2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 56, winter 2014-2015
Anarchist aesthetics and U.S. video activism
by Chris Robé
A proliferation of activist videos goes viral over the Internet:
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:
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.” [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. 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.” 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:
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.”
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:
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). SNCC’s most successful direct-action campaign of occupying lunch counters led to its initial adherence to decentralization. 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. 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.  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. 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. 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. 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.”
Overall, Bookchin asserts, “a technology for life must be based on the community.” 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.” 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.”
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.”
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. 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.” Carol Vontobel adds, “Self-righteousness was all over the place.”
David Cort similarly romanticizes the Freex opposition to CBS. “We were just so anarchistic then that we weren’t ready for it,” recalls Cort. 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. 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.
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. 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,
“They did this interview back and forth, mediating showing each side what the other was saying about them. They would play it back, but because the Portapak didn’t play back, they would hand-out flyers for people to come to this loft at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.”
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:
“This was a dramatic, heart-wrenching tape of people who felt lost in their own town and at odds with everybody else. It really showed the town.”
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,
“They were using us like we were using them. It was probably the most business-like thing we had ever done . . . We had legitimate interests working with them, and it was somewhat of a disappointment that they were insular and weren’t about to involve a group of people in their activities.”
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,
“Why don’t you have some of our gay activists come on your show and get this out? It would be wonderful copy for you, and I’m sure we’d be happy to go on the air and talk about it.”
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 the alter-globalization movement
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,
“Punks are primarily anarchists…That is not to say that all Punks are well read in the history and theory of anarchism, but most do share a belief formed around the anarchist principles of having no official government or rulers, and valuing individual freedom and responsibility.”
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
“punks do an excellent job, for the most part, in developing their own community. It’s time to take that experience into the larger community and infuse our spirit and creativity with mass-based revolutionary potential.”
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,
“So-called ‘summit-hopping’ offered many of the same inducements as punk—risk, excitement, togetherness, opportunities to be creative and oppose injustice—along with the additional attraction of feeling that you were on the front lines of history.”
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.mediacoop.ca/> engages different indigenous groups to report on the environmental and human rights abuses perpetuated by transnational corporations and the Canadian government. The Co-Op was at the forefront of reporting indigenous protests against the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and critiquing the environmentally destructive oil extraction occurring within the Alberta Tar Sands and the creation of Keystone XL pipeline that would disregard the sovereignty of many indigenous groups by running throughout their lands without their permission.
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 fight over communications
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/responsibility> that buying a cup of coffee in a recycled cup is “environmentally friendly” by effacing the exploitation of people, land, and animals that coffee production entails.
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: “And that’s where we can break the whole system down because we’re not trying to have paid employees; we’re not trying to have jobs. It’s just volunteer-based and hopefully it will always be volunteer-based.” 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,
“Despite their seeming separation, the capitalist mode of production is based on the indissoluble connection that links reproduction with production, because the second is both a precondition and a condition of the existence of the first.”
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.
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, “I do not agree that we must, or should, ‘dirty our hands’ with it [money] . . . Activism is not, should not be, a means to make a buck.” Unpaid labor also arises again in 2006 when some Indymedia participants claim one shouldn’t receive pay since “for [Subcommandante] Marcos, and for many IMCistas of the global South, not receiving pay is one of the essential aspects of being part of our movement.” 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,
“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.”
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,
“Video ‘is not an object, but an event,’ because its production is part of a larger effort to organize increasing numbers of people to take action.”
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,
“If there is a specific look for the series, it is handmade, a comfortable non-technocratic look that says friendly and low budget. The seams show: we often use overview wide-angle shots to give the viewers a sense of the people who are making the show and the types of consumer-grade equipment we use.”
Elsewhere she continues,
“By showing the seams and the price tags, we hope to demystify the process of live television and to prove that making programs isn’t all that prohibitively expensive.”
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:
“Most television is not made with a collaborative, non-authoritarian structure. Achieving unity and strength while maintaining maximum participation, imagination, and humanism is a basic problem for any group. To try to make a TV show in a non-authoritarian structure is formidable.”
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,
“It was not a top-down group, it was a bottom-up group, even though there were hierarchies within ACT UP about who was cool and who got to cruise who and who go to do what. It was still a very democratic group.”
