Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project, with many of its founders originally having been a part of Indymedia, engages working-class communities in their own activist-inflected media production to build coalitions and foster collective action.
AIDS activists like those within ACT UP had to counter the misinformation regarding AIDS and those living with it perpetuated by commercial publications like U.S. News & World Report. Simon Watney highlighted in Policing Desire: “Fighting AIDS is not just a medical struggle, it involves our understanding of the words and images which load the virus down with such a dismal cargo of appalling connotations.”
Douglas Crimp highlighted such exhibits like Let the Record Show as indicative of the new type of activist-inflected art produced by groups allied with ACT UP. In place of art’s ability to transcend the moment, Crimp insisted upon artistic “practices actively participating in the struggle against AIDS.”
Paper Tiger Television proved critical in assisting NYC AIDS video activists with training, equipment, and down-and-dirty anarchist-inflected video production practices. The D.I.Y. Paper Tiger press passes were emulated by members of ACT UP’s DIVA TV.
DIVA TV encouraging viewers to become a DIVA like them. Jocelyn displays her D.I.Y. DIVA press pass.
DIVA announces its intention during its first broadcast of challenging “dominant media assumptions about AIDS.”
Footage from DIVA TV’s Like a Prayer (1989) reveals the intimacy between videomaker and participants. John Greyson highlights AIDS video activists’ use of “intimate camera angles and their rapport with their subjects.”
Another sequence from Like a Prayer where a video activist hands-off her camera to another video unit as she gets arrested. Such a moment reveals the porous membrane between the space of the political and the space of videomaking.
Roger Hallas refers to such direct-action footage found in Target City Hall (1989) as “embodied immediacy” that places that camera in the middle of the event. The footage also demonstrates the activist nature of videomaking that documents police arrests to be used later as evidence in court by activists to expose police violence or falsifying of charges.
A sequence in Target City Hall that shows anarchist-inflected activism at work. The facilitator asks the affinity group if it wants to block traffic or wait.
The handheld camera immerses viewers into the event as it attempts to capture the moment unfolding before its frame. The affective dimension of street tapes serves a crucial function of engaging viewers and approximating the energy of the action. (Target City Hall)
A participant expresses his concern in Target City Hall for the need for more cameras to protect protestors against police violence during their action.
While discussion proceeds, the camera interviews random participants to capture their nervous anticipation of their arrests. (Target City Hall)
After discussion and consensus, the group decides to block the street. The facilitator demonstrates how to lock arms. (Target City Hall)
Protestors march out into the city street and block traffic. The sequence models how anarchist-inflected activism can function smoothly with a deft facilitator and participants who share intimate activist ties. (Target City Hall)
The regimented lines of the police and their hierarchical outlook contrasts against the protestors’ encircled formation and open consensus-based process. (Target City Hall)
The sequence then cuts to actual protest footage showing activists employing their training during their arrest. (Target City Hall)
The failure to not recognize the centrality of unpaid labor within capitalism shows an utter lack on some Indymedia activists’ part to recognize how capitalism works and to take for granted the sexist, gendered nature that such free work has always entailed. Yet such a stance recurrently emerged among Indymedia activist discussions. In 2004, for example one member through the Indymedia list-serve suggested that some volunteers get paid at least a minimum wage in order for critical work to get completed. But another immediately replied,
Unpaid labor also arises again in 2006 when some Indymedia participants claim one shouldn’t receive pay since
Little did some of these activists know that the free labor they were celebrating held a much more vexed relationship to the capitalist practices that they ostensibly rejected.
If we hope to analyze much U.S. video and media activism in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries, we must come to terms with how anarchist affinities define many of its practices and sometimes outlooks. Furthermore, we must recognize how such anarchist-inflected media-making reveals some affinities with neoliberal practices.
The struggle over media production serves as a central battle ground against a neoliberal regime. Communications industries attempt to establish subjectivities that are compliant with the practices and ideologies of neoliberalism as commercial film, television, radio, and internet platforms often promote commodified understandings of existence and limited predisposed ways of interaction. For example, I recall a commercial screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 where a local “independent” theater in rural Pennsylvania attempted to disavow the Left politics of the film by distributing a sheet of counterarguments to viewers of the film’s indictment of George Bush Jr.’s policies. Not only the film’s anti-Bush content, but also the way in which the film served as a mobilizing event for Moveon.org <http://www.moveon.org/pac/news/f911-tonight.html> to rally around and establish pro-Democrat phone banks and house parties alarmed the theater’s owner. Although the film’s content and Moveon.org’s mobilizing around the film were rather moderate compared to more radical critiques and counter-cinema practices of groups like the New York Film and Photo League in the 1930s, Newreel in the 1960s and 1970s, and Media Mobilizing Project in the present, they were unorthodox enough from the commodified ways in which the theater normally functioned to force its owner to engage in defensive maneuvers to disavow any implicit support the screening of the film might hold. Such a moment dramatically exposes the implicit ideological struggle that a seemingly innocuous film screening holds. It also reveals how heavily entrenched some supposedly “independent” theaters are in the commodified ways of film viewing and fearful of any content and viewing practices that veer too Left of center.
