Playing with Mobiles & Performing Mobility @MINA #2015: a Mobile Innovation Network Australasia (MINA) Symposium Review
PhD researcher at RMIT University
Research fellow at the German Research Foundation’s Training Group “Literature and Dissemination of Literature in the Digital Age,” and a PhD candidate in Cultural and Visual Anthropology at the University of Göttingen
Mobile phones with built-in cameras have not always enjoyed such a popular status as alternative tools for the production and distribution of digital visual media as it can be observed today. With their increasing accessibility, naturally, mobile phones have been adopted and incorporated without hesitation in everyday cultural practices to capture, edit, share and view a variety of content. However, in the broader sphere of the creative media industry, initially denigrated as limited and constraining in comparison to professional cameras and equipment, mobile devices and their according practices and aesthetics have been notorious for being amateurish. Low-image resolution, Instagram’s filter features or the use of the vertical video format appeared to point to a lack in skill rather than to distinct characteristics of an emerging mobile aesthetic.
As screenings, festivals, and conferences around mobile films and art continue to spread, we can observe a shift from a “technologically enabled hobby” or avant-garde moving-image practice towards the recognition of the smartphone’s capacity as digital media tool and with that an appreciation of the “sophisticated cultural practice and profession” behind it.  By viewing the device’s apparent constraints as specific advantages, its discrete size, portability and affordability can become assets for less intrusive, more immediate and creative explorations of the world around us allowing not only for new modes of production, distribution and consumption but also for empowering different possibly more diverse, marginal and local perspectives to reach global audiences.
Since 2004, mobile filmmaking has been increasingly recognized internationally as a field with its own aesthetic qualities by specifically dedicated events providing a platform and catalyst for mobile media forms, genres and practices. In the Australasian region, we can observe the establishment of a “nexus of interconnected mobile film festivals” such as the Sydney-based Mobile Screenfest, the annual Hong Kong Mobile Film Awards and, last but not least, the Mobile Innovation Network Australasia (MINA). 
Since the International Mobile Innovation Screening and the MINA Mobile Creativity and Innovation Symposium in 2011, the network has been promoting “cultural and research activities to expand the emerging possibilities of mobile media.”  Following this approach, MINA provides opportunities to extend discussions on the developments in the field across academia, practitioners, the creative industry and the wider public.
On November 19th, the 2015 Mobile Innovation Network Australasia (MINA) Symposium took place at RMIT University in Melbourne. Following the conference with keynotes and panels from both practitioners and academics in the field, multiple screening events offered a platform for recent international smartphone, mobile and pocket films.
The peer reviewed worldwide panels, made up of both practitioners and academics, reviewed the submitted papers and films for the screening. Some of the papers accepted to the symposium might also become part of a co-edited special issue of the Journal of Creative Technologies (https://ctechjournal.aut.ac.nz).
“Every year you put out the call…and see the trends that are emerging (for that year),” explains one of the MINA organisers, Smiljana Glisovic. However, MINA also looks at the habitual, the ritual, the mundane of everyday mobile media practice in everyday life.
2015 Mobile Innovation Network Australasia Symposium trailer
2015 was the first time that the MINA symposium has been outside of New Zealand since its 2011 inception, and it has been an intentional choice by the co-founders Laurent Antonczak of the COLAB at Auckland University of Technology and Dr. Max Schleser of Massey University: “MINA is a kind of umbrella, platform, where people converge, meet, discuss, collaborate….it’s a kind of intersection” feels Antonczak. As a basecamp, they are in the mid-point between practice-based and theory-based work and between the private and the academia sector; within that axis convergence is the spirit of MINA.
This year’s theme ‘Being Mobile – the State of Play’ highlighted the sense of immediacy that mobile media affordances allow by playfully testing their potentials. It is about “unpacking that idea of mobility […] and what it means to have a camera in your pocket all the time,” says Dr. Marsha Berry, one of the conference organisers from RMIT.
In this vein, this edition of the MINA symposium explored themes around textuality, mobile media production, aesthetic, education, and hybrid art featuring double-blind peer reviewed papers from Australia, Colombia, Finland, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. The organizers did not hesitate to go through great (technical) pains to ensure the program’s rich and international appeal. Thus, a number of scholars and artists were invited to join the symposium up in the cloud and deliver their presentations via Google Hangouts.
MINA is about filmmaking, the teaching of filmmaking, and the pedagogy of teaching filmmaking and it looks to unpack transmedia from various perspectives. Berry states, “the nature of mobile media is that it’s trans()disciplinary…you’ve got digital storytellers alongside filmmakers alongside artists.”
