MEMOIRS OF A VIDEO ACTIVIST
I left Bucharest when I was 9. My parents were political refugees. We received political asylum in Austria and later moved to New York. I grew up poor but privileged, in the sense that I had an education at some of the best schools in America, social factories for the production of Marxist intellectuals. And then I dropped out of my PhD, left the US, and returned to Romania to become a video activist. For many years I was weaned on the same canon and rules of etiquette as most Western media activists. But they always seemed strange to me, as if I was seeing them outside their frame and hearing them in a foreign language that I only partly understood.
What does video activism mean today? From large demonstrations against the World Trade Organization to small protests against Sky TV in Rome, you can see almost as many people with video cameras as protestors. They go where television cameras don’t, providing live news about events that are neglected or misrepresented, documenting police abuse, or challenging the neutrality of the mass-media. Recent video activism has its roots in the alternative media movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Although an oppositional press with an alternative content has existed since the nineteenth century, it privileged intellectuals as experts and maintained structural hierarchies of knowledge. What was different about many of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s was the desire to provoke social change not through alternative ideas but through the process of production itself, by turning spectators into producers and eliminating the difference between experts who create culture and its passive consumers.
During the 1960s the documentary film first became reflexive and uncertain of itself, questioning its mediating gaze in its attempt to represent the real. American direct cinema sought to achieve a truer representation, a kind of pure transparency, by preserving the guiding hand of the filmmaker but subtracting his subjective perspective and style as much as possible. By contrast, French cinema verite inserted the camera and the filmmaker directly into the screen, drawing attention to the inevitability of mediation and the constructed nature of all representation. More radical experiments sought to abolish representation altogether by giving ordinary people the tools to produce their own images of themselves. The logical result of rejecting mediation was the disappearance of the documentary artist and of the artifice itself. Better capturing the real ultimately meant democratizing the production of images by putting them within everyone’s reach – and the portability of the video medium made this easier. In 1968 Bonny Klein and Dorothy Henaut used the new Sony Porta-Pak for the National Film Board of Canada’s “Challenge for Change.” They collaborated with people from different regions of the country, including the slums of Montreal, to help them produce their own community video. Ever since then, the most ambitious goal of video activists has been to include non-experts in the process of production. Changes of form or style have been downplayed as less important and less radical. It is this idea that still guides video activism today - what’s different is the proliferation of activist video made possible by cheap equipment and the internet.
Video activism has sometimes been criticized for being repetitive, stylistically conventional, and producing countless images of demonstrations that look the same and blur into one another. The quest for the instantaneous, unmediated “document” often means that questions about form, style, montage techniques, critical analysis and audiences are ignored. On the other extreme of the spectrum, which is more characteristic of the video artist turned activist, there has been a return to the heavy handed tradition of film auteur that straightjackets its subjects into pre-formulated theories. When Ursula Biemann presented some footage from a video in progress about the construction of an oil pipeline in the Caspian region, she confessed she found it “annoying” that the peasants living along the trajectory of the pipeline were happy to receive money for their land and had no thoughts of resistance. The reality didn’t quite match the story she wanted to tell. This is not an isolated example - many activist artists allow their own voice (or rather ideas borrowed from fashionable theorists) to overwhelm the images. While the first form of video activism, which tries to let the brute “facts” speak for themselves, can be repetitive, stylistically weak and fall prey to the naiveté of pure transparency that characterized direct cinema, the second sometimes re-enacts the worst aspects of militancy that have been handed down through history.
The Situationists and the postsituationist group OJTR (Organisation des Jeunes Travailleurs Revolutionnaires) once criticized militants for subordinating their subjective desires and creative energies to the drudgery of work marked by routine and repetition – printing and distributing leaflets, putting up posters, preparing for demonstrations, attending meetings, engaging in interminable discussions about protocols of organization. But what remained unanalyzed in their account was the militaristic origin of militancy and its consequences. The first militants were the soldiers of God defending the Christian faith during the middle ages. Driven by an uncompromising vision of totality, they were willing to do whatever was necessary to win the war of righteousness. Revolutionary militants bear an uncanny resemblance to their older relatives: the same intransigence, the same desire to conquer and convert, as well as the spirit of submissiveness. But militants don’t repress their desires because they are masochists, as OJTR claimed. They subordinate their immediate needs to an overwhelming passion (a supreme cause) for the sake of which all other things are renounced. They believe they are in the middle of a war, a state of exception that requires extraordinary behavior and momentary sacrifices. Militants don’t militate on their own behalf; they put their lives in the service of whatever social categories they believe to be most oppressed (or, more accurately, in the service of their own ideas about the needs of the oppressed). This indirect vanguardism privileges intellectuals and the correct theory, especially when reality seems to contradict it. For all their insights into the bad conscience of militancy, the Situationists ended up recycling it: they claimed the proletariat of May ’68 had really wanted revolution but “proved incapable of really speaking on their own behalf” because they lacked “a coherent and organized theory” – in other words, they needed the Situationist International to explain to them what they had really wanted but were unable to say.
