Viral footage of a cop pepper-spraying students at UC-Davis on November 18, 2011. The image encapsulates the university’s general disregard of student concerns regarding tuition hikes and an unresponsive bureaucracy of administrators.

A viral video of Chilean students dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in front of La Moneda presidential palace on June 2011 protesting the death of free public education.

August 2014 viral footage of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer who threatens to kill protestors, exposing the police state and a siege mentality at work in the heartland.

2009 viral video capturing the execution of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. It provides just one link in a long line of videotaped racist police actions towards African Americans from the infamous Rodney King beating of 1991 to more recent racism of Ferguson, Missouri police.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This famous slaughter sequence exemplifies Eisenstein’s materialist stance towards film as “a tractor plowing over the audience’s psyche.” Through a sophisticated use of montage Eisenstein relates both intellectually and emotionally the slaughter of the proletariat by capitalists and the police.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 utilized locally autonomous and informal organization that challenged more hierarchical organizational structures of other Left organizations.

Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), one of the central thinkers who linked anarchism and ecology together and became influential upon the counterculture. His artisanal view of humanizing technology complemented the 1970s video guerrillas’ similar ecological, anarchist-inflected outlook in their own utilization of portable video.

Radical Software, the central publication of the video guerrillas, regularly published ecological statements on technology.

Spontaneous shots of outer Chicago from the Videofreex 1969 tape Subject to Change. The tape was supposed to replace The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour for CBS, but its experimental form caused the network’s top brass to reject it either as ahead of its time or “a piece of shit” depending upon the executive asked. 

Subject to Change footage of Abbie Hoffman critiquing Judge Julius Hoffman as a humorless executioner of the court during the Chicago Seven trial.


Anarchist aesthetics and U.S. video activism

by Chris Robé

A proliferation of activist videos goes viral over the Internet:

  • a Ferguson, Missouri police officer threatens to kill protestors;
  • Quebec students flood the streets in protest over tuition hikes;
  • Chilean students dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in demand for a free education;
  • Asmaa Mafhouz incites Egyptians to protest in Tahir Square from her Facebook video blog;
  • a cop indiscriminately pepper sprays University of California-Davis protesting students;
  • another cop executes Oscar Grant in public view on a BART platform.

This increase of such videos signals a flourishing of independent activist media within the last ten years. But its origins stretch back to the late 1960s when digital technology like the Sony Portapak became available to Western consumers, making the earliest inroads in the United States.

Nowadays, almost all cellphones contain video capabilities that can transform most passersby into a de facto videographer of the moment. Additionally, as the costs of video cameras, editing software, and computers have decreased, new distribution platforms like Vimeo, Indymedia, YouTube, and Reelhouse have blossomed, allowing any uploaded video potentially to go viral almost instantaneously.

Yet, as I will show, serious structural inequities nonetheless remain with the growing accessibility of digital technology.

As video has been incorporated more and more into contemporary U.S. activism, two predominant trends emerge:

  • Video does not simply represent collective actions and events, but also serves as a form of activist practice in-and-of-itself both at the moment of recording and during its later distribution and exhibition.
  • Anarchist-inflected practices increasingly structure this type of video activism.

The first point is not unique to video. Lenin, for example, in “Where to Begin” described newspaper production as crucial in galvanizing collective action and sustaining solidarity during political lulls. Similarly, Sergei Eisenstein emphasized cinema’s materialist dimensions when he described it as “a tractor plowing over the audience’s psyche in a particular class context.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] The rise of relatively affordable and more compact video technology, however, has increased its ability to be integrated into activist practices in ways that film and other media before it could not.

Similarly, informal structures have often guided activist film productions of the past. But throughout the 1960s and onwards, accompanying the rise of digital technology, was a growing disillusionment by some on the Left with hierarchical organizational structures. This unease accelerated anarchist-inflected practices among much movement-based video activism. The convergence of digital technology into cellphones and handheld devices allowed smaller groups to produce such works and transfer skills among its participants. Although serious socio-economic limits still have curtailed actual equal access to video production for disenfranchised people, the technology’s expanded availability and portability have nonetheless enlarged its potential use by everyday people tenfold compared to previous use of 16mm and 8mm filmmaking.

The rise of video activism has been fairly well documented and discussed by its practitioners over Indymedia, IndieWire, and other discussion boards. Writers like Alexandra Juhasz, Deirdre Boyle, Dorothy Kidd, and Clemencia Rodriguez have further chronicled part of its history.[2] Archives and distributors like Video Data Bank, the Guerrilla TV Archive at New York University, Women Make Movies, Icarus Films, California Newsreel, Third World Newsreel, and Frameline have made some of these works available to screen.

