Progress Not Perfection: The Work of Ariel Schudson

The Motherboard & the Quilt: New Media Filmmaking and the L.A. Rebellion



This piece was written for FTV 218: Culture, Media & Society: The “L.A. Rebellion” of Black Filmmakers, a class taught by Professor Allyson Nadia Fields’ class based upon the works of the L.A. Rebellion Filmmakers in the Fall of 2011. We were also responsible for and worked on writing a variety of blogs based upon the works of the different filmmakers which may be located here.

The fact is that all writers create their precursors. Their work modifies our conception of the past, just as it is bound to modify the future.

—Jorge Luis Borges

In 1997, Teshome Gabriel and Fabian Wagmister wrote an incisive piece connecting the modern digital landscape and the pre-industrial, non-Western traditions of weaving. This comparative essay, done well in advance of the internet world that we are so familiar with today, was one that showed not only extreme prescience but also revealed, quite literally, the connections that the technologies of weaving and digital equipment share. As Gabriel and Wagmister write, “digital technologies need not be understood according to the paradigms of the industries and interests that produce and promote them. Contrary to conventional ways of seeing digital technologies, there are real and vital connections- structural, aesthetic, even spiritual connections- between older ways of weaving reality and newer ways that tend to emphasize independence and innovation above all else.” (Gabriel and Wagmister, Notes on Weavin’ Digital: T(h)inkers at the Loom 1997) Beyond the physiognomic properties of each technology, one of the highlights of the piece was that there was a major correlation to be drawn between the burgeoning world of the digital and that of the Third World, a culture that is highly centered on parable for communication techniques. As they argue so skillfully, much of weaving is about storytelling, memory and cultural communication which match computer devices quite well. In this sense, hand-woven fabric is as much an information retrieval tool as the motherboard that helps to provide access to data, memory storage and a multiplicity of communication functions.

The L.A. Rebellion filmmakers were like a combination motherboard and quilt, working in both analog and digital realms. Their work ran along the same lines: historicity, memory/story-telling and the exploration of materials. The filmic data provided by individuals as diverse as Julie Dash, O. Funmilayo Makarah and Carroll Parrott Blue proved that concepts of woven technology and non-Western storytelling were not only part of the movement but integral to its advancement as art, film, and community engagement. Within this work, I will show how the works of these L.A. Rebellion filmmakers not only engaged in technological discourse within the texts of their work but also by the very materials that they were created from. Additionally, there will be evidence of how the strong influence of central L.A. Rebellion figures such as Teshome Gabriel made a significant difference in the way that certain filmmakers chose to structure their work and how that, in effect, has carried the L.A. Rebellion ethos onwards towards the future.

When discussing Western narrative structure, matriarchal figures have always been fairly problematic and many times there has been something there to undermine her power. This was not the case in the films of the L.A. Rebellion. Films such as Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991) and The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Texas Upbringing (Carroll Parrott Blue, 2003) not only invalidated that concept, but they chose to highlight the matriarchal figure by placing her firmly within the confines of new media discourse. By interlocking feminism and technology, these filmmakers state active disapproval of the absence of the African-American female from the media-making world and assure the larger filmic world that that invisibility was a thing of the past.


Daughters of the Dust

In Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, not only does she use her female characters to advance a sense of culture and historicity, but they serve as generational bridges, between technologies and literal ages. While the film does not take place during the modern era, it engages in high level theoretical discourse about the meaning of modernity in a way that almost seems to echo Gabriel and Wagmister’s sentiments about the woven world and digital landscapes. While this film is all about change and forward movement, it is also about tradition, oral history and bridging these divides. And, as Gabriel and Wagmister state, dealing with the past is “central to teaching and thinking technology. To understand the present we must come to terms with our inevitable connection to the past, whose traditions and histories need to be studied in the most profound and complex ways if we are to fathom where we find ourselves today.” (Gabriel and Wagmister, Notes on Weavin’ Digital: T(h)inkers at the Loom 1997)

