Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Mad Max & the Aesthetics of the Hack

I’d never seen an earlier installment in the Mad Max franchise when I went to see Fury Road at Grauman’s Chinese IMAX Theatre. I felt it was a movie I needed to see because so many people were asking me whether it succeeded in its effort to be a feminist action flick. But what really captured my imagination – and inspired me to watch all three of the previous films – was its singular vision and its relentless originality.

I often judge the sci fi I read by its ability to avoid exposition – to simply immerse me a world that is completely unfamiliar. This is a standard feature of cyberpunk style, which Bruce Sterling recently summarized at a terrific conference I attended at USC called Cyberpunk: Past and Future (videos are available).

Turns out that Sterling’s description fits Mad Max to a T. He argued that cyberpunk style typically entails

  • “Oozing stuff out in all directions” – aka, sensory overload
  • “Beatnik eyeball kicks” – surprising details that give a sense of a lived world. He also called them “small visual assaults.” An iconic instance in Beyond Thunderdome: a frightening child named Scrooloose cuddles a Bugs Bunny doll.
  • Weird mood switches – in Mad Max, the heartbreaking intermingling of the tragic and the comic (e.g., cute little feral children toting giant guns).
  • Lack of explanation; not stopping to “coddle the straights.”

Reading a cyberpunk novel should be like entering a foreign country – stumbling into the wasted world of Mad Max surely qualifies. If we manage to get beyond the shock of witnessing the intoxicating collision of life force and death drive that characterizes all Mad Max films, we can start to appreciate the intricate aesthetic policies driving the implementation of George Miller’s bizarre vision.

While film lovers like myself typically complain about Hollywood’s addiction to financially safe franchises, Mad Max should remind us of the deep pleasures of engaging in a long-term relationship with a truly cinematic story. Lots of people like to say that the best storytelling these days is for small screens, and I would heartily agree. But I think Mad Max demonstrates what a big blockbuster movie franchise should be able to offer its fans – we shouldn’t necessarily expect the psychologically nuanced investigations of social mores that get in spades on TV these days. Mad Max doesn’t provide that pleasure, but what it does offer – at approximately 11 on the dial – is a distinctive audio-visual experience, with a mysterious internal logic that feels simultaneously ridiculous and inevitable.

The final credits of Fury Road are a testament to the tremendous craftsmanship necessary to bring this peculiar world alive. I suspected that many of these people would consider themselves hackers and it occurred to me that that might be the engine driving this noisy road-ragey enterprise. As we marvel at the countless clever hacks in all four movies – my primary source of pleasure in this franchise – we also feel the dull dread of a ruined world and the insidious power structures that have emerged from it. We see the re-inscription of tyranny at every turn and I’m reminded of another one of Bruce Sterling’s insights:  “The problem with the hack is that it doesn’t seize the means of production.” By the end of Fury Road, we see Imperator Furiosa (a steely Charlize Theron) grasping the means of production after initially running away from it. Is this the feminist heroine we’ve all been waiting for or another tyrant in the making? Guess we gotta wait for Mad Max: Wasteland to find out.

scrooloose

Mobilizing News

ONAMIP

The degree of personalization and algorithmic curation used in the delivery of mobile news was a key theme at ONA Mobile, which brought together an international array of digital-savvy journalists in the organization’s first convening outside the U.S. The Lear Center’s Media Impact Project sponsored the conference, in part, because we see mobile fast-becoming the primary platform for news delivery. And, although mobile is still very much in a Wild West phase, where accepted standards are few and far between, the opportunities to measure real impact on people’s lives is simply unprecedented.

