The fluid camera movements of People’s Video Theatre (PVT) that capture both participants and observers of the Women’s Liberation March.
People’s Video Theatre taping a debate among a participant and a critic of the Gay Pride March. Notable is the civil exchange between the two that reveals the march as not just a site of confrontation but also of discussion.
The increasing psychic and political distance between PVT and the woman of the Young Lords seen through the tape’s more formal interview style.
A Native American occupation of Plymouth Rock videotaped by PVT. The camera films the action from a distance on shore. PVT is longer a part of the demonstration like the earlier Gay Pride and Women’s Liberation marches. The extreme distance between subject and the videomakers exposes the skepticism many Native Americans held towards white video guerrillas’ interests in their actions.
The 1990-1991 Gulf War politicized many U.S. anarchist punks, leading to an influx of even more anarchist-influenced people into the animal and environmental rights movements as well as into the alter-globalization movement. The anti-war imagery found in the pages of the March 1991 issue of punk zine Profane Existence represents a fairly typical politicized punk outlook.
Indymedia became an outlet for many activist-oriented U.S. punk rockers who had become tired with the nihilism and juvenile outlook of the music scene. Yet certain idealizations like the belief that free labor was somehow outside capitalist appropriation rather than central to it remained, leading to some exclusionary activist practices that prohibited many from historically disenfranchised communities from participating.
The Canadian Media Co-Op corrects some of the inequities perpetuated by Indymedia by creating financial support for contributors as well as providing skills-sharing classes for those communities that have been historically denied access to the press and video.
Grant money also supported vital infrastructure for video groups like the Artist’s Television Workshop at WNET “to enable artists’ access to experiment with videotape,” and allowed the creation of Television Lab that became crucial in providing post-production facilities for many video groups and artists as well as aiding distribution of their work over a broadcast network.[open endnotes in new window] This infrastructure assisted New York City in becoming a vital center of video experimentation due to the state’s relatively generous support.
Finally, the video guerrillas’ white and middle-class privileges seriously impeded their work with historically disenfranchised groups. By all accounts, People’s Video Theatre was the most concerned with outreach. It ran from 1970 to 1972, led by Howie Gutstadt, Elliot Glass, Ken Marsh, and Ben Levine, and focused on lending the video equipment and services to historically disenfranchised peoples. One way in which they did this was by mediating conflicts among various ethnic/racial groups.
For example, because of construction occurring in downtown Manhattan, younger African-Americans and older Jews were being pushed together residentially, resulting in culture clash. According to Ben Levine,
The screening would bring both groups together. Because playback would force the other group to listen, a better understanding was had.
People’s Video Theatre became so well-known locally for resolving conflict through videotape that the Mayor of South Orange, New Jersey hired them to mediate racial tension between African Americans and whites. Levine recalls the tape:
But People’s Video Theatre’s involvement with the Puerto Rican-based Young Lords was more problematic. Although they gave the Lords a Portapak, this did not facilitate any closer relationship between them. In fact, as Levine remembers,
Unmentioned, however, were also the limits of PVT in creating structural support and outreach with minority communities like the Lords. The “gift” of video equipment—in spite of good intentions—replicates a colonial relation between white benefactors bestowing goods upon the colonized receiver to ingratiate oneself into the “tribe.” The Lords, a highly political group, most likely saw this interaction along such lines, thus placing PVT at an even greater distance.
In a People’s Video Theatre compilation tape, one can see the increasing distance manifesting itself between the videomakers and the more marginalized groups they filmed. During the tape’s earlier sequences about a women’s liberation march and gay pride march, the camera moves fluidly between participants and observers, and its interviewers interject their own opinions by engaging off-camera with their subjects. They move in and out of the march to get a variety of point of views. During the Gay Pride march, for example, the videomakers document a debate between a lesbian and an older, white homophobic man. It is a remarkable encounter where neither yell at one another but engage in sustained dialogue. The camera shifts back and forth from one to another as they exchanging points of view. The woman asks him,
Although the man remains reluctant to do so, this meta-moment of filming reveals the power of showing an actual reasoned discussion between opposing points that validates the parade not only for drawing those together with a similar point of view, but also for creating occasional moments of interchange among those with differing outlooks.
When it comes to the Young Lords tape, however, the interchange is much more regimented between the videomakers and a Puerto Rican female speaker. She is the only person who speaks during the tape although we see shots of others milling about the occupied church that the Lords seized. She speaks in a stilted manner about how one of their members was killed in jail—most likely through the guards’ brutality or intentional neglect: “These are our people. We want to protect those people. We want to defend them, and we want to start it here.”
