Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor

  • Thursday, April 24, 2014
  • Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson, Organizers

Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor brought together an international group of scholars at UC-Santa Barbara to examine the increasingly globalized and interconnected nature of screen media labor. We organized the conference as a series of roundtable discussions that concluded with a keynote session featuring leading advocates from the VFX community in Southern California.

Precarious Creativity was a Mellichamp Global Studies Conference co-sponsored by the Carsey-Wolf Center’s Media Industries Project. The event was organized by Dr. Michael Curtin and Dr. Kevin Sanson.

Conference Details

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Session 1: Globality 4:15—6:00 pm

Toby Miller, University of Cardiff / Murdoch University
Nitin Govil, University of Southern California
Juan Piñon, New York University
Jade Miller, Wilfrid Laurier University
Michael Keane, Queensland University of Technology

Friday, April 25, 2014

Session 2: Locality 10:15—11:45 am

Petr Szczepanik, Masaryk University
Anthony Fung, Chinese University Hong Kong
Vicki Mayer, Tulane University
Shanti Kumar, University of Texas at Austin

Session 3: Boundaries 1:15—2:45 pm

Kristen Warner, University of Alabama
John Caldwell, University of California, Los Angeles
Tejaswini Ganti, New York University
David Hesmondhalgh, University of Leeds

Session 4: Politics 3:00—4:30 pm

Marwan Kraidy, University of Pennsylvania
Miranda Banks, Emerson College
Allison Perlman, University of California, Irvine
Matt Sienkiewicz, Boston College

Keynote: VFX 5:00—7:00 pm

Mariana Acuña Acosta, VFX Artist
Steven Kaplan, Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE
Daniel Lay, VFX Artist

Session 1: Globality

The globalization of media has profoundly affected the structural forms and everyday practices of creative labor. Panelists reflected on the spatial exploitation of film and television labor as well as strategies for addressing these challenges. They also considered novel opportunities that have arisen through new forms of collaboration and knowledge exchange via co-productions, transnational labor networks, and newly emerging sites of creative endeavor.

Session 2: Locality

As configurations of creative production have grown more mobile and flexible, localities increasingly strive to distinguish themselves in a global context. Public officials, entrepreneurs, and workers hope such gestures will attract investment and foster a generative ensemble of local media institutions. In this panel, scholars assess the trade-offs that localities experience as they mobilize their distinctive capacities in order to grow their creative workforces.

Session 3: Boundaries

The intensification of work routines and the erosion of boundaries in the media workplace are signature characteristics of the past thirty years. Despite these trends, official and informal constraints remain tangible aspects of the social relations of production. Panelists will discuss the ways in which job categories, opportunities, and recognition are subject to enduring cultural hierarchies and power relations that are often inflected by race, gender, class, and other markers of difference.

Session 4: Politics

Politics and media intertwine throughout the production process, shaped by local power struggles and geopolitical maneuvers that alter the possibilities and parameters of media creativity. Panelists will reflect on the ways that politics permeate the conditions of screen media labor, both shaping and being shaped by the commercial imperatives of film and television production.

Session 5: VFX

Despite the growing importance of visual effects across the media industries, VFX companies and their employees have been in turmoil for over a decade due to the increasing pressures of globalized production. Long hours, short deadlines, and low profit margins have become characteristic of an industry that was once considered a shining example of the elite knowledge economy. Reflecting on both artistry and activism, this keynote session brings together leading advocates of the VFX community in Southern California to discuss practical strategies for dealing with the challenges they confront.

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.

