Quietly Around Here

Its a one week semester break here at RMIT and from tomorrow I’m spending all my days with my children (who are currently featuring in the photoblog to your left). Some bushwalking, a movie, perhaps a trip to the zoo. I’ve just rebuilt the vog site into Movable Type, and am now wondering what I need to do so that I can write each entry in Movable Type now. It’s taken a while so now of course I’m behind on what I’m supposed to actually do at work.

Tim Hall

Tim Hall’s vogner site is a new comer to vogging, having started in July 2003. What Tim lacks in longevity (if we assume an internet year is equivalent to a dog year then I’ve been vogging for nearly 21 years!) he certainly makes up for in terms of productivity and vogging acuity.

Tim has kept his tool set simple, discrete and to the point, recognising the importance of bandwidth and time to a networked computer environment. What does that really mean? That the works are small, operate in the browser or player quite happily at your defined resolution, and on broadband pretty much play on demand. Real world video, real world videography, real world vogging.

His narrative style is direct, a combination of simple documentary observation with wry intertitles. This simple use of intertitles, a sort of rifling through film history, is very instructive as it gives the works an extremely strong narrative focus or direction where otherwise the works would be so largely only observational and so more akin to ‘symphony of a city’ in minor (though significant) keys.

Tim has also experimented with some aspects of QuickTime that many users seem to overlook. For example he has played around with text tracks, partly to insert text into movies, sometimes to make karaoke vogs, and sometimes to make text only works that can be read by using cursor keys. Another thing is what he calls “vogbience” works. I haven’t pulled these apart yet but I assume they are a short movie made using either the silly “Ken Burns effect” in iMovie 3.0 or the much better photo to movie. They are then stretched in duration to an hour. This is technically trivial to do, and makes absolutely no difference to the final size of the movie. Hence it is easy to make a one hour (slow motion) movie that is only, say, 2MB in size. The vogbient works are an interesting use of this, implying obviously that they are conceived of as ambient video.

This is interesting and valuable work as it is shoe string vogging which takes positively and creatively the key constraints that successful vogging requires: the world is bandwidth and time poor, we don’t need feature production values or content, the view is personal, and it inserts the vogger into the world.

Rebuild

Dear Reader,

alas my blog database got completely and utterly corrupted. So, I have updated various things on my OS X server, including getting mysql configured, and rebuilding vlog from scratch. All the previous entries will be returned, but not for a few days and so this is, for now, a vacant blog. But stay stuned, same blog channel, same blogtime, it will return… (and BerkeleyDB sucks).

Fixing my Canon

My Canon IXUS V, which I managed to break late last year (I’m not sure how, it wasn’t dropped or anything, but it did receive a small dent on the lens assembly which seems to have put everything out of kilter), is going to be repaired. I took it to an excellent city camera repair centre (that’s all they do) and they quoted me over $500 to repair it last December. Basically most of the lens and CCD assembly area just gets replaced and so the parts cost $540 then there’d be a bit of labour and GST. Given the camera was then available new for around $700 I decided it wasn’t worth it. Today I took it in again. The same parts are now $240 plus GST! I suspect the price point here is not lower cost of manufacturing but that the price point for entry for a 2.1 megapixel camera is now around $400, and for the original purchase price of the Canon (barely two years ago) I can get at least 4 megapixels. The decline is to situate the consumers decision between repair, replacement at the same standard, or upgrade. But I can be cynical.

Will Luers and Solublefish

Will’s soublefish site is one of the first vogs online, with his first work vog online from October 2001. Will’s work is sophisticated in its use of an elegant compositional space in all of his projects which offers a lot in terms of thinking about the aesthetics of content versus negative (in Will’s case black) spaces. The earlier pieces are sketches for the more recent work, and while the number of works are small, each has the temper of a vog haiku in their observational poetry and quietude.

Dear Regular Reader

Yes, singular. You may or may not have noticed but I’ve just added a new category over there on the right somewhere called “Vogs” which is where I am going to compile an annotated collection of links to other vogs. The field has moved just enough since December 2000 to start this. I’m hoping that by December 2004 there will be so many vogs that a manual list will be irrelevant.

Brief Talk

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Click the image to load a 512Kb QuickTime movie. Use the cursor key to move through the movie a slide at a time.

This is the abbreviated talk I gave last week about softvideo and vogging. The material is cut down from the longer presentation I had prepared, but with only 10 minutes to try and discuss what vogging is about I culled my points.

As it was I only spoke to two of them, and didn’t really simply nail what the point of vogging might be. Live and learn.