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,
“Both collectives [Testing the Limits and DIVA TV] use democratic forms, such as consensus decision-making. The goals of both collectives are to quickly produce tapes that can be used by AIDS-activist direct-action groups as organizing tools.”
DIVA member Peter Bowen states,
“Rather than having a fixed membership, a bank account, a solid identity, DIVA floats freely, making tapes with the money, technical resources and labor that is available at any one meeting.”
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,
“Embodying the radical democratic and anarchist ethos of ACT UP and its organization, direct-action video resisted the hierarchical structures of broadcast news and television documentary, which use anchors, presenters, reporters, and omniscient off-screen narrators to structure and frame the speech and events recorded by the camera.”
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, “Originally, DIVA TV came together because the cops who patrol our protests and arrest us like to do it with a heavy dose of gratuitous force.” 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,
“The moment to act is viscerally felt through the embodied immediacy of the camera at that moment.”
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
“these affective dynamics are not incidental; they are central to processes of movement building and activist networking . . .they constitute platforms where alternative subjectivities are expressed through distinct body and spatial techniques, and emotions are generated through ritual conflict.”
Direct-action video, as a result, attempts to approximate these affective dynamics to its viewers in order to mobilize them. As Jane Gaines observes,
“The whole rationale behind documenting political battles on film, as opposed to producing written records, is to make struggle visceral, to go beyond the abstractly intellectual to produce a bodily swelling.”
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.
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. 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.”
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.”
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. 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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. 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.”
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 . . . .” 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 and waiting to fly out to Copenhagen to film the direct-actions against the COP 16, 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.”
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. 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. 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.
This type of activist camerawork is significant in the way it situates itself differently from traditional documentary form by further stressing the type of embodied immediacy that Roger Hallas identified operating in direct-action AIDS activist videos. As Patricia Zimmerman notes, this on-the-ground type style of filmmaking
“constitutes a political strategy that expands the nature of committed or guerrilla filmmaking into a joint effort between social actors and the action of image making.”
We witness this uniting of political action and image making most dramatically as the camera runs for cover and is jostled by the other student bodies. When the camera positions itself to steadily focus on the classroom door as the police enter, it is not just documenting an event, but also moderating the police’s behavior. Filming itself becomes an intervention made explicit by Jourdan’s refusing to sit on the floor with the other protestors. Because Jourdan remains standing, the camera holds a somewhat defiant position that visually locates itself literally on the side of the protestors while at the same time carving out an optimum viewpoint from which to observe how the protestors are being treated by the police. This moment clearly represents the different but related registers of the space of the videomaking and the space of the political. The video, as a result, not only captures the affective dimensions of a student group being invaded by the police, but also provides a direct intervention during the moment of confrontation between students and police.
Jourdan, like many other videographers, is highly aware of the importance of aesthetics in situating audiences. He speaks of his own aesthetic:
“One thing that is also important for people making independent types of media: too often the flaw is the story of the battle dominating over the battle of the story. We need to frame our videos in progressive terms rather than reactionary ones. Alternative media is at its best in its ability to innovate storytelling.”
This wider framing of the battle of the story is abundantly clear in how Occupied Berkeley establishes the main issues at its beginning, assuming that its audience might be unfamiliar with them and tracing how these concerns relate to California as a whole. Furthermore, the video effectively minimizes its focus on police repression by maintaining primary focus on the students’ issues, tactics and strategies.
Yet in spite of all this careful framing and well-crafted editing, the video went viral. Jourdan complains,
“I get frustrated in the fact that the footage that went viral was the police brutality rather than the message of the students holding up in Berkeley. This somehow gets overlooked.”
This observation hints at a larger dilemma in social justice media: how might videomakers be able to counter the simplification of their content into nothing more than riot porn when it is distributed? Furthermore, it questions why riot porn tends to trump other material rather than simply co-exist with it.
The popularity of the most violent imagery of Occupied Berkeley speaks to an even older problem of spectacle-based activism: how does one prevent one’s message from being co-opted and distorted? The Black Panthers provide an illuminating example here. Although they engaged in many mundane but essential tasks like supplying food, childcare, transportation, and education to the community, their image of being armed and standing in formation predominated in mainstream media. At the same time, as T.V. Reed explains, however, such imagery should not simply be dismissed as an empty theatrical stunt. He writes,
“While to many the Panthers may have seemed to be engaging in mere posturing, to many others their revolutionary posture spoke volumes about no longer knuckling under to white power. Those people may not have believed that a revolution was at hand, but they got the message that only a new kind of black person would dare even to speak revolution to the white world.”
