Precarious Creativity Conference Report

On April 24 and 25 MIP hosted the Mellichamp Global Studies Conference “Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor” at UC Santa Barbara, bringing together an international group of media scholars with advocates from the visual effects industry to address the increasingly precarious conditions of screen media labor around the world.

Organized as a series of roundtable discussions, the conference covered an impressive industrial geography that included research sites in East Asia, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North America. Conversations underscored the global scale at which many of these industries now operate, whether as part of a production network with Hollywood origins or as a consequence of more local attempts to generate critical mass. These discussions furthermore troubled blanket assumptions about precarity. While the anxieties of contingent labor are clearly shared across skill levels and creative locales, the experiences of screen media workers also reflect local contexts and histories.

The conference, then, became a venue to bring disparate experiences into conversation with each other. In mapping out a common terrain for debate, many participants drew attention to more nuanced considerations of both creativity and precarity. How we might define “creative” work varies widely across contexts, from the amateur videos of revolutionary artists in regions of political unrest to the everyday negotiations workers undergo in state-controlled media industries. In both instances, creativity is more than a sense of originality or imagination. At its most extreme—like in the digital videos from activist mediamakers in the Middle East—creative expression is quite literally a matter of life or death.

Discussions also underscored how institutional responses to precarity operate on different timelines. While the work of screen media unions and guilds becomes most salient at times of crisis, media advocacy groups pursue their causes with an eye towards continuous, long-term results, which often makes their progress much less visible to scholars, workers, and the general public. In short, perspective matters, and there was a call amongst the commentaries for more open and diverse approaches to key questions and concerns. For instance, the value of runaway production for locations outside of Southern California is often framed as a matter of economic impact and local employment, which loses some meaning amongst local residents in places like post-Katrina New Orleans. Value for the many citizens who now find work as film and television extras in these locations, for example, is framed in more affective terms: they don’t mind the precarious work because it’s the “right thing to do” for their city.

Just as important are the differences among workers within an industry, since precarious conditions tend to exacerbate the inequalities among workers of different genders, races, and languages. Who gets access to media work and in what capacity is shaped, for example, by blind-casting practices in the US screen industries, by knowledge of English in the Hindi film industries, and by gendered biases about technological know-how in the visual effects industries. Such concerns resonated with attendees, and the intersection of labor, precarity, and difference prompted recognition from scholars in attendance who study marginalized media industries, like adult entertainment, or other marginalized workers.

Finally, the keynote panel crystallized many of the concerns raised during the conversations of the previous two days. Featuring visual effects artists Mariana Acuña Acosta and Daniel Lay and union rep Steven Kaplan, the keynote addressed some of the most pressing issues the visual effects community faces, including poor working conditions, fleeing job opportunities, and gender inequalities. Speaking candidly to a full house at the Carsey-Wolf Center’s Pollock Theater, the panelists touched upon a number of structural changes—tax incentives, studio contracts, global competition—that have shifted the nature of visual effects work while also putting a human face on the toll those changes take on workers and their families. Yet the roundtable ended on a hopeful note. Lay and Kaplan exhorted those in the audience―and everyone hoping to join the ranks of media industries―to get organized and effect change on the current working conditions, signaling an important avenue through which to address the precarious creativity of screen media workers. You can watch the keynote discussion in the video below. 

Mellichamp Global Studies Conference: Precarious Creativity from Carsey-Wolf Center on Vimeo.