Appalshop Meeting Report
The meeting, as far as we understood it, came together because of a grant to Appalshop from the Rockefeller Foundation a couple of years ago. The idea was to convene an informal meeting of leaders in the field during a time when the field was more or less in crisis. The NEA was under constant threat, the MacArthur Foundation was in the process of changing its media funding guidelines, and the field was facing radical changes in its support structure.
Among the NAMAC board and staff there were ongoing questions about the meeting. Should NAMAC be involved somehow? Should NAMAC be concerned? How could NAMAC help the field as a result of this meeting? And, of course, who was going and what was it going to be about?
So, what did happen?
The weekend was short, but undeniably "Appalshop." Although I didn't attend the legendary NAMAC Conference at there, I had heard about Appalshop for years. It's an obviously great place to hold a retreat for this primarily urban group. There are no distractions. Absolutely none. No movies. Not much window shopping. One restaurant that everyone frequents. One main street. People have to talk to each other.
The participants came from a little bit of everywhere, and brought together an extraordinary depth and range of experience. From west to east, participants included Linda Mabalot, Sally Jo Fifer, Gail Silva, Steve Gong, Jim Yee, Robin Hickman, Gordon Quinn, Tom Weinberg, Kate Horsfield, Mimi Pickering, Dee Davis, Ann Lewis, Tony Buba, Charlie Humphrey, Mark Lloyd, Ruby Lerner, Neil Seiling, Lillian Jimenez and myself, with Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard facilitating.
The weekend's agenda seemed large and vague, which we were later told was completely deliberate. The operative word was conversation. And the idea was that people needed to be able to get together to have a conversation about where things stood, what might need to happen, and who might undertake whatever might be discussed.
On Friday night, after the endless trek to get there, we were treated to barbecued chicken at Dee and Mimi's, as well as some live music later in the evening. Everyone was asked to come with a story that represented to them what the field was about, and why they were involved.
On Saturday, the full session started with a general kvetch. We got to list all the things that we wanted to complain about. As we all know, we can be very good at that. Luckily, that didn't last for too long.
As the day continued, little by little we were asked to address the larger question of whether the field needed some major, overarching strategy. If so what? And then who? What came out of the discussion was surprising, because it was probably not what anyone in the group had expected.
What's it all about? Does anybody care?
Somewhere during mid-morning session on Saturday there was a palpable sense of frustration because we had been asked to help set the agenda and define what we wanted as the final outcome. Uh-oh.
We decided to state our common values about independent media. Around the room we brainstormed what we considered to be the social and cultural value of what we define as independent work.
Here is a draft of the list of "common values of independent media" that we all agreed upon:
- Shows respect for difference (tolerance)
- Demonstrates independence of thought and vision
- Encourages people to think
- Works to coalesce communities
- Is participatory in nature
- Demonstrates excellence and effectiveness as a work of art and communication
- Illuminates complexity rather than simplification
- Values the particular
- Values truth and honesty of vision and experience
This list of shared principles of independent media may seem like a small thing, but ultimately it became quite important. From my own perspective, I couldn't remember a time when a cross-section of the field had gotten together and started a dialogue from an explicit, overt statement of common ground.
For example, one of the most common complaints within the field has been that it lacks mainstream visibility. To me, it has always seemed the ultimate irony that for a field of communicators and artists its public visibility has not been far greater. The ability to simply state what we were about might be the first crucial step towards making our message clearer to the general public in understandable ways.
What should we do?
After that, there were a number of ideas that were thrown around about what the field might do. The millennium came up. Jim Yee offered another consortium idea. And there were others discussions about how we might involve the general public. Dee, who has all those huge newsprint pages crammed with Don Adam's faultless note-taking, is preparing reports to the funders and, we've heard, an article for The Independent. His account will be far more accurate than my faulty recollections. But the most heartening outcome of these discussions from my perspective as a NAMAC Board member and co-President, was that for better or for worse NAMAC is the media arts' hardy vehicle to further and strengthen our common, long range goals as a field.
And there was question of leadership.
One of the implicit issues in this meeting concerned the question of the field's leadership. If all were in order, why would there be a need for discussion and brainstorming? During one memorable discussion Mark Lloyd reminded us about the role of Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement. Although Reverend King was drafted by a number of leaders in the movement to bring the movement together, there already existed many strong and diverse organizations working in different arenas. Among the various groups an understanding grew for the need for a powerful spokesperson and leader figure who could represent the issues and move the civil rights agenda forward.
As the weekend was winding down, I sensed that leadership was not the main issue but that unity was. Looking around the room, I was encouraged by listening to Gail, Ruby, Jim, Kate and our other colleagues. We were allin our different ways and in different arenas pursuing a common purpose. There was no question that each of the participants is extremely knowledgeable, capable and committed. And collectively I saw a deep sense of integrity and maturity.
So, what was accomplished?
After this gathering, I recalled the NAMAC 1994 Congress in Oakland and its list of priorities the field had put forward. I ended up feeling that this meeting had accomplished some very different and subtle, yet highly significant, goals.
First, the field is undervalued and so are the people working in it. By bringing together this group, the Appalshop meeting honored everyone's value. By extension, it helped us all realize how important it is for this young field to honor our accumulated history not just for the public but for all of us who work in the media arts.
Second, the group was able to put forward a statement of common values. This statement can become the basis for a field-wide Independent Media Bill of Rights or public initiative.
Third, the group was mature enough not to promise doing something new which, we realized, none of us have time for anyway. People agreed that NAMAC, as the field's national service organization, should be the container for any next steps, with full participation from the membership in crafting an implementation plan.
And finally, we saw that the field needs to build a mechanism for bridging to new and vital leadership for the next generation. The Appalshop dialogue was extraordinary and deeply moving. But there were only twenty people there, and only one person who has been involved in the field for less than ten years. We must broaden that conversation by sharing the experience, knowledge and history of a founding generation to those new and emerging leaders.
It is in these kinds of rare moments at a gathering of this kind where I can engage with my peers and listen, learn and exchange ideas and information. Being able to step back and reflect makes me glad that I've chosen to do what I do, and motivated to keep going for at least another little stretch of time.
Anne Marie Stein is the former Executive Director of Boston Film/Video Foundation and former co-president of NAMAC's Board of Directors.
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