Report from London: The Third Biennial BIMI-Pitt Workshop

From 15-17 May 2019 the third biennial meeting of the Pittsburgh-Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image (BIMI) took as its theme Displacement. It brought nine colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh together with fourteen colleagues from Birkbeck University and the greater London area to discuss the topic over three intense days. Additionally Laura Mulvey gave participants a personally guided gallery tour of an exhibition covering the film projects on which she and Peter Wollen collaborated. Participants also had the opportunity to take a guided tour with Ian Christie of an exhibition in Tottenham on the origins of cinema. Ian Christie is of course one of the foremost scholars of pre and early cinema history, and the tour offered a site-specific vision of London and its moving images.

The discussions at the workshop have led to various immediate outcomes. Some respondents and presenters have moved on to collaborate on projects. Exciting connections developed with Prof. William Ackah, a Birkbeck colleague who works on the impact of gentrification on Pittsburgh’s African American and London’s Black communities.  Dr. Ali Patterson was able to meet the Chinese distributor of the films she discussed. Silpa Mukherjee, co-organizer of this year’s graduate student conference in Pittsburgh, invited graduate colleagues from London to participate. At the final meeting, participants discussed the possibility of a volume from the workshop and Randall Halle and John Taylor agreed to lead the editing of the project.

Planning for the future

Significant discussions began for the fourth iteration of the workshop with goals being set to develop over the next two years training and work on the topic of Critical Practice. The commitment of the FMSP colleagues to develop Pitt’s program as a model of critical making and practice has already had an important impact on the teaching and research plans of the colleagues in the program. Critical practice should not be understood as synonymous with filmmaking, although the tool of video essays is becoming common parlance among the grad students and faculty in FMSP.

We look to develop the workshop then over the next two years with various kinds of projects. Charles Exley, as organizer of the PFC, has agreed to give attention to pedagogy sessions in that context. Prof. Catherine Grant, an expert on the Essay Film and a filmmaker now in the role of Professor of Digital Media and Screen Studies at Birkbeck, has agreed to come to Pittsburgh in the coming year as part of the BIMI-Pitt exchange. Her visit allows us a chance to take the collaboration a step further. Katie’s visit could be constituted as a combined practical and theoretical master class.  Lily Ford, co-lead organizer of the Derek Jarman Lab Workshop at Pitt, has also agreed to foster collaborative investigations of critical practice during her time in Pittsburgh. Possibilities of graduate collaboration with the MA in programing and curating, the Essay Film Festival, the BFI Young Filmmakers series, were raised and can be pursued in the coming years leading to the 2021 BIMI-Pitt workshop.

Selected Sessions from "Displacement"

DAY ONE: Wednesday 15 May, Birkbeck Cinema

Morning session 10:30-12:30 – Panel #1: Displacing Animation

Speakers: Alison Patterson (Pittsburgh), Olga Blackledge (Pittsburgh)

Discussion: Bella Honess Roe (Surrey), Tashi Petter (Queen Mary)

1.A. Unmoored Realism in Irish Animation: the Multiple Migrations of Cartoon Saloon

Speaker: Alison Patterson (in collaboration with Dana Och)

Abstract: Irish cinema has inhabited an intermediate position since its institutionalization. Before then “Irish Cinema” existed only in between, in the glimpses of people and spaces in location shooting of foreign productions.  Irish animation’s history runs parallel to that of live action film. We examine the work – labour and products – of the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, as it moves between national identity and the pressures and opportunities in animation that is both boundary-crossing and highly local. Stylistically, their films have been described as between institutional styles of realism and transnationalization of the superflat for their specifically Irish features (Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and the third of the “Irish Trilogy” (Wolf Walkers, in production). Additionally, Cartoon Saloon has produced full features and segments set outside of Ireland exploring alterity in body, dress, and religion, and streaming service shows with transnational production, distribution and reception. Two contemporaneous works – the studio’s contribution to the adaptation of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet (2014), and the “Storyteller’s Cavern” in both Song of the Sea (2014) and VR (2017) – exemplify movement across national borders and migration between media forms. Cartoon Saloon articulates an identity both Irish and transnational, in its subjects, techniques for perspective, and material form.  

