Sight & Sound Best Video Essays of 2018

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Sight & Sound has just published its annual survey of best video essays, with responses from 47 video essay makers, scholars, curators, and critics. David Verdeure and Irina Trocan led this massive poll, which gathers votes for over 200 titles, many of which I have not yet seen.

I was happy to be included in the survey this year and to recommend a few titles that might not be on people’s radars:

Here’s my list for 2018, which reflects (increasingly as you move down the list) my interest in things that should clearly count as videographic work while problematizing key terms such as video essay, videographic criticism and maybe even video.

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Minnelli Red Carlos Valladares (a former student and recent graduate of the Stanford Film & Media Studies Program)

I especially like the attention that is given to the role that red as red, i.e. as a material/medial phenomenon, plays in articulating thematic, atmospheric and ultimately auteurist expressions. The video ran at the Pesaro Film Festival this year.

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How Black Lives Matter in The Wire Jason Mittell

While it remains a more or less ‘conventional’ video essay in many respects (voiceover-driven, incorporating close analysis, etc.), I appreciate the way this video pushes at the closure of formal/thematic analyses and asks difficult questions about the relations between fiction and reality – and thus about the role of criticism as mediating between and among them.

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Mad Science/Mad Love and the Female Body in Pieces Allison de Fren

This piece was commissioned for Videographic Frankenstein, an exhibition I curated at Stanford in Fall 2018. It continues Allison’s videographic explorations of gender, media and technology from earlier works (such as her popular Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine and Fembot in a Red Dress) with a view to an unexpected and fascinating collection of works ranging from Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960) to the campy Frankenhooker (1990). The video isn’t online yet, but be on the lookout for an open-access publication of the complete Videographic Frankenstein exhibition coming very soon!

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Bottled Songs Chloé Galibert-Lainé and Kevin B. Lee

Though I have only seen fragments of this series of videos, I am confident in saying that this is groundbreaking work that takes Lee’s notion of the ‘desktop documentary’ (as enacted in his Transformers: The Premake) to the next level. The collaborative videos probe the screen as a space of production, while reflecting on the underlying networks, both human and nonhuman, that are operative in online radicalisation and terrorism recruitment.

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Touch James J. Hodge, C.A. Davis, and John Bresland

This is another work that breaks with the conventional focus on fictional works and turns instead to the messy spaces of online media cultures, probing the relations of everyday genres like animated GIFs, supercuts and ASMR videos to the pleasures and anxieties we experience in a world of always-on computing.

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The Apartment David Verdeure (Filmscalpel)

This is a wonderful example of what has been called, following Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, “deformative” criticism. The concept has been expanded by Mark Sample into a “deformative humanities” and adapted for videographic work by people including Kevin Ferguson and Jason Mittell, outlining an exploratory alternative to explanatory essay forms.

One of the things I like best about this piece is the way it evokes what Neil Harris, in his writings on P.T. Barnum, calls an “operational aesthetic” – we (especially if we are people doing videographic work) look at this video and are engaged by the mediated images, which invite us to dwell in them, but we’re also fascinated by Verdeure’s process: how he pulled it off. Many early comments on Facebook revolved precisely around this question of process, which in cases like this do not detract from but indeed add to the layers of audiovisual experience.

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The Topologies of Zelda: Triforce Patrick LeMieux and Stephanie Boluk

This is the farthest from what we typically (at least for now) mean by videographic or audiovisual criticism: it is not a linear video but a playable object – a videogame. And not just any game but a ‘metagame’, a game about games (about The Legend of Zelda in particular, but more generally about topologies and interfaces with videogames as systems and as screen phenomena).

As such, it is clearly a work of criticism, and one that is staged in moving images and sounds – so it should qualify for this list. It even contains scholarly asides and shout-outs to theorists like Vivian Sobchack – probably a first for videogames. More importantly, it can be seen as an important provocation in our ongoing efforts to imagine what scholarly and critical videographic work can be.

 

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Super Star Trek — Scholars Select Exhibit at Stanford’s Green Library

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For the Scholars Select Exhibit at Stanford’s Green Library — in commemoration of the library’s 100th anniversary — I was asked to choose an object from Special Collections and write something about its significance for my work. I chose a letter to Bob Leedom contained in the September 1974 issue of the People’s Computer Company newsletter, published around the corner in Menlo Park:

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The letter discusses Super Star Trek, a game I have written about in “Digital Seriality: On the Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games” (co-authored with Andreas Sudmann). Here, in much more condensed form, is what I wrote about it for the exhibition:

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And here’s the letter itself:

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You can find the full issue of the People’s Computer Company online, through the Stanford Libraries website: here.

