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Damming the streams of content
email no. 9
(Before starting this month’s mailout, a shameless plug: GIRAF, the animation festival I co-program, is streaming Canada-wide Nov. 19-28. If you’re at all interested in animation, visual art, cult films, and offbeat culture in general, please have a look at the lineup, and spread the word if you can)
A few weeks ago, I came across Clive Thompson’s article on how to “rewild your attention.” Basically, it advocates for moving away from the generalized, manicured version of ourselves that the recommendation engines of the biggest social media platforms cater to, and cultivating online environments that expose us to more offbeat, fringe, non-domesticated content. It was one of a few articles that’ve crossed my path lately on the problems with allowing algorithms to dictate what art and culture we consume. Even setting aside the constant worries about misleading and manipulative content, or the way that the feedback loops of algorithm-driven media end up narrowing which topics get covered by media outlets, there seems to be a growing worry that the tools that were supposed to allow us to discover ever-more-niche art are denying us the opportunity to be surprised.
There’s definitely something to all that, but I think it’s at most half the issue when it comes to my own media consumption. That’s partly because I don’t think algorithms are all bad, exactly. Spotify has its share of issues, but if you put the time into training it, it can be a genuinely useful part of a discovery process—especially alongside the “rewilding” techniques Thompson talks about. The trouble isn’t what the algorithms want us to watch; it’s the way they want us to watch it.
The reason for the fairly bland recommendations those platforms tend to provide is that they aren’t trying to show you things you’ll love, they’re trying to avoid showing you things that you’ll hate. The reward for showing you a new favourite song is much lower than the penalty of playing something so off-putting that you end up turning off their platform. Going out on a limb with something at the fringes of your tastes simply isn’t worth the risk, especially when the goal of the platforms is ubiquity. The platforms win when they can become a constant background in your life, pleasant enough for you to remember to turn it on, but unobtrusive enough that you won’t want to turn it off.
That ends up encouraging a very superficial kind of viewing (or listening, or reading, depending on which feed we’re talking about). And since what we practice is what we become, that steady, passive consumption makes active attention that much harder to give. The trouble isn’t just “rewilding” the sources of what we’re paying attention to, it’s in buttressing our attention in the first place, so the constant stream of content doesn’t erode it away completely.
So how do you strengthen your attention? That’s something I’ve been trying to figure out for myself for a while. I’ve been a short film programmer and a radio host for around a decade now, and while both those roles have let me swim in the art I love, they don’t exactly encourage deep engagement. Festival previewing, especially with shorts, is among the worst ways to watch films—bombarded by context-free films, hit by jarring shifts in style, subject, mood and meaning roughly every five minutes. Programming for radio is a little better, but still encourages listening widely over listening deeply, as I end up scanning albums for their most appealing single and then moving on in search of more. I love both roles, but they sometimes leave me feeling like a shipwrecked sailor, surrounded by water but unable to drink.
The best way I’ve found to stop flitting around and really pay attention to what I’m watching, is through writing. It doesn’t have to be anything long, or anything public, but if years of festival programming has deadened my ability to watch deeply, writing about films has helped rekindle it.
The thing about writing about a film (or writing about anything, really) is, you have to find something to say about it. You need to pick an element that seems like it might be interesting to talk about, which you can’t do if you’re only half-watching. Even with a two-minute short, I end up re-watching the details, gestures and stylistic nuances that surprised me again and again, and trying to figure out why. What is it about those moments that make them so distinct? What did the director do to make me jump up and take note?
From there, I have to figure out how to explain that reaction to someone else. Taking things that are primarily visual or auditory or emotional or experiential and working out how to put them into words can be a lot harder than it might sound. That’s especially when you’re writing about something subtle, like a unique tone in a song or an unsettling mood in a film. You find yourself paying closer attention to what you feel, and trying to understand what caused it.
I’m not saying everyone needs to write critical essays on everything they see. But I do think that reflecting on what you’re consuming is useful, and writing has been a particularly good way of doing it, especially when I keep a few key points in mind:
Avoid straight evaluation. Back when I was an editor at my local alt weekly, one of the first things I did was scrap the star ratings on all our album and film reviews. Last year, I stopped adding star ratings to my Letterboxd entries. In my experience, ratings tend to cut off conversations instead of encouraging engagement. They reduce writing about art to a consumer guide, which has its place, but doesn’t really enhance enjoyment. Asking “is this good?” gives a much less interesting answer than asking “what is this saying?”
