Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"My Generation" - culture jamming by the Zimmers

The following video, an ironic take on the song "My Generation" by the Who, is a music video initiated by the BBC in late May, 2007. It arose from participation by Peter (aka Geriatric1927) in programming about giving elders opportunity to have a voice in popular culture. A group of elders came together as "The Zimmer Band" and recorded in Abbey Road studios with production staff with excellent credentials in making pop music videos. The result is an energetic and effective piece of culture jamming.

Wikipedia defines Culture jamming as "the act of transforming mass media to produce commentary about itself, using the original medium's communication method. It is a form of public activism which is generally in opposition to commercialism, and the vectors of corporate image. The aim of culture jamming is to create a contrast between corporate or mass media images and the realities or perceived negative side of the corporation or media. This is done symbolically, with the "detournement" of pop iconography." In another section Wikipedia explains that in "detournement", an artist reuses elements of well-known media to create a new work with a different message, often one opposed to the original. "

Peter's culture jamming last spring in the widely marketed "My Generation" was the vehicle for public activism and fundraising around issues arising from social isolation among the elderly. The skillful music video used the obvious energy and physicality of the grooving seniors to make points against the stereotypes of rigidity and stuffiness.

In the video below "Now the Secret Can Be Told" he explains to the YouTube community about his relationship to the media and about the making the video. He makes no bones that this is a promotional clip looking for support for his activity which now is moving to a larger audience through broadcast television, mainstream music distribution and live performances. For him, Zimmers is serious play, engaging his creativity and fun with the band members, but with a social agenda reminiscent of the charity work of Bob Geldof with his concerts like "Band Aid" .

As uplifting as "My Generation" is, there is also an angry edge to the video where gesture and home-made signs get the simple message across. The "Culture Jamming" article in Wikipedia goes on to note that the "... intent differs from that of artistic appropriation (which is done for art's sake) and vandalism (where destruction or defacement is the primary goal), although its results are not always so easily distinguishable." The ritualistic smashing up of guitars at the end of "Generation", as directed by seasoned producers of other high-profile rock music videos is an appropriation of cultural cliches in order to comment on stereotypes of the elderly as inhibited and passive.

It seems that the experience recording at Abbey Road studios was a positive one. But once the band went on the promotional road, and were being examined by people who were not necessarily in the socially-engaged loop, were individual members at risk of being set up to be stereotyped in an even more negative way? Culture jamming has its roots in an idealistic desire to promote change, and so I make the assumption of a degree of innocence. "The Zimmers Backstage at Graham Norton" (a live talk show) leaves me wondering if the exuberance of the band members was getting exploited by the host, who seemed to be directing them into crossing the line into vandalism, for the sake of cheap laughs. Intitially I found his comments seemed responsive to the detournment they had initiated themselves. For example, he comments that their combined age of 3000 is just short of the Rolling Stones. But as the segment progressed, when he seems to hook into the underlying frustration that was also in the music video, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with his mocking "us/them" asides to his audience.

However, would I have been patronizing too, if I could have intervened to protect Grace, the woman that he described as "you with the purply lilac top thing" from actually went for it beyond what seems to have been the host's intention, in trashing the backstage as he had directed? Where do my own stereotypes come in? I myself have been warned that if I leave the safety of dignified gestures when I appear in my own videos, I will be leaving myself open to ridicule and embarrassment. The fear of inadvertantly crossing the lines in a new setting is a powerful inhibitor to anyone. It has really slowed me down in putting myself out there on the Internet. I'd love to get some comments on the topic of taking these kinds of risks.

Monday, January 28, 2008

"Geriatric1927" starts the Silver Surfers campaign about computer access for the elderly

In the sidebar on the right I have an earlier link to the work of "Geriatric1927" in the  "YouTube videos for COABC's" section. That is the online name of Peter, an eighty-year old British senior whose channel, with over two million views, has earned him a place in the top twenty "Most Subscribed Directors of All Time". He talks about his own experience as an elder. He once said that he disapproves of people masking their identity on the Internet, so he used his birth year as part of his online name to ensure that his age would be crystal clear to young people interacting with him. Since I subscribed to him last year, he has increasingly focused in upon "intergenerational communication", and also upon the potential of the Internet to address mobility and isolation issues for his demographic.

