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Transformers: All that is solid changes into something else

University of Aveiro, Portugal, June 29 - July 1 2017

Deadline for proposals February 28 2017.

Keynote addresses by:

Author and activist Roz Kaveney
Toby Miller, Loughborough University London

The movement of narratives and characterisations across forms, conventionally understood as adaptation, has been commonly carried out from the high-status classical forms (drama, epic, novel) to recorded and broadcast media (film, radio and television), or from the older recorded media to the newer ones. The advent of new convergent digital platforms has further transformed hierarchies. Now source texts can move in any direction and take up any configuration, as emergent interacting fan bases drive innovation and new creative and commercial possibilities are deployed. "Transformers" is the guiding metaphor for this conference, as the Transformers toy franchise gave impetus to an animated TV cartoon series, which itself morphed into big-budget FX live-action cinema, now careering towards Transformers 5, which is to go on general release during the conference. The Hasbro official site has 9 Transformers-based games ready for online play. In these media packages, technology is both content, theme and delivery system, and transformation is both theme and product, not to mention response and reception.

In one view, the playful or even recriminative energies directed by fans at cultural products revealed on the internet have always been latent, and are now simply facilitated by digital technology. The work of scholars such as Henry Jenkins has outlined how such energies are mobilized in the turbulent world of fan fictions, slash fiction, and mash-ups of all types. It may be, however, that transformation is not just a technology-driven creative practice and response, but at the very centre of the thematic memes developed in those forms of story-telling which are currently popular: television series, video games, film, and novels for both adults and children.

We propose to discuss these transformative energies in two conference sections, the first of which addresses formal and commercial factors and the second deals with thematic content.

Section 1: Formal and Commercial Issues

The formation of global conglomerates (delivery system AT&T is currently attempting to swallow content provider Time Warner) has created the commercial conditions for ever more lucrative exchanges between different media. Hardware, software and entertainment generation are now in lock-step, and they are like this because it makes it easier to function in global markets, working the magic transformation of your money into their money. In this regard, Sony-Columbia's exploitation of its hoary 1950s product Godzilla is a quaint example of a practice now brought to considerable refinement. The franchise, the sequel and more recently the prequel, are now industry norms, lurching fastly and furiously into online multiplayer gaming after-life. But cultural products are not identical – that which delivered success must be repeated but not replicated. It is still the case that nobody can predict what will succeed and by how much. However, we do know considerable energy and talent goes into this process, with pre-existing forms possessing a publicity value that can be exploited – stage to screen transfers, musicalisations, cartoon to live-action and back, narrative linearity to interactive polysemy, 2D or not 2D (that is the question?), screen to toy and cereal packet transfers. Consider the casting challenges posed by long-running franchises, and the fan responses they generate. Consider the risks of repositioning and reconceptualising in Tim Burton's Alice films or of monkeying with a classic in Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) - the mountebank as hero and redeemer, clearly a tale for the age of Trump. Consider the newly revamped "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride (2016) in Shanghai Disneyland carried out in the light of the 3.7 billion-dollar-earning movie franchise that appeared to hit the buffers not so much with Pirates 4 but with the Johnny Depp/Lone Ranger debacle. Some of the most dynamic transformations have been in cable television, where filmic worlds (Bates Motel, Blade, Fargo, Hannibal, Nikita, Minority Report, etc.) have been opened up to serial or anthology narratives, branded as it were like Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1950s and yet not exactly like it. The film's "universe" is recreated but not necessarily its plots, nor its original characterisations, maybe not even its visual styles. So what exactly are these "parallel universes" of the telescreen and the web? And how has our greater opportunity and speed of response to them fed back into the production chain?

With these and many more issues in mind, papers are invited in the following general topic areas:

-- transmedia synergies and convergences
-- innovative business practices in media and merchandising
-- fandom, community and popular culture
-- crossover forms and digital interactivities
-- resistances to and rejections of popular cultural forms

Section 2: Thematic Content

Transformation of bodies is now an ever-present theme, perhaps more than at any time since the centrality of mythic narratives. The seemingly endless appetite for hero figures whose identities and bodies are unstable and improvable, whether desired or not, continues unabated with the release of yet another Marvel hero made over into film. Indeed, the frisson made available by casting a representative of extreme rationality and the legibility of the material, Benedict Cumberbatch in his Sherlock incarnation, as now Doctor Strange, trained-in-Nepal magician, could be seen as an indication of the transformer principle itself.

Bodies may develop special abilities through forms of cod-scientific causes, such as being bitten by a spider developed in a scientific experiment, or through forms of more plausibly scientific explanation, such as current research on genetics or prosthetics extended into imagined future possibilities, or actually present technologies in the realisation of gender affirming surgery. From superheroes to cyberbodies to transsexuals may be a tasteless conjunction of disparate phenomena. On the other hand, they may also be different points on a paradigm in which the stability of bodies has been overtaken by logics of choice associated with varying possibilities, real or promised, in a battle of not just warring super and enhanced figures, but of the models of desire they embody.

All of these things have naturally been the concern of science fiction, media studies and cultural studies, but their continued vigour warrants continued academic attention to: the enormous and seemingly growing appetite for narratives involving bodies which are recomposed or decomposed: affected by viruses (Walking Dead, The Last of Us), superbodies or bodies with extreme powers (an apparently limitless supply, from Marvel heroes to certain characters in A Song of Ice and Fire or any number of video game figures), technologically altered bodies (Robocop, Iron Man, Mass Effect, Deus Ex), genetic intervention (Never Let Me Go, Orphan Black), cyberbodies which call into question what it is to be human (Westworld, Humans), and body alteration and intervention (as within more realistic genres, such as The Danish Girl, Transparent or 52 Tuesdays).

Accordingly, the conference invites proposals for papers dealing with these thematic phenomena. Areas which might be considered include any of the following either separately or together. It might even be possible to stitch the two sections of the conference together. After all, the first item on the list of suggestions for Part B, 'bodies which refuse to die' could be said to characterise the nature of certain entertainment franchises themselves:

-- bodies which refuse to die
-- superbodies and ordinary worlds
-- rehearsing technologically altered bodies
-- genetics and special bodies
-- identical bodies
-- choosing bodies; control over bodies

Proposals of between 200 and 300 words should be submitted by February 28th 2017, along with a short bionote to David Callahan callahan@ua.pt & Anthony Barker abarker@ua.pt
Acceptances will be notified by March 31st. The conference language will be English.

The registration fee will be kept low at €80, and €50 for postgraduate students.


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