popculturebomb

Just another WordPress.com site

Monthly Archives: March 2012

PBS’s Problematic Representation of GIFs, Culture, and Art

Works of art are their own standard of judgement. They themselves stipulate the rules they then follow. – Theodore Adorno (AT 243)

[Before I get into the article, I would first like to thank Douglas Schatz for allowing me to use his art within this post. I first saw the Off Book video on his Tumblr, and his comments inspired my own in a brief Tumblr exchange that became this post. I’m sprinkling in some chosen GIFs at random to help add some color and life to an otherwise long post. While one of my main criticisms about the video in question is the lack of alternative view points, I don’t exactly bring up these alternative points of view myself. His work helps to elaborate a bit on alternative voices, but there are many more types, styles, and aesthetics.]

Recently, PBS put out a short documentary about the animated GIF. This is a part of their Off Book video series that explores contemporary art, artists, and the ways that people share and participate with it. While this is a noble goal, I question the majority of what this video is doing.

This video made some rounds on the internet, partially in thanks to BuzzFeed and Mashable. I saw this video posted several times on my various friend feeds, and felt compelled to comment on it based on what little I know about the history and culture of contemporary GIF art. I have only been following the GIF scene for a year now after I was introduced to dump.fm by a friend of mine, but I have been following peoples’ art and thoughts on GIFs pretty heavily since then. The community is active, creative, but remarkably poorly represented because of this video. The mass exposure online through various content aggregates (like BuzzFeed – the scourge of internet journalism) only makes the problem worse, as the video’s ignorance of history and culture surrounding the GIF, the internet, and its related art scenes only propagates that ignorance to those who are otherwise unaware and watching due to mass exposure. While I know a thing or two about GIFs from being online for the past 15 years and following these new communities, I do not wish to suggest that I am the ultimate expert. I am trying to not put words in the mouths of the artists in the video, but rather focus entirely on its context. I do not speak for the GIF community. In essence, this piece is less about GIFs and more about the removal of art, creation, and expression from artists, communities, and cultures in a capitalist society.

Let me get a few things out of the way – the video at least attempts to explain, on a technical level, what the animated Graphics Interchange Format is (even though it fails to name the creator of the format…), gives a little bit of history about its expansion post-Netscape, and a humorous exchange about pronunciation at the end. It is a bit of a general overview, and not factually accurate in most cases (more on that later), which hurts the legitimacy of what these people are talking about. It does note a bit of historical context regarding the internet’s “abundant” (which is a value judgment I would prefer not to have included) use of flame animations and Under Construction signs in the early days of the web. Browse around on http://www.internetarchaeology.org and you will see what I mean, if you do not remember what the internet was like more than 10 years ago. However, the video is quick to trivialize these examples as lacking purpose and aesthetic.

I am not exactly sure where to start with this criticism, but I think it is important to set up a bit about the artists featured in the video and the production company in charge of the content.

Kornhaber Brown is the company responsible for the Off Book series. Though their website is relatively vague about what they do, they primarily develop brands vis-à-vis content creation for corporate clients (alliteration unintended). There are lots of lists of work, but few samples of what they actually do, but my analysis is leaning towards them being an advertising agency that focuses on content creation that does not call themselves an advertising agency because it makes them sound more hip. While its Youtube page states that PBS is putting out these shorts, I really question this. I have the feeling that PBS had little involvement in this process. Kornhaber Brown’s own website states that they prefer to do all the work, as it would no doubt keep an editorial stance away from their process. What we end up with here is an ad agency who makes content for other companies that ends up serving as advertising for their own work. There is no care in accuracy, need for multiple voices and points of view, or desire to create a product that is anything other than a quick consumable to link around for viral exposure – I notice that their staff page does not feature anyone who focuses on research. The company’s essential mission statement, as taken from their website (which I’d rather not link to, for political reasons, but it is their name dot com) says “We are primarily content creators, so we like to handle the entire production process.” To me, this says that PBS had nothing to do with this video other than that they hired a company to make some slick videos to attract viewers. However, the standards at PBS for research are considerably higher and they should take responsibility for their product.