Of political importance but less discussed are the historical connections between these video activist projects and the longer ranger goals of the movements in which they participate within. It is important for scholars and critics to explore the larger context of video activism, not just by analyzing its final products but also by studying the activist and media-making practices that make such work possible. As David James cautions, the aesthetic vocabulary of any work “is never merely itself; rather it is the trace of the social processes that constitute a practice.”[3] Image quality, for example, in general improves as video activists gain access to more high definition cameras, which is largely dependent upon the amount of resources these activists have at their disposal. As a result, the works produced by video activists belonging to historically disenfranchised populations generally tend to have lower image quality due to their media-makers resource deprivation while the works produced by more privileged activist media-makers have higher image quality due to a certain level of cultural and economic resources at their makers’ disposal, which we will see occurring during Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

Therefore, the politically concerned critic must examine how certain practices foster and limit the type of aesthetic vision made possible. This essay stresses the limits and possibilities that U.S. anarchist-inflected video activism yields. In particular, I explore how such activism while seriously challenging many injustices in its quest for a more equitable world also complements certain neoliberal practices that re-inscribe racial, gendered, and class privileges that this activism ostensibly intends to reject. Analyzing this inherent contradiction does not discredit the type of video activism taking place, but instead identifies the difficulties that accompany all types of media activism located in a deeply exploitative and hierarchical world.

Also, for many activists, video production does not serve as an endpoint unto itself but as a means to further build coalitions and galvanize collective action. The process of videomaking often equals the value of the final product. For example, many groups use video as counter-surveillance to capture inappropriate police behavior during demonstrations to be used later during court proceedings. There is also a hope that the presence of cameras might deter police misbehavior at the moment of filming. Often times, any collective, longer length video produced afterwards was a byproduct of more primary concerns with protecting demonstrators at the moment of the action. As a result, we need to temper any over-valorization of the videos in our analysis by also highlighting the practices that they emerge from.

This essay offers a brief historical sketch of some of the anarchist-inflected practices that have contributed to U.S. video activism. The first section argues that the rise of anarchist affinities during the late twentieth-century marks an important historical development in understanding contemporary video activism. I quickly chronicle the emergence of such affinities within various activist communities from the 1960s to the present and highlight some of the contradictions that plagued the video guerrilla scene arising in New York City during the early 1970s since they continue to haunt later U.S. video activism.

The next section shows how couching media activism within the frame of anarchist affinities can assist our comprehension of AIDS video activism and its relation to other media collectives such as Paper Tiger Television (PTTV). By focusing on the direct-action videos of ACT UP/NY we can see how the groundwork laid by the video guerrillas allowed such work to flourish as well as impose similar limitations. The final section addresses how the prism of anarchist affinities and network formations offer insights into recent developments of activist videomakers such as that of Brandon Jourdan and the videos produced by Occupy Wall Street. Also, by revealing moments of homologies between such video activism and neoliberal practices, we can see how this activism at times replicates some of the inequities it attempts to fight. Focusing on anarchist-inflected video-activist practices allows one to better trace the consistent possibilities and limits that such video activism has produced since its emergence during the late 1960s.

The rise of late twentieth-century U.S. anarchism

Before I delve into the anarchist affinities of U.S. video activism, I offer a few caveats about how I am defining them. One, like any “ism,” anarchism has many varying strains. Anarcho-syndicalism strongly allies itself with a socialist position whereas anarcho-primitivism tends to be critical of socialism and civilization as a whole. Writers like Hakim Bey and collectives like CrimethInc. subscribe to more Romantic visions of anarchism that tend to over-valorize individual agency as leading to systemic resistance. Others like the Turbulence Collective and The Free Association advocate more post-structuralist positions that highlight the theoretical links between such theorists like Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, and the like with anarchist practices and contexts.

Despite these differences, collectives and individuals who share anarchist affinities tend to uphold three tenets:

  • consensus-based decision-making,
  • nonhierarchical structures, and
  • direct-action tactics.

Although in reality new power imbalances might form and consensus might not be achieved, aspirations towards these more egalitarian structures and participants’ direct involvement remain constant goals. As Uri Gordon proposes,

“Such an approach promotes anarchy as culture, as a lived reality that pops up everywhere in new guises, adapts to different cultural climates, and should be extended and developed experimentally for its own sake, whether or not we believe it can become, in some sense, the prevailing mode of society.”[4]

Anarchist affinities, in other words, are pre-figurative attempts to actualize the world we desire in the present and to reject the notion that the political ends are more important than its means.

John Downing noted similar anarchist-inflected tendencies among activist media-makers worldwide in his 1984 book Radical Media: The Political Experience of Alternative Communication. In it, he emphasizes four areas:

  • the stress upon cultural politics over that of reductive economic thinking;
  • a critique of the centralized party and vanguard politics;
  • the prioritization of social formations over that of rigid institutional structures; and
  • the incorporation of prefigurative politics.[5]

Here I wish to update Downing’s original insights by exploring the anarchist-inflected video activist practices that extend into the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries within the United States.

Another caveat: I am emphasizing groups and individuals with anarchist affinities, not necessarily self-identified anarchists. As much as anarchism proper has been growing for the past fifty years, anarchist affinities have even more significantly been adopted by activist groups and media-makers who wouldn’t primarily identify themselves as anarchists for varying reasons.

A move towards more anarchist-inflected organization within the U.S. oppositional groups emerged during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Such an organizational structure rejected explicit hierarchical structures for direct-action and participatory democracy that entailed consensus-based decision-making. For example, these principles were embodied in the early actions and rhetoric of New Left groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).[6] SNCC’s most successful direct-action campaign of occupying lunch counters led to its initial adherence to decentralization.[7] Consensus-based decision-making provided for developmental power by training those who had been historically disenfranchised from decision-making into the governing process, thereby undercutting a sense of helplessness by making them active agents of social change.

By the late 1960s, as some sectors of the New Left drifted towards Marxist-Leninism, and New Left goals of Third World revolution or even stopping the Vietnam War seemed more unobtainable than ever, many of its members entered into countercultural and/or direct-action formations that were more hospitable to their anarchist tendencies. It entailed a move away from attacking state power directly and instead establishing cultural alternatives to an industrial-based, hierarchical society.[8] As Barbara Epstein notes,

“The counterculture’s use of guerrilla theater and other forms of creative expression, its lack of interest in the conventional political arena, suggested that revolution had more to do with thinking and living differently, and convincing others to make similar changes, than with seizing power.”[9]

This interest in culture did not necessarily mean the abandonment of politics altogether, but the formation of a new type of politics that Julie Stephens has labeled as “anti-disciplinary.” She defines it as

“a language of protest which rejected hierarchy and leadership, strategy and planning, bureaucratic organization and political parties and was distinguished from the New Left by its ridiculing of political commitment, sacrifice, seriousness and coherence.”[10]

Theodore Roszak emphasized the implicit politics behind the seemingly apolitical counterculture:

“They seek to invent a cultural base for New Left politics, to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new esthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the consumer society.”[11]

In other words, they redeployed some of the anarchist-inflected practices found within earlier New Left tactics and strategies of SDS and SNCC into their lifestyle practices.

The merging of the New Left with the counterculture accompanied the blossoming of anarchism proper during the late 1960s and early 1970s within the United States with Murray Bookchin serving as its main proselytizer. He emphasized how these new lifestyle practices were deeply tied to an anarchist politics. He articulates the dialectical relation between lifestyle and politics that anarchism embraced in his 1970 introduction to Post-Scarcity Anarchism by stressing that every revolutionary must incorporate and manifest his/her radical outlook into his/her everyday practices. [12] The personal and the political must merge as long as lifestyle practices do not eclipse larger and more systemic political goals.

Such a view extended to those direct-action groups that also saw lifestyle and culture at the core of their politics as well as to some configurations of the counterculture. Problems arose, however, in the lack of clarity of when and if such lifestyle activism was serving as a means or an ends, placing individual interests in an uneasy balance with larger political goals.

The rise of the video guerrillas

In many ways, the emergence of video guerrillas in the 1970s within the United States is an extension of the anarchist-inflected counterculture as these media makers wielded newly available Portapaks in small collectives as they attempted to create a more democratic media ecology. Their goal was to see consumer and producer merge by allowing ordinary people to create their own culture and seize control over their lives and environment.[13] Murray Bookchin shares very close links with the video guerillas’ outlook in that he most directly emphasized the links between ecology, anarchism, and technology throughout the 1960s. In his 1962 book Our Synthetic Environment, he identified the underlying alienation that accompanied mass culture and industrial bureaucracy that most ecological outlooks shared.

Video guerrilla groups like the Videofreex, Global Village, and Ant Farm similarly rejected this alienation by establishing communes in the hopes of escaping such bureaucratic institutions and outlooks. They fled from the increasing competition among video groups within cities like Manhattan and San Francisco. Furthermore, they wanted to distinguish their media practices and lifestyles from that found within corporate media that bureaucratized and compartmentalized media production into a series of discrete jobs that made it difficult for a more holistic approach to media to take hold.

