Culture in the Mediapolis

Church St. in downtown Burlington, VT is a virtual ghost town after students are sent home in mid-March. Source: https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/money/2020/03/18/vermont-coronavirus-how-stores-affected-pandemic-covid-19-church-street-marketplace/5057898002/
Ed. note: this post introduces a Student Voices section featuring student work on media cities, as well as a special feature on student experiences of COVID-19. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here

Normally a bustling commercial marketplace, the pedestrian-only Church Street in downtown Burlington, Vermont in the United States—shown here in the featured image—became a largely desolate ghost town, as thousands of students were sent home and workers encouraged to “stay home, stay safe” as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early March. Although only part of the contributions featured in this installment of Student Voices address the pandemic, I begin with this point because even those essays which are ostensibly outside of the COVID-19 experience are nevertheless deeply enmeshed within it, as they were written under those conditions—in a semester that was marked primarily by loss, uncertainty, anxiety, and a desire for connection amongst students, many of whom were in their final semester of college, who had been dispersed across the country. As my class “Culture in the Mediapolis”—an interdisciplinary seminar cross-listed between the Geography, Film and Television Studies, and Theatre departments at the University of Vermont in the spring semester of 2020—transitioned to remote instruction immediately following our Spring Break in mid-March, the spaces and places of Burlington, our home base, became ever more significant and prescient. Though only one student ended up writing about Burlington (and opted not to publish their work here, as the stress of the semester made the publication process too overwhelming), our sense of place, including both our feelings of ambivalence and antagonism as well as of love and longing for this college town undoubtedly drove home the course’s themes of cities’ symbolic and material interrelationships.

Drawing from an interdisciplinary approach to work in geography, cultural studies, critical media studies, and urban studies, “Culture in the Mediapolis” was an upper-level, special topics course designed to bring together students across disciplines to think through the interrelationships between media and cities and to contend with both the ways in which media constitutes cities and our everyday experiences in them, as well as how the city constitutes contemporary practices of media. The course focused especially on how today’s cities are mediated infrastructures—for example, we navigate through cities utilizing digital maps on our smart phones that connect us with data and information on the places, spaces, and people around us, which, in turn, collect data and information on us. Cities, too, are the spaces of more conventional media forms, as homes to media industries and their workers or the places in which media practices, like on-location filming, play out. Our cities are likewise often places of mediated spectatorship–from huge advertising screens, to street art, to the local art house cinema. But, a theme that we came back to as a class over and over again, was how our experiences in the city and its mediations are not all constituted equally—the mediated city is a deeply unequal one, and the mediatization of the urban both reflects and helps to shape contemporary struggles over inequality, power, and justice.

Students in the course came with a range of backgrounds—from Geography, Education, Environmental Studies, Speech & Debate, and Film and Television Studies. With this range of experiences in mind, the course began with a “fundamentals” introduction to some of the core theories and methodologies for studying media. Following this introduction, the course turned to looking at the history of the co-constitution of media and cities, considering in turn the cinematic city, the television city, and the digital/smart city. We then delved into media representations of cities, where we explored how media images and discourses influence and are influenced by the city’s materiality.

In these first three sections of the course, I relied primarily on articles and book chapters that I had collected for the course reading assignments. For the next portion of the course, however, I was thankful to have found the anthology The Routledge Companion to Urban Media & Communication, edited by Zlatan Krajina and Deborah Stevenson. This excellent collection paralleled well with my aims of the course in the topics covered, its organization of essays, and in the range of cities and media practices explored. The final three sections of the course were organized thematically in conjunction with the book’s organization—media infrastructures, media and the creative city, and everyday life in the media city. While the earlier portion of the course had more heavily emphasized the symbolic, these latter portions of the course turned more toward media’s own materiality. In addition to the chapters in the book on media and the creative city, I added two additional subsections to this portion of the course, where we explored media production in the creative city and sporting spaces.

The essays featured in this installment of Student Voices are drawn from the final research papers that students produced for this course. Students were tasked with choosing a city to focus on and exploring one of the themes that emerged from one section of the course. The papers that are featured here explore a range of cities from around the world—Singapore, London, Detroit, and California’s Bay Area (Oakland and San Francisco)—and each analyzes the ways in which the city’s materiality is constituted in and through media. Moreover, taken together, the essays each show an investment in questions of equity, as the authors explore how media images, media producers, fan practices, and government authorities play a role in struggles over city space and identity.