A more serious problem arises, though, when such imagery not only trumps activists’ other actions but also further draws down police and government repression and violence. The Black Panthers’ confrontational imagery and attitude helped lead to the untimely deaths of many of their members by bolstering white prejudices already held by many police and government officials. This reliance upon a spectacle of confrontation might energize some viewers to join such movements or engage in sympathetic actions. But such imagery comes at a high price of drawing further police and government infiltration and violence that exacerbates the internal tensions within such groups and accelerates their dissolution as it had done for the Black Panthers and would later impact eco-activists during the 1990s and 2000s after the Earth Liberation Front engaged in the dubious tactics of arson against environmentally unsound organizations and drew immense federal scrutiny and repression against much of the environmental movement.
What Occupied Berkeley further adds is that even producing one’s own independent media doesn’t prevent its more sensationalistic aspects from being distorted and over-emphasized as it is distributed over the web. It exposes the limits of such media in reaching wider audiences in its original form. And it begs the question if such fetishization can ever be avoided if viewers desire that kind of spectacle—regardless of whether such desires are conditioned by the commercial media and/or speak to more innate human tendencies or both.
As this brief example shows, the practices of activist videomakers are complicated and at times contradictory. Although clearly allied with the students in defending affordable higher education, Jordan’s reliance upon a career of independent videomaking nonetheless engages in neoliberal practices that actually challenge the very existence of state support. Although one does not want to overplay the significance of one progressive videomaker’s actions as simply supporting a neoliberal world view, they gesture towards the contradictory terrain such activist media-makers must negotiate as they level their skills against capitalist practices that they are also implicated within. Similarly, Democracy Now!, which provides a viable distribution platform for Occupied Berkeley to be viewed by the progressive community, relies upon the very practices of outsourcing below-the-line video-makers that we also see operating in commercial productions. In other words, the political economy of activist media-making tends to problematize in part the progressive material being filmed. Here neoliberal networks and anarchist affinities converge into a twisted terrain of hybrid practices. As opposed to the rhetoric that often posits neoliberalism and anarchism as mutually exclusive, we can see their affinities and relations—without suggesting that they are identical.
Occupy Wall Street and the anarchist imaginary
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) offers a more recent example of how neoliberal inequities can be perpetuated when anarchist-inflected practices are uncritically adopted. Although it never announced itself as anarchist, OWS adhered to many anarchist-inflected practices such as holding General Assemblies (GA) based upon consensus-based decision-making, direct-action protest and organizing, and attempts at nonhierarchical relations. Many positive things emerged from the Occupy movement, such as shifting national attention back to issues of poverty and inequality, exposing police violence, yet again, to global audiences, and rejuvenating ties and a sense of agency among activists and those interested in social justice. But as the dust settled on OWS, much critique has also arisen regarding the dysfunction and inequities perpetuated by its anarchist tendencies and liberal outlook. Todd Gitlin recalls sitting through numerous General Assemblies where class and racial tensions flared among a sea of confused working groups lacking any direction. According to many participants, Zuccotti Park, the site of the occupation, self-segregated along class lines with middle-class member occupying its east end and its more lower-class members at its west, exposing how divisions within the 99% persisted.
In spite of individual appeals for equity, informal leaders arose who often held privileged racial and class status. In Zuccotti Park, A Call to People of Color was issued on October 1, 2011 by the People of Color Working Group after observing the prevailing whiteness of the General Assemblies. In it, the working group asserted, “This monumental movement risks replicating the very structures of injustice it seeks to eliminate. And so we are actively working to unite the diverse voices of all communities, in order to understand exactly what is at stake, and to demand that a movement to end economic injustice must have at its core an honest struggle to end racism,” which OWS never did.
Furthermore, the GA obscured the informal hierarchies and working relations that actually determined OWS actions by falsely asserting itself as the primary forum for such decision-making. As the collective Not an Alternative, whose founders had been a part of the alter-globalization movement, address :
“Rarely were actions the product of GA decisions. Instead, they were organized by independent groups skirting around the GA structure, acting in the name of principles. Had autonomous groups waited on the GA to make decisions, the actions and encampments across the county would never have emerged.”
