Since the advent of consumer-friendly digital technologies—friendly in terms of their computational power, operational ease and pricing—tinkering with the digital materiality of audiovisual media as part of its study has become a widely embraced research exercise. There is currently no doubt about videographic criticism’s contribution to the study of audiovisual arts as a novel and useful method, but answering the question “how to legitimize videographic criticism as a valid means of scholarly communication” has remained somewhat challenging (hence the present issue of The Cine-Files and its dedication to this very question).
Academic recognition and validation of an “ontologically new” approach to scholarly work is usually a slow and bumpy process—a development I have been particularly interested in for a while. Written evidence of this interest includes, among other things, my brief outlining of an idea for a “scholarly sound video” as an alternative to the tradition of textual scholarship in [in]Transition, a co-authored multimedia e-book on the history, theory and practice of the “academic research video,” and introductions to the audiovisual essay section of the Spring and Autumn issues of NECSUS, in which I attempted to sketch a thin (if at all existent) line between “scholarly valid” and “scholarly illegitimate” modes of audiovisual expression—a task that self-claimed “academic” journals and “scholarly” platforms of videographic criticism should have taken up in the first place.
Having not learned from the troubles these attempts have caused, I accepted The Cine-Files editors’ kind invitation and will hereby aim at addressing the question above through: (I) some general theoretical reflections on the framing of current videographic practice, and (II) by a specific illustration based on my experiences with the Videographic Criticism class I designed (and keep designing), which I teach at the University of Groningen—a course that attempts to implement the conclusions of these general theoretical reflections within an educational practice.
The pursuit of finding a satisfying answer as to “how to legitimize videographic criticism as a scholarly valid expression,” first of all, requires a much-needed confrontation with one of videographic criticism’s most latent oversights, i.e. the lack of distinction between videographic practice as methodology and as communication mode—a confusion that mistakes research (“tinkering as”) with communicating the result of that research (“tinkering for”). Indeed, the key to answering our initial question is in the question itself: novel digital methodologies are “only” creative tools that might result in scholarly valuable research outcomes, but aren’t (always) research products in themselves. Let me illustrate this reasoning with three examples.
Around 2001, thus well before the boom of videographic criticism and some four years prior to the launch of YouTube, I was doing research for my master’s thesis on Christopher Nolan’s 2000 Memento. Operating on a—by today’s standards—quite lousy computer and using an early version of Final Cut Pro, I was struggling through frustratingly long hours of re-editing and rendering the film’s inversely-told plot into a chronological story (yes, I downloaded the film for study purposes strictly, only to buy its physical copy released some months later, including a chronologized version of the film as a special disc). As elsewhere noted, “[w]e don’t think that one should call this practice or its result (the chronological version of Memento) an ‘audiovisual essay,’ as it is merely a part of a research aiming at understanding the effects of Nolan’s narrative experimentation.” Even if I had the chance at the time to call the result of my tinkering a “video essay” as well as a platform to “publish” my work, I still consider the chronological version as only a record of my research, a tool through which I could study the film’s clever balancing between its disorienting narrative features and cognitively manageable challenges. The linearization of the film was my method, the created video file was a kind of byproduct of this method, which helped me to write up my master’s thesis as a scholarly sound academic result of the entire process.
My second example brings us to the present moment of videographic criticism. Liz Greene’s 2015 Velvet Elephant is among the most powerful examples of the power of videographic tinkering. Even while knowing David Lynch’s 1980 The Elephant Man and 1986 Blue Velvet inside out, Greene probably wouldn’t have spotted the bizarre audiovisual overlaps between the opening scenes of the two films—a kind of recurrence that might contribute to the definition of Lynch as an auteur director—without some playful tinkering with editing software. Her communication of this realization—through a split-screen and superimposed audiovisual juxtaposition of the two opening scenes, published online with the title Velvet Elephant—has a clear intention: to be an audiovisual essay. It may sound obvious, however it’s worth pointing out:
Although Velvet Elephant is, no doubt, a brilliant audiovisual essay, I fully agree with Jason Mittell who “would not call the resulting video ‘scholarship’ per se, as it lacks analysis, argumentation, or context; however, it is most certainly ‘research,’ sharing a discovery that could only be realized through Greene’s computational transformation of the two films.” Mittell’s conclusion is in line with the general concern I aim to highlight in this paper, similarly calling for a distinction between videographic practice as methodology and communication mode: “Too often, the humanities frames ‘research’ as the finished products of scholarship,” while research, as a kind of “systematization of curiosity,” “means the state of not knowing—or even better, not yet knowing along with the desire for knowledge” (my emphasis). Subsequently, an audiovisual record of one’s audiovisual research is not yet videographic scholarship but rather a mere trace of one’s effort towards knowledge production. In general, while I’m very much in favor of any unorthodox, even blasphemously screwmeneutic, research method that might lead to some otherwise unimaginable revelations, I don’t believe in the publication of such playful activity as a scholarly valid videographic result of one’s research in itself—except if the video is about methodology (that is, a record of one’s tinkering presented in an intelligible form).