The battle over video production takes on heightened importance in the next section discussing AIDS activism. As we will see, the very balance of people’s lives hang in the balance depending upon if they are viewed as either “deserving victims” of AIDS or as engaged, informed, fully human beings who deserve assistance and other people’s respect. Who controls the media message holds very direct implications for people living with AIDS regarding their survival. AIDS video activism grounds the importance of how new forms of collective subjectivities can arise through media production and spectacle-based events that challenge the hegemony of the State and its homophobic outlook that initially disregarded thousands of gay men’s deaths as nothing more than inevitable casualties.
Anarchist–inflected media and AIDS activism
The emergence of ACT UP and AIDS media activism in 1987 highlights a historic moment where bodies and signification intimately intertwined  As Simon Watney wrote at the time,
Such connotations included “othering” gays by initially associating AIDS solely with them; attributing guilt to gays and minorities who contracted AIDS; and treating those living with AIDS as passive victims and assuming their deaths as inevitable—to only name a few stigmas. AIDS activists were fully aware that the commercial news media provided prescriptive descriptions of the AIDS crisis rather than simply descriptive ones. Watney observes that the media “presents the world which it would like to see in the likeness of an imaginary national past...” that celebrates white, heterosexual, middle-class, and patriarchal institutions and norms while denigrating others.
The war of signification that AIDS activists engaged upon was not just some abstract enterprise, but in part determined the life or death of those living with AIDS. It draws to the forefront the importance of the struggle over new collective subjectivities that Autonomist Marxists stress. For many AIDS activists, addressing the delays of a cure led to systemic critiques of racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic practices that underlie the lack of access to health care, the refusal of schools to adequately teach safe sex, and the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics who contracted AIDS.
Alternative media, therefore, became central for ACT UP and AIDS activists in spite of some initial resistance to the use of video. Greg Bordowitz who shot videos for ACT UP and other AIDS activist video collectives writes,
Under the dire conditions of the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s without any known cure and government bureaucracy inhibiting a speedy solution, ACT UP activists firmly understood both the importance of challenging commercial media’s misportrayal of people living with AIDs as deserving “victims” and using alternative media as a direct-action weapon to occupy spaces to make their voices heard, bodies seen, and new collective subjectivities to take root.
Video occupied a central position for several reasons: the increased affordability of higher grade video equipment; the relatively thriving public access culture that New York City provided for the airing of tapes; the media savvy background of many AIDS activists; and the need to counter the misinformation disseminated by commercial television in an equally appealing form.
Originally, Manhattan operated as a media hub, thus providing those activists belonging to the media industry with the requisite skills, knowledge, and privilege to engage with and critique the commercial media while countering with their own alternative forms. Perhaps most important, a vital infrastructure already existed where AIDS video activism could flourish. As I indicated earlier, there had been significant state investment in alternative video during the 1970s that supported the video guerrillas and independent media production centers like Downtown Community Television and the Alternative Media Center that had established strong links in the community with their fight for public access and teaching local media production. Furthermore, the Whitney Independent Study Program drew together many of the key direct-action AIDS video activists such as Greg Bordowitz, Jean Carlomusto, Sandra Elgear, Robyn Hutt, Hilary Joy Kipnis, David Meieran, Catherine Saalfield, and Ellen Spiro, who would form Testing the Limits (TTL) and DIVA TV.
Paper Tiger Television (PTTV) also provided important support and development for ACT UP video activism. Launched in 1981 as Community Update, PTTV supplied an important model in quick and economical media production that centered on critical analysis of commercial media, countering it with underrepresented, alternative viewpoints. Its format consisted of weekly “reading” series where a professor, activist, or likeminded host interrogated the imagery and/or words of a specific commercial media item. Such an example was central for AIDS activists who similarly unpacked and critiqued the commercial news’ discourse surrounding the AIDS crisis. As DeeDee Halleck, one of the founders of PTTV, writes, “A good critical reading can invert the media so that they work against themselves.”
