“Vernacular Creativity”: An Interview with Jean Burgess (Part One)

I recently had the privilege of being an outside examiner on a dissertation produced by Jean Burgess, a PhD candidate in the Creative Industries program at Queensland University of Technology on the topic of “vernacular creativity.” I’ve long considered QUT’s Creative Industries program to be a sibling of our own efforts in the Convergence Culture Consortium. Indeed, Joshua Green, who currently heads the C3 research team, is a post-doc who came to us from QUT. And we’ve seen a steady stream of visitors through the years (John Hartley, Alan McKee, John Banks, Axel Bruns, and Jean Burgess, among others) from down under. Burgess is now collaborating with Joshua Green, Sam Ford, and others on the C3 team on research centering on YouTube.

I was quite taken by what Burgess had to say about “vernacular creativity” and its relationship with participatory culture, media literacy, and civic engagement. She talks about these concepts in the following interview:

Your dissertation focused on what you call vernacular creativity. Can you give us a sense of what this concept means for you?

I used the concept to talk about everyday creative practices like storytelling, family photographing, scrapbooking, journaling and so on that pre-exist the digital age and yet are co-evolving with digital technologies and networks in really interesting ways. So the documentation of everyday life and the public sharing of that documentation, as in sharing photos on Flickr, or autobiographical blogging; these are forms of vernacular creativity, remediated in digital contexts. These are also cultural practices that perhaps we don’t normally think of as creative, because we’ve become so used to thinking of creativity as a special property of genius-like individuals, rather than as a general human — some would say — evolutionary process. I found the term really useful for focusing on the fact that there is much about the current explosion of amateur content creation online that has a long history, that isn¹t particularly revolutionary, and that relates to specific local contexts and identities. Vernacular creativity is ordinary.

But ordinary doesn’t mean generic or boring, not necessarily anyway. Each example of vernacular creativity is also a representation of a specific life, a specific time, a specific place. Because of this specificity, the ordinariness of vernacular creativity doesn’t necessarily equate to uninterestingness. The practices and artefacts of vernacular creativity are of course very rich and meaningful in relation to the social contexts in which they’re created, communicated, and disseminated: think of your own family photo album, and then a complete stranger’s family photo album from the 1960s that you stumble across in the back of a junk shop in a different country, for example. Both ordinary at the point of origin, both full of meanings and stories, but in different ways. The point is, culture doesn¹t have to be sublime or spectacular to be useful or significant or interesting to someone, somewhere. But what I find most interesting about vernacular creativity in the context of the new media generally and the Internet particularly is the potential to scale that immediate social context add up to social connectivity, and conversation, to individualistic self-expression. The two major case studies I explored in the thesis – the Flickr photosharing network, and the Digital Storytelling movement — each demonstrate how that might work out in practice, but in very different ways.

How might a focus on participation and creativity, rather than resistance, change the agenda for cultural studies?

The focus on cultural participation as a positive thing is entirely compatible with a long tradition in cultural studies that was concerned with empowerment and social inclusion through self-representation and education. I think this is an agenda that has always been there, but perhaps was overshadowed by an alternative relationship to power – resistance, even as resistance was located in the everyday. The important thing for me is that a focus on participation shifts the questions that we need to ask about the cultural politics of media slightly sideways from being only about power, exploitation and resistance to questions of voice, cultural inclusion, and so on and those questions seem to me to offer more hope for pragmatic interventions.

Symbolic creativity and agency in relation to media, particularly, has a long history in cultural studies. Henry, you would know better than anyone that fans were very important for earlier investigations into participatory media because they showed how creativity and agency were possible even within the media landscape of the broadcast era. At that stage, fans weren’t really understood as ordinary citizens, but rather as pretty extraordinary, intensively engaged media consumers. But at least the creative practices of fans demonstrated that there might be empowering uses of popular culture, and that audiences for broadcast culture were not — or at least not all — passive. And I also don¹t need to tell you or many of your readers that creative fan practices in new media contexts has often led the way for more mainstream forms of participation.

I thought it was time to consider the extent to which people who may have a much less intense relationship with mass media and popular culture than fans, might also be participating in culture through their own creative efforts.