This conclusion leads to my third example, the relatively current and emerging practice of videographic criticism, which brings some nuance to this demarcation between research method and communication mode. The “desktop documentary” is a filmmaking and presentation mode in one, resulting in a video that plays out entirely on a desktop screen. Or, as Kevin B. Lee, who, to my knowledge, first used the term in connection to videographic criticism, puts it, “[t]his form of filmmaking treats the computer screen as both a camera lens and a canvas.” Desktop documentary could be considered a sub-genre of Desktop Films, which include all kinds of poetic and narrative utilizations of this idea. There’s a clear didactic value that comes from desktop documentaries’ transparent and effortless performativity, that is, from the relaxed and seemingly spontaneous presentation of an unfolding argument in an environment (software on desktop) and through actions (typing, dragging, opening files) that are familiar and, in 2020, rather natural to all viewers (even though this liveness and effortless spontaneity is clearly part of a rhetorical illusion). Beyond the genre’s capacity to present its findings through transparent, straightforward and, by its effect, credible storytelling, desktop videos’ most remarkable pedagogical value comes from their inherent feature of collapsing the boundaries between making and presenting, i.e., between revealing their thinking and tinkering research process (as unfolding, step-by-step, in front of our eyes), and the presentation of the outcomes of such “t(h)inkering” (arriving at results and, thereby, justifying the presented research methods). All these materialize within a single video, incorporating all the ingredients—analysis, argumentation, and context—that Mittell and I were missing above, thus potentially, but not necessarily, qualifying as “scholarship.” (For examples that do fulfil such potential, see, among others, Chloé Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee’s Reading // Binging // Benning, or Trevor Stears’ 2017 desktop documentary about desktop films, Desktop Films – A Desktop Documentary.)
The initial question—“how to legitimize videographic criticism as a valid means of scholarly communication”— cannot and should not be answered without concrete contextualization, in which actual perspectival sub-questions emerge as “to whom,” “in what kind of institution,” and “to what end.” Therefore, although my above examples and their underlying scholarly ethos might seem too strict or conventional—in terms of favoring declarative knowledge production and its clear (for some “redundant”) explanatory communication—such considerations come from an actual pedagogical situation within which these make sense.
Being an employee of an academic institute, my interest in finding answers to what can be considered scholarly valid videographic communication arises out of actual necessity: even though my department and faculty are not particularly strict on publication quotas, these lenient conditions still do make me think twice about what targeted output to invest my scarce research time in. This output should not only be aimed at cultivating an academic and/or non-academic audience or at satisfying my present employer’s demands, but there is also a need to boost my “academic” CV to possibly impress prospective employers or grant providers. What seems to be valid scholarship for one, might not be acknowledged or valued in another context. Facing the ever-changing conditions of our own academic employability is a tough but ultimately private concern; being on a teaching job, however, inevitably brings these dilemmas into a social-practical reality.
The discussion about what constitutes a “valid” scholarly utterance has a long record pervading the entire history of textual study of film and media (and of academic philology altogether, for that matter). As I put it elsewhere,
The recent surge of audiovisual criticism does not only mirror, but actually makes visible, quite literally, the long-standing and often productive range in traditions of “legitimate” academic output. Through its greater performativity and artistic-prone capacity (over the textual form), the audiovisual form can be seen as further expanding this scope. While educators, quite reasonably, welcome and celebrate the increasing variety of textual or audiovisual expression, teachers are often faced with difficulties when obligated to evaluate a thinly defined mode of communication as a form of scholarship. Indeed, beyond the comfort of armchair theorizing the value of videographic criticism in educational settings, there is the very real and everyday challenge of assessment and grading, idealistically coupled with some bold learning outcomes (serving the often optimistic aims of employability).
