2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
Flying under the radar:
notes on a decade of media agitation
by Ernest Larsen
For the past decade Sherry Millner and I have worked together on a series of political/experimental film/ video screening projects that we initiated or were invited to organize. In what follows, with Sherry’s help, I will attempt to put forward the major questions we encountered along the way—along with the still provisional/ partial answers we have come up with, so far.
In 2005 Sherry and I, out of a sense of ever-increasing outrage, initiated a collaborative video projection series titled State of Emergency. We solicited brief silent works from artists whom we knew. We intended to project the edited program of short pieces in the big picture windows of our second-floor loft on 23rd St. in Manhattan. We described State of Emergency as a silent shout-out against the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the severe incursions against civil and human rights most prominently put in place by the Patriot Act, most of which measures are still to this day securely in place. Contributors to the several editions of State of Emergency included Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, Mary Kelly, Jen Lion, Walid Raad, Greg Sholette, Simon Leung’s class at UCI, Sally Stein, Louis Hock, Jin-Yu Chen/James T.Hong, Marty Lucas, Michael Mandiberg, Vanessa Haney, Leslie Thornton, Jamie O’Shea, Nora Ligorano, Marshall Reese, John Greyson, Annetta Kapon, Yvonne Rainer and ourselves
The project was self-organized and deliberately aimed to bypass potential institutional constraints and gatekeepers, in favor of a form of direct action amenable to us as anarchist artists. We also aimed to engage not so much the art or film/video audiences that are (by self-definition) disciplined in advance but walkers, passersby, drivers on our busy street who would otherwise be unlikely to encounter such work, much of which was consciously if unconventionally agit-prop or at least deliberately provocative.
Each contribution was no more than three minutes long: to enable pedestrians, drivers, and bus passengers to grasp a video, text, or slideshow while still remaining engaged, if need be, in the ever-forward movement and noise of street life. Under the circumstances, we had to presume fragmented attention and attempt to seize hold of the temporarily distracted by the retina, if not the throat. The politically decisive pertinence of the local and the all-but-immediate seemed crucial to us—State of Emergency was to be and remain unregulated, unsanctioned, and at times even unannounced, elements which to us recalled street theater and happenings of the 60s in New York and San Francisco, which in their planned spontaneity were often effectively interventionist, if not necessarily deliberately political. And in fact it did run at night, sometimes all night, in that guise—and silently so as to avoid potential attempts at police interference, which are all too common.
We found in practice that the distinctly urban style of nose-to-the-ground self-absorption (everybody going about their self-appointed tasks) on a busy street could demand additional tactics. For instance, we would get one or two or three people to stand across the street and stare up at our window-projections, to create a physical point of stalled interest. Some passersby who rang our bell had suggestions for images, facts, or slogans they were interested in seeing projected, which we followed up when possible. Technically, we needed no more than one portable projector (sometimes two) and a rear-projection screen (also portable) to get State of Emergency up and running. So we were able to run on a near-zero budget.
Our project’s title has a fairly specific derivation. Conventionally, a government declares a state of emergency under conditions of natural disaster or extreme crisis. Special powers are swiftly invoked, military personnel and equipment deployed, resources mobilized, regulations suspended, rules waived, statutory immunities and liability protections for involved presonnel and authorities invoked. Many democratic procedures and protections are suspended. The U.S. government’s response to September 11 has amounted to a continuing and apparently permanent state of emergency. To this day, little more than the magical incantion of certain words (terror, security, patriotism) effectively sustains the legitmation of actions and protocols which might otherwise be deemed criminal or inhumane. Our project’s title was perhaps even more directly inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s reworking of a well-known didactic remark made by Walter Benjamin, during the fascist era. According to Benjamin,
“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
To this Agamben rejoins:
“This sixty year old diagnosis has lost none of its resonance. And that is so… because power no longer has today any form of legitimization other than emergency, and because power everywhere and continuously refers and appeals to emergency as well as laboring secretly to produce it. How could we not think that a system that can no longer function at all except on the basis of emergency would not also be interested in preserving such an emergency at any price.”
From this beginning on 23rd Street, other iterations, other sites and invitations followed--eventually including social centers in Sofia, Bulgaria and Thessaloniki, Greece, and an alternative gallery in Lisbon, Portugal, and as a window installation at street-level at the digital research site/gallery Eyebeam in New York. But very likely the most compelling early screening occurred on election night in 2006, when we projected State of Emergency in the windows of the restaurant Alias on the Lower East Side. Connecting the screening to the national election further enhanced what we really wanted to project on the screen of everyone’s consciousness—that we were actually living in a State of Emergency.
