Sketch Dirty Noisy Media

The majority of the students who do this subject are also doing a ‘professional’ media subject which will be either radio or television production. These subjects, which are usually one of the major reasons students enrol in the degree, use professional equipment and have professional expectations regarding what an how things ought to be made. These I think of as the core professional values that the students arrive already acculturated to, and represent their aspirations and (very conservative) understanding of what the media is. I don’t disagree with any of this, but I rely on these naturalised professional assumptions very strongly in my teaching to provide a context of practice that I define myself, the subject and their experiences against – this does make things quite a bit easier for me.

So, in post industrial video we try to make literal the ‘post’ in the title. Students are encouraged to use the ready to hand tools in their pockets to make media for the subject. It deliberately argues for and advocates that to make films or radio they can just go ahead and do it. They do not need a station wagon full of lights, a large camera, sound kit, crew or all the rest of it. If your object really is to make, then get on with it. So we are like independent documentary makers in the 60s, or perhaps guerrilla film makers. Available light, available tools. However, and this is unfolded over the first five or six weeks, we unpack the difference between a naive, snapshot style of media making, and the sorts of things media students should, could, and can make. So while they might use their phone and available light, they can think deeply about composition, scale, duration and mise-en-scene. It is not lazy making, in the same way that when an artist sketches in their sketchbook they are doing lazy art!

I literally characterise this for them as a sketch practice, and use the example of an artist’s sketch book versus a finished canvas where the sketch is both a small work on the way to something larger but can also be a legitimate form in its own right. I also characterise this as ‘dirty’ media, in contrast to the ‘professional’ production values of industry (I put quote marks there since my iPhone shoots better quality video than the $40,000 video camera that I used in the mid 1980s as a student) where we might seek to exploit glitches, signal noise, extreme contrast, and compression artefacts as aesthetic devices in their own right. Similarly, since it is a small camera that they carry with them there is an effort to begin to film everyday things, things that happen around or to you, which is, again, deliberately framed as qualitatively distinct to an industrial practice which relies on complex forms of time management, pre-scheduling of cast, crew, and gear, because it is expensive, has a script and a shooting schedule and so is industrial in its logics. Again, it is not a case of one versus the other, but that now we have, immediately to hand, a way of making media that falls outside of the need for such teleologial models and so the dirty sketch is offered as an everyday way of making quickly and critically.

I also characterise this as noisy media, in the manner of communication and information, transmission and reception. Simple stuff where noise is (for Shannon and Weaver) what interferes with the signal and so a problem, and shift that to where noise is that which is outside any system that self defines itself so what falls outside disrupts the tautological security of what is inside – it introduces noise. (I use simple examples, perhaps that politics is about rational thought, women aren’t rational therefore can’t vote, and they can’t vote but their emotional irrationality disrupts the rational. So the reason can be presented as not because they’re women, but because they’re not rational. To make this interesting with students, who automatically get this, I then might ask why can’t children vote? Once the dust settles I point out that my simple question was introducing noise to their self defined system – “of course anyone should be entitled to vote” which I show is actually not really “anyone”.) I also use biology and genetic variation here as a way to illustrate the importance of noise. I might also use some literary theory to talk about how realist texts aren’t ‘noisy’ but say, James Joyce or a lot of poetry is, in relation to our expectations, to language, to genre, style and so on. The point of course is to have a whole series of examples and discussion points to show how noise (and dirt) matter. Oh, anthropology can be useful too.

When they ask why? Which they do. I answer because:

  • we can
  • if you can’t make good work with your phone/still camera then using a $20,000 camera and $10,000 worth of lights is not going to help
  • artists sketch and writers take notes to learn their craft, so now you can do the same since you really don’t need to wait to get the $20,000 camera to learn how to compose, frame, shoot and cut work
  • if something important happens are you not going to record it because you don’t have your ‘pro’ gear?
  • the difference in scale, between imposing yourself upon the world with a script, crew, cast, sets, props, versus learning how to look and make with what is around is a difference worth beginning to wonder about and pursue
  • that learning how to look and make with what you have available includes, expresses, is the beginning of an ethics of making grounded in the world

Notes

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Hampton Press, 2002. Print.

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. 1st ed. Trans. Brian Massumi. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1985. Print.

Buxton, Bill. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. 1st ed. Morgan Kaufmann, 2007. Print.