Writing with Sound and Vision: THE AUDIOVISUAL ESSAY IN THE CLASSROOM.
In this era of constant, relentless testing and assessment of students, it seems as if there is less free space in the classroom for curiosity and discovery. Attainment standards and benchmarking constantly shape the terrain we work within, while the strictures of the marketplace, such as targets and deliverables, have resulted in the slow rationalisation of pedagogy. National curricula in the school system and learning outcomes at tertiary level are clearly necessary, but an overemphasis on results has built new, 'datafied' walls in front of imaginative learning and teaching. As teachers and educationalists, we feel it is our responsibility to lay siege to these walls, since they constrain what and how we teach - and what is more, they seem to be restricting how our students think and create.
For screen educators, problems with pedagogical authenticity are exacerbated, since the perceived value of studying our subjects is under constant attack - even as calls for the stepping up of media literacy in our classrooms resound daily. Perhaps it is time, then, to work from inside the walls, in the resistant and resisting classroom: with and for rather than against our students. While it can't possibly solve all these learning issues, in this article we consider how teaching with the audiovisual essay can be one authentic strategy employed to free our students' thinking and to activate their creative impulses. We see the audiovisual essay as a form of learning, daring and knowledge generation that is not just 'another brick in the wall'.
Setting the scene
As both a form of creative-practice research for scholars and a learning tool for students, the audiovisual essay - the origins of which, it has been suggested, can be traced as far back as the experimental work of Nicole Vedres in 1947, if not further (1) - has developed exponentially in the last five years. Since the establishment in 2014 oi [in]Transition, a scholarly journal devoted to 'videographic film and moving image studies', (2) an increasing number of academics have used the audiovisual essay as a new means of presenting their research. However, contributions to the journal from scholars from Australia and New Zealand have been limited - rare exceptions being Adrian Martin, Miriam Ross and Daniel Golding, as well as a group of eye-tracking scholars from Deakin, Melbourne, Monash, RMIT and Otago Universities involved in a special-edition dossier. (3) We thought, nonetheless, that a great deal more work was likely to be happening in the Australasian audiovisual-essay space but without a forum to discover it.
An opportunity to gauge the extent of the adoption of the audiovisual essay in the classroom was provided by a symposium we (along with Claire Perkins) organised at Monash University in November 2018, Not Another Brick in the Wall: Teaching and Researching the Audio Video Essay. (4) Evidence drawn from symposium participants suggested that the audiovisual essay has been or is being adopted by the majority of screen-based degrees in Australia and New Zealand, including those from Deakin University, Monash University and UNSW. Moreover, it was documented that an increasing number of schools in Australia and New Zealand had begun to use the audiovisual essay within the English and Media Studies curricula, while the International Baccalaureate curriculum has recently included audiovisual essays as an assessment option (as a 'recorded multimedia comparative study'). (5) What we wanted the symposium to discover was whether the audiovisual essay had the learning and teaching benefits we imagined it did.
At the date of the symposium, there had been very little published research on the use, value or impact of the audiovisual essay on learning and teaching. Research had been carried out, for example, on video production as an effective learning and assessment tool, (6) but no published study existed that had fully examined the benefits of this particular form. Running over two days, the symposium filled this knowledge gap. Participants included high school, college and university teachers, who discussed and debated whether the audiovisual essay offered students a radical, freer form of learning experience. Participants also shared current - often 'best-practice' - examples of its use in the classroom, and they contemplated its future as a tool for a re-energised praxis, in which, in the words of theorist Raymond Williams, what one does is 'informed by theory and also [...] theory informed by practice'. (7) In what follows, we work through the central issues and themes raised by the participants at the symposium that we feel are relevant for the wider screen-education community.
