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SCMS in Chicago

By Asbjørn Grønstad on 18.03.2013 (09:00).

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Last week Henrik and I returned from the annual SCMS conference in Chicago. Luckily, we flew in the night before the city was hit by a snowstorm that caused numerous cancelled or delayed flights, affecting the morning panels on the first day of the conference. Coming out of the Art Institute of Chicago, where we had just seen the "Picasso and Chicago" exhibition, the city was so enshrouded in mist and snow we could hardly see its celebrated skyline. But over the next few days the weather slowly improved and the conference got going. We both presented and chaired panels. Henrik's was on "Landscapes and Other Visual Imaginaries," whereas my own panel was on "The Opacity of the Image," which is part of the new Copenhagen-run research project "The Power of the Precarious Aesthetic" (there will probably be more about that in later posts).

Now in its 53rd incarnation, the conference seemed larger than ever this year. There must have been around 500 panels and workshops, so I will not make any attempt at even a cursory summary of the event here. My general impression is that this conference could not quite compete with the one in Boston last year - which was by far the best SCMS I have ever attended - but still it had so many exciting things going on at any given moment that choosing which panel to go to was always rather difficult. Should I attend the one on film history in the digital age, or the one on convergences between experimental film and TV? World archives, or video and installation? What is the philosophy of film, or digital humanities and film and media studies? The afterlife of Oberhausen, or cinema as geography?

In the past, I have often found the conference workshops particularly rewarding, as they typically tend to focus on general areas and topics that are both urgent and relevant for the scholarly community at large. This year I also went to quite a few of those, starting with two sessions the first day on open access and digital publishing. A salient issue that was brought up in relation to the former was the question of sustainability and human labor, which was seen as even more of a challenge than the technological aspect. Also, the participants were understandably eager to dispel the recurring misunderstandings in which open access publishing has been enmeshed, primarily that its information is unfiltered and unreviewed, which is obviously not the case. While open access has been on the agenda since at least 2004, it is only now, it seems, that it is gaining traction as an increasingly viable and attractive vehicle for disseminating research.

From that workshop I went straight to the one on "Publishing on Digital Platforms," which I found to be even more useful, although the themes addressed were not exactly surprising. The notion that digital journals are still seen as less prestigious than more established, paper-based journals was mentioned by several of the participants, as was the opinion that research funded by the public should be accessible and free to everyone. Why, asked Kim Akass from Critical Studies in Television, are we paying for publishing that costs next to nothing? And does it matter at all where we publish our research as long as we know it has been properly peer reviewed? The workshop delegates also spoke about their own experiences with running digital projects and about taking advantage of the features and possibilities not available to traditional journals. Most obviously perhaps, digital journals can incorporate moving images, as Jennifer Porst from Mediascape pointed out, and moreover they can offer comment sections, which may create a new relationship with the readers. Contributors can also update their own pieces, which makes the whole process of scholarly publishing potentially richer and more flexible. Another way in which digital journals may differentiate themselves from conventional academic journals is by offering a space for a kind of writing that, as John David Rhodes put it, isn't "necessarily being supported by traditional publications." For instance, the journal World Picture, which Rhodes co-founded, encourages contributions that are at once both rigorous and creative, something that sees itself as writing first and research second. Rhodes also points to a considerable strength of digital publishing - which is immediacy, that texts can be put out shortly after they have been written. Other issues discussed in this workshop concerned the possibility for crowdsourcing intellectual labor, the value of the visual essay for tenure and promotion, the power that digital forms of publishing could have in changing what scholarship means, the problems of marketing a digital journal, and the question of how to maintain academic rigor in online projects. While platforms such as Scalar and Vectors have already shown the promise of digital publishing, a question that remains, as workshop chair Christopher Hanson reminded us, concerns who should lead the charge; graduate students, senior scholars or academic presses?

Throughout the following days I visited several stimulating panels, for instance on "Art Historical Models and Methods," "Conceptualizing Nature and Culture," and "Permeable Boundaries: Documentation in the Visual Arts," to name but a few. With such a massively eclectic constellation of papers one would be hard pressed to identify any particular trends, although a couple of keywords seemed to be recurring; for example, the apparatus, perspective, seriality and the post-cinematic. I also had the impression that there was a certain gravitation toward what Jean-Christophe Royoux has termed cinéma d'exposition, film exhibited in galleries and museums, as well as toward art history and visual culture (that noted VC scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff was this year's very deserving recipient of the Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award for his The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality might perhaps be a symptom of the latter). An excellent panel on the topic of "other cinema" was "Cinema as Timepiece: Perspectives on The Clock," Christian Marclay's monumental 24-hour video collage and art installation consisting of thousands of time-related clips from cinema history synchronized with the actual time of day. Erika Balsom talked about the work as an "event" and "phenomenon" that by now has been purchased by many big institutions. A work that forced venues like MoMA to change their opening hours, The Clock may be seen as a slightly subversive but perhaps also quite commodifiable venture that has managed successfully to merge the turn toward the archive characteristic of so much contemporary (experimental) cinema with grand spectacle. In her paper, Nora Alter also underscored the accessibility of Marclay's work, which is rather unprecedented for this kind of cinema, pointing out that almost everybody loves The Clock, from critics to tech heads to children. She then compared the work to Jean-Luc Godard's no less ambitious but far less popular Histoire(s) du Cinema, a much more complex and densely layered project. In The Clock time flies, in Histoire(s) it creeps, Alter noted. The third speaker, Eli Horwatt, took the most critical approach, observing that Marclay's work assembles data rather than knowledge and erases the entire political dimension, thus turning a project seemingly steeped in film history into a troublingly ahistorical one. The Clock, Horwatt concluded, is a slick, palatable assemblage of cinematic images, a marathon movie for the YouTube era. Finally, panel chair Catherine Russell in her paper suggested that The Clock might be read as a kind of essay film on cinephilia and as a dispositif, a cinema machine organized by its own internal rules. Whether one sees it as an instance of archival cinema or meta-cinema, the question still left open is this: does Marclay's project amount to an act of criticism, or is it simply a pleasure machine?

