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remixerremixing

Vidding: Remix as Affective Media Literacy

  • Louisa Ellen Stein

…plus d’informations

  • Louisa Ellen Stein
    Middlebury College

Couverture de remixer,                Numéro 23, printemps 2014, Intermédialités

Corps de l’article

Doctor Who’s companion, Amy, points a remote toward a television set. On screen, Fringe’s Olivia eyes the camera as if aware that she is trapped within a television set. A quick cut reveals another television screen, seemingly facing the first, on which criminal mastermind Moriarty (of Sherlock Holmes fame) taunts the audience. These three are brought together in a remix video entitled Short Circuit (theanonsisters, 2012) that negotiates our fraught relationship with technology, set to the music of electronic artists The Glitch Mob. This video exists at the juncture of two vernacular creative traditions: vidding, an artistic tradition dating from the 1970s and fostered by a niche community of mostly female media fans, and multisource remix video, a form of creativity that has flourished in YouTube’s mashup culture in which remix artists combine large swaths of different media sources into a single remix, often emphasizing visual or audio similarities or repetition across sources. The video Short Circuit combines a rhythmic celebration of media culture with an essayistic analysis of specific source texts, emphasizing the commonalities they share. It testifies to the way in which the user-generated content circulating in remix culture takes its form as the synthesis of multiple inherited traditions with specific histories and aesthetic creative approaches. [1]

Vidding: Remix History, Remix Present

This essay explores the relationship between contemporary remix culture and inherited traditions of fan authorship: more specifically, fan-created music videos or “vids” and the practice of vidding. As an opening caveat: there is not just one “vidding;” fans have debated and continue to debate among themselves the definitions and boundaries of the term vidding. Vidding as a term is used as a self-nomer for a specific community of mostly female fans who trace their practice through a lineage dating back to the 1970s. (A subset of these vidders meets at an annual convention entitled VividCon.) [2] However, vidding also describes the creative work done by fan vid artists congregating on YouTube, in some cases unaware of the specifics of this older, often-feminist tradition. [3] In this essay, I focus on the relationships between the self-defined “vidding” community and wider practices of remix, but it is important also to acknowledge that vidding is not a simple, singular practice. Rather, the boundaries of vidding have always been and continue to be shifting and porous. Moreover, any definitions of vidding are necessarily culturally and historically situated and often retroactively assembled.

Historians of vidding (both from within vidding and within academia) locate its origins in the form of Kandy Fong’s slide shows made of unaired Star Trek (1966-69) frames repurposed into 35 mm slides. [4] Fong’s slide shows recontexualized stills from Star Trek, setting them to music in particular order to elicit emotion and meaning. Unlike vids of today, these performances were initially only experienced by those in attendance at Star Trek fan conventions and gatherings, and were in some ways more performance art than vid. Like a DJ’s set, they depended on the physical actions of Fong to progress the slides in time to the music. Sometimes Fong using two slide projectors at once to achieve quicker and more controlled editing. Fong recorded her performances; the slide show Both Sides Now is thus now preserved as a video from 1980.

Fig. 1

Still image from Both Sides Now. Fong’s video is available at Critical Commons with commentary by Francesca Coppa, www.criticalcommons.org/Members/fcoppa/clips/both-sides-now (accessed on May 26, 2015).

Still image from Both Sides Now. Fong’s video is available at Critical Commons with commentary by Francesca Coppa, www.criticalcommons.org/Members/fcoppa/clips/both-sides-now (accessed on May 26, 2015).

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With its emphasis on seeing from different perspectives, articulated through the combination of still images and music, Both Sides Now thematizes the power of the fan to see in unintended or unexpected ways, and to share that interpretation with others.  [5] We can see in Both Sides Now many elements that continue in vidding today, including meaning derived from juxtaposition, visual alignment of mise-en-scène, rhythmic editing, and not least its enactment of an alternate vision of Star Trek dependent on one fan’s affective engagement, close reading, and media literacy.

