The Secret Protest Screening ethnographic project – part 1

September 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent a good portion of the summer being frustrated by the folks at Secret Cinema (London)–for reasons best left unsaid.

But then last night I get this:

For reasons of professional interest (the expansion of cinema, fictional presences in everyday life, etc.), I’ve been on Secret Cinema’s mailing list ever since we moved to London. I’ve never been to any of their events — but, surely, this has got to be the one.

And so starts the ethnographic project.

Query: why would people choose to express a protest by going to a movie? a movie they don’t know anything about? in a location they don’t know anything about? How does any of this make any sense, in the face of the plight of the 20 million or so refugees worldwide–or the plight of the more recent ones Europe has been struggling to welcome?

Method: audience ethnographic project. I will embed (with my 15-year old son!) within Secret Cinema’s audience for the evening, and conduct a field investigation. The trick, as usual with ethnography (at least since Malinowski!), is that this will perforce be participant observation

And so the ethnographic project really starts with a research diary: what is my trajectory from non-audience to audience and back? What discourses are framing my attendance? What expectations do I bring? What representations are shaping what I think I will see? How do I construct what hypotheses? And what am I to make of the show?

This is what this diary, over the next 5 days, will trace: my trajectory to the film (or is it a show?), during the performance, and after it.

Monday 7 Sept. 18:21 — reception of Secret Cinema’s commercial email.
My itinerary, my transformation from individual to audience member, to vibrating aesthetic subject (or to commercial subject blindly manipulated, as you wish) really starts as I receive Secret Cinema’s email. (Well it really started earlier, a long, long time ago in fact, but 1) there is literally no end to that regressus ad infinitum and 2) the notes below will indeed elucidate some of what has been building in my trajectory before that commercial sollicitation)

I am sitting at my computer, it is evening, I’ve worked all day at the computer but I should be doing more–I’ve been frustrated over the past couple of hours that I haven’t been able to work as I had planned. There’s an article that needs revising, the deadline is in 3 days. But I’ve had to deal with minor domestic crises (no ink in the printer! No phone service!)–and so I’ve ended up nervously checking The Guardian‘s website for the 1000th time today (like everyday). In terms of me being turned into an audience for entertainment, I should note that this message also comes at a point where we’ve talked, as a family, about our frustration of not doing enough shows, museum visits, films, etc., in London. We want to “make more” of the city. We want, in other words, to become cultural consumers.

I think frustration is a keyword here.

This email attracts my attention for several reasons:

1) I’ve been trying to get more involved to help refugees over the past week — I’ve been trying to get more involved with border issues for months now, in fact I’ve pretty much decided that understanding open borders is what I will be doing in terms of publishing in the next 2 or 3 years. I have several book projects on the topic of borders already in my mind. But getting to do something concrete, useful, apart from sending money…it’s been difficult. At bottom I think I am afraid of contact–in the sense that I overanalyse contact with refugees as being contact with the great unknown, and I am a control-freak. It’s stupid and I hate it, but the reality is this: i haven’t been to Calais, to the Jungle, though I’ve read and crossed it several times (even saw police chasing the people there one night waiting for the Eurostar). I have signed up to help refugees in the UK, though I don’t have a spare-room. I have signed petitions, sent tweets, liked FB pages…but nothing approaching contact.

2) I am disgusted that the UK is not opening its borders to more refugees. If Germany can take the equivalent of 1% of its population (800,000 over one year), so could the UK (this would be 650,000….not the miserable 20,000 over 5 years that the Conservatives have promised today…better than nothing, sure, but paltry). And so the urgency of expressing outrage publicly, as inefficient and self-centred as it may very well be, has been building. I want to put public pressure on governments to do more. “Standing-by” is not an option. But see 1)…. Still, this promises to be a public event.

3) I am indeed intrigued by the concept of a “Protest Screening”. When was the last time attending a movie was a civic gesture? I can count on one hand the films I have seen out of civic duty: Lanzman’s Shoah in a Paris theater, or that documentary about Yitzhak Rabin that I saw in a small downtown Los Angeles theater (was it this film?). These are films I felt I had to make a public point to see–a duty to watch. But here I don’t even know what film they’re going to show us!

