A media archaeological experiment performed at the 9th edition of the International Orphan Film Symposium, EYE Film Institute Amsterdam
By Susan Aasman
I. Introducing “Staging the Amateur Dispositif”
How did people deal with a machine like the projector? What were the social dynamics during this interaction of users with the technology? Who was allowed to handle the thing and who was not? How much experience did you need to have before employing the video recorder? Who were invited to watch the private images? What kind of logistics was needed to make the living room a space for screening movies or videos or iPhone images? What were the rules during the screening? May you talk or not? May you walk or not? May you smoke or not?
With these questions, we – the project team of “Changing Platforms of Ritualized Memory Practices” – opened up an experiment at the 9th edition of the International Orphan Film Symposium held at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam (March 31st, 2014). Instead of giving an academic lecture, we decided on performing how people watched their home movies in different time periods. The experiment directly relates to our research interest to understand how changing technologies of memory production have shaped new practices and rituals of memory staging. Moreover, it was also a tryout of alternative ways of presenting our research project to an international audience.
By means of the experiment we wanted to address the problem that screening practices belong to the more ephemeral moments of family life. They are about watching recorded moments, but they are usually not recorded themselves. They have seldom been materialized in documents. And as they were temporary gatherings or activities, we don’t have access to them anymore. And when, on top of that, the machines of memory production also become obsolete, deep knowledge about them disappears beyond our reach.
That omission brought us to explore a new method that could help us to understand changes in how families screened and watched their own home made imagery. We developed a theatre play, staging three scenes in which we meet a small family called “the Mavericks”. As we met them in the 1950s, in the 1980s and in the 21st century we hoped to be able to explore what it means to watch home movies, home videos and digital videos online. Through these historical re-enactments we were able to capture some of the experiences gone by.
When trying to explore past media usages, historians have generally concentrated on the analysis of written evidence of the past, for example texts like how-to-do manuals, amateur or expert journals, or advertisements. In the case of home movies, there are, of course, the films themselves in various formats such as 9,5, 16 or 8 mm films, video tapes or digital recordings. To a much lesser degree though, historians have paid attention to the material traces of past media usages, such as technical artefacts like cameras, projectors, screens, television sets, video recorders or mobile phones.
All of these texts, objects and visual representations are traces of a period gone by. They are rich material in their potential as witnesses of past media usages. But do we really make use of this richness so that we can we make sense of past practices by only writing about it? Can we do more than that? Why do we not make use of our own senses and our body in trying to grasp the complex meaning of things? As we explain in the play: discourse analysis is a one-dimensional intellectual appropriation of the object of research. It neglects the „material“ and „sensorial“ dimension of past media practices. Therefore we tried to gain a more experimental kind of knowledge production that is not necessarily about reconstructing authentic historical experiences, but more about creating a sensorial experience.1
II. Lessons learned
To us, the performance was an unforgettable moment of scholarly exploration, which certainly needed an evaluation. We came up with five lessons learned:
Lesson 1: Unscripted moments
The aim of our experiment was to confront the theory of the amateur film manuals that tell us “how- to” with the social dynamics of family life and their interaction with technology. The genre that we choose for doing this experiment was that of the theater play/comedy. There was a certain tension in trying to entertain an audience, building a story with an academic level, working with pre-conceived notions of what the story should look like and the idea of doing an experiment. Still, it worked in a certain way. While developing the script and rehearsing the play, we gained new insights through our experiences with both the social and the technological aspects of our endeavor. Especially the moments we didn’t foresaw, when things happened that were unscripted, turned out to be most valuable, including the reactions of our audience. That, in the end made the live performance, a true experiment with unexpected but valuable results.
Lesson 2: Building the scene
As the film shows, the scenes we performed basically entailed nothing more than building the scene: preparing the living room for screening a home movie or video, follow the instructions of the manuals, employ the projector and see what happens. We needed to think about issues as where to place the camera and projector and white screen? How to make use of the space of the living room and what good does it bring to literally follow the instructions of the manual? Some of the advices sounded more like preparing a military operation, including activities like measuring space between the chairs and screen. As expected, it was much easier to use video as a format in the living room since the basic apparatus of projecting – the television set – was already part of the household ensemble. It was not by coincidence that manuals instructing the viewer on how to prepare the living room were not available.
This “daylight dispositif” – as Dr. Ann-Katrin Weber described the typical viewing context of television2 – brought a certain loss as well: what happens to the ritual of a collaborative preparation of building the scene that so characterized the home movie screening dispositif? No moving around of chairs, no need of closing of the curtains, no big screen that somehow makes the images of family members appear like movie stars on the white screen. Instead new experiences emerge: you are on television, there can be negotiations as to what tape will be played, who sits were on the couch and how loud the sound should be amplified. Quarrels where to find the right tape and where to find the right clip on the tape could also be part of this practice. If there is no careful administration of the treasured moments, the family can be in trouble. So what then follows will be a tiring process of playing the tape fast forwarding or rewinding or even both, until the right moment has been traced and the screening may begin. It turned out that the logics of use of playing a video enables synchronous sound but that this “affordance” constrains the viewing experiences as well, since children have to keep silent as synchronous sound can only be heard when everyone is silent.
