriotic signifiers then collapses into the emotional and visual maelstrom of the non-signal signal of television snow and static noise. Can the loss of television's bounty of excess – the pathos of character, garish imagery, and repetitive narrative and emotional resets that form the basis for much of television's pleasure – in the static image of dead air snow account for the failure of the sign-off to register as a legitimate subject for media history? Have we reached a point in the history of the television medium when dead air summons up for viewers death and destruction as the only possible explanation for the loss of flow? Or is it simply the extreme kitsch of the broadcasting sign off that precludes analysis?

Image Credits:
1. KTLA Prime News
2. Empire, Andy Warhol, 1964
3. The Invisible Man, James Whale, 1933

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Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Classical Baby

HBO\'s Classical Baby

HBO’s Classical Baby

As I write this column, a copy of The Culture Industry by Theodor Adorno peers out from behind a stack of books piled on my desk.[i] His well-known arguments against mass culture and popular entertainment have been repudiated to a great extent by media and cultural studies scholars who produce empirical research on audiences. (Of course, one need not go to the extremes of late 1980s conception of the “active audience” to find evidence of the more varied, and at times sophisticated, uses of media by the average Joes and Janes of urban and rural America.)[ii] What interests me here is that part of Adorno’s argument that seems to be unconsciously reproduced by educational psychologists and well-meaning authoritarians who set themselves the task of eliminating, or at least minimizing, pleasure in daily life. (One should not march with the extremists and find that all pleasure must necessarily lead to hedonism – either in aesthetics or politics.) In the name of an authenticity of experience, these well-meaning scolds insist on demeaning audience members who “consume” television for more than the maximum allowable dose of a few glances a day – for even in the age of the Internet, television remains the bête noire lurking in the thicket of the artificial and the inauthentic. Even more contemptible to these media-phobes are those permissive parents who allow their children to consume huge amounts of television and more so those negligent parents who allow their babies to watch “TV.” Babies (as the tabula rasa of our society), this argument suggests, are surely the most defenseless against the onslaught of media and thus must absorb wholesale whatever muck oozes from the programming coughed up by television. Apparently, any activity is better than watching media. To extend this line of argument, self-mutilation is better for you, as a form of authentic human experience which allows one to become more in touch with one’s body, than watching the latest standardized, mechanized, formulated narratives on offer from television. (If you question the accuracy of this extreme notion then check out the Austrian action artists of the 1960s – Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler in particular. I am not prepared to deride their work, but the motivation behind it – the immersion in the authenticity of the body – seems questionable at best, and does lead to the conclusion that self-mutilation and defilement brings one closer to the essence of life.) Of course, the obvious flaws in this argument are revealed by noting the flattening out of the actual contents of programs as if the tube were simply a mind control ray aimed at the parent – a consumer in the flesh – and the child – a consumer in training – as if Sesame Street and Girls Gone Wild were equivalent forms of programming.

Now this argument, positing the corrupting power of communication technologies in the face of the authenticity of life, has deep historical roots. Plato made a similar argument against writing, which is as famous as Adorno’s and no less caustic. In the Phaedrus, Plato warns that writing robs children of an authentic education and undermines the faculty of memory in adults:

Thanks to you and your invention [the god Thoth has introduced writing to Egypt], your pupils will be widely read without the benefit of a teacher’s instruction; in consequence, they’ll entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment. They will also be difficult to get on with since they will have become wise merely in their own conceit, not genuinely so.[iii]

Is this not cut from the same argument made by those who warn against the negative effects of television on children? When pedagogues suggest that reading a book is qualitatively superior to watching television, do they recall Plato’s deep suspicion of the effects of writing on memory and wisdom? Of course not. For many critics of television, reading is considered active and therefore a positive contribution to the psychosocial development of the individual. Television is passive and an activity often associated with brutes, philistines, and the poorly educated.

