Reality and Medium

The Redemption of Analog Reality: Kracauer, Contingency, Computation | Nace Zavrl, Harvard University


Writing after the worldwide catastrophe of fascism and the Second World War, German social critic Siegfried Kracauer detected the promise of humanistic redemption – of a newfound communion with a decrepit, fallen world – in a medium he saw as uniquely capable of espousing embodied connection: the cinema. Its powerful photographic ontology (the unbreakable linkage between celluloid strip and the vicissitudes of outside reality), guaranteeing rapport with the real, film was emphatically mobilized in the service of a redemptive, reparative project. The ambition was no longer acerbic ideology critique, as it had been in the Kracauer of Weimar, but rather the restoration of man’s shattered relation to (and concurrently a crumbled faith in) the happenstances of his habitat. Against decades of semiotic study, which grandly decoded cinema as an inconsistent language and regressive industrial apparatus (and decidedly not as a recorder of contingencies), talk of ontological realism, photographic indexicality, and the capture of organic life in all its untamable flux has returned in vogue. “Following the devastation of World War II, critics such as Siegfried Kracauer and André Bazin found in the registration of reality possibilities of reparation and redemption,” writes Erika Balsom; “in our moment of ecological, humanitarian, and political crisis, the nurturing of this capacity possesses a comparable urgency.” Through a comparative reading of late Kracauer and present-day Balsom, this paper traces the conceptual trajectory of contingency as it was thought, theorized, and mobilized then and now. What intellectual tropes, in the fifty-seven-year temporal gap, have remained stable and reasonably unchanged, and what facets have been subject to contemporary revision? Why, amongst the panoply of Frankfurt School figures, has American Kracauer been chosen to help reinvigorate and vitalize postmodern filmmaking? Which theoretical valences have been lost (and which valuably gained) in the transition? Gone, most certainly, is Kracauer’s devoted attention to popular, mainstream cinemas, as well as the intensely cinephilic subject position that characterized his imagined viewer. Joining today’s resurrection of Theory of Film is a fresh prescriptiveness, an explicit and unequivocal call to action, indeed an elegantly articulated demand for the restitution of a certain kind of cinema: a moving image practice of observation, distanced objectivity, and unadulterated (but certainly not naïve) truth. A cinema, to put it differently, that Kracauer would have blissfully ignored, if not quietly despised.

Feminist Afro-Futures: The Aesthetic Militancy of Janelle Monáe, Karol Conka and Xênia França | Julia Guimaraes, Northwestern University

Feminist Afrofuturist and LatinX-futurist thinkers have struggled to unearth the missing histories of the African and Indigenous diasporas to foreground the centrality of people of color into the discussions focusing on “cyberculture, modern science, technology, and sci-fi pop culture” (Womack). This paper concentrates on Afrofuturist and Brazilian-Futurist women’s interweaving of conceptions of technology and mysticism to articulate the figure of the “divine feminine” and the notion of “erotic power” as powerful tropes in their narratives of rebellion. Dwelling on the interplay between Afro- and Brazilian-futurist thought, I analyze contemporary music videos by American artist Janelle Monáe (Dirty Computer) and Brazilian artist Karol Conka ("Lalá") and Xenia Freitas ("Nave"), who re-appropriate these notions to offer transgressive approaches to womanhood, gender and sexuality, love, blackness(es) and female empowerment. The investigation into the distinct format of these works—the music video—will be central to inquire into how they each: engage with the concepts of fugitivity and fungibility; employ choreography and visual excess to frame the historical displacement of Black women’s bodies and their positioning as undesirable/out of place; and approach memory and erasure, working against the inscription of violence inherent to the archive. Particularly, my exploration of Monáe’s innovative conceptual creation, the “E-Motion Picture,” will set the stage for discussing the ways in which the music video is an alternative and novel site for experiencing the rearticulation of sound and image as it performs a specific kind of affective labor, bearing a multiplicity of effects upon the viewer and calling into question the mediums of film, photography and music, especially as means of political resistance.

Mediated Environments

On the Beach: An Examination of Post-Apocalyptic Ruin Gazing on the Shores of the Salton Sea | Reed McConnell, University of Chicago