Questions pertaining to the future of cinema have been posed for at least a decade and a half now, and in Chicago the topic was back on the agenda. The panel "What Cinema Will Be? Film Caught between the Television Revolution and the Digital Revolution" may not have provided any easy answers to that question, but it certainly presented an astute and rewarding assessment of the current situation. Philippe Gauthier, who had assembled the panel and chaired it, focused his talk on the impact of "the disorderly medium" - television - on the French filmology movement of the 1940s and 50s. Gauthier's meticulously historical and historicising paper explored the ways in which television occasioned a redefinition of cinema by way of differentiation, while ending in the present and with the suggestion that film history might transform itself into the history of images. In the future, will we simply speak of moving images rather than film?

Following Gauthier was John Belton, until recently an editor of the journal Film History, who talked about how film is a very different experience on TV (the interruptions, graphical changes, the distractions of the domestic sphere), about Bazin's theoretical project in the ontology essay and how nobody has been able to resolve it, and about indexicality and the digital in the work of scholars such as Philip Rosen, Mary Ann Doane and Tom Gunning. The concepts of simulation and modeling appear to be much better terms than indexicality for comprehending contemporary images, Belton argued.

"It was different from cinema, but he was ready for it" - this is how Dudley Andrew summed up André Bazin's take on television. In his fascinating paper on Bazin's thoughts on television, Andrew shows how the French thinker was rather welcoming of "the small screen," praising what he considered its chief draw, intimacy. Bazin's hopes for television seem to echo his support of neorealism. Not unexpectedly, he favored the social problem program and imagined the possibility of new forms of audience participation. Bazin, Andrew said, would have had his TV preset to the Discovery channel. He would have looked forward to YouTube, and he would have been the biggest blogger."

The last two speakers, John Caughie and respondent Martin Lefebvre, also approached the film-television relationship from a historical perspective. Noting that early television was a medium of attraction both in aesthetic, technological and ideological terms, Caughie underscored contemporary TV's apparent robustness in the face of the digital revolution. Unlike cinema, television seems infinitely adaptable and immune to dying. However, both speakers questioned the notion of telephilia, suggesting that television as a much less aesthetically oriented medium than film has generally failed to invite that anxious love so characteristic of the cinema. Lefebvre also made the rather interesting observations that the current academic surge of interest in television is in large part driven by narrative pleasure (all French film scholars now seem to write on Mad Men and Six Feet Under) and that it is film studies which provides television studies with its analytical and interpretive tools.

Some of those tools were the subject of the Friday morning workshop on close reading and the art of description, "Surface Tensions: The Stakes and Fates of Close Analysis." As Mary Ann Doane stated in her contribution to the panel, analytical practices seemed somehow to have slipped through the cracks in the decades-long contest between historical and theoretical approaches within cinema studies. Chances are that the notion of "close reading" itself appears more evocative of the days of new criticism than of contemporary scholarship, yet film analysis is still what many of us do on an almost daily basis, whatever else (history, theory or philosophy) we might be doing simultaneously. This is also what several of the workshop participants remarked upon in their discussion, that in our practical work as film scholars, description/analysis is usually inextricable from various forms of theoretical reflection. Description is never just description, as Lesley Stern put it. The speakers all brought their individual views on the meaning and function of close analysis to the table. For Victor Perkins, criticism is a kind of conversation, and we engage with it out of a sense of both suspicion and admiration. As critics we want to understand the nature of the artistic achievement, we want to examine both the relation between the part and the whole and the sequences of the work that are representative of and aberrant from that whole. Perkins also stressed the difference between seeing and noticing, as well as the importance of calibrating discursive clarity - "not too little and not too much." Suspicious of any singular methodology of close analysis, Perkins also accentuated the role of sincerity as a benchmark of any critical practice. For Jean Ma, close analysis should be able to excavate the historical dimension beneath the filmic surface. For Doane, a good analysis is one that tells us something about medium specificity, and thick description should always point to something outside itself. Finally, for Stern the answer to the question why we should continue to do thick description in an age where the image thanks to new technologies has become more easily quotable is that - even as students of the visual - we are infatuated with words. We aim for exactitude, for those rare moments when our language matches the image. Perhaps this logophilia is something that has not been adequately addressed by our discipline, Stern wonders. In any event, she also seems to embrace new modes of analytical work such as the video-essay, ending her talk with the hopeful observation that "the future possibilities for criticism are expansive." And so seem the possibilities for the field as a whole.

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