In the 1980s, the availability of Betamax and VHS technologies meant that vidding evolved into the painstaking process of editing with two VCRs. Working with multiple video tapes of different episodes, vidders synthesized television series to offer character and relationship studies or to point out narrative patterns and cultural tropes. During this era, vidders often worked in collectives in part because of the labor and precision involved to create a single vid with technological tools that were not intended for this type of creative act. As with Fong’s early slide show vids, these VCR-made vids were for the most part screened at conventions, although they were often also circulated on tape through the mail to vidders and other interested fans. Vidding thrived in videotape form until digital technologies became affordable to the vidding community, enabling more accessible production and circulation of fan videos. Working at a time when viewers were not expected to be authors, and technologies made it very difficult for vidders to create and distribute their alternate vision, VHS vidders nonetheless created and shared videos that offered character interpretation and critique, examined fan practices, and distilled media tropes from across wide swaths of television. [6]

Vids from then and now emphasize audiovisual juxtaposition, rhythmic editing, match on action, parallel composition, and parallel movement. Vidders excerpt short visual moments from much larger source texts, re-editing them to emphasize visual continuities or contrasts from shot to shot. Through re-editing the source text of a TV series or film, vidders create a new audiovisual unit with its own formal, poetic, and sometimes narrative logics. Vidders create flows of movement and color through the act of editing, decontextualizing the images by removing the original soundtrack and dialogue (indeed, they often remove images of characters speaking), instead setting the visuals to music of their choosing. Some vids also deploy filters and layer additional dialogue and text onto visual images. [7] Through this audiovisual editing, vids offer analysis, critical intervention, character study, or thematic exploration. Vids sometimes create new narratives or bring to the fore characters and themes that may be marginal in the original source.

Fan scholars and historians emphasize vidding’s critical function—its putting forth of an alternative viewpoint—giving voice to meanings and perspectives otherwise silenced in mainstream culture. Francesca Coppa describes vidding as “collaborative critical thinking” often put to the purpose of providing “alternative perspectives” relevant to female fans within a specific fan community. [8] Julie Levin Russo describes vidding as a “subcultural practice” and “underground art form,” suggesting that as remix culture becomes more mainstream, vids may be “dislodg(ed) […] from their interpretative landscape” and as a result be subject to misinterpretation. [9]

Indeed, vidding is a form that demands viewer knowledge of the source text in order to engage with its meanings. Vids invite close, informed analysis in order to unpack the meaning evoked from their various audio and visual juxtapositions. I focus first on three vids from a single TV series and its fandom, Supernatural, to demonstrate how through close reworking of the same source text, vidders offer complex interpretations of that source text, while also engaging with larger cultural conversation—with fandom and beyond—through their vids. Supernatural features two brothers, Sam and Dean, who together wander through the back streets of rural America, tracking down and fighting the forces of evil. Four seasons in, they meet Castiel, an angel who finds himself doubting the allegiance of his fellow angels and the existence of his ex-boss God. As a ten-year running series, with a strong and vibrant—mostly female—fandom, many crucial vids have emerged from Supernatural fandom. [10]Supernatural vids focus on the relationships between these three characters and themes of family, brotherhood, morality, and religion. They critique the series’ representation of identity issues, especially gender, and explore the dynamics of the series’ fan communities.

Fig. 2

Still image from Fall of Man (Obsessive24, 2009). The video is available at Critical Commons with permission from the vidder, www.criticalcommons.org/Members/Lstein/clips/fall-of-man (accessed on May 26, 2015).

Still image from Fall of Man (Obsessive24, 2009). The video is available at Critical Commons with permission from the vidder, www.criticalcommons.org/Members/Lstein/clips/fall-of-man (accessed on May 26, 2015).