As we follow the characters in Daughters, we see them encounter all kinds of machinery that they have never seen before, let alone even imagined. The central figures of the film are the Gullah people, who subsist per communal living on an island. They are certainly conscious of the larger world and all of its various goods, but seeing as they have no use for a camera or a kaleidoscope, it has never occurred to them to have one. Ideas of new technology crossing with older traditions create a greater sense of importance for both areas within the narrative of this film. In Daughters, the camera is not a stand in for “evil” technology and the keepers of “the way” and traditions are not the stubborn Luddite-types. This film has no stereotypes. What Daughters does is give a even-handed view of a changing world and culture that is learning to envelope and archive its history and future in a variety of ways. Dash’s various technological devices in the film reflect a preoccupation with history and methods of perception and sight. Regardless of whether it is through the lens of the kaleidoscope or the camera, what is reflected is a culture that, as shown by the additional section of film that is spliced into the narrative itself, will always be self-reliant and need to remain so. As the added archival footage shows us, the modern world may not have a place for the folk who leave their island home behind; and if there is a place, it is assuredly a much more complicated and difficult one than their point of origination. But that is technology, right? It always adds an extra level of intricacy to the puzzle.

Yet there are times when using more complicated devices can produce the simplest stories. To study some of O. Funmilayo Makarah’s work, the artistic message is complex, but the narrative itself is very straight-forward, especially in a piece such as L.A in My Mind. As we watch the pictures of Los Angeles fly by on the screen, words are superimposed on those images. While it could mean any number of different things (and Makara does state that some of the words were intended to have more personal resonance than public), the literary/visual mash-up is a seamless representation of one artist’s synthesis of a metropolitan space. While highly personal, this digital video work lends itself to be appreciated by a larger community due to the vast numbers of popular and familiar locations depicted. This film, shot digitally, also connotes a different kind of imagery due to its filmic make-up. While Daughters contains the thematic within the body of the film, it is also a film and shot on film. As time has progressed, and the world has changed, the creation of a piece such as this has become more and more difficult whereas a piece like L.A. in My Mind advertises its democratic identity in its digital makeup.

LA In My Mind

LA In My Mind

The methods of communication used by these L.A. Rebellion filmmakers were layered and various while the materials that they used were diverse. However, as time moved forward, there were some filmmakers who were not content simply to have the content of their projects be non-linear or have an alternative narrative structure. While digital video was an option, as shown by O. Funmilayo, there was a gravitation towards the area of new media. While there could be a variety of reasons for this, the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers had been schooled in the ways of the revolutionary, the communal, and the non-Western narrative structure. If one were to place those in a huge pot and add to it concepts of oral tradition, historical archiving and egalitarianism, you would have many of the theories that came out of new media cinema.

While digital storytelling currently has a variety of ways through which it can be seen, one of the most fascinating is that of the database narrative and what is known as database cinema. Professor Lev Manovich is widely considered the founder of this movement, and the developer of a great deal of the tenets of what we have come to know as “new media.” In essence, new media’s essential principle is that of  “the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself.” (Manovich, Database As Symbolic Form 2001)

According to Manovich, there are very specific things that define what new media is and what new media is not. Some of these propositions simply deal in differentiating between cyberculture and new media (although, as Manovich notes, cyberculture is a significant aspect of new media to be looked at). Others discuss the artistic merits of new media to rearticulate older media into new forms of art or digitally-based aesthetics. Ideas of algorithms, variability and automation are seen as part of the mainframe of new media, and, according to Manovich, it is important to utilize these concepts to view the rest of the propositions. When read in totality, these things outline what the goals of new media are, what it has been created out of, what it engages with, and what a viewer/participant should expect to see. New media deals in many topics that range from methods of distribution and conceptions of visual representation to the very nature of participation with the moving image. It’s all digital, it’s all computer-based, and it’s all tech-heavy.

As we understand Manovich’s principles of what new media is (computer-centric, continually changing, based upon ideas of self-generation, replication and interactivity), we can also understand what new media is not: static, analog, fixed, closed and at the same time…physically salvageable. In that sense, we see that there is a very delicate tightrope to be trodden between the areas of new and “old.” Advantages and disadvantages lie on both sides. On the other hand, the one arena where new media holds court over what has come before is in the way of access. The democracy of an open source digital art-making-system automatically lends itself more to the voice of the people in a way that expensive equipment has been able to do less and less over the years. The person who has come to understand this idea the best is digital video artist and film-maker, Carroll Parrott Blue.

