JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A sequence from Robert Hilferty’s Stop the Church (1990) that also emphasizes process. It shows consensus-based discussion regarding ACT UP’s action to stage a die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral over the Catholic Church’s reactionary attitude towards gays and refusal to acknowledge the importance of safe sex. It documents various attitudes towards the Catholic Church. Although most participants are critical, a few want to disconnect Church dogma from the more complex lives and beliefs held by actual Catholics. 

Testing the Limits video collective abandoned anarchist-inflected structures for more hierarchical organizing to establish a steadier video production schedule and a professional style in order to gain network broadcast. Voices from the Front (1991) was created for broadcast over PBS, which it never received. However, it was shown on HBO. Its more traditional talking-head documentary style was supposed to be more palatable to wider commercial audiences.

Voices also employed graphics that named participants to better orient audiences unfamiliar with those involved with the AIDS crisis.

Brandon Jourdan’s and David Martinez’s 2009 video Occupied Berkeley about the student occupation of Wheeler Hall against inflated tuition hikes and layoffs on campus. Like AIDS direct-action videos, it also focuses on the processes behind the occupation more than the confrontation with police. Here a black-clad anarchist participant speaks about the reasons behind the occupation.

Students in solidarity with those occupying Wheeler Hall. The student revolts occurring in California were a part of a larger movement exploding across the United States and the globe in countries like England, Canada, Italy, France, Greece, Chile, and Tunisia from 2009 to 2013. (Occupied Berkeley)

Students determining by consensus to reject the entrance of faculty into the building. Instead they hold open talks outside so all can participate, modelling their anarchist-inflected practices against the hierarchical, secretive models of university administration. (Occupied Berkeley)

The cops invade the building. Jourdan’s camerawork allies itself with the students by standing on their side, but it also serves as a deterrent to police brutality by standing defiantly up from the students to document officers’ actions against the students. (Occupied Berkeley)

Although Occupied Berkeley visually and narratively minimizes the confrontation with police to instead highlight the reasons behind the occupation and anarchist-inflected student practices, the police’s attack on students went viral across the internet.

 

 

But affectivity alone is not enough to sustain such work. Anarchist-inflected, direct-action videomaking makes consistent video work difficult to maintain. First of all, such videomaking is difficult to sustain. Catherine Saalfield explains how “our last tape wallowed a year in postproduction” due to an ever-changing group of people working on it.[80] This forced DIVA to finally institute a policy that only the same group that begins a tape can work on it until completion. But this made no difference as it was the last full-length tape the group would produce. Some of the reasons for the stalling out of DIVA TV was the death of one of its core members, Ray Navarro, and the general melancholy that follows the host of other deaths its members personally witnessed as well as the gradual fracturing of ACT UP that occurred during the early 1990s. But more general reasons for its dissolution, not unique to AIDS media activists but affecting many informal media collectives throughout time, were: some of its members wanted to do their own independent work having grown as artists; others grew tired of the collective structure and its cumbersome processes; factions developed over the changing mission of the group; and lack of sustained financial support placed strains upon some of its members.

TTL, on the other hand, increasingly wanted to distribute their tapes over broadcast media, and that affected the type of structure the groups wanted. As a result of this new mission, it opted to professionalize itself as their members wanted to have their tapes viewed outside the activist community. They established official positions for producers and an assistant editor to create a structure that would allow for more consistent work to be completed as well as more efficiently to apply for grants.

Furthermore, despite the idealization of anarchist-inflected practices in a tape like Target City Hall, we see within the tape that most of its participants are white and a majority male during the street action we witness. This hints at the complex ways in which, although ACT UP held anarchist practices as a means to a more egalitarian world, they also reinscribed certain gender and racial privileges through their practice. As prior ACT UP member Alisa Lebow recalls,

“There was a lot of cute boys and girls who thought they were being really hip, mostly upper middle class and white. . . The kind of activism that was needed then and is needed now has never really been done, and that is being able to mobilize the poor and working-class communities of color in the city and around the country. I think I always felt that with ACT UP. They were never going to touch those communities in any significant way.”[81]
[open endnotes in new window]

These class and racial privileges prevented some people of color from attending meetings or actions. Chas Bennet Brack recounts,

“I didn’t go because of my perception that the white gay intelligentsia was at the helm of the movement. So, I didn’t think that the issues of black gay men would be considered since little concrete movement, on race issues, happened in the ‘queer’ community.”[82]

