Www.culturalfarming.com                                                                                                                                                                                 http://Www.culturalfarming.comhttp://www.culturalfarming.com/shapeimage_1_link_0

1st International Visual Methods Conference,

University of Leeds, UK

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Session Presentation

Cultural Farming: TV, Visual Methods and the Ethics of Failure”

by: Holland Wilde

Oral Text:

Good afternoon.  Today, I will be showing you 67 individual video clips, in three groupings.  I will show them to you in simple-random order to orient you to my particular object of research.  And by that I mean, I study common moving-images… or in a word, television… North American style.   It took me about 10 minutes to assemble these 67 clips, because I have thousands of them… I’m guessing four hundred thousand, maybe more.  You see, I collect them now, because I am a visual designer: A visual rhetorician. 

For 35 years I’ve visually interpreted logocentric texts for a living.  It is my particular skill.  But today, I do almost the opposite.  Today, I talk back to my media through my media.  I write equally with words, images and sounds by appropriating and remixing TV/media’s language and technique into a kind of experimental elicitation… a kind of ‘show-and-see’ for encouraging new methods for critically engaging visual culture.

When I submitted for this conference, I figured “ethics” would be the least likely category to present my visual methods.  So, I’ve redesigned this presentation especially for you today.  I will now sketch my visual method story, and then paint for you my personal ethical predicaments.  But, first, let’s look at some of the very common television I am researching with Cultural Farming…  PLAY VIDEO: first third



So to begin, by what ‘authority’ do I stand before you?  Well, after receiving my first terminal degree trained as a Broadway stage-designer and spending 15 years designing scenery and costumes, I gravitated to television, where I worked for twenty more years, in the US, and around the globe.  Indeed, I was awarded 10 Emmy’s from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for my TV designs, particularly for news. 

However, all hell broke loose in U.S. media once President Bill Clinton signed the telecommunications act in 1996 allowing unrestricted media ownership through deregulation.  Indeed, almost overnight my newest TV clients grew increasingly younger, inexperienced, and distracted.  They were the new number-crunchers.  They moved up the corporate ranks quickly but their careers were short-lived.  Journalism was rarely mentioned anymore during design presentations.  I was no longer hired on expertise but pressured to participate in vapid competitions where the only designs bought were the prettiest, the most seductive, the most carnavalesque. 

Long-standing principles of visual communication were ignored in favor of ‘sexy’, eye-grabbing, grotesque imagery.  The term I coined for this new visual style was “techno-rococo.”  What was happening to visual communication?  If professional theatre production had failed me, and TV news and journalism were withering on the vine, what would be my next move?  Maybe a second terminal degree would be the answer.  So, I closed my shop, dismissed my design assistants, and I walked away from a very lucrative, high profile television career.

And, it was during that transition period in 2004, well before FaceBook, before video-blogging, before YouTube -- and, while I was receiving a string of cold rejections from nine different U.S. PhD programs -- that I sat down and forced myself to watch television news all over again with new critical eyes looking beyond mere practice to see how the visual combines with all aspects of production, text, performance and ideology.  Well, I was flabbergasted.  TV news was changing so fast; I had blinked for just one season and I was missing it already.  Was I the only one watching this moving target?

How could I pause this endless spectacle of deviance called television long enough to study it?  I went out and bought three personal video recorders and began to archive whatever struck me as I watched it on TV.   As my archives quickly grew I began to mix a few clips together… and soon became addicted to something I had never known before: MAKING MOVING IMAGES.  I culled exemplary clips from my archives and made hundreds of small Quicktime, mash-up movies on my computer every day in sheer unadulterated ethnographic fashion -- creating little curiously surreal observational media stories. 

Immediately I could see the potential and the problem.  Would I make my movies in the mannerisms of big media?  Would I jack up each video with silly, vacuous content?  Would I use every special effect offered?  Would I go for the quick and easy punch line to keep my friends entertained?  Would I simply make more Jon Stewart Daily Show cynicism?

