Last week I had the privilege and pleasure of attending a CSF summer seminar at Monte Verità entitled Media History from the Margins. The conference was convened by Gabriele Balbi, Andreas Fickers, François Vallotton, and Anne-Katrin Weber. The Monte Verità location in Italian speaking Switzerland was both a beautiful and historically relevant setting for the conference. During the week-long seminar, scholars worked to decenter a dominate media history that largely focuses on mainstream cinema and television, toward media histories that recover forgotten media technologies (Multivision) or those media technologies whose histories have yet to be written (teleprompter), alternative uses of media technology (photocopy art) and non-entertainment media industries and practices (avant-garde, advertising, and industrial productions). Three keynotes presentations given by Weihong Bao, Jérôme Bourdon, and Haidee Wasson offered theoretical and methodological examples of how to do media history from the margins. By breaking down the semantical origins of cinema in China, Weihong Bao demonstrated how one might use a Heideggerian phenomenology-based approach to media ontology as a methodology doing ecologically informed media archeology. Resisting the prophetic impulse of new media rhetoric, Jérôme Bourdon offered examples from the history of correspondence to challenge contemporary assumptions about the revolutionary novelty of computer-based communication. Haidee Wasson discussed her current book project (which will hopefully be coming out very soon) on the history of portable projectors and exhibition spaces in the United States.
For me the highlight of the conference was working in a small group to conceptualize what exactly it means to “do media history from the margins.” At the beginning of the seminar we were split up into thematic groups to discuss pre-circulated graduate student papers. Philipp Seuferling, Vitus Sproten, and I presented our work to Weihong Bao, Chiara Saez Baeza, Olivier Lugon, and François Vallotton. Philipp Seuferling shared his dissertation project on the media and communication practices of refugee camps in Germany from 1945–2000 and Vitus Sproten explained his dissertation on free radio stations in the contact zones between the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Each of their projects look historically at media practices in transnational spaces that are marginalized by national media histories. Discussion of their projects led to inquiries about the absent or incomplete archive and how to write media histories from the margins when materials have to be collected from a variety of non-traditional sources (oral histories and private collections).
I presented a piece that I have been working on that unpacks the social and political context behind marginalia notes in the British Colonial archive. In 1953, a bureaucrat in the Colonial Office Dominions Division cut out an article from the Manchester Guardian and added it to a file on Radio Ghana’s external broadcast effort.
The last eleven words were underlined in pencil, annotated, dated, and signed by a Mr. Gauliey. “This looks ominous,” he wrote in the margins next to the underlined sections. Unable to let the article go unscathed, the remark appears as the result of an emotional impulse to add colonial voice to a brief news account. Forecasting the end of the Colonial Office’s raison d’être, decolonization on a massive scale would certainly increase unease among Colonial Office bureaucrats enough for them to scribble in margins, but I asked what does a colonial aside like “this looks ominous” also say about European media theory during the mid-twentieth century? And what might the trepidation expressed in these marginalia show about how perceptions of broadcast technology were used to both entrench and contest a global order based on race?
After a thorough discussion of each of our projects, we headed outside to enjoy Monte Verità’s spectacular views. Apropos of the conference theme and our philosophical state, we found ourselves seated on the margins of a mandala exploring the intersections of our work and contemplating collectively where we might find the elusive and transitory margins of media history. We asked whether margins are characterized by being at the edge of that which is centered, or are they found in the crevasses between competing centers? We hypothesized that doing media history from the margins is a methodological perspective in which the media historian trains themselves to investigate that which isn’t obvious, that which escapes our first view.
We continued to push on the idea of margins throughout the conference. Olivier Lugon’s presentation “‘Multivision’ and Slide Projection in the 1960s: New Promises of an Old Media” (for which I was a respondent) offered a particularly inspiring methodology for doing media history from the margins that involved a critical redefinition of media history through an engagement with tangential historical fields. Multivision—a grid of photographs that are stitched together through multi-projector slide and sound performances—seemed an apt analogy for doing history from the margins. Multivision was, as Lugon recounted, theorized at the time as both an alternative media practice in opposition to the entertaining linear flow of images in mainstream cinema and a tool for “the management of a growing stream of data” in corporate salesmanship. Defined in this way Multivision was a marginal media technology because it was both dominant and alternative, old and new, hegemonic and marginal. This additive position destabilizes the idea of media ontology outside of its use. Attending to the margins of media then, is a way of looking at the diverse use of media objects—a way of looking that requires the multivision of the historian to suss out the shifting relationships of power imbedded in the media object.
On the last day of the conference we were asked to get into small groups to visualize with the help of analog media communication tools (markers and a large poster paper) a mental map of the conference theme. Working with John Ellis, Tali Keren, Tanya Shilina-Conte, and Yvonne Zimmermann, we produced an old media object to conceptualize how the margins of media shift with perspective an along axes of institutional and social power over time. Needless to say, we were all fans of our result.