The screening persisted for hours (on a loop) projected first outside the restaurant, and then, when a persistent rainstorm began, inside, turning the much-loved neighborhood gathering-space into a scene for table-hopping discussions of our prospective shared future of at least two-more-years-of-Bush-war-criminality. The casual conviviality of Alias, for which part-owner graphic artist Marybeth Nelson devised an election-night menu and a throw the rascals out cocktail, in concert with the State of Emergency program, all coalesced to focus what is unique about an event: that, at its best, it is unrepeatable. These distinctive elements were complemented by a salutary mix of participants: the diverse set we invited, hungry or wet passersby attracted by the somehow celebratory atmosphere, the waiters and the kitchen staff. Such a warmly localized note of thoughtful spontaneity worked to create a memorable political event.
Another screening, in a somewhat later edition, occurred in a storefront in Oberhausen, as part of another project. This was another collaborative venture, commencing in a way a second trajectory for our work up to the present: We were invited to curate a set of 10 programs at the Oberhausen Film Festival, which we did in 2008, under the title “Border-Crossers and Trouble-Makers,” an ambitious and well-received attempt to sketch out the necessity, within the strict compass of the short-form film/video, for experiment (left undefined) in political media. Invited filmmakers ranged from a young Zapatista non-representative to the then 80-year-old Rene Vautier, life-long militant filmmaker who’d directed Africa 50, the first anti-colonialist film made in Africa. Successive refinements of this activity, often while putting together new editions of State of Emergency include: 2009 at Zagreb a five day series, at the Subversive Film Festival under the title, “Reclaim the Future,” and this past season, for the Flaherty Foundation in New York, a six-part series under the title “Global Revolt,” (which we dedicated to our friend Allan Sekula). I will describe “Global Revolt” at some length below.
Finally, in this vein, we are presently in the last stages of a very considerable 4-DVD project, to be distributed by Facets Multimedia (in Chicago) of what we hope and expect will amount to a new history of political experimental film, through extensive research, an effort comprising some forty plus short-form works, from at least twenty countries, and extending from 1913 to 2013—with the astute help of filmmaker Jill Godmilow. We feel that this project could have considerable pedagogical value, in part due to the concentration and (re-) discovery of new and neglected films, but also because socially and formally provocative shorter films (as opposed to features) tend to be more useful in creating and sustaining animated classroom and other public discussion—to turn a screening into a participatory event, in other words.
All of this seems to bring up another question. What should one aim for in putting together a political film series? By that I mean not merely a series that screens radical films. Sherry and I have long been interested in the indefinite potential for a film screening to achieve the status of a politicizing intervention that in some sense breaks through the conventions of a typical screening situation. At times, one’s expectations of the political potential for transformation in such situations tend to exceed what’s concretely possible. The old story: one’s supple, if not febrile, imagination outruns rheumatic reality by a country mile. But I’d venture to say, at this point, that one should put one’s resources, whatever they might be, into the largely imaginative effort of making each screening into an event.
It’s all too true that the films one chooses, however incendiary in and of themselves, are seldom enough to do the enviable trick of moving even an enlightened consciousness much past the point of inertia. The construction of an event begs for convincing(ly) live elements as a deliberate supplement to the solely represented elements—the very films that the audience presumably came to see. The construction of an event can at its best produce a temporary/temporal structure capable of challenging such a relatively passive audience with enough unpredictable energy at the given moment into becoming viewer-participants (a fragile temporary not-quite-collective) who become willfully implicated in the issues and affects raised by the films in the program. This is and will remain a provisional formulation. In large part, this is because one soon learns as an organizing curator that such events are themselves in essence unrepeatable, that they must therefore be reinvented each time to remain effective. In other words, the singularity of an event (as opposed to the fact that a film is always the same film) is one possible key to the expansion of a political potential.
There is nothing particularly new or original about such an assertion. In our research, for example, we find that the pre-World War I French anarchist film association, Le Cinema du Peuple, which is apparently the first such cooperative in film history, when they first screened La Commune, directed by the peripatetic Spanish anarchist Armand Guerra, at the Palais des Fetes in Paris, assumed the necessity of creating such an event. And in our day, we see the antithesis of the multiplex in the urban proliferation of deliberately small-scale screening situations, which are routinely (sometimes too routinely) accompanied by speakers. In New York City, for example, we have in recent years seen a renaissance of such pocket cinemas, which always include discussions as part of each program/screening. These include Union Docs, the Spectacle Theater, and Light Industry, in addition to such sites as 16 Beaver St, which are not theaters but gathering spaces with some of the salient aspects of the anarchist social centers and squats now common in Europe and South America.
