Gidget on the Couch

    By Peter Lunenfeld
    Design by Dmitri Siegel

    Open Project

    The best filmmakers and designers understand how to harness the powers of each of the specific forms they use in transmedia projects, creating compelling synergies rather than frantic muddles.

    - Peter Lunenfeld, Author's Statement

    Lunenfeld with the "real" Gidget Kathy Kohner Zuckerman on the beaches of Malibu
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    Author's Statement
    why not come to the source?????
    you need not be shy....!!!!!
    "truth is better than copy"
    (Email dated July 6, 2008 from Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the "real" Gidget)

    How do ideas find form? What shape do they take when new modes of communication make innovative things possible? How do ideas survive when these same new technologies destroy the complex systems of production and distribution they depend on for nurture and sustenance? In an era of ubiquitous, infinite social distraction, how can we ensure that long form arguments endure?

    This last question is for me vastly more important than whether books survive electronic publishing or if libraries can afford to subscribe to journals, or any of the other assorted and endless crisis talk of the academy. This is because it is the long form argument that sustains intellectual culture, allowing philosophers the space to structure complex logics, historians to weave years of archival research into rich narrative tapestries, and sociologists to drill both deeply and widely into communities and their contexts. Contemporary communication environments are superb at certain forms of texuality: the header, the graph, and the tweet. But all-too-social media can confuse us into mistaking background noise for content, and debilitate rather than strengthen the disciplines required to focus concentration, energy, and resources on the long form argument.

    But didn't the high-tech marketers tell us that text itself would disappear, encasing itself in a silicon chrysalis and then emerge into this, our 21st century as an interactive, audio-visual butterfly? Well, again, we're pretty good at downloading and reposting captioned photographs, pop songs, and video snippets, but the multimediated, innovative scholarship we were waiting for has been little seen, and less downloaded. That is why I was so happy when a Vectors Fellowship allowed me to assemble a team to build a better butterfly. When you press the "play" button, you'll see a melding of text, image and sound that our team crafted into something of a long form argument, a new mode of knowledge formation.

    This project began with a sense that after two decades devoted to media philosophy and the exploration of new and often virtual technologies, it was time to write about my real, physical surroundings, more specifically the cultural history of Los Angeles. "Gidget on the Couch: Freud, Dora (No Not That Dora), and the Secret Austro-Hungarian Roots of Surfing" was the first of my forays into this new territory, and I was lucky enough to find a home for it in The Believer. Edited by novelists Heidi Julavits, Vendela Vida, and Ed Park, The Believer is not an academic journal, but it could play one on TV, dedicated as it is to reviews and essays that "might hope to serve the culture," and famously opposed to the literary genre of "snark."

    "Gidget on the Couch" uses the emergence of surfing in particular its transition from activity to lifestyle commodity as a way to think through the evolution of modernist architecture in Southern California, linking the nihilistic soul surfer Miki Dora to expatriate architect Rudolph Schindler via the "real" Gidget's family (which included one of Hollywood's first trans-media talent agents). In the way of many contemporary texts, the essay itself has been remediated in different ways already. You can read it in the June, 2008 issue, of course (which you can order here), or you can browse it on the magazine's site, or you can find it in the print collection, Read Hard: Five Years of Great Writing from The Believer (San Francisco: McSweeny's, 2009) available here, and you can even (re-?)read it in a reposting from the book at The Rumpus.

    So, that brings us to the version for Vectors, this most mediated of remediations, one in which the text is not illustrated so much as transmuted into a "media script." I don't see an interchangeability between the visual and language, but rather a complementarity. The question is how to use each to best effect meaning. The visual can free the imagination and create fluid connections, but it is not an "advance" over the capacities of text, it is a different mode of knowledge production. The best filmmakers and designers understand how to harness the powers of each of the specific forms they use in transmedia projects, creating compelling synergies rather than frantic muddles. The act of thinking and then making a record of that process can be seen as a multi-valent, open position, as opposed to the older notion of "writing" or "picture making." If texts in their broadest sense can be thought of as "media scripts," then the specific medium that instantiates that script can change, evolve, morph, and even turn back upon itself depending upon the situation. But to get to this kind of "visual intellectuality" takes new kinds of training, new ways of working, and, quite often, new partners.