As many speakers acknowledged, mobile is “very hard” but the pay-offs are definitely worth the pain. Between the rigors of submitting to Apple, maintaining mobile-responsive websites, reformatting for Snapchat, and navigating the ever-changing rules at Facebook, mobile news providers are constantly challenged to make it pithier and make it relevant. In many ways, I’d argue that mobile pushes journalists to achieve a new level of rigor in reporting. Read the rest of this entry »

Fashioning the Future

Peripheral

When I saw a recent piece about success implanting a worm’s brain into a Lego robot, I immediately thought of William Gibson’s most recent novel, The Peripheral.  Placed simultaneously in the near future and another one 70 years further away, characters traverse the time gap dropping into low-fi or high-fi versions of that Lego robot.

I’ve always enjoyed Gibson’s obvious interest in the ironies that emerge when physical bodies blend into virtual realities. Gibson’s brand of virtual reality is never disengaged from a suffering body. A common complaint among characters in The Peripheral, and his earlier novel Pattern Recognition, is jet lag. One of the many clever conceits in The Peripheral is that traveling back or forward in time, to another point on the space/time continuum, can only be done in real time, in different time zones, in a persistent world ticking its way to different versions of the future.

In Gibson’s cyberpunk extrapolations, technologies that seem miraculous in our present moment always reflect the inconvenient limits of human capacity. In the distant future of The Peripheral, the supercomputer that allows the wealthiest hobbyists to fiddle with people’s real lives in the past is of unknown provenance. No one seems to know how it works or who created it, though everyone presumes it’s Chinese.

Likewise no one knows how an extremely powerful predictive algorithm that aids police in preventing crimes works – apparently because it’s self-taught and no one kept track of its accumulation of datasets. When “the Aunties,” as the system is called, makes a prediction, it has the taint of mindless unscientific human gossip. It’s the gut instinct gone hyperdigital. Read the rest of this entry »

New Media & the Holocaust

As we recognize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we can’t help but consider what’s changed … and what hasn’t. After the recent attacks in Paris there are renewed worries about how we communicate the Holocaust to new generations, especially as the ranks of survivors and witnesses dwindle away.

Media and technology are always leveraged in one way or another for educating, historicizing and memorializing, but with subject matter like the Holocaust, the stakes seem even higher that we get it “right.”

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s landmark film that introduced the Holocaust in all its murderous horror to an entire generation. The Shoah Foundation invited me to participate in a conference that reflected on the film’s impact while looking at new media and other new technologies that can be used for testimony and memorialization.

Much of my recent research has been on the social impact of social media and so I was excited to explore how these new technologies, and the valuable data they produce, can be leveraged by Holocaust scholars.

As with all new technology, there’s a great deal of anxiety about its social repercussions, and particularly how it should be used to tell stories about something as highly charged as the Holocaust.

Recently, I’ve been focused on measuring the impact of media, which I regard as a tremendously powerful educational tool, particularly when it’s embedded within compelling stories. I believe that films like Schindler’s List play a very important role in our culture, introducing people to topics that most would prefer to avoid, and triggering conversations – around dinner tables, beside office coolers, and in the media – that give us an opportunity to face history and decide what we will learn from it.

Having worked in the entertainment-education video game industry, I have first-hand experience developing and evaluating the effects of interactive media. It seems abundantly clear to me that multiple media forms can be – and should be – mobilized to help people develop a more nuanced understanding of complex subjects such as the Holocaust.

Not everyone agrees. There have been decidedly mixed responses to a project at USC that creates full-body, interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors. Unlike the Tupac Shakur hologram at Coachella, the Pinchas Gutter hologram responds in real time to questions posed by a live audience. Read the rest of this entry »

New Tools for Measuring Cultural Engagement

NEA_Art_Works_logo

I was very pleased to be invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in a lively symposium addressing perhaps the most important issue in the arts these days: how do we justify public funding for the arts?

For those of us who frequently attend arts and culture events, the question seems silly. Doesn’t everyone realize that humans are hard-wired to respond to compelling stories and visuals, whether they manifest themselves as sculpture, video games, concerts or novels? Isn’t it clear that music and movies can bridge the most profound political divides and move hearts and minds?