The tape reveals less about entering the moment and having interactions unfold before one as occurred during the Women’s Lib and Gay Pride marches. Instead the mediamakers use video in a more programmatic and functional way to deliver the Young Lords’ propaganda. The interviewer doesn’t intervene; no one questions the woman’s statements; nor does the video have other points of view that might challenge the single one that’s expressed. The tape exposes a distance between the videomakers and their subjects, seen now in the lack of fluid camera movements or interchange between makers and those filmed.
During the final sequence in the compilation tape, concerning a Native American action occupying Plymouth Rock, the camera is the most removed. While Native Americans occupy a boat, the camera remains onshore observing the action from a distance with the mostly white bystanders. Although various Native Americans are interviewed, a standard interview format once again ensues as in the Young Lords’ tape.
The various videos’ differing aesthetics suggest an increasing distance between the groups being filmed and the videomakers. The more rigid and distanced stylistic vocabulary of the latter tapes expose strained or formal relations between subjects and those behind the camera. This is not unique in that it harkens back to the problematic racial and class relations that various white New Left groups and activists experienced between themselves and radical African-Americans and their groups such the Black Panthers and SNCC during the mid-1960s.
At its most uncritical, a fetishization by the white New Left arose regarding people of colors’ struggles. That is, uncritical adulation supplanted discussion and critique regarding marginalized groups’ actions and philosophies. As Todd Gitlin relates, in the heated days of the late 1960s where revolutionary rhetoric and insurrectionary fantasies exploded across the nation, “the black underclass, rioting in the streets, were the plausible cadres.” White New Left groups grafted upon and at times attempted to trump people of colors’ actions and resistances. For instance, the Weathermen, a splinter group from SDS comprised mostly of the sons and daughters of wealthy, white parents, perhaps most egregiously illustrates such white adventurism in their advocacy for violence. They infuriated black and Latino groups during their rampage of property destruction in Chicago during their 1969 Days of Rage. Despite early warnings from the Black Panthers and the Young Lords that their actions will cause people of color to unduly suffer police repression unleashed by such tactics, the Weathermen nonetheless engaged in such destruction regardless that they lacked any support from the working-class communities that such actions were supposed to incite.
Although the video guerrilla groups did not share the revolutionary vision of the more militant sects of the white New Left, they nonetheless remained deferential to the radical minority groups they videotaped as exhibited in their more stolid filming style and lack of interaction and questioning them during interviews. The Videofreex, for example, became most famous for their 1969 taped interview with Black Panther Fred Hampton made only a few weeks before his murder by the police. Although they made numerous tapes with the Black Panthers, the Videofreex never seriously questioned the racial privileges that dictated their videomaking practices. The same can be said for most of the other video guerrilla groups that were predominantly white and middle-class. Although they all clearly sympathized with various disenfranchised peoples’ struggles, they routinely failed to analyze how such oppressive conditions might relate to their own socio-economic status and privileges that allowed them the opportunities to videotape in the first place.
If anything, the mere presence of having Native Americans filmed speaks highly of a certain level of trust that People’s Video Theatre generated—as opposed to most of the other video guerilla groups. For example, when the Videofreex attempted to film Native Americans occupying Alcatraz in 1969, they were denied access. Nancy Cain recalls, “A lot of the Native Americans who were sitting-in didn’t trust him [Bart Friedman] and it would be tough for Bart to get any intimate footage.”
Instead, all that appears in the final footage of Videofreex’ Subject to Change is the mention of the Alcatraz occupation over the radio news—“the Indians are demanding that the island be turned over to them for an educational and cultural center”— as the Freex filmed within an independent radio station. For all its trappings of spontaneous, experimental video with its freeform style and countercultural content concerning an alternative school and the Chicago Seven Trial, this moment of Subject to Change exposes that the Freex relationship with Native Americans is no better than that of commercial media. Access is denied to commercial and alternative media forms alike since the wages of whiteness unite them in ways that Native American activist groups find equally troubling. This happens despite all the populist banter regarding decentralization and indigenous media from the video guerrillas. By not addressing their own relations to and benefits from structural inequities, the video guerrillas often played into them as they naively thought their anarchist-inflected videomaking practices and open filming style could somehow jettison history and their privileges.
Punk anarchism and
Anarchist-inflected tendencies have only increased throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. Groups like the Clamshell Alliance and the Abalone Alliance more systematically integrated consensus-based decision-making and direct-action into the activist Left during the late 1970s and early 1980s. By the late 1980s and early 1990s the punk rock scene became more intertwined with activism, particularly that concerning animal rights and the environment. Bands like Insted and Earth Crisis endorsed an explicitly vegan outlook. The direct-action practices of groups like EarthFirst!, Animal Liberation Front, and the Cascadia Forest Defenders appealed to many punks’ do-it-yourself ethos and anti-authoritarian attitudes. As Craig O’Hara notes,
Such anti-authoritarian, anarchist tendencies can often lead to problematic nihilistic and libertarian outlooks where individuals’ rights trump any notion of social justice. David DeLeon addresses the libertarian impulses found within U.S. anarchism’s resurgence during the 1960s and 1970s. SDS and the libertarian Young Americans for Freedom, for example, shared many anti-bureaucratic and anti-hierarchical stances, but held very different goals.
