In this paper, we focus on media (and multimedia) production as a spatial practice of ni-Vanuatu youth. We explore the contexts and practices of youth media production in a contemporary postcolonial urban society and how organizational forces shape these practices. Articulation theory is used as a framework for thinking about the way that young urban ni-Vanuatu are negotiating community, institutional, and professional obligations as well as leveraging opportunities for producing media that demonstrate new modes of relating to place. The authors draw on long term coactivity and co-performance (Conquergood and Johnson, 93) via participant engagement with artists and producers from Vanuatu. Both authors have lived and worked in Vanuatu for over five years and much of our engagement with the young producers is through our roles with Further Arts – an NGO based in Port Vila. We employ a radical empiricism that blurs the boundaries between observer and observed – a form of dialogic performance that embraces and complicates diversity, difference, and pluralism (Conquergood and Johnson, 93). Madison describes it as living in “embodied engagement of radical empiricism, to honor the aural/oral sounds that incorporate rather than gaze over” (168, emphasis in original). A range of visual media productions is analyzed, principally video productions. We also draw on interviews conducted with members of Nesar Studio – a community access media production studio located at Further Arts – who constitute an emergent social category in Vanuatu, that is: young independent media producers or the ‘youth media crew’.
The contemporary inflections of the precolonial ni-Vanuatu relationship to place reveal contingent openings for indigenous people to transform their world through ontologically liberating participation in media production (and consumption). From another perspective, multinational companies in the resource extraction (mining, forestry, fishing), agriculture, tourism, and creative industries, operate in ways that diminish Oceanic ontologies and subjectivities through processes that undermine local agency, knowledge, wisdom, value systems and biocultural diversity. But a dualistic framing such as this reinforces tired false binaries. It sets us a dangerous path to navigate through essentialism, exceptionalism and reductionism that, even if successfully negotiated ultimately leads to intellectual dead ends. There needs to be another way of understanding the: dynamic trajectories of visiting and returning, assembling and reassembling; the pluralism of Oceanian actuality, beyond the static divisions of rural villages and urban towns. In this paper we extend Clifford’s reading of Hall’s articulation theory (Hall; in Grossberg "On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall"), and demonstrate ways that “the partial entanglements of indigenous and local societies in global structures are not simply the world system’s unfinished business. They have their own roots and trajectories.” (Clifford, 475). We explore these roots and trajectories through – “a praxis of spatial articulation” (Tawa, 49). Dick has documented elsewhere forms of ni-Vanuatu cultural production and expression that reflect a chorographic engagement with place (Tawa; Olwig; Maxwell; Dick).
In this paper, we extend these ideas exploring the performative inflections of media production in a praxis of youth participation and spatial articulation. We will make visible the roots and trajectories of ni-Vanuatu youth and “the forces (the articulations) that create and maintain identities that have real concrete effects” (Slack, 126). Recognizing the joining and the un-joining, the assembling and the reassembling, the creating and the recreating, the articulating and re-articulating, imbues this approach with its efficacy (Slack; Clifford) and interdisciplinary approaches can converge to refine the way that we understand the contemporary media world (Horst, Hjorth and Tacchi).
The paper begins with a description of the major historical and cultural forces and tensions that influence the locative identities of people in urban Vanuatu, integrated with a contextualization – a re-articulation – of the Vanuatu mediascape from the perspective of young urban ni-Vanuatu producers. We explore the specific case study of the establishment of Nesar Studio and how this studio is facilitating the emergence of young independent (and interdependent) producers, or the ‘youth media crew’ (henceforth YMC), as differentiated from the category of media consumers. The dissolution of observer and observed in the project, that is, our embedded-ness in the data, creates an opportunity for a deeply integrative analysis of contemporary indigenous engagements with media and place and multilateral strategies of articulation and de-articulation. Working in this radically empiricist way, it is often difficult to balance the requirements of the academy and the expectations of the community; it is difficult to “shape the data”, as it were, when one is both in and part of the data (Grossberg We Gotta Get out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture 55-56). Thus we have integrated discussion and analysis into the presentation of data to which it directly relates.
Despite major challenges, the young producers at Nesar Studio assert the importance, and indeed their ownership, of the structure and its organizational relationships – in particular with FA. This is evidenced in the extent to which they worked to maintain their momentum after massive damage from Cyclone Pam. ‘Nesar’ means ‘nasara’ in a local language – nasara is the Bislama term used throughout Vanuatu to talk about the ceremonial meeting place of a village for the intergenerational transmission of kastom knowledge and wisdom (through song, dance, art and other practices) is transmitted. Taking on this word and its connotations, Nesar Studio becomes a digital urban nasara in an age of increased use and access to telecommunications and media platforms as ways to transmit messages and knowledge. Providing the community with education on these tools is a powerful means to enact change through engaging people with their rights.
Developing the capacity of young media professionals in Vanuatu is not a simple process. Stakeholders must navigate divergent interests and compete for resources within an environment where the digital media and creative industries are poorly understood by state mechanisms and supported in an ad-hoc fashion by development partners at both national and regional levels. The bodies that do exist to advocate for and stimulate this sector, including the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and the Pacific Arts Association (amongst others) have not been overly influential or consistently effective. This means that the role of shaping and nurturing the capacity of young media professionals rests in the hands of civil society actors, either in cooperation with, or struggling alongside, the dominant media and communications companies.
Functions, processes, and forces historically familiar to ni-Vanuatu communities are deployed in the articulation of youth (id)entities through media production practices in urban settings. Only a small number of the more talented and adept media crew members of Nesar Studio have been able to penetrate the industry in an independent and professional capacity, acquiring employment in other cultural and media agencies or as contractors for national and international organizations. While these opportunities are few and far between, they require a certain level of application and assertiveness on the part of the media producer, something that Nesar Studio aspires to for its members, but perhaps does not emphasise enough since its media work is based foremost on the principles of collaboration and teamwork. Achieving this requirement for astuteness is furthermore hindered by social and cultural factors in Vanuatu that implies doing things communally and for the common good rather than outshining others for personal benefit.