As most news outlets would have it, the Salton Sea is an abandoned toxic swamp in the middle of a barren desert, surrounded by ruins. While hyperbolic, this account has intrigued so many visitors over the past two decades that Imperial Valley, California, where the Sea is located, has become home to both post-apocalyptic tourist and film industries. Visitors come from as far away as Europe to see “the end of the world,” and artists as prominent as Kesha come with film crews seeking an eerie backdrop for their music videos, documentaries, and movies. In this paper, I provide a partial answer to the question of where cinema and cinematic viewing can be found today by examining the unique, tight relationship between filmmaking and ruin-gazing practices in Imperial Valley. First, I explore the important role that Imperial’s desert landscape and ruins play in recent post-apocalyptic movies filmed there, including The Bad Batch (2016), James Franco’s Future World (2018), and Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2019). What sorts of narratives are filmmakers using this desert landscape to produce? What sorts of collective fears, desires, and fascinations do their films both reflect and evoke, and how do they use the figures of the desert and ruins to achieve this? I then shift my focus to common forms of gazing practiced by tourists in Imperial, drawing on preliminary ethnographic research in order to frame their gazing practices as deferred cinematic viewership. I argue that gazing in-person at the Salton Sea and its surrounding ruins is an always-already mediated experience, where Imperial’s real landscape is experienced as irreal matter-out-of-time imitative of post-apocalyptic cinema. I then think through how the desire to visit Imperial in the first place and the pull of post-apocalyptic cinema arise largely from a certain privileged American subject position.

Wives, 'WAACS, WAVES, SPARS—and GOCs!': Civilian Defense Spectatorship During WWII | Natalie Greenberg, Concordia University

Under the Ground Observer Corps (GOC), the Air Force’s Air Defense Command (ADC) and the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) organized hundreds of thousands of volunteers to watch the skies for enemy aircraft from tiny observation posts across the continental United States. The majority were women and youths, a far more diverse body than most civil defense programs. The “eyes and ears” of the home front, they filled in the gaps of the ADC’s inchoate radar network by scanning the sky for movement, using binoculars and visual aids to identify, track, and report planes to regional filter centers. This largely volunteer effort did more than just prompt civilians to sit in makeshift shacks and look up but promoted a culture of surveillance and domestic militarization. Yet, the GOC never fulfilled ADC’s expectations as either a technical defense system or useful public relations outlet for civil defense efforts, with lower-than-desired volunteer numbers and unusable data, with not enough or wrong information. This prompted the Air Force to fund several research studies and organize conferences and publications to solve those problems. I examine these documents to outline the Air Force’s conception of civilian observation and examine the ways the labor of gendered and geographically varied spectatorship was defined and debated. In the filter centers, I examine the gendered politics at play in the “theatre” of the plotting boards and data aggregation use to track flights, and through GOC publications I look at the varied approaches across the country. Through aerial spectatorship, the GOC shaped the mediated airspace and outer space, by imagining a sky colored by constant vigilance, threat, and tedium, debates which continue to shape the contemporary national defense and the security state.

Immersive Spectacles

Fair Weather Fans: The Astrodome and Environmental Management | Daniel D'Amore, Harvard University


Opened in 1965 and self-billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Houston Astrodome was the first fully-enclosed sports stadium. Primarily known as the home field for the Astros and Oilers, the Domed Stadium was also host to a wide array of events and programming beyond sports including concerts, religious gatherings, political and business conventions. With such a variety of modes and expectations of spectatorship, the presentation proposes to examine the space through the expanded concept of “environmental management.” Encompassing the building’s extensive mechanical services (air-conditioning and plumbing), its light, sound, and display technologies, “color engineering” and thematic decoration, as well as the physical and emotional labor of its costumed employees, the Astrodome project was an attempt to create a “good time” atmosphere that is both multipurpose and multisensory. Read against other systems-based and oft domed examples of postwar architecture, as well as a prototype of the future “Experience Economy,” the Dome emerges as an inarticulate theorization (and energy-intensive example) of ecological design. Within its closed-environment, Astro-spectatorship is conditioned as much by the spectacle on the field—whether focused on Muhammad Ali, Selena, Billy Graham, or a boat show—as it is by the assemblage of abstractions necessary for the production and maintenance of its thermostatic comfort zone.

'Ride the Movies!': Theme Parks and Contemporary Spectatorship in Ride Films | Matthew Hipps, University of Iowa

As a synthesis of amusement park thrill rides, world’s fair attractions, and movie magic, studio theme parks have significantly redefined the scope of nontheatrical film exhibition and experiences. In particular, their ride film attractions offer a unique set of dynamic alternatives to mainstream reception. Early cinema scholars have noted the combination of amusement rides with projected images, especially Hale’s Tours. More recently, scholars such as Scott Bukatman, Angela Ndalianis, and Lauren Rabinovitz have begun briefly exploring a select few contemporary ride film systems. I aim to expand on this work by mapping a more comprehensive history of key ride films as they have developed since the 1950s. I ask, how do ride films refigure the film going experience? What is the role of the body in ride films? How do ride films technologies allow for a unique form of spectatorship? My paper historicizes the significant expansion of ride films in theme parks over the last sixty years, especially as studios like Disney and Universal have advanced immersive attractions as an integral part of their businesses. Theme park ride films have become part of a slew of transmedia entertainments today due to a confluence of events, such as new studio corporate leadership and the rise of neo-liberal conglomerate convergence culture. I analyze, through close readings, a survey of key ride films such as Rocket to the Moon (1955-1992), Adventure Through Inner Space (1967-1985), Universe of Energy (1982-2017), The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man (2004), and Avatar: Flight of Passage (2017). Launch to the stars; straddle a banshee in Pandora; shrink to the size of a water molecule. As a unique form of storytelling which allows audiences an opportunity to “ride” the movie or be within the franchise, ride films simulate the experience of interacting with familiar cinematic characters and worlds.