Mobile narratives by Carey Scheer
With a keynote by Craig Hight, an associate professor at the Screen and Media Studies Department of the University of Waikato (NZ) and an expert in the fields of documentary theory and practice, documentary hybrids and digital cultures, the organizers could not have chosen a better scholar to open the event. With his talk on “Video-making, photographic evidence and software culture.” Hight provided a comprehensive theoretical framework for MINA 2015.
One of the key questions that ran like a common thread through his presentation focused on what mobile video-making might mean in the digital era. By drawing our attention to the role of software and its all-permeating status within our digital culture, he highlighted the translation of practice into code. As new ways to create unique media experiences for users, the processes of automation, simulation, augmentation, and transformation offer a wide spectrum of choices for today’s media makers. However, Hight also pointed out that these embedded logics of coding, though enabling the users to perform, gradually take away their agency, most of the time without them noticing. With applications fostering specific default practices, templates offering a given hierarchy and the automatic collection of metadata, the nature of video becomes that of an information stream and our practices are increasingly informed by normative sets of values built in to the code.
Software and automation are not neutral: photo applications tell us what a “good” picture should look like, our data is used for mining and surveillance. In this post-photographic era, thus, software literacy becomes one of the most crucial assets for our media practices. To conclude his talk, Hight drew on the example of WITNESS – a New York-based human rights organisation (https://witness.org/) – to highlight the importance of software proficiency: If you want to use your camera to capture evidence you need to know about the politics and ethics of data practices, be strategic about what you do with your data and develop a critical capacity towards understanding which practices are enabled or disabled by the code. Only then, media users will be able to make an informed choice about which application to use.
After some mingling around tea and biscuits during the morning break, the first two sections on textuality and media production featured speakers as Tasmanian based sociologist Ashlin Lee who shared his findings about his Ph.D research project on “Negotiating Informatic Surveillance Risks in Everyday Life.” Following the keynote’s line of argument of privacy, surveillance, and data implications, Ashlin highlighted media illiteracy and an alarming state of unconcern amongst his participants when interviewed about their mobile phone and social network practices. Mobile filmmaking pioneer and professor for Media and Communications at Universidad Santiago de Cali in Colombia, Felipe Cardona, then, went on to offer a more positive outlook on mobile technology when he shared his experience on working with social media in a collaborative audiovisual workflow. His examples pointed towards the emerging range of possibilities for filmmakers to collaborate globally on low-budget scales to create meaningful “cultural audiovisuals”.
In the afternoon, one of MINA’s co-founders Max Schleser joined us via Hangouts to report back on the history of MINA and how the network had been growing. While the background of the symposium has come out of academia, there has been a focused effort to be open and connected to innovative artists and industry; the organisation finds value in getting diverse people into a room to learn from each other.
“In New Zealand we talk about ‘whānau,’ Schleser says, inspired by the Maori language in New Zealand. With MINA he feels a sense of whānau, of a multi-layered and dynamic sense of collective family, of a spiritual dimension layered upon a family tree or community.
During the session on education, Melbourne-based documentary designer and producer Seth Keen talked about his experience teaching a mobile videography studio at RMIT University. Focusing on the design method of video-sketching, the studio’s aim was to explore ways of practices that are not superimposed on the web environment but rather reflect its specific characteristics. Following this experimental approach, the students were able to openly engage with notions of repetition, seriality and the void to embrace a more speculative design process in which they would discover unforeseen potentials and possibilities which sometimes turned out to be more alive and unique than a polished completed work.
The program went on with a section on Hybrid Art featuring Patrick Kelly’s talk on “Instamoji and Everyday Remix Art Practices” in which he reflected on the practice of blending emoji characters with photographs to customize images and generate new meanings and contexts for cultural artifacts in the process. Then, New Zealand illustrator, concept designer, and writer Thaw Naing presented his “metamuseum,” a transmedia storytelling project which uses the website-based fictional Noble and Paige Museum (TNAPmuseum.org) as well as a mobile-device-driven ARG treasure hunt to promote a reading culture and encourage the audience to playfully engage with classic literature.
At the screening we began to see specific mobile aesthetics emerging. In sensory ethnography in anthropology, as well as in creative practice, there’s a context and presupposition within the relationships between the segments inside the research paradigm. “With creative practice, like with the films in the screening, there’s an emphasis on expressions of research as a methodology,” says Berry. Various films showcased this.
Some films explored the uses of cultural visual aesthetic normatives. Certain shots and edits that used to be avant-garde in mobile filmmaking, have now become norms due to technology and forming of a cultural visual aesthetic. For example, when relaying humour for a specific scene, many filmmakers will speed up characters in both the video and in the higher-pitched audio. We also saw perspective used as a new way to tell a story, such as in the film The Life & Death of an iPhone.