As we see arts programming melt away in cash-strapped public schools, we have to acknowledge the awful truth — that arts and culture is considered a luxury, not a necessity, and justifications for their value must be proven rather than assumed.

Both the NEA and the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which co-sponsored the symposium, position themselves as agencies harnessing the power of art, culture and leisure to improve the lives of citizens and invigorate and strengthen communities. The problem, of course, is proving that their funding strategies actually achieve these often hard-to-measure goals.

Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques summarizes a two-day session that brought together a wide range of researchers, using both traditional and new-fangled techniques, to describe and measure the myriad forms of cultural engagement that take place in all types of physical and virtual spaces. I’m hoping that this report will jump-start an international effort to revisit our presumptions about what counts as cultural engagement (Instagramming a photo from a museum, for instance) and taking advantage of new technology to better measure that engagement. Arts and culture organizations should feel more confident about the possibility of measuring the impact of their work, not only to fundraise but also to make the crucial course-corrections that all creative enterprises must make when they are committed to achieving complex goals.

You can read another blog of mine about the Symposium here and you can follow the conversation on Twitter: #NEACVP

Experimenting with Space & Reinvigorating Modernism

GambleHouse

I’ll be joining artists, critics and curators for a two-day conference about experimental art installations in modernist house museums. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows that I was completely smitten with the Competing Utopias installation at the beautiful Neutra VDL House. It was a brilliant mash-up of East/West Cold War aesthetics and ideals that revealed how powerful and intellectually venturesome an art installation in a historic home can be.

And so I’m really excited to be involved in this upcoming conference October 4-5, 2014.

Invention: Contemporary Artists and the Modern House responds to the curatorial shift in the maintenance of house museums, in which directors are supporting increasingly transformative art installations that both challenge and celebrate the modernist landmarks. These collaborations with artists point to alternative preservation strategies, which move away from the conservation of historic homes as static objects and instead affirm the importance of human occupation and transformation. The conference will host a series of conversations between house museum directors, curators, artists and architects to reveal the curatorial motivations and artistic processes behind these interventions.

I’ll be joining Mark Allen, the incredibly creative guy behind Machine Project, and Ted Bosley, the Director of the Gamble House, for an intimate conversation about Machine Project’s playfully irreverent installations and performances at the historic Pasadena home. Be sure to check out the entire conference schedule (Oct 4-5), which takes conference goers to the marvelous MAK Center on King’s Road (built by Schindler), the Neutra VDL house, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

All events are free to the public. To register for the conference, visit the registration page.

Deflating the Filter Bubble

filterbubble

I was asked recently to speak at a symposium on Media Choices at Drexel University. The event drew a fascinating array of scholars who were studying things like Internet addiction, online dating, and political polarization in media consumption.

When someone mentions “media choice” to me, I automatically start thinking about the algorithms that have been developed to help shape that choice.

I have followed avidly the growing use of recommendation systems that you see on sites like Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. I saw these mechanisms as a significant move away from demographic marketing (which I find deeply flawed) to marketing based on customer taste.

I did have my reservations though. I was very moved by Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the danger of “filter bubbles,” which effectively insulate us from opinions and content that we don’t understand or like. His talk really resonated with me because of the deeply divided ideological and taste communities that I found in a major survey research project I conducted on the correlation between entertainment preferences and political ideology (spoiler: they are even more deeply connected than you might think.)

But, when I conducted further research about collaborative filtering systems, I made some rather counter-intuitive discoveries. YouTube, for instance, found that “suggesting the videos most closely related to the one a person is already watching actually drives them away.”

Of course YouTube’s goal is to get you to sit and watch YouTube like you watch TV: to lean back and watch a half hour to an hour of programming, rather than watching for two minutes, getting frustrated trying to find something else worth watching and then going elsewhere. So, in short, it’s in YouTube’s best interest to introduce some calculated serendipity into their recommendations. Read the rest of this entry »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,353 other followers