So the best I can understand my motivation is,

1) that I feel I have a duty to signal my participation publicly–and indeed, as soon as I buy the tickets, I invite a few London friends via FB to do the same–although there is an added sense of potential danger as I don’t know whether the film will please, shock, move, or disgust me. So, metaphorically speaking, I am willing to be potentially emotionally tossed around (yes, this is a boat metaphor, and I am aware of the creepy link with refugees, but at this point, I wouln’t put it past Secret Cinema to have worked out that metaphor themselves, see the poster for the event). And

“Aren’t you a little short of storm troopers?” asks a pesky FB user

2) that this is the closest I will ever be to doing something together with refugees: I am particularly attracted by the promise that the film will also be shown, at the same time, to the migrants stuck in the Jungle camp in Calais. Yes, this will merely be a virtual connection (in 3 hours there is no time even for Secret Cinema to transport us to Calais and back…), but we will share, and share emotions which is what humans can do. And, to be honest, this doesn’t happen every day at the movies nowadays: audiences, the general claim goes, are fragmented (by age group, sociology, ratings, etc.), and the days of the “evening’s entertainment”, with everything for everyone in the family, are long gone. This promises to create an audience more diverse than we’ve become accustomed to, and isn’t that what cinema is supposed to do best, help us connect, the Esperanto of film, film language as universal language, and so on? Secret Cinema, bringing you face-to-face with fiction..

The nagging suspicion I have, so far, is that of course this is all commercial ploy. Secret Cinema has been trying to position itself as the rediscovery of the joy of cinema — a new Hollywood, as their cover photo of Aug. 21 intimates — and this re-creation of a common civic audience beyond differences (them and us, this side and that side of the border, poor and rich, etc.) smacks of a similar commercial positioning. Also I am not entirely at ease with a for-profi, commercial private company doing politics. The event Facebook page has been posting pro-refugee messages and promoting a very clear, astonishingly (for a private company) aggressive activist stance on the issue–but only since Sept. 2, the day news outlets published the picture of Aylan’s body on the beach: how long has Secret Cinema been supporting the Refugee Council? I can’t say. Are they seeking to exploit this tragedy? I can’t say. And I can’t say either how different this social media build-up is any different from their standard operating procedure and the FB build-up to their summer Star Wars show, for instance. Are they just trying to “put me in the mood”? Am I even supposed to enjoy myself at this show?

At the same time, for any company to take a political stance is gutsy–and sure enough, Secret Cinema is getting negative comments from FB users (“stick to what you know”)–Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 10.32.20but is this also staged? Is it just a ploy to allow them to answer “this is what we know”, so me, reading this exchange, will feel understood in my sympathy for refugees, immersed in a well-meaning and shared space of love and understanding for refugees, a space where I can abandon myself to emotions of pity, gratitude, etc., without a hint of critical disturbance, without, for instance, the dissonance created by this FB user’s ironical question “It will be interesting to see if this tempts any of the people in Calais to hang around there for the rest of the week so they can see the film, or will they try to illegally jump on the back of a lorry in the hope of being in London in time for the UK screening” ?

And so I end up signing up for a host of reasons, but one of which harks back to the best Barnum every did: is it truth, or fiction? Reality, or a hoax? And, honestly, I can’t decide.

Ballyhoo ain’t dead — the research project

January 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

One of the fun things about studying things historically is to realise how modernity is laced with the past — intersected, habited, haunted. Not in the sense of plus ça change, more in the sense that the “new” carries with it undertones of leads already explored, of thoughts already spoken, of directions already tried — in a quasi-biological sense. The now, in science-fiction terms, is merely one of the possible futures that the past has developed — but it bears the traces of what might have been — tantalising, inviting us to invent tomorrow.

So we now call it “viral marketing”, or even “prankvertisement”, but it is ballyhoo back from the 1920s, promotional stunts that are meant to get people to talk about the film, at all possible cost. And just like ballyhoo, it is, at the very least, about rehearsing audiences’ media competencies — working on that border between the fake and the real, helping them (us) put reality in play. This training of media competencies, then, goes back a long way — the “magic” of new media technologies more a skill we entertain than an innate quality of any medium. Viral marketing, then, takes the Barnum hoax (Barnums’ “operational aesthetics”) to new, more modern, heights: “is it fake, or is it real?” It is the same question, it is the same game — but realising that we’ve been playing this game for at least 200 years (much, much longer than that: since the first time a human decided to make-believe that any piece of unbelievable information relayed in some form, oral, painted, etc., was potentially true) may help us enjoy it more — indeed, help us live with media fictions.

