Not long ago, at a work-in-progress screening, I was listening to an established, well known Bay Area documentarian tell an audience about plans for her feature-length nonfiction film. She was seeking funds to transfer video to 35mm celluloid for festival screenings, starting with the New York Film Festival and Sundance; a distributor would then be chosen, and the film would be released for exhibition in art-houses nationwide; it would then be offered to television; and, finally, it would be distributed non-theatrically on video and DVD. While this linear distribution-timeline is exactly what has been developed for independent filmmakers since the early 1980s--a model we all sort of accept--I was struck by how it is a remnant of the twentieth century, no longer satisfactory nor available to the majority of media artists and producers.
Few Americans can financially afford to sustain a career making independent feature-documentaries, and the established system of completion, distribution, and exhibition works only for a small number of finished independent films. The "indie movement," as it has been characterized over the last twenty-five years or so, has stalled. Its established methods of bringing completed works to the mainstream are only possible for an elite few who have the financial capacity to sustain themselves over the years it takes to make a film and push it through the steps outlined above. And long-term profit after all that sweat-equity? Let's not even go there.
New systems are coming into focus, though they haven't quite settled into place yet. Which brings me to "Pull Focus/Pushing Forward," NAMAC's biannual conference, hosted by 911 Media Arts Center in Seattle this past October. What we saw at this outstanding four-day gathering was a meeting of minds from all over the country and the world, people no longer content to follow traditional ways of making media art and social media, looking for new ways to flow their work into the culture-at-large. What made this event so stimulating was that the old assumptions of production, distribution, and exhibition were simply not there. The ideas that will inform public media in the years to come are concerned with strong sense of "migration"--from the youth participants to the elders present, and vice versa; from other art forms towards media and out again; from the singularity of tape and celluloid to the open-sourcing of the web; from instigating ground-level, community media work to defining that activity in the context of larger cultural policy.
We are now working with a new generation of artists and organizations who do not assume they will ever receive a truly adequate grant or a premiere at Sundance. Yet all of us are moving in the same direction, making media happen in tributaries and byways across the land, while challenging the "indie" mythology that there is one professionally sanctioned way to success. Together, we were able to map some new strategies for building a public media culture--where the primary strengths are found in artists, communities, and youth, not simply in the latest tools and technology.
I'll remember this conference as an all-too-brief combustible moment when community media met the art world; when cultural policymakers acknowledged media arts as an important practice; when intellectual property lawyers looked at the field with awe and inspiration; and when generations spanning almost forty years were able to connect around common themes and histories.
It happened in the hallways, at meals, in hotel panel-rooms, and on buses to and from the airport. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the field was maturing, that this is a time when folks in the "micro" media movement can co-exist fairly easily with their multimillion-dollar-budget institutional companions. "Either/or" dichotomies were absent. Linear thinking was jettisoned to explore the possibilities of multi-layered networking, from DJ Spooky's "Art is in the Mix," to Martha Wilson's reinvention of Franklin Furnace as a virtual archive, to One World TV's open-source internet documentary-distribution project.
For this special post-conference issue of MAIN, we're providing an overall snapshot of the proceedings through the words of seven conference participants. The wide range of impressions chronicled here touch on some of the trends we saw unpacked and examined. I find it quite interesting how each of these writers grounded his or her report in the questions they're tackling back home--in their personal lives and inside their organizations--and how a number of them came up with new ways of thinking to inspire the work they do with their local communities. By January 2003, our partners at 911 Media Arts Center will have completed a conference CD-ROM, including content that emerged at every level of the event--audio, video, text, still images, and web links.
Looking ahead, in December, 2002, we'll publish and distribute to our members A Closer Look: Media Arts 2003. And stay tuned for our first online salon of the new year, a three-week discussion in early '03 continuing the dialogue started face-to-face at the intergenerational panels in Seattle. Finally, based on what we learned at the conference, we are planning to bring our NAMAC voices in 2003 to the "tables" where cultural policy is being discussed and crafted. Along with broadening our work in cultural and telecommunications policy, we will be aligning ourselves with organizations confronting intellectual property issues related specifically to the public media sector.