According to a recent article on the front page of The New York Times: “Studies have proven that educational programs like ‘Sesame Street’ can aid learning for older children. But few studies have focused on developmental outcomes for children under 3.”[iv] Which seems to imply that if there have been no studies conducted – again by implication these studies must be carried out by experts, a form of the rationalized elites against whom Adorno warned (making Adorno’s argument more complex and nuanced than some cultural studies antagonists of his ideas will admit) – then there must be negative consequences for infants watching television. The corollary argument that reading a Disney picture book of Winnie the Pooh will some how damage a child’s brain is rarely made by this clique of positivist experimental types – but is it not equally possible that damaged neural pathways might occur from the printed Winnie the Pooh as much as from the televised Dora the Explorer? Damn, that Piglet and his spineless toadyism to Pooh’s suave honey bear. Praise be to Boots and his support for Dora on her complicated missions!

At this point, let me provide the reader with some needed background context. I am a new parent. Like most parents, I want to do what is best for my daughter, so I have collected scads of instruction manuals on how to raise an intelligent, well-adjusted (I suppose that excludes a future for her as a revolutionary or an artist) child. During this period of fact-finding about what constitutes proper parenting, my brother sent me a DVD of the HBO special entitled Classical Baby. Many other parents had extolled to me the virtues of the Baby Einstein series and related baby genius media, so I was a bit resistant to these HBO disks. I had no desire to enforce brilliance or cleverness on my daughter, and I certainly felt no need to compete with other parents in my immediate circle of friends. But, as much of my research centers on the history and theory of educational television, I found myself intrigued by HBO’s foray into this area (especially in light of the history of television’s being conceived as a way to deliver instruction and enlightenment to the masses and thereby becoming the subject of funding initiatives provided by the liberal Ford Foundation, a sequence of events which eventually led, in large part, to the formation of the Public Broadcasting System). Blissfully unaware that no major studies had been conducted to determine whether or not a baby of three months should be exposed to television, I began to watch Classical Baby with my daughter a couple of times a day. Classical Baby is a DVD set of three disks – an episode per disk with one dedicated to art, one to dance, and one to music. Each episode is made up of animated segments joined by a framing narrative that features a baby who enters a concert hall and conducts an orchestra composed of various cartoon animals. Each segment is animated around a short excerpt from a popular piece of classical music (as well as from assorted pop music favorites – and at this point Duke Ellington does seem classic and worthy of inclusion in a program that features Grieg and Tchaikovsky). To complement the highbrow music selections, the art program features images based on the work of modern artists such as Mondrian, Leger, and Cassatt and the dance program features the work of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. The segments are short, simple, colorful, and fun. Not much thought or attention is necessary for baby to get it (such as it is). As for my daughter and I, we watch the programs together – not through some pedagogical imperative; it just seems more enjoyable that way – and we dance and perform (I sing while my daughter twitches and coos) as the programs play out before us. Not sophisticated spectatorship, but I am unsure how this fails to measure up to other activities that we could engage in. Susan Linn, a psychologist associated with a group that calls itself the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (which begs the question of what could make Classical Baby more commercial-free, as it currently has no commercials in it), is quoted on their website: “Babies do not need HBO or any television to bond with their parents or enjoy music. Turn the TV off, put on your favorite music, and spend some time rocking, singing, or dancing around the room with your baby. Now that’s bonding.”
[v] Obviously, one can ask why the stereo – another form of media – is substantially less dangerous to the baby psyche than the DVD player. And was I in error when I spent time “rocking, singing, or dancing around the room” with my daughter while the TV was on? Is the television image – the modern version of the demon against which the original iconoclasts fought – so dangerous a supplement to our auditory sensation that it must be eliminated from a baby’s environment? I can see that an argument could be made that by selectively excerpting the art, music, and dance from its original integral form – another aspect of Adorno’s argument against mass culture – one could be denying a baby the fullness of the aesthetic experience intended by the artist, but I prefer to think that this early exposure to works of art and music – many of which I studied in depth during my own schooling – will create an impression that might form the foundation for a love of art, music and dance later in my daughter’s life. I only hope that she does not grow up to be an HBO Classical Baby snob and look down her nose at whatever media future audiences consider pleasurable.

