Listing entries tagged with history
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American Social History Project brainstorming 12.02.2008, 8:29 AM
(Thanks for your patience - the blog is back!)
On Friday November 21st, we met with the American Social History Project and several historians to discuss the possibilities for collaborative learning in history. Attendees included Josh Brown, Steve Brier, Pennee Bender, Ellen Noonan, Eric Beverley, Manan Ahmed, Nina Shen Rastogi, and Aaron Knoll.
There was a general consensus that academics tend to resist the idea of collaboration (for fear they won't get credit, and thus might not achieve tenure) and they prefer not to reveal their work in progress, instead unveiling it only when it achieves publication. There is a popular idea in academia that a single all-knowing expert is more valuable than a team of colleagues who exchange ideas and edit one another's work. In the sciences, research is exchanged more freely; in the humanities, it's kept secret. A published literary or historical work is supposed to be seamless. Nina mentioned that occasionally there is a piece published like the recent Wired interview with Charlie Kaufman where edits are visible (one story that keeps popping up in magazines is Gordon Lish's edits for Raymond Carver). Bob stated that he believes we are on the brink of a whole new sort of editor, one who is recognized for excellent work when the edits she has made are available to readers.
Academics tend to see their goal as becoming the top scholars in their fields. One problem with this is that it limits their digital imaginations. If one becomes transfixed on becoming the single (digital) source for information of a certain subject, or even several subjects, the most one can build is a database. A compilation of such data is not synthesized. In a history textbook, one can read a single person's synthesis of data. In the Who Built America? CD-ROM, one could view original sources as well as that a single person's synthesis, so that one could decide whether that synthesis was any good. The group agreed that they do not want to eliminate the single thread of narrative that holds the original sources together, but they want to figure out a way to use the technology available to its fullest extent.
Another problem that attendees agreed this project would face was appealing to different pedagogical styles. If instead of standing before a class and giving a lecture with a bottom line, the teacher were to give students video, audio, and text that were from original sources, and ask them to do their own synthesis, this would be a completely new way to teach. The textbook exists to aid a teacher in presenting her own synthesis of the content. Some teachers will inevitably resist a change in their teaching methods. Ellen suggested this project may change pedagogy for the better. However, there is value for classes at, say, a large community college, in having a single textbook with concrete bottom lines in every chapter, but these will probably not be the market for our project.
Bob said Voyager was especially interested in producing the American History Project for CD-ROM because it was not a textbook, it was a book for people who like history. The AHP has struggled with marketing itself as anything other than a supplement to textbooks, and worries about losing something by slicing the content into chapters to fit the textbook format. The new project would face these same challenges. On the other hand, the AHP has had success especially with AP classes, and it may be possible to market to a small community of teachers who are interested in nonlinear learning.
We spent much of the meeting parsing the meta-issues of taking on networked textbooks, and we feel strongly that there is something to be gained from shifting our focus from "objective" history to participatory history, a history you can watch, break down, and join. Comment sections, links to related pages, and audio/video materials would enhance the new history project and enable students to better understand the process of how history is written. But most importantly, we want scholars and students to learn history by doing history.
the indeterminate dvd 11.02.2008, 6:31 PM
On a clear day, Guy Maddin might be my favorite living film maker. He's not to everyone's taste (The Heart of the World, complete on YouTube, is a good litmus test), and I won't attempt to convert the unbelievers. But anyone who would decide that Knut Hamsun's Pan should be a Vaseline-lensed movie set on an ostrich farm inside the earth (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) or who is making a movie about Raymond Roussel with John Ashbery can't expect me to be rational and objective about what they do. Regardless of my sympathies, his work is formally interesting, and I think it bears scrutiny if we're interested in how artistic forms change with technology.
While not entirely uncommercial, Maddin's films set out to take filmmaking apart to its component pieces. Much of his work mines the aesthetic of the silent era of film making, particularly the German Expressionists, with grainy, high-contrast imagery, prominent use of intertitles, and grandly theatrical acting. Watching Maddin's work reminds us that the form we know as the feature film is very much a constructed form, and we, as its audience have learned to read it. This is something we generally forget – the feature film has been around longer than just about anyone has been alive, and it's as much a part of our mental furniture as the novel or the poem. But this wasn't always so – in his autobiography, Luis Buñuel recalls watching early films in Spain:
In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and 'explained' the action to the audience. 'Count Hugo sees his wife go by on the arm of another man,' he would declaim. 'And now, ladies and gentlemen, you will see how he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out a revolver to assassinate his unfaithful wife!'