1.B. Technological Displacement in Animation: Imagery in the Intermedial Space

Speaker: Olga Blackledge

Abstract: This presentation is concerned with the questions of displacement in animation along the lines of technology and aesthetics. Here, displacement is interpreted as a powerful force that increases the potential of animation to create new imagery while integrating imagery from other media. I argue that historically, technological shifts in animation production – such as the shift to celluloid and the shift to the digital – provoke several simultaneous processes, including the following: the previous animation techniques, even though they were displaced, did not disappear; they were integrated into the new technology through style and aesthetics; displacement of older technologies opened up a space for migration of other media into the space of animation, thus increasing its intermediality. The presentation will focus on the technological shift that took place in Soviet animation in the 1930s, when animation production moved from a variety of animation techniques, such as drawing on paper, cut-outs, flat marionettes, and others, to the celluloid or cel technology. By examining the animated film, The Humpbacked Horse (Soiuzmul’tfil’m, dir. Ivan Ivanov-Vano, 1947), the presentation invites to discuss the question of aesthetic consequences of this shift and its intermedial potential.

Afternoon session 13:30-15:30 – Panel #2: Technological Displacements

Speakers: Jinying Li (Pittsburgh), Jesse Anderson-Lehman (Pittsburgh)

Discussion: Joel McKim (Birkbeck), William Brown (Roehampton)

2.A. The Virtual Walls: Metaphor, Mediation, and Making the Experimental VR Film 47 KM (2017)

Speaker: Jinying Li

Abstract: In China, the rapid economic development has displaced much of the rural population from farmlands to factories. What is also displaced is China’s socialist past, when walls were extensively used for painting Maoist slogans and images. These socialist legacies are largely gone in cities, but remain in rural villages. Filmmaker Zhang Mengqi recorded the images of these abandoned walls in the latest instalment of her documentary series 47km. Combining theory with practice, this talk critically contemplates the project that I participated in collaboration with Zhang to remediate her documentary 47km into a VR film. I consider how the virtual walls can critically engage with the history and politics of space-as-media, as well as the ways in which this mediating space can be displaced and retrieved. Drawing upon the “window” metaphor, I argue that it is the wall rather than the window that fundamentally defines what VR really is. Shifting the metaphor from “window” to “wall” is a theoretical reconsideration of media not simply as systems of visual representation but as spatial organization. The VR space in 47km is such a mediating environment, through which China’s forgotten socialist past that is displaced in the rural wasteland is recorded, resurrected, and repurposed.

2.B. Displacement and Compression

Speaker: Jesse Anderson-Lehman

Abstract: Compression is what allows for media objects to be displaced, to move from one place to another more readily and with less friction. Easily distributed and shared file formats lend the contemporary moving image a sense of both spatial and temporal displacement, where a video uploaded to YouTube in 2015 can then pop up again and go viral on Instagram in 2019. As platforms and technologies are rapidly displaced, the images are constantly downloaded, decoded, converted, encoded, and uploaded, whether on servers, in the cloud, or on our phones or tablets. Compression algorithms are thus pivotal sites of corporate manoeuvring, with standards agreed upon by the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) now facing competition from the Alliance for Open Media (AOM), in which Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix are all governing members. The presence of so many contemporary media heavy-hitters in one consortium illustrates the degree to which the “free” flow of “open” media makes for good business; the displaced cultural condition that results only heightens the ease with which corporate interests can exert an ever-greater influence on our media consumption habits.

Late afternoon session 16:00-17:15 – Art at the Frontier of Film Theory: Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen

Session led by Oliver Fuke (Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art), Nicolas Helm-Grovas (Royal Holloway), and Laura Mulvey (Birkbeck)

Group visit to the BIMI/Essay Film Festival produced exhibition “Art at the Frontier of Film Theory: Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen”, Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck; preceded by a presentation/discussion with curators, Oliver Fuke and Nicolas Helm-Grovas, and chaired by Laura Mulvey.

DAY TWO: Thursday 16 May, Birkbeck Cinema

Morning session 10:30-12:30 – Panel #3: Displacing Cultures

Speakers: Charles Exley (Pittsburgh), Silpa Mukherjee (Pittsburgh)

Discussion: Iain Smith (Kings), Marcos Centeno (Birkbeck), Sarah Joshi (Pittsburgh)

3.A. Displacing the “Last Western”: Remaking Eastwood and Rethinking Japan

Speaker: Charles Exley

Abstract: I propose to consider the theme of displacement in the western through a reading of Lee Sang-il’s 2013 film Unforgiven (Yurusarezaru mono). Because it draws closely on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), the work has been recognized as a faithful remake of Eastwood’s iconic late western. At the same time, Lee reframes the western to focus on displacement, calling particular attention to the repression of political and ethnic ‘others’ in the acquisition of frontier territory (Hokkaidō) in the 1860s. This cinematic reworking of Eastwood is notable also for its transmedia sensibility because it draws significantly from manga artist Tezuka Osamu’s Shumari, a work which explores the imperial origins of the frontier in Hokkaidō set at the same formative moment.  In light of recent European interest in the transnational western Lee’s complex film offers a useful starting point for a larger discussion of how the transposition of the western to East Asian soil adjusts our expectations of what is overemphasized as being the most American of genres, and indeed how displacement examined in this film might connect to other examples of the transnational evolution of the western around the globe.

