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.

In February 2019, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos announced that Netflix Mexico would produce fifty television shows and films over the following two years, making it the platform’s international territory with the most targeted productions. The promotional video following the announcement features Sarandos driving around Mexico City, picking up six of the stars of Netflix Mexico original series, and engaging in a kind of carpool karaoke to one of Luis Miguel’s songs. By putting together these six actors, the video intends to showcase the diversity of content that the streaming service offers to Mexican audiences: reality TV, thriller, comedy, musical. Implicitly (and perhaps unwittingly), the promo also illustrates a key similarity among all these stars: they are all white.

In the spring of 2020, the whiteness of Netflix Mexico’s programming has returned as a topic of conversation. On social media, this renewed discussion has been bolstered by the trend of calling out “cosas de whitexicans,” i.e. media and cultural fads that foreground white (usually affluent) Mexicans. For instance, a widely popular tweet featuring the all-white cast pictures of La Casa de las Flores (2018-2020), Control Z (2020), Made in Mexico (2018), and Monarca (2019) points out that this is “what Mexicans look like according to Netflix.”

More notably, Netflix talent impacted by racism in production and reception contexts have unequivocally made their concerns heard. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the star of Roma Yalitza Paricio writes of the racist backlash on social media that she suffered following her Oscar nomination. (She does not mention the brownface sketch mocking her on national television or the actresses who allegedly conspired to prevent her from a nomination to the Mexican film awards). Amidst the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Tenoch Huerta (of Narcos: Mexico) tweeted “When you’re done supporting the much-needed anti-racism movement in the United States, can we talk about racism in Mexico? Or is that still taboo?” Long outspoken on the rampant racism in Mexico’s screen industries, Huerta repeatedly receives pushback whenever he brings up these issues on social media. Paradoxically, his association with Netflix has allowed him greater recognition to address issues of racial disparity even as the platform emerges as a prime example of these issues.

In my In Focus article for the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, I argue that Netflix Mexico is a middle class platform in terms of access, content, and imagined audience. Stratified access to high-speed internet and prohibitive hardware costs means that only the middle- and upper-middle-class can afford to engage with the platform. Critics engagement with Netflix content tends to treat it as part of the “quality television” discourse, in contradistinction to the lesser-valued content on national broadcast networks. Netflix itself has played into these different class connotations in the past, such as when the platform sought to distance itself from Televisa’s streaming platform Blim by making fun of telenovelas. Understanding the platform’s class dynamics helps us make sense of its original programming decisions within the country.

Understanding Netflix Mexico as a white middle class platform has further implications for understanding its cultural work around the world. As scholars and fans have pointed out, white affluent protagonists have long been a staple of Mexican television giants Televisa and TV Azteca. Netflix Mexico, however, aims to interpellate an international, multilingual audience with its content. La Casa de las Flores may be a retread of the “new Mexican telenovela” of the 1990s, but the soundtrack and casting choices betray its aspirations to appeal to audiences in Zurich and Seoul alike. Notice also in the Sarandos promo video that, despite the titles in Spanish, all the actors speak fluent English.

The whiteness of Netflix Mexico’s original content represents the projection of intra-national racial hierarchies onto a transnational arena. The international territory with the most targeted Netflix original content proves to be only the latest site of struggle for actors and creatives of color seeking more diverse labor opportunities and for audiences seeking representations beyond the white and affluent global norm.

[The original post of which this is an expansion appeared on In Media Res‘ week on “Global Netflix.”]

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:

  1. The Silence
  2. Biidaaban
  3. Ahalya
  4. Paradise
  5. The Above

headphones world

This fall, I’ll be teaching my Global Media Cultures course online for the first time because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At UTD, we’re required to offer an option for students to take the course asynchronously, so I devised a way to substitute for what would be the lecture + context portions of the class into a more accessible format for the students. During the summer I worked on creating audio recordings of conversations with the authors of the readings we’d be covering in class.

In the process, I decided to turn these recorded conversations into a podcast series that others could use in their teaching, particularly those adapting online courses with little or no advance notice. All the authors graciously agreed to have their participation edited to 45-minute episodes and shared in a public forum. Below is the list of guests and the articles we discussed. If you are teaching any of these and would benefit from having the podcast earlier than its official release, please send me an email, but note that episodes will not be ready until after Labor Day.