At the Q&A after the screening of her interactive film The Dawn at My Back: Memoirs of a Texas Upbringing at the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA, Blue referred to her film as a “database narrative.” Quite literally then, her film is the conjunction of a computer-based information retrieval system and a narrative text. To further clarify, it is useful here to use literary theorist Mieke Bal’s slightly more elastic definition of narrative text, due to the largely open works that will be spilling forth within the digital discussion. Bal defines narrative text as “a text in which an agent or subject conveys to an addressee (‘tells’ the reader) a story in a particular medium such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof.” (Bal 2009) Dawn is a text that can not only be “read” but also told. Half participatory and half observational, Blue’s film investigates not only the possibilities of new media but what new media might mean to the African-American community, on a historical (and national) level.

From 1976 to 1980, Carroll Parrott Blue was a student at UCLA and a part of the group that we now know as the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers. Not only has this informed her work on a personal level, but it has influenced her on a much larger scale. Carroll Parrott Blue didn’t believe that the moving image was static or should stay within the realm of the self. Like other L.A. Rebellion alumni like O. Funmilayo Makarah or Julie Dash, Blue took her talents and put them right back into the community, becoming a highly respected university educator, film festival curator and film committee board member. Her contributions to the various communities that she has engaged with from Cuban film festivals in San Diego to her current projects in Houston have shown her continued interest in local spaces, people, and their relationship to art. However, it is her specialization and relationship with the digital that is really revolutionary. While it is said that anyone can make a film these days, not anyone can make a film that compiles history, space, community and interactivity; this is what Carroll Parrott Blue does.

It is no surprise that Blue was Teshome Gabriel’s research assistant from 1976-1977. His influence on her work is present not only within the visual data that she displays, but also in the way she displays it. With database cinema as her rubric and narrative work as her guide, Carroll Parrott Blue demonstrates Third Cinema and Third Cinema aesthetics. The added bonus is that her audience is as involved as her equipment due to the participatory nature of the genre and its relationship to the world of new media. Gabriel states that one of the forms of Third Cinema is within its non-Western approach to the autobiographical. He writes, “I do not mean autobiography in its usual Western sense of a narrative by and about a single subject. Rather, I am speaking of a multi-generational and trans-individual autobiography, i.e. a symbolic autobiography where the collective subject is the focus. A critical scrutiny of this extended sense of auto­biography (perhaps hetero-biography) is more than an expression of shared experience; it is a mark of solidarity with people’s lives and struggles.” (Gabriel, Teshome Gabriel: Articles and Other Works n.d.) Within The Dawn at My Back: Memoirs of a Texas Upbringing, Blue’s autobiographical work, there is a heightened sense that she is not only speaking of her own life, but of her entire community, a collective body, over an extended period and asking the viewer/user to do so as well. As Blue states in an interview, “[An] axiom of mine is that the more individual the personal, the more universal the message. What is personal about my story causes you to reflect on your own story.” (Blue, Email Interview 2011)

Julie Dash worked within the hetero-biographic approach as well, but took it a step further and made it symbolic. While Daughters of the Dust is not a direct autobiography, Dash is a Gullah descendent and, as Foluke Ogunleye notes, “in making the film, Dash is telling her own family story…the characters in the film are not mere figments of her imagination. Any of the women in the film could be Julie Dash herself, her mother, aunt, or sister, etc.” (Ogunleye 2007) As Dash’s story is laid forth in the story of the Gullah and we are involved in their story, we are compelled to reflect upon the matriarchies or women within our own lives/families and engage in a gynocentric textual analysis where the end result leaves us with a strange consortium of Dash’s ideas of historicity combined with our own. The non-Western story structure only pushes this towards the viewer even more, completing a circle of interaction with a fictional text that we may have never realized that we had begun.

