A PhD student at Loncon 3

This year was the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, which took place at the ExCel Centre in London over five hectic and fun-filled days (#Loncon3).  I felt it my duty to go there, both as a fan and as a research student (field observations being a must, don’t you know?), and thanks to the most excellent Con or Bust initiative, I was able to get a free membership.  I managed to make two action-packed days (the Thursday and Saturday), which gave me much food for thought – that is, when I could actually sit down and get a moment to sit down and ponder.  What struck me most about my time at Loncon was the realisation that fans are not homogeneous – just like any microcosm of humanity, fans have different values, morals, points of view, creeds, colours, sexual orientations and political agendas.  And of course, fandoms.  There can be genuine moments where a fan is rambling on about something they are passionate about, whilst you’re there thinking “What on earth are they talking about?”, even if you consider yourself a fellow geek.  Or you might be the one sitting there, rabbiting on, whilst others are staring at you blankly.  Yeah, I got that a few times.  But it was fine, because it reminded me that too often in fan or media studies, there is a tendency to think of fans as one homogeneous whole that thinks the same.  This is not true, and, as I am finding out, it is therefore not true about the ways that fans (or fan communities) approach or engage in information behaviour.

I was at the con right from the start, as I was participating in a fan arts and crafts event in the afternoon (and was, for my sins, helping set up the Transformative Fanworks tent).  For an hour I sat at a table, demonstrating my limited artistic skills and showcasing my work.  Many fans sauntered past with minimal interest (Rogue & Gambit shippers are a fairly rare breed in the fan world, or so I’ve come to learn).  But I was surprised and pleased when two lovely girls from America came and chatted to me about my work and the Rogue & Gambit fandom, and showed an interest in following my Tumblr page.   There was an interesting conversation on copyrights and IP, wherein I explained that I don’t sell prints of my fanart on deviantART as I don’t own the rights to franchises I draw from.  They seemed surprised at this. “We buy that stuff all the time,” they said. “We can just get it from anywhere.  Does that mean we’re doing something illegal?”  Well, yeah, technically.  I tried to explain about the difference between selling fanart on the internet via a third party (they have to cover their proverbial backsides after all), and selling to friends or at a convention.  But young fans aren’t really interested in that stuff.  They want their fanworks, and they’ll get them whatever the means.  The internet has made ‘reapproriated’ works so readily available to fans that copyright is hardly an issue to youngsters who have grown up in an information free-for-all.  It does make one wonder whether notions of IP will slowly die out with the next generation.

Me drawing in the Loncon 3 fan activity tent.

Me drawing in the Loncon 3 fan activity tent.

On Saturday afternoon, Megan Waples and I held what was intended to be a redesign contest for sexist superheroine costumes.  Unfortunately this wasn’t in the programme  as we’d cooked it up too late for it to be sent to print, and so we abandoned the idea of a contest and left the design silhouettes out throughout the day for anyone to do.  After a slow start we managed to get quite a lot of interest and ended up with a lovely pile of redesigns!  In fact, the project got such a lot of positive feedback from participants that we figured we could scan in the whole lot and start a Tumblr blog on it; and not only that, but to open the blog to submissions so that anyone can create a redesign, and raise awareness about the issue.  This idea also achieved some interest from fans and hopefully will be implemented once the pictures are all scanned in.

Starfire comics costume (left); and costume design  from Loncon3.

Starfire comics costume (left); and costume design from Loncon3, by Megan Waples (right).

Saturday evening brought with it the chance to attend the Researching Fans: Fan Studies and Fan History academic panel, which was enlightening.  The panel focused many on the problems of studying fans – apart from issues arising from generalisation of fans and their heterogeneity, there were also very interesting discussions around the continued suspicion of fan-related studies in the academy, and the pitfalls inherent in studying fans as an acafan (academic fan).  Many fan scholars are still coming up against complete ignorance of fandom from their peers, and there is an assumption that acafans should ‘dress up’ their research in academic language in order to make it more accessible to the scholarly community.  There was also the question of whether fan research – a finished dissertation, article or thesis, for example – could be considered a fanwork in its own right; whether this implies a lack of rigour and distance from the subject; and whether that in any way lessens its importance as a piece of scholarly literature.

I left the panel with my head swimming – too many thoughts, too many things to digest.  Fan studies is essentially multi-disciplinary.  It touches so many parts of our lives, and we can look at it from the perspective of cultural studies, media studies, games studies, sociology and psychology, to name but a few disciplines.  This is an area of study that can impact so many people’s everyday lives; and vice versa.  In my research I am hoping to look at fans from an LIS perspective, and this is yet another aspect of fan life that has been ignored and which, I think – or at least, hope – is and will come even more to the fore in future years.

After the panel I was able to finally meet some lovely Fan Studies Network people, and over a few drinks we got some discussion in about fan information behaviour and the dubious joys of Tumblr tagging.  In fact, Tumblr managed to wheedle its way into several conversations over the time that I was at the con.  The more I think about it, the more Tumblr is the new place for fandom, as more and more fans young and old adopt it as a flexible place for showcasing a myriad of fanworks such as fanfiction, fanart, animation, videos, news, quotes and essays.  It is this flexibility of use and content that makes Tumblr such a godsend to fans.  You can write a collaborative fanfic and track its progress with amazing ease; you can reblog and share content with just a simple click; you can write whole essays or express your opinions just through the tags alone (and I’ve seen tags that are longer than the actual posted content!).   Whole projects can be realised in very little time.  And this goes for the negative as well as the positive.  Flame wars and ruckuses can evolve just as quickly as a full-blown artistic endeavours.