How does the Law of Unintended Consequences apply to political film screenings? I would venture to say that one test of a successful political film screening is whether it does elicit such unexpected responses. Early in 2010 we travelled to Vietnam to begin shooting a video about what that country felt like now to an American who was a draft resister (that is, myself) during the Vietnam War, which is, of course, known to the Vietnamese as the American War. Shortly after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, I emailed Hanoi DocLab, a new venue and workshop we’d heard about. Soon we were invited to do a screening of the current edition of State of Emergency when we journeyed north.
That screening proved to us, once again but differently, the perhaps inestimable value of direct engagement. Following our introduction of the project and then the screening itself, we engaged in a long give-and-take with an audience of about sixty mostly young people, many of whom were clearly artists. Early on, the discussion became focused almost entirely on how censorship works in the United States. This discussion was sparked by one video in the program, our own Graven Images, in which the politically tabu act of the burning of the U.S. flag is depicted, with dozens of such sacred red, white, and blue icons rapidly reduced to ashes. At the end of the short video we see that it is not some rabid anti-Americans performing this culturally proscribed act but the super-patriots of the American Legion, who have somehow been sanctioned to dispose of damaged flags on Flag Day, each year.
The Hanoi audience found it difficult to understand how we were allowed to screen in the U.S. such (literally, in this case) incendiary imagery. This led to a concrete discussion of how censorship of political ideas and images can operate at one or more of several points in the cultural process. For instance, internally, in a sense, censorship may occur at the point of conception—i.e. a political artist may decide not to make a certain work, for fear of or in anticipation of how it might be received. Or censorhip may occur at the point of gaining funding to produce a work, knowing that its politics will cause it to be rejected. Or it may occur or at the point of creating a work, when a artist again has a crucial moment to consider how politically provocative a work could or should be (sometimes temporizing or cutting back—perhaps with the self-exculpatory excuse that the prospective audience/viewer may not be ready for overly radical work, etc. Or again we find it at the point of distribution, when the political artist, who has been “free” to produce the work suddenly finds that institutional or corporate gatekeepers block it. To our surprise, the audience members were completely drawn into this discussion and insisted on drawing out its implications. A bit later, one young artist privately asked about how to push the limits in a potentially dangerous cultural situation such as that which existed in Vietnam. Still later, the next evening, following a performance to which we’d been invited, at a gallery space, we encountered some of the same audience members from our screening, and we had another impromptu discussion of some of the same issues. We also discovered that it was very much a good thing that our screening/discussion at Hanoi DocLab had been so casually arranged—since it was the usual arrangement that such events when planned tended to be screened in advance by the local authorities, i.e. subject to possible censorship.
In planning to produce State of Emergency, as we did, we had only thought of its potential reception by U.S. audiences. The fact that the program was silent was in fact an advantage in non-U.S. venues—the problem of translation was in practice elided. The fact that we needed to introduce to non-U.S. audiences the terms of the project’s production and the unconventional ways and venues in which we had presented it effectively became part of its reception for such audiences. In Sofia, when shown at a social center, State of Emergency was drawn into larger debates there about the role of state violence and the militarization of the police in Sofia itself….And so the program functioned as a political spark for what was already on people’s minds—as with the young Vietnamese artists in the Hanoi audience, who had clearly begun to wonder how and when and how far to challenge the cultural norms of the situation in Hanoi. The politics of the local situation overtook what we had thought were the obvious politics of the program itself, which for us revolved about the role of the U.S. as imperial police force. As with our other art work during the past decade, our curatorial projects, beginning with State of Emergency, pretty much embodied what seems in the present era like an almost de rigeur tension between the local (often focused as resistance) and the global (the domination of capital). But the local usually took over in these discussions—and we often found ourselves articulating the degree to which such issues, whatever they were, were in fact common ground in cities across the globe.
But how do we structure our programs—so as both to encourage and to leave room for such challenging discussions? How is it possible to structure programs as deliberate interventions, in other words? Or how is it possible to elicit the kinds of unexpected connections that we are interested in provoking? To begin to answer this, I will use the “Global Revolt” series as the prime example. For Global Revolt, with the immeasurable assistance of the folks at the Flaherty Foundation, which sponsored the series, and Anthology Film Archives, which was amazingly flexible, we further refined the approach we took at the Oberhausen and the Subversive Film Festivals. The Flaherty’s aim and achievement has always been to create a forum for serious discussion of documentary films. Thus a basic event structure was already in place.