Conference Participants + Organizers

Miranda Banks is Assistant Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. Her primary area of research is the US film and television industries, with a specific focus on creative and craft guilds and unions. She is co-editor of Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries (Routledge, 2009). Her scholarship has appeared in Television & New Media, Popular Communication, Cinema Journal, and Flow, as well as in the anthologies How to Watch TV (NYU Press), Teen Television (2004), and The Sage Handbook of Television Studies (forthcoming). Her book, The Writers: A History of American Screen Writing and the Writers Guild (Rutgers University Press) is forthcoming in 2014. Her PhD is from UCLA’s Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media. Before arriving at Emerson, she spent two years as a Visiting Assistant Professor in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

John Caldwell is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California, Los 
Angeles. His research and teaching focus on contemporary film and television, technologies, and creative labor. Caldwell (MFA Cal Arts, PhD Northwestern) has authored and edited several books, including Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Duke UP 2008), Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries, (Routledge, 2009, co-edited), Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television, (Rutgers UP, 1995), Electronic Media and Technoculture (Rutgers UP, 2000), and New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, (Routledge, 2003). He is currently working on a book entitled Para-Industries (Rutgers UP, forthcoming). Caldwell produced and directed the film Rancho California, which premiered at Sundance in 2002. His awards include: German Bauhaus IKKM Fellow (2012), an Annenberg Faculty Fellow, University of Pennsylvannia (2012), UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award (2010), and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1979, 1985). His current ethnographic fieldwork focuses on L.A.’s post-production cultures.

Anthony Y.H. Fung is Director and Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests and teaching focus on popular culture and cultural studies, gender and youth identity, cultural industries and policy, and new media studies. He is currently working on a project on Asian creative and game Industries and cultural policy with a focus on China and Hong Kong. He authored and edited more than 10 Chinese and English books. His recent books are New Television Globalization and East Asian Cultural Imaginations (Hong Kong University Press, 2007) (with Keane and Moran), Global Capital, Local Culture: Transnational Media Corporations in China (Peter Lang, 2008), Riding a Melodic Tide: The Development of Cantopop in Hong Kong (Subculture Press, 2009) (in Chinese), Policies for the Sustainable Development of the Hong Kong Film Industry (Chinese University Press, 2009) (with Chan and Ng), Imagining Chinese Communication Studies (Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, 2012) (in Chinese) (with Huang), Melodic Memories: The Historical Development of Music Industry in Hong Kong (2012) (Subculture Press, in Chinese) and Asian Popular Culture: the Global (Dis)continuity (Routledge, 2013).

Tejaswini Ganti is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and its Program in Culture & Media at New York University. A visual anthropologist specializing in South Asia, her research interests include Indian cinema, anthropology of media, production cultures, visual culture, cultural policy, nationalism, neoliberalism, capitalism, ideologies of development and theories of globalization. She has been conducting ethnographic research about the social world and filmmaking practices of the Hindi film industry since 1996 and is the author of Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (Routledge 2004; 2nd ed. 2013) Her most recent book Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry (Duke University Press 2012), examines the social and institutional transformations of the Hindi film industry from 1994-2010. She has also written about the politics of commemorative rituals around cinema in Bombay, Hindi filmmakers’ practices of remaking Hollywood films, their tremendous ambivalence about song and dance sequences, how value and distinction is indexed and enacted within the Hindi film industry, and the industry’s complex relationship to state censorship. Additionally, she has produced the documentary, Gimme Somethin’ to Dance to! (1995) which explores the significance of bhangra music for South Asians in the U.S.

Nitin Govil is Assistant Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on comparative media in global and local contexts. In addition to co-authoring Global Hollywood and Global Hollywood 2, he has published in over twenty journals and anthologies and his work has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish. He is currently completing two projects—a coauthored book on the Indian screen industries and a book on Hollywood in India.

David Hesmondhalgh is Professor of Media and Music Industries at the University of Leeds, where he is currently Head of the Institute of Communications Studies. He is the author of Why Music Matters (Blackwell, 2013), Creative Labour: Media Work in Three Cultural Industries (Routledge, 2011, co-written with Sarah Baker), and The Cultural Industries, now in its third edition (Sage, 2012). He is also editor or co-editor of five other books, including The Media and Social Theory (with Jason Toynbee, 2008), Media Production (2006) and Western Music and its Others: Difference, Appropriation and Representation in Music (with Georgina Born, 2000). He recently co-edited (with Anamik Saha) a special issue of the journal Popular Communication on “Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Production”, to which they contributed an article on that topic.