It will take me some time to digest everything I’ve learned at Loncon, but what I will definitely be taking away are some interesting approaches to researching fandom, as well as some fascinating thoughts about how tagging and folksonomies facilitate fandom; and last but not least, I’ll remember it for some great new friendships.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Woodrow Phoenix’s “She Lives” – a (fan) experience

On 23rd May 2014, during my second, unplanned visit to the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library, I happened upon the very talented Mr Woodrow Phoenix getting ready to give a live presentation of his monster-sized work, She Lives.   I had no idea these ‘short’ talks were going on, so the whole thing was doubly serendipitous.  All the more so for the fact that what I was treated to was an amazingly tactile and visceral experience.

Being at the front helped.  It meant I was one of the few in the audience that had the distinct privilege of helping to turn the pages, to feel the handmade, embossed cover, to run my fingers over the smooth, shiny expanses of black ink and the knobbly ridges of corrector fluid.  All too often reading comics involves solely visual ingestion of the material – you pick up the comic, you open it, you look at it, read it – its pages are either smooth and glossy or matt and slightly rough – as a printed artefact it is uniformly homogeneous, a processed piece of finished product wherein the story of its production is, if you will, a closed book.  She Lives reminds us – like the illuminated manuscripts that preceded the printing press – that comic books have a double life: on the one hand, a life as a commodity; on the other, a life as a work of art.  It is all the more interesting that Phoenix does not plan to print the book – in an industry that is known (whether rightly or wrongly) to churn out the throw-away and the ephemeral, She Lives will remain a one-of-a-kind, a real work of art – an artefact that refuses to suffer from the losses of reproduction.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

What is also apparent with She Lives is the vast amount of real blood, sweat and tears that went into its making.  It’s physical size is staggering (it’s just under a square metre, it’s width double that when opened).  When you consider that it was hand-bound, embossed, and went through at least 3 previous iterations (as dummy books), the work involved in its creation is all the more impressive.  Stitching together such a large book was a feat in itself (involving much self-puncturing with the needle); and none of the repetitive sequences (totalling about 60 individual panels in a single round) are mechanically reproduced.  All are hand-drawn.  Ink spillages (of which a few were substantial) were painstakingly whited out.  The physical processes involved in bookbinding and embossing demanded much research.  So too did the environments and acts of a 1940’s circus and its performers, which make up the setting of She Lives.

Seeing the comic in its display case is impressive in itself.  But having the chance to read it is something else.  There is no narrative text, no captions or speech bubbles – yet still there is a sense that it is read.  Phoenix’s talk-through focuses mainly on the making-of the piece, which does not interrupt the flow of that reading, but instead augments it with a sense of wonder that such an endeavour was possible at all.  The sheer size of it demands a more leisurely pace in the reading of it, and this affords the chance to appreciate the artistic details of the comic.  Turning the large, heavy pages makes the reading a tactile experience, a communing with a piece of art that made me wonder what it must have felt like for the kings, princes and nobles of yesteryear to leaf through their priceless manuscripts.

This act of reading was carefully crafted by Phoenix himself.  As a document, She Lives plays with concepts of reading a book or comic when there are no words to read.  The physical size and weightiness were intentional experiments in resolving this question, as Phoenix explains:

Because silent comics can paradoxically be very difficult for readers to engage with (many people interpret a silent panel as having no important story content) a comics creator must make readers understand that the pictures do not just support the captions and speech balloons but contain and deliver as much or more information in their own right.

Back in 2002, Marvel tried a silent comic campaign with their ‘Nuff Said event.  My enduring impression of the event was how confusing some sequences were – how you sometimes really had to think what on earth was going on.  She Lives doesn’t suffer from that.  There is an elegant flow to the panels and action, no doubt thanks to the meticulous thought, effort and time that went into its making (time that the Marvel guys probably didn’t have the luxury of).  Size and weight prove to be brilliant strategies in pacing the reader, in guiding their journey through the book. “In order to hold the reader’s attention,” Phoenix says, “and to direct their gaze, my strategy was to present them with a large surface and heavy paper that would  have the effect of slowing the reader down and making them stay on the page longer, to look more closely at what the page contains.” It was clear, from the reactions of those at the page-turning event, that the strategy also increased readers’ sense of immersion and wonder.

On a more personal level, what struck me about She Lives is that it is a fan work.  I’m aware that the term has derogatory connotations attached to it; words such as derivative and even intertextual, which have been applied to concepts of fan work, imply a somehow subordinate role to the original material that a fan work may be based on (Derecho, 2006).  The point is that She Lives proves that such works can be both original and of high quality.  Set in the late 1940’s, it takes up the story of the Bride of Frankenstein, giving one of those continuations of a closed off plot that fans so enjoy playing with (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Derecho, 2006; Jenkins, 2013 [1992]).  Everything about the comic – from the lavish attention to detail, to the sense of motion in its panels, to its visceral physicality – pays testament to the love Phoenix has for his subject matter, to his desire to explore beyond the boundaries the 1935 movie presents.