The videos produced by OWS also emerged from such informal channels and reflected many of these racial and class privileges of the people who created them. This became most apparent during the livestreaming of events that those with privilege often saw as indicating “transparency.” At the same time that the videomakers streamed material publicly, many people of color and transgendered and queer people felt uncomfortable being filmed and streamed since their image's transmission made them felt exposed and vulnerable. Furthermore, those narrating the livestreams, often white and male, started to achieve a celebrity that opposed OWS’s nonhierarchical aspirations.
Most of the videos produced by OWS seem based on a vague liberal impulse that refused to engage with structural inequities that the People of Color Working Group cited by instead bathing in a New Age aura that celebrates individuality. Where Do We Go From Here (http://vimeo.com/30778727), for instance, opens with synthetic ethereal music. The camera smoothly floats across the screen capturing attractive and diverse participants—young and old, black and white, male and female— speaking to one another, determinedly typing on laptops, and providing food. Periodically, someone spouts a hollow aphorism: “It kind’a feels like something is finally being done. Like people are waking up”—or a worn-out Civil Rights cliché: “When Rosa Parks refused to give-up her seat on the bus… no one knew that four years later there would be a comprehensive Civil Rights Act.”
The video’s sanctimonious feel—established through its semi-religious music, floating camera movements, and hollow rhetoric—can be off-putting. It presents those depicted within it as the anointed and leaves the rest of us less pious rabble watching from the outside in the cold. It possesses an oppressive inclusivity that smothers us by its ever-present wind music and beautified participants, who imploringly stare out at us during its conclusion. The video makes OWS seem more like a cult than a diverse movement, more therapy than politics, a United Colors of Benetton commercial rather than a documentary seriously engaging with structural disenfranchisement. It reinforces Todd Gitlin’s observation that
“many were the ways in which the movement could come to feel that its primary achievement was itself—a sort of collective narcissism.”
Such videos’ effacing of actual inequities led some people of color to produce their own videos in response. In Occupy the Hood (http://vimeo.com/30146870), Malik Rhassan, from Queens, states how people of color were underrepresented at OWS even though Wall Street practices have been negatively impacting communities of color for decades. He notes,
“If the white community has a cold, we have the flu. So what I did was I went on the Internet and made a Twitter as a sounding board, and it worked.”
Rhassan’s style is much more minimal than in other OWS videos. The visuals largely consist of a two-shot of Malik and another African-American male with a red Che Guevara shirt speaking before a handheld camera. The camera swivels a bit to gaze upon other participants. Malik relates a series of useful information directly to the camera: “And they stopped the welfare and they stopped food stamps on October first in Detroit.” An occasional photograph of protestors and famous supporters like Cornel West is interspersed in the mere three minutes of footage.
Malik asserts, “We’ve been occupied for years. Wall Street has been built upon slave bones.” A shot of a flag waving “Debt is Slavery” follows showing the linkages between the metaphor and the historical reality. He continues, “They’re feeding more people here than my mayor feeds.” The camera turns around to show a table of food being dished out to a line of people. The camera zooms in on some apples, bread, condiments, and boxes of additional supplies. The other man adds as the camera swivels back, the sound of his voice fades-in as the camera’s mic returns to him:
“I want to thank all the people who have donated to OWS. If it wasn’t for you guys keep on funding it, keep on donating, keep on sending clothes, sock, shoes, tampons and Tampax for the ladies, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, a lot of things wouldn’t be possible. We just blessed.”
A sense of urgency pervades the sequence not only in the amount of information mentioned, but also through the rough camera-style that frantically scans the backdrop while simultaneously trying to focus upon the two speakers. The camera tries to ingest as much as possible in a very limited amount of time. Furthermore, the sequence’s rather spotty sound and minimal editing suggests that its makers do not have much familiarity with video production but are nonetheless jumping into it since the moment requires it.
The minimal production style speaks to the poverty and neglect that have suffused urban, working-class communities. The video lacks the music, smooth editing, and general gloss found in other OWS shorts. Unlike the New Age demeanor of Where Do We Go From Here with its moderate pacing and smooth camera movements that imply the socio-economic privilege that informs the video’s very form, Occupy the Hood captures within its shaky camera movements, choppy editing, and shorter length a more amateur approach employed by someone who has been more versed in the ways of YouTube videos than formally trained at film school.