Michael Keane is Principal Research fellow at the ARC Centre Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI), Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. He is an Eastern Scholar with the Shanghai Theatre Academy (2012–2014). Michael Keane’s research interests include China’s cultural and media policy, creative industries in China and East Asia, and East Asian cultural exports. He is co-coordinator of the Asian Creative Transformations Lab at QUT and publishes the bi-monthly research newsletter The Asia-Pacific Creative Landing Pad Inflight Magazine, a compendium of critical insights on developments in and across Asia. His publications include Creative Industries in China: Art, Design and Media (Polity 2013) and Chinese Media: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies (4 volumes: editor with Wanning Sun 2013). Michael is author of China’s New Creative Clusters: Governance, Human Capital and Regional Investment (Routledge 2011), and Created in China: the Great New Leap Forward (Routledge 2007). He is co-author of New Television, Globalization and the East Asian Cultural Imagination (HKU Press 2007) and Key Concepts in Creative Industries (Sage 2012). He is editor of How Creativity is Changing China by Li Wuwei (Bloomsbury Academic 2011), and co-editor of Cultural Adaptations (Routledge 2010), TV Drama in China (HKU Press 2008); Television across Asia: Television Industries, Programme Formats and Globalisation (Routledge 2004), and Media in China: Consumption Content and Crisis (Routledge 2002).

Marwan M. Kraidy is Professor of Communication and Director of the Project for Advanced Research in Global Communication (PARGC) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, USA. The recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Kraidy has lectured worldwide and published more than 100 essays and 6 books, including Reality Television and Arab Politics (Cambridge UP 2010), which won three major prizes. Kraidy has been the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut, Visiting Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, Assistant Professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC, and Assistant Professor of Critical-Cultural Studies at the University of North Dakota. A frequent media commentator on global and Arab media issues, Kraidy is currently writing Creative Insurgency, revisiting media and creativity in revolutionary times. He tweets at @MKraidy.

Shanti Kumar is Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film, and a faculty affiliate in the Department of Asian Studies, the Center for Asian-American Studies and the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the University of Texas in 2006, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of North Texas in Denton. He is the author of Gandhi Meets Primetime: Globalization and Nationalism in Indian Television (University of Illinois Press, 2006), and co-editor of Planet TV: A Global Television Reader (NYU Press, 2003), Television at Large in South Asia (Routledge, 2012) and Global Communication: New Agendas in Communication (Routledge, 2013). He has published book chapters in several edited anthologies and articles in journals such as BioScope, Jump Cut, Popular Communication, South Asian Journal, South Asian Popular Culture, Television and New Media and Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Vicki A. Mayer is Professor of Communication at Tulane University. She is author of Producing Dreams, Consuming Youth: Mexican Americans and Mass Media, Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy, and over twenty peer-reviewed articles on media production, audiences, and industries. She is Editor of Television & New Media and directs the digital humanities project She also likes Cadillac margaritas and bubble gum pop music.

Jade Miller, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. She received her PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and subsequently held a Mellon Post-doctoral Fellowship at Tulane University. She works on the political economy of creative production, global media flows, and the geography of cultural/media industry development. She is particularly interested in creative industries in the context of urban and regional agglomeration and the development of global cities, including studies of cultural industries policy from the micro to macro level. Dr. Miller is working on a book on the development of alternative media capitals outside of dominant global cultural industry networks, with a focus on policy, new technologies, and alternative global connections in financing and distribution. This book has as its key case study the development and shifting shape of the robust Nigerian video film industry, known popularly as Nollywood. She is currently working on a research project on the drawing of touring networks in the music industry.

Toby Miller is a British-Australian-US interdisciplinary social scientist. He is the author and editor of over 30 books, has published essays in more than 100 journals and edited collections, and is a frequent guest commentator on television and radio programs. His teaching and research cover the media, sports, labor, gender, race, citizenship, politics, and cultural policy, as well as the success of Hollywood overseas and the adverse effects of electronic waste. Miller’s work has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, German, Turkish, Spanish and Portuguese. Among his books, SportSex was a Choice Outstanding Title for 2002 and A Companion to Film Theory a Choice Outstanding Title for 2004. Born in the United Kingdom and brought up in England, India, and Australia, Miller earned a B.A. in history and political science at the Australian National University in 1980 and a Ph.D. in philosophy and communication studies at Murdoch University in 1991. He taught at Murdoch, Griffith University, and the University of New South Wales and was a professor at New York University from 1993 to 2004, when he joined the University of California, Riverside. Miller was Distinguished Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at UCR until the end of 2013 and is now Professor of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Cardiff and Sir Walter Murdoch Professor of Cultural Policy Studies at Murdoch University.