Sit with the thing. Watch the film, listen to the album, but then pause. Don’t immediately jump into interpreting it. One of the worst aspects of consuming media through streams is that you’re onto the next thing before the first one has a chance to make its impact. Give yourself time to feel an emotional response, and for your subconscious to chew on the material its been given.
Start small. Find one element that seems interesting to you, and focus on that, at least to begin with. Trying to summarize a whole film, even a short, will mean glossing over details. That’ll happen inevitably anyway, but if you start small you’re more likely to be basing your writing on what’s in the film than on your assumptions about it.
Write descriptively. Art is experiential and writing is conceptual, so we tend to write about the parts of films or music that lend themselves most easily to writing, like the plot or the lyrics. But if the point of a piece of art could easily be put into words, we wouldn’t need the art; the part that’s hardest to describe is the part that matters most. Trying to describe the sound, or the way a character moves, or the way a photograph looks, forces you to think more deeply about parts of a work of art that you might otherwise gloss over.
To me, writing is a way of figuring out something I didn’t know before I put it into words. It’s less about convincing others of my interpretation than it is a way of figuring out that interpretation in the first place. It makes me ask questions and try on different ideas. It encourages me go back and re-watch something to make sure what I’m describing is actually there. Most of all, it slows me down and makes me stick with a single subject for long enough to actually get something out of it beyond a surface-level reaction. It’s a way of damming the streams of content, and creating reservoirs of contemplation.
Rewilding attention is important. If you only see what algorithms tell you to see, you miss out on whole worlds of art, culture, and ideas in favour of media that’s geared towards immediate emotional reactions. But controlling what you watch is only half the battle. If the goal is expanding your experience, making time to really watch, read, and listen, to try to understand what an artwork is saying, is just as valuable, if not moreso. After all, if everything is just background noise, does it really matter who suggested it?
The Museum of Forgeries: Prankster/artist MSCHF bought a Warhol sketch, made 999 exact copies, destroyed all record of which is the original, and is selling them all as a new piece, explaining “by burying a needle in a needlestack, we render the original as much a forgery as any of our replications”
Babel is a poetic exploration of AI-generated language and the unconscious mind
Back in 2003, William Gibson wrote for the New York Times about why any future dystopia won’t be like 1984: “A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree about it any more readily.”
The Math of the Amazing Sandpile: A bit math-heavy, but worth it. “Wherever insights come from, the sandpile reminds us that the really interesting phenomena in math, like the really interesting phenomena in physics, often happen at the phase transitions.”
The A.M. is my weekly show on campus and community radio station CJSW 90.9FM in Calgary, AB, playing a mix of experimental electronics, dream pop, shoegaze and psychedelic sounds every Monday morning.
This week’s episode felt particularly good, with a look at My Bloody Valentine’s classic Loveless, and a pretty eclectic mix of music that still managed to hang together comfortably:
The October 11 episode reminded me that I really should dig more into the Jazz Butcher’s catalogue. It’s one of those names I’ve heard for ages but never really listened to. There’s always so much more to discover:
And if you’re in need of a break, one of the mellowest episodes I’ve hosted in a long while:
If Soundcloud isn’t your thing, you can always listen live or check out the archived episodes at cjsw.com.
Monday Shorts is a weekly series I write and curate for the Quickdraw Animation Society, sharing independent animated shorts that deserve a wider audience. Here are a few of the more recent entries.
“From its opening shot—a car interior bathed in red light, the protagonist small and blurry outside the windshield, hints of tree branches and utter darkness behind her—100,000 Acres of Pine sets a sinister mood that it never lets fade.”
Until next time…
That’s it for this month. If you found anything in it that you enjoyed, please let me know; it’s always nice hearing that something struck a chord. And if you’ve come across an article, album, film, etc that you think I might like, please pass it along, too. Until next time, thanks for wandering.