Towards a Slow Media Practice

Helen De Michiel

The summer 2002 issue of the Reader opened with "The Pace of Thoughts" by Rebecca Solnit, a piece about walking — its slowness and its affinity with thinking. Some kinds of understanding simply require slowing down, or as Helen De Michiel said in conversation recently, “Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.” Her comment made an agricultural reference to the kind of slow, deep watering that ultimately can invigorate, even speed up, a plant's growth. What follows is an excerpt from the introduction to A Closer Look: Media Arts 2001 published by the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC). It is published with permission.

Like a lot of film people I know, I love to cook and eat food that is simple and fresh. I love to be surprised by the immediate exhilaration of a good meal prepared at home and good conversation around the table, and by the human connections inspired among people who have a lot — or even nothing — in common. This unguilty pleasure offsets the demands of delayed gratification that come with working on long, challenging, and under-funded film projects. The satisfaction is immediate, real, and sensual. Food is direct cultural memory; it nourishes as it keeps us alive and connects us to the past — our own, our families,' our communities.' Our media is also direct cultural memory. It has the fierce ability to nourish our consciousness just as powerfully and to keep us alive to imagine realities other than our own.

I started to explore these connections between food, media, memory, and sustenance in the late 1980s when I completed the documentary Turn Here Sweet Corn. It was about a Minnesota farm family whose land was being threatened by the pressures of suburban development. The Diffleys were organic farmers, working and taking care of land that had been in the family for more than a hundred years. The financial and political pressures were complex. In the end, they lost their family property to developers. Although they still have a flourishing organic produce business, they can grow now only on rented land, farther and farther from the metropolitan Twin Cities area. When the piece was finished, I partnered with the Land Stewardship Project to present the film to farmers and landowners around the region, to trigger discussion about how to save farm land and families from suburban sprawl. The film wasn't a traditional documentary but a many-layered story constructed to elicit an emotional response from the audience. I wove in archival material as well as Super-8 film from Minnesota landscapes that had already been paved over and were gone by the time the film was completed. In the workshops following the screenings, the Land Stewardship folks had audiences jot down their personal impressions and experiences of watching the film. From there they moved fluidly, listening to the personal stories people recalled and engaging them in public policy and community activism. They discussed the hard facts of land preservation and how to save endangered farms. Action groups were formed, and steps were taken that in several cases culminated in benchmark land trusts. To be honest, as the maker, it was a more exciting and meaningful experience for me to show the piece in these screenings than to have it broadcast nationally on PBS, where I had little sense of its impact.

Turn Here Sweet Corn was about saving biodiversity and rural diversity in a highly pressured and expanding metropolitan greenbelt. It was about quality — of agricultural methods and of produce grown in small, flavorful quantities. It was about small family farmers in a specific region who had learned — patiently and over generations — to read the land and understand its particular secrets. It was about offering urban dwellers a pleasurable and healthy alternative: vegetables and fruits grown from saved heirloom seeds, in contrast to the industrially produced goods offered in stores. When you know where and who your food is coming from, you can slow down and really pay attention to it. It is a delicious experience that, I think, spills over into all other aspects of life and work.

So, what if there were a connection? I started to see an intriguing link between the community- supported agriculture movement and the media arts world in which I was finding my own place. Like community agriculture, the media arts have grown from the ground up through the hard and visionary work of its artists, producers, and organization builders; through modest subsidies from the government and private foundations; and through innovative programs that generate enough income to sustain dreaming and working even harder among the mirrors and shadows of the globalized media-industrial complex.

When you know where and who your food is coming from, you can slow down and really pay attention to it. It is a delicious experience that, I think, spills over into all other aspects of life and work.

Independent media makers and organizational staff would understand the mission of what Europeans are now calling the “Slow Food” movement. Slow Food was started in 1986 in Italy and is now spreading worldwide, especially on the west coast, where I live. It is dedicated to preserving and supporting traditional ways of growing, producing, and preparing food — methods and goods that once rarely left small towns or regions. From cows in the Piedmont region of Italy to oysters in Maryland to cheeses across Europe and local grains from every continent, Slow Food supports and finds markets for artisan food growers and makers from around the world. It aims to preserve local, slow agriculture and food-making methods that are in danger of being lost to new generations weaned on convenience, speed, and genetically modified products.