These two videos represent some of the advances and setbacks that still relate to anarchist-inflected video activism. The lower costs of technology and accessibility of new distribution platforms have allowed historically disenfranchised people like Malik more access to video production than ever before. So after witnessing the racial privilege that predominated throughout the GA and the failure of its organizers to address it, Malik could return to Queens and make videos with his friends that forced such issues to be addressed and get publicized in the media. But those with racial and class privileges continue to make more, longer, more professionally produced, and often better publicized videos, which can at times remain blissfully unaware of these structural inequities that make such videos possible in the first place by celebrating an abstract individualism that haunts both anarchist and liberal outlooks. Furthermore, those with privilege are more likely to have their videos distributed in highly visible venues not only since they often hold connections to the gatekeepers of such venues like that of activist film festivals and public broadcasting, but the “more professional” quality of their videos often appeals to the aesthetic biases of such gatekeepers that make distribution possible.
Because OWS relied both upon anarchist-inflected practices and a vague liberalism that failed to explore how such outlooks are premised upon implicitly informal exclusionary and hierarchical practices—even when people of color repeatedly state so—it couldn’t help but alienate itself from a majority of working-class and minority communities. For example, even though the occupation of Zuccotti Park bordered Chinatown, one of the last remaining poor immigrant communities in Manhattan, no attempts were made by OWS organizers to create a neighboring community alliance. Not surprisingly, early demographic assessment of the Occupy movement as a whole suggests that it was largely white, college educated, and youthful—with women slightly outnumbering men.
This brief historical overview of U.S. anarchist-inflected video practices exposes both the limits and possibilities that undergird them. By addressing anarchism, we can better see the interconnections not only between various video activist formations and their historical trajectory, but also their relations to neoliberal networks and the inequities these groups sometimes perpetuate. Regardless of how one might feel about anarchism, anarchist-based affinities and practices run throughout much U.S. video activism. By failing to acknowledge this long-running underpinning of video activism, we remain blinded to a vast network of individuals and collectives struggling against the gross inequities produced by neoliberalism and its concentrations of wealth. Although their struggles might not be perfect and replicate some of the very injustices they are attempting to overcome, these video activists represent an important part of the mediascape and their working processes have still remained under-analyzed. This essay offers an initial foray into the topic in order to encourage further discussion. It is time that anarchism becomes a frame of reference to understand contemporary video and media activism.
2. Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995); Deirdre Boyle, Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Dorothy Kidd, “Indymedia.org: A New Communications Commons,” in Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice. Eds. Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayers (New York: Routledge), 47-69; Dorothy Kidd, “Whistling Into the Typhoon: A Radical Inquiry into Autonomous Media,” in Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States. Ed. Team Colors Collective. (Oakland: AK Press, 2010), 199-210; and Clemencia Rodriguez, Fissures in the Mediascape: An International Study of Citizens’ Media (New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2001).
3. David James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 23.
4. Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice and Theory (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 41.
5. John Downing, Radical Media: The Political Experience of Alternative Communication (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1984), 18-22.
6. Of course, these groups had their own contradictory tendencies that can most clearly be seen in SDS’s Port Huron Statement where democratic reformism wars with a radical democratic vision. As Todd Gitlin observed, SDS, along with most New Left groups at the time, held a split vision “between the rhetoric of the desirable and the agenda of the attainable” (Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 114). Also see Gregory Nevala Calvert, “Democratic Idealism: SDS and the Gospel of Participatory Democracy,” in The New Left: Legacy and Continuity. Ed. Dimitrios Roussopoulos (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2007), 105-129.
7. Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 57.
8. Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolence Direct-action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 23.
10. Julie Stephens, Anti-Disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4.
11. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1969), 57-58.
12. Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004), viii.
13. See Boyle, Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
14. Bookchin, “Towards a Liberatory Technology,” in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 48.
15. Ibid., 80.
16. Ibid., 80-81.
17. Ibid., 81.
18. Murray Bookchin, “Social Ecology,” in The Murray Bookchin Reader. Ed. Janet Biehl (London: Black Rose Press, 1999), 32.
19. Editorial, Radical Software 1 (1970), 2.
20. Jon Burris, “Did the Portapak Cause Video Art? Notes on the Formation of A New Medium,” Experimental Television Center website (originally in Millennium Film Journalism 29 (1996):
22. See Boyle, Subject to Change, 14-25.
22. Parry Teasdale, Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station and the Catskills Collective that Turned It On (Hensonville, NY: Black Dome), 17.
