Media provocations: Notes from SummerCulture in Vancouver

This year’s SummerCulture is taking place in Vancouver, where we’ve been lucky to have a number of really fascinating conversations with activists, academics and journalists about media, both as an industry and a cultural form. Here are some shout outs for people doing work that I found mindblowingly inspiring for feminism, activism and social justice.

We met Minelle Mahtani at Roundhouse Radio, which has “hyperlocal content and an urban presence” that privileges “local content, engaging storytelling, and intelligent discussion.”  Minelle blew us away with a talk about how the academy consistently works against women and people of color.  This talk was gripping, personal, courageous, simultaneously a crushing indictment of universities and a radical form of inspiration.  I’m looking forward to going through the Roundhouse archives to listen to her shows, and to reading more of Minelle’s work about critical geography, race theory and feminism, but hearing her talk about the experience of being a woman of color in the academy was humbling, provocative and affirming.  It was the kind of talk that lives with you for a long time.

We were lucky to see screenings for two of Charles Wilkinson‘s films, Haida Gwaii and Vancouver: No Fixed Address.  Getting to chat with Charles afterwards was a treat, because he’s such a welcoming and upbeat guy.  From an ethnography perspective, I was also really struck by some of the ethics of Charles’ work.  He talked about the decision not to present his interviewees in a bad light, ever, no matter how tempting it might be.  For example, in Vancouver: No Fixed Address, Wilkinson interviews Bob Rennie, Vancouver’s Condo King (sort of like Vancouver’s version of Ori Feibush). It would be tempting to paint Rennie as an evil uber-capitalist and real estate puppetmaster, but his portrayal in the documentary is incredibly fair and pragmatic.  Charles talked about the deliberate stance that interviewees must be treated fairly as part of his ethics of filmmaking.  This echoes my own view of ethical qualitative research, where we can critique the people and communities we study, but not at the expense of treating them fairly, with respect and hospitality.  I think this measured approach is a key reason that Charles’ films are so balanced and complex.

Jeneen Frei Njootli is a Vuntut Gwich’in artist and a founding member of the ReMatriate Collective, which is a badass project of working to re-appropriate images of indigenous women.  Jeneen shared some of her new work with us, video art that focuses on shifting tropes of representation of both indigenous land and indigenous cultural belongings.  Many themes surfaced in Jeneen’s talk with us, but here are two that really stuck with me are: Feminist citation practices – particularly in the context of women recognizing the work of other women (men definitely don’t need schooling in how to cite each other, particularly themselves) why are we content merely to cite one another as a form of recognition? What other forms of reciprocity could be imagined, perhaps in ways that recognize the multi-faceted nature of our lives?  Resisting colonial narratives – our conversation with Jeneen showed how questions of representation are not at all confined to the art gallery or the classroom but take shape in everyday setting, in everyday conversations.  Jeneen talked about the simultaneous need to talk about decolonialization and also *not* to talk about it.  The continual pressure to talk about colonization is both exhausting and implies that colonization is all encompassing of indigenous subjectivity.  I see this practice as a convergence of self-care and also radical refusal.  Of course talking about oppressive forms of structural violence and inequality is crucial, but conversations about disempowerment can also reinforce their underlying institutional strength. Jeneen’s work is beautiful, fierce and provocative, and our conversation with her brought up ways of infusing academic work with those same qualities.

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