Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Pirate Cinema: Hacking, torrents, and boundaries

In thinking through some of the themes from this week and the week before, I was reminded of an installation that went up at a gallery I worked at in Montreal in 2013. It was called "The Pirate Cinema," by hacker artists Nicolas Maigret and Brendan Howell, and was comprised of 3 screens set up in a room that live-streamed peer-to-peer media in real time. Here was the artists' statement during the festival: 

"In the context of omnipresent telecommunications surveillance, “The Pirate Cinema” makes visible the invisible activity and the geographic implications of peer-to-peer file sharing. The project is presented as a control room, which instantly reflects P2P exchanges happening in real time on networks, which use BitTorrent protocol. The installation produces an improvised and syncopated arrangement of files currently in exchange. The immediacy of the presentation of digital data, including fragmented information about source files and their destinations, depicts the topology of digital information use and the global reach of data dissemination.

Having seen the installation firsthand, I can attest to its mesmerizing quality, somewhere between the experience of flipping channels -- surrendering a certain amount of control as a viewer, unable to choose what came next -- and scrolling through a website like Tumblr, moving quickly between snippets of diverse content. Watching media -- predominantly American television, pornography, and music videos -- travel quickly across the globe, very often through networks that never required a file to pass through the United States, was a fascinating way to think about sharing of media and the ways that online media feels utterly divorced from its real-world origins and history of circulation once it gets to us. Who are these "peers" with whom we enter into contractual, anonymous agreements about sharing media? 

It seems that the official website for the installation is still live: if anyone is interested.

I think this piece raises a lot of interesting questions not only about rights and surveillance, but about the ways that the Web both is and is not a community, the ways that dominant discourses reproduce themselves across national borders and the ways that the Web can undermine those borders, and equally, what it might mean to think about the Internet as art, as performance, as a site of resistance, and as a form of the televisual. I'd love to hear what you guys think of it!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Archer goes Noir

I'm not sure how many other people have been keeping up with the newest season of Archer (after all the schenanigans of delaying the season 7 premiere with the creators completely reworking the show) but it's back and it's greater than ever. Archer decided to take on the Noir. I wonder how we can consider genre about a show that is so multifaceted that it's just taking on particular genres and playing with them from season to season. Two seasons ago we had Archer Vice, and now Noir/Police Procedural. It's unclear if from merely the season opener if this will be the last season of the show (watch the first episode of season 7 to find out why) but as we move forward in our paratext, referential, hybrid-genre spewn world, when do we consider these hybrids to be creating their own moments? Unclear, but if you're obsessed with Hollywood noir films or with older cop procedurals, definitely go see if you can find the easter eggs pretty blatantly scattered throughout and often subtly named in the episodes. I've attached the season teaser to this, but I'd love to hear what y'all think.

Core Post 5: I like Youtube

So much of the “television” I watch nowadays consists of Youtube tutorials, vlogs, and haul videos. 

Show me how much washi tape you bought today.

I like to think that this avoidance of cinematic, narrative, scripted, and produced content represents a burgeoning interest in the kind of "new media" we've been talking about throughout the semester and NOT an indication that my brain has already shut itself down for (eternal) summer vacation. In any case, I look at this subset of Youtube videos, which fall into the recently profitable 'Lifestyle' category of social media content, as being specially positioned at the intersection of multiple discourses from this and past weeks: TV and the Internet, producers and consumers, private and public space, personal authorship and commercial sponsorship.

In "Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web," Tara McPherson (Hi!! :-D) identifies the initial distinctions between television and the Internet (in its relative infancy) that have become so nebulous today. While both mediums are united by and contingent upon an "illusion of liveness," TV was historically seen as a passive experience, through which audiences were encouraged to identify with onscreen content via a fixed gaze. In contrast, the Web represents three different "modalities of experience," categorized by McPherson as: volitional mobility, the scan-and-search, and transformation. To summarize them: 1) A sense of mobility and agency driven by volition is represented by the cursor, which marks our presence and trajectory, tracking "clicks" or choices that “guide” our virtual movements; thus desire is formed and transmitted through the processes of “liveness” or “real time.” 2) The scan and search is an expression of volitional mobility, a lateral impulse toward 'the next thing' rather than an imposed unity or fixed gaze (as with TV). And finally 3) The promise of transformation is embedded in all Internet processes for they offer the opportunity to “[remake] information into a better reflection of the self” (205). Of course these modalities of experience are often a by-product of corporate machinations and are not without ideological consequences. McPherson questions how Web spaces might train their users for a "new Neo-Fordist experience" (207) and "enable specific selves and particular publics" (205).

