Thursday, October 27, 2011

Remaking Master Hands, Part I: The set up and (almost) break down

In June, I received an invitation to participate in Enculturation’s  first Video Mashup Roundtable.  As was explained in the original email invite, Richard Marback had recently completed a video mashup based on Master Hands, a 1936 film available for viewing and download at the Prelinger Archives.  Yet rather that publishing Richard’s piece by itself, Richard and Jim Brown, the managing editor of Enculturation, decided to invite others to create their own mashups using the Master Hands footage.  Those signing on to participate in this experiment would agree to the following four constraints:  
  • Master Hands must serve as the common as shared source material amongst mashups, but participants were allowed to mix that footage with anything else they wanted
  • The mashup would function as the thing, the argument.  There would not, in other words, be a supplementary or explanatory text published with the video
  • The mashup should be no longer than 10 minutes
  • (and finally) we were not told who the other participants would be and we were not allowed to view the other videos until all of them were published.  The rationale offered here was that Richard and Jim  “would like each  author to bring their own perspective to the source material.”         
The email concluded with a brief timeline for the project:  Final versions of videos would be due September 30.  On October 17, 2011 the mashups would go live.  At that time a select group of respondents would be allowed to ask questions and post comments about the mashups.  Importantly, while it was not listed as a fifth constraint, there was this too:  Those who created mashups would not be allowed to comment.  We would, of course, be able to see the comments--as would others not directly involved with the experiment--but we would not have the opportunity to respond to questions or comments made by the select group of respondents.  On October 23, the comments would close and this (the mashups and the respondents’ questions and comments) would serve as the publication proper.  
The (almost) break down:

Upon receiving the invite, my initial reaction was “Heck, yeah!  That’s really cool!  I wonder who else was invited!  I can’t wait to see how this turns out.”  And it was (is) a cool idea—to see how 4-5 people might take up, enact, transform, extend, etc. the same source footage. 

But did I want to participate?  Heck, heck, heck, no!  (well, kinda maybe. . .)  But then again, mostly nonononono.  Absolutely not. 

That said, the similarity between this particular task/challenge and the kinds of tasks I routinely give my students with was not lost on me.  All the more reason, I reasoned, to force myself to do this—to put myself in a more vulnerable position than I'm usual in, to risk failing in a real big and really public way, to wonder if I'll end up looking like the stupid one, the one who missed the boat and got it all wrong, so on. and so on. 

That said (and in my defense), a salient difference between the kinds of tasks and contexts my students typically negotiate and this particular task is that my students are provided with opportunities for various kinds of feedback throughout the process of accomplishing a particular task.  That is to say, they have a number of ways to try to determine or gauge whether they are on the right track.  Or not.  They not only get to see what former students did—how others negotiated the task in past semester—they also get to see what their peers are doing, or maybe only thinking of doing.  In this way, students can adjust their work, their thinking, their goals and arguments according to what they see others doing.

I ended up agreeing to participate in the experiment, in part, because my mom said I had to. (Seriously.)  I also knew myself well enough to know that—as scared as I was to actually sign on for this—I’d probably regret not doing it.  In terms of other motives, other timely factors that suggested to me that I might as well do it, there was this:  1.)  I had just finished my book and been awarded tenure, so I felt I could justify (or maybe felt like I actually deserved?) spending a couple months on something new and exciting, on something that would allow me to think, work, and communicate in multiple modes  2.) A week or so before I received the invite, my new office computer was delivered.  Signing on to this project would provide me with the opportunity (read:  it would force me to) learn how the Mac and the new video/photo software worked.  It wouldn’t, in other words, just sit there unopened and unused until the start of the Fall semester, and 3.) It was summer, after all, and my understanding was that my summer class couldn't possibly make (it did), so I figured I'd have oodles of time to work my shit out. 

Throughout the time I spent working on my mashup, my concerns or fears (i.e., "my shit")—again, the feeling that I was, in fact, doing this all wrong, that I wasn’t using enough of Master Hands, that my mashup would be the laughable one (and not in a good way), that it would be clear I didn’t know what I was doing—never really lessened or got worked out.  As I reflect on the overall process now, it seems the only time I wasn’t worrying about the reception of the piece is when I was worrying about the production or, quite literally, the projection of the piece. 

I have to admit, nothing quite says failure (or potential failure) like the smell, sound and sight of a length of 16mm film that has jammed in the projector and is beginning to jump and buck and melt.