Reflections on the Small-Gauge Roundtable

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

When we first invoked the idea of “small-gauge” in describing the vision that we had for Mediapolis, we chose the phrase because it evoked a sensibility and a practice with which we identified. It soon became clear that the notion of small-gauge scholarship resonated with our readers as well; at the same time, it also was clear that the same ambiguity that made the term so productive also presented an impediment to any continuing conversation about the small-gauge project. In an effort to resolve that tension, we invited a panel of scholars and artists whose work we admired, and which we identified with small-gauge scholarship, to discuss the concept with us.

To say that the goal of this roundtable was to “theorize” small-gauge scholarship is in some ways antithetical to the practice of small-gauge scholarship itself. Rather, we’d like to think that this conversation has drawn the curtain back on the scholarly and creative practices of our panelists, offering them a chance to reflect on their own work, and in turn offering our readers an opportunity to see the diverse ways in which the small-gauge approach manifests itself.

The very first article published on Mediapolis, our inaugural editorial note, focused on the mutually constitutive nature of media and city. While much of what we have published in the Journal to date has focused on mediations of cities, this roundtable offers the opportunity to step back and consider the nature of the inquiry itself. By changing the scope and duration of that inquiry, our panelists suggest, we can change media and re-present the places they represent. Throughout the discussion, what we have found most striking is that small-gauge approaches are defined by their ability to redefine the terms, objects, and places to which they are applied: they require us to re-think the workings and limits of both media and polis, even as they re-affirm the primacy of the connection between those two worlds.

From Kevin T. Allen’s first entry, it became clear that this roundtable would spread its roots into a variety of seemingly-unrelated fields of knowledge. Kevin expertly situated the conversation by tracing the rich genealogy of the phrase “small-gauge,” winding his way from Andean railroads to Oregonian filmmaker collectives. Jennifer Heuson carried the momentum of Kevin’s explorations into her discussion of the “ethos” of small-gauge scholarship. Jen’s was a particularly valuable perspective here, as she explicitly grappled with the intersections and tensions between small-gauge filmmaking practice and a more amorphous notion of “small-gauge scholarship” that this roundtable sought to better explain.

Carla Nappi took up Kevin’s genealogy of small-gauge and invited us to wander out upon new branches of the family tree. Describing her media practice as “a form of small-gauge activism,” she encouraged us to think about how we can diversify the practice of scholarly storytelling. Scott Rodgers, in turn, stepped back from small-gauge practice to ask questions of process: what kinds of environments and ecologies do scholars occupy when they employ small-gauge practices? How do we square the seeming promise of scholarly autonomy that “connective media” promises with the fact that these platforms are privately controlled and proprietary?

The second slate of posts, however, pushed us to recognize that small-gauge approaches can also reconstitute the city itself, helping us to understand it as a “space[] where bodies dwell and change in the context of some sort of infrastructure – whether that infrastructure is made of clouds or plants or caves,” as Carla Nappi offers in her final post. Similarly, Scott Rodgers helps us to understand Nappi’s point as part of a larger “remediation,” a function of small-gauge practices that allows us to “realize new ways to re-envision and re-present the small-scale or microcosmic fragments of mediated urban living and its environments.” Jen and Kevin’s contributions help remind us that the remediation that small-gauge practice offers is an inefficient, yet highly useful one. We are used to older technologies helping us to look backward, as in the rich genealogy with which Kevin opened his first post. Conversely, we expect new technologies to speak to our present and our future. Yet, as Kevin points out in his second post, attaching small-gauge practices to digital technologies helps us understand that, however much they speak the language of transparency and ease, media is always a “looking through,” and small-gauge practices help us better “attune” to our sense and world. Jen reminds us that such attunement can help us visualize what otherwise remains opaque even to today’s sensitive instruments: the atmosphere of communities and their spaces (much like Scott’s earlier reflections on microblogging’s small-gauge capture of otherwise ephemeral events like the conference). Small-gauge approaches subvert the dominant tendency to position new media forms in front of us and older forms behind us; instead, it demands that we look backward from software and digital environments, while also prompting us to look forward from older technologies, opening onto different ways of doing or being in unfamiliar or defamiliarized places. That is, such attunement is one of disconcerting creation through estrangement – an idea key, if ever one was, to the conjunction of mediation and the urban.

As we suggested above, whether all of this moves us any closer to a “theory” of small-gauge is, in many respects, beside the point. Erica invoked Michel de Certeau in her response essay, a figure whose ideas reverberate through much of this discussion. The distinction she referenced – between the voyeur and the “voyager” – is at the core of the vision we have for Mediapolis. For all the reasons Carla describes and more, cities resist the totalizing stories we tell about them, and part of the project of Mediapolis is to create a space for the kind of small-gauge approaches to urban thinking that can productively engage with the city in its infinite complexity.

To close on a point that Scott raised: Mediapolis itself is a digital environment, one that is largely defined by its relationship to small-gauge scholarship. There is no fixity to the manifestations of this relationship. Rather, it is the inherent flexibility of the small-gauge project – the same feature that Kevin stressed at the outset of this roundtable – that attracted us to it. Referring to a train ride through the Peruvian Andes, he described how small-gauge tracks allow one “ to travel across precarious territory and climb insurmountable peaks” – a perfect metaphor for the ambitions we have for this journal. Remaining mindful of the benefits of a small-gauge approach as we move forward, we have chosen to operate as voyagers – while at the same time insisting that by doing so, we will broaden our vision.

– Brendan & Erica

Photo by The Preiser Project

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