There are many aspects of militancy that always made me feel uncomfortable – its vanguardism, its confrontational posture, its enactment of revolution as a theater of political machismo. When I returned to Romania, I viewed the general distrust of militant politics as an opportunity to leave behind this flawed tradition and start from zero. I once wrote enthusiastically about a new paradigm of group collaboration that emerged in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe - a conscious alternative to the manifesto issuing and intransigent proclamations that marked not only leftist militancy but also the history of the avant-garde. But it turned out that my optimism was exaggerated. After 17 years, skepticism about militancy has turned into a flat denunciation of leftist politics and an excuse for passive resignation. This is partly due to disinformation campaigns before 1989 that assured the “left” would be understood simply as the de facto power of the communist apparatus. But it has also been influenced by a new mystification about “postcommunism” by those who came to power. On the surface of things, postcommunism appeared to be a neutral, geographical description that referred to countries that used to be communist. But beneath the surface, postcommunism was heavily weighed down by unexamined prejudices and value judgments. The assumption was that communism was over and it had proven to be a dead end; the lesson learned from this tragedy of history was that all forms of state control are totalitarian and that the only way to achieve democracy is to liberate the market from all restraints. This fatalism became the necessary premise justifying neoliberal policies of price liberalization, state deregulation and privatization. Aside from its political and economic dimensions, postcommunism also harbored tacit assumptions about mental disease and health, most obvious in the condescending metaphor of “shock therapy” that intended to cure homo socialisticus of its disease. Internalizing this discourse of pathology, intellectuals denounced their miserable history and awaited the day when Romania would finally become “normal” like the rest of the world. What was hidden behind the language of postcommunism and normalization was the assumption that all the defects of the transition were purely effects of hangovers from the communist past and of the lack of a proper capitalist market, rather than its excesses.
Together with some friends, I started D Media (http://www.dmedia.ro) in Cluj in 2003. We sought to create a context for media activism that didn’t exist and to make the practice of self-organization more contagious. At first we organized conferences and workshops to introduce unfamiliar ideas like do-it-yourself media, net radio, free/open source software and copyleft, and, since 2004, we devoted our attention almost entirely to video production. Being known as the video activist group in Romania is a lonely distinction. And video activism really did mean starting from zero. Unlike other communist countries, Romania had no alternative left, no counter culture and no tradition of experimental film or video. Festivals of experimental film like the ones in the 1960s in Yugoslavia, or a movement like the Czech new wave, or a state studio like the Hungarian Bela Balazs, which produced politically provocative, experimental films during the 1970s and 1980s, were unthinkable in the Romanian context. The only experimental, quasi-activist production was completely clandestine, like Ion Grigorescu’s film about a fictitious conversation with Ceausescu, which he hid for fear of being discovered, or the films of the Kinema Ikon group, which weren’t screened publicly until after 1989. And after 1989, there was no big flowering of experimental film or activist video. Due to prohibitive costs and the lack of a tradition, film and video production was confined to the school of theater and film or to a few art departments, with dreadful professors and archaic technologies. Things are not significantly different today: most people still have no access to video production, aside from a few artists. And among artists, video remains one of the least popular forms of expression.
