Author: Patrick Tarrant
Hubbub is part of a practice-based Ph.D. that attempts to represent our contemporary participatory culture on screen, through a conceptually oriented documentary practice. This endeavour is framed by the larger research question: How do contemporary documentary practitioners both represent and respond to the drives of a participatory culture?
Analysing participatory culture means analysing how media consumers engage critically and creatively with media texts, but also how media producers address the knowledge, expectations and desires of such audiences. After his foundational work on fandom and participatory culture in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), Henry Jenkins has more recently written of the ‘new participatory culture’ (2006c: 135) and of a ‘convergence culture’ (2006a) to describe the activities and desires of the old participatory culture considered in the light of changes brought about by new media and the corresponding convergence of previously discrete media spheres, technologies, and practices. In a recent online white paper, Jenkins (2006b: 3) suggests that in a contemporary participatory culture people become affiliated through their media engagements in particular. They work collaboratively to create new media forms, or to influence existing ones; and they develop a sense of self from the idea that they produce media that others consume, and consume media that others like them produce.
In order to apprehend and engage with ‘participatory culture’, Hubbub focuses on a media event called Band In A Bubble. Or more precisely, Hubbub focuses on the audience for that event and pushes the band to the audio-visual background.
Band In A Bubble was produced by Australian band Regurgitator, their manager Paul Curtis, and the cable music broadcaster Channel [V]. This tangible, site-specific event involved Regurgitator locking themselves away for three weeks inside a transparent recording studio in the middle of Federation Square, Melbourne, to record a new album. This event facilitated dialogue between a band with an eye on contemporary cultural, technological and aesthetic developments, and a broad public of hybrid audiences with a diverse range of investments in the band, the bubble, the location, and the technology. The multiple media employed to facilitate this dialogue, from live television, music in the making, internet chat-rooms and the glass walls of the bubble itself, can be understood as a sign of Regurgitator’s desire to communicate with as many people as possible, in as many different ways as possible.
The subject of my documentaries is not Band In A Bubble itself (which was captured and aired on Channel [V]), but participatory culture as it is made manifest in and around the event. Just one of the ways that this research practice can be understood as apprehending participatory culture, therefore, is in the way that it conjures a vision of Band In A Bubble’s audience not as a diffuse or chaotic conglomeration that eludes categorisation, but as a quite specific audience made up of the active participants of a convergence culture. Band In A Bubble’s novelty, therefore, lies in its ability to imagine and address a participatory audience.
Another of the attractions of Band In A Bubble for this research project lies in the way that it highlights many of the complexities of participation as they emerge in the dynamic relation between media production and consumption, fandom and criticism, and the blurring of media content with promotional culture. To borrow from Greg Urban (2004: 21) — whose work on ‘metaculture’ provides an important impetus for this research — Band In A Bubble might be understood as an example of the way in which “a cultural element can be designed to secure its own circulation.” In this case, an album that hasn’t even been recorded secures its circulation through culture on the back of those participant-audiences invited to share in its creation — and by extension, its promotion. Band In A Bubble can therefore be understood as a metacultural event, not dissimilar to the Dogma 95 manifesto (see Hjort 2003), insofar as both seek to create new audiences in advance of the proper cultural text. In the case of the meta-textual production that is Dogma 95, the audience is invited to consume, police and even adopt the manifesto, while Band In A Bubble’s audience are urged to contribute song lyrics, guitar riffs, and a certain level of debate about the plight of music culture in a media-saturated world. In both cases this energy propels an object-in-the-making, into the culture.
Hubbub focuses on the energy of this audience at work, and the idea that their participation is not simply a form of productive cultural activity, but that this participation deserves its own audience. And in keeping with a notion of the ‘participatory camera’ as one that facilitates and invites interaction with the documentary apparatus, Hubbub plays its own part in the participatory process. Like my subjects, I too was a member of the bubble’s audience, seeking to take up the opportunities and media it appeared to offer, and looking to intervene on that media experience as a way of making it new, and making it available to (my) new audiences.