In addition to the pursuit of Third Cinema as a guiding structure, Carroll Parrott Blue also engages in Third Cinema aesthetics, as can be seen in her most recent work with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Houston. By taking a city’s geographic information system and reappropriating it to the needs of the story she is seeking to tell, she is, in effect, subverting the traditional usage of that equipment. Blue states that the Mapping the Third Ward project is about “looking at how aggregating facts and figures (GIS) with maps (place) and personal narrative (voices) can generate a more comprehensive narrative of a neighborhood to create a community narrative.” (Blue, Email Interview 2011) While this is most certainly an aggregation of facts and figures, it is also a story with a history and a reality surrounding it. To enclose one thing in the other is to be working within the rhetoric of Third Cinema aesthetics. As Teshome Gabriel writes, “A critic who is sensitive to the form and meaning of Third Cinema and aesthetics must be aware of the relationship between the work, the society and the popular memory that binds them together. Aesthetic judgment is a consensus between the critic and the audience. Thus critics who are mindful of the relationship of works to the people must seek a liberated future and necessarily take up another, more subversive position.” (Gabriel, Teshome Gabriel: Articles and Other Works n.d.)

Gauging by her work, Carroll Parrott Blue is an artist whose creations cannot be reduced to descriptions like “Third Cinema influenced,” “digitally based” or even just “L.A. Rebellion-involved.” She is an artist whose works carry with them a sense of polyvalence, regardless of what the subject matter is. Her preference of new media as the area in which to explore and journey forth is not only bold but very much intentional. While few of the other L.A. Rebellion filmmakers have engaged within this specific arena, there has been enough experimental film work for us to know that taking part in a revolutionary technological genre is not strange for a woman who graduated with an MFA from UCLA.

Her participation in the genre of database or “soft” cinema as it is known is something is notable and should not be taken lightly. It is as revelatory and essential to her images as her ties to Third Cinema. Database/soft cinema lends itself to the polyvalent image and the theories behind it lend themselves perfectly to Carroll Parrott Blue’s work. This is very likely part of why she was chosen to be part of the Labyrinth Project by Marsha Kinder, where she produced her Dawn piece. Kinder notes that “although a database narrative may have no clear-cut beginning or ending, no three-act classical structure or even a coherent chain of causality, it still presents a narrative field with story elements arousing a user’s curiosity and desire: urges that can be mobilized as a search engine to retrieve whatever is needed to spin a particular tale.” (Kinder 2003) In this sense, Dawn’s structure is perfectly suited for those needs. Not only does it have a “cursor” designed for the viewer to click on various “information” points within the film, but the narrative will remain steady, flowing, determined. It is a film genre that works with the viewer.

Lev Manovich, the progenitor of the first “soft cinema” endeavor, states this was a kind of moving image project that displayed “the possibilities of soft(ware) cinema – a ‘cinema’ in which human subjectivity and the variable choices made by custom software combine to create films that can run infinitely without ever exactly repeating the same image sequences, screen layouts and narratives.” (Manovich and Kratky, Soft Cinema: Ambient Narrative 2005) Blue’s work lent itself to this genre perfectly as it was multi-layered, both visually and thematically. Due to that factor, the narrative took on a level of complexity that it would not have done were it a standard piece. Blue played with the visual elasticity of soft cinema just as much as she played with the concept of digital storytelling.

This can be seen best within the visuals of Dawn. As the piece opens, we see her mother’s face and hear her story begin. Slowly, as the voice continues, the face changes, subtly, until it is Blue’s own face. As this goes on, the camera slips through one eye of the face and through the other, almost as though Blue is saying, “You are participating in my piece, but you will be seeing through my eyes.” The intergenerational shift recalls the ideas of Third Cinema, as we are now forced to negotiate a narrative that is not only multi-generational but also narratively alternative and non-Western, requiring the viewer/user to not only see differently but to behave differently. The viewer is not only a viewer at this juncture but also a user. The piece will be consumed optically but participated in intellectually and physically.