Scnes at Senones

Martin Burr sent me an email about this extraordinary project, where as far as I can tell an old hall is being renovated and turned into an interactive arts and entertainment space for the local community. It is to include cinema, dance, music, and theatre. In the cinema section it appears the project is going to explore various creative and theoretical issues around cinematic practice in the context of performance, producing and the local, with the particularly intriguing mention of “development of local cineastic language” and “interactive programming”. There is a timeline for when things are being done (including a studio last week). What I like in what I read is the concentration on the local and the event.

Honours Programs

From the press release for the new honours program that is being developed in the Bachelor of Communication that I teach into (I’m primarily in the Media Studies part). Honours has traditionally been thesis only, but since we offer MA and PhD by project it makes sense that you can do this at honours level. I’m particularly interested in project based and applied research, partly because that is a lot of what I do, but also because most of the students I teach are smart but tend to want to make stuff, and I’d love to be able to work with them in much more substantial ways.

RMIT is pleased to announce the commencement in 2004 of its B Communication Honours program. This innovative program focuses on social and critical applications of communication and media, enabling students to undertake practice-based academic research, complete a traditional research thesis, or to do professionally oriented action research by project. The degree can be taken in Advertising-Creative, Journalism, Media Studies, Professional Communication or Public Relations and is available in both full-time and part-time modes.

Details of course structure, eligibility and application process can be found as a pdf brochure at http://www.rmit.edu.au/adc/bcomm#hons

Developing Crits

One of the changes that I’m introducing to the media studies program that I teach in is to develop a student culture of criticism. This is the sort of crit practice that seems taken for granted in many studio based disciplines, such as architecture, fine art, and graphic design. It is much rarer in the humanities, where our print traditions have the associated emphasis on individual feedback, privacy, and the written word. Hence students traditionally write essays by themselves, which are read by teachers by themselves, with written comments to be returned to be read by the students, by themselves.

An implication of this is that students don’t really have a context in which to judge their own work, so may not really know why their work is good, poor, or average. What it also means is that when you attempt to do group work, or even get class papers done where you want feedback from students, there is no real understanding or vocabulary on what it might mean, or how to do it. Students tend to respond with generalisations with little idea about what feedback ought to be. It also means that students have not learnt the skills to be able to effectively criticise their own work, for if they can’t respond to someone else’s effectively it would be reasonable to assume that they would have trouble with their own.

Why might developing this be good? Because being able to judge their own work will stand them in good stead as graduates. Because collaborative work is a fundamental feature of networked and media environments and constructive criticism of your own and others’ work leads to more appropriate models of collaborative work. Because by third year I want students to be able to articulate their own learning, and largely be able to assess their own work so that their contexts of practice and learning are understood as contexts of practice and learning.

The problem with all this is that I am a humanities scholar and so don’t actually have any model of criticism beyond that of humanities peer review. In the humanities peer reviewing traditionally happens after the essay is written and then it is anonymous. Good peer reviewing means you receive detailed contextual comments, rather than simply corrections or disagreements, and it does lead to a demonstrable improvement in your work, but it tends to happen rather late in the research (and creative) process. It also is a model that really only works for print and so translates poorly to other forms (this is probably one reason why academic email lists are so prone to flaming). I turned to communications design for help, and my friend Lisa Grocott, who has patiently mentored me in process based teaching over the past two years, for models.

What I’m trying with a group of students at the moment is adapted via Edward de Bono via Lisa and it is de Bono’s six hat exercise. It sounds, to the post-theory-ism academic, well, too untheoretical to be legitimate, but so far it has worked a treat. The exercise uses six coloured hats where:

  • White (what information is known or needed, facts)
    this is what information you know that informs how you understand the other person’s work, and what you could contribute in terms of facts.
  • Red (feelings, hunches, intuitive responses)
    this helps develop lateral and creative thinking. Just respond with your instincts about the ideas and the work.
  • Black (devils advocate, why something might not work)
    as it suggests, raise issues that get in the way with the aims or ambitions of the project and the research.
  • Yellow (optimism, what is good in the project and what is positive)
    what you like in the project, why you like it. How it might contribute something useful or be worthwhile knowing.
  • Green (potential and possibilities, new ideas suggested, alternative directions)
    what possibilities does the project or research suggest, what other directions might it go in, what other things could be done, this might refer to more or other research, or different sorts of project outcomes.
  • Blue (facilitate and manage the critique)
    this is about making sure the critique stays focused and deals with the appropriate issues in an appropriate way, it is too easy for these sorts of discussions to wander off sideways which at the end of the day is simply unproductive.