This political convergence of radical and conservative outlooks most likely stems in part from new anarchism’s middle-class roots and lack of connection to older anarchist practices and history due to the political suppression by the U.S. government through the Red Scare in the 1920s and McCarthyism throughout the 1940s onwards. David DeLeon highlights new anarchism’s middle-class character as it develops “elaborate expositions of many bourgeois values—while zealously proclaiming itself to be anti-bourgeois.” For example, the fantasy that individual resistance could lead to systemic subversion speaks to an over-idealized notion of individual agency. It complements a neoliberal outlook that promotes “the idea that we are each endowed with the agency to choose the best way of life and that the means to realize our choices are readily available if only we will commit to them.” Many of these symptoms of magical thinking can be seen in the U.S. punk scene
Yet some punk collectives explicitly advocated for the politicization of punk in the early 1990s. In “A New Punk Manifesto,” Profane Existence asserts that
This desire to be more politically engaged led to punks’ growing involvement in antiwar activities against the first Gulf War as well as increasing participation in the emerging alter-globalization movement. As one anarchist zine observes,
Thus, zines like Punk Planet dedicated entire issues to alter-globalization resistances as well as to key Left figures.
Some punks clearly saw protest politics as a mere extension of another “scene,” a new underground to tap into but not truly engage with. The inheritances of such a narcissistic and juvenile outlook can still be witnessed today. While attending the 2012 protests against the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, I encountered three black-clad Caucasian punk men sitting in sweltering 90-degree heat who refused to offer any information about an upcoming protest action. As one stated, “You need to stick around for three or four hours and see when people are getting their water bottles and back packs.” His friend chimed in, “People are working on it, but no one is going to tell you.”
Although I partially understood their implicit message—if I want to participate in an action, I need to fully experience the context it emerges from— it was completely impractical in a city where protest camps were spread miles away from one another. The sheer skepticism and hostility from these three made it clear why many explicit forms of U.S. anarchism in general are so insular, white, and dogmatic. The lack of outreach and general desire to connect with others pushes such anarchism into a clique where adolescent tendencies inherited from the punk scene infect and undermine politics. These men’s silence and oppositional attitude boiled down to one central smug stance: we know something you don’t — regardless if it concerns a new band or a protest action. We are hip, and you haven’t proven yourself to deserve this information. This might be an acceptable attitude for the punk scene, but it’s suicidal in terms of fostering a political movement.
Yet other punks did become more significantly politically involved such as assisting in forming Indymedia during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and extending it into other cities and countries. It became the first web-based, open access journalism platform years before the advent of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook made immediate updates commonplace. It particularly endorsed a D.I.Y. ethic in its mantra — “Be the Media” — as it encouraged politically active people to blog, videotape, and photograph protest events and other activities by providing immediate distribution through its open-source platform. <https://www.mediamobilizing.org/>
Needless to say, its dependency on unpaid labor led many inequities to arise. But many of its participants learned their lessons from their Indymedia days by establishing new media activist organizations like Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) and the Canadian Media Co-Op movement that engage various disenfranchised communities by providing more support systems like skills-sharing classes, paid positions, funded work, and the like.  MMP, for example, focuses on using media production to mobilize various working-class communities in the greater Philadelphia area.
Along similar lines the Vancouver Media Co-Op <http://vancouver.
From this longer historical perspective, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is only the latest manifestation of a long lineage of Left anarchist-inflected structures. Although Occupy didn’t highly publicize its anarchist tendencies, they predominated throughout all the Occupy incarnations across the U.S. and led to some tensions between those who explicitly self-identified as anarchists and those who didn’t. As we will see later, in spite of its anarchist aspirations, OWS was mired in many of the same contradictions that haunt much anarchist-inspired media activism that tends to over-valorize individual action while failing to fully explore more systemic limits to individual initiative that disproportionately impact people of color and working-class communities.