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Obsessive24’s vid, Fall of Man (2009) engages with the themes of religion raised by Supernatural in a thematic analysis and character study. With its title a play on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (which is referenced and represented in the video), Fall of Man synthesizes a range of sources to create new meaning. This vid offers an interpretation of its televisual source text and also poses questions of religion, dogma, faith, and personal responsibility. Supernatural resists giving us detailed imagery of heaven and angels; its angels look more like noir heavies than the angelic imagery one might expect. However, Fall of Man takes from other media sources, including film, art, and music video, to layer on more traditional signifiers of angels and heaven. By re-inscribing more traditional representations of the angelic and godly, Fall of Man takes further the series’ positing of the absence of god. As I have argued previously, we can understand Fall of Man as not only responding to Supernatural, but also, and perhaps more significantly, engaging with longstanding cultural conversations about the role of religion and faith within human experience. [11] This vid achieves this sense of participating in a larger cultural conversation by combining footage beyond Supernatural, including images from a range of B movies and music videos, as well as from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Thus this video invokes iconography distilled from Michelangelo that circulates as contemporary representation of man’s relationship to the divine. Fall of Man concludes by erasing god from the picture—that is, by manipulating the still imagery of Michelangelo to remove God, leaving Adam reaching out for no one. This fanvid makes Supernatural’s challenge to religious belief explicit and contrasts it directly with popular culture’s more traditional representations of faith and religion. As such, Fall of Man opens up Supernatural’s transgressive potential and, in the same move, transforms Michaelangelo’s imagery from a visualization of God creating man to the invisible hand of woman—the vidder—erasing God. In this way, Fall of Man highlights the power of the vidder as author to transform and redirect meanings set into motion by popular culture.

Vids like Fall of Man remix film and television sources to refocus, reinterpret, and critique their source text. These source texts may be beloved by fans, but fan love can drive fans to critique a source text for what they see as its ideological failings. The traditions of vidding offer a means to express and share such critiques. Because media fandom and vidding fandom are both predominantly communities of women, vids recurringly raise issues of gender representation. In a key example, Luminosity and Sisabet’s Women’s Work (2007) uses montage to critique Supernatural’s representation of women.

Fig. 3

Luminosity and Sisabet’s Women’s Work calls attention to the recurring violence against women in the series Supernatural, www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4E7T5klLLM (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

Luminosity and Sisabet’s Women’s Work calls attention to the recurring violence against women in the series Supernatural, www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4E7T5klLLM (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

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Despite the series’ very visible female fandom, Supernatural features few female characters, and when they do appear they are often simplistically represented and violently killed. Women’s Work critiques Supernatural’s representation of women by synthesizing imagery of violence against the many seemingly-expendable female characters who are tortured and killed episode after episode. While the majority of Supernatural’s screen time dwells on the series’ main male characters, Women’s Work compiles imagery of the series’ many female victims and monsters. Vidders Luminosity and Sisabet edit this often-violent footage, assembling the imagery in rapid succession to the rhythm of Hole’s “Violet,” moving focus over the course of the vid from the series’ female victims to its more powerful female monsters. The images and song combine to encourage angry identification with the female characters being victimized. Women’s Work thus distills Supernatural’s problematic reproduction of gendered horror tropes, asking its audience to dwell on that which fans often acknowledge but ignore—that the role of women on Supernatural is to be threatened and killed weekly in service of the main (male) characters’ heroic journeys and personal development. [12] This video has instigated debate and conversation within the Supernatural fandom about why fans excuse or ignore representational flaws in a favored series. However, the vidders insist that the video is not only a critique of Supernatural but of gender tropes in media culture more generally, and even more broadly, a critique of human nature. When first posting the video, vidder Sisabet offered the following introduction/caveat:

I do want to preface the vid (and I’ve debated saying even this) that I have a crazy, fierce, total madlove for Supernatural. The shit I deal with every day, the crap we watch every day, the goddamn Captivity trailers/billboards, the fucking torture-porn-a-thon of a new movie every week this spring, the woman of the week on EVERY GODDAMN SHOW I love, the fact that only mommies burn on the ceiling and daddies get to fall down dead, the freaking exploitative crap I have to wade through to read even my *favorite* comic books, and I could go on, but hell, all of it leads to just sitting down and wanting to at least point some of it out. I don’t even think it is so much a popular-media thing, or even a cultural thing so much as... just people? Maybe? Even at the Art Institute today, it was rape, rape, rape in almost every other room (but no rape in the gift-shop. I looked) and I am done talking now. […] And we love our goddamn show. Just so it’s clear and all—the vid could have been made using *anything*—seriously. Look around, this shit is *everywhere*. [13]