D Media’s first video project was Real Fictions (2004-2005), a series of 4 experimental documentaries made in collaboration with local volunteers from Cluj between the ages of 15 and 20. The immediate background of Real Fictions was the general apathy of young people toward political participation and a lack of experience with self-organization, which often leads them to accept that they have no power to change things and to cast their eyes towards a powerful leader who promises to save them. PRM, the party of the extreme right, has fared well in this context, with members in parliament and a presidential candidate with very strong xenophobic sympathies who got more than 30 percent of the vote in the 2000 elections. A large number of his supporters were under the age of 25. The two videos I collaborated on, Folklore and Paint Romanian, engaged directly with the rise of nationalism and the extreme right in Romania, from political parties like PRM to small neofascist groups like Noua Dreapta that militate for a final solution to the gypsy problem and the re-criminalization of homosexuality. Folklore, the longer and more documentary of the works, begins from the everyday reality of Cluj, exposing the fears and frustrations that led the majority of the local population to elect Gheorghe Funar, an extreme nationalist and member of PRM, as mayor of the city for three consecutive terms. It also goes beyond present day Cluj, uncovering the history of nationalism from the Iron Guard to Ceausescu’s regime, and its continued presence in today’s mainstream culture. Paint Romanian is a rhythmic montage set to music, composed of hundreds of still photographs of tricolor objects and monuments reflecting Cluj’s nationalist obsessions during Funar’s terms in office. Behind the Scene presents the views of young artists about their struggle to make a living, the inadequacy of institutions promoting contemporary art in Romania, and the importance of artist-run spaces. The fourth video, Open, which was filmed during the Transhackmeeting in Croatia in 2004, introduces the political and economic implications of the Free/Open Source Software movement. (For downloads, http://www.dmedia.ro/04video-e.htm)
The Real Fictions project tried to eliminate the distinction between experts and consumers of media by involving local teenagers in the process of video making. But despite our intentions of working with the volunteers as equal partners, they continued to look to us as the experts responsible for making important decisions. Many of them wanted to travel and learn a few skills, without becoming intimately involved in the entire process, without attending too many meetings, and without spending a lot of time doing research or putting in long hours for the montage. So why wasn’t the idea of self-organization more contagious? We tend to idealize self-organization as a sign of freedom, as the ability to exercise our rights and limitless possibilities. But in reality this freedom is not only the joy of discovering our latent creativity, it’s also the burden of responsibility and hard work. We also tend to idealize open structures as a cure-all, as if all social and economic problems would simply vanish if everyone got a chance to participate and communicate without restraints – a perfect liberal democratic utopia. But openness need not mean a systemic change or even a culture in which everyone thinks for themselves; open forums and open publishing sites have become breeding grounds for racists to recycle all the prejudices and neuroses they’ve inherited from their cultures. The affirmation of openness can become synonymous with tyranny, unless it simultaneously addresses how ideology functions by imposing standardized ideas and preventing critical thought - and whose interests it serves. In a society that’s predominantly patriarchical, homophobic and racist, openness and “free expression” can simply mean imposing the voice of the majority to the exclusion of the rights of minorities. And “rhizomatic” modes of communication are not necessarily progressive. The newest proliferation of self-organized, do-it-yourself media is by neofascist groups, which have their Indymedia spin-off (the Altermedia network), and their own zines, net.radios and blogs.
By focusing exclusively on the process of production, the Real Fictions project paid too little attention to the finished works and their dissemination. In retrospect it seems that the impact upon our volunteers’ everyday lives was very small compared to the impact the videos could have had if we had planed them for large audiences. This conclusion is influenced by the specificity of the Romanian situation. Some activist friends from Italy once asked me about the social movements in Romania and I had to confess they really don’t exist, at least not in the way they meant it. “Civil society” exists, and there are thousands of non-governmental organizations that are getting foreign funding to do so-called humanitarian work or to promote European integration. But as for grassroots, self-organized groups that operate without a legal framework or institutional structure, and especially those that are critical both of Romania’s nationalism and its “transition” to global capitalism, you can really count them on a few hands. In Italy movements like Telestreet or Indymedia Italy have a large supporting network of social centers and hundreds of thousands of people participating. Trying to promote a do-it-yourself ethos in Romania with a handful of volunteers at a time lacks this already existing context. And the real problem seems to be elsewhere: in a hegemonic discourse, suppressed issues never reach public consciousness at all. Rather than making videos for a small art crowd or a couple of underground clubs, it seems more meaningful to provoke mainstream audiences to question the way they see their world.
