Reflecting on Languages, Identities, and Audiences in a Workshop: Lessons from Vienna (by Casey Burkholder)

Recently, my colleague Katie MacEntee and I presented a cellphilm (cellphone + video production) workshop at the Visual Sociology Pre-Conference at the International Sociological Association in Vienna, Austria. Our workshop introduced participants to cellphilming as a participatory visual method (MacEntee, Burkholder & Schwab-Cartas, 2016). Cellphilming asks research participants to respond to a research question or prompt by creating a cellphone video. Cellphilming is similar to participatory video where participants guide the process of inquiry, are co-investigators in knowledge production, and are involved in the dissemination of the research.

Participatory video has been long established as a visual method in diverse fields including education, anthropology, and sociology, among others (Milne, Mitchell & De Lange, 2012). The majority of our workshop participants (20/24) were made up of out-of-school Austrian youth with varying degrees of English proficiency. Originally, Katie and I had anticipated that we would be presenting the workshop to an audience of academics (visual sociologists) in English, and we planned to engage the audience in working through the cellphilm process, from brainstorming, to storyboarding, to filming, to screening, and discussing the cellphilms.

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Meeting the real (rather than the imagined) audience, made us make some alterations to our workshop on the spot. What is participatory visual research if not malleable and responsive to its audience? For example, we found ourselves changing our cellphilm prompt from “How do you visualize participation within your research?” to “what is important to you?”

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This was my first workshop-in-translation. With the help of two coordinators from SpaceLab—a Vienna-based non-profit that works with out of school youth—we managed to translate the workshop’s goals to fit our audience’s interests and perceived needs. As a result, we had our first English-German cellphilm workshop, generating a great deal of multilingual output. The first step in our cellphilm workshop was to get the youth to think about issues that were important to them. Working with a youth-volunteer to write participants’ ideas on a large chart paper at the front of the room, the young people generated a multilingual mind map of ideas about what mattered—or what was important to them—in their lives and in their communities.

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This multilingual trend continued to appear throughout the workshop. English and German were both used in the participants’ storyboards, as well as in their cellphilm productions. One group’s cellphilm took on the notion of public space and how to negotiate conflict that might arise when folks navigate small spaces (e.g. bumping into someone on the sidewalk). This cellphilm was largely silent, but included music and culturally relevant gesturing to tell the story. The emotions and ideas transmitted in the cellphilm were generated through actors’ body language and the ways in which the shots were chosen.  In reflecting on this cellphilm three weeks later, I wonder if the participants chose to work without much language output to speak to the larger multilingual audience (made up of English, German and Dutch speakers).

Another cellphilm explored the role that music plays in people’s lives, and how music can be used to support or challenge a person’s emotions. Using text (in English) as well as music, the group also told a story through their body language. Another group’s cellphilm—in German—spoke about what they needed in order to be supported as out-of-school youth: more financial investment in their programming and lives from the Austrian government. Each cellphilm used language and imagery in different ways to fit their audiences. Each of these audiences had specific (and imagined) linguistic practices. Why was English text used in the cellphilm about dance? Why was the film about public space and conflict on the street largely silent? Why did the cellphilm about the need to support out-of-school Austrian youth feature German?

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Looking back today, I keep thinking about the role of language both in the workshop’s inputs (multilingual instructions) and products (brainstorms, storyboards, cellphilms) that emerged from the workshop. But, we did not really discuss the role of language and audience in our screening and discussion of the cellphilms. In English and German, we explored notions of belonging, of identity, of diversity, and of individual and collective experience. We spoke about the audiences (beyond the workshop) that we might want to show the cellphilms to. We talked about ways to archive the cellphilms. Should we upload them to video sharing sites (e.g. Vimeo or YouTube)? Should we e-mail the cellphilms to policy makers? Should we keep the cellphilms within the confines of the workshop?  Visual ethics—a central tenet of participatory visual research—were centered into the pre- and post-screening discussion. Participants were instructed not to shoot other individuals’ identifying characteristics, as it is almost impossible to achieve informed and ongoing consent when filming strangers, and potentially uploading their identifiable images to social media. Instead, participants were guided to either 1) use themselves as actors in the cellphilms and/or 2) film only unidentifiable images (people’s shoes, crowds from a distance, hands, etc). Although our discussion was thorough and interesting, and concerned with issues of identity and ethical visual representations, today I am left wondering: why did we not talk about language?

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In engaging in my first English-German cellphilm workshop, I have come away with a number of thoughts. First, in my cellphilm work going forward, I want to ensure that I provide a sense of comfort and space for participants to access their multilingual resources—not just in their brainstorming phase, but throughout the cellphilm process, from brainstorming to storyboarding, filming, editing and uploading (or not), screeningdiscussing, and in figuring out the next steps (who else should see the cellphilms, how might the project be sustained?) How might I bring in this new multilingual awareness to the work that I engage in going forward? How might I take these learnings and apply them in revisiting my other cellphilm workshops, which have largely produced English language media even though I often work with multilingual participants? As I continue my work with participatory visual methods for social change, I will endeavour to make more space to think critically about language. I will also work to center the participants’ multilingual practices in all phases of the cellphilm research.

References:

MacEntee, K., Burkholder, C., & Schwab-Cartas, J. (Eds.). (2016). What’s a cellphilm?: Integrating mobile phone technology into participatory arts based research and activism. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Milne, E.J., Mitchell, C., & de Lange, N. (Eds.) (2012). Handbook of participatory video. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

 

 

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