Shortly after this, the visuals change to a quilt, whose panels shift, appear and disappear based upon the cursor. Here we recall Gabriel and Wagmister’s concepts of non-Western storytelling and digital engagement while we consider our own role within the narrative. As the text progresses, we can clearly piece together the ideas that Blue has set forth of storytelling as a method of communication and a way of reviving tradition and remembering familial ties. It becomes clear at this point that there is something to the voice-over narration that is as tightly woven into the film as any strand in a quilt. Indeed, within the initial frames of the film she is not only attempting to break free of traditional Western storytelling structures visually, she is doing it aurally as well.

The best visual example of Carroll Parrott Blue’s work displaying the Gabriel/Wagmister quilt function can be seen in the shots just after she discusses her mother’s death. In one frame, we are given open access to not only Blue’s personal, internal struggle but that of the African-American community at the time, simply based upon an object within the picture. The base photograph (and the most heart wrenching) is that of the apartment Blue’s mother died in due to smoke inhalation. In the lower right hand corner of the picture, one can see part of the furniture is burnt. On the table in front of the sofa, there is a glamour magazine that seems to have miraculously escaped the flames. Superimposed onto all of this black-and-white horror is a full-color page from a similar magazine to the one on the table. As we listen, Blue discusses the year of her birth and that at the time, Lucille Ball’s face & skin tones being used to test out the exposure range for Technicolor film. While that may have worked for white performers, as Blue’s words attest, it “underexposed black faces, making them look too dark and without detail.” (Blue, The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing 2003) The bizarrely fractured image of Lucille Ball’s face over the story of a fractured life and fractured community does not go unnoticed. While the scene studies the ways that the media at large misrepresented the black body and manipulated it into invisibility, there is a sense that it is also not shying away from the ways in which the Hollywood machine also ruptured the female body, breaking it into photographed pieces, looking less human. Blue weaves the ruptured female body together with the invisible black body and places it all over the photograph of where her mother passed away in order to demonstrate the immense tragedy of historical identity and culture theft in addition to personal calamity.

In the frames of Dawn, Blue exhibits a kind of art-making and film-making that transcends time and space. By superimposing older images on newer pictures and accompanying that with an audio track that reveals life events that are either extremely personal or extremely painful, Blue’s film layers the piece smoothly. By allowing the viewer to also become a user, the narrative is splintered and becomes a locus of digital polyvalence, getting thicker and thicker the more choices the participating individual makes. As each section’s meaning grows, so does the piece. The further the film is explored and the more pieces are excavated with the cursor, the more substance is derived from the larger experience.

Within her explorations in new media, Carroll Parrott Blue has found a way of expanding the ethos of the L.A. Rebellion filmmaking school. Maintaining the same experimental, documentary-like approach, she has gone forth and discovered new methods to bring people together to appreciate their own communities through history, memory and visual stimulation. By weaving the tenets of Third Cinema in with autobiographical information and positioning it all on top of a flood of interactive new media material, Blue has created a new cinema of her own based upon what she learned at UCLA and who she learned it from. By mapping out her lives and the lives of her community and culture, she is also making certain that a record remains of all of the historical happenstances that used to go by unrecognized or ignored. By accessing the tools of new media and weaving those in with her experience and training, she has been able to create creative films that are also moving image archives themselves. Having paved the way, one can only hope that others will soon follow.

Through this study, it is clear that the L.A. Rebellion is not a film movement that maintained zero growth. One of the reasons that it has had difficulties being recognized is that it has taken on so many different faces and incarnations using so many unconventional formats. The fact that the alumni continuing to be “L.A. Rebellious” means that the movement is a movement of more strength and power than perhaps a movement that began and ended at specific dates, using specific equipment, doing the same things all the time. While there is indeed an era during which these individuals came to UCLA and conducted their work and it is not open-ended, their work and the movement itself, is. Like Carroll Parrott Blue’s database cinema, it has the option to flow continuously and it does. Thus the films remain as meaningful today as they did when first made.

This piece was written for FTV 218: Culture, Media & Society: The “L.A. Rebellion” of Black Filmmakers, a class taught by Professor Allyson Nadia Fields’ class based upon the works of the L.A. Rebellion Filmmakers in the Fall of 2011. We were also responsible for and worked on writing a variety of blogs based upon the works of the different filmmakers which may be located here.

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