3.B. The Visual Ecstasy of 1980s Bombay: The Disco, and Disco Films as Contraband

Speaker: Silpa Mukherjee

Abstract: My presentation will showcase an aggregation of ephemera, photographs, flyers and gossip columns from English language Indian film magazines. These will resonate in the flicker of the images from the “disco films” made in 1980s Bombay. The presentation will be moored to clips from disco song sequences from these films.

I am keen on mapping this lost decade of underground media culture. I refer to this affective visual infrastructure of disco as contraband. The precarious quality of disco life becomes the contraband object. The scale of desire, risk and guilt associated with this displaced and displacing alien culture is significant for the project. Using the conceptual anchor of disco as contraband the project engages with chance encounters with rapidly morphing new media cultures which forged an alternative sensorium with a new range of tastes. Displacement here is a tangible event locatable in the newness of disco films, and in the transgressive charge and materiality of the discotheque; in its actual hosting of contraband bodies and events, and allowing the exchange of physical contraband. The presentation will generate a visual sleazeography linked to the contradictory impulses of desire and paranoia.

Afternoon session 13:30-15:30 -- Panel #4: Queer Displacements

Carlos Rivera (Pittsburgh), Jonathan Devine (Pittsburgh)

Discussion: Catherine Grant (Birkbeck)

4.A. What makes Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together a Queer Film? The Border, Diaspora, and Disorientation

Speaker: Carlos Rivera

Abstract: The 1997 queer melodrama Happy Together relates the journey two gay men, Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po-wing, make from Hong Kong to Argentina. Inspired by a lampshade depicting a waterfall procured by Po-wing, the pair embark on a South American trip to the Iguaçu Falls in an attempt to salvage their relationship. This natural border constitutes the queer protagonists’ object of contemplation and desire. As I will argue, we encounter recurring images – namely, the passport, the lampshade, and the waterfalls – comprising a Deleuzian amalgam of affection-images. In turn, these affection-images exude a common quality: a highly fluid, polysemic border that, at once, enables and restricts the movement of queer desires. The film, via its canny employment of close-ups, transmutes the border into an aggregate of affection-images susceptible to differing interpretative interventions. Considering the effects of cinematographic techniques like the close-up, this sense of disorientation is what renders the film queer. The film’s queerness lies in how the border ends up having different, conflicting meanings and sensations for the protagonists that vacillate from hope to anger and from despair to perplexity.

4.B. Becoming Trans: Moving the Still and Queering the Archive

Speaker: Jonathan Devine

Abstract: My presentation mobilizes the theme of “Displacement” by looking at the representation of trans* (transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, and so on) subjecthood in Trans (Chris Arnold, 2012), a nonlinear documentary that exhibits a kaleidoscope of different and varied trans* experiences. I respond to Jay Prosser’s claim in Second Skins that still photography can be at odds with the trans* experience, a queer transformation that indicates movement, while photography as a medium ostensibly portrays something that is in stasis. Such displacement is thus not only bodily, but also temporal. In Trans, it stems from how the movement of still, photographic images evinces a temporality where past, present (and sometimes future) are presented concurrently, owing to zooms, dissolves, and fades (in and out). This style of documentary plays an important role when looking at different representational forms in trans* history, such as the case study, the clinic, pictures, and oral history. Rather than being reduced to a form of “irregularity” or “mental illness,” queer/trans* subjects have a voice, and are presented as trustworthy in contributing to their archive via a first-person narrative. By allowing his interview subjects to openly express their queer, nonlinear entanglement of past, present, and future, Arnold rather moves towards a sort of sympathetic voyeurism.

Late afternoon session 16:15-17:30 -- Displacement and the Compass Project

Session led by Michael Darko (Birkbeck) and Leslie Topp (Birkbeck)

This special session, chaired by Leslie Topp (chair of the Compass Project steering group), will present an ongoing artistic collaboration between Anna Konik, a video installation artist from Warsaw, and a group of Compass Project students, all studying at Birkbeck while in the asylum process. Students from the Compass Project are currently undertaking a collaboration with Anna Konik, a Warsaw-based video artist whose work includes the video installation In the Same City Under the Same Sky, which focused on the narratives of women migrants in Europe and explored empathy and its limits. Compass Project students are working with Anna to produce an art documentary or video installation, titled Eight Days a Week, inspired by Krzysztof Kieślowski's Seven Days a Week, which will show each day a fragment of the life of a different person looking at the complexity of their journey in different cultural, political, social contexts as well the reality of displacement. With another Compass student (to be confirmed), Michael Darko will present the group’s work in progress on the project, alongside a screening of selections from Anna Konik's previous project.

