Report “Amateurs and/as Experts” workshop Maastricht

Report “Amateurs and/as Experts” workshop Maastricht

By Tim van der Heijden

On November 21-22nd, the international workshop on “Amateurs and/as experts” was held at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, Maastricht University. Bringing together different approaches to users and different types of users in media and technology studies, the workshop challenged the conceptualizations of ‘amateur’ and ‘expert’ in the adoption, appropriation, and domestication of media technologies such as film, video, radio, television, and the Internet.

The workshop was co-funded by the University Fund SWOL and organized by our research project “Changing Platforms of Ritualized Memory Practices. The Cultural Dynamics of Home Movies”. It was the last workshop in a series of workshops organized this year, each one centralizing one of our project’s main themes. (In October we organized a workshop in Bremen on the concept of Media Generations; and in June we discussed the Dispositif-concept in Luxembourg – click the links for the reports.)

One of the central themes of this workshop on “Amateurs and/as experts”, was the relation between amateurs and experts. After a word of welcome by workshop organizer and project coordinator dr. Jo Wachelder (Maastricht University), media historian and project member prof. dr. Andreas Fickers (University of Luxembourg) introduced the workshop’s theme in which he pointed out that what defined the “amateur” or the “expert” has changed over time and, from a sociological perspective, has always been subject to “boundary work”. Although the amateur has been studied extensively in the fields of sociology and leisure studies, not many studies in the field of the history of technology have focussed on the role of amateurs. Only recently there is a general interest in the role of users in the appropriation and “co-construction” of technology (cf. Edgerton 2006; Oudshoorn & Pinch 2005).

Fickers argued that in the course of the 19th and 20th century the meaning of ‘amateurism’ has changed significantly from a positive to a negative one. An amateur used to be a true hobbyist who practices his hobby for the love of it – in Latin ‘amare’ literally means ‘to love’. Nowadays, however, the amateur has been defined more negatively, as a non-professional who practices something only with small know-how. Prof. dr. Patrice Flichy (L’Université Paris-Est Marne la Vallée) recognized these negative connotations, but at the same time acknowledges the potential of the Internet to democratize digital amateur practices for the domains of arts & culture, the public sphere, and the production of knowledge. As Flichy has argued in his recently published book Le Sacre de l’Amateur (2014), developments of technology and communication (e.g. web communities) have enabled amateurs to deploy new competences, which gives them an increased ability to compete with experts like doctors and politicians.

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Also museum curator Bart Grob (Museum Boerhaave Leiden) mentioned the democratizing potential of the Internet as a factor in the changing relationship between amateurs and experts. By posing the question ‘who are the experts’ Grob sees that the conceptualization of users, experts, collectors and restorers has drastically changed over time. The “classical museum” of the 19th century, in which the visitor is the spectator and the curator the expert, contrasts with the notion of the “network museum” of the 21st century. From this perspective, visitors function more as co-creators and experts as collaborators and facilitators. An example of the latter is the Mix Match Museum, a recent initiative between six museums in the Netherlands which invites the audience to participate in (online) exhibition making.

The question of democratization returned in the second session, which discussed the blurring boundaries between media consumers and producers in the digital age. Game researcher Dr. David Nieborg (University of Amsterdam) argues that the production of a successful video game requires a lot of money, whereas virtually everyone can make a successful app. The extremely successful game ‘Candy Crush’ functioned as a case to illustrate the political economy and the commodification of connectivity behind the popular social media app. Dr. Annika Richterich (Maastricht University) introduced the potential of “hackathons” as a strategy for audience development and participant engagement in cultural institutions like galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM). The NWO-project ‘Hacking Heritage, which she coordinates together with Dr. Karin Wenz (Maastricht University), addresses the question how to implement digital technologies in cultural institutions to enforce new user practices in the field of heritage.

Dr. Susan Aasman (University of Groningen) approached the blurring boundaries in online media practices from the perspective of the history of documentary filmmaking. Starting with a personal testimony video by Ed Matos, who broadcasted his struggle with cancer on YouTube, Aasman argued that tendencies to “broadcast yourself” can already be found in documentaries from the 1970s onwards. While documentaries previously oriented themselves almost exclusively towards the ‘outside world’, they have been increasingly shifting their focus on the Self (‘looking inward’) while adopting various amateur technologies (Super 8, video). Dutch filmmaker Ed van der Elsken serves as an interesting example of how the subjective (biography) approach and ‘amateur style’ was brought into the professional domain of broadcast television.