To introduce this to students I as the teacher stay blue, and each student in the group only gets to try out one ‘hat’, and then for each critique they rotate through the hats. Hence a student presents their work, lets say research in progress, then I move around the group and each student gets to make comments from a single perspective, white, red, black and so on. Then another student presents their work and each critiquing student then changes the colour of their ‘hat’. By limiting students to one hat at a time it is easier to make appropriate comments. As they move through the different colours they also learn which colours are easier to use, whether because of the nature of the work presented or because of their individual skills. The student receiving the critique gets much more structured feedback, and the group as a group are able to contribute successfully. The themes work well, better than I had anticipated, and as a result they help give the class a vocabulary for commentary and feedback, some more work is needed so that intuitive and creative responses, for instance, are more intuitive and creative – this helps the speaker as much as the receiver.

Ideally something like this would be done towards the end of their first year, or early second year (my class at the moment are final semester final year), so that by their third year the students could do each of the ‘colours’ themselves and would also be able to apply this to their own work.

Blogs and Verisimilitude

Kaye Trammell raised some objections with a student blog project that I’m involved with (though I quite like being described as a communication professor, one day North American’s will realise that it’s only in North America that an academic is, by default, a professor). Her points are well made and legitimate, and have been very useful for the students involved as I had been suggesting there were ethical issues involved in the project and Kaye’s comments grounded this for them very well.

In response they determined to establish a credits page, as well as an “About Hannah’s House” category where the metafictional nature of the project can be indicated.

However, I’m not sure how something like “Hannah’s House” muddies the waters of what “blogging really is.” Partly because the poststructuralist in me always prickles when an ideological claim appears as an ontological claim. Secondly, because all non fiction genres have a long and rich tradition of works that problematise the borders of what might constitute the genre. In cinema we have works like “This is Spinal Tap” which is a mockumentary, but at no point does the work actually declare that it is fiction. More problematically there is the example of Peter Watkins’ 1965 “The War Game” which treated a fictional nuclear disaster as straight doucmentary reportage to chilling effect. And of course contemporary television has made an art form of the parody show of a show, for example The Garry Shandling Show, where only a sophisticated televisual reader would realise that it is in fact fictional and not reality tv. For my money an excellent example would be Chris Marker (of course) for his documentary style is very strongly inflected by the personal and the idiosyncratic, so much so that his 1958 “Letter from Siberia” documentary work was lambasted by critics for its punning, mix of animation and live action and subjectivity.

I should also point out that blogging offered what appears to be a wonderful vehicle for these students. They want to right to and from their daily experience in a manner that lets them build a resource for their peers, but they don’t and didn’t want it to be individual, nor did they want specific authorship so if they wanted to say something negative about the university they had some (minor) anonymity. At the end of the day I think the versimilitude of blogs is more important than their facticity, and I think this is an important distinction.

Edinburgh from the Bus

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Click the image to load the vog.

A new vog, “edinburgh from the airport bus” using the same structure as the previous few works, which I’d like to explore a bit more. This work has three simultaneous video tracks, though each is compressed differently so that the first track is only 300Kb in size with a data rate of 2.9 kbytes a second. The next is at 7.6 Kbytes a second for a total size of 760 Kb while the final one is 29 K bytes for a file size of 2.8MB. There are sprites over each of the video tracks which either pause the movie, or vary the font size of the text track up and down.

I was interested in tiling a complete video pane, rather than the slicing I have generally been doing, but to then vary the visual integrity or ‘cleanness’ of these videos by having them be compressed variably. This hasn’t been that effective, largely because the difference in quality between the most heavily compressed and the highest quality isn’t discernible enough. There is still a lot of noise and artefacts in the highest quality one and so the graduation or variation between them is less visible. (I think I’ll return to this very shortly with footage that I think might be more suitable for this sort of experiment.) This work continues the aesthetic exploration of multiple video panes, networked practice, and the relation of text to image. What this series has begun to suggest for me is also a way of using a simple template like this to write a cinema studies piece, largely because here the moving image seems to drive the text. A major issue for me in my exploration of this work, particularly in relation to possible new forms for academic practice, is to move away from the humanities relegation of the image, particularly the moving image, to illustration for the text. This particularly happens in cinema studies where no matter what the work thinks it does the images are always reduced to secondary in relation to the written word. In a vog like “edinburgh bus” the text only plays because the video plays, it pauses when the video pauses, and the rhythm of the text seems to be driven by the moving image and so the relation of text to moving image is reversed. This poses what remains for me the crux of the matter; what would it mean to write so video was prior to or in front of the text, that the text responded to the video and bears witness to the image. This is a big step. At least for a text based humanities practice.

Having the three video panes show the same content, at different frame and data rates (4, 6 and 12 fps) seems to develop interesting rhythms internally. Each shows the same, slightly differently, and something about the difference between is what constitutes the effect of the work.

The textual commentary is just that, a commentary on my brief visit to Edinburgh, much like a blog entry, sans links (I can embed links into the text track but having browser windows popping up over the video just gets difficult to manage). This is, perhaps, getting close to a possible general template for an everyday kind of vogging, particularly since now that I have a template it is very quick to do.