On October 28, 2020, I participated on a round table on “The Poetics and Politics of Streaming” hosted by the Film Studies Department at King’s College London. Appropriately for the topic, and given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the round table was hosted online via Microsoft Teams. The other participants in the event were Laura U. Marks (Simon Fraser University), Neta Alexander (Colgate University), Tung-Hui Hu (University of Michigan), and the moderator was Jeff Scheible (King’s College London). The event itself was not recorded, but I recorded myself as I delivered my opening remarks (included here over my slides):
Following the event, I’ve been in contact with folks working on the question I posed at the end: How do we make acknowledgement of the material effects of streaming technologies on land, people, and resources part of our daily practices? One generative example I have learned of since is the Land Acknowledgement proposed by the Digital Media Workshop at the University of Chicago.
At the end of January of this year, twenty scholars interested in the intersections of media, urbanism, and migration convened at the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC) at the University of Texas at Dallas for the three-day symposium Platforms to the World. I organized the symposium in conjunction with my ATEC colleagues Heidi Cooley and Dale McDonald, co-directors of the Public Interactives Research Lab.
Our aim was to create a forum to address an essential contradiction in 21st century media: while emerging media technologies promise faster and more intimate connections with people around the world, media technologies themselves actively contribute to the reinforcement of social divisions and political borders. The instigating force for the event was the belief that media’s “border logics,” their simultaneous making and unmaking of boundaries, deserved closer scrutiny.
The fourteen participants accepted from the symposium’s open call represented a variety of disciplines, academic institutions, and countries of origin. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, junior and senior faculty alike discussed their interest in and work around issues of borders, media, and migration in a set of events aimed at promoting collaborative thinking and making. The symposium opened with a plenary session on the relationship between media and the making and unmaking of borders in everyday life, featuring Feng-Mei Heberer (NYU), Carlos Jiménez (U of Denver) and Shannon Mattern (The New School).
The bulk of the symposium, however, consisted of workshops where all participants shared their research interests, questions, and methods. A “lighting talk” style session allowed everyone to introduce themselves and their academic or activist work in order to reveal connections between interests as varied as, for example, Punjabi cinema of migration, decolonial mapping initiatives in Chile, and makeshift surveillance hacks in Palestine. Eschewing formal research presentations, the symposium encouraged instead active conversations about methods for socially engaged scholarship and critical making. The workshops facilitated brainstorming and collective project building emergent from the disparate backgrounds and strengths the participants offered.
Platforms to the World also considered the borders that emerge in a swiftly evolving urban landscape. On the second day, we visited the Trinity River, which unofficially defines the western border of Dallas, to consider how urban infrastructures perpetuate social divisions. In preparation, three graduate students at ATEC, Catalina Alzate, Angelica Martinez Ochoa, and Cansu Simsek, led a workshop on the history of the river and the city and encouraged us to reflect on our own movement practices and spatial relationships to the urban environment’s (official and unofficial) borders.
The site visit afterwards provided a “borderland” in an urban setting for participants to try out in practice the issues we research in a transnational setting. Although most participants were unfamiliar with the area, the visit served not only to get out of the university building but also to promote reflection on what sustains “border logics” in the local context of the Dallas area. We took a few hours to explore the river and its surrounding areas, collecting “media samples” that we could work on afterwards to create media interventions based out of the Dallas Continental Bridge.
The media interventions created by the three groups (a video history of the bridge, a fake tourism ad for Dallas, and a series of personal oral reflections) allowed us to think through the symposium topics in a different register. During our last session, we brainstormed future collaborations and projects we could pursue. We left on Saturday, February 1st, with a renewed investment in our intellectual work, a sense of potential new directions, and a healthy dose of collaborative spirit. Surely there would be plans for a second meetup in the near future. Like many others, however, we had little idea of the changes the following months would bring.
The global COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed civil rights protests of spring and summer 2020 have only made the issues we discussed that weekend in January all the more pressing. In the global context, lockdowns have collapsed the informal economies of many places in the Global South. Those of us who research these migratory flows can begin to anticipate the long lasting effects these changes will bring to millions of vulnerable migrant populations.
At the U.S. national level, several symposium participants taught us about the widespread use of media by the Department of Homeland Security to promote its closed-borders ideology. The visually explicit deployment of DHS agents to harass and arrest protesting civilians within U.S. cities and the new propaganda videos released by Border Patrol are only the most extreme recent examples of such trends.
These resonances extended to the local as well. The area of our field visit during the symposium became the focus of controversy during the summer Black Lives Matter protests in Dallas. On the evening of June 1st, BLM demonstrators congregated at the local courthouse and walked on the Margaret Hunt Bridge, one of the vehicular bridges crossing the Trinity River. Dallas PD forces kettled protestors in the bridge, fired pepper balls and smoke bombs, and arrested hundreds citing the city’s curfew — except the bridge was just outside the borders of the curfew perimeter. Following public outcry, charges against those detained were dropped and the fallout of these events has already led to the resignation of Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall.
So where does that leave us now?