But how can we assess, in an academic setting (which, in my case, is not an art academy), students’ audiovisual products as alternatives to their traditional written papers if we don’t even have some clear criteria or peer-review standards for our own videographic work? What “scholarly valid” learning outcomes should we aspire to, and how to test those against the methods and products of students’ audiovisual t(h)inkering? Instead of thoughtlessly addressing these issues by devising more and more complex rubrics and assessment forms, and desperately coupling these to some notional academic learning outcomes, what we could do instead is to question, reflect on and ultimately dismantle these deeply-seated academic routines. Here are two suggestions, both of which I implement in the practice of my own videographic class:
(1) If you cannot fully resist it, then at least try to downplay the value of the numerical/letter grading administration.
Making students aware of the grading routine’s “bizarre customs and habits our institutions have adopted,” as well as of their own unquestioning obedience of these solidified practices, often leads to a liberating revelation that can be channeled into unleashing their imagination—effects that are particularly beneficial in a videographic class aimed at innovative scholarly productivity. Yes, I’m still grading their work, although my marking is less focused on the result of their activity, that is the variety of videos they produce, than on students’ self-reflection and metacognition, a demonstration of their reflection on the learning curve their videographic activity pulled them through. In practice, instead of trying to evaluate audiovisual essays through some rigidly grade-bound assessment forms and rubrics (which, the moment they appear in the syllabus, already limit students’ imagination), I accept the inevitable subjectivity of any artistic production (here particularly due to the audiovisual expression’s greater performative capacity over the textual form), and grade not my students’ videos but their oral presentations of and written feedback on their unfolding work (a kind of theory-conscious production history).
In general, while a concrete project is needed as playfully attractive bait for students to explore their audiovisual creativity, grading becomes a downplayed necessity, a mere “deceptive” technique to satisfy bureaucratic administration and its metitocratic norms.
(2) If bowing to bureaucratic pressures, then consider digging deep and raising fundamental questions: ask to what extent following and submitting oneself to some rigorous academic writing standard is a valuable skill that university students need to acquire? And for what practical reason or benefit—beyond pursuing an academic career that requires the maintenance of these? What do such standards stand for? What is the point in maintaining them? Why not change them or render them more flexible? Is there a difference between maintaining these standards in writing and in audiovisual form? In my class, following an introduction, reflection and theoretical discussion, I engage students with these elementary questions via two different videographic assignments representing the two polar extremes of rule-bound versus unrestrained creativity.
Firstly, they need to create a traditional research video—an autonomous and explanatorily argumentative scene analysis—that aims at ticking all the long-established boxes that a regular analytical written essay requires. This is an activity for which they are well-trained at this point in their education and for which textual practice needs to be adjusted to the medium-specific idiosyncrasies of an audiovisual container. The same criteria were guiding my focus as a guest editor for the audiovisual essay section of the Spring and Autumn 2018 issues of NECSUS, whose aim was:
In evaluating this straightforward videographic exercise, one could simply apply well-practiced assessment routines for textual analyses of film scenes. Instead, I focus less on the produced audiovisual analyses, as I’m more interested in students’ self-reporting reflections on the hands-on processes they go through while developing their videos, and their self-reflection on the affects these production processes have on them (the latter, sampling from students’ final reports, include a variety of cognitive and social rewards, an increase in cinephilic sentiments, and a higher appreciation towards the craft of filmmaking).
Secondly, to create the strongest contrast possible, I invite students to forget everything they’ve learned in the past about proper academic conduct, to come out of their well-trained scholarly bubble and to try to do something entirely different, unorthodoxly out-of-the-box, potentially even useless. Literary critics and textual scholars Lisa Samuels and Jerry McGann’s deformance practices, Rob Pope’s textual intervention, Estelle Irizarry’s tampering, and Stephen Ramsey’s screwmeneutics are invoked as inspiring methods, or more like heuristic philosophies, that students are encouraged to engage and experiment with in their hands-on audiovisual t(h)inkering practice. While, for some, this sudden freedom from conventional academic rules and acquired methods, especially within a scholarly setting (a course at a university), is often liberating, sometimes, I have to admit, it is also paralyzing for others for the very same reason (which is quite telling about our institutionalized education and its rule-following formulaic “student-products”). Either way, students’ audiovisual projects endorse the task’s aims, showing a resourceful variety of work covering the spectrum from being marvelously imaginative (they build scenes of Wes Anderson films out of fruits and vegetables à la Giuseppe Arcimboldo) to outright hilarious (a compilation of Slavoj Žižek’s tics).