Immersion and discovery: getting closer to film
The symposium's opening keynote speakers, Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez, provided a pedagogical compass by discussing an issue central to debates around audiovisual essays: the division between theory and practice. They began by observing that the audiovisual essay offers students a way of overcoming the deep-set binary they are introduced to that is a marker of pedagogical culture: that one is either a thinker or a doer. Martin was introduced to audiovisual essays by Alvarez Lopez; since 2012, the two have worked collaboratively on over thirty essays, some of which are showcased on their Vimeo channel, (8) and others of which have been commissioned by publications such as Notebook, De Filmkrant and Sight & Sound. Martin, who has worked as a him critic for over four decades, offers a particularly illuminating insight into what is gained through the combination of 'audiovisual' and 'essay' forms. Both speakers highlighted their desire to flip the concept - paraphrasing director and critic Paul Schrader - that to analyse something is to kill it, whereas to make something is to create it. They presented three examples of their fusion work, all instalments of their series 'The Thinking Machine' made for De Filmkrant, in which they analyse through the art of making: Death-Drive (2016), Wish I Had a River (2017) and The Gauntlet - Place and Space in a Scene from Notorious (20l8). (9)
Some wider contextualisation of audiovisual essays is needed if we are to understand what is specific about the work of Martin and Alvarez Lopez. A spectrum of approaches to the audiovisual essay exists. (10) In the formal video critiques of Every Frame a Painting (11) and The Nerdwriter, (12) one finds the illustrated narration of a set thesis. In the more experimental and essayist work of Kogonada, (13) one finds a play with form and content, an artwork in the making. With long-time essayists such as Catherine Grant, (14) we veer more towards the subjective and the transgressive, as the work itself rubs up against dominant norms and accepted readings of film texts.
When one pays attention to the differences in intention, visual style and mode of address of these varied audiovisual essays, one sees how discovery, argument and imagination reverberate differently. Every Frame a Painting will begin with a pivotal premise or hypothesis that grabs us before it is explored, whereas Grant chooses not to explain her intentions; instead, we are encouraged, through the materiality and 'voice' of her work, to be swept up by her visual discoveries.
Two distinct approaches to the production of audiovisual essays were apparent in the examples shown by Martin and Alvarez Lopez, both of which are useful for understanding some of the wider debates around audiovisual essays as pedagogical tools. First, the starting point for creating an audiovisual essay is the same as for a written essay: close textual analysis in which a creator 'watch[es] the films, observe[s], notice[s], make[s] notes'. (15) There is a sense in which the kinds of more poetic audiovisual essays they make look back to the structuralism of the 1970s, to scholar Raymond Bellour's illustrated close analyses of Alfred Hitchcock's films (16) or the focus on mise en scene promoted by the British journal Movie. Second, discovery will come only from repeated viewing or completely immersing oneself in the film being discovered. This second distinction has governed how Martin and Alvarez Lopez have taught the audiovisual essay. For example, for a course at Goethe University Frankfurt, they set students an exercise in which they were asked to condense a feature-length film into three to four minutes of reassembled footage. The objective behind the exercise was to enable students to express an analytical idea purely through the montage of assembled images and sounds. Crucially, students were instructed to refrain from researching or seeking context around their chosen film: they were asked to simply respond to it. What Martin and Alvarez Lopez found in the completed assignments was that students admitted to being surprised by what they produced through this process of immersion and assemblage.
Martin and Alvarez Lopez's commitment to having their students respond to a film by recutting its images and sounds foregrounds the poetic over the explanatory, and discovery over preparation. At the same time, analytical inquiry emerges through or within creative practice, allowing students to cross the theory/practice threshold. Martin and Alvarez Lopez's approach chimes with the ideas of academic Eric Faden, who writes of the video essay, or what he calls the 'media stylo' (a variation on film critic Alexandre Astruc's concept of the 'camera-stylo'' (17)), in these terms:
Traditional scholarship aspires to exhaustion, to be the definitive, end-all-be-all, last word on a particular subject. The media stylo, by contrast, suggests possibilities - it is not the end of scholarly inquiry; it is the beginning. It explores and experiments and is designed just as much to inspire as to convince. (18)
The opening up of the learning experience to new forms of creative and critical inquiry afforded by the audiovisual essay is here imagined to be liberating. This approach rebukes the formalism of linear essay-writing in favour of a type of audiovisual experimentation that is inherently radical - and one that, therefore, cannot be put into a box or (to continue our metaphor) be shut off behind a closed wall.
Learning by doing
For University of Sydney film-studies lecturer Susan Potter, the audiovisual essay not only sets in motion the strategy of learning by doing, but is also crucially formative in students overcoming preconceptions about how theory is separate from practice. In Potter's 'Film History: From Silent to Sound Cinema' course, students are given various essay exercises to choose from, including one in which they can work in montage to express an analytical idea addressed in class, or via the set reading.