So, I set a few restrictions to scaffold my initial approach.  Each mash-up could only be 60 seconds long in order to sharpen my skills through the confines of brevity.  And, I could only use free and simple video tools readily available to most of us in the western world to construct the content like Apple’s iMovie software.  Looking back now it was clear that I was mastering every facet of mise en scene without even knowing the term.  I experimented with most every kind of video technique imaginable as I remixed my TV archives: quick-cutting, long takes, editing to music, using color, B&W, framing and composition, adding voice-over, adding text… it was all there.

I was collecting, recording and organizing media’s traits; recognizing and interpreting patterns, rhythms, and essences as the pre-text to writing culture with television.  Indeed, I was practicing vital, classical, forms of visual ethnography while I was playing… while I was slowing down media, distilling, concentrating, re-editing, and remediating content, which is so profoundly familiar to us I fear we can no longer even see it anymore.  I was finding a new visual voice and I was teaching that voice to communicate beyond mere rhetoric and towards a new brand of surreal, critical, theoretical practice.

Immediately a pathway was opening to me.  Could I build from this approach a methodology to mingle and test the critical theories of the Frankfurt School of Adorno and Walter Benjamin; to the culturally situated Birmingham School of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams; to the visually pragmatic Chicago School of John Dewey and Howard Becker; to the technological biases of the Toronto School of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan; while perfuming it all with the diaphanous Parisian philosophies of Baudrillard, Barthes, Bourdieu, and Debord?

What about the truly surreal like Breton, Duchamp, Man Ray, Magritte?  And what of the early Russian filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein?   Was it possible to weave these stunning similarities with all I had seen and experienced during my TV news-production career?  In other words, could I reflexively write theory with existing media?   And, could I do it all following the untapped potentials of ethnographic surrealism? 

Indeed, as I began to make compilations of my strongest mash-ups, I soon realized YES, I could actually tell my own critical-theory stories using TV content alone.  It was a revelation.  Throughout my entire life I had watched TV… now finally I could talk back to it didactically, dialogically, dialectically.  I could provoke a kind of critical-exchange by reusing TV’s own language and technique.

Today, Cultural Farming contains hundreds of hours of free-to-use, uncopyrighted research including over 70 video essays and a dozen visual ethnographic projects.  For instance, it includes a video blog database with 2,500 videos uploaded for comparison.  It includes a self-writing montage machine, a project I call Baudrillard’s Blender containing 12,000 video-clips based upon the news-coverage of last year’s U.S. Presidential Election.  Other Cultural Farming projects, include topics like pornography, digital visuality, Hurricane Katrina, and the U.S. school shootings on the college campus of Virginia Tech.  Many of these videos challenge a wide array of academic thinkers, others critique everyday visual-production practices, and all challenge existing media theory.  I encourage everyone to go to Cultural Farming.  Look around.  It is a free-to-use gold mine filled with hours of teachable moments… and all built from everyday TV like this….  PLAY VIDEO: second third



Ok, are you with me so far?  Are you getting a sense of my foreboding visual predicament?

Well, even though none of us can predict the future, and contrary to recent obituaries, television is not going away anytime soon.  Indeed, TV remains the fattest visual and rhetorical ‘pipe’ into most western homes today, and so its potential for learning and teaching are almost boundless.  Television’s influence is increasing not decreasing, providing the richest resource for visual data-mining we have today.  However, too many visual scholars marginalize TV.  It is dismissed as old-school and seen as considerably less “sexy” than “new media”, the internet, or virtualites like Second Life.  Today, writing about television is horse-and-buggy – “been there, done that”.

Well, I see it another way.  From my point of view most all forms of media communication today are struggling mightily to become a kind of television.  Because it is the Holy Grail of visuality: The convergence of instantaneous synchronized sound with moving images.  And everybody wants a piece of the action.  However for Cultural Farming, television -- once coupled with today’s deluge of recent media technologies like:  Broadband, iMovie, Blogger, YouTube, cell phones, Quicktime -- offers emancipating potentials for purposefully interrogating our constantly morphing mediated worlds. 