It's hard to imagine today, but when the cinema was in its infancy, it was such a new and unusual narrative form that most spectators had difficulty understanding what was happening. Now we're so used to film language, to the elements of montage, to both simultaneous and successive action, to flashbacks, that our comprehension is automatic; but in the early years, the public had a hard time deciphering this new pictorial grammar. They needed an explicador to guide them from scene to scene.
I'll never forget, for example, everyone's terror when we saw our first zoom. There on the screen was a head coming closer and closer, growing larger and larger. We simply couldn't understand that the camera was moving nearer to the head, or that because of trick photography (as in Méliès's films), the head only appeared to grow larger. All we saw was a head coming toward us, swelling hideously out of all proportion. Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, we believed in the reality of what we saw.
(My Last Sigh, trans. Abigail Israel, p. 32–33.) Maddin has resurrected this idea of the explicador in his most recent films, a loose biographical trilogy about his youth in Winnipeg – Cowards Bend the Knee (about, roughly: ice hockey; beauty parlors; abortion clinics: Sarah Palin avant la lettre); Brand Upon the Brain! (orphanages; young detectives; gender confusion); and My Winnipeg (sleepwalking; urban development; nostalgia). Brand Upon the Brain! is the most ambitious of the three: for the release of this film last year, Maddin mounted a theatrical production, where musicians provided a live soundtrack, foley artists reproduced the film's sound effects, and an interlocutor narrated the film.
Watching the film this way is a disorienting experience: the audience sees the film and is drawn into the suspension of disbelief elicited by film. But between the audience and the screen are those creating the sounds that are part of the experience: while on the screen the audience sees a man going up the stairs, the audience can't avoid seeing the foley artists who are making the noises of the man going up the stairs. The Russian Formalists would have called this estrangement.
Brand Upon the Brain! has just been released on DVD by Criterion; watching it in this form is a very different sort of experience. Of necessity, it's a reduction of the richness of sensory experience of watching a live production. (Watching a movie on DVD rather than with an audience in a theater is always a different experience. In a theater, we are part of an audience and should behave in a certain way: generally, we don't shout at the screen, or answer telephones in the midst of things, for example, because we are conscious that we're part of an audience and have been socialized to behave properly.) One can't fault Maddin or the Criterion Collection for this: movies are, of course, supposed to make money, not everyone could go to the live performances, and sometimes, Russian Formalists be damned, we don't want to think about estrangement so much as we want to watch a movie.
But it's still worth watching Brand Upon the Brain! on DVD. In a nod to the film's original production, the DVD contains eight different soundtracks – three different narrators recorded in a studio, and five different narrators recorded in live performances in New York. The film thus viewed can be very different – as a sample, here's a scene from near the beginning with three different narrators. First is the default choice, Guy Maddin recorded in a studio:
then John Ashbery, again recorded live:
then Isabella Rossellini, recorded live:
What the viewer sees is the same; but even though the narrators say the same things, what the viewer hears is very different. Maddin sounds bored and dismissive of his imagined biography; Ashbery sounds like your crazy uncle; Rossellini sounds like she's been brought in from some wildly different film, possibly a European imagining of things are in Canada. It's worth emphasizing that the music and sound effects in these three clips are different, as they've been recorded live in the Rossellini and Ashbery performances.
This DVD is an odd artifact: the film that it presents is in a sense indeterminate, presenting multiple possible films. It's a trick that I've never seen exploited before, which is strange: multiple soundtracks for a film have been possible since the Laserdisc appeared thirty years ago. This particular aspect of the DVD is not new; it's just something that it's taken artists a long time to explore. It's odd, really, that at a point in time when more movies are viewed on DVD than in theaters more films aren't targeted as specifically to that viewing environment. It's also striking to me how slowly technology changes. Criterion's Brand Upon the Brain! could effectively have been released on Laserdisc: granted, DVDs are more convenient than Laserdiscs, but there's nothing tremendously different in the possibilities for presentation. Blu-Ray, the designated successor to the DVD, promises a Java support, enabling more complex features, though no one seems particularly excited about a new physical format for movies, and I imagine that it will be years before anyone does anything interesting with this. Technology doesn't wait for our ability to work constructively with it.