Greg Bordowitz specifically cites Paper Tiger as inspiration. Catherine Saalfield, a member of ACT UP’s DIVA TV, also emphasizes PTTV’s importance: “As an urgent response by, for, and about the medium of television, PTTV demonstrates a methodology by which to reinterpret cultural misrepresentations using the very same tools of their production.” These critical reading strategies and techniques were equally applied by AIDS video activists in their own critique of the media’s misrepresentation of AIDS.
PTTV’s rough aesthetic also encouraged other AIDS activists to engage in their own video production. This, in fact, was one of the intended purposes of PTTV. As Halleck writes,
Elsewhere she continues,
Its “reading” series was shot on only two cameras. One followed the host whereas as second camera either covered a related activity or shot in a wide frame to reveal the mechanics of behind-the-scenes activity like giving guests cues and framing shots. In Herb Schiller Reads the New York Times (1981), for example, one camera steadily focuses on Schiller critiquing each section of the Sunday New York Times point-by-point. The second camera either follows the activities of a woman reading the Times against a cardboard backdrop of a subway car or reveals the other studio camera filming Schiller.
The handmade set and title cards further accent the do-it-yourself ethos that PTTV advocated. The show provided direct media analysis in ordinary language within an intimate and “homey” environment that contrasted against the slick productions of network television that often obscured and misinformed the general public about whatever issues were being discussed. In Herb Schiller Reads the New York Times, PTTV’s economic and straightforward style opposed the “712 pages of waste” of the Sunday Times that Schiller investigated and critiqued.
Some of the central figures in ACT UP video activism such as Jean Carlomusto, Greg Bordowitz, Catherine Saalfield, Adriene Jenik, and Ray Navarro had known Halleck earlier either as their professor or from the NYC activist media scene. PTTV evidenced its anarchist affinities through its nonhierarchical structure and consensus-based decision-making that allowed access to non-professionals. Such a nonhierarchical working situation became attractive to ACT UP media activists like Catherine Saalfield, Ellen Spiro, and others who worked with PTTV. During the 1980s, anyone attending for the first-time a taping of a PTTV show might be asked to contribute by working a camera, the switcher, lights, or making props. The collective would meet for a half-hour at a coffee shop to plan and then run to the studio to set-up for taping. As DeeDee Halleck notes, such a procedure was not as simple as it might seem:
PTTV’s quick production process and accessible style resonated with the needs of AIDS activism for an urgent form of direct-action spectacle-based events to protest government policy and counter negative public perceptions of those living with AIDS in order to find an expedient cure. Furthermore, it complimented ACT UP’s own mission of challenging experts’ ill-informed opinions and news anchors’ problematic homophobic framing of the AIDS crisis by insisting that people living with AIDS could make their own media, tell their own stories, and provide their own analysis regarding the crisis.
Early AIDS activist video groups like Testing the Limits and DIVA TV adopted anarchist-inflected practices learned from both Paper Tiger and ACT UP. Every meeting opened with the statement: “ACT UP is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct-action to end the AIDS crisis.” Although it might not have often lived-up to its nonpartisan aspirations or have been as welcoming to diverse peoples as possible, its intent to do so signaled an important goal. Internal debates regarding the immediate need to get drugs into white, male, middle-class bodies and a more systemic understanding of how a disproportionate number of the poor and people of color contracted AIDS and lacked basic medical and financial support often arose during ACT UP Monday night meetings. Prioritizing goals always suggests an implicit hierarchy. One can rightfully critique the inability of those who refuse to adequately self-critique such practices and explore their limitations. But the aspiration remains important for those who have grown tired with some of the undemocratic processes of other Left organizations that they might have belonged to in the past or still currently attended.
As Ann Cvetkovich observes, many members held ties to civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. ACT UP, therefore, “provided an important respite from fractures within [those] political communities.” As one past member emphasizes,
Perhaps most notably, AIDS activism and ACT UP in particular fostered alliances between lesbians and gay men that had fractured during the 1970s. In spite of certain inequities and privileges remaining among its members, which will be addressed more fully later, ACT UP nonetheless offered a more open political space than some of its members had experienced elsewhere.
The video groups’ adoption of anarchist tendencies also spoke to their rejection of a commercial news model that demonized people living with AIDS, promoted homophobia, and reinforced a hierarchy of professionals in the media industry who routinely dismissed the insights of those living with AIDS. Greg Bordowitz observes,
DIVA member Peter Bowen states,
Anyone with either the skills or simple hunger to videotape could contribute to the collectives. Furthermore, this open structure not only provided for an influx of immediate assistance in creating and distributing ACT UP videos at the beginning, but it also gave meaning to people’s lives when the gay and lesbian community was being decimated with no end in sight.