Image Credits:

Classical Baby

[i] Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, (London: Routledge, 1991).

[ii] See David
Morley, Family Television, (London: Routledge, 1986) and Ien Ang, Living Room Wars, (London: Routledge, 1996) for foundational discussions of the uses of media by audiences backed by empirical research.

[iii] Plato, Phaedrus, (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 68-9.

[iv] Lynette
Clemetson, “Parents Making Use of TV Despite Risks,” The New York Times, May 25, 2006.

for a Commercial-Free Childhood, press release, May 10, 2005.

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Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: The Last Screen on Earth

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

He reached the summit around sunset. He phoned his wife, who had stayed behind, to tell her that he had reached the top of Mt. Fuji and planned to camp there for the night. A late spring storm had overtaken the mountain, and he feared that he would lose the trail in the snow and darkness. He would hike back down at daybreak.

He was an obsessive amateur photographer. He often carried multiple cameras — 35mm, digital, and video. They dangled from his neck as if he were the quintessential tourist — which in the best and worst ways he was. For the best, he was always curious and liked to take his family and friends on adventure vacations. For the worst, he felt compelled to document every place he went as if his daily life were a phantom of some half-forgotten better world that existed only in pictures. He rarely bored those who chose to remain at home with long-winded audio-visual reenactments of his travels; he always kept his presentations short. But he did tend to pester those around him for assistance in resolving technical matters related to the collecting or editing of his images.

Before he left for his final trip to Japan, he asked me which camera I thought he should take with him up the mountain. I responded by citing the pros and cons of a variety of digital cameras available at the time. Some were more expensive, but took better pictures. Others were cheaper, but the image quality was merely acceptable. He feared that the camera would be lost or damaged as he climbed the mountain, and I suggested that he take a cheap camera for the mountain and a more costly, higher quality one for the time spent during his other travels through Japan. In the end, he decided to follow my advice, except that he ultimately took both of the cameras with him as he began his ascent up the mountain. He was obsessive that way.

The official website for Mt. Fuji warns that there can be strong winds gusting across the face of the mountain through late May. These wind gusts combined with the icy path leading up the mountainside make for a dangerous climb. The website suggests that only experienced climbers should attempt the mountain until early summer. He told his brother that he planned to bring extra climbing gear and that he was reasonably sure that his prior experience climbing the mountain would counter the increased danger posed by the wind and snow. As he climbed, he photographed. As always he planned to bring back visual evidence so that friends and family could relive his experience vicariously through his images accompanied by harrowing tales of adventure.

The mountain rescue team that found his body was uncertain as to what exactly occurred on his descent from the summit. Apparently, he had slipped and tumbled a long way down the mountain face, ending up lying unconscious in an ice crevasse. He most likely froze to death. The rescuers assured his wife that he probably never awoke due to hypothermia and died a relatively peaceful death on the mountain. Returned down the mountain with his body was his assortment of cameras with the memory cards intact.

There is an idea that recurs in many classic macabre tales that suggests that if one looks into the eyes of the recently deceased, the last thing seen prior to death remains imprinted on the retina. For tales of murder and detection, this retinal image is often linked to the revelation of who murdered our victim. For tales of the supernatural, spirits or ghouls lurk on the surface of the retina. In any case, for these stories the retina serves as a screen upon which the moments prior to death replay, in a loop as it were, until the image fades as has the soul of the deceased. As for my friend who met his abrupt death on the face of Fuji, images from the final moments of his life were permanently frozen within the silicon memory chips of his digital cameras. Obviously, unlike the melodrama of the tales of the macabre, we are not privy to the actual events leading to his death (a truly macabre thought, that!), but we do see what he chose to represent as he traveled up the mountainside during his last hours of life.