    I had known Dmitri Siegel's work for some time, as a multi-threat in the design world. With a background in art and an MFA in design from Yale, Dmitri has a reputation an innovative maker with gifts in typography, motion, and online media, who had been a guest lecturer in my department. A gifted critic, two of his essays in particular stand out as refined thinking on the profession of design in an era of D.I.Y. triumphant, "Bartleby" (12.11.05) and "Designing Our Own Graves" (06.27.06). He had done compelling motion typography for the Sundance Channel and the documentary Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox (d. Sara Lamm, 2006 - excerpts here). So, I was delighted when he expressed interest in working with me for the Vectors version of "Gidget on the Couch." He knew he wanted to incorporate live action, and brought in Matthew Nourse, a filmmaker who had recently released his debut feature The Pacific and Eddy (2007) to direct. Dmitri was in Philadelphia, Matt and I in Los Angeles, so we spent a lot of time in Skype conversations and email roundelays. Dmitri came out at key points, and he, Matt, camera man Quetzal Aguilar, and the occasional sound person would drive through the city to translate "Gidget on the Couch" into a new medium. In the credits, Dmitri is listed as the producer, Matt as the director, and I'm the writer, but the nature of this sort of collaborative practice means that we were all sharing ideas and strategies. I sincerely hope that the product of the process is as fun to watch as it was to make.

    Transmediation is too often thought of as "advancing" through historical formats - stories get written down, hand-made manuscripts get printed, theatrical productions are filmed, movies become interactive - and thus does culture march on. But such tidy progress is neither a given (as the utter financial and aesthetic failure of the interactive cinema should remind us) nor even a good. Vectors' openness to multiple formats meant that we were free to follow any number of paths, a freedom that any good designer can tell you comes with its own shackles. After reading the essay a few times, Dmitri essentially said that he liked it as it was: a linear, if looping, narrative argument. We made the decision not to go the expected route for multimediation, which would have been to turn it into an interactive interface. Dmitri instead pushed for a video travelogue, with a loose, conversational tone for the voice-over, a sense of language that is equal parts seminar table discourse and lively bar chat. It was the transformation from the carefully worked prose of the article back into conversation that achieved, at least in my estimation, real transmediation rather than simply shoveling content from one medium to another. The maps and type treatment are Dmitri's as is the overarching concept for the piece. Matt's deft camera work and direction was integral to all of this, and reminds me of the wonderful interplay that Los Angeles makes possible given the immense skills the "Industry" attracts to this city.

    Other people and institutions contributed to the project as well. My MFA students were pressed into service to sit and listen to me talk through the project to offer visible proof of my professing. I appreciated the Mak Center LA's willingness to let us film at the Schindler House and to MAK Governing Committee Member Robert L. Sweeney for sharing his decades of commitment to and understanding of the Schindlers and the Kings Road House. Great thanks to David Rensin whose All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora (2008) stands as a great piece of journalism in the history not just of surf writing, but also the chronicling of Southern California.

    Over two decades in Los Angeles, my cross-town colleagues at USC have been a wonderful resource. I was delighted when Vectors offered me a fellowship to develop this project. The journal, under Tara McPherson and Steve Anderson has been at the forefront of so many of the issues that I care about - multimedia scholarship, the design of visual argument, the future of print and post-print scholarship, the mediation of digital humanities - that it felt like being away at home during the period of the fellowship and during the gestation of the project.

    Okay, I've done the theory, talked about the details of the practice, and thanked those who contributed. Now I'm at the end, and can feign nonchalance about having met and spent time with Kathy Kohner Zuckerman the actual, real Gidget. A month after the essay first came out, I got three quick emails out of the blue from Kathy correcting some facts, and telling me to "come to the source," since she lived a half an hour from me. Gidget, the book that started it all, has been back in print for more than a decade, Kathy, the one and only original Gidget, has been profiled in other documentaries, and is a guest of honor at surf festivals all over the country. We were lucky to have Kathy contribute her memories, insight and charisma to this project. It was an unmitigated pleasure to discuss long form ideas with an original long board surfer. Thanks, Gidge!

    — Peter Lunenfeld, September 21st, 2011