Hubbub represents the Bubble’s participating audience through an extended vox-pop rendered as conversational collage in order to give voice to a large, multifarious audience, while also giving expression to the creative and synthesising potential of documentary filmmaking and the kind of remediating (Bolter and Grusin) practices that contemporary consumers engage in routinely. In this respect Hubbub represents the contemporary media consumer as not just a willing contributor to critical debate, but as Jenkins suggests, someone who creates meaning for themselves and others through their manipulation and editing of their media environment.
Given the many thousands of people who attended Band In A Bubble, and even the 135 interviewed for this film, my documentary inquiry can be described as an attempt to capture how creative media consumption has become a ‘collective’ process, to borrow Pierre Levy’s term (1997). Band In A Bubble’s audience didn’t simply speak of their investments in their own voice. By doing so in public, in numbers, and to the documentary camera, they also gave voice to a collective cultural force that I have in turn framed as participatory culture at work.
One of the essential problems of representing a culture is finding a spokesperson to testify to its form, a problem shared by ethnographic and documentary filmmaking. Eliot Weinberger suggests that while filmmakers need such spokespeople to testify to a culture’s existence, they inadvertently reduce a culture to those few individuals. He proposes that “[o]ne answer is a multiplicity of voices — voices that echo, enlarge and especially contradict one another” (1996: 158). This methodological choice has the advantage of showing the contested nature of culture at the same time as allowing a diversity of embodied experiences to be represented. And while in Hubbub a multiplicity of voices may indeed contribute to a more diverse representation, I would argue that participatory culture is already defined by the qualities of multiplicity, contestation, and diversity. Hence all three of these qualities are used in Hubbub to exemplify the din of participation, rather than as an attempt to provide a cross-section of a culture per se.
David MacDougall suggests something similar when he writes of the ‘polythetic voice’. MacDougall claims: [i]n recent years one sees a movement away from monologue toward—not even polysemic or polyvocal expression—but polythesis: an understanding that comes out of the interplay of voices rather than merely their copresentation. (MacDougall 1989: 121)
Through Hubbub’s aesthetics and structure I argue that a polythetic voice is at work in the audience’s response to Band In A Bubble, and in audience responses more broadly in a participatory culture. This filmic argument is particularly articulated through those choices that seek to evoke a sense of the rich archive of images and voices not selected (but which might be understood as imminent, nonetheless). In short a ‘database aesthetic’ (Manovich 2001) can be seen at work, and it is deployment is intended to communicate the idea that every utterance heard is testimony to the struggle to be heard. If my documentary practice makes that struggle just a little bit harder through its insistence on its own interruptions, it does so in the name of a more critical response to participatory culture.
To return to the principle research enquiry of this Ph.D. — namely, the place of documentary thinking and practice in a participatory culture — it is not only an idealised treatment of participatory culture that this film seeks to avoid, but a similar treatment of the ‘participatory’ documentary itself. Borrowing from Seth Feldman’s (1977) critique of what he calls the ‘subject-generated’ documentary, wherein the degree of subject involvement is popularly seen as correlating directly with a film’s ‘authenticity’, Hubbub focuses instead on a notion of participatory culture that sees all the tensions that exist between producer and consumer as sufficiently involving that they are not only worthy of celebration in themselves, but worthy of documentary treatment as well.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999 Remediation: Understanding New Media London: MIT Press.
Feldman, Seth. 1977. ‘Viewer, Viewing, Viewed: A Critique of Subject-Generated Documentary’. Journal of the University Film Association. 29: 23-26, 35-36.
Hjort, Mette. 2003. ‘The Globalisation of Dogma: The Dynamics of Metaculture and Counter-publicity’. In Purity and Provocation: Dogme 95, ed. Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie. London: BFI Publishing.
Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall.
___. 2006a. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
___. 2006b. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.
___. 2006c with Ravi Purushotma, Katherine Clinton, Margaret Weigel, and Alice J. Robison. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part One). October 20, 2006. Part of the New Media Literacies (NML) Project.
