- Media Arts Festivals: Scholarship and Artistry in Practice
media arts festival s are held in rural towns and large cities, in theaters or community centers, and on private or public campuses across the globe nearly every day. By their very nature, festivals allow audiences to experience broader and more varied artistic contributions than are typically available on traditional distribution channels. This exposure can develop and expand audience appreciation for alternative styles and genres of digital arts, with the potential of reimagining tastes and reshaping the canon(s) of media arts while potentially diversifying the pool of creators.
This article explores the inclusion of academic media arts festivals as a logical and perhaps even necessary extension of teaching media arts history, criticism, and/or production. The authors examine the value of engaging in the process of selecting and curating media artifacts and programming festival events either within academic institutions or within independently run arts festivals. Because of the pedagogical and cultural benefits, the authors conclude that participating in, organizing, or hosting festivals warrants institutional attention, as well as faculty recognition for contributions to research, artistry, and scholarship.
Theatrical distribution methods pertaining to film and media arts have been changing for decades. Traditional outlets, along with national and international film festivals, helped to shape the established canon of “best” or essential films while constituting what we know as American film/media arts culture. “Best of” lists laid the foundation for what became central markers of good or “must-see” films. These cultural artifacts were historically, of necessity, limited to films and other digital formats created by makers with access to major funding, marketing, and distribution arrangements. Largely, these creators were from a financially privileged group of producers and directors whose cinematic and creative lifeblood relied on access to large budgets. Diversity in stories and in directors’, writers’, or producers’ identities was not a priority until very recently. Roya Rastegar, formerly a festival programmer for the Women of Color Film Festival at the University of California, Santa Cruz, admits that her own desire as an activist and scholar is to disrupt those trends in festival programming that foster stereotypes and misrepresentations of marginalized identities (“Seeing Differently” 191). Media arts festivals offer a possibility for [End Page 5] changing tastes as well as disrupting dominant media arts narratives and practices. Rastegar suggests that “[f]estivals create and expand taste, cinematic sensibilities and ways of storytelling as a way to dynamically make and re-make our aesthetic, social, and cultural values through the stories brought to the screen about who we are, where we came from and what we want” (“Seeing Differently” 192).
It is within theatrical and industry-based distribution structures that audiences develop their aesthetic tastes, whether through films, videotapes, television, DVDs, or streaming sites. Faced with a steady diet of commercial fare, an audience may find it difficult to appreciate digital art projects that proffer new stories and alternative ways of telling them. Societal and technological changes have, for decades, affected audience demand, creator access, and storytelling styles as well as distribution methods.1 Recent improvements in Internet availability and bandwidth have further altered all facets of distribution significantly, expanding audience reach as well as demand for alternative art forms and stories. Shorter, niche media productions (e.g., films, music, performances, various new media displays) made by independent artists are often left in a sea of unedited and non-curated Web sites where finding appreciative fans, let alone notoriety, is difficult. The work of lesser-known or even marginalized creators is often ignored despite the societal benefits or narrative value of their artistic work.
As the technology and the tools needed for digital production become more readily available, educators, makers, critics, and fans continue to debate who is allowed to participate in the production of digital media arts. Non-mainstream or independent contributions are often less commercially valued due to their niche audience appeal. Festival programmers have some latitude in this area since they are not necessarily taking a financial risk by programming such media. They can select films, music, or performances that stretch artistic boundaries in the hopes of creating wider audience appeal.