In his 1965 essay, “Towards a Liberatory Technology,” Bookchin outlines a use of technology that uncannily anticipates the video guerrillas’ own outlook. Within it, he asserts that technology “can help humanize society” if it is incorporated into small-scale communities.[14] He asserts that such a community “may well want to assimilate the machine to artistic craftsmanship.” Incorporating such a practice is exactly what the video guerrillas did by using portable video technology in their daily lives and revealing how technological vision can be wielded to a humane outlook.[15] Philosophically, Bookchin continues chronicling the new type of vision that such technological incorporation would make possible:

“Quality and artistry would supplant the current emphasis on quality and standardization…; an economy of cherished things, sanctified by a sense of tradition and by a sense of wonder for the personality and artistry of dead generations, would replace the mindless seasonal restyling of commodities; innovations would be made with a sensitivity for the natural inclinations of man as distinguished from the engineered pollution of taste by the mass media.”[16]

Overall, Bookchin asserts, “a technology for life must be based on the community.”[17] He suggests an ecological understanding of media that the video guerrillas will also adopt in their own use of technology as they attempt to harmonize their use of technology with that of the natural world. As Bookchin notes elsewhere, “Ecology deals with the dynamic balance of nature, with the interdependence of living and nonliving things.”[18] Similarly, in an early issue of Radical Software, for example, its editors write,

“Our species will survive neither by totally rejecting nor unconditionally embracing technology-but by humanizing it; by allowing people access to the informational tools they need to shape and reassert control over their lives.”[19]

An ecological outlook defined much of the video guerrillas’ vision as they redesigned living spaces to merge with their emphasis upon collective video production and consumption, which can be witnessed in part through the numerous weekly video shows they held in their reconfigured downtown lofts.

This outlook can also be seen in the minimalist and rough aesthetics of their videos where they minimized editing since it was not only a labor-intensive process when utilizing early primitive editing systems, but also they wanted to allow the moment to unfold before the camera without unduly manipulating its natural process through editing. Clearly, the very presence of the camera influenced the recorded moment, which most video guerrillas were well aware of. But they attempted to minimize the camera’s presence by often hanging out with groups for some duration before taping or taping less obtrusively by often sacrificing a well-framed composition instead for a more natural but badly framed moment.

In contrast to some of the counterculture’s rejection of technology, the video guerrillas wanted to humanize it. As John Burris asserts,

“The communications technology itself, was seen as the key to mastering a whole set of social relationships: between the individual and society, between the individual and the environment, among groups of individuals, extending into the power relations within society itself.”[20]

Despite their ecological and anarchist-inflected vision, however, the video guerrillas were riddled with their own contradictions. For example, despite some of the Videofreex’s oppositional attitude towards commercial media, their very existence in part was dependent upon it. David Cort, Curtis Ratcliff, and Parry Teasdale—its original three members—met Nancy Cain, Carol Vontobel, and Skip Blumberg, who eventually became central members, at CBS. The latter three were hired by CBS to help assist the Videofreex produce a show that would replace The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. As the latter three engaged with the Freex and struck up friendships with them, their allegiances gradually shifted to the Freex. They joined them after the Freex ill-fated show, Subject to Change, flopped with network executives.[21] The rest of the Freex like Chuck Kennedy, Davidson Gigliotti, Bart Friedman, and Ann Woodward were picked up along the way.

Both Cort’s and Teasdale’s oppositional attitudes at the time towards commercial television made their collaboration with CBS a doomed endeavor to begin with. Teasdale reflects, “Video technology neatly fit with the revolutionary ethic of the time in that it didn’t matter so much what you produced so long as you didn’t do what they — the broadcasters — did.”[22] Carol Vontobel adds, “Self-righteousness was all over the place.”[23]

David Cort similarly romanticizes the Freex opposition to CBS. “We were just so anarchistic then that we weren’t ready for it,” recalls Cort.[24] Cort continues,

“CBS was an intrusion but it gave money. It was and wasn’t an intrusion. It was an intrusion in a lot of ways because we rejected it as it was happening. It was built-in failure. …We felt broadcast was not free—increased inside formats that did not permit any kind of real communication. So there was rejection.”

Yet as Cort notes, CBS provided them with needed money that allowed them to pay for utilities and rent their NYC Prince Street loft where they held their weekly video shows. Also CBS provided the Freex with the most advanced video equipment at the time, particularly an editing deck. Although this equipment was only to be loaned to the Freex, they kept it after having their contract with CBS terminated. Finally, Cain, Vontobel, and Blumberg became central players in producing their weekly low-power television show Lanesville TV when they moved upstate. So despite some of the Freex oppositional attitude towards CBS, the network provided key equipment, personnel, and money to continue the Freex’ existence.

Similarly, in spite of the video guerrillas’ rhetoric regarding decentralization and a non-hierarchical outlook, their sustained existence was dependent upon state sponsorship. New York City became a hub of video guerrilla work due to the growing funds made available for it through the New York State Council on the Arts. The Council’s video budget rapidly increased to $20,208,570 during its 1970-1971 year when grants were first made available to video collectives. It increased to $34,000,000 by 1974-1975.[25] Roughly seven to ten grants were distributed to various video groups like Raindance, People’s Video Theatre, Videofreex, and Global Village. Although the groups formed collective structures before the initiation of grants, such grants were originally only made available to video groups, therefore encouraging their collective structures to remain in place despite growing internal tensions in some of them.

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