In effect, what we have with his collection of digital screen images — a wander through the final hours of a man’s life — is an inversion of what grounds the classic, and somewhat macabre, theoretical position proposed by French film critic Andre Bazin1. His famous “mummy complex,” wherein the camera mummifies time through adherence to resemblance, is reversed so that where once we were to behold the face of the dead, now, through these photographs representing my friend’s ascent to the summit of Mt. Fuji, we behold the world through the eyes of the dead. His images are, in effect, linked to his consciousness as he selected what to document of the world as he climbed the mountain.

Of course, his images also record the contingencies of that day on the mountain — the sharp sunlight on the ice pack, the darkness and snow as night descends on the summit, the ice crystals forming on his goggles as he snaps what he does not know will be his final self-portrait — but what compels one to look at these particular images is the relationship that exists between the man, his images, and his death. This relationship for the viewer, who most likely is a friend or family member, is one of presence through absence. We imagine a presence through the fatality read onto (dare I say, through?) the photographs as we recall the narrative of his unfortunate demise.

Vivian Sobchack comments on the effect of the photograph:
“In a phenomenological description of subjective human vision, Merleau-Ponty tells us that ‘to see is to have at a distance.’ This subjective activity of visual possession — of having at a distance — is objectified by the materiality of photography that makes possible both a visible — and closer — possession. That is, the having at a distance that is subjective vision is literalized in an object that not only replicates and fixes the visual structure of having at a distance but also allows it to be brought nearer. With a photograph what you see is what you get.”2

For us, the images brought off the mountain with my friend’s body allow us to possess at a distance — by a sleight of hand of our consciousness — the mentality and imagined consciousness of his last hours on the mountain. Through his screen, as the augmentation of his vision and the documentation of his choice of images, he came to possess the world. He most likely imagined a future in which these images would be reactivated by a narrative embellishment of his own subjective state at the moment of image capture. He most likely imagined bringing back images of his exhausting climb up Mt. Fuji as one does upon having bagged big game on a safari.

But what he saw through his camera as he watched the familiar video image on the viewfinder is all that we can grasp as certain. So, as an exhibition of his trophies, as an expressive memorial to an amateur photographer, I will end this column with a short visual travelogue of my friend’s final adventure — images from the last screen on earth.

1 André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What is Cinema? (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967).

2 Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 143.

Image Credits:

Mt. Fuji

Other images courtesy of the author.

Please feel free to comment.

Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Sundance 2006

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Overheard on a shuttle as I traveled from the Sundance Film Festival headquarters to the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts: “the best film so far has been that midnight movie The Descent, you know the one with the chicks with ice picks versus CHUD.” CHUD, for those readers unfamiliar with the world of trashy eighties horror films, stands for “Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers.” Actually, The Descent was a pretty enjoyable film with its mildly feminist revision of the buddy film set against a plot that includes subterranean Appalachian piranha people who devour their victims while alive — a tonic against a schedule of Sundance festival films loaded with light romantic comedies and heavy-handed social issue documentaries (the second of which I like to watch, but this genre goes down a bit hard if it constitutes the bulk of one’s cinematic diet on a trip that averaged four films a day over four days). Out of the fifteen screenings that I attended, I saw several good serious films — 5 Days (a documentary detailing the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza), A Little Trip to Heaven (an Icelandic film noir with Forrest Whittaker as an insurance investigator), and Wordplay (a shaggy dog of a documentary about crossword puzzle makers and fans) were all stand outs.

But for this column I want to focus on another aspect of the Sundance Film Festival that most attendees know about but that doesn’t really rate entry into the fabled festival buzz: the coverage of Sundance by the local cable station, Park City Television (PCTV). Each day upon return to my hotel room, I unwound by watching PCTV’s fragmented, repetitious series of vignettes covering the big events of that day’s festival schedule. Modeled after the style and format of “Entertainment Tonight” or the E! cable channel — but aimed at the indie film crowd sensibility — PCTV featured segments entitled “In the Can,” “The Scene,” and “Big Mountain Adventure” (a segment that followed selected filmmakers as they ventured out to the Park City ski slopes). These PCTV segments were then packaged into a 30-minute program and aired on the Sundance Film Channel as a wrap up of the day’s events for those unfortunate enough not to have traveled to Park City, Utah in person.