A different approach to teaching the audiovisual essay was outlined by the University of Michigan's Vincent Longo, who brought thinking and making together by advocating for 'treating audiovisual-essay creation as analogous to film production that is heavily reliant on a script'. (19) For Longo, any separation between theory (in this case, writing essays) and practice (making audiovisual essays) can be mitigated by drawing upon the notion of argument as a bridge for connecting both. Equally, he argued, it is all about planning, with the production of the audiovisual essay mirroring the stages of film production. In his introductory course 'The Art of Film', students are guided through three stages of production. Stage 1 is pre-production and development, in which they start with a thesis statement that they then develop into a draft script. Stage 2 is production, in which students create a set of audiovisual field notes and begin to make the essay. Stage 3 is post-production, in which students refine their essays. Reflecting upon his teaching, Longo observed that placing argument as the objective of the assignment means that it can contribute to broader debates around communication, rather than more discipline-oriented debates to do with medium-specificity.
If Martin and Alvarez Lopez provide examples of how audiovisual essays can encourage students to get closer to a film's resonances and impressions, then, for Longo, the reach of these assignments can be broader, inviting non-screen-focused students to think about communicating argument across written and audiovisual forms. Of course, these two approaches are working with different student cohorts: senior students with advanced knowledge of film studies for the former; and entry level undergraduates - some with no background in media production - for the latter. Nonetheless, these approaches are not meant to be exclusionary. For Martin and Alvarez Lopez, the poetics of montage afforded by the audiovisual essay is democratic: a student-enabler regardless of their discipline background, age or perceived competency. Similarly, one can see how Longo's approach would work within film-production degrees, in which students are required to see their work in terms of distinct creative phases.
This is something that SAE film-studies lecturer Sian Mitchell discussed in relation to tertiary-level screen-production students. Mitchell demonstrated that the audiovisual essay enabled 'student practitioners to not only develop their critical analysis and creative/technical skills in filmmaking, but also critical-reflection skills which focused on their own practice'. In one set task, students were asked to strategically interrogate the work of an established screen practitioner through the audiovisual-essay form, and, in doing so, found that they could 'better understand and develop their own creative and technical skills when making their films'. (20) As Mitchell concluded, teaching audiovisual essays to production students demystifies the idea of being critical.
Authorial, personal voices
For Fitzroy High School teacher Travis McKenzie, the audiovisual essay can give authoritative and creative voice to students who normally do not speak up or out. Filming an essay that examined the adaptation of a book into a film, one of McKenzie's students - for whom English was not their first language - stunned their classmates, who had rarely heard them speak in class, with their enthusiastic and articulate voiceover. For McKenzie, because voice is an entangled part of audiovisual-essay analysis, analysis finds its voice: that is to say, speaking aloud through analysis begets an analytical mind. Equally, students are empowered because they feel that what they are saying has something for a wider audience, outside of the classroom, echoing into the orifices of the 'real world'. The audiovisual essay offers up a set of transferable critical and creative skills that give students the voice to read images against the grain, and to make images in their own empowered likeness. The political dimensions here should not be underplayed: giving personal voice to those who do not or cannot speak, because of class, race, gender or sexuality, grants them authority to do so.
A practitioner's approach was offered by RMIT's Nick Moore, who addressed the question of voice and voiceover in terms of both technical delivery and method: how best to encourage students to have vocal personality as well as a scholarly persona. Moore revealed that, as an audiovisual-essay maker, he felt that finding the right tone - something between conversation and reflection - enabled him to find his voice. As Moore found, there were delivery techniques that were useful for students to also learn. These included: deciding to open his videos with the word 'so'; inviting interjection by including phrases such as 'you may disagree with me'; including vocal segregates ('um' and 'ah'); and refusing neat conclusions by, for example, doubling back on and undermining his own argument ('I made a mistake ...,). (21)
Martin and Alvarez Lopez also offered useful advice for students and teachers on experimenting with narration: write shorter sentences, avoid a strict linear development, use inventive or imaginative description, and don't just say what you see. Such techniques of the self, of course, return us to Faden's contention that the audiovisual essay opens up and extends the way theoretical arguments can be remade, rerouted and replayed.
For Sean Redmond and Jo Tai, both academics from Deakin University, the audiovisual essay opened students up to empowering forms of creative and critical experimentation that were often felt to be missing from the traditional essay form. Their pilot research project with students taking the unit 'The Celebrity Industries: Star Images, Fan Cultures and Performance' showed that making video essays generally fostered deeper and more engaged learning experiences. Answering an anonymous online questionnaire, for example, students Al and A2 responded:
Al: It allows for more creativity in presentation - instead of writing an essay for the 10,000th time, I was able to craft a creative presentation using clips, music, photos and voiceovers, and I found the process to be more enjoyable.