Such a critique, however, should not be read as a general dismissal of ACT UP’s vital actions. As Deborah B. Gould reminds, ACT UP forced the Center for Disease Control to include women and poor people within the definition of those with AIDS; it fought to include women in initial drug trials; and it argued for equal access to health care.[83] In fact, its upper-middle class orientation provided vital connections and skills to engage with the commercial media over AIDS. It was, as Kim Christensen, another ACT UP member, notes: the cross-class alliances within ACT UP energized their activism. Its upper-class white males belonging to a managerial class held access to resources, media outlets, and the like. “But,” she adds,

“it also then combined—and this is what I think made it both powerful and volatile—combined with a lot of people, predominantly women and some men of color, who were not from that class background but who had the political skills that these white guys needed.”[84]

Only the access provided by the upper-class white males connected with the activist savvy of its more lower and middle-class members yielded the aggressive, well-planned direct-action, spectacle-based activism that became a signature for ACT UP.

Such racist and class issues are not unique to ACT UP but instead haunt all predominantly white-run activist organizations. Many members of ACT UP recognized these limits and tried to ameliorate them. Alexandra Juhasz, for example, established video groups outside of ACT UP to better provide media access to working-class women of color. Such video work revealed the need for vital infrastructures such as time, money, and adequate working space to truly engage and include historically disenfranchised communities. This inability to develop sustained links with more diverse communities exposes the limits of anarchist-inflected practices that fail to address the surrounding socio-economic conditions that limit people’s engagement, as we saw operating earlier within the video guerrillas. It is not simply the lack of access to equipment, but deeper structural constraints that prevent disadvantaged people’s participation and dismiss their voice as irrelevant in the first place.[85]

The anarchist-inflected video production of ACT UP declined by the mid-1990s. As Roger Hallas describes the causes of the decline,

“The practices of direct-action video in fact waned by the mid-1990s as chapters of ACT UP across the United States fractured under the stress of multiple loss, activist burnout, and the rising conflicts between professional treatment activists, universal healthcare advocates, and HIV dissidents.”[86]

The remainder of the essay will explore how such direct-action and anarchist-inflected videomaking practices extend into the present. I will particularly highlight their intersections, also indicating some neoliberal tendencies that complicate our understanding of them.

Video ninjas

Those who comprise the elite group of activist videomakers, sometimes referred to self-mockingly as “video ninjas,” occupy a complicated position between anarchist affinities and typical media careers. Although engaged in social justice activism and independent media, they are members of the creative class and inheritors of a neoliberal style of workflow. They comprise in part a new international division of labor being produced by the service-based, information-driven economy. They are a part of what Richard Florida refers to as the super creative core of the creative class. They are “scientists, engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers and architects, software programmers, etc.” who comprise around 15 percent of the total population as of 2000.[87] Florida himself has idealized the flexible work patterns and creative life by ignoring the emmiserating conditions of the far more significant service economy that bolsters the few who actually prosper in such positions, but he has also correctly identified how a small contingent of the super creative class operate.

Neoliberalism privileges a select few of those from artistic backgrounds. Their fluid work practices that merge work and pleasure, emphasize non-linear thinking and affect mesh well with a knowledge-based economy. Capitalism, according to Florida, is “taking people who would once have been viewed as bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe and setting them at the very heart of the process of innovation and economic growth.”[88] Of course, as Andrew Ross points out,

“Florida’s nostrum, that creativity is everybody’s natural asset to exploit, is difficult to distinguish from any other warmed-over version of American bootstrap ideology.”[89]

Such an ideology would anoint the select few for the exploitation of the many. But a few do indeed rise.

The videomakers to be discussed here are attempting to re-direct their privileged roles against neoliberalism. This is not to say that the people discussed here are living lushly or wallowing in wealth, but they nonetheless remain at the top of the labor pyramid that provides them with the resources (including financial, racial, and/or gender privileges) and independence to engage in unpaid and/or lowly subsidized creative work.

