On the Importance of Being Two Faced: Production in the Classroom

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol 4 (1)
Irene Gustafson
University of California Santa Cruz

The publication of this teaching dossier and its inciting question, ‘Should I incorporate production assignments in to the syllabus?’, acknowledges a pressure, a sense of obligation, or maybe even just the fact that imagistic/sound research is quickly becoming a phenomena (in the US) that one should embrace or reject. The reasons for this are varied and certainly multiple: the emergence and proliferation of practice based doctorate programs (mostly European); the defunding of the arts in the US which has contributed to an exodus of artists into the academy; the ubiquity of the MFA degree with its emphasis on the interconnections between history, theory, and art practice; the emergence of Digital Humanities; the changing character and formats of publishing; to name but a few. But whatever the specific reasons, there is a tangible state of proximate contact and exchange between the classroom and the gallery space, the scholarly text and the web, critical theory and the movie theatre. The quality of the exchange and the directionality of its movements — one-way or reciprocal — vary from context to context. And the stakes of its impacts vary from classroom to classroom.

My contribution to this question is: yes, one should incorporate production for the simple reason that doing so raises really interesting questions. The questions are not always productive and in some cases they might distract from the pedagogical goal of the course. However to include image/sound production, as a mode of scholarship in our classrooms, calls forth questions about the status and shape of knowledge production and requires us, ultimately, to articulate the possible and/or seemingly impossible relationships between aesthetics and research.  These are ongoing, important, sometimes difficult questions but they are fundamental, I suggest, to the nature of research itself. My perspective emanates from the vantage point of someone who is and has been inside of the American academy in a few different iterations: I received an MFA degree and for the past six years I’ve been teaching and administrating in a ‘critical practice’ doctoral program, located within of a Film and Digital Media department inside of a research university. In my immediate institutional contexts, the question, ‘should we incorporate media production into the classroom,’ has already been affirmatively answered and that response has produced a set of subsequent and, possibly, more interesting questions:  How do we assess imagistic/aural research? How do we critique it? What is its relationship to other modes of research?

Before I attempt to sketch some answers to my own proliferating questions, two background issues require foregrounding. First, our smaller questions about the logistics of media production within the classroom are tied to larger concerns about the status of academic research. And, second, the academy is enormously powerful in authorizing modes of knowledge production. In his thoughtful and descriptively titled essay, “Thoughts on Research Degrees in Visual Arts Departments,” Victor Burgin ruminates on the status of arts research and how the academy has shaped both the processes and products of intellectual inquiry (Burgin). Argued as a series of case studies, he takes us through a précis history of the changing face of academic intellectual and artistic production. In the middle ages, he instructs us, the arts were divided into liberal arts and mechanical arts. The former were the intellectual disciplines taught in universities and the latter were manual skills taught in artisanal guilds. These separations allowed for a distinction to be manifest — an ideological and an institutional distinction— between thinking and making, between scholarship and craft. This separation, though, meant to clarify and bolster a difference, also revealed a dependency and a tenuously managed distinction. In the Renaissance, for example, painting became defined away from craft and was considered a liberal art, no longer a mechanical art, by virtue of the knowledge required of the painter— geometry, anatomy and literature. Burgin’s essay paints a picture of research as the process of asking questions within institutionally defined parameters, within changing historically conditioned settings, through established methods of inquiry, and via radically shifting technologies. This is the larger context and the specific situation in which mediated research, I’ll call it, finds itself: poised inside of a divided but tenuously maintained distinction between craft and scholarship. And motivated by research’s Janus, or two-faced, disposition– it’s simultaneous forward and backward looking gaze. Research is, on the one hand, governed by the conservative force of legibility, it looks to past and powerful structures of assessment and citation, accepted methodologies and ways of rhetoric. Yet, research is also driven by the more volatile forces of ‘new knowledge,’ it seeks out that which is innovative and novel, it looks forward to what is not yet known or what we can’t yet know given the tools, methods, or technologies through which we view, represent, and analyze the present moment.