art and technology, 1971 10.29.2008, 1:08 PM
A quite note to point out that LACMA has announced that they've posted the long out-of-print catalogue for their 1971 Art and Technology show online in its entirety in both web and PDF format. It's worth looking at: Maurice Tuchman and Jane Livingston, the curators of the show, attempted to match artists from the 1960s with corporations working with technology to see what would happen. The process of collaboration is an integral part of the documentation of the project. Sometimes attempted collaborations didn't work out, and their failure is represented in a refreshingly candid fashion: John Baldessari wanted to work in a botany lab coloring plants; George Brecht wanted IBM & Rand's help to move the British Isles into the Mediterranean; Donald Judd seems to have wandered off in California. And some of the collaborations worked: Andy Warhol made holograms; Richard Serra worked with a steel foundry; and Jackson Mac Low worked with programmers from IBM to make concrete poetry, among many others.
One contributor who might be unexpected in this context is Jeff Raskin (his first name later lost an "f"), who at the time was an arts professor at UCSD; he's now best known as the guy behind the Apple Macintosh's interface. We've mentioned his zooming interface and work on humane interfaces for computers on if:book in the past; if you've never looked at his zoom demo, it's worth a look. Back in 1971, he was trying to make modular units that didn't restrict the builder's designs; it didn't quite get off the ground. Microcomputers would come along a few years later.
a brief history of book 02.12.2008, 9:57 AM
In the Institute's London office we've been talking about how to get across the message that the book has been through permanent change throughout its history, to knock on the head the simplistic argument of good old page v bad new screen. Here's my first stab at a beginner's guide.
another chapter in the prehistory of the networked book 05.18.2007, 3:05 PM
A quick post to note that there's an interesting article at the Brooklyn Rail by Dara Greenwald on the early history of video collectives. I know next to nothing about the history of video, but it's a fascinating piece & her description of the way video collectives worked in the early 1970s is eye-opening. In particular, the model of interactivity they espoused resonates strongly with the way media works across the network today. An excerpt:
Many of the 1970s groups worked in a style termed "street tapes," interviewing passersby on the streets, in their homes, or on doorsteps. As Deirdre Boyle writes in Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (1997), the goal of street tapes was to create an "interactive information loop" with the subject in order to contest the one-way communication model of network television. One collective, The People's Video Theater, were specifically interested in the social possibilities of video. On the streets of NYC, they would interview people and then invite them back to their loft to watch the tapes that night. This fit into the theoretical framework that groups were working with at the time, the idea of feedback. Feedback was considered both a technological and social idea. As already stated, they saw a danger in the one-way communication structure of mainstream television, and street tapes allowed for direct people-to-people communications. Some media makers were also interested in feeding back the medium itself in the way that musicians have experimented with amp feedback; jamming communication and creating interference or noise in the communications structures.
Video was also used to mediate between groups in disagreement or in social conflict. Instead of talking back to the television, some groups attempted to talk through it. One example of video's use as a mediation tool in the early 70s was a project of the students at the Media Co-op at NYU. They taped interviews with squatters and disgruntled neighbors and then had each party view the other's tape for better understanding. The students believed they were encouraging a more "real" dialogue than a face-to-face encounter would allow because the conflicting parties had an easier time expressing their position and communicating when the other was not in the same room.
Is YouTube being used this way? The tools the video collectives were using are now widely available; I'm sure there are efforts like this out there, but I don't know of them.
Greenwald's piece also appears in Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority, a collection edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland which looks worthwhile.
the new harpers.org 04.11.2007, 3:02 AM
Harper's has a new web concept designed by Paul Ford of F Train. History bears heavily on the refurbished site, almost overwhelmingly -- especially compared to the stripped-down affair that preceded it. But considering that Harper's has a more than ordinary amount of history to cart around -- at 157 years, it's the oldest general interest monthly in the United States -- it makes sense that Ford and the editors had time on the brain. A journal that has published continuously since before the Civil War, on through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, civil rights, the 60s, the Cold War, right up to the present carries a hefty chunk of the national memory -- and a lot of baggage, good and bad. So it's fitting that the new design is packed with dates, inviting readers to dig into the past while also surveying the present. I can't think of another news site in which the archives mingle so promiscuously with the front page spread. The result is a site that feels as much like a library as a periodical.
