Recently, Meredith and Páraic attended an Audiovisual Essay workshop. Hosted by the Department of Media Studies at Maynooth University, the workshop intended to help scholars rethink conventional critical forms of traditional research through what is becoming prominently referred to as practice based research. Both Meredith and Páraic provide some very interesting insights and reflections on their two days of engaging with the audiovisual essay.
On 9 and 10 May 2016, Maynooth University’s Media Studies department hosted a two-day workshop on the audiovisual essay in Ireland. Led by Dr. Catherine Grant of Sussex University and Dr Liz Greene of Dublin City University (DCU), this hands-on, practice-based workshop explored the theory, history, and creation of audiovisual essays in a variety of contexts. Dr. Grant is a leading scholar and practitioner on the audiovisual form, having founded the open access platform REFRAME and the web archive Film Studies for Free. She also edits [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed academic journal of videographic film and moving image studies. Dr. Greene, meanwhile, teaches the audiovisual essay at DCU where she is also a researcher of sound studies.
The audiovisual essay represents a rethinking of conventional critical forms, an area of research known as “practice research.” Through the creation of an audiovisual essay, scholars and academics can reframe and remix film, television and other audiovisual excerpts as a way of exploring themes, making an argument, or finding connections in media content. Audiovisual essays exist on a spectrum that can range from explanatory to poetic, but what ties them all together is the practice of “writing” with the very materials that constitute the object of study – that is, moving images and sounds.
NPPSH Organising Committee members Páraic Kerrigan and Meredith Dabek participated in this workshop, using materials from their respective research projects to put newfound skills into practice.
My own research focuses on digital narratives and literature in media, which made me wonder where (or how) it would fit within the practice of audiovisual essays. During her presentation on the first day, however, Dr. Grant referenced British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey and her book Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006), which allowed me to think about the connections between my own work and moving images. In her book, Mulvey examines how recent technologies (the DVD player, for example) have changed the way viewers approach movies and films. Nowadays, they have a level of control that previous technologies did not allow. As Dr. Grant explained, a DVD remote allows a viewer to “remake” a film depending on the choices she makes while watching that film – a practice that shares much in common with digital narratives, hypertext fiction, and cybertexts.
On day two of the workshop, Dr. Greene shared the example of an alternative trailer exercise, in which students edit and deconstruct a film to create an original trailer video (that is, one that differs from the studio-produced or official trailers) for that film. Doing so requires a student or researcher to think critically about the video with which they are working, but it is also an exercise in remix culture and the final product would be something akin to a “choose your own adventure” novel or a fan fiction text. The choices made when editing and remixing the original film can result in a very different tone to the film. Thus, we can find trailers depicting the childhood classic Mary Poppins as a horror film or the fantasy movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as a lighthearted teen comedy. In these cases, the editors control the direction of the narrative by selectively placing certain clips next to each other and changing the background music or soundtrack. Similarly, the choices a reader makes when engaging with a digital narrative or cybertext results in a kind of editing of the overall text and determines the story he or she experiences.
In addition to helping me make interdisciplinary connections between various areas of research and study, my participation in the audiovisual workshop provided me with the opportunity to think through The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in a new light. Dr. Grant spoke about using the audiovisual essay and practice research not just as a way to present some argument, but also as a way to conduct the research itself. Oftentimes, we aren’t quite sure what we may want to say with our work until we actually start reading it – or, in this case, editing and creating it. I used my time during the practice sessions to think through LBD’s depiction of Darcy, particularly through Lizzie’s use of costume theatre, but also Lizzie’s presentation of herself. While I walked away from the workshop with far more questions than I had answers (isn’t that always the case?!), it was an excellent learning experience.
My research focuses on the visibility of Irish LGBT people in the media over the past forty years. In particular, a lot of the media texts I am interrogating pertains to material in Ireland’s film and television archives. As we were introduced by Dr. Catherine Grant and Dr. Liz Greene to the format and practice of the audiovisual essay, I realised that my research could potentially lend itself quite well to the audiovisual format. Often in textual analysis, constructing an argument for an academic context can circumvent the valuable significance of actually viewing the media in question. In my case, the important historical affect of the programmes I am examining, such as the first broadcast of a homosexual man in Ireland, is mired in critical language through my dissertation writing. The audiovisual essay thus provided me an exciting (and important) opportunity to excavate these important moments of visibility and introduce them to a new audience (while also presenting a critical argument).
Much like the audiovisual essay itself, the workshop took a more hands on approach and after some brief introductions and seminars, we were thrown into the deep end. Here, we had to produce our own audiovisual piece before the end of the day and present it to the workshop participants. The hands on approach was certainly helpful in that it helped me rethink some of the arguments I was making in my research. Not only that, but it also highlighted the importance of media production techniques when making an argument about visibility, instead of focusing solely on what is being represented about gay people on screen. For example, through editing together the audiovisual essay from various programmes from the 1970s and 1980s, I noticed that during interviews with gay people, a tight mid-close up was the most used shot for the duration of the interview. Take for example the appearance of the first lesbian on Irish television, Joni Crone, and the appearance of gay priest Fr. Bernard Lynch on The Late Late Show respectively Noticing such production techniques enabled me to add some further nuance to arguments while also noting the importance of the media form itself.
Not only then was the workshop helpful in making me think about my research in new ways; it also opened up new pathways of critical thinking, highlighting the academic value in carrying out practice based research. While helping shed new light on material I have been working with for a number of years now, the workshop has also encouraged me to incorporate the audiovisual essay as part of conference presentations and even as part of classes with undergraduate students. Although I still have much learn about the art of crafting an audiovisual essay, the workshop certainly provided a much needed jump start.