The workshop’s second day was opened by a session devoted to the arrival and domestication of video. Video artist pioneer and scholar prof. dr. Christoph Meigh-Andrews (University of Central Lancashire) started off with an insightful presentation on the emergence of early artists’ video in Europe and the United States and its relationship to broadcast television and avant-garde cinema. With several examples, Meigh-Andrews showed how during the 1970s many experimental video artists placed the video medium in opposition to cinema and television aesthetics. One of the most striking examples of how video technologies altered the sound-picture relationship is perhaps “Violin Power” (1978), a video by Steina (Vasulka) which was designed first and foremost as a time construct:

It was the signal, and the signal was unified. The audio could be video and the video could be audio. The signal could be somewhere outside and then interpreted as an audio stream or video stream. It was very consuming for us and we have stuck to it. Video always came with an audio track, and you had to explicitly ignore it if not to have it.”

While Meigh-Andrews explored the arrival of video technologies from the avant-garde communities of the 1970s, dr. Ryan Shand (University of the West of Scotland, Paisley) departed from the communities of organized amateur filmmaking in Scotland. By conducting several oral histories with film club members, Shand was able to chart various attitudes towards what it means to be an amateur, and how club members regarded the arrival of new technologies. He argued that a lot of amateur filmmakers were actually “technophiles”, interested not so much in the films themselves but particularly in the amateur film (and video) technologies used for production. Tom Slootweg (University of Groningen) offered a proposal to study the video amateur in the Netherlands according to three different modes: the home, community and counter mode. These three different modes can be very helpful to delineate between several social groups that use video and regard themselves to be amateurs.

In his presentation on the history of communication by radio waves, prof. ir. Klaas Robers (TU Delft / Philips Research Lab) noted that the technical expertise of serious amateurs has been important in regard to processes of technological development and innovation. This was demonstrated along with the case of the 21-year old radio amateur Johan Numans, who was the first to establish a short wave transmission from the Netherlands (Radio Kootwijk) to the former Dutch East Indies (Radio Malabar) in 1925. By means of several (inter)national disasters among which the 1953 flood in the Netherlands (‘Watersnoodramp’) and Hurricane Kathrina, professor Robers – a vivid radio amateur himself – argued that radio amateurs are often the only ones still able to make connections in these circumstances, hence should be conceived as the ‘real experts’.

The last session was devoted to the theme of “materializing memories”. Tim van der Heijden (Maastricht University) scrutinized the phenomenon of “technostalgia” in contemporary memory practices. Posing the question why people shoot their family images in old-fashioned ways by means of digital applications such as Instagram, Hipstamatic and iSupr8, he argued that these memory practices inform a double ‘mnemonic’ process in which not only the memory has been mediated, but also the technology which enables the processes of (re)mediation. In the case of the iSupr8 ‘app’, for instance, the staged authenticity of the film grain adds to the “technostalgic” experience of the family – in this case the extended “family” of workshop participants:

In their project “Materialising MemoriesIne Mols & Mendel Broekhuijsen (TU Eindhoven) approach the relationship between media technologies and memory practices from an ‘interaction design’ perspective. Departing from the fact that media can serve as memory cues, they aim to investigate how technology can play a meaningful role in the creation of memories of everyday life experiences. One of the recurring questions in relation to the workshop’s theme was how to differentiate between amateurs and experts in such highly personal processes of memory creation and retrieval: “Can one be an expert in cue curation?” Researcher Andy O’Dwyer (BBC research & development) presented two recent projects by the BBC archive which can be considered as tools for cue creation in relation to the British radio and television archives: the Genome project and the Radiodan. Both initiatives aim for “unlocking” the BBC archives, thereby stimulating new forms of user access and public engagement.

Wrapping up the workshop, Andreas Fickers pointed at some of the most prominent recurring issues. Coming back to the definition of the ‘amateur’, he rightly argued that we should distinguish between users of media technologies who consider themselves amateurs and those who have been labelled as such by others. One of the workshop’s outcomes is that many different aspects can be taken into consideration to evaluate the amateur’s self-identification, i.e. motivation, rationality of aim, values, norms, passions, traditions, forms of institutionalization, symbolic capital, etc. Consequently, it might be useful to differentiate not only between different users, but also between different kinds of amateurs: serious amateurs, hobbyists, enthusiasts, fans, symbolic amateurs (artists performing as amateurs), political activists, etc. Perhaps the most important conclusion of a stimulating workshop in the beautiful city of Maastricht!

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