Check out the full exhibition, which will be on display January 24 – April 19, 2019. More info here.

Video: Desktop Horror at Merz-Akademie Stuttgart

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On December 18, 2018, I gave a talk titled “Desktop Horror” at the Merz-Akademie in Stuttgart. The talk was live-streamed, and a video is now available on the Merz-Akademie website. Thanks again to Kevin B. Lee for the kind invitation, and to his students Jasmin Rahman and Nik König for the entertaining intro video, which you’ll see at the beginning of the video. (Note that there are some sound problems — fittingly, audio glitches and feedback — at the beginning of my talk, but they clear up after about three minutes.)

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Skin in the Game: Greymarket Gambling in the Virtual Economies of Counter-Strike — Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux at Digital Aesthetics Workshop

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Next Monday (January 14, 2018), we will be joined at the Digital Aesthetics Workshop by Stephanie Boluk & Patrick LeMieux. They are coming to us from UC-Davis, where Stephanie is Associate Professor of English and of Cinema and Digital Media, and where Patrick is Assistant Professor of Cinema and Digital Media. Boluk & LeMieux are scholars, critics, and artists who work largely around videogames and digital art. Their book Metagaming (Minnesota, 2017) wrenches open the ‘texts’ of videogames to consider them as tools, materials, platforms, and stages for all sorts of new social practices – it is easily one of the best works in game studies yet published. They have also co-created several critical games of their own that you can easily run on your laptop.

On Monday, they will be sharing in-progress material from their next book project, Money Games. Join us on Monday, January 14, 2018 (5-7pm in the Roble Arts Gym Lounge), and RSVP if you can! There will not be pre-circulated reading, though their games are recommended.

Here is the blurb for the event:

In 1987, a pyramid scheme called the “Plane Game” funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the pockets of “passengers,” landing at least six of the game’s “pilots” in jail. In 2018, more ubiquitous moneygames are played with smaller stakes across far wider fields. From the Valve Corporation’s Flatland to grey market gambling with Counter-Strike gun skins, this talk will move from from the Steam Workshop to the Steam Marketplace to series of third-party websites that explore the way in which money operates as a game mechanics and how game mechanics have come to operate as money. Although strict distinctions are made between gambling and gaming in both US law as well as 20th century philosophies of games and play, these terms’ etymological roots are tightly wound. In a post-2008 age of precarity, the wage has once again become a wager. In 2012, Alex Galloway proclaimed “we are all goldfarmers,” but gun skins and skin gambling represent an even more complex and complete financialization in that players have moved from one mode in which labour time is exchanged for a clear wage (even if it’s grinding in World of Warcraft) to one in which labour time itself becomes a wager. Ultimately skins are not simply texture files that wrap around the polygonal geometry of virtual weapons. Instead, they are objects of affinity and status, digital cash and casino chips, and a gun skins’ procedurally generated pattern, determined by a 9-digit floating point number selected upon unboxing, is more cryptocurrency than art asset. In this talk we follow the money, the skin, the flow, and the flight of new “plane games” as metagames become moneygames.

Video: Playtest at Library of Congress

On November 8, 2018, I presented a pop-up version of the Videographic Frankenstein exhibition at the Library of Congress, in the context of an event called Playtest convened by Tahir Hemphill. This video, shot that day, gives a glimpse of the projects presented there. You’ll find me talking about Videographic Frankenstein shortly before the 1:00 minute mark.

Out Now: Serial Figures and the Evolution of Media in NECSUS

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The latest issue of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies has just come out. As always, it is freely accessible as an open-access publication, and it is chock full of articles, reviews, audiovisual essays, and a special section on “Mapping.”

Among the feature articles is an article I co-authored with Ruth Mayer on “Border Crossings: Serial Figures and the Evolution of Media” — a text that outlines some of the topics we covered in our research project within the DFG Research Unit on “Popular Seriality” from 2010 – 2013. This is a slightly revised translation of a text that first appeared in German in Frank Kelleter’s edited collection Populäre Serialität: Narration – Evolution – Distinktion. Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. We are happy to see this text made available in English, and especially happy that it found a home at NECSUS, which is the perfect venue for this transatlantic and interdisciplinary kind of media studies work.

Check out the whole issue here!