A2: As much as I struggled with making my video essay, I think they are a really new and interesting way to learn and explore topics. I really feel traditional essays are kind of outdated, and I personally can't stand having to sit down and read 10 pages of academic writing, knowing that I'm not even understanding most of it. I also really love the freedom of being able to work outside of the usual structures and rules that come with essay writing.
The essay work produced in this unit was also highly experiential, or, rather, drew on the textural and phenomenological qualities of screen culture to move beyond the question of representation and presentation, since feeling and sensing work puts students in contact with the material qualities of films that are hard to put into words but easy to 'show'. As Grant observes, 'The activation of curiosity or the exercising of epistemophilia are also sensuous (not simply cognitive) activities.' (22)
Conclusions: Pressing forward
The consensus of those involved in the symposium was that the audiovisual essay has the potential to overcome some of the restrictions and binaries that logocentric and goal-centred learning and teaching fosters and valorises. Further, it was expressed by the majority that the audiovisual essay offers up an empowering form of conjoined (or fused) creative and critical inquiry in the classroom, one that particularly supports those from lower socio-economic backgrounds with little cultural capital. However, there was also caution that the audiovisual essay may, in some instances, repeat corporatised ideologies, reproducing the idea of the individual as 'brand' and prosumer. Nonetheless, overall, delegates felt that what the poetics and politics of the audiovisual essay reminded us of was how crucial Media Studies remains for understanding, engaging with and sometimes resisting contemporary culture and the forms of dominant ideology we are all faced with.
Of course, this wide-open canvas of audiovisual-essay work raises important questions around objectivity versus subjectivity, form in relation to content, aesthetics in relation to politics and journeying in relation to arrivals. When we take all these issues into the classroom, we have an important task at hand, since we have to make decisions about what types of audiovisual essays our students will make and how we will assess them - and, finally, to what ends?
As the presentations from the Not Another Brick in the Wall symposium have suggested, the audiovisual essay has the potential to recalibrate the learning and teaching environment. It offers screen educators an empowering form of pedagogical praxis, gives voice to those who have been rendered mute by relentless instrumental testing and presents an opportunity to rethink how to teach 'writing' as not only words on a page. The audiovisual essay can also inspire our students to have a critical relationship with creativity (and vice versa), and to more effectively express a somatic, sensorial relationship to screen culture. Walls can come tumbling down.
What issues remain for us as the organisers of the symposium, for those who attended the event and for the audiovisualessay community in Australia? By recording the current state of teaching and research involving the audiovisual essay in Australia and New Zealand, our related goal has been to begin to create a community of critical practitioners for future exchanges and collaborations, in order to continue to question how best to approach learning and understanding in ways that do more than simply frame students for the world of work beyond (mirrored within) the classroom.
In terms of actions: first, there needs to be greater sharing of resources in and across the secondary and tertiary education systems. We have suggested developing an online repository of assessment tasks and examples, unit and course guides, exemplar material and suchlike. However, such entanglements should also come from meet-ups, workshops, study days and sabbaticals. Investment is needed. Second, there is a need for greater visibility and appreciation of the audiovisual essay: this might start with an ATOM Award category that celebrates the best of Australian and New Zealand screen content from the education sector and screen-industry professionals. Finally, we need to again convince our colleagues, departmental heads, deans, principals, and state and federal policymakers that the classroom is an incubator, that learning is more than grades and results, and that education is at its best when it dares to be different.
This article has been refereed.
Catherine Fowler is an associate professor in film and media at Otago University. New Zealand. Her research interests include women filmmakers. experimental cinema and the film/art axis of influence. Her audiovisual essay Dead Time (created with Andrea Rassell and Claire Perkins) on slow cinema can be found here: <http://mediacommons.org/intransition/2017/09/07/dead-time>.
Sean Redmond is professor of screen and design at Deakin University, Melbourne. Australia. He has been a media and screen educator for over twenty-five years, is the author of fifteen books, is a curator and installation artist, and guest-edited (with Tessa Dwyer and Claire Perkins) an edition of the video-essay journal [in]Transition on the poetics of eye tracking. Sean's video-essay work The Ear That Dreams: Eye Tracking Sound in the Moving Image can be found here: <http://mediacommons.org/intransition/2017/09/07/ear-dreams-eye-tracking-sound-moving-image>.