While Youtube is a media exhibitor with its own structures of engagement distinct from other websites, Youtube Lifestyle videos (haul vids, vlogs, reviews, and tutorials) do engage with ideas of desire and liveness through apparent authorship. With roots in lifestyle blogging, many Youtube "authors" have capitalized on bedroom content creation as a democratic and transparent space through which corporate bodies (such as those mentioned in McPherson's article) might be counteracted or filtered out. The subjects, hosts, authors, and producers of these videos are the Everyman or Everywoman, teaching viewers how to successfully apply a smokey eye from a fellow consumer's perspective. Yet desire and liveness play a key role in the videos' educative appeal: one key aspect of engagement is the viewer's identification with the video producer. Check these GRWM (Get ready with me) videos (1.6 million results!!):

Viewers get to feel like they are occupying the same time and space as the producer, and producers work hard to make it feel as if the video is a collaborative effort and shared experience -- the assumption is that together, producer and consumer are getting ready for a night out or unboxing a new product or driving to check out a new coffee shop. Such an intimate unveiling of personal life thus becomes an avenue of commerce and instruction: as producers build relationships with their viewers, they not only expect participation in return (Subscribe, comment, and share plz!), but implicitly adopt positions of power through the subject position. One need only look at "career" or "veteran" Youtubers such as Zoella, Michelle Phan, Pixiwoo, and Jenna Marbles to locate how an industry can be built around the "I" of a video blog--via the merging of work and leisure, research and entertainment, labor and merchandise, within what McPherson calls a "neo-Fordist feedback loop" (206). Furthermore, as companies and corporations have become alert to the power of the lifestyle vlogger, sponsorships, advertisements, endorsement deals have emerged as a by-product and marker of their success.

Not only can you be a Youtube partner,

You can be an outside brand ambassador:

This has sparked a pretty recent conversation (though long in the making) about transparency, trust, and industry practice, in which consumers have begun to draw dividing lines and to negotiate the conditions of their loyalty within the creator/consumer relationship:

New FTC guidelines for sponsored content
Can You Really Trust a Beauty Blogger?

More things to think about: How do Youtube and Youtubers continue to structure the volitional viewing experience for their watchers? How might the 'double construction' of such content both indoctrinate and alert viewers to their own practices of image construction?

Core Post 5

The readings for this week examine how television (in its industrial, aesthetic, and spectatorial capacities) constitutes itself when untethered from an actual, physical television. This move “Outside the Box,” to borrow Amanda Lotz’s title for this week’s article, disrupted the spatiotemporal predictability previously thought a given of the medium. It is this disruption that Lotz charts in her article. Many of the industrial obstacles Lotz notes involve the emergence of what she calls “convenience technologies,” which include the DVR, VOD, and DVD. Networks previously relied on a certain level of audience passivity, in order to predict that viewers would remain physically planted and attentive to advertisements. Convenience technologies turns the audience from a passive recipient of television’s temporal flow (bringing us back once more to Raymond Williams) to an active craftsperson of that flow. The obstacle for advertisers and networks, then, is to construct predictability within this newly individualized temporality.
Lotz is right to note that these technologies put viewership dictates in the hands of the viewers themselves; at least for a time, because as Debbie Harry assured us, the industry is “gonna getcha one way or another.” Lotz also tracks the dark side of convenience technologies, noting the ways that these conveniences develop dependencies that provide a more acute managerial watchfulness. These convenience technologies double as another manifestation of Bentham’s panopticon, because while they bring the viewer closer to pleasure it is only insofar as they bring the viewer closer to their occupational duties. The employer knows where their employee is located: on the other end of the line.
This is admittedly a rather pessimistic reading of post-TV technological developments. However, I do concede that there are consumer and audience-driven benefits that come from these convenience technologies. The increased connectivity and communizing that results from such convenience allows for a quicker dissemination of news, politics, and grassroots organizing. These spaces within digital media allow for viewers to remain active in spite of the watchfulness. That is, until the next technology arrives.