At most viral marketing (just like 1920s promotional stunts, though the technology, then, was different) asks hard questions about the nature of film-going, since it can be about transmedia storytelling expansion, furnishing bits of information to the main movie plot that help make sense of the movie world and expand it — hard questions about where the pleasures of “cinema” precisely lie. You may, for example, have felt (as I did) rather unsatisfied with the restricted world-building that the movie Elysium offered, notably the limited views of both Earth and the space station for the rich,

the  way the movie restricted all economic activity on Earth to Matt Damon’s character’s factory job or his sweetheart’s nursing job (an economy based on just those types of low-skilled jobs would very soon crumble: what of the research, innovation, engineering jobs? How do these professionals feel about inequalities? About Elysium? How do they vote? These are all world-building questions, and what good sci-fi should be about as it attempts to build a model of a possible future). Indeed, it may be because that world-building was going on somewhere else: on the official website for the movie (, where there is[still, as of 24 Jan. 2014, but for how long?] a rich array of websites pretending to be from the construction company of the space station, complete with set-drawings blueprints of the homes one may “buy” on Torus. In lots of ways, the world-building that goes on with the promotional websites is more interesting than the movie itself — conventional, déjà-vu plot-driven fast-paced flick. And this raises the question, at least to me, of whether the film is not suffering from the fact that a decision was made to outsource lots of world-building material to the promotional campaign. Think about all the detailed world-building that went into the film itself of 2001, and made the experience of watching the film truly mesmerising. You’d have to start toying with the Elysium website before you’d start feeling the same level of amused amazement, the desire to stay in that world.

Incidentally, if the marketing is part of the fun of the film, it also raises the question of what happens to the film once that promotional material is gone (the anti-segregation blog “set up” by alien Christopher Johnson, a promotional stunt devised for District 9, for instance, has been archived, but the official link is dead) — and whether a true artist of viral marketing should not expand efforts into maintaining the fictional worlds they have set up for the film. Whether or not this would make any business sense, for the artist, would hopefully be irrelevant, though this points to a potential site of tensions here: the long-lasting relevance of a work, or the short-term, but powerful, vibration of meaning of a work encountering an audience? What if the second burst, though ephemeral by definition, could be made to last? A film like 2001 has no problem recreating its own flash of relevancy for a modern audience–but couldn’t there be another path to artistic longevity that promotional stunts, allied with new media tools, fast-speed networks, virtual reality equipment, and so on, could trace in the future of the industry? Prometheus may have been a disappointing film (haven’t seen it), but the website still looks good, inviting, tantalising — magic of sort, yes.

All of which makes me wonder if there is not more creativity being now expanded into the promotion — and less into the films themselves — and if the true evolution of transmedia storytelling is not just that the film fictions expand into other media, or that the films serve merely as events to launch a new line of merchandising, toys, TV series, and other products, as we are all quite aware — but that, more profoundly, the films serve as launching pads for the true fictional life of the stories that indeed take place somewhere else, in the promotional stunts. That the film becomes, in other words, a fictional virtual space more than a text. That maybe we need to think about a future where the film is reduced to a clickable link (“You Don’t So Much Watch it As Download It”) on a website where lots of other material build a detailed and amazing fictional world — where the film is one possible activation of the fictional world, which remains however open to other narrative possibilities through the world-building the websites offer. Given that promotional budgets may come to dwarf production budgets, this would not be such a surprising evolution after all–an evolution where film, “cinema” as we used to call it, expands its “interface” from a screen (a movie screen at first, a TV screen next, a mobile screen now) to a space (cyberspace, virtual reality).

The research project: to trace the development, history, genealogy, variations, evolutions of ballyhoo, promotional stunts, prankvertisement as the interface of cinema — from 1920s carnival to Torus, as cinema’s privileged world-building tool, en route to our future(s) where living with virtual realities is going to be loads of fun.

Ballyhoo definitely ain’t dead

January 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

and what’s more it’s still as controversial as ever.



Ballyhoo ain’t dead — another research project

January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

A study of ballyhoo, from the 1920s to today (the Carrie stunt at a New York café, october 2013):

  • a resurgence today, after decades of marginalisation of ballyhoo promotion to “disreputable” exploitation movies?
  • if so, why a resurgence in new media today? Are we re-discovering a sense of media magic due to new technologies?
Sent from Evernote

The Reel Journal 1925-1926

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just stumbled across this online version of the The Reel Journal (1926), self-described as “The Film Trade Paper of The SouthWest”, and which seems heavy on the Kansas area. Of course, one could always go to, since that’s the name under which this magazine is published today: its vault is free of charge and copies can be PDF downloaded.

media consumption

October 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

We’ve all seen this :

But why is it taking so long to go from boobtube to Youtube ?

Film Publicity and Politics, 1920

April 30, 2010 § 2 Comments

Harry Reichenbach, on the existential link between new media and modern politics:

“Do motion pictures have to be advertised in this extraordinary way?”, asked the District Attorney.
“I will answer that question in this way, judge,” replied Reichenbach. “You take Governor Cox; he is running for President. Well, you see pictures of him in the papers cooking in camp; you see pictures of his wife cooking doughnuts, and you see his son riding a bicycle.
“Now, what has that got to do with his ability to be President? Nothing. But people will be attracted by that sort of stuff, and that is why it is put out. It is the same kind of press agenting that is put across for the movies.”
(NYTribune, 30 juillet 1920)

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