Twelve scholars in global media studies participated in this project. Our conversations cover the main contributions of their article, broader context related to the subject matter, and any connections between it and other relevant events or media. The geographical focus of the articles discussed spans the globe and covers television, music, memes, films, animation, and digital platforms.

The Global Media Cultures Podcast will soon live in its own website, where new episodes will be uploaded every week. Feel free to share widely to anyone you think may be interested.

Podcast Guests in Alphabetical Order

  • Lorena Alvarado (University of California, Merced)
    Never late: Unwelcome Desires and Diasporas in Chavela Vargas’ Last Works
  • Bianka Ballina (Mount Holyoke College)
    Juan of the Dead: Anxious Consumption and Zombie Cinema in Cuba
  • Laurena Bernabo (University of Georgia)
    Progressive Television, Translation, and Globalization: The Case of Glee in Latin America
  • Michelle Cho (University of Toronto)
    Genre, Translation, Transnational Cinema
  • Karrmen Crey (Simon Fraser University)
    Screen Text and Institutional Context: Indigenous Film Production and Academic Research Institutions
  • Camilo Diaz Pino (West Chester University)
    Weaponizing Collective Energy: DragonBall Z in the Anti-neoliberal Chilean Protest Movement
  • Jason Farman (University of Maryland, College Park)
    Mapping the Digital Empire: Google Earth and the Process of Postmodern Cartography
  • Laura Imaoka (University of Texas at Dallas)
    Rain with a Chance of Radiation: Forecasting Local and Global Risk after Fukushima
  • Ronak Kapadia (University of Illinois at Chicago)
    Sonic Contagions: Bird Flu, Bandung, and the Queer Cartographies of MIA
  • Aswin Punathambekar (University of Virginia) and Sriram Mohan (University of Michigan)
    A Sound Bridge: Listening for the Political in a Digital Age
  • Eszter Zimanyi (University of Southern California)
    Digital Transience: Emplacement and Authorship in Refugee Selfies

It started with a Twitter joke.

91665683_10105499601122550_7703103242141433856_oAs the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, governments instituted different kinds of lock down procedures to limit the amount of people coming into their country in an effort to reduce the possibilities of contagion. These procedures varied widely, from shutting down all incoming flights, to restricting entrance to citizens, to mandatory 14-day quarantines for anyone coming in. Some countries, such as Turkey and India, even instituted restrictions for internal movement. Within the United States, individual governors took (or opted not to take) measures to restrict who could come into their jurisdiction, and under what circumstances. Then there were the local measures. When the shelter-in-place restrictions in Dallas County and its neighboring Colin County began to differ substantially, an offhand remark on social media signaled the possibility that an administrative division such as the county line could become an actionable border in the time of COVID-19.

Borders in the Time of COVID-19 is a project about tracing the management of local, intra-national, and international borders during this pandemic. Some of these borders are established boundaries that have been reinforced since the pandemic began. Others, like county or state lines, have newly become sites of movement restrictions. Decisions about movement restrictions must inevitably balance limiting contagion with the need to provide essential services and maintain provision of basic goods. At the same time, some decisions taken under the cover of crisis have little to do with public health and may in fact be motivated by other ideological factors.

Border studies teaches us that borders are not only tools for dividing up a territory but also strategies for demarcating differences in society. Who is in, who is out, and who gets to make that decision are all politically charged choices with material effects on people’s lives.

…borders are, to some extent, designed to perform precisely this task: not merely to give individuals from different social classes different experiences of the law, the civil administration, and elementary rights, but actively to differentiate between individuals in terms of social class.

Étienne Balibar, What is a Border?

I envision this project as a public humanities initiative that will marshal the critical insights of border studies with the methodological tools of digital humanities to respond to and make sense of these rapid changes. For Phase 1, I have launched a website asking for information about how border closures are affecting communities at the local, provincial, and national level: https://covidborders.info/

Inspired by the rapid response efforts of other digital humanists like the Torn Apart project, I hope this initiative will engender collaborations with others across fields and locations who are likewise interested in tracking the roles of borders in these uncertain times.

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.

Watch the full interview on the WFAA website.