Douglas Schatz’s blog post about the video points out that all the artists featured in this have major corporate backers: “Mr. GIF works for MTV [Viacom], Toper Chris works for Tumblr, Reed/Radar/Beck/Burg work for major fashion brands, etc.” This point compounds on the previous paragraph in really problematic ways. It seems like an overly careful selection of people – this is perhaps a conscious decision on the filmmakers’ part, but also a benefit of the money put behind these artists. Major corporations and those with financial power have defined these people as experts in their field and masters of their craft and therefore worthy of the attention of others. In doing so, the companies backing these artists have purposely eliminated the voices of others and have carefully controlled an aesthetic, and thus controlled how and where the corporate definition of art and culture is distributed. What a GIF “is”, “means”, is “capable of” is now established by Viacom et al and a form of art is transmogrified into a way to generate profit.

Prominent cultural theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss the problems with this in their essay “The Culture Industry” stating:

They [artists] are confined to the apocryphal field of the ‘amateur’, and also have to accept organization from above. But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programmes of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. – Adorno and Horkheimer (407)

Art and culture are victims to “the absolute power of capitalism” (406). This means that it is controlled in terms of production and distribution. Companies select who the artists are and they define what art is. Therefore, to be a “proper” artist, one must have a sponsor – all other artists are merely amateurs and thus offer no legitimacy in the work they produce or their point of view. Originality and uniqueness are spotted and gobbled up quickly by companies and become integrated into the industry of culture and are thus properly contained and controlled. Adorno and Horkheimer also note that artists are always a part of this system suggesting that regardless of having a contract, the desire for success and wealth is so strong that it becomes the ultimate goal, and thus are controlled as well. The final sentiments are perhaps a bit harsh, but speak to the overwhelming power of capitalism. Culture and art become products for sale and profit. Consumers buy culture and art because they are produced and made desirable and the companies profit. Let me just repeat that – companies manufacture abstract concepts and sell it at gigantic profits or use it indirectly as advertising. All of this speaks to the destruction of culture by capitalism, and one could go on and on about that, but I have other points to make.

Taken aside from the economic manipulation of our world around us, this process establishes a destructive hierarchy. Since companies can establish what is art, they thus define what is not, and with binaries comes power and privilege. If the cinemagraph is high art, then the flame GIF is trash. If cinemagraphers are artists, then the dumpers are not. 

The aesthetic is controlled in this instance and thus so is taste. This includes the consumer in the dialectic of power – one should only like what is “art” or thus be subjugated as a luddite. One should buy into Viacom’s GIFs rather than participate and make their own, because theirs will not be art and people will not like them. Capitalism has made liking anything outside of The Culture Industry dangerous to the point of heresy. The video is very clear in defining the flame GIF and Under Construction sign as garbage, rather than a part of the developing tradition of GIF art. If an artist creates something like this, they will be labeled as unsuccessful, unimportant, or simply just BAD at what they do. For the consumer, liking them in any way, shape, or form establishes the individual as a low-class, poorly cultured, misinformed, and uneducated person. They enforce their iron rule so that they only way to be proper is to participate, which means giving MTV money, participating in a capitalism system of standardization and pseudo-individualization. No one wants to be a juggalo.

Adorno is a massive pessimist, though. I think we can all agree that just because capitalism exists, it does not mean that art cannot also exist. However, his message still holds incredible bearing. All of this is just a framework based on the company making the video and the people in it – there is much more to be said, so let us dig in.

Within the very introduction, as we are meeting the artists and learning some brief ideological stances on their art – there are some fairly problematic statements being made. I am going to try to not be too nit-picky in terms of rhetoric (there are some problems with history and technology) and focus more on ideology behind statements. The majority of the creative forces represented here are immediately relating GIFs to photographs. Mathew Reed of Reed+Rader and Jamie Beck open the video by discussing photographic based GIFs, but dangerously balance the mediums they use for their work with the purpose of the work itself. Reed states that “the animated GIF for us was just a photograph that can move” followed by Beck’s statement “this is a photograph that is still alive.” Relating back to Adorno’s points above, what we have in the first 20 seconds of this video is a particular enforcement of what a GIF is and should be. A GIF is being equated to a photograph in order to establish a false sense of legitimacy of their own work, linking it to a historically established art form. In doing so, it is intrinsically linking their particular art with high-brow capital-A Art, as well as creating an importance in terms of political meaning and representation. If a GIF is “like a photograph”, then all of the importance of photography is automatically linked to their own work. In doing so, they are implying that anyone not working in photograph-based GIFs is essentially false and unimportant. Because they are working with photography, there is the implication of being more real, honest, or authentic in terms of their own work, which can carry a sense of legitimacy behind it. However, it also implies that no other form is capable of doing so, that a GIF of a splotch of rotating colors holds no value or purpose, and an artist attempting anything other than photographic GIFs does not know what they are doing.