We must master and utilize these media, not only in our own research, but also as an everyday means of civic, instructional discourse to help inform and reform any media that inhibits full democratic participation.  And we can do exactly this today by folding these new technologies and techniques into our visual-method practice.  Anyone inclined can do exactly what I am doing with Cultural Farming.  

And so, as my research continues to provoke “big” media production and presentation -- particularly with my ex-clients and ex-cohort in TV news and journalism -- I hope to also provoke my comrades in the academy.  And there lies the rub.  No one, particularly smart people, and particularly academics… nobody welcomes provocation.  We’re all demanded to make meaning, to provide fixed answers.  And so, our research methods too often become negotiations to get the final say. 

Cultural Farming, however, to use George Marcus’s phrase, is a “messy” project; one that is intertextual, multi-voiced, open ended, resistant to theoretical holism, yet committed to invigorating contestable complexities of cultural criticism; and all while folding my own story into the mix to produce a meaningful, performative, critical media discourse about the crazy worlds we all inhabit.  Cultural Farming is personal, longitudinal, experimental ethnography – for provoking taken-for-granted methods and for challenging “fixed” meanings.  And so, I would like to think, Cultural Farming is a necessary antidote to the inept infantilism we see permeating so much of today’s visual fetishism.


And it is exactly here, where my doctoral research was to reside, in the critical, visual, cross-pollination of commonsense media practice and communication theory.  I want to test existing theory with media content as much as to experimentally 'write' with existing moving images. 

However, from my perspective, much of the academy continues to resist visual writing.  Even though today, the visual has become a kind of “value-added” prerequisite so necessary for selling contemporary scholarship... even though today, “the visual” is gaining purchase as the obligatory “cherry” on top of every dissertation cake.  And so, I stand here confused, disempowered, and one inch away from ending from my essentially-completed PhD and leaving the academy altogether. 

It is certainly not because of the superficial criticisms I’ve encountered with Cultural Farming; rather it is because the academy clings to prejudice, to hypocrisy and arrogance by privileging the written word while everything about us continues to evolve.  From my point of view, we are all teetering on the edge of visual-method seduction, even while we simultaneously prohibit its full, logical implementation in research.  But then, I suppose, how could it be otherwise? 

In my particular case, I was prohibited from writing my television research with television at one university in Canada… and today, I am insultingly ignored at a ‘practice-based’ PhD program in Australia.  Yet, at every turn, I am told to abide the PhD quest, to obey academic tradition, to play the academic game, to push my round work through the academy’s square hole and get the PhD ‘union card’ at any cost.  But you know, I’m beginning to question: A union card for what?  Can there be such a thing as visual peer review within organizations so steeped in logocentrism, and so untrained in visual communication?

And so, here I sit, a 56 year old, opinionated, white American male doing exciting, necessary visual scholarship.  But it is work that is also often provocative, political, polemical; and often made with very difficult, exploitive images, which are purposefully made without ownership or copyright and publicly given away for free on the internet; and utterly unpublishable in paper journals… and, which focuses on that tired, banal genre called television.  And so, I find myself in a visual-pickle.  To the casual academic observer, I’m much-too-much a visual maverick and my work much-too shocking.  Thus, Cultural Farming is often viewed as unruly, vulgar, suspicious, worthless, narcissistic. 

Worse still, I struggle to do my visual research within shoulder-fields of academic study that continue to argue their own identities.  I mean, where do I fit, exactly?  Am I in Visual Communication, Media Aesthetics, Visual Rhetoric, Visual Culture, Visual Studies…?  Am I interdisciplinary, intra, trans, multi, cross, anti-disciplinary?  Am I in Cultural Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Linguistics, Film Studies, Art History?  (Or more to the point, why must I choose?)