In a similar way, the broad range of organizations that make up the NAMAC membership network strive to support and develop engaged audiences for artisan media productions. Our territory is rich and resists simple categorizations: NAMAC members often stand alone, but with rhizomes that connect through the art world, the media preservation community, kindergarten through graduate-school education, public television, community access television, nonprofit producing and technology access centers, film exhibition venues and distribution companies, digital and new media startups. They forge innovative alliances with handfuls of nonprofit partners who also understand the power of independently made media to influence and change consciousness as it reveals alternative ways of looking at and thinking about the world.

The concept of “slow media” characterizes a practice that all members of the media arts field hold in common: we share the ability to do a lot with little. Our work, which is framed by a fast-moving, fickle, and overstimulated communications industry, is done slowly and deliberately.

The members of Slow Food would understand the historically articulated principles of the media arts field, as my colleague Anne Marie Stein from Boston Film/Video Foundation has articulated them: “to create a media culture which values equity, artistic excellence, individual and community points of view, and broad, universal access to the tools of communication.” Given the current state of national funding priorities, these populist ideals of free speech coupled with aesthetic exploration are still radical indeed at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Slow Food movement does not aim to feed the world, but it has a storehouse of knowledge from which to feed and strengthen localized communities. Similarly, our independent media arts community cannot satisfy the entertainment and information needs of the vast majority of the population, but it can offer and transmit images, stories, and points of view that would remain invisible or never expressed otherwise. Both Slow Food and Media Arts represent significant niches in our cultural landscape. They are quiet movements built on the ideals of self-determination, community empowerment, and preservation of legacy in a throwaway milieu. While neither valued nor well understood by the mainstream, they both are sustaining individuals and communities with imaginative practices that transform consciousness in a slow and steady flow. While Slow Food defends endangered foods, we struggle to carve out and protect a public space where independent media arts practices can thrive.

I would use the concept of “slow media” to characterize a practice that all members of the media arts field hold in common: we share the ability to do a lot with little. The beast of technology is always shape-shifting (like mutating animated creatures), keeping us on high alert. Our work, which is framed by a fast-moving, fickle, and overstimulated communications industry, is done slowly and deliberately. The public doesn't quite understand what it is that we do or why it is important. And while the content is what usually attracts audiences, we are determined that the form must always be considered too. Through discovery and creativity, the process through which we arrive at the end result is just as important.

I heard Francis Coppola remark recently, “film helps people awaken to their lives.” And hasn't that been true for most of us interested in the possibilities of moving images on some sort of screen? It is true especially of stories that have opened worlds we never could imagine in our mind's eye, or those that have reflected our experiences back to us — not just as narratives but as potent mixtures of emotion and abstraction that words or music or images alone could not touch in the same way. Doorways are flung open. Lives are changed. Not through an old-school notion of “mass communication” but through the slow media enterprise by which we cultivate community connection and creativity with tools that, though still expensive and labor-intensive, are extremely powerful when handled with passionate attention.

The ideal is to work from a foundation of democratic diversity — that is, from the principle that all kinds of voices should be heard and given a platform from which to succeed, and that all forms of media, from 8 mm celluloid to Web sites, must somehow be given a shot at being kept accessible for the future and for anyone who wants to see them or put them to new purposes. We all deeply understand and worry that these impossible goals will never be met except in sporadic and contingent ways. We believe that past work, perhaps received indifferently in its own time and often made by artists or crews of techno-visionaries, may speak more fluently or intimately to a future generation. In any way possible — if only with wire, glue, and duct tape — we try to protect these principles on a day-to-day basis.

Helen De Michiel is national director of the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture, or NAMAC. A Closer Look: Media Arts 2001 is an anthology of case studies of media arts organizations. The publication is one result of NAMAC's Peer Leadership Initiative and is available from NAMAC, 346 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, 415-431-1391.