Our second video project, Made in Italy (2005-2006), was a collaboration with Candida TV (http://candida.thing.net), an activist collective from Rome. The videos focus on the delocalization of Italian companies to Romania and the migration of Romanian labor to Italy. There are now 16,000 Italian companies in Romania and some cities like Arad and Timisoara have literally been transformed into little Italies. The reality of foreign investment was very different from the initial promise: labor rules were not respected, working conditions were poor, the unions were absent, and many companies delocalized further east when wages began to increase, leaving the workers without a job from one day to the next. Many people left to work abroad rather than compete for jobs paying 70 euro per month at Italian firms in Romania. Italy has become the leading destination for Romanian migrants, with an estimated 2 million workers, mostly clandestine. We thought it important to highlight this connection because public discourse in Romania has uncritically celebrated foreign investment as a panacea that would save the nation. This is even more true now, in the midst of a wave of EU euphoria and following the ascent of a neoliberal government in 2005. The new power has done everything possible to promote the delocalization of foreign companies to Romania by introducing a flat tax of 16 percent, which has turned the country into a fiscal paradise for corporations, and by proposing a labor code reform that would abolish collective work contracts, make temporary contracts the norm, prolong the work week and make it easier to fire workers. (For downloads, http://www.ngvision.org/mediabase/680 and http://www.estudiolivre.org/el-gallery_view.php?arquivoId=3439&)
The videos in the Made in Italy compilation introduce a counter-story to the dominant one, but it’s not a story told in a unified voice. Documentaries usually aspire to create a sense of authenticity and totality that lead the viewer to identify with their message. The montage style is one of the main elements that can create a sense of totality (and lead to identification) or disrupt it. A montage of association is additive - it adds concordant images and voices to create a homogenous picture. Dialectical montage, as Eisenstein defined it, goes beyond simple addition by presenting a clash of contradictions. But dialectical montage also has its limits, which are the limits of the dialectic itself: it moves between idealized pairs of opposites (like the bourgeoisie and proletariat in Strike), and the final outcome is predictable. The arrangement of sound and images can also be disjunctive without being dialectical – by presenting a multiplicity rather than a world made up of black and white contradictions. The videos in Made in Italy present the discordant perspectives of the owners of Italian companies, representatives of Italian cultural institutions, workers, taxi drivers, artists, students, trade union leaders and Romanian migrants in Italy. And the various “authors” from D Media and Candida TV who pieced the narratives together also have different perspectives, styles of filming, and ideas about montage - all of which made a single point of view impossible. As a consequence, the story unfolds through disjunctions and becomes more complicated as it moves along. Rather than a unified universe, multiple worlds collide. The audience has to piece together the fragments and draw their own conclusions.
Compared to the previous project, Made in Italy really did feel like a collaboration between equal partners. This also meant, realistically, that the process was often difficult since there were many disagreements about ideas and styles and we had to reach a consensus. But ultimately the most interesting part of any real process of collaboration is that those who participate in it are transformed, we all give up a little of our dogmatisms as we come to see things from the perspective of the others, we learn something about own limitations and prejudices, we see our ideas becoming more refined through the process of dialogue, and we are able to make a better work than each of us could have made as a single individual.
Taking the highest principle of video activism to mean including habitual spectators in video-making tends to focus entirely on the process of production rather than the work. The importance of presenting perspectives and voices that are not usually heard should not be downplayed. But what often gets lost in activist video is the aesthetic dimension. In activist circles no one talks about the work of art or aesthetics, since these kinds of discussions are disparaged as elitist. The word “art” has become an embarrassment in all but its Situationist sense - as the liberation of creative energies that everyone possesses, but which have been suppressed by the routine and boredom of everyday life. Art is this, but it is also something else. It is an act of communication, and unlike other forms of communication (the political manifesto, the philosophical essay, or the news broadcast), what it communicates are qualities and affects that exceed conceptual schemes. Art has the power to provoke not by argument, unambiguous information, or agitation propaganda but by something that we still don’t really know how to define. It incites people to think and feel differently, to pose questions rather than accept ready-made answers.
While he was a member of the Dziga Vertov group, Godard made some extremely arrogant films of Maoist propaganda. Pravda, a film about the 1968 uprising in Prague, is haunted by the trope of ideological correctness: we are told that the students who flew the black flag “are not thinking correctly” and that the filmmaker Vera Chytilova does not “speak correctly.” The idea behind the Dziga Vertov films is that images are always false and need to be negated and critiqued by the “correct sound.” The last project of the Dziga Vertov group was the unfinished film Until Victory, shot in 1970 as the Palestinian Liberation Organization was preparing for a revolution. After the breakup of the Dziga-Vertov group, Godard collaborated with Anne-Marie Mieville, using the footage shot for Until Victory to make a new work, Here and Elsewhere. As the voiceover says, the problem with Until Victory was that the sound was turned up too loud, “so loud that it almost drowned the voice it wanted to draw out of the image.” The film interrogates not only Until Victory, but militant filmmaking in general.
Here & