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Breaking Bread

:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

GRANDMA’S BISCUITS

Around the time my wife Katie and I moved to Richmond, Virginia in 1997, I began working on

a documentary film project about the Benson Sing, an annual Southern gospel singing in

convention in my hometown of Benson, NC that began in 1921. This project grew out of my

longtime interests in oral history, music, film, performance, and community. Visits home to work

on the project gave me additional opportunities to visit my family. On one such visit, at Sunday

dinner at Grandma Peedin’s house, I casually asked Grandma, “Do you remember the first time

you made biscuits?” (Growing up, we went to Grandma’s house almost every Sunday after

church, driving 30 minutes up I-95 from Benson to Micro, North Carolina, to visit and eat a huge

Sunday dinner with two or three meat dishes, all kind of vegetables harvested from her garden,

sweet tea, a couple of desserts and biscuits, always hot, homemade biscuits. From Sunday to

Sunday, year to year, no matter what was on the table, the one constant was her biscuits.) A

natural storyteller, Grandma smiled big and launched into a wonderful story of when she was 11

years old, the oldest of nine siblings, and told by her father, a farmer, that she would have to

learn how to make the biscuits because her mother was pregnant and soon wouldn’t be able to

make them. After she finished I immediately asked her if I could come back one weekend to film

her making biscuits and make an audio recording of her story. I was inspired and motivated on

many levels – Grandma was a great storyteller and I wanted to capture and preserve something

of her essence, her sparkle; I wanted to learn how to make Grandma’s biscuits because Mom had

not learned how, and I didn’t want this important family food to be lost when she died; I was just

beginning to make short films and this seemed perfect for a film; and, most importantly, I wanted

to spend time with my grandmother.

AN ALTERNATIVE COURSE

Fast forward to today. Even before this class, early in my thoughts of applying for admission into

VCU’s Media, Art and Text (MATX) PhD program, this film and the possibilities to use it as a

launching pad to take me into new creative and intellectual territories loomed large. Since

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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

making the film I’ve thought about the experience often and how I might use it to further my

interest in and exploration of the oral tradition.

However, before enrolling in this class I was thinking about a project that would

primarily use more established media modalities – because of my performance background, I

thought I would develop a one-man show, mixing live performance with film, sound, and

projected photographs to create a multimedia experience. The question I thought I was interested

in was: How does the way a story is mediated affect how it is received? In this one-man show I

wanted mix various media (like a DJ would mix music for a dance party) to create a multimedia

experience. I wanted to see how this might be different from just showing the film. I was

primarily interested in how to bring the immediacy and intimacy of this kind of personal

storytelling into a multimedia context. My film, captures Grandma telling a story and yet we

experience it at a distance. I thought the way to transcend the limitations of media (film, audio,

images) was by putting it in a performance context, placing me front and center in the traditional

role of storyteller but one who would use a variety of media to tell “my” story.

GRANDMA’S BISCUITS AND THE MATX

Taking this course has put me on another tack: to put “Grandma’s Biscuits” in a New Media

context and use the film (and other similar works) to catalyze and facilitate a creative dialog with

others. This dialog would primarily exist in the sharing of texts specifically produced in response

to those on the website/blog/portal (or at the least, the sharing of previously-made texts that were

selected and posted as a response to the work on the site). This new direction was seeded by

several readings. First, Roland Barthes’ essay, “From Work to Text” offered me this to ruminate

on:

“… the Text is a methodological field. The opposition may recall (without at all reproducing

term for term) Lacan's distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘the real’: the one is displayed, the

other demonstrated; likewise, the work can be seen (in bookshops, in catalogues, in exam

syllabuses), the text is a process of demonstration, speaks according to certain rules (or

against certain rules); the work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language, only

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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

exists in the movement of a discourse (or rather, it is Text for the very reason that it knows

itself as text); the Text is not the decomposition of the work, it is the work that is the imaginary

tail of the Text; or again, the Text is experienced only in an activity of production. It

follows that the Text cannot stop (for example on a library shelf); its constitutive movement is

that of cutting across (in particular, it can cut across the work, several works).”

My hope is to develop a project that will link people and their individual acts of creativity in a

way that helps create a metatext (or at least, by directly grouping and linking them via this

interactive portal, make it easier to find/follow our Text) – Text in the sense of “the movement of

a discourse” that is “experienced only in an activity of production” whose “constitutive

movement is that of cutting across (in particular, it can cut across … several works).” Also in

Barthes’ essay I was moved by this passage:

“The Text … decants the work (the work permitting) from its consumption and gathers it up as

play, activity, production, practice. This means that the Text requires that one try to abolish (or at

the very least diminish) the distance between writing and reading …” Introducing the concept of

‘playing’ with the text, Barthes goes on to say: “The history of music (as a practice, not as an ‘art’)

does indeed parallel that of the Text fairly closely: there was a period when practicing amateurs

were numerous … and ‘playing’ and ‘listening’ formed a scarcely differentiated activity …”

This resonates deeply with another value of mine – to live the ideal of the amateur as illustrated

by Barthes in the passage above. Amateur comes from the Latin word amator, meaning lover.

Dictionary.com defines amateur as “1. a person who engages in a study, sport or other activity

for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons.” However, most people

today associate the word amateur with this definition: “3. a person inexperienced or unskilled in

a particular activity.” This gives it a negative versus positive connotation. I myself have for a

long time been an amateur (in the best, positive definition of the word) filmmaker, musician, and

performer and through my work establishing Flicker and the Richmond Moving Image Co-op, I

have labored to promote and encourage amateur filmmaking. This is central to the concept of my

website or portal to promote media making around the oral tradition. I primarily want to

encourage and engage the “lovers” – artists and everyday people (especially those who would

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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

not consider themselves to be artists or creative) who are passionate about life and art, people

and their stories – to make versus consume media to send and receive – for the love of it. I am

reminded of a Jonas Mekas quote from his Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto:

I want to celebrate the small forms of cinema, the lyrical form, the poem, the watercolor, etude,

sketch, portrait, arabesque, and bagatelle, and little 8mm songs. In the times when everybody

wants to succeed and sell, I want to celebrate those who embrace social and daily failure to

pursue the invisible, the personal things that bring no money and no bread and make no

contemporary history, art history or any other history. I am for art which we do for each other, as

friends, for ourselves.

I got a lot of inspiration from Jonas Mekas and his manifesto in the early days of my work

establishing the Richmond Flicker, a bi-monthly showcase of short Super 8 and 16mm films

made by area filmmakers, and I have been an avid promoter and defender of this kind of art

made for friends (Flicker led to me co-founding the nonprofit Richmond Moving Image Co-op).

Part of me wonders if the kind of intimacy, community and dialog that we achieved through

Flicker can be replicated in the new media environment. Gathering together for a common,

shared experience – whether to cook and eat a meal or to watch and celebrate locally-made films

– is such a vital, tribal affair with a strong connection to oral culture and tradition. However, new

media has the ability to connect people based on shared ideas and interests regardless of where

they live. There is an inherent tension here that I’m interested in exploring. Can new media be

used to (re)connect to the values represented in the oral tradition? Regardless, I’m not the only

person thinking about this. In my search for a moving article I’d read years ago, written by

National Alliance for Media Art + Culture (NAMAC) co-president Helen DeMichiel and entitled

“Towards a Slow Media Practice” (NAMAC: A Closer Look: Media Arts 2001), which made the

connection between the Slow Food Movement and the media arts field, I came across an update

of sorts, written by Wendy Levy of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) in 2006 as a feed on

the NAMAC website. She writes: “

In our new “digital ecology,” it seems we are all producers. Our capacity to create and feed

information, content, images, and identities from and to one another is now an experience and
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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

extension of the body so ubiquitous that not to do it can leave you feeling hungry and alone. A

blank screen is like an empty stomach: no feeds (RSS), no tubes (YOU), no culture. … In the vast

media garden, the big guys (Google, YouTube, Current, Yahoo) have been very concerned with

the modes of distribution, controlling and monetizing the feeds. There is little doubt that soon their

collective energy will turn to the modes of production; they will start being concerned about the

food. … The slow foodists may have been on to something. Check this out: on their website [Slow

Food International] they say, ‘We consider ourselves co-producers, not consumers, because by

being informed about how our food is produced, and actively supporting those who produce it, we

become a part of and a partner in the production process.’ It’s a revolution. Or a mission statement

for a very cool media arts center. All I know? I am hungry for the stories, and even hungrier for

the new ways of telling.”