Patrick Davidson speaks about the differences of GIFs between a Web 1.0 culture and a Web 2.0 culture. Web 2.0 as a distinction rather than a philosophical stance has always bothered me – what is the difference between the two? There is usually an association of socialness associated with Web 2.0, but the internet was always a social space, even before HTTP and browser-based surfing was the standard. BBS cultures were incredibly social, sharing, and had art scenes as well. Therefore, to say that art or images were pragmatically different is a little absurd. The historical notion of Web 1.0 being 30 years old is iffy and inaccurate, and enforces the same shift of power in the work of these artists, “ours is the best, theirs is old and bad.”

I will say, in Davidson’s defense, he is my favorite in this video in terms of his message. He is also been participating in the dialogue against this video in a very respectful and open way, and I really admire that. He also has admitted that the above his comments discussed above were basically due to a lengthy interview and a bit of tired rambling. So, I accept and respect his stance, but I think it is still important to comment within the context of the video.

What is being presented is the idea that GIFs somehow went away, or were deemed a bit silly (IE: not art, not important, not relevant, not profound) until approximately 2007. I think that stance is wholly inaccurate. While it may be true that I see more GIFs on a daily basis now, and that these GIFs are serving different functions than before, to suggest that people were unconscious of their potential is really hard to backup and statements like this. This false distinction make the work of these artists seem more important, cutting edge, and interesting, as if they caught on to something that we were all missing. Going back to Douglas Schatz’s tumblr post, he is quick to remind us that the conscious use of GIFs as art, in a contemporary context, is as early as:

2003-2004 culminating in The GIF Show at the RX Gallery in SF at the beginning of 2006 which featured Cory Archangel (who recently showed at MOMA), Tom Moody (critic/artist published in the New York Times among other major publications), Paper Rad (a collective that’s been killing it in a variety of mediums for the last 10ish years) and other artists who have since become very accomplished.

It also discredits places such as http://ytmnd.com/ – which was one of the first big social content creators. They have consistently used GIFs to demonstrate their work since 2000. Tom Moody adds:

A YouTube commenter made a good point: a successful campaign to discourage GIFs because of lingering patent claims may have put a dent in their use, but the patent lapsed in ’03 in the US. 4chan and YTMND used GIFs all through the ’00s and speaking as a maker/enjoyer of GIFs from ’03 to the present they never seemed the least bit scarce. I think this “return to GIFs” is a juicy-sounding story hook for editor types but has little basis in reality – GIF use has continued throughout the 2.0 era.

YTMND and 4chan are important to add here because they are NOT corporate spaces; they are places of social participation and transgression. The use of GIFs in both of these communities has been a staple for their entire existence, but because it is transgressive, corporations are quick to ignore their significance because they are places that cannot be controlled.

The idea of dating this shift in the purpose of GIFs is minimally important, I think, other than as a factoid that should be accurate. If one wants to look back at the history of the novel, some of the first books of prose narratives are questioned as being novels because of the idea that they were not consciously “writing a novel”. The idea of a novel, as a cultural object, did not exist. It does not devalue their art or how they made it, but simply establishes some historical cultural markers. While people have been making GIFs for quite some time, and some even doing so for the purpose of creating an artistic image, the idea of creating GIFs as art is something that is we don’t really associate with a pre-2000s internet. If I had to stake a claim at why, I would suggest the abundance of Flash during this time period, and how artists and animators were focusing on that, rather than GIFs. There is“bigness” to Flash that perhaps attracted artists with something to say who may have overlooked the minimal idea of a single image file. Because of Flash’s layering and animation system, one could suggest that Photoshop’s similarities made it so the skills of animation translated into the skills of image manipulation. As we adjusted to one form of creation, we applied these skills to others. One could also suggest that piracy was more difficult, and thus the software to make GIFs was more exclusive. There was also a lack of patience in terms of internet bandwidth speeds – no one wanted to wait around for a simple image to load when they could experience more content otherwise.

Nevertheless, going on with Davidson’s inaccurate history, he furthers his interview by stating that “[in 2007-2008] people start to realize that you can use GIFs for tons of different things”. There is a really important point here, but Davidson is not making it. In the open Google document transcription/discussion, Will Brand hints at it when he states “…like attracting attention to an ad, or getting someone to email you, or showing that your website is incomplete or…”. He is making a joke about the practicality of a GIF as an eye-grabbing ad, but there is something more going on. If, as Moody states above, companies were leery of using a GIF for marketing purposes in the earlier 2000’s, and people were “finding new uses for them” due to their lack of corporate attention, we can clearly see how corporations are coming back to the GIF in order to control the art and content created with them. If it is clear that people “saw the possibilities” because it was being ignored by the capitalist system, then it is all the more troubling that almost every artist in this video is describing their work in an advertising and marketing sense and we are not hearing any voices saying that GIFs are capable of anything else.

Davidson’s next point suggests that GIFs are more important now than before because of the ease of access to distribution, where social sites will host images for the user rather than having to track down an FTP or use the space of a message board. I find this a little offensive because it seems to lack a cultural understanding of internet communities and creators before this current decade. Personal sites were common, so was FTP access. Yes, it was expensive, but often communities were able to share through subdomains – this is how the creativity of the E/N scene flourished. Having a place to store an image is not a groundbreaking revelation to the internet, Photobucket was hugely prominent and free to use as early as 2003. While it is easier than ever before, not many people as one might think take advantage of Tumblr or Imgur as a host – these are still fairly specific markets. It suggests that there is something “special” to the now of the internet, and in particular, the established artists, that was not there before. Again, it is discrediting the content, creators, communities, and files of the past.

As far as Davidson’s statement about postmodern GIFs, I will just allow you to read the discussion on the debate page. I just do not see a reason to address it because it seems to be flying out of nowhere.  It is just an inappropriate and misinformed use of the word.

TopherChris’s segment follows, discussing the explosion of Tumblr usage. The focus on Tumblr is interesting to note. Over the last year, brands, ad agencies, and marketing firms have been struggling to figure out how and why to use Tumblr to reach its young audience. Now, connect that back to the idea that an ad agency made this video, and you essentially have a commercial for themselves as being hip enough to understand Tumblr and youth culture. Very subtle.

TopherChris does bring up an interesting point to the ideas of repetition and the ways context and meaning change over time, but it is dropped very quickly. He is, though, one of the few people to discuss ideas of humor, which has always been heavily prevalent in animated GIFs. There is a subtle connection to the creation and distribution of GIFs to personal cultural capital as well, but in a community context such as Tumblr, where it is more about sharing, I question the importance of origin – but perhaps that is the point? It is the idea of collective sharing, distribution, and participation that give GIFs their importance, particularly on Tumblr. I still really question the ways in which GIFs have changed over time as being something that is SO SUDDENLY different. I think it is a lot more subtle and slow than people are giving credence to. GIFs based on TV and movies are not terribly new , they have been around as long as we have had digital versions of shows and movies and imaging software – but, the way Tumblr users has developed this to fit the limitations of the service is more interesting. When Tumblr allowed multiple image posting without making a Flash gallery, which opened up GIFs to be a bit more than what they were before on the site. This is not a fundamental change in the file form, but a change in its delivery. Therefore, the fact that GIFs have changed is a sort of meaningless idea when it is more so the technology and websites that have changed. TopherChris is, at least, speaking about GIFs on a cultural level, but it is still problematically narrow in perspective. 

There is a very radical shift in the video at this point – where GIFs were seen as dorky internet fun becoming more something, we are now seeing GIFs as being declared high art. I have a lot of problems with this.