DAY THREE: Friday 17 May, Birkbeck Cinema

Morning session 10:30-12:30 -- Panel #5: Displacing Communities

Speakers: William Ackah (Birkbeck), John Taylor (Pittsburgh)

Discussion: Scott Rodgers (Birkbeck), Rob Topinka (Birkbeck)

5.A. “Because We Feel We Must”: Freeways, Displacement, and the Cinematic Aesthetics of Infrastructure Development

Speaker: John Taylor

Abstract: The construction of the United States Interstate Highway System displaced countless people, homes, and communities, and profoundly reconfigured the way that American spaces and built environments were perceived and represented in media. While the system is most often understood as a manifestation of Cold War-era defense policy, my work shows that it was also an aesthetic project to remake the way the nation understood itself, a project that entailed the displacement and relocation of citizens from old rural and urban spaces into new suburban spaces of futurity. In this presentation I will show government and corporate sponsored films from the 1950s to the 1970s that articulate an aesthetic politics of highway and infrastructure planning. These films were critical to making the case for freeways to the general public and to those freeway planners aimed to displace. I will further show that such government and corporate sponsored films demonstrate that Interstate planners and stakeholders were operating within a coherent representational ideology that both influenced and was influenced by mainstream commercial film and television, which similarly facilitated the displacement and erasure of communities.

5.B. Black Space Matters: Contested Community Activism in Processes of Urban Renewal in Pittsburgh

Speaker: William Ackah

Abstract: One of the most prominent historical neighbourhoods in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the Hill District. At its heyday in the post Second World War period it was home to over 80,000 African Americans and was a dynamic multi-cultural urban space known as the second Harlem. Nine of the ten plays by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson based on each decade of the 20th Century were set in the Hill. Today the Hill District is home to less than 20,000 African-Americans the majority of whom earn less than $20,000 dollars per annum. This paper explores the changing dynamics of the neighbourhood since the Second World War and assesses the impact that urban policy making has had on fortunes of the community. In particular the paper focuses on the role played by African American church leaders and community activists in trying to preserve the unique historical black cultural legacy of the Hill whilst trying to navigate a policy environment concerned with regenerating the area and changing its class and racial make-up.

Afternoon session 13:30-15:00 – Young Voices @ EFF: Curating Essay Films by Young Filmmakers

Session led by Lily Ford (Derek Jarman Lab), Sarah Joshi (Pittsburgh), and Janet McCabe (Birkbeck)

This session focuses on a small-scale project involving the screening of essay films made by young filmmakers (16-22 years old), programmed by students on MA Film Programming and Curating. The filmmakers are alumni of three different programmes: the Pittsburgh-London Film Program (with the University of Pittsburgh), the Making Images course at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley, and the Hidden Persuaders film workshops for Camden sixth-formers run by Birkbeck and the Derek Jarman Lab. The aim is not only to introduce the idea of the essay film as a film practice, but also to delve into questions of what it is to programme such films for an audience. This collaborative session will involve staff and film programmers in conversation, discussing what it is to conceive of and direct an essay film, but also how to interpret, curate and present these kinds of films in a publicly accessible way.

Profiles of Speakers at the BIMI-Pitt Research Workshop 2019

Alison Patterson, Lecturer for Film and Media Studies, University of Pittsburgh

Alison Patterson is a Lecturer in English and Film and Media Studies, and she provides support for production work in the program. She defended her dissertation Image to Infinity: Rethinking Description and Detail in the Cinema in 2011. Her research interests include history on film, British Cinema, animation, and digital media. She has published on Peter Greenaway’s multi-platform Tulse Luper Project, Ari Foman’s Waltz with Bashir, and illustration and narrative in Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Lawrence of Arabia. Her current research project involves 2D aesthetics and ornamentalism in contemporary Irish animation.