Neoliberal reconfigurations and
The rise of anarchist-inflected structures during the later twentieth-century also accompanied the transformation of capitalism into neoliberal directions during the 1970s. Many homologies arose between the new anarchism and neoliberalism. Both rejected older, industrial-based, vertical models of authority for more network-like structures. While the new anarchism ostensibly thought such structures would challenge authority, neoliberalism incorporates authority into new nodal forms. Both rejected state authority as intrusive and oppressive upon individual agency. But whereas the new anarchism often viewed the individual in existentialist terms capable of reinventing oneself freely if only external constraints were lifted, neoliberalism promoted the individual as an entrepreneur marshaling his/her personal resources for financial success. Both saw lifestyle choices as increasingly important. For anarchists, lifestyle choices verified one’s anarchism by incorporating its politics and practices into everyday routines. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, increasingly suffused individuals’ lives with a capitalist outlook that would have been unthinkable earlier such as directly advertising to children in the 1980s that was rejected in earlier decades as morally reprehensible and detrimental to children’s wellbeing. Individual choice, as a result, becomes over-valorized as corporations like Starbucks misleading suggestion <http://www.starbucks.com/
Most importantly, subjectivity itself became a key terrain of struggle as capitalism increasingly infringed upon it. This was a key discovery made by Italian Autonomist Marxists like Franco Berardi, Mario Tronti, Silvia Federici, and Antonio Negri during the 1960s and 1970s as they assisted factory workers, students, and women to break from Capital’s regime. They saw Capital’s progression as an increasing encroachment into every aspect of one’s life whereby the post-industrial economy moves beyond the point of production to harness people’s subjectivities as grist for surplus value. Capital siphons off the labor, creativity, and affects produced by others to produce surplus value.
Capital’s harnessing of profitability from subjectivity itself can be no better exemplified by the rise of social media where users become both content producers and consumers. Corporate entities provide platforms where its users dedicate endless hours producing and consuming content, distributing information, and willfully disclosing critical personal data to third-party providers. Leisure and work conflate as production and consumption radically converge while individuals dedicate untold hours of free labor to the maintenance of such sites as well as creating increasingly detailed digital footprints that capitalism can harness to predict consumer trends, surveil people’s whereabouts, and track individual behavior. Identity/subjectivity marks a central site of battle since it traverses production and exhibition realms.
As a result, media production becomes a primary strategy where new collective forms of subjectivity might develop and challenge the practices of neoliberalism, which we will see in terms of AIDS activism. Media production, distribution, and exhibition/reception are where such critical subjectivities are nurtured and developed. Not surprisingly, radical media attempts to produce more democratic than hierarchical structures since its members understand the egalitarian goals that it strives to achieve.
Yet the risk of all radical media is that its current configurations are in part determined by a neoliberal context. Media activists’ increasing access to and use of relatively inexpensive digital media technology like camcorders, editing software, and eventually computers in the United States was made possible by international corporations making available in select markets cheap consumer technology. It is no coincidence that Samsung and Sony were strong supporters of video artists like Nam Jun Paik since his incorporation and popularization of their equipment through his artistic work was viewed as free advertising. Since such technology like the Portapak was first made widely available within the United States and its $1500-2000 price tag largely ensured only those with the cultural and financial capital could purchase it, its initial presence ended up re-inscribing varying degrees of gender, racial, class, and sexual privileges and hierarchies into such activist practices. This does not make such video-based activism deterministically appropriated by capital and becoming nothing more than “Sunday tinkering on the periphery of the system,” as Jean Baudrillard might charge. But it does give one room to pause about how seeming binaries between capitalism and anarchist-inflected media activist practices blur as they become mutually dependent to an extent.
Lifestyle practices, for example, can become over-valorized by anarchist-inflected media activists as “fantasies of individual resistance as systemic subversion.” We can see such assumptions operating when certain Indymedia activists during the early 2000s fetishized free labor as somehow inherently democratic rather than seeing it as a central paradigm for capitalism. Matthew Arnison argues that Indymedia is different from earlier alternative news shows that were mainly be used to train people for professional jobs:
An idealization of networks and naivety regarding capitalist practices frame Arnison’s comment that associates paid work with professionalization whereas unpaid labor somehow inherently leads towards non-monetary, “authentic,” activist goals.
Capitalism, however, suggests otherwise. As many feminists like Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Kathi Weeks, Silvia Federici, and Leopoldina Fortunati have shown, unpaid labor has always been a staple of capitalist production as innumerable hours of unpaid domestic work provided the critical infrastructure for paid labor. James and Dalla Costa, for instance, assert, “Domestic work produces not merely use values, but is essential to the production of surplus value.” The heterosexual family serves as “the very pillar of the capitalist organization of work” where male workers rejuvenate themselves daily for their next day’s onslaught at the job, where new workers are produced, raised, and trained, and where affective relations between family members moderately temper the intolerable conditions of capitalism. As Leopoldina Fortunati writes,
Neoliberalism, if anything, further incorporates and makes explicit such free labor and its affective dimensions into its structure. Silvia Federici, for example, highlights how the service, recreation, and entertainment industries “are picking up the traditionally female task of making one’s family happy and relaxed” by exploiting the affective labor that once was primarily located in the home. The ubiquity of cell phones and mobile digital screens places individuals on constant call and hopelessly blurs leisure and labor time. Spec, freelance, and unpaid work dominates much commercial media production. And as the historical record shows, many who had been central in producing Indymedia at the time easily shifted into professional media jobs thereafter or simultaneously held corporate jobs while engaging in Indymedia activities during their free time.