Pamela Reed and Mathew Rader work for the fashion industry as GIF artists. The artists are very quick to celebrate and discuss their own work with putting down any sort of stance on the development of culture in a greater context. “Douglas LL Cool J” notes this shift in tone and states:

It’s such a weird flip from “hey isn’t Internet Culture great” to “well, we get paid a lot of money to take pictures of clothes that 90% of internet users can’t afford”. If internet memes are meant to showcase the open and democratized spread of cultural ideas (no-technorachy bro), why are we focusing exclusively on production that is funded by one of the most closed industries. Given that the fashion industry has a long and painful history of hardcore IP protection, it’s weird that fashion GIFs are used as the prime example of art in the reddit/Tumblr culture where authorship has next-to-no meaning.

The point is apt. If you are discussing the GIF as a medium, then why are you focusing on exclusivity? There is not anything particularly interesting about what Reed+Rader do, the just throw a bunch of still images into an animation sequence. Where the limitations of GIF as art above focused on ideas of conscious art making versus casual GIF creation, this establishes the dynamic one step further. These two instigate GIF as high art by associating it with both photography and with the fashion industry, thus limiting the perspective of art and the possibility of creation. Because of their connections with other well-established mediums of art, they are able to include themselves in that upper echelon and damn others. More than that, there is a quaintness to how they address their outside influences. It is an admission of commodification of lower forms of art for the inclusion in their work for profit. Adorno addresses this concept as well by stating “if a movement from a Beethoven symphony is crudely ‘adapted’ for a film soundtrack in the same way as a Tolstoy novel is garbled in a film script: then the claim that this is done to satisfy the spontaneous wishes of the public is no more than hot air” (Adorno, Horkheimer 407). The quote does not fit exactly, as Adorno was a bit of a snob when it comes to art and asserted that all mass produced work was garbage. But, if we can suggest that that premise is outdated, and all art regardless of its class associations are equal, then we see a producer of art-for-profit grabbing something from culture that was made to satisfy expression, incorporating it into their own work in order to suggest some sort of appeal or market, and profiting on the works and successes of others under the guise of creativity and art. It is a bit of a mixed metaphor, but I think it works.

However, Reed makes a point asking, “Why put a still picture online now that the image can now move?” Is this not a rather destructive statement to what they actually do? Why put a GIF online if you can just put a on a video? The statements being made by these artists are going nowhere and offer no insight in what they do or how they do it.

Reed does add that there is some unfavorable editing in the video. She states “To us, it’s about creating worlds and characters, clothes just happen to be a part of that. The worlds of fashion, art and commerce are getting more and more blurred and what we are trying to prove is that you can work in all these venues, it doesn’t need to be so black or white.” Again, we see an established difference in terms of their work as high art through the privilege of the fashion industry.

The final segment of the video deals with cinemagraphs. These are quickly established in contrast to GIFs, and it makes me angry. I find many of the statements made by these creators to be somewhat deluded in order to serve their own established personas. Kevin Burg states that “I think there’s opportunities in this kind of hybrid medium to show people something they’ve never seen before. We have these moments that can just exist forever.” There are a few things going on here. First, Burg is quick to mention that their work is a hybrid medium, not the lowly and pathetic GIF. This connects to the statements above about how their work is more closely related to photography than to something else. Not only that, but the music of the video changes to a somber and serious piece. It established this form of GIF as more auteured and separate than those wacky GIF makers we saw previously.

Cinemagraphs focus their animation on a single element of the image, rather than the image as a whole. Why they would instigate that their concept of “a moment” is somehow different than a moment in any other GIF is a little absurd – time is passing in both, it just features selective stillness in one to emphasize that moment. Time is time. Paddy Johnson elaborates on this with a tongue-in-cheek quip by stating “Read: There’s something special about capturing a moment in time, there’s something more special about capturing three seconds of moment in time. No explanation offered as to why a loop is more interesting than a still, a short, or a feature. Not saying there isn’t a conversation to be had, only that one was never started.” The makers of cinemagraphs want to make sure that consumers think that their work is profoundly different from anyone else, but their explanations are hollow.