Thus, through audiovisual editing, Woman’s Work brings a fan’s affective love (“fierce, total madlove”) to bear on the flaws of media representation and gender inequity. Woman’s Work does not only speak back to Supernatural, it uses Supernatural to speak back to culture and also functions to educate viewers on the significance of representational politics.

Another Supernatural video, this one entitled Still Alive (Counteragent, 2008), takes as its subject fandom itself. This vid casts the series’ various minor female characters as representatives of fans and fandom. This video starts out by representing fan dissatisfaction with specific character and plot developments, and then suggests that the creative work of fan networks transcends the failings of the source text. The video superimposes text to make explicit the way the characters stand in for fan opinions and creative communities. Still Alive represents fan artistic creativity as that which survives despite a problematic source text. It incorporates and remixes seventy-two different fan works, setting them to audio from the video game Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) that simultaneously suggests the suppression and power of the digital woman. [14] Through editing, this video suggests that fan vidders—together with artists and authors—transform the source text into something more meaningful, and that in the end, it is this process of collective reworking that matters most to audiences.

Fig. 4

Counteragent’s Still Alive emphasizes the power of the collective creativity of fandom to rescue a problematic text, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkXxO2iLKOU (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

Counteragent’s Still Alive emphasizes the power of the collective creativity of fandom to rescue a problematic text, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkXxO2iLKOU (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

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Together, these three videos reveal how vidders take one source text (Supernatural) and, through editing, enter into conversation with larger cultural debates and with one another. They also demonstrate how, through the individual and collective process of vidding, fans showcase their own media literacy, educate their viewers about how to read media, and model how to engage with and speak back to media and culture.

Fan vids are certainly far from all critique. They are also character studies, representations of relationships, celebrations of costume, set, or movement. But what all of these share in common is the deployment of editing to juxtapose and focus, and through this dual process to transform, create, and share new meaning.

Vidding as Transmedia Remix

Since 2005, online forums like YouTube and Tumblr have made vidding visible in larger cultural arenas. No longer limited to special screenings at fan conventions, if you perform a simple YouTube search on a television show or film that you are interested in, you will quickly find your way to female-authored fanvids. This shift from a relatively inaccessible niche culture, to the center of a visible and accessible digital hub, is deeply significant: it means that what vids are, who they are for, and what they do has changed dramatically in the past decade, a change that continues today.

Digital vids expand and intervene in a television or film text via digital tools and are then distributed online. As such we can label them with one of the key buzzwords of our contemporary culture: transmedia. The definition of transmedia has been the subject of debate in both the media industry and in academia. At first, transmedia primarily referenced media texts that were purposefully deployed by the official authors across digital platforms. In 2007, Henry Jenkins defined transmedia storytelling as a “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience”. [15] This original definition, with its focus on singular intent, emphasized official authorial control, be it in the hands of a larger corporate entity, a small transmedia production group, or an individual transmedia auteur. However, more recently, producers and scholars have begun to consider transmedia as a concept that also encompasses the authorship of audiences across platforms. [16] As with vidding, with the spread of digital technologies, more viewers of film and television now have access to digital tools and can themselves create and distribute extensions of television texts, creating what are essentially their own transmedia extensions.

Some argue that to frame transmedia so broadly dilutes the usefulness of the term, but I contend that this opening up and unsettling of the term transmedia is vital. Popular and scholarly conversations around transmedia discursively shape how we will understand and value future media developments. In addition, our understanding of what “counts” as transmedia now shapes how we value the past that came before, what makes it into the annals of media history as mattering. To understand fan works—and fan vids specifically—as transmedia gives weight to their particular modes of engagement, their evolving aesthetic traditions, and their modeling of particular media literacies. It also acknowledges the extent to which these texts circulate on the same digital platforms as much of the commercial media they respond to.