Assuredly, we must find the films first. For this, Sherry is very largely responsible as she is an extremely dedicated, unceasing researcher. However, even when she is able to find a film or a reference to a film on some usually obscure website, it can take weeks sometimes to track down the filmmaker/collective, to contact them, and involve them in the project. Nevertheless, pretty quickly, specific themes emerge from this ever-growing accumulation (and it is definitely ever-growing). Naturally, these themes are obviously reflective of our own interests, commitments, passions—and therefore, in a sense, already in advance make up a fairly coherent range of possibilities. These themes could be current enough to already on people’s minds but then be refreshed from an unexpected angle—or be provocatively contradictory, to operate against assumptions securely in place. In the case of the latter, for instance, I inverted the familiar terms, truth and reconciliation, which everyone is routinely expected to agree with—in advance. As it happens, we don’t altogether agree with those terms as such: so we put together a program titled, “Falsehood and Non-reconciliation.”
For seven years now we have been seeking out short-form political/experimental films—rarely longer than 30 minutes—rather than features. We rarely screen films on either end of the spectrum—neither purely political conventional documentaries nor purely experimental, formalist, apparently apolitical works add enough to the mix we’re after. We don’t accept the arguments commonly put forward in favor of accessibility to a wide audience brought to bear in favor of conventional documentaries, nor do we accept the conventional avant-gardist argument in favor of the overriding value of the politics of form, in its seasonal variants. What interests us instead are the myriad ways and means in which experiments of radical politics and the politics of radical experiment overlap and enhance each other to create a third element. And this adventure is key to how we put individual programs together. We are interested in how apparently disparate films (films made in different countries, at differing historical conjunctures) comment and speak to each other. Therefore in a single program of around 90 minutes we must choose a number (five to eight) of films that we hope, in their unexpected range of connections, will create for audience/participants the texture of an event. Like all curators, we create the terms for a potential experience by selecting and ordering the films, with program notes that I write and a brief introduction (and welcome). We also schedule speakers, often the filmmakers themselves, and provide a knowledgeable moderator to take up those terms, or others if they so choose, from the actual experience of the program. Quite often, we also provide something extra, a supplement, of a kind. Consider the first program of the Global Revolt series, titled “Refuse and Refusal: Anti-Authoritarian & Avant-Gardist Interventions.”
The notes for this program
“The truth of a society is in its detritus.”—Ella Shohat & Robert Stam
“The world is our garbage, we shall not want.” —Black Mask
The previously unquenchable spirit of the modernist avant-garde seems to have evaporated at almost the same moment as anti-authoritarian, autonomist, and anarchist movements re-surfaced in the 21st century. These films, which explore the unmistakable correspondence between refuse and refusal, should tell us a thing or two about this wholly unpredicted emergence.
Speakers: Ben Morea, Ayreen Anastas & Rene Gabri
Films in the series
FOR JOACHIM GATTI Jean-Marie Straub (France, 2009, 3 min)
On July 8, 2009, in Montreuil, outside Paris, Joachim Gatti, a 34-year-old filmmaker, participating in a peaceful demonstration, was severely wounded by a policeman’s flashball bullet, losing an eye. The concentrated austerity of this video, making use of a quote from Rousseau, aptly expresses Straub’s indomitable j’accuse against capital’s violent defense of property vs. human rights. For Joachim Gatti is one of three contributions to the compilation film, Outrage and Rebellion, being screened in this series.
GARBAGE New York Newsreel (USA, 1968, 10 min)
A radical film collective documents a collective action in defiant support of a NYC sanitation workers strike. The now-legendary Lower East Side anarchist group, Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers, carry their uncollected garbage up to the then new and pristine white citadel of high culture, Lincoln Center, and dump it there on the marble steps. On the disjunctive soundtrack a group critique of the action permits us to experience theory and practice as inseparable parts of a single process. Ben Morea, one of the founding members of the Motherfuckers, will be present for the screening.
AUSFEGEN Joseph Beuys & Jurgen Boch (Germany, 1972, 26 min)
Following a militant May Day demonstration along Karl Marx Strasse in then East Berlin Joseph Beuys and 2 students sweep the streets with meticulous care, wielding red-bristled brooms, in solidarity with guest workers. The action, accompanied by a voiceover, together provide a rigorously performative argument for the radical democratization of art production. Where do the three men dump all that trash? In what sense is dirt also art?
