Ferguson image essay

Google Image search: “Ferguson Missouri protest”

1. Probably the image that most directly invokes “No Church in the Wild” is this one of a large black man hurling an incendiary tear gas canister back at the police. It is especially dramatic in highlighting his pitching stance, his U.S. flag T-shirt, his very long dreadlocks, the fire and smoke of the gas, the two onlookers who seem to be cheering him on, and so forth.[8] [open endnotes in new window]

2. The “classic” Ferguson image during the first days of the protest. Civilian demonstrator with hands raised in the “Don’t Shoot” surrender gesture against combat armed police SWAT teams with weapons drawn and aimed at unarmed protestor. This type of image immediately raised awareness about the problem of increasing police militarization since 9/11.

3. Another news photo using similar nighttime lighting with backlit smoke from tear gas.

4. Again black bodies under dramatic smoke-filled backlighting. The protests took place on hot summer nights, and many of the male youth were shirtless, or used the shirt as a barrier to the tear gas. Bottles of water were carried to wash off the gas residue.

5. Shooting under available light and backlighting produced dramatic sillouettes, here with a female protestor giving the “fuck you” to the police line. The familiar McDonald’s Golden Arches sign references one of the first geographic reference points for the demonstrations.

6. A virtual chorus line of protestors with the now familiar “don’t shoot” upraised arms.

7. In November, anticipating new protests when the grand jury report would be released (at 8 p.m. on a Monday night) cops line up outside the police headquarters under a Christmas Holiday banner.


Anyone and everyone familiar with basic image analysis would immediately see the similarities between the news photos and the fictional music video. And they would also be immediately aware that the news photo images don’t tell any “truth,” are not themselves “visible evidence,” without additional contexting: the caption, the explanation, the on-the-scene report by the photographer or other eyewitnesses as to the “meaning” of what is captured in the image. All that is basic image semiotics, raising the question of history: of fact, and interpretation.

If I were teaching an introductory class in visual media this semester, I’d probably have the students do something in terms of making a photo essay or a montage or collage from these images (and others they could find on Google), and then complicate it with captions, editing for rhythm, maybe adding different soundtracks. What would we make of the music track of “No Church in the Wild” if accompanied by a mashup of Ferguson still and moving images? The aim of such an exercise would be having the students see the different aspects of such images, how juxtaposition and framing work, how captions or voice over work. In other words, there is a politics to this, and a historical grounding here (and importantly whatever side we take).[9]

History, and the politics of history, are the “reality check” on subversion. Does this fly? Riot porn is image art that celebrates and depicts violent confrontation with authorities, usually the police. Some of it is locally generated (documentaries of protests and actions), some of it is in corporate media (the popular video game Grand Theft Auto can stand for a huge assortment of such material).[10]

Two asides

While I don’t have the space to develop full arguments here, on further thought after getting feedback at the conference and reading a bit more on riot porn, there are two more issues I’d like to note. I’ll develop a new discussion of them in later writings, because they are important to consider in depth. One is making the case for riot porn; the other is discussing the role of affect or emotion in radical media art.

There has been an expanding discussion of riot porn among people trying to analyze the politics of social media/digital media. Leah A. Lievrouw’s Alternative and Activist New Media (Cambridge UK: Polity Press Digital Media and Society Series, 2011) provides an expansive survey based largely on the academic secondary literature with a good discussion of Indymedia and a chapter, “Getting People on the “Street”: Mediated mobilization.” In Transgression 2.0: Media, Culture, and the Politics of a Digital Age, ed. David J. Gunkel and Ted Gournelos (NY: Continuum, 2012) critics survey a wide variety of counter media ranging from alternative journalism, pornography, particular fandoms (e.g. the Saw series of horror films). Included is a survey of anarchist inspired riot porn by Michael Truscello, “Social Media and the Representation of Summit Protests: YouTube, Riot Porn, and the Anarchist Tradition.” Truscello expands the framework to consider political activists who are both for and against the trend. As an extended monograph, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left by Todd Wolfson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), presents a greater historical and international range and contains a thoughtful line of political argument critiquing the weaknesses of the “horizontal” organizing pattern of Indymedia and the Occupy Movement.[11]

Perhaps the most compelling argument for riot porn can be found in Maple John Razsa’s article “Beyond ‘Riot Porn’: Protest Video and the production of Unruly Subjects,” Ethos: Journal of Anthropology, 79:4, 496-24.[12] Based in ethnographic fieldwork with a small Croatian anarchist group, Razsa reports the fervent enthusiasm the young activists have for riot porn.