Alternating with these canned-entertainment pieces were extended segments that featured video documentation of Sundance sponsored panel discussions and special events. The panel coverage that I found myself watching late Friday evening was entitled “Stay-at-Home Movies: The Home Theatre Experience and the Future of Exhibition.” While the panel was supposed to focus on changes in film exhibition and its consequences for independent film producers, the emphasis in the discussion was actually on new forms of distribution that generate new forms of exhibition. The panel, chaired by Bill Alpert senior editor at Barron’s Magazine, included key executives from Google.com, the Sundance Channel, Sony Connect.com, and the Wall Street Journal.

While digital cinematography and postproduction has by now gained acceptance from film producers and audiences, large screen cinematic exhibition continues to be considered the gold standard of the movie-going experience, in contrast to the diminished experience (at least for those in the film community) of the small screens of television, the Internet, or mobile phones. However, perhaps because multiplex screens have for the most part shrunken to a size not much larger than plasma TVs, or perhaps simply in response to the increasing financial pressures of big screen distribution, indie filmmakers are becoming more accepting of small screen alternatives to the standard studio distribution model, based as it is on the high costs of multiple prints and multiple theaters. The panelists on “Stay-at-Home Movies” spent most of their allotted time addressing the needs of these filmmakers — a core creative class presumed to be different from those who make Hollywood studio product — and looking at the forms of distribution enabled by the Internet and small, portable screens such as the video iPod.

The question initially raised by Mr. Alpert was, “How do content providers get paid for their product?” As the studios routinely fudge accounting and fashion deals that favor corporate ledgers at the expense of creativity, conventional wisdom states that if independent filmmakers can control distribution, they will reap a larger portion of the rewards accrued by their productions. But if small screens are the vehicles, how will filmmakers collect the cash? Of course, the model used by Google Video — in effect a video search engine (or is it a video distribution engine?) — suggests that through advertising-supported web content (the foundation of Google’s economic success), filmmakers could make, in the words of Jennifer Feikin, director of Google’s video project, “seventy cents on the dollar as opposed to the pennies on the dollar that they receive from studio deals,” implying that, as Wall Street Journal writer Kara Swisher succinctly put it: “the studios are screwing the makers.”

In response, Chris Dorr of Sony Connect.com flatly stated, “the nature of community is promotion.” Well, so be it. If we are discussing economies of scale and of promotion, then the economic model that is brought to the filmmaker by the Internet distribution model is one that simply reproduces the older studio model of production financing. While the artist hawking his productions on Google Video does reap much more of the proportional rewards than do his or her colleagues at Paramount, in the end the total amount of money earned through studio distribution still dictates that some, chosen by the financially secure agents of movie capitalism, reap disproportionate amounts of money for their efforts.

Bill Alpert noted this inequity in the studio system of production and distribution by bringing to the attention of his fellow panelists that filmmakers with studio support are allowed to spend considerable up-front money to make their creations, where truly indie producers potentially working within the Google Video model — which essentially pays after the fact of production — are much more constrained in their vision by the lack of up-front capital. So while the costs of production have declined significantly through the introduction and refinement of digital technology, the costs of distribution still depend on a large expensive media apparatus controlled by corporations that privilege certain ideas — those that generate the most revenue — over others — those that quaintly explore more complex and abrasive ideas. While the myth of Sundance continues to hoodwink filmmakers into believing that the odds of securing a distribution deal are in their favor, the reality is that only a small percentage of Sundance Festival filmmakers find these million-dollar deals coming their way.

As prophesied by the panelists, distribution through Internet Protocol (IP) systems — blogs using video, myspace.com-style websites, sling boxes, and portable media players — does seem to be the future of the media industry, but this future, at least at this juncture, holds no more limitless horizons for independent media producers than the current structure, as the means of distribution, if not production, are still controlled by corporations and IP distribution is still a part of this corporate system. Discussing the business end of the indie scene, it is hard not to slip into a neo-Marxist analysis of the matters at hand. As Feikin from Google Video flatly stated, “70 percent of one dollar is better than nothing.” Is that really the best that indie media producers can expect? Or should we just expect to live in the “small monitor town” where we all carry screens (Dorr’s location free television) which are supplemented by large screen experiences as they transpire at home or at the digital multiplex while still relying on large scale capital to supply the majority of high visibility media content?