24. David Cort interview with Deirdre Boyle, November 9, 1983, Guerrilla TV Archives, Series IV, Box 6, Folder 237.
25. Gerd Stern, “Support of Television Arts by Public Funding: The New York State Council on the Arts,” in The New Television: A Public/Private Art. Eds. Douglas Davis and Allison Simmons (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977), 143.
26. Ibid., 151.
27. Ben Levine, People’s Video Theatre, interview with Deidre Boyle, November 1, 1984, Guerilla Television Archive, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 2.
28. The Sixties, 349.
29. Nancy Cain, Video Days and What We Saw Through the Viewfinder (Palm Spring, CA: Event Horizon Press, 2011), 46.
30. See Epstein, Political Protest.
31. Craig O’ Hara, The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise! (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 1999), 71.
32. David DeLeon, The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978), 120.
33. The Red Scare was initiated in 1917 by government raids on International Workers of the World’s headquarters across the nation and culminated in the Palmer Raids of 1920 where thousands of radicals were arrested as due process and habeas corpus were suspended. In regards to the negative impact of McCarthyism on the New Left, see John Downing, Radical Media, 48-49.
34. DeLeon, 132.
35. Laura Portwood-Stacer, Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 145-46.
36. Profane Existence, Making Punk a Threat Again! (Oakland, CA: Loin Cloth Press, 1997), 36.
37. “Music as a Weapon: The Contentious Symbiosis of Punk Rock and Anarchism,” Rolling Thunder (Spring 2009): 72.
38. For example see Punk Planet 38 (July/August 2000) dedicated to “voices of the New Left.”
39. My observations are based upon over a hundred of hours of interviews I have conducted with North American media activists over the prior five years.
40. For more information on Media Mobilizing Project see Peter Funke, Chris Robé, and Todd Wolfson, “Suturing Working Class Subjectivities: Media Mobilizing Project and the Role of Media Building a Class-Based Social Movement, Triple C: Communication, Capitalism, and Critique 10, no. 1 (2012):
41. For some of these debates see Aragorn, ed. Occupy Everything!: Anarchists in the Occupy Movement, 2009-2011 (Oakland, CA: LBC Books, 2012).
42. John Downing, Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements (Trinity Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), 44.
43. Melanie La Rosa, “Early Video Pioneer: An Interview with Skip Blumberg,” Journal of Film and Video 64, no. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2012): 38.
44. Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Media,” in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation, ed. John G Hanhardt (New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1987), 139.
45. Portwood-Stacer, 145-46.
46. Madhava, “Reclaim the Streets, Reclaim the Code,” Punk Planet May/June 2001), 103.
47. Mariarosa Della Costa and Selma James, Women and the Subversion of Community (London: Falling Wall Press, 1972), 33.
48. Ibid., 35.
49. Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital. Trans. Hilary Creek (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1995), 8.
50. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), 48.
51. Bmedia email, 31 July 2004,
http://lists.indymedia.org/pipermail/imc-satellite/2004-July/0801-k9.html (accessed 12 February 2010).
52. Quoted in Todd Wolfson, “From the Zapatistas to Indymedia: Dialectics and Orthodoxy in Contemporary Social Movements” Communication, Culture and Critique 5 (2012): 153.
53. Of course, AIDS activism from groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the National Gay Task Force precedes ACT UP but often gets effaced from histories due to its lack of spectacle-based actions, which, reluctantly, will be done here due to my focus on direct-action AIDS activist videos. For this earlier history see Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), Chapter One. Earlier movements like that relating to civil rights and feminism also dramatically revealed the links between bodily action and signification, too.
54. Simon Watney, Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 3.
55. Ibid., 86.
56. About this reluctance see Greg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986-2003 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 29.
57. Greg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986-2003 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 50-51.
58. Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 60; Greg Bordowitz interview with Sarah Schulman, December 17, 2002, ACTUP Oral History Project,
59. DeeDee Halleck, Hand-Held Visions: The Impossible Possibilities of Community Media (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 117.
60. Catherine Saalfield, “On the Make: Activist Video Collectives,” in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. Eds. Martha Gever, John Greyson, and Pratibha Parmer (New York: Routledge, 1993), 24.
61. Halleck, 118.
62. Ibid., 119.
63. Ibid., 121.
64. Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 175.
