I’m being targeted with phishing attacks — from my employer!

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Today, I received this suspicious message on my university email account about a purchase, made on my “Smartpone,” and related to a game I don’t play. I promptly reported it as spam to Stanford IT. Within seconds, I was “rewarded” with the following message:

Thank you for reporting this suspicious message.  This was a simulated phishing email sent as part of Stanford’s Phishing Awareness Program.  Congratulations on successfully identifying and reporting it to us!  No further action is necessary.

Yay! I guess…

Yeah, well, I think it’s kind of weird to get phishing messages from your employer, and I am getting this gamified spam on a regular basis — several “simulated” phishing messages a week.

But what is the status of a “simulated” phishing attack anyway? In this connection, I am reminded of Baudrillard on the impossibility of “simulating” a bank robbery:

Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal.) Demand a ransom, and make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible — in short, remain close to the “truth,” in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman really will fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phony ransom).

This sounds exactly like what my employer — a major research university situated in the midst of Silicon Valley, the simulacral heart of the control society — is doing. And in their attempt to remain close to the “truth” to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum, the network of artificial signs is bound to get mixed up with real elements, perhaps by design: these simulated attacks pretend towards an attempt to inoculate us against the danger, but they are also tools of control: of surveillance and, if need be, shaming (I am told by colleagues who have clicked on the links that a finger-wagging message appears and tells the user to be more careful…).

Having recently parried one of these attacks to the satisfaction of my employer, I received the usual message of congratulations. Being knee-deep in a major writing project, I may have been feeling a little humorless that day. I wrote back:

Thanks, but I am not sure that this really adds to my productivity.

I got a message back, within minutes, from someone claiming to be a human (but it seems I should have required they fill out a Captcha or click on all the stoplights in a picture or something). Anyway, this “human” wrote back a message so chilling that it sent shivers down my spine the likes of which I have rarely experienced outside of Poe or Kafka:

Hi Prof. Denson, we give up a little bit of our productivity for an increased amount of security. Thank you for the feedback and for reporting the email.

 

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The Rebirth of the Blog?

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I quipped the other day on Facebook, “Thank god blogs are dead!” — thinking of some particularly toxic moments and scenes from “back in the day.” Facebook must have heard me… I wanted to post the rough scrap of writing above to that piece of … social media today (with the clever caption: “Brian O’Blivion makes a surprise cameo appearance in my book! Was not expecting this…”), but FB won’t accept my image or post my comment. I know that the network is having major difficulties today, difficulties that will likely pass quickly, but this episode has gotten me thinking (somewhat romantically) about the possibility of a different Internet. The blogosphere was often horrible, but could it ever be as bad as Facebook? Could #FacebookDown and #InstagramDown spark a mass migration and a revival of blogs? Probably not… But leave a comment if you’d like to see it happen! (Or if not, why not.)

Out Now: Videographic Frankenstein in Hyperrhiz 19

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I am excited to announce that the Videographic Frankenstein exhibit, which ran September 26 – November 2, 2018 at Stanford, lives on in an online version — out now in Hyperrhiz 19! There you will find 10 video works on various facets of Frankenstein‘s moving-image legacy, from early film to television and digital animation, along with creators’ statements that reflect on this history and its relations to videographic scholarship, among other monstrosities.

Thanks again to the Stanford Medicine and the Muse Frankenstein@200 Initiative and the Stanford Department of Art & Art History and Program in Film & Media Studies for their generous support of the project.

Thanks also to Helen Burgess, editor at Hyperrhiz, for entertaining the notion of publishing an exhibition of creative and scholarly videos, and for working with me to find the right format.

And thanks, finally, to the contributors for all their hard work: Matthew Fishel, Jason Mittell, Allison de Fren, David Verdeure, Carlos Valladares, Lester Friedman, Kristine Vann, and Spencer Slovic!

Also, be sure to check out the full issue of Hyperrhiz, which is chock full of more excellent scholarly and creative work!

Scholars Select

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There is a short article in today’s Stanford News about the Scholars Select exhibition that’s on right now until until April 14 at Green Library. The centerpiece of the article is this set of pictures by University Photographer Linda A. Cicero, who shot a selection of scholars and their objects. Each image links to the short statement that the faculty member prepared about their object. Take a look!

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.

 

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.

Nicolas Roeg’s Perversion of Suture

Nicolas Roeg has died at the age of 90. People will remember him for a striking form of vision embodied in the many films that he directed or filmed as cinematographer. For me, this vision is nowhere more poignantly indicated than in his uncannily self-reflexive masterpiece Don’t Look Now (1973), in which he undermines conventions of cinematic sight through subtly shocking POV shots that align the camera and our eyes with the perspectives of inanimate objects (such as the doll above) or sightless characters (the blind woman whose vision structures a crucial scene in the film, as I argue in my interactive video essay on it: “Don’t Look Now: Paradoxes of Suture”).

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