Directly beneath the title banner and above stories from the current issue is a highly compressed archive navigation, three rows tall. On the top row, Harper's 16 decades fan out from left to right. Below them are the ten years of a given decade. Below that, the twelve months of a given year. Thus, every issue of Harper's ever printed is just three clicks away. Of course, you need a subscription to view most of the content. (A hint, though: articles between the 1850 debut issue and 1899 are all available for free at the website of Cornell's Making of America project, which undertook the task of scanning the first half-century's worth of Harper's.)
Clearly, the editors have been thinking a great deal about how to use the web to bring Harper's' long, winding paper trail into the light and into use. The new design may be a little over-freighted, but shine light it does. By placing current events in such close proximity with the past, things are nested in a historical context -- a refreshing expansion of scope next to the perpetual present of the 24-hour news cycle. Already there are a few features that help connect the dots. One is "topic pages" that allow readers to track particular subjects through the archive. Take a look, for example, at this trail of links for "South Africa":
- 4 Images from 1983 to 2001
- 67 Articles from 1850 to 2007
- 2 Cartoons from 1985
- 44 Events from 2000 to 2007
- 10 Facts from 1999 to 2006
- 4 Stories from 1888 to 1983
- 2 Jokes from 1881 to 1912
- 4 Photographs from 1987 to 2001
- 1 Poem from 1883
- 6 Reviews from 1887 to 2005
A smart next step would be to let readers trace, tag and document their own research trails and share those with other readers. This could be an added incentive for a new generation of Harper's subscribers: access not only to an invaluable historical archive but to a social architecture in which communities and individuals could interpret that archive and bring it into conversation with the contemporary.
row after row after row after row 11.10.2006, 8:04 AM
I want to tell you about one scene in a wonderful documentary, DOC, that just opened the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Doc Humes was the founder of the Paris Review. Made by his daughter, Immy, the film follows Immy as she tries to uncover the layers of her father's complex life. At one point she finds out that he made a feature film and she tries to find the footage. She gets a tip that Jonas Mekas may have a copy at Anthology Film Archives in the east village in New York. She goes to visit Mekas and takes her camera. Mekas takes her into the vast underground storeroom and points at row after row after row after row of film cans. The point of the shot is that looking for the film on these shelves -- even if it were known to be here, which it isn't -- is a hopeless task. Nothing seems to be marked; there is no order. Rather than a salvation for the rich film culture that came out of NY in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, it seems that the Anthology Film Archive may become a graveyard.
Seeing this made me wonder about the decisions we make as a society about what to keep and what not to keep. There may be important film in those cans or there may not be. How do we decide whether to gather the resources to find out?
lapham's quarterly, or "history rhymes"* 10.19.2006, 9:03 AM
Lewis Lapham, journalist, public intellectual and editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, is working on a new journal that critically filters current events through the lens of history. It's called Lapham's Quarterly, and here's how the idea works: take a current event, like the Israeli conflict in Lebanon, and a current topic, like the use of civilian homes to store weapons, and put them up against historical documents, like the letter between General Sherman and General Hood debating the placement of the city's population before the Battle of Atlanta. Through the juxtaposition, a continuous line between our forgotten past and our incomprehensible now. The journal is constituted of a section "in the present tense", a collection of relevant historical excerpts, and closing section that returns to the present. Contributing writers are asked to write not about what they think, but what they know. It's a small way to counteract the spin of our relentlessly opinionated media culture.
We've been asked to develop an online companion to the journal, which leverages the particular values of the network: participation, collaboration, and filtering. The site will feed suggestions into the print journal and serve as a gathering point for the interested community. There is an obvious tension between tight editorial focus required for print and the multi-threaded pursuits of the online community, a difference that will be obvious between the publication and the networked community. The print journal will have a high quality finish that engenders reverence and appreciation. The website will have a currency that is constantly refreshed, as topics accrete new submissions. Ultimately, the cacophony of the masses may not suit the stateliness of print, but integrating public participation into the editorial process will effect the journal. What effect? Not sure, but it's worth the exploration. A recent conversation with the editorial team again finds them as excited about as we are.