Still from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that Phoenix himself does not see his piece as fan work, or even as a tribute.  “This story was inspired by the ending of Bride of Frankenstein, but I don’t think of it as a fan tribute,” he says in an email conversation with me. “It’s more like I’m using something that was discarded. The titular character only appears in the film for two minutes and she dies without speaking, having barely done anything… There’s nothing to her as a character apart from a fabulous visual design.” And, according to Phoenix, it was that visual design that prompted him to continue her story:

I would occasionally wonder about what could have happened with her had she lived. And then one day an image occurred to me of her sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette. I thought it might make a good short story: the bride of Frankenstein had survived the explosion but had no function, no purpose or place to be, and was living in a trailer or a motel somewhere in Glendale, California.

This thought led him to the backdrop of She Lives – to “the idea [of] a freak or outcast who hides amongst other freaks”.  The circus seemed to be a natural extension of that; and once the idea had started rolling, the Bride character was no longer strictly needed.  Nevertheless, Phoenix kept her as a sort of ‘anchor’ for the reader, not simply as a striking visual motif, but as an “extra resonance” to those who would recognise who she was.  To other viewers or fans of The Bride of Frankenstein, the story would be enriched, as the Bride brings with her a cultural and narrative baggage that adds a dimension to her character (and the story) that a non-viewer or non-fan might be bereft of.  Her presence is not necessary, but for those in the know it provides a powerful story in its own right.

Even though Phoenix doesn’t self-identify as a fan artist per se, She Lives encapsulates several of the aspects that drive fans to create – the closed or unfulfilled plot that is rich for further development; the attraction to a certain character; the persistence of an image, plot point, or character trait that demands further exploration (Derecho, 2006).

As a piece of art, She Lives is an immensely satisfying work, beautiful, tactile, absorbing.  As a comic, it is compelling, perfectly paced, painstakingly plotted, wonderful to look at.  As a fan work, it is one of the best examples, even if Woodrow Phoenix did not intend it to be so.  As a fan of the original film, one must certainly feel a thrill when such an iconic and beloved character reveals herself and demonstrates a continuing life beyond the four walls of the movie that once enmeshed her.

And that is what fan works are really all about – feeling a character, and bringing that character once more to life.

* Future She Lives page-turning events with artist Woodrow Phoenix take place on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 at 6pm, and Tuesday 12th August at 3pm, at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition.

References

  • Bacon-Smith, C. (1992).  Enterprising women : television fandom and the creation of popular myth.  Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Derecho, A. (2006). Archontic literature: a definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction. In: Hellekson, K., & Busse, K., ed. 2006. Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet.  Jefferson, North Carolina; London: McFarland.  Ch 1.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013), updated 20th anniversary ed. Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture.  New York : Routledge.
Share Share Share Share Share Share

Serious leisure in the digital world, July 9, 2014

On the 9th July 2014 I gave a small presentation at a City Informatics forum for LIS PhD students, entitled Serious leisure in the digital world: exploring the information behaviours of fan communities (which is the working title for my thesis).  The presentation gave a summary of research done so far in my first year: i.e. how we define fans, what do previous studies have to say about fans, has any work been done on their information behaviour, and how we work towards a conceptual model of fan information behaviour.

For those who were interested in hearing about the research but unable to attend the presentation, I’ve packaged the slides in two different formats for your convenience – PPT and PDF – which can be downloaded below.  There is some amusing video in there which can only be watched with the PPT file – make sure you have an internet connection when you open. 🙂

Presentation July 2014 (PDF)

Presentation July 2014 (Powerpoint)

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank my supervisor, Lyn Robinson, for her support, encouragement and advice in bringing together this talk, and in helping to get my research to the (almost) one year mark! 🙂

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Read for Research Reading List

City University London Library has started Read for Research, a great new initiative where research students are able to order books pertinent to their research which will then be added to the library.  As a resource for others who are researching LIS-related fan studies and participatory cultures, or who are interested in doing so, I’ll be sharing my list of RFR books here, which will be updated as and when new books come in.  All these books are now available at the City University London Library at Northampton Square. 🙂

