USA Media Panel for 2008

Steve James

Producer and Director, Chicago, IL

Ron Yerxa (Chair)

Producer of Film, Bona Fide Productions, Los Angeles, CA

Claire Aguilar

Vice President of Programming, Independent Television Service, San Francisco, CA

Traci Tong

News Producer, The World, BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH, Boston, MA

Judith Helfand

Filmmaker and USA Simon Fellow 2007, New York, NY

Statement by Claire Aguilar

More than ever, we live in a 24/7 media environment. Media 2.0 surrounds us, and one could argue that public media and media artists are everywhere. Twenty years ago it seemed that media artists could be supported through a fragile network of public seed funds and grants and shepherded by various media centers and institutions. Sadly, that world is slowly vanishing, but media artists have nevertheless multiplied.

This year’s roster of USA Fellows in Media provides a snapshot of the most gifted and innovative practitioners working today. It is a diverse and wide-ranging mix of filmmakers, documentarians, video and installation artists. The USA Fellowships in Media are a precious gift, something rarely seen in the present philanthropic climate. They are also a reminder of the vigorous support for media artists that used to exist in the United States.

One of the criteria for selecting USA Fellows focuses on the potential impact of the award on the artist’s work and on the field as a whole and what kind of message the award sends to the field. The message to the field is easy: no-strings attached grants for media artists are now virtually nonexistent, so the existence of this annual fellowship gives encouragement to all in the field. For the recipient, a USA Fellowship will absolutely guarantee the ability to continue to work—at least for a limited time. Thus the impact of the award on the artist is considerable, for it serves as a critical survival tool. But the difficult part of the task for my fellow panelists and me was to judge the great impact of this award against the many talented and passionate media artists that we had to consider. I found it both a blessing and a curse to judge 39 worthy artists. What determines the impact of an artist’s work? Media art that glides through layers of distributors, gatekeepers, and curators constantly bombards us. Access and promotion are crucial. Often this work is seen by and accessible to only a few. But the repercussions of a single screening, a blog, or a logline in a television grid can make or break a work.

Despite the challenge of assessing the impact of an artist’s work in a world where entertainment, education, and social engagement collide, the opportunity simply to discover (and rediscover) the work and expressions of a variety of artists was a joyful endeavor. These are people who are passionate in their approach in the face of intense pressure from the technological new millennium and a working environment that is often more stressful than creative. My fellow panelists Judith Helfand, Steve James, Traci Tong, and Ron Yerxa and I were struck by the range of the work, which offered humor, innovation, stubbornness, and tenacity in original and classic guises.

It reminded us that media artists have unparalleled abilities to represent and create reality. This work is the artist’s pleasure. To quote a line from 2008 USA Fellow William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, an astonishing film about filmmaking, shot in Central Park in 1968: “Is it real? Or is it fiction? Or a put on? The audience must decide.”