Core Post 5: Post-TV Tastes

In “Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web,” Tara McPherson asserts the need for a medium-specific phenomenology, and not just an ontology, of the Web: that is, beyond simply defining the Web as a medium, she is interested in “how the Web constitutes itself in the unfolding of experience” (201), in the ways it relates to and interacts with its users, and more specifically, the way it can “structure certain experiential modalities for the user [which can help to] situate that user within particular modes of subjectivity and within the networks of capital” (201). That is, the Web-browsing subject is of special interest to McPherson not just for the ways s/he is interpellated and constituted not only by the Web but by those social, historical, and economic realities that structure the Web itself. McPherson is also interested in the ways that a phenomenology of the Web might further help us understand the medium’s crucial differences from television. For example, while “liveness” is an important part of the experience of both television and the Web, McPherson notes that “the Web structures a sense of causality in relation to liveness, a liveness which we navigate and move through, often structuring a feeling that our own desire drives the movement” (emphasis mine, 202). It is movement, rather than presence, that constitutes the particular liveness of Web browsing. McPherson goes on to trace the multiple and overlapping temporalities/spatialities engendered by the Web, and the (illusion of) choice and autonomy we experience within these temporalities, designating this “volitional mobility.” She describes the “scan-and-search” as the Web’s version of flow, the economies of attention and information once again predicated on a basic sense of agency or activity (rather than passivity) that is so fundamental to our experience of the Web. Ultimately, however, the kinds of power that we perceive ourselves to have when we use the Web, according to McPherson, are enormously, if not inevitably, bound up with the same hegemonies that are at play in other, older media – the Web engages “the user’s desire along different registers [from television, malls and freeways, as Margaret Morse writes] which nonetheless still underwrite neo-Fordist feedback loops” (206). Corporate, capitalist interests still loom large, even if they have gotten better at hiding themselves.

To refer back to my emphasis above, the reference to the importance of feeling like one’s own desire translates directly into action calls to mind, for me, the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, outlines the ways in which ‘personal taste’ – in things as innocuous as food, travel, sport – is never quite as personal or autonomously construed as we would like to imagine it to be, but is instead always embedded within a set of social, cultural, and economic expectations, assumptions, and aspirations. In discussing art, for example, he writes, “any legitimate work tends in fact to impose the norms of its own perception and tacitly defines as the only legitimate mode of perception the one which brings into play a certain disposition and a certain competence” (Bourdieu 28). He then notes: “the apprehension and appreciation of the work also depend on the beholder’s intention, which is itself a function of the conventional norms governing the relation to the work…in a certain historical and social situation and also of the beholder’s capacity to conform to those norms” (Bourdieu 30). When we move through the spaces of the Web, particularly those which more explicitly share something with the experiences of art – streaming television, to be sure, but also social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr which allow users to curate, construct, display, and critique their own work and others’ – the notion of ‘taste’ and ‘distinction’ between better and worse, more or less legitimate content is profoundly informed by social class and other subject positions. In considering a phenomenology of the Web as we experience it in 2016, and particularly for a generation for whom identity is so profoundly wrapped up in the construction of Internet personae, I think McPherson’s phenomenology of the Web raises interesting questions about why we like the things we Like.

The Volitional Mobility of Chatroulette: Live Action FPS games [core post 5]

Due to what is either incredible coincidence, or more likely a rather timely and self-evident proof of the value of Tara’s arguments about the ontology of the web, I happened to watch the perfect YouTube video just before reading her article. With an impressive 10 million views, it’s a recorded video of several once-live events mashed together: random individuals on Chatroulette who found themselves faced with the option to play a “live action first person shooter” (FPS) game instead of, well, chat (or whatever it is folks get up to on Chatroulette). The invitation to read the entirety of Tara’s article in light of this serendipitous piece of web media is too tempting for me to resist.

As Tara pointed out, the web itself is about liveness: both ideologically and ontologically, whether illusory or not. Her argument that choice and mobility (volitional mobility) work with this sense of liveness to produce the defining web experience is echoed by both Parks and Lotz, but in neither is it articulated so clearly as here: “Thus, unlike television which parades its presence before us, the Web structures a sense of causality in relation to liveness, a liveness which we navigate and move through, often structuring a feeling that our own desire drives the movement” (202).