  • Bacon-Smith, C. (1992).  Enterprising women : television fandom and the creation of popular myth.  Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Barton, K. M., & Lampley, J. M., eds. (2014). Fan CULTure : essays on participatory fandom in the 21st century. Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Company, Inc.
  • Black, R. W. (2008). Adolescents and online fan fiction.  New York ; Oxford : Peter Lang.
  • Delve, J., & Anderson, D., eds. (2014). Preserving complex digital objects. London: Facet.
  • Delwiche, A., & Henderson J. J. (2013). The participatory cultures handbook. New York ; Abingdon : Routledge.  NEW!
  • Devitt, A. J. (2008).  Writing Genres.  Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Duffett, M. (2013). Understanding fandom : an introduction to the study of media fan culture.  New York : Bloomsbury.
  • Duits, L., Zwaan, K., & Reijnders, S., eds. (2014).  The Ashgate research companion to fan cultures.  Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
  • El Morr, C., & Maret, P., eds. (2012).  Virtual community building and the information society : current and future directions. Hershey, Pa. : Information Science Reference.
  • Elkington, S., Jones, I. & Lawrence, L., eds. (2006).  Serious leisure : extensions and applications.  Eastbourne : Leisure Studies Association.
  • Fisher, K. E., Erdelez, S., & McKechnie, L. E. F., eds. (2005).  Theories of information behavior.  Medford, N.J. : Published for the American Society for Information Science and Technology by Information Today.
  • Harrington, C. L., & Bielby, D. D. (1995).  Soap fans : pursuing pleasure and making meaning in everyday life. Philadelphia, Pa. : Temple University Press.
  • Hellekson, K., & Busse, K., eds. (2014).  The fan fiction studies reader.  Iowa: University of Iowa Press.
  • Hills, M. (2002). Fan Cultures.  London : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Jamison, A. E. (2013). Fic : why fanfiction is taking over the world.  Dallas : Smart Pop.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013), updated 20th anniversary ed. Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture.  New York : Routledge.
  • Jones, W., & Teevan, J., eds. (2007). Personal information management.  Seattle ; London : University of Washington Press.
  • Murray, J. H., (1998).  Hamlet on the holodeck : the future of narrative in cyberspace.  Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.
  • Pearce, C., & Artemesia, (2009). Communities of play: emergent cultures in multiplayer games and virtual worlds.  Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.
  • Pugh, S. (2004).  The democratic genre : fan fiction in a literary context.  Bridgend : Seren.
  • Ryan, M. (2001). Narrative as virtual reality : immersion and interactivity in literature and electronic media.  Baltimore, Md.; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Stein, L. E., & Busse, K. (2012). Sherlock and transmedia fandom : essays on the BBC series.  Jefferson, N.C. ; London : McFarland.
  • Zubernis, L. & Larsen, K. (2012). Fandom at the crossroads : celebration, shame and fan/producer relationships. Newcastle upon Tyne : Cambridge Scholars Publishing. NEW!
Share Share Share Share Share Share

Notes: “What is a fan?”

My current musings are centred on what a fan actually is, and as with most things, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question; although for the sake of clarity I have to get some sort of definition sorted out before I take the plunge and actually start researching them in earnest.

Reading Hills (2013) has prompted me to note a short summary of how fans should be ‘divided’, if not strictly delineated as a single entity.  The general consensus seems to be that fans exist on a continuum.  Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) have posited the following:

CONSUMER    FAN   CULTIST  ENTHUSIAST  PETTY PRODUCER

Fiske (1992) thought that fans engage in three categories of fan productivity (although he conceived them as being analytical tools rather than iron clad sub-divisions):

SEMIOTIC : ENUNCIATIVE : TEXTUAL

Abercrombie and Longhurst sought to differentiate consumers from fans according to Fiske’s model of fan productivity:

CONSUMERS  Enunciative productivity

FANS  Textual productivity

Hills finds this too simplistic, especially in an era where “digital fandom collapses semiotic and enunciative productivity into hybridized or generalized textual productivity” (p. 150).  It’s worth bearing in mind that Fiske’s original model of fan productivity was formulated in 1992 when the internet had yet to go mainstream.  Therefore ‘fan talk’ – largely verbal in Fiske’s day – has seen a radical shift from the verbal to digital, non-face-to-face platforms.  Verbal enunciative productivity, of course, has not ‘disappeared’; but Hills sees the digital as having, to a large extent, collapsed the semiotic and enunciative into a more generalized form of textual productivity.  Therefore, he surmises, it is time to seek a new paradigm to explain the concept of fan productivity as a whole.

Hills also criticises Jenkins’ theory of participatory culture for being too broad in an age where Web 2.0 has afforded participatory activities on a wide range of levels by a large swathe of users; coupled with which, participatory activities have had a “long history in political theory, human geography, sociology, and design” (Wyatt et al., 2013).  He draws on the work of Shafer (2011) to construct a bipartite model of participatory culture which is more relevant:

EXPLICIT: the production of cultural artefacts by social groups which constructs and is constructed by group identity

IMPLICIT: the production of content which is not necessarily in the context of fan-based community

This is supported Busse and Gray (2011) and Wyatt et al., who also see fannish activities as taking place on a continuum, and remind us that such activities are not always the works of creativity so valourised by Jenkins and others.  It is worth then, not merely distinguishing fans as being uniquely engaged in participatory cultures; nor to focus on those fans which engage in ‘traditional’ forms of textual production such as fanfiction and fanart, as textual production of all types (e.g. writing wikis, guides, reviews or even comments) are part of the digital landscape of both fan and non-fan communities alike.

REFERENCES

  • Abercrombie, N. and Longhurst, B., 1998. Audiences: a sociological theory of performance and imagination. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Busse, K., and Gray, J., 2011. Fan Cultures and Fan Communities. In: Nightingale, V., ed. 2011. The handbook of media audiences, [online], Ch. 21.  Available at: Wiley Online Library <doi: 10.1002/9781444340525.ch21> [Accessed 27 November 2013].
  • Fiske, J., 1992. The cultural economy of fandom. In: Lewis, L. A., ed. 1992. Adoring audience: fan culture and popular media. London: Routledge. Ch.2
  • Hills, M., 2013. Fiske’s ‘textual productivity’ and digital fandom: web 2.0 democratization versus fan distinction? Participations: Journal of Audience & Receptions Studies, [online]. Available at:<http://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/9%20Hills%2010.1.pdf> [Accessed 13 November 2013].
  • Schäfer, M. T. , 2011. Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, [e-book] Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Available at:<http://mtschaefer.net/media/uploads/docs/Schaefer_Bastard-Culture_2011.pdf> [Accessed 6 February 2014].
  • Wyatt, S., et al., 2013. Participatory Knowledge Production 2.0: Critical Views and Experiences.  Information, Communication & Society, [e-journal], 16 (2). Available at: Taylor Francis Online <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.746382> [Accessed 13 November 2013].
Share Share Share Share Share Share

New article on fan comics and the everyday

Hi folks,

I’d like to draw your attention to an article I wrote that was recently published as part of the Multimodality of Comics in Everyday Life cluster on the Media Commons site.  The piece is called Fan Comics: Comics as Fan Sense-Making in the Everyday, and talks about how fans draw upon the everyday to create context for the comics they draw; and about how they create comics to make sense of their everyday experiences as a fan.

Special thanks goes to Jeanne and LevyRasputin for talking to me about their work, and kindly letting me reproduce their wonderful artwork.

And please do take the time to read some of the most excellent articles by my fellow scholars on comics and the everyday. 🙂

Share Share Share Share Share Share

User-generated representations and sense-making in fandom

Last Friday I happened to go to two very interesting talks hosted at City University London, one led by Simon Attfield, and the other by Blaise Cronin.  The latter was a walk through library and information science research and meta-research, given with the usual charismatic flair of the speaker.  The latter was a talk about how we make sense of material via user-generated representations, which I’m going to talk about here because much of it feeds into my research into fans and their information behaviour.

When presented with raw data, people choose to implement different strategies in order to make sense of what they are seeing/reading/witnessing etc.  They have to break down that raw data and arrange it in some ordered, coherent way that aids in transforming what is implicit into something explicit.  This is called schematising, and may take the form of diagrams, flowcharts, formulas, or narratives.  Attfield et al.’s studies showed that narrative was one of the more successful forms of user-generated representation when it came to making sense of a problem and the events related to it.  For example, witnesses to a crime were able to use narrative to better comprehend and cohere their thoughts and memories, even if their narrative did not follow any particular chronological order.  Witnesses would fill gaps in knowledge through narrative-making devices using what might be assumed to be their prior experience or understanding of the facts.  Whilst perhaps not strictly accurate, these sense-making strategies were successful because they were engaging and could explain investigatory activities more efficiently.  In other words, the more complex the sense-making process, the easier it is to elucidate our own cognitive processes.

This interests me because narrative structures are a significant proportion of fan sense-making activities.  Yes, I’m thinking of fanfiction in particular, but that isn’t the only form of narrative fans engage in.  There are also fan comics, poetry and essays, for example.  Chapter 5 of Henry Jenkins’ seminal Textual Poachers (2012; 1992) focuses on fanfiction and lists ten ways in which fan writers rework, remediate and renegotiate the source text.  It is striking just how many of these ways have to do with making sense of the inconsistencies in that text.

Producers of media narratives often do not have the same vested interest in a product and its characters that the fans do.  The entertainment industry is ratings-driven and therefore it is prone to tweaking characterisations, leaving plot threads untied, or cancelling a product before its narrative arc has been resolved.  Examples of this might be The Legacy of Kain series in videogames, Firefly in TV shows, and numerous comic titles that never found a readership.  This can leave many fans, who felt they had a personal stake in the characters and their development, or indeed, in the universe or narrative itself, feeling frustrated and let-down.  In some cases they may be left with many disparate fragments of a story or a character, that defy an easy or common-sense solution.  In other cases the producers will develop a narrative or a character in a way that some fans feel to be OOC (out of character), or outside the logic of the metatextual narrative (that is, the fan’s textual comprehension of the narrative as a whole entity).  In all these cases, fans may feel impelled to explore these shortcomings and fill in the gaps in their knowledge.  As Jenkins, referencing Star Trek: The Next Generation, opines:

[Fans pool] the information explicitly given about the character on the aired episodes… to offer a succession of speculations designed to account for a perplexing gap in the narrative information. (pp. 101-102)

and:

Just as other fan extrapolations override gaps in the narrative information, these speculations focus on kernels of excess information, background details tossed into ongoing stories.  Repeated viewings have placed increased attention on these narrative gaps and kernels, requiring fuller integration into the fans’ metatextual comprehension of the narrative world and character relationships. (p. 103)

In other words, the fan attempts to make sense of what they are presented with.  A series of television programmes, movies, books, comics, etc., can present a far more complex world, set of personalities or circumstances than we might encounter in our everyday sense-making activities.  For example, the Marvel Universe, its chronology and its hundreds of characters presents an entire world with its own internal logic, one that is often broken when a writer who has not done their research properly gets something wrong or develops a character in a way that ‘goes against the grain’.  Sometimes this may lead to a formal retcon by a later writer; mostly, fans – for whom these kinds of misrepresentations are important – struggle to fit them into the metatextual narrative they have of the Marvel Universe.  Mentally negotiating decades’ worth of a favoured character’s existence can be as challenging (if not more so) for the fan as arranging a witness statement of, say, a traffic violation or a criminal offence.

It is my contention that fanfiction is just one of the many sense-making tools that fans use to gain a better purchase on a complex body of information, or to reclaim a complex body of perceived conflicting information.  As Attfield et al. found in their studies, narrative structures better aid in the cohesion and exploration of complicated information ecologies, and, where there are gaps in knowledge, people draw on life experience to fill these in.  Considering this, it is perhaps natural that fans should choose to navigate their way through the metatextual narrative of fandom via narrative itself.  Indeed, fans seem to find this creative, expressive kind of documentary practice uniquely satisfying, engaging and rewarding.  Whether it is successful in terms of sense-making would make a fascinating area of further research.

Share Share Share Share Share Share

The Drowned Man – A Review (from an LIS perspective) – Part II

Continued from Part I.

Part Two: The Drowned Man as a participatory culture.

Further to my previous discussion of The Drowned Man as a universe encapsulating its own internal logic and narrative structure, it is perhaps unsurprising that some members of the ‘audience’ choose to take that universe and give it a life of its own in the ‘real world’.

Immersion, is after all, is “the complete involvement in some activity or interest” (Miriam-Webster, 2013).  Why should immersion take place only in or at the point of initial engagement?  Why should it not follow us into our everyday lives (and thus extend and perhaps complete that sense of involvement into what might be called ‘total immersion’)?

For some who participate in The Drowned Man experience, the original site of immersion is not enough.  They wish to extend this sense of total engagement outside of that site and create an extended sense of immersion in their everyday lives.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that that is all fans are doing – extending the sense of immersion in a particular text, narrative or cultural artefact into the ‘real world’.

I’m not sure whether followers of The Drowned Man would call themselves fans, but there are some points of intersection with what I will call fans of popular culture.  Not the least of which is the object of their fannish activities, which is the performance itself.  The Drowned Man remediates and appropriates the narrative and cultural language of other media that attracts fan cohesion, participation and behaviour.  Its visual and textual structure harkens to other forms of entertainment, most notably film, television and the videogame, which marry images (in particular motion pictures), narrative, and sensations of immediacy.  It is also related to other textual (though perhaps less immediate) forms (both analogue or digital), such as books, comics, plays, musicals, cartoons, concerts and other narrative-driven, immersive or storytelling devices.  Such qualities invite an audience to immerse themselves in an alternate world or universe, or to project ourselves (or, indeed, a narrative) onto that world.  In so doing it also invites us to immerse ourselves fully outside the point of initial contact.  Those passionate enough about a text will seek extended immersion through the further remediation of the source text; through the perceived improvement of that text; through networking with other fans/remediators; and through the building of social/cultural/knowledge capital via such networks.

In short – cultural texts, artefacts or phenomena such as The Drowned Man (or The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Les Miserables, The Simpsons, Lost, One Direction, to name but a very few) invite an audience; and through remediation, the audience seeks in some way to become a performer of that text.

As Daniel Cavicchi (2008) explains:

I tend to think of it [fandom] as a degree of audiencing, a realm of marked cultural participation that is always relative to, and defined against “normal” or unmarked cultural participation […] [I]nstances of audiencing has mostly to do with the commodification of culture, which depends on a radical – and sometimes playfully manipulative – reworking of the relationships between performer and audience.

In this and the next part of the review, I’d like to focus on the ‘fannish’ activities of followers of The Drowned Man – on the building of their community, their commodification/remediation of The Drowned Man text, and the recasting of themselves as performers within that cultural text.

A small disclaimer: as a relative outsider to the community (or someone who has one foot in the proverbial door), it was left to my friend to open my eyes to its activities and behaviours – I cannot claim to accurately represent The Drowned Man fan community or any of its individual members.  My thoughts are based solely on my own experiences of the genre (with a little help from my friend); and on what I have gleaned from the online fan groups available on the Web.

The Knowledge Gatekeepers

One of the great things about participatory culture is that there is no gatekeeper.

Everyone owns a little piece of knowledge that they can share if they so wish.

The Drowned Man is vast in scale – so vast, in fact, and so chock full of cultural references that it is well nigh impossible to unravel or document them all as a single individual.  One stands a much better chance of comprehending the whole if one pools resources, knowledge and information.  It’s the reason why sites like Wikipedia work so well.  It’s because no one single person holds the keys to all the knowledge contained therein.  It’s because everyone holds a key and can throw the door open onto their own insights and expertise.

The first piece of documentation all audience members are handed before going into the performance – a summary of the two main storylines. Image courtesy of Mild Concern.

There are a couple of digital Drowned Man communities that I am aware of on Facebook.  One of them is a closed group (though is by no means stringent about who they let in), which is gradually aggregating information about the production.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group is a prime example of a participatory culture, as it acts as a hub for people to exchange thoughts, ideas and knowledge on the object of their interest; it is also a place to hang out; and it also a growing archive of material related to that object of interest.

For example, looking into their Files section, you’ll find cast lists; cast galleries; maps of the set; soundtrack playlists; and so-called ‘cheat sheets’.  There are also scans of documents from the set that aid in fan’s world-building activities, and shed light on the world itself.

Playlists can also be found on YouTube and Spotify, depending on your preference; and then there are tumblr blogs that share recaps of individual shows, and the thoughts and reactions of ‘audience’ members.  Again, because experiences of the show are very subjective there are intersections in fan narratives of the text, but also wildly divergent documentations of those experiences.  It is important to note that fans do not only put out their own views on the production; they also take the time to read and remark on other people’s observations.  This can lead to the serendipitous discovery of many aspects of the show that were previously hidden.  It can also lead to connections between participants who share common opinions, interests, or attachments to certain characters.  As yet, however, there does not seem to be a cohesive, centralised fan community for The Drowned Man.  This may be because the community is still in the nascent stage; it may also be because the fandom itself is relatively ‘niche’.  The Temple Studios tumblr blog has attempted to draw together a resource of online sites about The Drowned Man, but it is difficult to say how comprehensive or current this list actually is.