Available for PDF download at: <http://www.digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF>
Levy, Pierre. 1997. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1997.
MacDougall, David. 1989. Transcultural Cinema, Lucien Taylor ed. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press.
Urban Greg. 2001. Metaculture: How Culture Moves Through The World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Weinberger, Eliot. 1996. ‘The Camera People’. In Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film, ed. Charles Warren. Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept work and statement
Patrick Tarrant’s research question is How do contemporary documentary practitioners both represent and respond to the drives of a participatory culture? Hubbub (Tarrant, 2005) is his film about the hubbub created by the “metacultural event” (Urban, 2004) Band in a Bubble, gives one possible answer to this question. In 2004, the Australian music band Regurgitator, with the backing of Channel V Australia, sealed themselves in a glass cage containing all they needed to make an album, and their day-to-day activities were broadcast via a Big Brother-style combination of TV slots and online support media. The public was invited to collaborate in various ways; the album created its own microculture of participants and spectators, and had a ready-made market that far exceeded Regurgitator’s existing fan-base, before it even existed as an album. An experimental fusion of Reality TV, “making of” doco, interactive broadcast, public collaboration, cybernetic microculture creation and convergent media marketing campaign, this formula proved so successful that it was repeated in 2007, this time in New York by the pop-punk band Cartel, in a partnership between MTV, Dr Pepper, and the band’s label, Epic Records.
Tarrant’s film focuses upon the thousands of fans and aspirant contributors who daily flocked to Federation Square, Melbourne, where the glass studio was established, in the hope of seeing the band, contributing something to the album, or simply getting on TV for having been there. By relegating the band and the technological apparatus of the event to the “audio-visual background” (Tarrant, 2006), and focussing instead upon the the testimonials of this crowd, he invokes the multiplicity of voices that participatory culture entails, and opposes this plurality to the manner in which “participatory culture” is framed (and deployed as a consumeristic metaculture) by the semiotic and cultural hegemony of the project’s designers and broadcasters.
Tarrant is critical of the notion that a participatory documentary is necessarily a more authentic representation of reality, leading him to eschew the possibility of a participatory approach to documentary itself. He asks, “to what extent can I succeed in representing multiplicity?” rather than, “to what extent can I succeed in allowing multiplicity to speak for itself?” His stream of vox pops is not so much “the voice of the people”, as a series of signs for “the voice of the people in participatory culture”, because he aims to illustrate the polyvocal and polythetic nature of participatory culture, rather than present an “authentic instance” of a polyvocal utterance.
His motivation and rationale are identical: as an active participant in the culture he is representing, his task is to participate in the struggle to be heard: “This filmic argument is particularly articulated through those choices that seek to evoke a sense of the rich archive of images and voices not selected (but which might be understood as imminent, nonetheless). In short a ‘database aesthetic’ (Manovich, 2001) can be seen at work, and it is deployment is intended to communicate the idea that every utterance heard is testimony to the struggle to be heard. If my documentary practice makes that struggle just a little bit harder through its insistence on its own interruptions, it does so in the name of a more critical response to participatory culture.” (Tarrant, ibid.)
Tarrant’s strategy is to turn the apparatus of participatory culture upon itself, and “(give) expression to the creative and synthesising potential of documentary filmmaking and the kind of remediating (Bolter and Grusin, 1999) practices that contemporary consumers engage in routinely. In this respect Hubbub represents the contemporary media consumer as not just a willing contributor to critical debate, but as Jenkins suggests, someone who creates meaning for themselves and others through their manipulation and editing of their media environment.” (Tarrant, ibid.)
By framing the event as participatory culture, he can make a series of critical observations about the nature of participation. This decision is eloquent in itself: Each “struggle to be heard” is a performative refutation of digital utopianianism, and the “democratic paradigm” of technologically mediated participatory culture, which fuels much of the rhetoric of e.g. crowd-source creativity and open-source economics.