My main problem with cinemagraphs is the fact that there has been a very careful campaign to give them a new title and to make sure there are distinctions between cinemagraphs and GIFs. The concept of cinemagraphs privilege a specific way of making a file format as “art” when people have been making GIFs for 25 years. It has its own term because it does not want to be associated with animated GIFs – the very thing it actually is. It applies concepts like “beautiful” and “ugly” to be delineated in ways that are illegitimate, forced, and privileged. They get away with this due to careful marketing of their own work and its closeness to photography and the lens rather than digital paintbrushes and computers. They even enforce this idea in a more subtle context by not participating in the humorous discussion at the end of the video of how to pronounce “GIF”. Why? Well, they do not make them, remember?

There is a Tumblr that focuses on displaying the failed cinemagraphs of users in the community, labeling them cinemacraphs. This helps to illustrate the point of privilege. Burg and Beck discuss their work on some sort of elevated plane of existence, where it is a “magical warp of time” that becomes “fascinating” and “emotional”. They are also quick to point to their creative process, as Beck states, “To dream of something and then create it in a camera and share it with people and let them dream with you, just for a moment.” The word choices are elevated, and they associate how their work is created with a camera – a mark of elegance and distinction. While they use photographs (or possibly stills from raw video files), the reality is that it is simply a clever use of Photoshop layers and animation. Yeah, it might be slightly tricky for some (and you cannot just make them out of previously created GIFs, as the Tumblr above mocks), but its simplicity is something that the creators want to hide as much as possible. They want their techniques to be secretive and deceptive in order to secure themselves as achieved artists.

Each of their statements is littered with hyperbole in order to self-aggrandize themselves and their work culminating with the statement that their work is “essentially something you’ve never seen before.” The very idea of that is insulting.

While this is a bit divergent from my main point, I feel it is worth including. Tom Moody has a really interesting discussion about cinemagraphs in a post entitled “Hair GIFs and the Male Gaze”, Hair GIFs being a humorous take (credit to Paddy Johnson for the term) on how cinemagraphs usually seem to animate hair wafting in a nostalgic breeze in an otherwise still frame. He quotes Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative.

Like the gaze of the privilege of patriarchy, the camera’s gaze enforces a system of power over women. This is an important point to bring up due to some of the statements of the artist involved. Beck states “It’s so voyeuristic. You look but you feel like you should look away, but then you can watch it, and then you can watch it some more and it’s like ooooh.” This is an oddly placed bit in the discussion and forces a sexualized perspective at the consumption of their own work. Voyeurism is that system of power that Mulvey is talking about, where the audience watches over the powerlessness of women and engage in the powerfulness of men. Moody adds “you’re supposed to be staring at her” and thus enforcing power over her. Beck seems somewhat oblivious to this connotation, which I find a bit troubling. They capture forever a moment of a sexualized woman, and she becomes powerless in her GIF form, forever victim to the gaze of the viewer. Its associations with the fashion industry just seems to perpetrate the power of gaze over models and the enforcement of beauty and aesthetics over women because of it.

Granted, this previous thought was more of a tangent. Someone else can go on and elaborate on this concept. It is valid and there is plenty to say, I am only piggy banking off of Moody. Please do not make me write another one of these.

The concluding points are brief, but also worthy of a word or two. Each point seems to suggest that the process of what is going on is “too new” to understand, “is art” because of their new uses in culture, or demonstrating some sort of fundamental change in ideals that are “more than” a simple file format. Nevertheless, the enforcement of this as art is still there, and with that enforcement comes the establishment of hierarchy that we can see demonstrated in this video. Why does it have to be “art” when Davidson seems to be implying something more along the lines of communication, expression, and culture and TopherChris equating it along the lines of cultural participation? The limitations of this video become entirely destructive to what is going on in the culture of GIFs. While I am more inclined to think that Davidson and TopherChris have more to say than the video allowed, the commercialization of art is heavy throughout, even in a meta-context of the company behind the video. It not only fumbles any sense of understanding to an artistic process, it completely misses decades of cultural development that is linking back to anonymous BBS art crews and beyond. This takes the easy road by finding the most noted artists rather than taking the time to research the actual movement and culture. The criticism and developments of the GIF scene, mostly done by the community itself, are entirely lost due to the narrow focus of the filmmakers.