The debates around what constitutes transmedia emerge from a key shift in media culture with the spread of affordable digital technologies: the shift from what Lawrence Lessig terms “read/only” to “read/write” that enables viewers to become digital authors, creators of our own culture via remix. [17] Indeed, we can understand fan authorship—and fan authored video especially—as a form of read/write remix: vidders create by editing, reworking already existing cultural material, and writing new meanings through already existing media texts. Using digital technologies, vidders take the “read only” medium of television—one that we are assumed to only watch and not alter—and transform television footage into material for read/write authorship. [18] In turn, vidders distribute vids on the read/write platform of the web, where they are available for viewing and remixing. That shift—from read/only to read/write—is key to how we understand remix and remix culture. Vids are transmedia remix par excellence.

By acknowledging vids as transmedia and as exemplary read/write remix texts, we can recognize them as not only a subcultural phenomenon but rather as modeling the central thrust of contemporary media culture. This assertion has implications in terms of gender. Video remix and transmedia are often considered to be functions of the spread of the digital. But as we have seen, female-dominated fan communities have long histories of creating transmedia remix texts, including vids. Vidding has a history dating back to the 1970s, one that has transcended specific technologies but the histories of female fan remix authorship have often been obscured. This is partly the result of cultural assumptions that devalue female foci and partly because of vidders’ earlier fears of copyright infringement in a time before they could claim the protection of fair use and creative commons licenses. [19] Moreover, the general assumption that remix is the language of the digital generation, and thus a natural extension of the logics of digital culture, erases this longer history of popular media remix. When we recognize vidding—past and present—as transmedia remix, we reinstate the practice (or practices) of vidding within our narratives of remix history and culture.

As we’ve seen, vids do not exist only within self-enclosed fan communities. Fan communities themselves are porous and generative in their intersection with overlapping cultural forums. Thus, even when vids are made with a particular fan community in mind, they contribute to and participate in larger cultural conversations. Indeed, the past decade has seen the mainstreaming of practices of fandom and vidding, propelled in part by the media industry’s acknowledgment and cultivation of fandom, and in part by fan desire for cultural recognition and legal status. [20] Rather than a niche mode of engagement for a particular media text and community, fannish engagement has come to define multiple communities and—even more broadly—an ethos, a way of engaging with popular culture that celebrates our investment in media and the way media connects us. Elsewhere I have termed this a “culture of feels” and an “intimate collective” bound by our assumed and performed shared emotional response to media. [21] Fan vidding has entered into conversation with other threads of remix culture, so that we see shared aesthetic trends, including Machinima vidding, nostalgic-Instagram-style vidding, gif-like vids or vid-like gifs, and multisource remix. For the rest of this essay, I will focus on this last example, multisource remix.

Remix music and video artists like Josh Prescott and Jordan Roseman (better known as Khameleon808 and DJ Earworm), link multiple media texts in a kinetic explosion of motion and sound. Like vids, multisource video remix depends on match on action, parallel editing, and rhythmic editing to engage viewers, but instead of using these techniques to say something in depth about one source, they emphasize the spectacle of editing in the remix itself, and also evoke a larger cultural ethos (either across time or in a particular moment) by linking together multiple texts. [22] For example, Khameleon808’s fanwork for The Glitch Mob, The Apple Tree (2011), sews together 700 clips from 276 science-fiction/fantasy films.

Fig. 5

Khameloon808’s The Apple Tree synthesizes hundreds of sources into a fifteen-minute spectacle of editing, music, and motion, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gP_Q2myNWo (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

Khameloon808’s The Apple Tree synthesizes hundreds of sources into a fifteen-minute spectacle of editing, music, and motion, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gP_Q2myNWo (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

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In another example, DJ Earworm’s audiovisual mashups intertwine popular hits from a particular moment.