“New ways of telling” is a good way to put it. It also brings to mind an independent study course

I participated in during my senior year in the Speech Communication Department (now

Communication Studies) at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Della Pollock,

who was at the time a fairly new assistant professor, had decided to develop a performance based

on Like a Family: The Making of Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, a seminal oral history

developed by UNC history professors involved with UNC’s Southern Oral History Program. She

recruited 10 undergraduate students and two graduate students to help develop the script and

performance. In her essay, “Telling the Told: Performing Like a Family” (Oral History Review

18/2, Fall 1990, 1-36), she explains:

“I wanted a performance that by its particular virtue of being art, paradoxically enabled historical

discourse. This aim was informed by my ongoing interest in the theory and practice of the German

dramatist, Bertolt Brecht.” One of the most powerful rehearsal exercises Dr. Pollock used was an

exercise in narrative exchange. We were each partnered with another student performer and asked

to tell our life stories. Then, we reassembled as a group and each of us took a turn telling our

partner’s life story. Feeling a sense of obligation to get it right, we all engaged in active listening

in a way we’d never done before. We were all transformed by the exercise. … “But what was

most interesting were the partners’ responses to hearing and seeing their story slip from their

grasp. … In each instance, what made them initially anxious was the sense that, having been once

told, their stories were no longer theirs. What later gave them pleasure was a sense that, having
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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

been twice told, each story took a life of its own. It was dialogized and publicized. It left off the

mantle of private property and became a sign of collective exchange.”

This experience also gave us the confidence that we could tell the mill workers stories with great

care and respect (until that point we truly weren’t sure that we had the right to do this project).

Again, Dr. Pollock explains:

“Within about three weeks, the performers agreed that silence was a no more adequate response to

the stories they had heard than was mere appropriation. In order to realize their role as listeners,

they began to feel they had to participate as fully accountable partners in the dialogic re-creation

of the mill world.”

Participating in this course was the single most valuable learning experience during my entire

undergraduate career. Reading Dr. Pollock’s essay back in 1990 (not long after I graduated)

provided me with deeper understanding of what she had hoped to achieve and gave me some

theory and language (even though I didn’t understand it all at the time) to help explain my

experience as a participant. In light of this powerful experience of “retelling the told” – the

stories of textile workers, who made their meager wages weaving fabric – it’s not surprising that

I was struck by the textile, texture, weaving, fabric metaphors used by Barthes and others as they

described the dialogic possibilities of Text and hypertext/hypermedia. This is when a light went

off in my head and I began to “play” with the idea of a project that would explore “telling the

told” through new media versus some kind of real-time, multimedia performance (though I

haven’t entirely ruled that out). I’m still have some reservations about using new media for this

project given that I’ve seen firsthand how retelling people’s stories can be structured to

encourage real, substantive dialog with audiences (who are socialized to receive, not send),

moving them to tell new stories, adding to the fabric of the Text. However, I found useful

language and encouragement in what Michel de Certeau (quoted in Dr. Pollock’s essay) writes:

“ … the rhetoric of ordinary conversation consists of practices which transform ‘speech

situations,’ verbal productions in which the interlacing of speaking positions weaves an oral fabric

without individual owners, creations of communication that belong to no one. Conversation is a

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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

provisional and collective effect of competence in the art of manipulating ‘commonplaces’ and the

inevitability of events in such a way as to make them ‘habitable.”

Blogs, social networking sites, photo and video sharing sites (YouTube, Flickr) and wikis are the

new “commonplaces” in which we are becoming conversational. One aim of my project is to see

if I can use these commonplaces to encourage the production and exchange of media as a way to

have meaningful ‘conversation’ with others.

The final theories that I want to highlight as instructive and/or critical of my project are

Enzensberger’s “Constituents of a Theory of the Media” and Baudrillard’s “Requiem for the

Media.” According to by The New Media Reader editors, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick

Montfort, Enzensberger and Baudrillard share the view that the situation, i.e. genuine reciprocity,

will not get any better by simply making everyone a producer (versus consumer) of media.