Many of the future plans proposed at the end of the symposium are still achievable, even if they take time to set up as we adjust to our new normal. For instance, participants hoped to develop and maintain archives of resources for scholars, students, and activists hoping to learn more about the “border logics” of everyday life and the roles that media technologies play in such logics. Several of us suggested expanding our workshops into virtual collaborations that would allow those physically impacted by borders to participate. In an era of travel bans and repeated lockdowns, these sorts of gatherings may become all the more central to developing intellectual and creative projects. Thousands of teachers, professionals, and families turn to Zoom for hours these days to carry out mundane activities and work duties. Questions about how these technologies facilitate international connectivity while perpetuating social divisions and hierarchies continue to be paramount.
Platforms to the World was hopefully the starting point for a series of creative engagements with these questions, as media continues to shape and transform our relationship to the world.
The Global Media Festival was a one-night screening of international shorts organized and presented by the students enrolled in my Global Media Cultures course during fall 2019.
For the last four weeks of the course, students worked in groups to watch and analyze the shorts; write critical introductions and film reviews; and plan a promotional campaign for the event. This collaborative effort built on the topics studied in the course (migration, translation, adaptation, global inequality) and on semester-long class discussions on the role of media in addressing these topics.
On the evening of November 20, 2019, we held the event at the main auditorium at the University of Texas at Dallas. In addition to the members of the class and their friends, members of the ATEC community also showed up. Each group had selected one person to introduce their short, and I gave a brief introduction at the beginning explaining the project and the work students had put into it. Read a digital copy of the festival program.
Though I intend to write a more thorough debrief and reflection on the event and the assignment, preliminarily I can say that it was a success in terms of its stated goals.
During our class debrief, students stated that among the key advantages of organizing an event as a final assignment was the fact that it was a public-facing project. Rather than a paper submission which most felt no one else would care about (beyond the professor assigning a grade), students appreciated the opportunity to bring partners, friends, and family members to the event. A few even mentioned that the event itself helped explain to their social circles some of the ideas we had discussed in class by referring to the screened shorts.
Several students also admitted that they appreciated having the time to work on the planning and writing in class. I specifically wanted this to be the case in order to provide guidance and support, and to alleviate the pressure of having to coordinate groups of five people outside of class.
Akin to a film festival, each group wrote a review of the short film tying it to the issues raised in class. These reviews were available for attendees to read after the event, and can also be accessed here:
On January 10, 2020, I appeared on Good Morning Texas, WFAA’s morning variety show, to talk about the multiplication of streaming services and how they fared against cable subscriptions. The initial producers’ pitch to my university’s communications team was for someone to talk about subscription prices for streaming versus cable. Fortunately, the producers also allow the guest to submit questions to include in the interview. In the end, I was able to speak more broadly about how to understand different kinds of audiences based on platform, content type, and their consumption relationship to television.
This spring I had the opportunity to program a film screening at UC Santa Barbara’s Pollock Theater and chose La Revolución de los Alcatraces (2013), an award-winning documentary by Mexican filmmaker Luciana Kaplan.
La Revolución tells the story of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a native of Santa María Quiegolani, a small indigenous community in southern Oaxaca, Mexico. Eufrosina ran for town mayor in 2007, but her election was invalidated because of a “usos y costumbres” ruling — a legal stature that allows indigenous communities to set their local traditions as law — that dictated women were not allowed to be elected to office. The film follows her subsequent personal crusade not only to overturn such a ruling but also to expand the opportunities for women across Oaxaca’s indigenous communities. By questioning the hypocrisies of a political system that allows indigenous rights only when it is convenient for national parties, Eufrosina soon becomes an icon of gender and indigenous rights in her state, albeit at continuous personal expense.
This film portrays Eufrosina’s personal journey and activist awakening and ends with when she accepts a position in the state legislature as a member of the PAN, the conservative party. Since then, her roles have expanded, as she is now the President of the Committee for Indigenous Affairs in the Mexican Congress. In September 2014, she was part of the delegation that accompanied President Peña Nieto to the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She used that opportunity to convince the President to support her bill, nicknamed Ley Eufrosina, which modified the “usos y costumbres” stature so it could not be used to discriminate based on gender or race. The bill was approved by Congress a month later.
Screening La Revolución was important for a variety of reasons. It was part of an undergraduate Mexican Film and Television seminar at UC Santa Barbara whose emphasis was on productions beyond the globally recognized Mexican auteurs. Bringing Luciana Kaplan to the class and to the Pollock to present her film showcased the diversity of voices in Mexican screen media. Kaplan was a particularly illuminating person since she is also the coordinator of the Documentary Program at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), one of Mexico’s main cinema schools. Her talks provided insights into filmmaking, teaching, and funding practices in the country — including the fact that most documentary filmmakers in Mexico are women.
The event was also important because of how the film speaks to the current political climate in the United States, particularly the involvement of minorities in politics and the 2016 presidential election. In my post-screening interview with Kaplan, we spent some time discussing the title change from Spanish to English, from “The Revolution of the Calla Lilies” to “Eufrosina’s Revolution,” as symptomatic of the tension between the individual pursuing political change and the revolutionary sentiment of a community. This also led us to think about the limits of identity politics. It was inevitable to draw parallels between this story and the presidential hopefuls calling for a political revolution or for the symbolic importance of a woman in a leadership position. And, finally, about the role of artists and academics in interrogating these ideals.