Olga Blackledge, Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Communication, University of Pittsburgh

Olga Blackledge is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her PhD degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 2018. Her dissertation entitled Animated States: The Aesthetics, Politics, and Technology of Soviet and German Cel Animation, 1930-1940, compares the nascent animation industries in the USSR and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Olga has published on different aspects of animation, including the construction of the animated body in serial animation, allegory in Soviet animation of the Stagnation Period, and on Lev Kuleshov’s animation theory, in such journals as Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema and Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Jinying Li, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of English

University of Pittsburgh

Jinying Li is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on media theory and culture in East Asia. Her essays on Asian cinema, animation, and digital media have been published in Film InternationalMechademia, the International Journal of CommunicationJournal of Chinese CinemasAsiascape and Camera Obscura. She co-edited two special issues on Chinese animation for the Journal of Chinese cinemas, and a special issue on regional platforms for Asiascape: Digital Asia. Jinying is also a filmmaker and has worked on animations, feature films, and documentaries. Two documentary TV series that she produced were broadcasted nationwide in China through Shanghai Media Group (SMG). She is also one of the co-writers for animated feature film Big Fish and Begonia (Dayu Haitang, 2016).

Jesse Anderson-Lehman, Ph.D. Student in the Film and Media Studies Program, University of Pittsburgh

Jesse Anderson-Lehman is a Film PhD student in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. He also holds an MA in Film and Media Studies from Emory University and a BA in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University. He works on the intersections between animation and new media, particularly the changes in animation production, form, and aesthetics with the introduction of computers. His other interests include video compression, the temporality of animation, and Sci-Fi TV.

Charles Exley, Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Film; Associate Director of the Film and Media Studies Program, University of Pittsburgh

Charles Exley is Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Film and Associate Director of the Film and Media Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.  His research interests include modern and contemporary Japanese literature, popular musical performance in the twentieth century, Asakusa opera, and film.  He is the author of Satō Haruo and Modern Japanese Literature and co-editor of the translation collection Old Crimes, New Scenes: a Century of Innovations in Japanese Mystery Fiction (June 2018).  His work on the Japanese Western and the politics of the remake appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema

Silpa Mukherjee, Ph.D. Student in the Film and Media Studies Program, University of Pittsburgh

Silpa Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate in the Film & Media Studies Program (English) at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a graduate instructor in the Department of English, teaching Seminar in Composition to undergraduate students in the university. Her research interests include media infrastructures, circulation, and contraband. She researches South Asia’s volatile borders by entering its cultural imaginary through film, sound and media objects. Her work has been published in Studies in South Asian Film and Media, The Soundtrack, and Bioscope: South Asian Screen Studies. 

Carlos O. Rivera-Morales, Teaching Fellow and PhD Graduate Student at the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, University of Pittsburgh

Carlos O. Rivera-Morales is a second-year graduate student with interests in biopolitics, film studies, and Latin American studies. Currently, he is working on the "brown body" and its conceptualizations in the intersections of Latinx studies, biopolitics, and Film and Media studies. 

Jonathan Devine, Ph.D. Student in the Film and Media Studies Program, University of Pittsburgh

Jonathan Devine is a third-year Ph.D. student in Film and Media Studies (with a concentration in French) at the University of Pittsburgh, which he will be completing alongside graduate certificates in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Cultural Studies. He originally hails from Brisbane, Australia, and graduated with an honors degree in French from the University of Queensland in 2012. He then completed his M.A. in French Language and Literature at Miami University in 2015. His primary research interests concern documentary film, and its relationship to animation, horror, and queer theory.

John Taylor, Ph.D. Student in Film and Media Program, University of Pittsburgh,

John’s work examines how the representation of space and identity in U.S. film and media is shaped by material infrastructure, paying particular attention to communities marginalized – on the basis of race or geography – by infrastructure projects. In his dissertation, The Interstate Logic: How Networks Change the Cinematic Representation of Time and Space he analyzes the historic impact of the Interstate Highway System on the perception and representation of urban, rural, and suburban space as well as the work of filmmakers in communities marginalized by Interstate construction whose films challenge dominant narratives about spaces and their temporality. His work shows how government and corporate sponsored films demonstrate that infrastructure projects are possessed of their own aesthetic politics that circumscribe film and media production, but are also themselves influenced by cinematic concepts. In his next project he will examine the connections between post-apocalyptic trends in new media, gentrification, and tech industry development.

William Ackah, Department of Geography, Birkbeck

William Ackah is Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Programme Director for Community Development and Development and Globalisation at Birkbeck University of London. He holds a PhD in Government from the University of Manchester and was 2016-17 Fulbright research scholar at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he conducted research on the impact of gentrification on African-American church congregations. He is current chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race an international organization that brings together academics, community activists and church leaders with the aim of tackling injustices faced by people of African descent around the world. He is the co-editor with Jualynne Dodson and R. Drew Smith of Religion, Culture and Spirituality in Africa and the African Diaspora (New York: Routledge, 2017). And his most recent work is ‘Ethics from the Underside’ in Brent Steele and Eric Heinze ed The Routledge Handbook of Ethics and International Relations (New York: Routledge 2018).