From the abstract:

“…. Many appropriations of the technology, including those by human rights advocates, rest on the theory that ‘seeing is believing’ …. While I encountered such realist uses of video during fieldwork with direct action movements in the former Yugoslavia, activists are also preoccupied with videos depicting the most physical confrontations with the police, videos they sometimes referred to as ‘riot porn’. They engage these videos for the sensory, affective and bodily experiences they facilitate. Indeed, activist practices around and claims for video indicate that they understand video as a technology of the self, using it to forge emotional relationships with activists elsewhere, steel themselves for physical confrontation and cultivate new political desires.”

Razsa both reports on and adds his own criticism of the group’s attitudes (and those of other European anarchists) giving the dramatic example of videos which are simply international mashups of street fighting with no specificity of place, date, time, issues, etc. The thrill of watching violent confrontation takes over.[13]

Closely related, the issue of the emotional nature of radical media has often been neglected in left film theory and criticism. Perhaps because right wing critics often point at left films as romantic fantasies, or hagiography, or pure propaganda, the left has tended to be defensive, even silent about this. In addition, for the last half-century progressive film theory has tended to validate the cool, rational style of strict formalist frameworks rather than emotive aesthetics.[14]

While obviously radical media has access to the whole range of emotions from humor to sorrow, from heroic thrill to dramatic fear, there is a longstanding tradition of working sympathy for purposes of persuasion. The melodramatic appeal of sympathy for victims and admiration for resistance and rebellion are common features of realist documentary and naturalist narrative. Combined with spectacle and familiar stories such as the embattled small band or lone rebel, such works easily evoke well-trained responses.

Although above I gave a specifically political critique of riot porn in the context of the limits of (many) anarchist tactics and strategies, I would not assert that emotion itself is negligible radical media work. To provide a simplified background we can remember one of the classic lines of thought in Western aesthetics. In laying out his ideal Republic, Plato argued against art’s mimetic qualities as dangerous, inherently deceptive, because people would be influenced imitate bad behaviors if viewed. Only exemplary attitudes such a hymns and praise for leaders would be allowed. Famously Aristotle answered the objections by proposing catharsis in his poetics of tragedy. Yes, he agreed, tragedy can show bad behavior such as murdering one’s children or defying constituted authority, but the bad emotions that are depicted and aroused are washed away by the dramatic conclusion. The audience doesn’t leave the theatre with politically incorrect feelings and ideas but those things are released, mellowed out, in the experience. Again, famously, Brecht argued against this Aristotelian theatre. (Perhaps most obviously in the naturalist-realist form of Ibsen’s well-made drama, and even more conventionally in its commercial stage forms.) Brecht wanted people to think, and go beyond the emotional pleasures of a self contained theatrical experience. This was often taken up in the 1960s and 70s film theory by eschewing all emotion. The ideal was a hyper-rational work that used strict form to repress the affective dimension of art: a denial of emotion (except perhaps for high irony).

Actually Brecht was not pushing for a formal renunciation of emotion, but he argued for a model close to the cabaret or boxing match where, gathered with others, one might experience an intense engagement with the songs and performance or the round of punching, and then in the interval relax and discuss, reflect on and converse about what one had just experienced. Rather than being swept away on a tide of emotions, one would also have retrospective and critical experience. Room to think about it.

While I’m just being speculative here, I’d offer that there is a significant difference between the emotional dimensions of political and historical dramas on the one hand and those of purely speculative fictions on the other. In the first category we might test this with a film such as Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) which does brilliantly evoke the justice of mutiny, although it also has to deal with the issue of the failure of the 1905 revolt’s failure while ending on an obligatory triumphal note. In contrast, “No Church in the Wild”, has no historical dimension. And as a counter example we could consider the rather large category of dystopian future films. Does Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013), for example, while clearly a fantasy also provide a certain emotional force and pleasure by postulating the eventual success of a class rebellion that ends in a hopeful future? The question needs more investigation.

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