EXPULSION FROM PARADISE Andrey Ustinov & Natalya Nikolaeva (Russia, 2002, 2.5 min)
A performance in a St. Petersburg McDonald’s reenacting the myth of Adam & Eve’s expulsion from Eden. To show that the Great God Ronald McDonald provides free food for all the performers beatifically wander naked from table to table, preaching the global message of neo-liberal love. But then disaster strikes!
ISLE OF FLOWERS Jorge Furtado (Brazil, 1989, 12 min)
Cited by Chris Marker as ‘a masterpiece,’ Isle of Flowers is described by Furtado himself as “a letter to a Martian who knows nothing of the earth and its social systems.” At the Isle of Flowers pigs eat better than people. The film uses inventive animation and a parodic mock-lecture style of narrative explication to link the urban bourgeois family to the rural poor who scavenge the garbage dump, aka the Isle of Flowers.
THE LAND BELONGS TO THOSE WHO WORK IT Chiapas Media Project (Mexico, 2005, 15 min)
Collectively made, this film details a tense confrontation between masked Zapatistas farming unused land and federal officials intent on ecotourist development. The elaborate politeness on both sides of this struggle do nothing to mitigate what is at stake.
About the filmmakers
The many films of 80-year-old Jean-Marie Straub and his now-deceased partner Daniele Huillet are internationally celebrated for their rigorous disregard for the conventions of film and the social order. As Martin Walsh put it, “Straub’s [& Huillet’s] radical conception of film creation presupposes our critical intelligence’s being brought to bear constantly upon what we are viewing.” Among their other films are Class Relations (1984) and Not Reconciled (1965).
Started in 1967, New York Newsreel was easily the most influential and productive radical film collective of its era Their many films, made very quickly in the heat of battle, still resonate with the spirit and the letter of their original intransigence. Among their films: Columbia Revolt, People’s Park, and Off the Pig (Black Panther).
Joseph Beuys—one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, the inventor of “social sculpture,” and a pioneer of performance art—and television director Jurgen Boch collaborated on this very rarely screened film.
Andrey Ustinov & Natalya Nicolaev are Russian artists and performers, who collaborated on this film/performance announce: ”Art belongs to vandals!” Ustinov lives and works in Cologne. One current project: “Molotov Cocktail” which involves a hilariously quixotic attempt to gather up the scattered fragments of said Cocktail to reconstruct in its original form, hearkening, say Ustinov, to a global “landscape of incessant guerilla warfare.”
Based in Porto Alegre, Brazilian director Jorge Furtado is a master of the subversive collage film, which aligns his work with a great tradition in Brazilian modernism/postmodernism from Carlos de Andrade onwards. His most recent feature, The Man Who Copied (2003), like Isle of Flowers, moves effortlessly, and with graceful irony, from genre to genre.
Since 1998 The Chiapas Media Project has distributed over 6000 indigenously produced videos, documenting autonomous Zapatista communities. The videos shot by and in Zapatista communities cover a wide variety of subjects. Titles include: Water and Autonomy, We are Equal: Zapatista Women Speak, and Education in Resistance.
What we hadn’t counted on in putting the program together was that filmmaker John Greyson and physican/activist Tarek Loubani had been imprisoned in Cairo during protests (by supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi) that had been violently disrupted by Egyptian security forces. We had already programmed one of Greyson’s many fine films (14.3 Seconds) for the fifth program. Alarmed and concerned as we were, I read aloud to the packed audience at Anthology Film Archives, the letter from prison that Greyson and Loubani had written and that had just begun to be circulated on the Internet. In the end, shortly before the fifth program came around, the two men had been released after weeks in jail. I wrote John (who is an old friend) and asked if he’d like to appear on Skype in the discussion period following the screening (for which Nadja Millner-Larsen, a remarkable writer on radical culture, was to be the moderator). He graciously agreed—and we also added to that fifth program his short video, finished the day after he returned home, Prison Arabic in 50 Days. My overall point here is perhaps too hastily summed up by the word immediacy: very probably an irreducible aspect of any prospective advance in political struggle. In one sense, without intending to we framed one dimension of the “Global Revolt” series in an ongoing specific political struggle and its consequences for one Canadian filmmaker. This validation of immediacy (an affective immediacy shared by our audience, thereby brought together that much more certainly) gave the still new idea of Global Revolt, which we were trying to measure and understand, a sharper edge.
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