The Life & Death of an iPhone by Paul Trillo
Because mobile media is so technology driven, cutting edge is when the way of making is breaking traditional paradigms and finding new different ways to articulate their creative practice. MINA organiser, Patrick Kelly, feels that technical limitations are also its strengths; the constraints that are currently set in technology such as size and speed, are helpful because they birth invention. “In the last couple of years, there’s been a tendency for there to be more films that use wearability technology […] as a production process it’s really interesting to see those works coming through.”
Yet innovation can itself be finding the state of play in a creative practice. When we talk about the affordances mobile media brings, a well leveraged affordance is the shifting of new visual perspectives between viewer and camera. An example is how view can move in different ways because the camera’s form factor as a mobile device has become so small and maneuverable. This was shown again and again in the works within the screening that used mobile as a medium to move the camera in new spaces and to create more innovative perspectives on the subject; moving under chairs and around the body in tight spaces. This created an aspect of liminality of place, of movement within the in-between.
Dog Tail by Swathy Deepak and Backbenchers Entertainment
Earlier in the decade there was interest in using AR to create augmented streetscape, such as overlaying a photo taken a hundred years ago onto a building, but algorithms and processor speed hadn’t quite reached a point where that was possible – but as processor speed and size have gotten faster and smaller, new technologies in this area such as Oculus Rift, Magic Leap, and HoloLens may lead to a renewed interest in this area.
In the future, AR and other technologies like VR, are emerging in new projects that “change the way we think about the traditional ways of watching,” says Kelly. In addition, they see a MINA future, working towards projects driven by automation; where there’s a collaboration between creator with the device and between devices.
The MINA symposium recognizes visual innovation in the refinement and reflection of media works. For example, mobile media making enhances immediacy, and is able to bring the viewer away from a sedentary viewing such as the desktop, to cross boundaries that traditional filmmaking cannot.
What we found in discussion between attendees at MINA was that mobile media affects our everyday practices. Many of us are interested in using the smartphone as a tool to explore visual aesthetics, innovative visual processes and methodologies, community arts based practice, social change innovation, or critical reflection storytelling.
And as new, smaller and more affordable technologies are created, such as mobile media phone applications, video-making becomes accessible to a wider range of people and is likely to move away from big cameras and desktop computers. Even outside of MINA, international film festivals like Sundance have started screening works which are being recorded and produced entirely on smartphones. Clearly, our everyday mobile practices are key to testing the potentials and pushing the limits of mobile media technology and, ultimately, will shape distinct aesthetics of storytelling in the digital space.
However, at the same time, we feel it desirable to move beyond notions of storytelling as mobile media practices are beginning to converge and embrace the particular affordances that are characteristic for portable technology. Following the approaches of art exhibitions as for instance the German documenta and its mobile media installations and walks , festival programs dedicated to mobile media pieces should account for the growing multiplicity not only in content but also in form. Mobile devices and features are not only used for the production, distribution and reception of films but increasingly come into focus of performance-based practices as tools to reflect on conventionalized perceptions and perspectives of the world. The ongoing challenge will be to find appropriate frameworks for screening and exhibiting these emergent mobile formats and aesthetics.
Video by Edgar Gómez
The next MINA is looking to be set in end of November 2016 at Swinburne University in Melbourne, as a coproduction between RMIT, Swinburne, COLAB (AUT University), and Massey University.
Max Schleser, et. al. (2013): Small screen and big screen: Mobile film-making in Australasia. In: Ubiquity: The Journal for Pervasive Media 2(1+2), 120.
MINA official website, “Screening 2015,” accessed February 5th, 2016, http://mina.pro/screening2015/.
Sharon Greenfield is a PhD researcher at RMIT University where the focus of her thesis seeks to understand how and where young people engage with digital media for identity expression during loss and bereavement. Her research interests include digital ritual and digital artifact making, cultural processes in technology interaction, digital ethnography, place and space making, youth digital literacy, and digital bereavement.
Franziska Weidle is a research fellow at the German Research Foundation’s Training Group “Literature and Dissemination of Literature in the Digital Age” and a PhD candidate in Cultural and Visual Anthropology at the University of Göttingen. Her current research focuses on interactivity in the context of documentary knowledge production and dissemination. She holds a Master of Arts with distinction in Visual Anthropology from the University of Göttingen and has a background in cultural management. She works as documentary filmmaker, assistant of the Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival and contributing editor for the online journal of the Society of Cultural Anthropology, culanth.org.