This month he posted the video "Help for the Elderly", which he describes as: "A request for help in my attempt to introduce and encourage those elderly people who may be lonely and/or parted from their families to embrace the Internet and to reap the benefits even though they may be confused and frightened of all of the technologies". This week, he has started the blog Silver Surfers and made it the home page of his "Ask Geriatric" website.

One of the video responses is from Ben Arent, a product design student who is doing his final project upon this theme. He notes that this subject is "quite a current thing" and that there has been a recent new European Union directive, with a 43 million euro budget, about including the elderly in the information society. After Ben looked at my posting, he left a comment with the EU official website address "i2010" . A further google search found a central "thematic portal" site about the launch of the Europe-wide "Aging Well in the Information Society" research initiative. On that one, the amount quoted is a billion Euros.

No doubt part of Ben's motivation is social engagement, but he also sees an opportunity for himself in launching his professional career as a designer. He is planning a "social communication" product focused mainly on making email easier. In the video below he explains his design framework. He visualizes "negating the pain of adoption", then "imprinting" by marketing to this "undermarketed group" and "inciting" their engagement with his product. Here is a link to his website "Arent"

I'll be monitoring to see how this initiative unfolds.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Looking for kindred spirits on the Internet

The rise of cell phones seems to be bringing about the fall of phone booths. The above 3-minute video "Disappeared Phone Booths" was inspired by a real incident of my life, when the Dean's Food Store pay phone, a few minutes walk from my house, was removed by the phone company instead of being repaired. I found that I was not the only person in my neighbourhood that missed it. This loss stimulated thought about the quiet reduction of the number of accessible phone booths throughout my daily travels, and I decided to do a playful video piece about my desire for rescue from this trend and post it to YouTube.

As you might be able to tell by my previous postings, vanishing pay phones are an accessibility issue. During my online research I felt validated in this interest when I found The Payphone Project, a website devoted to that subject. It is moderated by Mark Thomas, a New York photographer.

The message of this site has not always been one of a call to social action towards resisting a change. He began it as an art project publishing the telephone numbers of pay phones around the world. The idea was random conversations: one could dial a telephone booth in some distant corner of the world, with the hope that somebody passing by would answer the ringing phone. There are now few phones that are still set to accept incoming calls, possibly as a deterrent to the percieved use of pay phones for "off the radar" activity. But in the meantime Mark had gotten interested in the overall meaning and "look" of pay phones, and in how they are increasingly becoming a scarce resource for people who still want to use them. He is now observing the worldwide progression of this disappearance, and is collecting news stories and photos from around the world. He invites interested people to send material or links, so there is a community aspect to this essentially personal site.

I think this site is a good example of how a single person can sponsor a nexus for opinion on the Internet and, through the investment of time and effort, foster a resonating response regarding a subject of personal passion. Through forums like exhibitions, artists frequently put their creative activity out for public view without any guarantee of payoff, other than a possible gratification at being given attention. Thanks to user-friendly self-publishing umbrella sites on the Internet (such as Blogger and Youtube), an individual does not need to be granted the status of "professional" in order to self-publish text, photos and videos.

Recognizing that the essential payoff for the person doing a posting is the sense of being seen and heard, most distribution sites show information about how many "views" were made and usually provide an opportunity to open a posting to comments and rankings. There are simple software tools that can be embedded in a blog or website to give genera source information about the "hits".

Monday, January 07, 2008

Where have all the phonebooths gone?

In the above one-minute video, my friend Cole tells the story of looking for a phone booth downtown. She brings up the issues that arise for those who aren't using cell phones, when pay phones are disappearing. She sees this as a safety issue as well as one of convenience. Many seniors resist using a cell phone because they have a high learning curve, the small keys are difficult to operate with fingers that aren't so nimble any more, and eyes that aren't so keen. Cell phone resisters of all ages explain that they are tired of being surprised by dead batteries and accounts that need refilling.

Cole says that Bob Dylan should launch a new protest song called "Where have all the phonebooths gone?". Is access to a public phone a civil right?