These are questions I had hoped the panelists would answer, but suddenly the PCTV’s coverage of the “Stay-at-Home” panel discussion was interrupted, cutting off Bill Alpert in mid-sentence, to switch to an in-progress commercial for a hip clothing store on Park City’s main street. What conclusions panelists drew regarding the future of exhibition remains a mystery. But given the rather bleak future forecast to that point by representatives of the Sundance Channel, Sony, and Google — a future where corporations rule IP distribution networks just as they have done in the world of film and television, where voices are limited to those whose ideas fit within the intellectual space of the media industry, and those who fail, or who are incapable of “fitting in,” are relegated to producing on a handful of pennies — it seems that the next stage of media distribution is on track to reproduce the inequities inherent in those that came before. It seems that indie producers are still just “chicks with ice picks” pitted against the CHUDs of corporate media culture.

2006 Sundance Festival
Google Video

Image Credits:

1. Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

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Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Flatworld

by: Dan Leopard / St. Mary’s College of California

Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

Emerging from behind the singed black rubble of a factory wall, a ruggedly handsome infantryman outfitted with the latest in Army field gear flashes an all clear sign to our party of bemused observers. He lowers his rifle, smiles, and introduces himself as Sergeant Jon Blackwell. His movements are life-like, and he seems to glance about as he speaks to us. Our tour group is clustered before a translucent screen wedded to a large movie-style flat, a standalone, movable wall used on film sets. The screen itself approximates the height of a person. Facing us stands Blackwell, a resident of this life-size screen, rendered in an animated visual style evoking the characters one encounters during videogame play.

Our tour guide chats with the Sergeant using conversational banter designed to promote Flatworld – the immersive reality project within which the Blackwell pedagogical agent system represents an incremental step toward the goal of designing a fully interactive virtual human. Flatworld is one of several projects funded by the United States Army and being carried out by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. If the screens of daily life – the video monitors that are embedded in the designed media ecology of the everyday world – are invisible through their ubiquity, ever-present through impression and instruction, then the movable interactive screens of the Flatworld Project are invisible through their status as advanced research. They are removed from public view as they are meant for the consumption of only those with a need to know – in this case military trainers and entertainment industry professionals (and those like myself who have been allowed to observe through an expressed interest in machine-human interaction).

Flatworld Room

Flatworld Room

Everyday screens call to us. At a glance they entreat us to be particular people, to do particular things. I am confronted by a screen on a bank machine. It requests that I type in my PIN number and press enter. The trailer at the movie theater urges that I attend a screening of a film on opening day or soon thereafter. These are examples of the banal entreaties that bind the producer and the consumer during the myriad interactions that constitute a market economy. These screens subtly condition our identities. Implicit in screen-based transactions are forms of training regarding the world. They train us to behave in certain ways – summoning up a spark of thought not so distant from Althusser’s notion of the ideological state apparatus (without succumbing to the siren song of its most – let me emphasize “most” – sinister implications).

The Flatworld project stands at the intersection of two of the most powerful of societal institutions – the school and the military. The stated intention of the project is to create a human agent that can stand in for a human trainer. This interactive virtual human could be programmed to give instruction to new recruits as they prepare to enter actual combat situations. “Green” troops have the highest mortality rates on the battlefield as they move through the learning process necessitated by the life-threatening person-to-person, person-to-machine confrontations of combat. Each step involves a trial-and-error set of choices, each of which carries with it potentially extreme consequences. Whether one considers military action moral or immoral, the actuality for the soldiers in the field, regardless of their motivations for participating in battle, stands as a highly traumatic and disorienting experience. Interactive agent Jon Blackwell provides a new recruit with a human-like guide through participatory scenarios that will allow the recruit to make mistakes and walk away with knowledge, but without a bullet or shrapnel in the back.

