Friday, February 01, 2008

Kids and Mobile Play: David Buckingham's Camcorder Culture

On January 30th, I attended a seminar at the London Knowledge Lab, featuring David Buckingham, who talked about the latest component of a study his Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media is doing on "Camcorder Cultures". His talk focused on the use of video/film within youth skate (board) culture: the film conventions found within this subcultural genre, how knowledge (both in terms of the sport and surrounding media production) is exchanged among skaters, and the complex relationship with commercial culture (including sponsors, commercialization, appropriation, etc.). A very interesting and well put-together presentation, with lots of openings for analysis and future questions about technology, performance, play, celebrity culture, digital culture and DIY media. He showed a number of clips of typical skate videos and provided a brief content analysis of a skate-video website called Skate Perception.

I was struck by both the continuities and the evolution of these videos since my earlier exposure to them in the early to mid-1990s (when they suddenly became a feature of my own peer culture), through to the late-90s (when they would often materialize in the later hours of university house parties). In many respects, a number of the predominant conventions present in the skate videos of a decade ago remain -- often filmed with a fish-eye lens, frequent use of black and white, grainy "documentary" style footage (esp. during complex tricks, which are as unedited as possible) from low perspectives, and the inevitably trendy indie soundtrack. They still follow the same format of introducing a skater (whose name appears on the bottom of the screen), followed by a montage of them performing a series of tricks (set to a particular song/band/genre), switch to the next skater, a series of their tricks, with their own song/band/genre, etc. Buckingham pointed out that the use lettering and the ways in which names appear on the screen during these intros is an important part of the production value, as is the accentuation (perhaps added in) of the sounds the skateboard makes, as it grinds, rolls, hits the pavement, etc.

There were also quite a few noticeable differences between "then" and "now" - the videos we watched were much more polished than previous, more serious in a way (although Buckingham argues that they aim to "not be too serious), without the short shots of pranks, gross-out scenes and general silliness that were often sprinkled into the videos we watched as teens (and that Anil's friends made themselves, as he described during Q&A). There's even a trend of explicit "sponsor me" videos -- made and promoted to find the skater a corporate sponsor.

The relationship between extreme sports (skating) and commercial leisure was of particular interest to me. Although he didn't delve too far into it, Buckingham pointed out that from the outset the sport has had tight links to corporate sponsorship and branding, although he presents this as a complex, back and forth (or bottom-up and top-down) exchange. I, of course, was a little more suspicious of how the videos appear to conform to previous versions, including the commercial versions we watched back in the day. I suppose the argument would be that those videos were probably already trying to appropriate and replicate what kids were doing on their own anyway. It's hard to say, and even harder to say if it matters, but I suppose I'm nonetheless troubled at the way in which the political economic relations are so overt and yet so subtle within skate culture, which appears to have internalized an attitude of ironic acceptance towards its own commodification.

Anyway, here are more links to some of the things Buckingham talked about:
Ale Ciattoni's "Sponsor Me" Video
Dogtown and Z-Boys
A recent Vans ad

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