And so without getting overtly melodramatic here, an essential ethical question I face is this:  Would any of your departments ever consider a provocative visual-methods PhD misfit like me?   I wonder.  And yet, my work offers very unique advantages in a mediated world exponentially expanding; where monumental concerns to visual research loom unanswered on the horizon like media monopoly, digital rights management, net neutrality, and fair usage.   And so, I face huge obstacles that inhibit me from researching our most common, everyday, media… Like this stuff:

PLAY VIDEO: third third



Now, in case you missed it, I’ve been discussing ethics for several minutes already because ethics is an enormous idea that infiltrates everything we do and say, at every level.  And for me, ethics is neither relative nor purely pragmatic.  Rather ethics is a constant struggle... a deeply reflexive stance that filters every decision I make throughout my research.

Meanwhile, for good and for bad, television remains the most ubiquitous, insidious, visual ethics teacher ever devised.  It teaches all of us, by example, at every turn, around-the-clock, whether we choose to acknowledge its lessons or not. 

Yes, throughout my professional career I worked side-by-side with many of the most talented visual media artists working today.  Yet, as these video clips demonstrate, television remains a vast wasteland.  Why?  From my point of view it is because these very talented TV visualizers have had little or no ethical, reflexive, and theoretical training.  Their daily job is quite simple: To constantly create newer and better seductions.  Indeed, there can be few other options in this world of late-capitalism.  Visual seduction is paramount, which is fueled as much by ignorance as by spectacular skill.   However, the opposite is also true.   And, academia must learn this… or else…

And so, I’ll end my presentation now with one, rather harsh, yet simple, ethical warning.  Please, do not use visual methods in your research unless you understand and have mastered critical communication production.  Adding pictures to decorate page layouts, ghastly composition, opaque charts and graphs, mishandling fonts, and fumbling technology are but a few of the clumsy, egregious ineptitudes erupting throughout today’s new academic rush to embrace visual-methods.  Beyond that, we must remember visual communication is a sensible language, meaning OF-THE-SENSES, and thus, it is a most ambiguous language -- an epistemology unto itself, equally important to other languages.  And so, it is visual craftsmanship, which is the first baby-step to inoculation against craven commentary and practice.

Indeed, the practice of visual production carries massive intellectual implications.  And, just as I would be utterly dismissed by the academy if I mishandled media theory and methodology; so, too, should your work be dismissed when you fumble critical, visual proficiency.  So remember, employing visual methods in scholarship means twice the work… and thus a doubling of complications… because both demand equal amounts of intensive ‘bi-lingual’ mastery. 

Moreover, images are both polyphonic and polysemic.  Yet, it is the propensity of too many scholars to treat all texts as if they had no other purpose than to be decoded, thus choking-off the methodological potential of visuality?  I mean, it is more than paradoxical -- isn’t it -- that the same people whose lives are spent fighting over words, should now strive to fix “true” meanings within the visual-methods project?  This is a deep concern for me and for Cultural Farming because what is at stake here is: The objectifer, getting caught up and distracted in the very important, and delicate, critical work of visual objectification.

And believe me, I’ve seen precious little production acumen during the 17 academic conferences I’ve presented to over the last three years.  (And frankly, I find this Visual Methods conference little exception.)  So please, consider your production and your application of visual methods very carefully.  Because being “seduced” by visual-methods in research is almost impossible to resist today -- at least for anyone living in this world -- where notoriety, power, profit and advancement are as infectious here in academia as they are out there in industry.

So please, I beg you, stick to words if you cannot draw.  Stick to words if you can’t use video software.  Stick to words if you do not understand the breathtaking aggressive power inherent in every camera.  Stick to words if you aren’t critically proficient in PhotoShop, or if you can’t even master fundamental visual methods in PowerPoint presentations.  Please, we have enough clumsy, reckless, seductive, visual scholarship already. 

I’m trying my damnedest to master your theoretical expertise; I expect you to do the same with mine.  It’s that simple.  It’s that ethical. 

Thank you very much.