65. Ibid., 175-76.
66. Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 66.
67. Bordowitz, 56.
68. Quoted in Catherine Saalfield, “On the Make,” 27.
69. Robyn Hutt interview with Sarah Schulman, June 25, 2008, ACT UP Oral History Project.
70. Affinity groups emerged out of anarchist practices during the Spanish Civil War. They refer to small semi-autonomous groups that often work within larger movements. ACT UP primarily operated through affinity groups. Although ACT UP would hold its general meeting on Monday nights, its affinity groups like Treatments Action Group, Media Committee, DIVA TV, and Women’s Caucus, to name only a few, met other nights of the week. Much of the work in building consensus during the Monday night meeting was done beforehand during these other meetings.
71. John Greyson identifies nine different forms of AIDS tapes from cable access shows to experimental critiques of mass media. But the direct-action videos to be discussed here play a central role in influencing future U.S. activist street tapes, most notably that of the alter-globalization movement.
72. Roger Hallas, Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 88.
73. John Greyson, “Strategic Compromises: AIDS and Alternative Video Practices,” in Reimagining America: The Arts of Social Change. Eds. Mark O’Brien and Craig Little (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1990), 70.
74. Patricia Zimmerman, States of Emergency: Documentaries, War, Democracies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 91.
75. Hallas, 90.
76. Saalfield, 29.
78. Jeffrey Juris, Network Futures: The Movement Against Corporate Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 21, 124.
79. Jane M. Gaines, “Political Mimesis,” in Collecting Visible Evidence. Eds. Michael Renov and Jane M. Gaines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 91.
80. Saalfield, 26.
81. Quoted in Cvetkovich, 180.
82. Ibid., 71.
83. Deborah B. Gould, “ACT UP, Racism, and the Question of How to Use History,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 98, no. 1 (2012): 59.
84. Ibid., 182.
85. Groups like Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) and the Canadian Media Co-Op are recent attempts to integrate some anarchist-inflected structures with more structural analysis and support for marginalized communities like African-Americans, Hispanics, the poor, and indigenous groups. For more information on MMP see Peter N. Funke, Chris Robé, and Todd Wolfson, “Suturing Working Class Subjectivities: Media Mobilizing Project and the Role of Media Building a Class-Cased Social Movement,” Triple C: Communication, Capitalism, Critique 10, no.1 (2012):
86. Hallas, 105.
87. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books: New York, 2002), 69.
88. Ibid., 6.
89. Andrew Ross, Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 41.
90. Jeff Keating phone interview, 20 July 2010.
91. Brandon Jourdan interview, 7 July 2010. All subsequent quotes from Jordan will come from this interview.
92. Andrew Ross, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 158.
93. The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Igor Vamos who engage in various theatrical stunts to expose the irrationality of capitalism and the utopian hopes that remain just beyond its purview. Such stunts include posing as entrepreneurs who recycle shit into fast food and impersonating Canadian government officials to claim that its government is dramatically decreasing emissions.
94. COP 16 is shorthand for the 16th United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Cancun, Mexico in 2010.
95. Vicki Mayer, Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 67.
96. Ibid., 81-82.
97. Activists themselves have self-mockingly deemed protest footage as riot porn. It gets the viewer off as if he/she is part of the event without ever having to leave the comfort of his/her couch.
98. Zimmerman, 95.
99. The group smartMeme more thoroughly addresses the notion of the battle of the story in their book by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Channing, Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010).
100. T.V. Reed, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 57.
101. For more information see Will Potter, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011).
102. Todd Gitlin, Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (New York: Itbooks, 2012), 98-99.
103. Writers for the 99%, Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011), 63.
104. Ibid., 114.
105. The alter-globalization movement emerged during the 1990s and culminated during the early 2000s. Significantly influenced by the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, the movement established global networks of resistance against neoliberal institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund and their environmentally unsound, workers unfriendly, sexist, etc. practices.
106. Not an Alternative, “Counter Power As Common Power,” June 6, 2014:
107. Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Massachusetts: Polity, 2012), 176.
108. Occupy Nation, 94.
109. Audrea Lim, “Chinatown Is Nowhere,” in Occupy! Scenes from an Occupied America. Eds. Astra Taylor, Keith Cessen, and editors from n+1, Dissent, Triple Canopy and The New Inquiry (New York: Verso, 2011), 99-104.
110. Networks of Outrage, 167.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.