Lesson 3: Whose memories?
During the play we tried to emphasize different attitudes towards the screening practice between generations: see the 1980s scene wherein the mother’s aspirations and expectations of watching a home video are not shared by her children. They feel ashamed and even embarrassed when being confronted with their actions and the way the camera portrays them. Probably, but this we could not stage, only later in their lives they will treasure these recorded moments of their early youth. Being the single mom in this scene, I could imagine feeling lonely for not being able to share this moment and being disappointed when the son interrupts the scene by forcefully ending the tape.
This action by the son indicated another intriguing aspect of home video screening practices: the power over the remote control and thus over who is in control over the whole viewing process. This seems to be less clearly marked as in the 1950s. It is an interesting problem to unravel the complexity of influences of the social, the cultural and the technological. Is it because the eighties saw a different family constellation with a certain amount of redistribution of power of parents and children that is different from the more authoritarian model of the 1950s? Or is it because the remote control enables different kinds of uses? In our play we did could not decide on this matter.
Lesson 4: Communities
When Tim and Tom grew up to become old enough to have their own camera, they also had by default a viewing machine. Technological devices like the iPhone and iPad combine those functions that were once strictly separated. This radically changed the logic of the user as producer and as viewer. In our experiment the boys become immersed into their small screens so there is no collaborative viewing anymore. Or in sociological terms: the individualistic activity of hanging over your screen means that watching your images have become something of a ‘bowling alone’ experience. The ritual has evaporated, it could be argued. Still, that is not what we experienced when performing our play. What happened was that at the moment Tom and Tim turned their camera to the audience – so they could see themselves beamed on the big screen – they started waving to Tom and Tim and to themselves. A new community emerged, you could say. This moment of togetherness was not scripted. I think we could learn from it. It should warn us to the fact that with every new technology something is lost, while something else is regained as well. If we allow ourselves to look further and beyond the man and his sole screen, we could be sensitive to detect new rituals: that the uploading of images on Facebook, or sending ‘vines’ over the Internet stimulated new forms of valuing those images. Tagging, commenting, liking etc., arise as new kinds of materialized moments of interaction.
Lesson 5: Art of failure
One of the biggest lessons was in fact a major failure. In the first scene, at a particular moment, the father failed to wind the reel in the projector. And even worse: when the film was finally in the projector, the lamp broke and we were unable to screen our home movie. Bad luck, but… the audience laughed. And even more surprising, they accepted this moment as part of the screening practice. They thought it was a moment that was scripted! That moment of laughter made us aware of the importance of people’s relation with technology. And this becomes most clear at those moments when technology fails. Or better put: when people’s interaction with technology becomes a struggle.
As Ian Hutchby stated: “technology frames the material processes of interaction”.3 This does not mean – as Hutchby explains – that technology determines its trajectory, but it surely is “a resource for making meaning”. Tracing this materiality of interaction does become fruitful then in an empirical and experimental way: How do people find ways to manage the many constraints and possibilities that emerge from affordances. And how can such moments of technological failure become part of the ritual as well? It is not a moment that designers of technology want to happen. It is also not a moment that manuals help to resolve in a more non-technical or social manner. But it is part of the whole practice that gave both pleasure and brought annoyance, which together became co-constructive in the whole process of making meaning. They made me re-evaluate a remark done by Roger Odin that bad made home movies are the best ones: because they leave room for filling the gaps while watching and discussion over what had happened at the time of recording.
The “art of failure” was our biggest finding. Ethnographic research is almost impossible when it comes to historical situations, simply because these moments are usually not to be found in the archive. We believe that by experimenting with the technologies – for instance by doing this theatrical performance that aimed for re-enacting and restaging earlier screening practices – we can get closer to understanding certain emotional, sociological and technological aspects of its practices. It sensitizes us in a new way. Altogether, these lessons learned made this staging of the amateur dispositif worthwhile.
1 The text of this blog is based on the original script for the theatrical play “Staging the Amateur Dispositif” written by Susan Aasman, Tim van der Heijden and Tom Slootweg. Ideas expressed in the introduction of the script refers to the pleas for experimental media archeology written by: Andreas Fickers and Annie van den Oever, “Experimental Media Archeology: a Plea for new directions”, in: Annie van den Oever (ed.), Techné/technology (Amsterdam University Press 2014), pp. 272-278.
2 See the blog report ‘Dispositif Workshop Luxembourg University’, by Tim van der Heijden.
3 Ian Hutchby, Conversation and technology. From the telephone to the internet (Cambridge Polity 2011).