From researcher and guest blogger Karl Arthur Baumann, currently doing research and interviews here at WITNESS, about his project:

The recent events in Iran have proven once again the potency and conscience raising capabilities of current communications technologies, vis a vis Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. But to what extent have they created active responses? The Obama administration has promised to continue USAID support to dissident groups that “promote democracy and human rights” (as well as abuses: MEK), but how has this information affected the average citizen? The images themselves may have produced a greater sense of identification with the global other but the question still remains of whether merely seeing the images of injustice and human rights abuses are enough to engender action or advocacy?
I have come here to WITNESS then to perform research at the WITNESS Media Archives as well as interview Program Director Sam Gregory and Hub Manager Sameer Padania, thanks to a fellowship through the University of California Berkeley Human Rights Center. I am a MFA student at the University of California Santa Cruz in the Digital Arts New Media program. This research is an attempt to critically address the novel and powerful avenues afforded by working with video and new media, within a larger historical and political context. So as I work through the research here at WITNESS, I seek to engage the following questions:

  • How does video as well as digital social networks provide spaces for communicating socio-political experiences, memories, and understandings?
  • What are the possibilities as well as limitations of personal video in transmitting traumatic experiences such as violence and war?
  • How can media help viewers to develop a critical human rights framework and media literacy rather than just transmit information?
  • How are transnational identities constructed through global televisual events as well as digital social networks?
  • How are spaces of personal power or intervention perceived through current communication technologies and access to global organizations?
  • How does video develop the viewer’s model of the world and what are the limitations of linear narratives and didactic structures of documentary?
  • In what ways can new media create new forms of meaning making and engender advocacy on the part of the viewer?

This research is part of my current documentary project focusing on the first Persian Gulf War and the Rodney King incident as intersecting events that exemplified the profound role of media in constructing socio-political reality, memory, and history. The usage of personal video presented a quotidian perspective of state violence that directly undermined the administration’s attempts at presenting a clean war and a just policing of international, albeit colonially defined, borders in Kuwait and Iraq. The immediate public outcry caused by George Holliday’s video, and then the subsequent Simi Valley court decision, proved both the raw potential of video as well as its dependency on acts of discursive and narrative framings in determining the viewers’ understanding and meaning.
Thus we return to the original question of how to utilize video and communication technologies to create more complex understandings and actual actions beyond the original sense of shock and shame.
The King incident seems especially relevant now in considering the recent execution of Oscar Grant by an Oakland BART officer, in which the national media coverage proved to be limited whereas the internet became a relatively successful avenue for mobilizing active response, at least locally within the Bay Area. The absence of wide scale coverage once again shows the need to perpetuate the discussions of human rights within domestic politics as well as international coverage, so that it becomes understood not just as a global burden within developing countries but also a communal responsibility within all nations.
In questioning the formal and pedagogical effectiveness of video, this documentary will be later constructed into an interactive video exhibition space that allows physical engagements and play within a system that metonymically represents these larger historical and social issues. This piece will also be discussed as part of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) next year. As these technologies develop so should our ability to actively educate and inspire understanding as well as action.
I hope that by learning from the collaborative efforts of this internationally renowned and developing organization that I will have a better insight into these issues and how to address them effectively through documentary video as well as new media.

Related Sites: DigiActive, 24/7 DIY Video, I-Witness Video, EngageMedia

-Karl Baumann

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