Currently, the desire for liveness is most evident in the popularity of sites of live streaming (like Twitch), but the sense of autonomy is typically more limited--hence the caveat about the largely illusory nature of choice. Viewers can navigate to whatever live streaming video game they choose on Twitch, but it is the streamer who makes all in-game choices. The viewer is still more a viewer than a participant, despite the limited interactivity of the chat box.

Sites like Chatroulette that offer two-way simulcasting seem more promising in terms of offering choice on both sides: you can choose your stream, choose what you’ll stream, and interact with the other streamer if you like. Though the creative potential of this model is not often pushed to its boundaries, rare occurrences like the above-mentioned live streaming FPS do happen. This case is a perfect example of volitional mobility taken to the furthest boundaries allowed by the medium. Players control the “character” (a live human cosplaying as a FPS character) through verbal and text commands given in real time. They watch the “character” move through the physical world according to their commands, navigating elaborately decorated dungeonesque spaces and firing prop weapons at costumed monsters. The “character” actually talks back to the players, offering limited guidance to help players confused by the novelty of this experience. The volitional mobility of this experience is remarkable, and about as open to possibility as is physically allowable, given that players can give any verbal command they wish and are not limited in any way by the interface itself. Ordinary FPS games give similar illusions of choice, but because players interact with computers instead of humans, choice must stay within the boundaries of the programming.

That’s not to say this event is entirely open--players are restricted to commands that are logically and physically possible, of course (no use asking the character to jump 6 feet high, for example. You *can*, but the character will be unable to fulfill the request). Furthermore, no matter how expansive the environment and narrative, there are still boundaries between the “in game” world and the ordinary world. Should players try to leave the confines of the game, they would surely be redirected toward the pre-planned narrative options. However, because this game is based on human-human interaction instead of human-computer, there seems to be significantly more flexibility in terms of such narrative containment, and each iteration is necessarily improvised.

Of course, only a few lucky folks had the opportunity to play this game live. Most experience it in dead, pre-recorded form on YouTube, where none of the choices belong to the viewer, making it more like the standard experience of web television. Perhaps due to the obviousness of the choice available to the original players that are unavailable to most viewers, a sense of scan-and-search anxiety seems pervasive throughout. Like with both VR and 360 degree videos (in which viewers must use their cursors to move the camera around the pre-recorded video) a willingness to tolerate (or perhaps even a desire for) this anxiety around potentially missing information--the narrative branch not taken, the corner left unexamined--is a prerequisite for participation.    

Core Post #5: Post-TV

In “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence”, Lisa Parks discusses the cultural and social impacts of ‘postbroadcasting’ television practices. “Convergence is not just about the coming together of technical systems; it involves the shifting meanings of converging technologies as well.” (134) Giving special attention to representations of gender, class and race, Parks analyses current discourses towards this new combination of television and computer technologies.
One of the aspects discussed in her articled that I found to require further thinking was the idea of the switch from television as a collective experience to an individual practice. Parks claims that industry leaders have been interpreting this new age of 'postbroadcasting' as the era of ‘personal television’. Indeed, most entertainment platforms today require a personalized account that will provide the viewer suggestions tailored according to their individual preferences. It is almost as if our television habits are now under surveillance – it seems impossible to watch Orange Is The New Black without being bombed by Netflix with suggestions for Lost Girl and The L Word (Netflix doesn’t seem to know I have watched them all already…). Even though it seems kind of scary to take into consideration that all of these online platforms keep track of our personal tastes, there is also an element of convenience to this experience. It is just more comfortable to have your next show to binge brought to you instead of having to search for them yourself.
There is a new tendency in the entertainment market, and networks and streaming platforms seem to be investing all of their creativity to join the competition. With content available in multiple platforms, one could argue that democratization of television has reached its higher point. However, the financial borders of the industry persist to determine who may access their entertainment content. YouTube, for instance, have recently launched YouTube Red, a platform that offers premium music, commercial free videos, and original content with your favorite YouTubers, for “only” $9,99/month. While some familiarize with the most convenient television habits so far, many others remain excluded from this experience.

In Post-TV, those who can afford it have the opportunity to schedule their own programming, a tendency that Parks identifies as the removal of spontaneity. Aside from big events on broadcast networks—and certain shows that behave as such—the exercise of watching television seems to be becoming an individual, lonely practice.