Granting such playful freedom, I’m all for ditching lucidity in methodologies when researching art. However I’m against the idea of neglecting reason and clarity when communicating the results of (any type of) research in a scholarly context. Indeed, however crazy the chosen method and even the videographic product that results from it may be, a demonstration of lucid and reflective argumentation about the potential value of the entire exercise is required from students in their project presentations and final papers.
In sum, sort of informally and arbitrarily, I look at my Arts in Practice: Videographic Criticism class as an odd-one-out experimental exception in our academic programme at the department of Arts, Culture and Media in Groningen, and I therefore encourage my students, as much as our institutionalized system allows it, to step out of their roles as students. Being the final course in our Bachelor programme, I can allow myself the freedom to invite them to reflect on their acquired academic skills of the past three years and to contemplate the pros and cons of freeing themselves from their well-built scholarly boxes.
Videographic criticism seems to offer a suitable playground to raise vital questions and test alternative solutions, in particular, to rethink rigid academic assessment regimes, which are often unable to deal with the novel possibilities of audiovisual research and expression, and thereby to challenge larger outdated and stiff institutional systems, which have been slow to implement changes that accommodate original and creative modes of thinking and knowledge production. It is not my intention to ridicule or undermine established and well-functioning academic standards. The pedagogical program and the didactical point I aim to make by contrasting various videographic exercises lies in the act of practical confrontation and lucid theoretical reflection itself. Scholarly or not, this is the kind of skill and attitude (in which I trust my students to do whatever they feel after the course) that should ultimately define “academic” conduct.
Miklós Kiss is Associate Professor of Audiovisual Arts and Cognition and Chair of the Arts, Culture and Media department at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. His research intersects the fields of narrative and cognitive film studies. He is co-author of the books Film Studies in Motion: from Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video (with Thomas van den Berg, Scalar, 2016) and Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema (with Steven Willemsen, Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
1. Catherine Grant, “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking,” Aniki – Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image 1, no. 1 (2014): 49–62, accessed March 26, 2020, http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/47473/1/59-204-1-PB.pdf.
2. Miklós Kiss, “The Audiovisual Research Essay as an Alternative to Text-Based Scholarship,” [in]Transition Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies 1, no. 3 (2014), accessed March 26, 2020, http://mediacommons.org/intransition/2014/08/22/kiss.
3. Thomas Van Den Berg and Miklós Kiss, Film Studies in Motion – From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video (Scalar), accessed March 26, 2020, https://scalar.usc.edu/works/film-studies-in-motion/.
4. Miklós Kiss, “Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 1” NECSUS Spring #Resolution (2018), accessed March 26, 2020, https://necsus-ejms.org/videographic-scene-analyses-part-1/. Miklós Kiss, “Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 2” NECSUS Autumn #Mapping (2018), accessed March 26, 2020, https://necsus-ejms.org/videographic-scene-analyses-part-2/.
5. YouTube was launched on April 23, 2005, with the first video, Me at the zoo, uploaded by jawed.
6. Van Den Berg and Kiss, Film Studies in Motion, chap. 1.
7. “It is no coincidence that the video essaying practice took off after YouTube’s launch: although ‘playing’ with the film material—in the form of grabbing frames and scenes to illustrate publications and presentations—was a more or less common aspect of scholarly work, a social platform was needed to demonstrate the practical benefits as well as the aesthetic attractiveness of such hands-on explorations. While scholars produced audiovisual materials in the pre-YouTube era, their fragmentary work hardly qualifies as what we now consider audiovisual essaying, let alone valid academic scholarship” (Ibid.).
8. See Cristina Álvarez López, “From Idea to Concept,” [in]Transition Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies 1, no. 3 (2014), accessed March 26, 2020, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2014/09/14/idea-concept.
9. Van Den Berg and Kiss, Film Studies in Motion, chap. 1.
10. Jason Mittell, “Videographic Criticism as a Digital Humanities Method,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, eds. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), accessed March 26, 2020, https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-f2acf72c-a469-49d8-be35-67f9ac1e3a60/section/b6dea70a-9940-497e-b7c5-930126fbd180#ch20.
12. Florian Dombois, “Kunst als Forschung. Ein Versuch, sich selbst eine Anleitung zu entwerfen,” in. HKB/HEAB 2006, (Hochschule der Künste Bern, 2006): 21–29, accessed March 26, 2020, http://whtsnxt.net/044.
13. Julian Klein, “What Is Artistic Research?” Journal for Artistic Research 2017 , accessed March 26, 2020, https://jar-online.net/what-artistic-research.