Aside from distributing their videos through their own websites and digital distribution platforms like Vimeo, many of the activist videomakers sell their materials to both independent and commercial producers. Free Speech TV (FSTV), Grit TV, Link TV, and Democracy Now! have paid small amounts for either raw footage or pre-produced segments. For example, FSTV paid $150 for a speech for its keynote series where a videographer would cover a highly desirable speaker. According to activist videographer Jeff Keating,

“Sometimes I would ask them if they wanted me to shoot certain things. There was never a question of getting approval normally. Green festivals were also very productive. They always had a good list of speakers. I would go to certain things that other people weren’t covering. I would stay with friends and get in free as a reporter. I could cover all my expenses but not make any money out of it. But at least I wasn’t going into the hole.”[90]

Making a living from such low-paid work is dubious for most videomakers unless they are willing to minimize cost-of-living expenses, share resources, and often room with others.

However, with the downturn of the economy such work became even more precarious as nominal payments for such footage were either severely reduced or eliminated altogether. Although some outlets like FSTV have re-instituted such payments, they remain relatively low. People like Keating continue to work, but at a much more irregular pace than before.

Other videomakers sell footage to broadcast television and independent media outlets. Brandon Jourdan has sold footage to FSTV, Democracy Now!, Grit TV, and the like. But he also notes,

“I have contributed to The New York Times, Reuters, and Huffington Post. As a freelancer you don’t have to compromise. I tipped off a journalist from The New York Times about the New School student protests in 2008. I have caught stuff that other media hasn’t. This allows me to sell footage that others want. I don’t feel you should limit yourself to one outlet.”[91]

This flexible, piece-meal way of working has become a staple of the new economy where jobs remain temporary and benefits largely nonexistent. And, as Andrew Ross has shown, white male workers tend to most highly value such working conditions:

“Disproportionately white (90.6 percent) and male (66.2 percent), they were more likely to prefer their employment arrangements than any other workers in this category....”[92]

Therefore, Jourdan’s preference for his work is not surprising since it mirrors a general privilege that many white, male creatives share. Yet unlike the super creative class that Florida speaks of, most activist videomakers earn meager salaries from their work, if that. Most normally have to supplement their incomes with other jobs and rely on the goodwill of others for free housing and food during an assigned project. Their preferences for such work often derive less from direct material benefits (though building their resume can lead to future work and potentially higher salaries) than a freedom to engage in a type of creative political work that is meaningful to them.

To give a specific example, Brandon Jourdan’s video, Occupied Berkeley (2009), provides a look into how independent production works and the vexed relations between mediamakers’ anarchist affinities and neoliberal practices. While shooting short videos for the Yes Men[93] and waiting to fly out to Copenhagen to film the direct-actions against the COP 16[94], Jourdan heard about the planning of a student strike and direct-action to occupy Wheeler Hall on Berkeley’s campus to protest the tuition hikes, the firing of janitorial staff, and the general defunding of the public university system by the state. Jourdan recounts, “I decided to take that week to go to Berkeley and told Democracy Now! that something would happen. I got the nod from them that they would buy it for the show.” Dave Martinez, co-producer and cameraman of Occupied Berkeley, also had connections with independent producers back in New York City through his contributing to various Deep Dish TV series. Due to the makers’ connections and proven track record, Democracy Now! felt assured in the quality of the production and its timeliness.

Martinez’s and Jourdan’s relations with Democracy Now! are not all that different from many below-the-line videographers’ relations to commercial production outlets that Vicki Mayer chronicles in Below the Line. She notes how since the 1970s

“the casualization of television work, from its outsourcing of tasks to nonguild members who deferred benefits to its reliance on multitasking entrepreneurs to drive down labor costs, had fragmented reliable work routines, rerouted career paths, and divorced professionalism from its assumed material benefits.”[95]

This neoliberal restructuring of media production, as we can see, has impacted all levels of independent video production whether it be for progressive causes or the commercial industry.

Because such job uncertainty and lack of benefits plagues independent videographers, they tend to recoup their losses in what Mayer has referred to as the surplus value of identities. For example, the soft-core videographers she interviewed spoke about and fetishized technology as a way to reassert their masculinity.[96] Similarly, activist videomakers, who are mostly men, also tend to recoup their sense of professionalism and masculinity in recounting the danger of the actions they cover, their arrests, and the general mayhem where they had to maintain courage under fire. This is not to claim that their accounts are disingenuous. But it is to suggest that within a neoliberal economy the stories we recount about ourselves do not simply transparently reveal something about our inner beliefs. They also serve as self-promotion and branding as these videomakers jockey for future jobs, career paths, and professional encounters. They both express the videomakers’ beliefs and become a calling card for future employment. It remains difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate insight from salesmanship in such a context, since the videomakers’ self-narratives are intimately intertwined with their careers.