Testing the Limits formed spontaneously as Greg Bordowitz and David Meieran met while taping a 1987 ACT UP demonstration on Wall Street. Sandra Elgear, Robyn Hutt, Hilery Joy Kipnis, and Jean Carlomusto soon joined. According to Hutt, the collective wasn’t formalized until it started to produce its first thirty minute video Testing the Limits (1987). Also, although it assisted ACT UP and all of its members belonged to ACT UP, it always remained independent from it.
DIVA TV, on the other hand, was inspired by TTL’s work and emerged as a video affinity group within ACT UP. Its initial task was to produce counter-surveillance footage for ACT UP to be used to deter police violence against demonstrators during an action or to be marshalled as evidence during trials to expose police misconduct or inaccuracies. Only as an afterthought did the collective begin compiling their footage into larger video projects.
Such anarchist-inflected production practices manifested themselves in the aesthetics of both groups’ direct-action videos. Roger Hallas has most succinctly written about the direct-action aesthetic in Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image. In it, he writes,
We see the intimacy between the videographer and interviewee in a number of TTL and DIVA TV tapes. John Greyson notes how Testing the Limits: NYC foregrounds the collective’s “active participation in the movement, both through their intimate camera angles and their rapport with their subjects.” Patricia Zimmerman notes how the footage of direct-action tapes “unsettles the very space of politics and views the space of the film and the space of the political as different registers organized around a site that is jointly shared” unlike many professional productions that maintain a distance from their subjects. This space between the film and the political converges more dramatically in AIDS direct-action videos where videomakers and interviewees possessed more intimate relations through shared protest training and belonging to the same group.
Roger Hallas refers to this style as “embodied immediacy.” It not only unsettles the hierarchies of commercial news media where the anchor mediates interviewees' observations and experts’ insights trump that of everyday people, but also challenges the physical distance commercial media holds towards such activism by instead situating viewers immediately within the event. Lack of explanation and voice-over define such tapes. This style is in part intentional in order to unsettle any singular authority in explaining events to viewers. But it is also a result of necessity as the interviewer is also often shooting tape.
Not coincidentally, many of the AIDS activist direct-action tapes document anarchist-inflected processes as much as any final protest. We see this occur in DIVA TV’s Target City Hall (1989). At one moment a camera stands with a group of encircled protestors debating if they should block traffic in a street before City Hall. The camera circles around a friendly, white male facilitator who asks: “If we want to do it in the street now...or wait. These are the options.” Activists around him offer their support as the camera attempts to catch them in frame as they speak out. The events happen quicker than the camera’s frame can capture them, which relates the spontaneity and excitement of the moment. The facilitator, however, cautions, “If you won’t want to go, say no. Don’t feel frightened about it.” This encouragement finally elicits one man to voice his concern that more cameras should be filming them to protect them against police brutality.
This moment emphasizes the counter-surveillance function that direct-action footage offered. DIVA TV meetings dedicated part of their agenda to this goal in determining what actions they should cover. As Catherine Saalfield notes,
Also, the tapes were later used as evidence in court to expose police brutality and lies. Therefore, videotaping served a dual counter-surveillance function as both deterrent and evidence.
The facilitator carefully relates this man’s concern to the group where people calmly address it in spite of the anxiety of the moment. One man says that they should protest because the media will follow them once they engage in their action. After a series of people affirm their support for the action and the camera captures the nervous excitement of the participants as many comment that it will be their first time getting arrested, the facilitator nonetheless requests that someone get more media so that the man objecting to the action “feels more comfortable.” After slightly more discussion, they all agree to enter the street and start their action. The facilitator advises, “Lock arms like this and [he smiles] then walk out into the street.” They do so, blocking traffic, and start chanting, “Health Care Is a Right.”
It is quite simply an amazing moment of solidarity suffused with open discussion, debate, and nervous energy. Roger Hallas comments,
It shows anarchism in action as it draws participants together through their discussion and shows how a skilled facilitator can advance the discussion towards a quick, harmonious decision. Contrasted against the regimented lines of police around them, the protestors’ enclosed circle engaging in anarchist practices reveals the alternative world that the protestors want to enact: respectful, anti-hierarchal, and full of solidarity and humor.
This affective dimension of the video serves a vital purpose. Numerous direct-action activists emphasize the affective solidarity that such actions yield. Jeffrey Juris argues that
Direct-action video, as a result, attempts to approximate these affective dynamics to its viewers in order to mobilize them. As Jane Gaines observes,
Direct-action video is to make activists more active by drawing the screen world and the viewer’s world so near to each other that they tremble with the anticipation of collapse.