(1) Adrian Martin, 'The Surrealist Roots of Video Essays', Keyframe, 17 May 2016, available at <http://www.filmscalpel.com/wp-content/uploads/1919/lo/The-Surrealist-Roots-of-Video-Essays-Martin.pdf>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(2) About [in]Transition', MediaCommons website, <http://mediacommons.org/intransition/about>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(3) For examples of Australian and New Zealand contributions to [in]Transition, see the following: Stereotowns (Ross, 2016), available at <http://mediacommons.org/intransition/stereotowns>; The Inward/Outward Turn (Martin, 2014), available at <http://mediacommons.org/intransition/2014/09/l4/inwardoutward-turn>; Against the Real (Alvarez Lopez & Martin, 2015), available at <http://mediaeommons.org/intransition/2015/05/25/against-real>; and the special issue of [in]Transition entitled 'The Poetics of Eye Tracking', guest-edited by Tessa Dwyer, Claire Perkins and Sean Redmond and including four video essays, available at <http://mediacommons.org/intransition/theme-week/2017/36/poetics-eye-tracking>, all accessed 30 September 2019.
(4) Not Another Brick in the Wall: Teaching and Researching the Audio Video Essay symposium, Monash University, Caulfield, 19-20 November 2018.
(5) See 'International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Subject Brief - The Arts: Film', 2019, p.2, available at <https://www.ibo.org/contentassets/5895a05412144fe890312bad52bl7044/film-sl-hl-2017-en.pdf>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(6) See, for example, Elizabeth Mavroudi & Heike Jons, 'Video Documentaries in the Assessment of Human Geography Field Courses', Journal of Geography in Higher Education, vol. 35, no. 4, 2011, pp. 579-98.
(7) Raymond Williams, quoted in Richard Johnson et al., The Practice of Cultural Studies, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi, 2004, p. 90.
(8) See <https://vimeo.com/regularlovers>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(9) All of the instalments in the series 'The Thinking Machine' are available at <https://vimeo.com/filmkrant>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(10) Part of the joy of engaging with audiovisual essays for the first time is discovering them online. However, those who don't have the time for endless googling might want to start with Sight & Sound's annual polls. See Kevin B Lee & David Verdeure, 'The Best Video Essays of 2017', Sight & Sound,
22 December 2017, <https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/polls-surveys/annual-round-ups/best-video-essays-20l7>; and David Verdeure & Irina Trocan, 'The Best Video Essays of 2018', Sight & Sound, 25 July 2019, <https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/polls-surveys/best-video-essays-20l8>, both accessed 30 September 2019.
(11) See <https://www.youtube.com/user/everyframeapainting>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(12) See <https://www.youtube.com/user/Nerdwriterl>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(13) See <http://kogonada.com>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(14) Grant has published her video essays on a number of different sites. See her Vimeo channel at <https://vimeo.eom/filmstudiesff/videos>; her personal webpage at <https://catherinegrant.org>; and REFRAME at <http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/>, all accessed 30 September 2019.
(15) Adrian Martin & Cristina Alvarez Lopez, 'The Audio-visual Essay: Building a Bridge Between Theory and Practice', Not Another Brick in the Wall symposium, op. cit.
(16) See Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film, ed. Constance Penley, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2000.
(17) Alexandre Astruc 'The Birth of a New Avant-garde: La camera-stylo', in Peter Graham & Ginette Vincendeau (eds), The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks, BFI and Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009, emphasis in original.
(18) Eric S Faden, 'A Manifesto for Critical Media', Mediascape, Spring 2008, available at <http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Springo8_ManifestoForCriticalMedia.html>, accessed 30 September 2019.
(19) Vincent Longo, 'Essay Production as Film Production: Methodologies for Teaching Audiovisual Scholarship to Multi-disciplinary Students', Not Another Brick in the Wall symposium, op. cit.
(20) Sian Mitchell, 'Audio-visual Essays as Pedagogy for Screen Practice', Not Another Brick in the Wall symposium, ibid.
(21) Nick Moore, 'Embracing Uncertainty in Video Essay Voiceover', Not Another Brick in the Wall symposium, ibid.
(22) Catherine Grant, 'The Remix That Knew Too Much? On Rebecca, Retrospectatorship and the Making of Rites of Passage', The Cine-Files, issue 7, Fall 2014, <http://www.thecine-files.com/grant/>, accessed 30 September 2019.
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|Author:||Fowler, Catherine; Redmond, Sean|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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