For those of us who incorporate media production in to the classroom, we need to reckon with, first, why we accept it and, second, how to evaluate it? In the context of graduate teaching, which is my immediate experience and concern here, many of us eagerly accept mediated research because we perceive it to be innovative, which is, after all, an important hallmark of research. We want — for ourselves, our students, and our fields — the promise of new modes of thinking and new modes of scholarship. For example, Catherine Grant has recently described her own processes of producing audio-visual essays as employing digital material thinking (Grant). Produced and enabled through the manipulation of images and sounds, digital material thinking  “involves a particular responsiveness to or conjunction with the intelligence of material and processes of practice” (Grant). Digital  material thinking raises specific and novel questions about medium specificity, rhetorical performativity, and the relationship of aesthetics to cognition. Thinking with and through images/sounds is different from thinking with and through words, and within this difference lies the potential of ontologically new scholarly forms. This is the hope, anyways. The imperatives of classroom evaluation and assessment, however, can quickly tame this hopeful impulse and constrain its research potential. Or put another way, the sober and disciplining side of research’s Janus face can quickly silence the giddy speech of its opposite facing twin. As a colleague once remarked, as we were discussing the types of imagistic work that we would accept from our doctoral students: “well, I would accept a video essay but emphatically not a musical.” Embedded in this statement is the conundrum we all face when we incorporate media production into the classroom: we want innovation but we also expect a certain level of discourse from a scholarly treatise, we want a certain clear and recognizable performance of precision and rigor.

How to encourage the processes of imagistic or material thinking and not stumble when faced with the products of it? The audio-visual essay, which Grant herself produces and wonderfully theorizes, is a fascinating form of mediated scholarship for the way in which in negotiates this tension, generating much of its energy and authority from the friction between and overlaps of materialist and discursive thinking. The video essay often cites the structures and rhetorics of the academic written essay even as it diverts from it. But what about the musical?  Perhaps it’s helpful to remember Burgin’s lesson about painting in the middle ages. Sometimes, we can assess based on what a person needs to know in order to produce an object, rather than what is immediately recognizable from the object itself.  I often ask my graduate students to produce written annotated bibliographies in companion with their final projects (which can take the form of video, sound piece, website, installation). Or, I ask them to produce a curatorial statement in which they theorize the project’s aesthetic strategies. In addition to these more practical solutions, though, we need to be flexible enough in our pedagogy to allow for both sides of the Janus face to speak. This is particularly tricky in graduate education, where our (and our students’) investments in scholarly replication, continuity, and legibility can be very high and where leaps in to the gray zones of discursive illegibility can be all too quickly dismissed as failure. Feminist and queer theorists have long argued for the productive potential of failure, reminding us that failure comes in many forms. Assessments of failure can appeal to the conservative nature of research, reifying the status and shape of the already legible and successful.  But there are other types of failures, ones that innovate or move us along, or to the side or underneath, or eventually forward towards a more nuanced or productive exploration of images and sounds and their relationship to knowledge and aesthetics. J Halberstam has written about this type of failure: “Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods” (3). Halberstam wants us to feel less beholden to filial pieties as they overly constrain our relation to knowledge within narrowly disciplined and deterministic narratives. Halberstam writes further, “All in all, failure is about alternative ways of knowing and being that are not unduly optimistic, but nor are they mired in nihilistic critical dead ends. We need to learn about failing well, failing often and learning, in the words of Samuel Beckett, how to fail better” (2).

Failing better, failing well and often, for our students and for those of us who invite imagistic/sound research in to the graduate classroom, is to reckon with style and with the aesthetic dimension of knowledge production– at the site of both production and reception.  It is to be interested in and to foreground the specificities of form, the contingencies of material, and the processes and products of research. A ‘failed’ creative project can be successful if it opens up a rich set of dialogues or creates a situation of citation or intertext. It might, indeed, have a circuitous relationship to rigor. It might be emphatically unfinished, exploratory, or experimental. This is the kind of classroom we might imagine, one interested in the space between legibility and unruly outcomes, between ‘success’ and ‘failure,’ between the known and the not yet known. This is an interesting classroom, one that encourages multiple intellectual processes and products, and one brings interested people together with the promise of becoming more interesting still.

Works Cited

Victor Burgin, “Thoughts on ‘Research’ Degrees in Visual Arts Departments,” in Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, ed. James Elkins (Washington, DC, USA: New Academia Publishing, 2009).

Catherine Grant, “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies as Practice of Material Thinking,” aniki vol.1, no.1 (2014).

Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

Irene Gustafson is a media maker and writer who teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the Film and Digital Media department. Her film/video work has screened nationally and internationally; her writing has appeared in Camera ObscuraJournal of Visual CultureSpectator, and The Moving Image Journal. Her video essay, Facing the Subject, appeared in [in]Transition in March 2016.

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