Returning back to my analysis of Occupied Berkeley, Jourdan and Martinez arrived early in the morning at Wheeler Hall. According to Jourdan,

“I told the students I was working for Democracy Now! and asked them if they would mind if I could go in with them. Some of the kids were nervous. They covered their faces and worried that they would be identified in leading the occupation.”

While Jourdan was filming inside, Martinez filmed the occupation from the outside. Jourdan called The New York Times and various California papers to say that a journalist was inside, hoping that a mainstream news presence might deter or at least mitigate police violence and harassment. Jourdan recounts,

“I was throwing my DV tapes outside the window to Martinez so the cops wouldn’t take them. When the police eventually entered, I was arrested with a small infraction and then released.”

Occupied Berkeley attests to Jourdan’s and Martinez’s skill. It is a rather precise and engaging video made in a short turnaround time. The video begins with a low-end, ominous riff as titles establish the location, event, and main issues:

“On November 18th, the regents of the University of California voted to raise undergraduate tuition 32 percent. The regents’ new budget plan would also mean the layoffs of workers and furloughs throughout the state of California.”

An establishing shot of Wheeler Hall follows, the site of the occupation. We see a U-lock clasped across door handles and chairs stacked-up as further barricades. Already we have the unique vision of seeing the occupation from the inside.

Students efficiently and effectively explain their situation. A masked student states,

“It’s not only about students, but it is about faculty members. It’s about workers. It’s about all of us being fed up with this crisis in priorities. They say it’s a financial crisis. But that is not the truth. It’s what they value and honor in the education system that’s the problem. We’re fighting for a public good.”

A young, black clad woman wearing a bandanna over the lower-half of her face lists the students demands: rehiring of the 38 fired workers, a $1 lease for the student co-op, a fair contract for the only immigrant-owned business on campus, and rejection of the tuition hike.

Her dress, furthermore, signifies a Black Bloc alliance. The Black Bloc is not an organization but an anarchist protest tactic. It produces an affinity group of black clad individuals with their faces covered who engage in aggressive direct-actions such as property destruction or in this case the forced occupation of a building. The students’ tactics and dress suggest their anarchist affinities regardless if all of them are aware of this or not. Yet they are applying such tactics to defend the integrity of a state institution—something self-identified anarchists are supposed to oppose since the state is often viewed one-dimensionally as a site of oppression—thus revealing a hybrid political approach at work.

The piece keeps the confrontation with the police outside of the hall to a visual minimum, not unlike the direct-action videos of ACT UP. A photomontage of students blocking cars and being dragged by the police follows. We then witness a brief moment of the police beating a protestor relentlessly. But the video quickly shifts back inside Wheeler Hall to emphasize negotiations and how a sympathetic faculty member would like to enter the hall with the chief of police. The students instead suggest that negotiations be brought outside so “the rest of the students, faculty workers that are outside can participate in the conversation as well,” as one student explains. Such a comment, once again, reveals the students’ anarchist inclinations to involve all participants into the process by creating a nonhierarchical space. This sequence also conveys Jourdan and Martinez’s care and skill in not allowing the students' issues and strategies to ever get lost among depictions of police repression. Violence never supplants the core issues, which all-too-often happens within activist videos. Like the earlier ACT UP direct-action videos, the piece emphasizes anarchist-inflected processes as much as it does protestors’ demands by the makers’ embedding at least one camera with the students. Not only do the students’ demands challenge the neoliberal assumptions guiding public education in California, but they also model the type of nonhierarchical relationships that the bureaucracy of university life implicitly rejects.

During the last two minutes, the film documents the police’s invasion into the hall. One could say it is the riot porn section of the video.[97] However, watching the police breaking down the doors and then seeing the camera swing from the doors and running with the students inside the hall for safety provides stunning, rare footage. Compared to the rest of the video’s well-framed footage, the camera temporarily loses control, shooting wildly, embodying the panic that has gripped the students. The camera joins the students in hiding in the back of a classroom. The framing shakes as the camera is jostled by the overflowing bodies entering the room. The camera frantically scopes the room before focusing upon the squatting students. Finally, the filming regains composure and steadily frames the door as the police enter.

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