Back at the tour, as Sergeant Blackwell jokes and interacts with our tour guide and responds to carefully phrased questions from selected tour members, it becomes obvious that Blackwell, at least in this version of the interactive virtual human scenario, is using a set of canned, scripted answers. Obviously, the intention of our audience’s interaction with this virtual human prototype is merely for the sake of publicity which side steps the hard-to-access actuality of a fully functional programmed avatar for military instruction. Blackwell shifts occasionally from side to side and gestures to us as he responds to questions ranging from the functionality of the flats that comprise the Flatworld simulation room to the voice recognition program that drives the real time interaction during training with virtual humans.

I glance about at the cavernous space of the warehouse that houses Flatworld. I notice two additional areas that are designated as models of Flatworld as it will come to be realized at some future date. One space approximates a shanty house with wall width screens representing a view looking out over the horizon of a war ravaged middle eastern city, while another space opens out onto an alleyway that at times harbors a swarthy enemy combatant and at other times a fellow soldier or civilian non-combatant. Should the new recruit shoot or offer a gesture of good will? This is the stuff of spy stories and cop shows, of course, replayed through countless television and film narratives of training for espionage and law enforcement (as well as representing the basic play structure for both first-person shooter games and even the much lauded Sims 2).

If one performs a web search for Flatworld, it seems that this project has been exhaustively written about by many newspapers and mentioned on numerous blogs, but if one is careful to read what has been written or produced about the ICT, most of the work closely follows the contours of a single ur-narrative, most likely the excellently produced publicity material generated by the ICT itself. Through whatever underlying intent, the ICT’s PR materials function to blur the militarism inherent in all of their projects, funded as they are by the US armed services, while emphasizing the gee-whiz wunder-tech aspects of each of the technologies embedded in each project. While the ICT screens have been exposed to the public-at-large through various media outlets, their projects still remain unseen by most, and what has been seen is always mediated by the filter of promotion designed to bathe each project in the glow of an aesthetics of videogames and movie special effects. (Both of which are, of course, influential in the visual and conceptual style of ICT projects and will in turn benefit from the research conducted at the ICT).

It is tempting, if one is sympathetic to the play of videogames such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto, to confirm this form of training new recruits as merely the next step in the use of simulation training by the military, a tradition that stretches back to at least the cold war world of the 1950s. Conversely, if one opposes the already overwhelming militarism of the current world picture and the ratcheting up of representational violence in media content, then this use of the videogame and special effect mentality can seem to be the latest step toward a scalding dystopia of programmed (in)humanity. Either way, one would be hard-pressed to deny that games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto present to their players a symbiotic relationship between violent character interaction, pulsing sound effects, and stylized graphic environments. And a modified form of this cultural form is exactly what the Flatworld military training simulation represents. Obviously, on the ground during combat it does matter whether the figure standing behind that door as it opens is friend or foe, but, in the world of screen technologies and their use in developing virtual interactive humans, is that binary – friend or foe, at base the most fundamental human interaction – the defining way to conceptualize relations between flesh-and-blood people and their programmed counterparts?

Image Credits:

1. Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

2. Flatworld Room

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Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: The Supermarket

As I enter my neighborhood supermarket, I pass beneath a television monitor mounted about five feet above my head. I glance up at the screen and see myself enter the store, the sliding glass door to my back and a rather bored looking young security guard, arms crossed leaning against the lotto machine, to my side. A small camera attached to the base of the monitor provides a continuous stream of images throughout the day. I suppose this screen must serve to warn any potential thieves that they are being watched. As a subject of the camera and its screen, I am now either a dissuaded thief or, perhaps most likely, an oblivious innocent as I notice that most shoppers entering through this door fail to look up at the surveillance screen. Whatever intention the store managers had in displaying this screen at this location, it goes for the most part unseen. I only notice this surveillance screen because I have come to this store with the express intent of seeing the screens that I normally ignore or overlook.