Baudrillard believes that the problem lies not in who transmits but in our very underlying model

of communication. The “transmitter-message-receiver” model does not allow a place for the

ambiguity of true exchange; it “excludes, from its inception, the reciprocity and antagonism of

interlocutors, and the ambivalence of their exchange.” Baudrillard articulates my skepticism and

fears pretty clearly; my experience to date with social networking and blogs certainly doesn’t

disprove his claims that these forms of communication don’t really allow a place for “true

exchange.” However, Enzensberger’s ideas of “Networklike communication models built on the

principle of reversibility of circuits … a mass newspaper, written and distributed by its readers, a

video network of politically active groups” offer hope on which to build my project. Also, many

of his ideas, which were voiced in 1970, seem to predict wikis (Wikipedia) and the Independent

Media Center’s use of the Internet to organize and provide counter-information about the

protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, WA in 1999. In the case of the latter,

“new media were used to support the alternative organization of a social movement (more of a

network than a hierarchy) and to provide a different model of media consumption … delivered

on the Web” versus the cable and broadcast networks. In the sidebar of the introduction to

Baudrillard’s “Requiem for the Media,” Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort say that neither
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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

Enzensberger nor Baudrillard give concrete ideas of “how to stimulate the more interactive

communication they envision.” However, the NMR editors do suggest that there is a more

inspiring model of performance developed by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. They

say the question now being investigated is whether Boal’s techniques for overcoming the

spectator/actor divide can be used in new media contexts, perhaps creating a media that may

overcome Baudrillard’s encoder/decoder divide. I enjoyed learning about Boal and his work and

putting it on a continuum and in context with Brecht, whose work influenced my mentor, Dr.

Della Pollock. I became even more intrigued by her response to my enthusiastic email asking her

what she knew about Boal. She wrote:

“Yes, I know Boal well! Your summary is great. His work has taken on a life of its own in the

States, esp. as his later work adjusts the conditions of oppression he describes in Theatre of the

Oppressed (which builds on Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed) for a “postmodern” culture in

which the oppressor may be what he calls “the cop in the head”: the internalized conditions of

hierarchy, surveillance, and self-recrimination. It sounds like you may have read some of the more

theoretical portions of *T0* and might appreciate the discussion of practical approaches in the

second half of the book …”

So, while I haven’t had the time to dig deep, the message is loud and clear to me to spend some

additional time with Boal (and perhaps Baudrillard and Enzensberger) and seek out other works

that apply Boal’s ideas in a new media context. I don’t yet have a true sense of what’s been done

or being done in this line of inquiry but I’ve already identified a few places to begin (on the

Breaking Bread site I’ve compiled a starter list of Inspiration and Resources – organizations,

projects and collectives that are putting some of these theories into practice). My intention is to

use this paper and blog as a starting point to develop a project with vision and values woven with

sound theories and a creative methodology stitched together from the best practices of successful

artists, collectives, movements and organizations.

Breaking Bread: A Prototype for a True Exchange at the New Media Table

As part of my preliminary work on this project, I’ve put together a sketch of what the Breaking

Bread portal might look like. I used a free Blogger account to create the site, but I’m pretty sure
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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

that most blogging software (like Blogger) does not allow anyone other than authorized

administrators to add media content, like photos, audio and video. For example, after someone

watches my “Grandma’s Biscuits” film, he or she can post a comment, but can’t post another

video, picture or audio file in a creative response. So, I’m going to look into other new media

tools like WordPress, Jing, Joomla, Drupal and other open source content management systems.

Ultimately, what I need is a tool that makes it easy for others to load their creative responses

(photos, audio, video, documents, etc.) in a variety of ways (linking from their YouTube and

Flickr accounts or uploading directly to my portal.

The bottom line is this: I’ve only scratched the surface of what I think could be a very

rich and rewarding project. Regardless of its success or failure (I’m not sure how I would define

either at this point), there’s one thing of which I’m absolutely certain – I, and whomever else

chooses to “play” with me will be fed something wholesome and fulfilling, like a wonderfully

slow-cooked meal, and we will have the sustenance we need to continue our exploration of the

art in life.

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Breaking Bread:
Striving for True Exchange at the New Media Table
http://biscuitsandblogs.blogspot.com/
Final Paper/Project for MATX 601-Fall 2009
James Parrish

Note on Bibliography: I have created hyperlinks for all works cited or referenced. As a result –

and because I ran out of time and wanted to focus the remaining time and attention on my oral

presentation – I have chosen to forego the creation of a traditional bibliography. Because I intend

to continue this work, I intend to come back and add a bibliography at a later date.

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