Another factor which may also be affecting cohesion of the TDM fan community is the fact that sharing information about your experiences appears to be highly contentious.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group qualifies itself by adding a “Contains SPOILERS” warning to its title, warding off those who might not want their experience of the show contaminated.  Some amateur reviews of the production have been marked with the spoiler warning; or have been encouraged by other fans (whether politely or not-so-politely) to carry a spoiler warning.  The visceral nature of the show, and its hyper-stylised, highly-symbolised themes, in turn invite visceral reactions to the show and its characters.  Consequently, many audience members invest themselves emotionally in The Drowned Man, and thus develop a protective relationship with it.  Other members may find a thrill in uncovering one of the show’s many mysteries and having ownership of that knowledge.  In sharing that knowledge they are able to develop their own knowledge/social/cultural capital, and because of this many feel the need to share what may be considered spoilers in order capitalise on that knowledge and/or add to the community as a whole.  This tension between the potential spoiler and the anti-spoiler fans is certainly apparent in the TDM community, and is testament to the high emotional investment of its members in the world of Temple Studios.

It is interesting, then, to compare the TDM fan community with other, spoiler-based groups such as the Survivor fans studied by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2006).  With the Survivor fans, the legitimacy and veracity of those fans who apparently knew too much was always questioned.  Can the information be relied on?  What is the ulterior motive of the person who provided the information?  Are the rumours true, or are they misinformation?

With fans of TDM, however, veracity appears always to be assumed in the quest to unravel a mystery to which there are no YES or NO answers, no right or wrong, no winner or loser.  Instead the questions are – Do I want to know this piece of information?  Is this going to ruin my experience?  Is it simply too much information?  This is similar to the conundrum faced by fans in many fandoms, although TDM fans can also add another dimension to that list of questions.  Namely: Will this ruin the projected relationship I can build with a character?  And will it ruin the projected relationship I can build with the story itself (bearing in mind that the story is, essentially, fluid, non-linear, discontinuous, and malleable to the imprint of audience members)?

The TDM community treads a precarious line between knowledge as potential ally in fan world-building, and as potential destroyer of the world they have already built for (and by) the production itself.

Knowledge of the text makes TDM fans owners and performers of the text – but how one chooses to perform the text may take on a wide variety of forms.

There are those who perform at the initial site of engagement, as potential actors and agents on the set.

There are those who act as information brokers and resource builders within the fan community.

Some perform the text through documenting and reliving their experience of it.

Others perform it via creative re-interpretation in a variety of different media.

Continued in Part III

Share Share Share Share Share Share

The Drowned Man – A Review (from an LIS perspective) – Part I

Part One: The Experience

Poster for ‘The Drowned Man’. Courtesy of PunchDrunk and The National Theatre.

As far as participatory culture goes, there’s quite a bit of literature out there in relation to videogames, TV shows, movies, cartoons, comics, and other so-called fandoms.  People become part of a world; they immerse themselves in it; they absorb it, remediate it, regurgitate it.  They expand on these worlds, banding together to create communities that pool information and resources, thus facilitating the creation of their own texts and cultural artefacts.  In essence they create their own (digital?) information cultures.

But what about when the world we build our fantasies and participatory cultures on actually exists in “physical reality”?

Last Friday I got the chance to witness a participatory culture outside of the internet.  And what I found enthralled and surprised me.

The Drowned Man is a production by theatre company, Punchdrunk, who are known for their challenging, interactive shows.  I had heard rave reviews from a friend, who has since become a fan of the production, and who described it as “an alternate universe that you can just slide into whenever you like”.  Now I’m generally not a theatre-goer – I like the odd musical now and then, but I can count the plays I’ve seen on one hand.  Nevertheless, my friend’s description of The Drowned Man had me intrigued.  When I finally took the time to go and see it, what I knew was only what he had told me: that it’s immersive theatre, that it takes place in a four-storey disused industrial warehouse; that there are two storylines which loop three times; that you can do whatever or go wherever you want in the show (bar talking); that you should wear comfortable shoes (lots of walking!); and that you have to wear a mask.

If you think this sounds demanding from a theatre production, you’d be right.  The physicality of the drama sounded rather daunting, to say the least.  By the day of the showing, whilst we queued outside waiting to be given admittance, I was excited yet nervous of what lay ahead of me.  Finally the doors opened into a ramshackle, dreary old warehouse; we off-loaded our possessions in the cloakroom, were handed a mask —

And so the experience commenced.

We were led into a lift, in which was waiting a ‘lift girl’ – one of the show’s 30 or so characters – and, whilst she was introducing the fictional world of Temple Studios (a movie studio set somewhere in the late 50’s/early 60’s) and its characters, something rather mundane but very strange happened – she reached out and touched the face of one of the ‘audience’.  You will notice that I put the word ‘audience’ in inverted commas, because I didn’t feel like I was part of an audience.  What I felt like was any of the following: a bystander, a witness, a participant, a spectator.  But not the passive sort of creature that the word ‘audience’ tends to conjure up.

And that was extremely unnerving.

