K. L. Sanders on Digital Culture, Research in France, and the Quantified Cow

By Amy Skjerseth / CMS PhD Candidate

For K.L. Sanders, Summer 2020 has yielded many potential case studies for her work on digital culture. In July, she attended Northwestern University’s Summer Institute in Rhetoric and Public Culture: Media Aesthetics II, an intensive, five-day event held entirely online. The theme was “Scenes of the Screen,” apt for a moment when, as Sanders says, “our communication and contact is intensely mediated through screens.” One of the Institute’s events provided great commentary on this: artist and CMS lecturer Jon Satrom hacked their Zoom call, opened a bunch of screens, and played with glitch and lag. The Institute featured daily workshops (with pre-assigned lecture videos and readings), afternoon lectures, and occasional evening events. “The Zoom format allowed for a huge sharing of resources, like links that might be relevant to the discussion,” Sanders said. “At the end of the week, the chat logs were compiled into one document—it really demonstrated the spirit of the internet as a DIY open source where people actively share their ideas.” Sanders also enjoyed the faculty-led small group sessions that culminated in presentations on media objects. “Our group talked throughout the week about filters and the fatigue that occurs from constantly performing on Zoom. We wondered, is there a way to combat Zoom fatigue? We created a lookbook of selfie filters; it was composed of selfies we took to create models for people to use.”

Now in her second year, Sanders is looking forward to this year’s courses, including Thomas Lamarre’s “Ecology and Media” class. She also is working on her application to the UChicago International Dual Ph.D. Degree Initiative with Institutions in France. She will be the first student in CMS to pursue this new program, which allows for the completion of two Ph.D. degrees, with two co-chairs: one in CMS, and one, in Sanders’ case, at Université Paris-Diderot: Martine Beugnet. Many French universities allow students to apply for joint supervision at different institutions—called a cotutelle—and UChicago is participating in this process, also allowing French students to have a supervisor at UChicago. Sanders hopes to begin working on her requirements in France next year after she completes her coursework at UChicago.

As applicants are required to submit a project proposal, Sanders has begun narrowing her focus toward a dissertation at a very early stage. Her advisors encouraged her to think about the proposal as a living document, which helped her to articulate her initial ideas and to understand that projects often shift while researching and writing. Her proposal is a testament to this, as it stems from ideas that she encountered during her first year at UChicago. “One of my media objects is the quantified cow, which I wrote a paper about in Patrick Jagoda’s Politics of Media class,” Sanders explains. “It’s a dairy cow equipped with a wearable digital sensor that measures various biometrics like temperature, rumination, and heart rate: the idea is to optimize the cow’s health and ultimately milk production. Overall, my dissertation analyzes the connection between virtual farming and the production of digital culture.” Sanders will present her research on the quantified cow in March 2021 at the conference “Food Matters and Materialities: Critical Understandings of Food Cultures” in Ottawa, Canada. She is excited that her first conference will be interdisciplinary: “I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s different knowledge foundations, as well as thinking about the Quantified Cow along many new avenues.”

Sanders also is thrilled at the prospect of returning to France. “I was living in France before I moved to Chicago, and I had a real hesitancy to leave France. But when I was deciding between doctoral programs, I heard about UChicago’s new initiative and it was exactly what I was looking for—the timing was perfect. I had wanted to come to UChicago for a number of years, and things just fell into place.” She has felt drawn to France for a long time, too. After her one-year MA at Oxford, she applied to a nine-month program through the French Ministry of Education to teach English part time and also learn French. “Learning the language ended up changing the course of what I wanted to do. I’d always gravitated toward French philosophy and film, but being over there, something kind of clicked. When I’m reading philosophy in the original language, patterns of words and thought make more sense. France also has a unique history of cinema, and many scholars there are studying digital and virtual media right now. Studying there will open up the way I approach my project by being able to engage with a wider breadth of literature. It’s still going to be a step for me to read theory in French, but I’m eager to continue to work on the language there.”

Over the next year, Sanders hopes to bridge her theoretical interests with her art practice. “Before I started my MA, I was a filmmaker. I worked largely in marketing and got disillusioned with that, but now I’m planning to take courses that CMS offers on 16mm filmmaking.” She encourages scholars of the medium to “go get your hands on it. Material knowledge impacts my close analysis because I’ve been on the other side of the camera. That definitely colors my understanding of whatever it is I’m watching.” Since Sanders had to sell her camera before moving to Europe, she has started to get back into filmmaking by making a series of videos with her phone. “I resisted using my phone because I wanted to learn camera settings and focal lengths like a real cinematographer, and to have a nice picture if I’m not lying. A phone didn’t seem legitimate until it was the only camera I had. Now, you can download apps that hack a phone’s camera to allow it to be controlled manually. Plus, phone cameras are of surprising quality nowadays and you can add lens attachments for even more control. Turns out, too, that shooting on a phone is an affordable way to shoot anamorphic, which was something I always wanted to do. And it aligns with my current theoretical interests because it’s this mobile screen that is always in your pocket, a constant attachment.” Before the pandemic, Sanders bought a new camera with plans to use it for certain projects in France this summer. “But now I need to refocus. It’s almost like a past life of mine to make films, so it’s a new chapter—or maybe an entirely new book I need to open. And opening the book can be hard; you might carry it around for weeks before cracking it. My plan when I go back to Chicago is to set my camera on my desk, get it in eyesight, and create opportunities to pick it up.”

Lastly, I asked Sanders about her favorite pandemic entertainment. “I’ve been doing a lot of cooking, but that isn’t much different from before COVID, since I like cooking. But I devoured the Netflix TV series Ozark. The closer I got to the end, I was trying to save one episode a day. I hadn’t watched a TV series in a very long time, so it was fun to get involved in something serial again. It gives you something to look forward to every day when all the days seem the same—but I get to watch Ozark tonight!”



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