The elitism represented in the video removes the egalitarian ideology of internet creation and participation and enforces a the importance of profit in creation. The fact that an ad agency is behind this video is troubling because it suggests obfuscates the idea that someone would make something without monetary gain in mind, the perspective driving the video is skewing the ideologies of the art and artists represented within. In doing so, they revoked the agency of creators that has been developing online as a way of rejecting the obsequious media industry that has been bombarding consumers for decades. We have seen the media conglomarates running scared about how individuals have been finding other things to do other than consume – mainly create, participate, distribute, and others. This is demonstrating a panicked attempt to bring in that outside creative force back into the capitalist market forces and in doing so, misses the whole point about why this scene is so important and cool in the first place. Technology does not make art – it is a cultural and personal process. A medium may be new, but expression and creation are timeless.

Here are some more links for further reading:

Paddy Johnson: http://www.artfagcity.com/2012/03/14/to-do-annotate-the-pbs-animated-GIF-transcript/

 

Tom Moody: http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/07/pbs-does-animated-jifs/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/15/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-2/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/18/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-3/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/21/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-4/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/21/off-book-new-art-needs-new-gatekeepers/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/17/hair-GIFs-and-the-male-gaze/

 

Douglas Schatz: http://whenthennow.tumblr.com/post/18918438259/oh-god-fucking-damnit-why-do-these-uniformed-jerks

 

Google Transcript:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/15LFzToq8ouubPRBvLy2xqJHW2u13iL8rYvFdfoDpSSk/edit?pli=1

 

Sources:

Adorno, Theodore, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. Third ed. London: Routledge, 2007. 405-15. Print.

Adorno, Theodore. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C Lenhardt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc., 1984.

My GIF to you.

Advertisements

Review – The Rock-afire Explosion

The show was really for me. I wanted it so Showbiz Pizza Place could never be took away from me again, because it was always going to be mine.” – Chris Thrash

The Rock-afire Explosion (2008) is a documentary about a very specific and possibly entirely unknown fandom. Showbiz Pizza was a regional pizza and arcade chain that was scattered across the U.S. It was sort of like Chuck E. Cheese, but slightly different. What is particularly special about Showbiz Pizza, and the focus of this documentary, is an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion that played shows for kids. These were robotic animals programed to play unique songs and skits every hour or so while families ate their generic pizza and drank soda when not throwing skeeballs for tickets to earn lame prizes.

Documentaries about fandom tend to focus on the extremities that people go through for something they love. This obsession, whatever it may be (and I do not use obsession pejoratively in this article) is generally something that few people can identify with outside of the particular fandom in question. Generally, if the documentary well planned, it will demonstrate that these fans are not as crazy as we think, and that the viewers will learn something about themselves through the people in the film. This one accomplishes that, as well as providing a history about a rather limited topic – Showbiz Pizza and the animatronic band The Rock-afire Explosion.

It is hard to describe a place like this, because they have not really been prominent in American culture for about 20 years. Chuck E. Cheese still floats around in the landscapes of suburbia, but not at all to the same degree as the 1980s. It was a pizza place – because all kids love pizza. It was an arcade – because all kids love video games. There were prizes – because all kids love prizes. It basically hits all the notes of happiness for children. Showbiz Pizza’s slogan used to be “Where a kid can be a kid,” but these sorts of cultural spaces of childhood have been replaced by other elements of consumption and entertainment. Arcades proved to be too costly of an investment for most places, and few have survived over the years – those that did have specialized in some way in order to stand out. Since Showbiz was an arcade attached to a restaurant, they lost money even faster, as they had to compete against pizza chains that provided better pizza delivered to the home for less and arcades with better and usually more up to date games. The fact that they decided to combine these two hot buttons of 80s culture into one place forced them to cut corners on both aspects of the business, thriving in neither of the things they focused in. However, they were unique in one aspect – The Rock-afire Explosion.