Fig. 6

DJ Earworm’s United States of Pop mashups combine the pop performances of a particular cultural moment into a new audiovisual unit, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ail7D_k0s9w (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

DJ Earworm’s United States of Pop mashups combine the pop performances of a particular cultural moment into a new audiovisual unit, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ail7D_k0s9w (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

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These videos create a sense that the remixer and viewers are all bound together in a shared cultural moment based on their investment in or recognition of a wide range of media texts or figures. They unite multiple media texts through our (assumed) collective investment in them.

This affective invocation of our collective engagement with media culture now surfaces in contemporary fan works and meets with fan traditions of critique and essayistic analysis. The fanvid Short Circuit, with which I opened this essay, uses the multisource remix approach, merging a large set of contemporaneous texts (including but not limited to Supernatural), set (not accidentally, one imagines) to The Glitch Mob’s “The Apple Tree,” to present an ambivalent vision of our limited power in the face of the seeming control offered us by technology.

Fig. 7

Theanonsister’s Short Circuit combines the multisource remix’s aesthetics of collective spectacle with vidding’s tradition of critical analysis, www.youtube.com/watch?v=raRmnVS1crk (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

Theanonsister’s Short Circuit combines the multisource remix’s aesthetics of collective spectacle with vidding’s tradition of critical analysis, www.youtube.com/watch?v=raRmnVS1crk (accessed on May 26, 2015). Still image taken from the video.

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This vid shows its characters struggling to use power—technological, electrical, digital, mechanical, magical—in the form of remote controls, cars, medical machinery, and dark magic. The vid depicts technological power as something that frames the landscapes that the protagonists’ inhabit. We see multiple characters warily examine technology, tentatively deploy it, and then become suddenly overcome by it, its capacity seemingly beyond their control. The montage of characters trapped within television sets is followed by a montage of characters careening through space—in cars and the TARDIS from Doctor Who—wreaking havoc as they do. As female fan authorship traditions become more visible and widely recognized, industry interests have worked to coopt, mainstream, and contain them. Through rhythmic parallel editing and match on action across multiple sources, the vid likens this partnership between people and technology to a deal with the devil that “short circuits,” pulling the rug out from under the multiple protagonists. And yet, this vid’s careful rhythmic editing and adept focus on the connections between multiple sources announce the vidders’ prowess at using technology to speak the (media) language of contemporary remix culture.

Short Circuit raises the question: at what cost digital visibility and power? As vids and vidding continue to transform, engage with, and indeed remix the elements of remix culture, will what makes vidding a specific (female-dominated) fan form get lost along the way, obliterated in the rush of culture? As Kristina Busse puts it, “any spread in popularity carries with it a danger of further segregating the remaining outsiders: if the mainstream embraces one form of geek, it risks excluding further or even negating the existence of whoever does not fit that new model.” [23] Will what was culturally subversive about fan vidding be pushed further to the margins, to the point of invisibility and erasure?

And yet, while its outlook on the merger between human (or angel) and technology is somewhere on the spectrum between ambivalent and bleak, Short Circuit attests to the cultural richness that inevitably comes out of the work and process of remix, of people using technology to transform media, to bring together moving image, music, and text in combination and juxtaposition, harmony and/or discord, to create new meaning. Likewise, vidding and other unfolding forms of remix culture will inevitably collide, intertwine, transform, create, and recreate new forms of culture. While we do not want to erase the specific histories of women’s authorship, nor to disregard the self-definitions of specific creative communities like the vidding community, we also don’t want to wall them off or narrowly define them to the point of calcification.

Back in 1992, speaking of VCR vids, Henry Jenkins argued that early vids evoked “the cultural competencies and shared knowledge of the fan community.” [24] If what vidding had initially to offer—back in its slide show and VHS days—was a model for informed and situated engagement with read/only culture, the dominant culture of the time, now it can offer a model for engaging with and through read/write culture. Most crucially, vids model an affective media literacy, a mode of reading that is simultaneously investigative, critical, and engaged.

Parties annexes