14. Screwmeneutics is a combination of a seemingly aimless screwing around, a “highly serendipitous journey replacing the ordered mannerism of conventional search,” with traditional hermeneutics, the study of meaning and interpretation (Stephen Ramsay, “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books,” in. Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology, ed. Kevin Kee (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010): 111-120, accessed March 26, 2020, https://libraries.uh.edu/wp-content/uploads/Ramsay-The-Hermeneutics-of-Screwing-Around.pdf.
15. Kevin B. Lee, “Transformers: The Premake,” personal blog (2014), accessed March 26, 2020, https://www.alsolikelife.com/premake-1. The term (first) appears in the title of Lee’s 2014 video Transformers: The Premake (a desktop documentary), which itself is an excellent demonstration of the genre’s potential.
16. Examples cover video art (e.g., Camille Henrot’s 2013 Grosse Fatigué),screencast shorts (e.g., Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman’s 2013 Noah) or full feature desktop films (e.g., Levan Gabriadze’s 2014 Unfriended). Recently, the technique has found its way to mobile devices, resulting in a sub-genre of mobile screencast movies (e.g., Brian Kramer’s 2015 Ratter,or Mishka Kornai and Zach Wechter’s 2019 Pocket). As for criticism, I anticipate a huge market for and academic interest in “mobile screencast film criticism” (Charlie Shackleton’s 2019 Criticism in the Age of TikTok could be considered a precursor to this development).
17. Kiss, “Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 2.”
18. Jesse Stommel, “Ungrading: an FAQ,” personal blog (2020), accessed March 26, 2020, https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-faq/.
20. I’m aware of and sympathetic to the “ungrading” movement— my marking policy and strategy, under current institutional obligations, takes a careful step towards such ideal.
21. Kiss, “Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 1.”
22. Lisa Samuels and Jerry McGann, “Deformance and Interpretation,” New Literary History 30 no. 1 (1999): 25–56. Deformance or deformative criticism is “revealing new insights into media texts by ‘breaking’ them in controlled or chaotic ways. Deformance includes a wide range of digital experiments that generate heretical and non-normative readings of media texts” (Kevin L. Ferguson, “Digital Surrealism: Visualizing Walt Disney Animation Studios,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11 no. 1 (2017), accessed March 26, 2020, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/1/000276/000276.html). For the method’s videographic utilization, see Alan O’Leary’s “deformative videoessay” (Alan O’Leary, “No Voiding Time: A Deformative Videoessay,” 16:9 Filmtidsskrift (2019), accessed March 26, 2020, http://www.16-9.dk/2019/09/no-voiding-time/), or Jason Mittell’s “videographic PechaKucha”experiments that “follow arbitrary parameters to force a type of creativity and discovery that belies typical academic intent, but they are still motivated by the critic’s insights into the film and aim to express something. A more radically arbitrary deformance removes intent altogether, allowing the parameters to work on the film and removing the critic’s agency” (Mittell, “Videographic Criticism as a Digital Humanities Method”).
23. Textual intervention is a critical-creative method, offering “a range of interactive and interventive strategies in which readers are encouraged to engage in structured yet playful rewriting of any text they meet. Such ‘textual interventions’ include: ‘re-centering’; ‘re-genreing’, the generation of various kinds of ‘parallel’, ‘alternative’ and ‘counter-text’ (writing with, across and against the grain of the initial text), as well as exercises in paraphrase, imitation, parody, adaptation, hybridisation and collage” (Rob Pope, Textual Intervention. Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), xiv).
24. Tampering is a kind of “computer-induced play [that] enhances the study of poetry by imbuing the poetic text with a new and dynamic dimension in which on-screen manipulation destabilizes the text, allowing the reader to explore it more thoroughly than is possible in the fixed printed medium and to appreciate it as a unique blend of word, structure and pattern” (Estelle Irizarry, “Tampering with the Text to Increase Awareness of Poetry’s Art,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 11 no. 4 (1996): 155).
25. Ramsay, “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around.”
26. Speaking of potential values, deformative criticism’s experimental methods take the risk of “uselessness,” or, more precisely, displaces the typical scholarly meaning of “usefulness.” For Alan O’Leary, “the concern with meaning is secondary to that of the creative potentials released” (O’Leary, “No Voiding Time”). O’Leary builds on Mark Sample’s idea, according to which “[t]he deformed work is the end, not the means to the end” (Mark Sample, “Notes Towards a Deformed Humanities,” @samplereality blog post (2012), accessed March 26, 2020, https://www.samplereality.com/2012/05/02/notes-towards-a-deformed-humanities/).