This documentary is about many things – primarily it focuses on describing the legacy of Rock-afire, both by a comprehensive look at the creation/creator of the band and how fans have help to keep this band alive for decades. Each perspective is uniquely interesting and in depth. Inventor Aaron Fechter created this band for Showbiz, and shows the behind the scenes of the history of the business and manufacturing – this is particularly haunting as we witness the promise of success and the failure of Showbiz personified in the decay of his workshop. As advanced as he was with engineering and development, fans have matched him on their own (well, almost). Dedicated individuals have scraped up money for years in order to buy up their own animatronic bands (which cannot be cheap). They have set up shows in their houses, or as the film shows, created sheds larger than their modest homes to hold a space for the band to play. New owners of these animatronic bands have dedicated their lives to Rock-afire – saving money, sacrificing various economic or personal improvements to their lives, learning programing and mechanical engineering, and maintaining their own personal band (a particularly rare collectable that needs to be kept in perfect order). In essence, they have taken everything that a million dollar business put in to a franchise into a glorified collectable.

There is an underlying theme of economics throughout this documentary. Animatronics is an expensive pursuit, and while the 80’s seemed like a gilded age of Reagan-promised optimism, that was not the reality. Arcades exploded in their presence in American culture as video games grew increasingly popular, but arcade cabinets are costly and their audience was relatively specific at the time. Video games were not as omnipresent or accepted as mainstream consumption as they are now. Arcades peaked as kids shifted their consumption from spaces of culture to the home. Personal consoles, handheld systems, and digitization made it possible for every home to be an arcade, therefore eliminating the need for an arcade in every town. Smaller towns may have been more likely to have a Showbiz Pizza, as it offered the excitement of an arcade with the practicality of a family restaurant. The kids (now adults) in this documentary worshiped these locations (and more importantly, the iconic band that lived in an otherwise generic pizza restaurant), and these spaces of culture and the band in it never left them.

While there is a focus on corporate economics, there is also a more subtle, but apparent focus on the economics of the people in the documentary. The fans are so earnest and enthusiastic, and the documentary does a good job of showing them as human beings instead of objects of ridicule. However, there is a reality of social class that may help to explain this rather specific fandom. Some of the people in the documentary have been in a life-long lower economic status, and have lived in a single particular place their entire lives. Therefore, their only way to engage culture, or to escape the overbearing economic pressures of their lives, was to go to these places of cultural consumption. It was their only break away from their lives, and their only means of cultural exploration, regardless of how limited this exploration is. It is not shocking that they developed a strong affinity towards it, as Showbiz very much represented the possibilities of the world outside of their means – the world of culture, music, entertainment, fame, and the technology of the future. I do not think it is too off to say that the obsession with the band may be rooted in this – the joy of going to this special place in contrast with the limitations and struggles of their daily lives must have been explosive. The life-long dedication to something that made someone so uniquely happy is not at all strange. Therefore, in a sense, this documentary is about finding absolute joy in culturally limiting environments and situations, and doing whatever you can in life to keep that joy in your life. It is also about finding out you are not alone, that you are not crazy, and that your love is not that weird after all.

I am absolutely blown away by this documentary. While it seems overly limited, it does not fail to be engaging. It is relatively cheaply made, but deeply personal. It demonstrates how individuals hold on to one of the few things in life that made them happy while forced to participate in a system of corrupt economics that forces them to remain in your place at the bottom. The film’s focus on how people continue to participate with and share the things they love in life, to the point of personal dedication to a sort of shitty pizza chain’s fake puppet band, is actually really inspiring. I really like the suggestion of moving away from cultural spaces to personal consumer culture in the home visa vi the absurdity of 80s economics – where we thought we could just do whatever we wanted and people would make it profitable. However, the end of these pizza chains, along with the end of arcades symbolized how production forced people to consume privately – a shift of social participation to personal consumption, a shift we are seeing reversed through current internet as fans are re-uniting with what they love and creating communities around it.

I love that the filmmakers never show these people as being weird or obsessive – they are simply fans of something a little different. The main problem with the documentary is that it lacks a bit of outside context. A lot of historical and cultural background could have helped make this film much larger piece of cultural analysis, and would not have been difficult to fit in, as it is relatively short as it stands. It hints at various things, but would benefit from larger discussion. Though, it would not be difficult to elaborate on these things for a class with a lecture or discussion after viewing. While showing this in a class would be great for a discussion of fandom, the economic and cultural context of the 1980s would be helpful for demonstrating why this fandom is not as strange as how some people will interpret it. Regardless, it is an interesting film and well worth watching.

You can find it on Netflix Instant Stream or by going to http://www.rockafiremovie.com/