My friend, who had come along with me, told me he was going to walk me through the first loop so that I could follow the ‘main storyline’ (or at least one of the main storylines – there are several depending on which character you follow).  Then the plan was to leave me to make my own way through the following two loops.  He led me through to the room where the first scene was playing out.  Cue crawling ambient soundtrack, the two leads dancing to a yearning Shangri-La’s number against an amazingly atmospheric (and HUGE) set.  A group of ‘audience’ members were gathered, watching silently behind their masks.  About five minutes later the scene was over and the female lead rushed past us, leading us to her dressing room.  A couple of the audience wandered off to follow the male lead; most of us followed the girl.

By this time I was beginning to realise that the actors were completely able to get up close and personal to us if they wanted to.  Some of them would touch you, hold your gaze, even speak to you, bringing you into the performance, making you a part of the story.  Ten minutes in, and I wasn’t sure I was liking this at all.  In short – it felt very uncomfortable.  For much of our modern culture we have been spoon-fed our entertainment, passive observers who have no control and who are eternally separated from the object of our observation by the so-called ‘fourth wall’.  In the massive, dream-like world of The Drowned Man, the only thing that is there to serve as the fourth wall – as your protection from letting this half-dream become a reality – is the mask each audience member has to wear.  The realisation that one has complete autonomy and independence in this world is a profound yet uneasy one; and for a while into the first act (or loop, I should say), I really didn’t want to leave my friend’s side.  I felt I needed something to ground me, to anchor me into some semblance of normalcy.

At some point, however, the immersive pull draws you in and curiosity gets the better of you.  There are so many threads, people, concepts, ideas and objects to follow.  You find yourself constantly making choices.  Should I follow this character instead of the one I’ve spent the past 15 minutes getting to know?  Do I skulk at the back and drink it all in, or get as up close and personal as possible and hope that the actor draws me into their performance?  Or do I abandon the ‘storyline’ all together and spend some time wandering through the set, reading letters and looking for visual points of reference?

And there is that choice.  If you so wished, you could spend 3 hours rummaging through the vast set.  There are many hidden objects that are there to catch the eye and expand on the story and/or the universe.  The backdrop is scattered with documents – books, magazines, letters, postcards, notebooks, scripts, bills, timetables, agendas, pamphlets, albums, memos, and so on – that are accessible for both actors and audience to interact with.  Not only do they add to the realism of the piece, but they also expand on plot points that are briefly alluded to in the narrative; some objects have a triple purpose, serving as both prop, plot device and historical artefact/document from the world of Temple Studios.  Spending your time avoiding the narrative to explore the set can really enrich the entire experience, and perhaps give you cause to thank the autonomy that was at first so unnerving.

And then there are the characters (about 30 in all), who act (and re-act) out this one pivotal hour of their lives.  There is certainly something voyeuristic about observing their actions in such a closed, personal space; but whilst the experience is immersive, it is also interactive.  At key points in each character’s story arc, they will take a member of the audience to share their narrative in a personal, one-on-one encounter.  In this way one becomes an actor in the world of Temple Studios; one’s actions are imbued with significance within that world, forever locked in one of the endless cycles the characters replay.  In a sense, each performance is unique – or each loop is unique – because, while the audience’s actions do not affect the overall story for each character, they leave a singular imprint upon each retelling of the story which is impossible to reproduce.

The more one engages with the performance, the more one feels less voyeuristic and more of an actor with a real sense of agency.  The audience is invited to invest themselves in the lives of the characters, in their environment, their belongings and possessions, their world.  It is impossible to take it all in in one 3 hour showing; indeed, many people have returned time and again to re-experience Temple Studio’s pocket universe; to discover new characters, follow unfinished threads from a previous showing, tie up loose ends, uncover hidden secrets, or simply just to forget the outside world for a while.  It’s not for everyone – the freedom to choose and be autonomous can be deeply unsettling – and The Drowned Man offers just that slightly off-kilter sensation.  Like a lucid dream where you find yourself in the middle of a nightmare that you can eerily control, yet of which you are unable to affect the final outcome, its experiential power is one of immediacy, something to be lived in but whose internal structure cannot be unmade or reformed.

So was it worth it?  Absolutely.  Enough for me to want to go back and dip my toe inside that moonlit pool again.  For the curious, the intrepid explorer, the participator, the immersive media junkie – this play is for you.  For others, the ephemeral nature of the performance may be unsettling, disorientating, disappointing, frustrating.  Be that as it may, it is certainly worth the ride, if only to say you’ve tried something new and different.

My only criticism?

The masks can be hellishly uncomfortable.  If the guys at PunchDrunk would like to consider a redesign, just give me a call… 😉

Continued in Part II

Share Share Share Share Share Share

Announcing… My first ‘proper’ publication

Many thanks to the fantastic folks at The Comics Grid for reading, accepting and publishing my book review of The Adoring Audience.

For those interested in fan studies who haven’t read the book already, it is a recommended read.  I suppose I can’t ‘highly’ recommend it, as it’s about 20 years out-of-date.  But as a grounding in fan behaviour it is still entirely relevant, and is wide-ranging in its scope.  Not to mention which, it is one of the seminal fan studies text, so I suppose I should tout it as required reading, if that is your field of study, and particularly if you are coming at fan studies from a point of total ignorance.

Anyway, please do read the review if you’re interested, and I welcome any comments or thoughts you might have on the book.  And please do check out The Comics Grid if you’re interested in comics scholarship.

Share Share Share Share Share Share