Allison Perlman is an assistant professor in the Departments of History and Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is co-editor of Flow TV: Essays on a Convergent Medium (Routledge, 2010) and her work has appeared in publications like Critical Studies in Media Communication, Feminist Media Studies, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Television and New Media, Cinema Journal, and Communication, Culture & Critique. She is currently finishing a manuscript entitled Conflicting Signals: Media Activism and Broadcasting Policy, 1950-2007 that examines the intersections between American social movements, broadcast regulation, and television history.

Juan Piñón is Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Dr. Piñón is interested in the intersection of Latin American transnational media corporate dynamics with the established mode of production of U.S. Latino media. He has a Ph.D in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the U.S. coordinator of the Ibero-American Television Fiction Observatory (OBITEL,) an international research project on television fiction. He has experience in television production working for Televisa, and Imevision in Mexico. He held the position of Production and Programming manager from Channel 2 in Chihuahua Mexico in the 1980s, and Media Center Director in Monterrey Tech, Mexico City Campus in the 1990s. His work has been published in Communication Theory, Global Media and Communication, Television & New Media, and International Journal of Cultural Studies among the most salient.

Matt Sienkiewicz is Assistant Professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College. His research focuses on Western interactions with Middle Eastern media, and on representation in American screen comedy. His publications include articles in Popular Communication, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, International Journal of Cultural Studies, and Columbia Journalism Review. He is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV, available from Indiana University Press.

Petr Szczepanik is an Associate Professor at Masaryk University, Brno; a researcher at the National Film Archive, Prague; and editor of the Czech film journal Iluminace. In 2009-2010, he was a Fulbright scholar at UCLA. His most recent book is Canned Words: The Coming of Sound Film and Czech Media Culture of the 1930s (in Czech: Konzervy se slovy, 2009). He has also (co)edited several books on the history of film thought, including Cinema All the Time: An Anthology of Czech Film Theory and Criticism, 1908-1939 (2008). His current research focuses on the Czech (post)socialist production system, whose results will be partly published in Behind the Screen. Inside European Production Culture (Palgrave, co-edited with Patrick Vonderau). He is the main coordinator of an EU-funded project “FIND” which uses student internships in production companies to combine job shadowing with ethnographic research of production cultures.

Kristen Warner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication and Film at The University of Alabama. Her research interests are centered at the juxtaposition of televisual racial representation and its place within the media industries, particularly within the practice of casting. Kristen’s work can be found in online journals such as Flow: Journal of Television and New Media, In Media Res, and Antenna. She has contributed an essay on race and primetime television in Watching While Black: Centering the Television on Black Audiences. She is also completing a manuscript entitled The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting (Routledge).

Michael Curtin is the Duncan and Suzanne Mellichamp Professor of Global Studies in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also Director of the Media Industries Project at the Carsey-Wolf Center. His books include Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience: The Globalization of Chinese Film and TV, The American Television Industry, and Reorienting Global Communication: Indian and Chinese Media Beyond Borders. Curtin is currently at work on Media Capital: The Cultural Geography of Globalization and is co-editor of the Chinese Journal of Communication and the International Screen Industries book series of the British Film Institute.

Kevin Sanson was the Research Director of the Carsey-Wolf Center’s Media Industries Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also teaches in the Department of Film and Media Studies. His research focuses on the spatial dynamics of global media production and examines issues of location, labor, and creative identity. He is co-editor of Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, & Sharing Media in the Digital Era (Routledge 2014) and Distribution Revolution: Conversations about the Digital Future of Film and Television (UC Press 2014).