Activist Sites

The Spatial Politics of Alternative Screening Venues for Activist Films in Indonesia | Azalia Muchransyah, University of Buffalo (SUNY)

Throughout Indonesia's decades-spanning Old Order and New Order regimes, and even in the reform and current post-reform eras, ‘activism’ is still a very much avoided word. An 'activist' refers to the label attached to people who oppose the government and disrupt the nation's political stability. As fear towards disruption has been deeply instilled within Indonesian as a society, anything that causes unrest will be eliminated by social and legal punishment. Interestingly, films, which have been used as one of the main propaganda tools during both Old Order and New Order regimes, have also been utilized by activists to fight for social justice. Since the beginning of the Reformation era in 1998, Indonesians have gained more freedom of expression and it shows in the growing production number of films and other cultural goods. Since then, activist films start to raise topics that were previously taboo such as feminism and queerness. However, despite the blooming of cultural activism, political involvement in Indonesian cinema leaves a legacy in the form of the Board of Film Censorship, now called LSF (Lembaga Sensor Film). This is why alternative screening spaces in Indonesia become essential for experimental films such as Babi Buta yang Ingin Terbang (Edwin, 2008) which were rejected by the LSF. However, films such as the infamous dilogy of Jagal (2012) and Senyap (2014) by Joshua Oppenheimer and Pulau Buru – Tanah Air Beta by Rahung Nasution (2016) were still being targeted by State-controlled political organizations for their opposition against the State by shutting down their screenings at private spaces. This paper analyzes the spatial politics of alternative screening venues for activist films in Indonesia and whether or not it can still provide a haven for activist filmmakers in Indonesia.

The Victim of Multimedia Storytelling in Flight Paths | Yayu Zheng, University of Southern California

This paper examines Flight Paths, a collaborative digital work by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph. The project was inspired by a 2001 Guardian report about Mohammed Ayaz, a Pakistani migrant worker, but creative elements are incorporated into the basic story. The core event is a fictional encounter between the stowaway and the woman onto whose car he has fallen. Even if the nature of Flight Paths as a digital storytelling project deserve discussion, the subject – a victim of society – is central to the body of the work. The portrayal of a victim is a frequent issue of debate in documentary studies, often amounting to a discussion of ethics. With an understanding that digital storytellers are now more frequently tackling sensitive social issues, this paper offers a general examination of the treatment of “the victim” in digital works, including a closer look at Flight Paths as an example of the emerging social issue digital works and explore the possibility of portraying victim in multimedia storytelling. By drawing on a number of scholarly works, from documentary to digital media, questions of agency, interactivity and ethics will be addressed. The extensive research done concludes with the contention that both the cultural encounter in the initial segments, which focus on care and compassion, and the virtual encounter in the sixth segment, which emphasizes playfulness and gentleness, do not provide a fair treatment of Ayaz’s tragic experience. which is too terrible to be imagined and fantasized in this digital space. We are left with a nagging question: How can we tell the story of victims and do justice to those stories, especially with the emergence of multimedia narrative? No simple answer is provided; at least we can conclude using fantasy and imagination is likely to backfire and can lead to rather unsatisfactory and unintended experiences.

Street Cinema: Film Exhibition in Public Spaces in Hong Kong since the Umbrella Movement | Carol Lin, Indiana University Bloomington

In 2014, a series of unprecedented protests took place in Hong Kong, in which millions of civilians demanded universal suffrage and condemned state violence. The unresolved tensions between the people and local regime controlled by the authorities in Beijing led to more violent uprisings in 2019 to fight against Chinese government’s encroachment on the sovereignty of the law in Hong Kong. While the protesters, who were predominantly university students and young professionals, were occupying downtown streets for days, several communities and groups spontaneously initiated outdoor film screenings of political documentaries and feature films about the plights in Hong Kong and revolutions in other countries seeking independence. Many of these films were excluded from mainstream theaters due to their sensitive topics. When being brought to urban spaces which varied from stairs and slopes in the cityscape to pedestrian sky-bridges, these films were often projected onto a portable white screen or a blank wall. This paper investigates the ways in which these screenings in urban spaces worked to mobilize the citizens’ engagement with social movements. Did such film viewing experiences transform traditional cinematic spectatorship into participatory and civic activities? Could the film exhibition urge “political mimesis” to produce social change when the images of struggles and revolutions integrated into the cityscape of Hong Kong? By considering the unique political situation and urban environment in Hong Kong, this paper aims to examine this emerging film viewing alternative that strives to resist both the hegemony of the government and cinematic exhibition.