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Conference Report: “Media Waste and Space Junk: SCMS 2015”

2015 April 25
by Shared by Steve Rust

This report on SCMS 2015 was contributed by Nicole Seymour

“Media Waste and Space Junk: SCMS 2015”

The 2015 meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) in Montreal was a watershed moment for ecocinema studies on several levels. Having become official, the Media & Environment Scholarly Interest Group, or SIG, was able to sponsor 8 panels and hold its first meeting. In addition to the SIG-sponsored panels, several other panels and papers took up ecocritical and environmental humanities concerns – from Lauran Whitworth’s “Radical Faeries, Radical Film: Queer Pastoralism in the Films of James Broughton” to Brian Jacobson’s “Studio Fires, Containment Infrastructures, and the Ecology of Profilmic Environments.” And if one managed to escape from the massive Queen Elizabeth Hotel complex where the conference was held, one could experience a unique instantiation of media and environment, the Satosphere. As the conference program touted, “Channeling the techno-utopianism of Expo 67, the Satosphere Dome is a state-sponsored, permanent environment dedicated to large-scale moving image and sound experimentation. With a screen that is eighteen meters in diameter … you can sit back … and ponder a distinct mode of spectatorship, immersion, and art.”


I was able to attend 4 of the SIG-sponsored panels: “Media Waste: Technological Systems and the Environment” (Joseph Bookman, George Vollrath, Kyle Stine, and Jon Crylen presenting), “Excess Hollywood: Economies of Waste in Media Industries” (Kyle Edwards, Hunter Vaughan, Daniel Herbert, presenting, and Karl Schoonover, responding), “Cinema in/of the Anthropocene” (Janet Walker and Selmin Kara, presenting), and, of course, my own panel, “Engaging Ecocinema: The Affects and Effects of Environmental Documentaries” (Salma Monani, Alexa Weik von Mossner, and Nicole Seymour, presenting, and Adrian Ivakhiv, responding). Several major themes and concerns emerged in these panels, and I will attempt to briefly summarize and explore them here.


First, the concept of the “The Anthropocene,” not surprisingly, loomed large. But more than simply invoking it, presenters smartly questioned it, staging debates around its periodization, implications, and value as a critical and activist heuristic. For example, in a paper on Beasts of the Southern Wild and Gulf Coast geomedia, Janet Walker drew on geographer Kathryn Yusoff’s work to explore the idea of humanity as a geological object, not just a geological force. That is, while the concept of the Anthropocene helps us see ourselves as uniquely shaping the geological record, Walker and Yusoff urge us to also see ourselves as having something in common with other life forms – that we might become fossils, too. In this sense, Walker’s paper, along with many others, implicitly took up questions of temporality and time scale.


Second, many of the papers engaged with what Karl Schoonover referred to as the “emerging frenzy in the humanities to talk about waste.” In particular, the “Media Waste” and “Excess Hollywood” panels discussed industry waste production and the in/visibility of waste. Presenters on both panels invoked the first and only report on industry waste, UCLA’s “Sustainability and the Motion Picture Industry” (see, as well as relevant, related works such as Jennifer Gabrys’ Digital Rubbish, Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller’s Greening the Media, and Nadia Bozak’s The Cinematic Footprint. Both panels also raised the work of Irish artist John Gerrard, who famously used a helicopter to capture images of Google’s massive data center at Pryor Creek, Oklahoma (see’s-“farm”/). Gerrard’s work speaks to Hunter Vaughn’s point about the fallacy of our pervasive idea of the digital image as non-commodity, as immaterial. While fellow panelist Edwards declared that “Stories of waste tend to stay hidden,” Vaughan reminded us that, with the rise of documentaries on waste, and artwork such as Gerrard’s, “Film [and media] fulfills its potential in showing the unseen.” Selmin Kara’s paper on films such as Gravity and Snowpiercer added another dimension to this larger discussion. Focusing on these films’ inclusion of techno-industrial waste such as “space junk,” she suggested that we now have such cinematic “waste fantasies” because cinema may be becoming waste, due to emerging and competing media. Kara thus characterized such films as “postcinema.” But cinema has been concerned about its status from the very beginning, as scholars such as Paul Young (The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet) have shown. Thus, we might consider that cinema has always been postcinema in its imagination – or, perhaps better, considering the materialist claims of many presenters, that cinema has always been a cinema of waste.


Finally, all panels in some way took up the question of complicity vs. action. During the Q&A for “Media Waste,” for example, Stine invoked cinema’s inherent destructiveness, drawing on Heidegger to propose it as “a setting-upon the world as exploitable.” Similarly, an audience member during the Q&A for “Cinema in/of the Anthropocene” declared, “we’re complicit with the energy structures as media scholars.” (This point was well-taken, as projectors continued to project, overhead lights hummed, and laptops glowed.) In noting that our “Engaging Ecocinema” panel collectively identified alternative strategies to dominant documentary modes – from animation to irony – Ivakhiv as our respondent was somewhat more positive. He declared that “We need all these [alternative] strategies and more – strategies that build the “we” that can take it all [environmental crisis] on, and strategies that question the ‘we.’” I objected, however, that I worry about the question of what film can do in the face of environmental crisis because of how that question instrumentalizes art; the same, I believe, can be said for the question of what scholarship can do.


Overall, these panels represent an interest in shifting cinema and media studies critique beyond what’s onscreen, to a larger view of industry practice and how that practice intersects with social systems of ideology and value production. While, on the one hand, this interest suggests that the activist tendencies of ecocriticism have effectively made their way into cinema and media studies, it also reminds us of how cinema and media studies has always been good at thinking extratextually, with reception studies, studio history, and industry studies (among others) forming important subspecialties of the field. Ecocinema studies thus seems primed for further exploration of the triangular research model that Hunter Vaughan proposed – “Media – Value – Waste” – and of many other pressing questions as well.


Editor’s Note: For more information about the SCMS Media and Environment Special Interest Group or if you are an SCMS member interested in joining the group, visit:


Nicole Seymour is Assistant Professor of English, California State University Fullerton and Carson Fellow Alumnus, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (2013-14). Her 2013 book, Strange Natures (University of Illinois Press) has recently been nominated for and ASLE book award. It can be ordered at:

Kindle edition:

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Jon Crylen permalink
    April 27, 2015

    Great coverage. Just for the record, I was part of the Media Waste panel with Kyle, Joe, and George (a panel we jointly proposed); however, I registered on site, which per SCMS rules means I did not appear in the program.

  2. Steve Rust permalink*
    April 27, 2015

    Thanks for catching that Jon. I’ve edited the text to include your name with the panel.

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