I grab a shopping cart and begin my trip through the aisles. At the rear of the store, past the bottles of organic juice, baggies of instant salad, and cartons of lactose free milk, stands a bank machine idling next to a full service teller window for a large bank chain. Whereas the shopper in relation to the screen display at the store entrance is given over to the identity of proto-thief or would-be bandit, the screen of the bank machine performs a routine function — dispensing cash, accepting deposits, informing on account balances, and the like. While the bank screen differs from the surveillance screen in that there is no starring role for the subject on the screen itself, the user does become the focus of the screen during the transaction. Thescreen directly addresses the user by delivering an instruction or by asking a series of questions. Insert card. Instant cash? Do you want to print a statement of your last ten transactions? Graphics appear on the screen, short animations that serve to entertain — if you can call it that — and to provide the user with a logo-like branding of the bank’s identity. Figure 1 provides a sample screen shot of the image as it flits past the viewer/user. To this screen, I am one of the bank’s valued customers.

Bank Machine Screen

Figure 1: Bank Machine Screen

Concluding my business at the bank machine, I load my shopping cart with food and arrive at the checkout line. The final screen that presents itself is a flat screen monitor mounted on a pole above the cash register about eye level with me as I transfer my food selections to a conveyor belt leading to the cashier. This screen rather loudly advertises items for sale in the store, local businesses, and upcoming programs on the Food Network while providing recipes for shoppers who have remembered to bring their notepads to the line. This “check-out” screen signals the eventual demise of the ubiquitous, decades old magazine rack located at the end of most cashier aisles (Figure 2). While in the past one has been offered the opportunity to glance through, and hopefully purchase, Time, Newsweek, or the Weekly World News, now one may gawk at a video screen conveniently placed for consumption. I recently became excited by the teaser for the season premier of Emeril Live and learned how to cook a nutmeg flavored, orange glazed ham (although I failed to bring my pocket notepad, so I have forgotten several of the steps in the process).

Emirel Live

Emirel Live

While each of these supermarket screens participates in the ritual of grocery shopping, each serves a different function and ascribes a different subjectivity to the shopper. The screen mounted overhead at the entrance door serves to warn away shoplifters. Its image is silent, blurry, and continuous. The bank machine screen interacts with the shopper signaling activity through a series of beeps and music. Its image is both fragmented and functional. Finally, the checkout screen serves to distract shoppers as they wait in line to pay for their chosen food stuff. It is bright, sharp, loud, and rapidly edited. If the other two screens dissolve into the designed environment of the supermarket — each item for sale and each surface for display beckons to me while feigning a ubiquitous naturalness — then this final screen proclaims its need to seduce and distract me. In so doing, like an insecure performer on stage, it displays its newness to the supermarket scene. The design of product packaging and display advertising draws on a lineage leading back to the beginnings of consumer capitalism, while this checkout screen stands uneasily as a bastard hybrid of the magazine rack, the candy display, and the television commercial.

As media theorist Vincent Mosco suggests: “the real power of new technologies does not appear during their mythic period, when they are hailed for their ability to bring world peace, renew communications, or end scarcity, history, geography, or politics; rather, their social impact is greatest when technologies become banal.” Public screens, even as they address us, attempt to blend in, to deflect our attention. During my previous trips to this supermarket, I had ignored the surveillance screen, cursed the bank screen for non-responsive buttons, and shielded my eyes from the checkout screen. Yet, nevertheless, each of these screens had called to me and I had on previous trips responded with the subjectivity that they — or to be less anthropomorphic, their designers — intended for me to display. What this micro-ethnographic glance — a frame of mind rather than a research method — reveals to the subject of these screens (in this case myself) is that these screens make us do things — refrain from shoplifting, withdraw cash, bake a ham.

Work Cited
Vincent Mosco. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 19.

Urban Screens Conference
Surveillance and Society

Image Credits:

1. Bank Machine Screen

2. Emeril Live

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