Unfamiliar Tools

So, last week I presented my 2nd year new media class with unfamiliar tools in the hope that they would think more deeply about their practice. We aimed to produce a publication that fills the gap left by the lack of an SU campus magazine.

Here’s some quick notes about what they (and I) made of the typewriter and what they did to overcome the limits of their tools:

  1. You need to think before you type. We’re all wired into the idea of having a delete key and of editing after we type. The typewriter doesn’t work like that.
  2. Press harder. Damn you need to push these keys hard. That makes typing quite tiring and makes things take longer generally to do.
  3. We have one typewriter, that’s a production bottleneck  when there are 8 of us trying to work. We need to do something else.
  4. Collage offers a solution: other people’s type is clear and easy to read, we can use that. Immediately after we started two students left the room and raided the SU for leaflets. These happened to offer us lots of clear headline text that suited our own subject matter (the university, the culture of the campus). This also added some subversion to our final piece: we are using the SU’s own publications in our reconstruction of a campus magazine.
  5. A logo: in another act of subversion, the students decided on a name that references the name of the old SU magazine Spaghetti Junction. The students called their publication Alphabetti Spaghetti. A logo was constructed using alphabetti spaghetti which was mounted onto acetate and photocopied to create a photographic image that can be mounted onto all editions.

MED5008: a manifesto.

The Manifesto

For five weeks my second year students are banned from using the Internet in their new media class. Above is our production manifesto for the first half of the term. What follows is an explanation.

Histories of alternative media* often link the arrival of new technologies with surges of alternative media production. The thinking goes like this: newer technologies reduce economic barriers to entry and afford the opportunity for more democratic access to the tools of media production. So as it gets easier (cheaper) to produce and distribute media texts, media production can be used by more groups. Through this widening of participation new forms can emerge, new stories can be told and we can even, just maybe, start to break down some of that good old fashioned mainstream media hegemony.

The module MED5008 asks second year students to consider the relationship between new media and alternative media production. In the context of the degree programme the students have acquired a number of (web design) skills in year one, and in year two we provide a number of different contexts in which they can apply those skills and learn more about them.

In the past students on this module have focused on platforms and failed to think about messages or communities. We have explained the history of alternative media to them, told them that perhaps their job is to enable people to tell stories rather than to tell stories for people, and that we will not judge their work by mainstream “professional standards” of craft skills. We can do all of those things and yet be presented with conventionally beautiful and technically solid artefacts that do not engage with anything beyond the idea of being a web designer.

Last year as part of Stories & Streams we sought to break this through a different structure. We (Jennifer Jones & I) looked at this as an issue of consumption of education towards the attainment of professional competencies (we have a chapter with Paul Bradshaw on this forthcoming, email me if you want a copy). Stories & Streams was very successful in achieving its aims with journalism students but we still felt there was something missing in the way we delivered this to those on the web & alternative media module.

This year I still hope my students will work with the online journalism class who are being taught through the Stories & Streams methodology but I have separated them from that activity for now – we may drop in later to make some interventions or to work with some of the data they are producing.

What are we doing instead?

To stop students from seeing alternative media as banal and obvious, and producing work with the same qualities, I’ve asked them to produce media to engage a community using unfamiliar tools. Those tools are: a typewriter, a photocopier, scissors and glue.

Through ongoing reflection of this practice – essentially along action research lines – I hope to open their thinking up to allow them to produce much more thoughtful work once they are given back their access to digital tools in Week 7.

Can we build a community and have a discussion through media practice using just paper and glue? What can we make within narrow limits? How had can we push the kit to achieve our goals? How can we hack the tools and hack the system to get where we want to go? And what can we take from that experience and pour back into the familiar world of our known area of practice?

* The definition thing: it’s complicated but basically alternative media might include things like community media, activist media, radical media… it covers a lot.