Caitlyn Williams’ paper, “From Cultural Desert to Cultural Garden: The Uncertainty of Singapore’s Creative Policy,” analyzes the popular romantic comedy film Crazy Rich Asians in conjunction with contemporary cultural policy efforts in Singapore that emphasize the creative economy. Williams finds that the film exemplifies Singapore’s efforts to capitalize on the creativity of its diverse, multicultural population in ways that rarely benefit those on whose back that creativity is built. Likewise interested in contemporary urban renewal efforts, Christian Golden’s paper, “Detroit and the Glorification of the Past,” compares the use of “ruin porn” in the documentary Detroit: Comeback City and the fiction film Gran Torino. Golden argues “ruin porn” is ubiquitous in representations of Detroit, and its use in these two films resonates with the city’s efforts to attract business and investment through imagining a nostalgic past that can be retrieved to renew Detroit’s future. Similar to Williams’ findings in her research on Singapore, Golden is concerned how nostalgia seeps into urban renewal efforts that erase the struggles of poor and minority populations in contemporary Detroit. While Williams and Golden are invested in how film representations are co-constitutive with cultural policy and urban renewal practices, Michael Naim’s paper, “Sherlock Holmes and Tourism in London,” turns our attention to how media audiences and fans connect with the cities they see on screen through practices of media tourism. Naim’s case study of Sherlock Holmes tourism in London explores how the series’ multi-generational and multi-media expansions have created a more immersive form of media tourism. Thus, even as Sherlock tourists visit well-trafficked London sites, they experience those sites as unique and “authentic” because of their relationship to the Sherlock Holmes universe. Finally, Abigail Rhim’s essay, “A City’s Lost Identity: An Analysis of The Golden State Warriors’ Relocation from Oakland to San Francisco,” turns our attention to an under-explored area of the media city—sports. Rhim discusses the departure of the Golden State Warriors from Oakland to San Francisco, and, in so doing, she demonstrates the significance of sporting spaces and practices to both a city’s brand and to residents’ sense of place-based identity. Analyzing media discourses circulated by the team, fans, and residents of both cities following the move, Rhim argues the move highlighted existing tensions between the two rival cities, further exacerbating the class divides between these two cities across the Bay.

I am particularly thankful to these students in my “Culture in the Mediapolis” course, who were generous and patient with me as we transitioned online. When I lost a close family member to COVID a few weeks before the end of the semester, I was deeply touched with the many and varied ways that they expressed their care and support, helping both me and each other to get across the finish line to the end of the semester. I think it is important to note that many students in my course opted not to move forward with their paper after the end of the semester. Although this was saddening, it was certainly understandable. Many of the students in the class were graduating, and the idea of continuing to revise their research after perhaps their most difficult semester proved just too daunting. This fact makes the papers here all the more impressive, as it demonstrates the students’ perseverance amidst hardship. But perhaps it is telling as well of the unequal effects of this pandemic, as we do not all bear its hardships equally.

And it is for this reason that we have chosen to include a special feature in this installment of Student Voices that focuses on student responses to the pandemic. This special feature is co-edited by Helen Morgan Parmett and Conn Holohan.

Like the University of Vermont, in March 2020, educational institutions across the world shut down as Covid-19 took hold, forcing country after country into lockdown. For many this happened almost overnight, leaving semesters half-taught and staff and students scrambling to transfer learning online. The impact of university closures and the requirement to maintain social distancing has been particularly significant for students and teachers of film and media production, for whom the online cannot easily replicate the experience of collaborative practice. As crewed shoots have become an impossibility and final projects have been hastily reconceived, audiovisual practice has turned inwards to the private spaces of everyday life, as students grapple with the consequences of the pandemic through reflective video essays, intimate documentaries and visual poems.

The films submitted for this section capture the sense of rupture and loss that has been experienced by all during lockdown, but that, research suggests, has impacted young people most of all. They express an uncertainty and anxiety for what is to come, an appreciation for what has been lost, and a yearning for that most essential of human needs: other people. They document some of the transformations this pandemic has wrought on every aspect of public and private life. Collectively, they offer a thoughtful and creative response to an unprecedented moment in history.

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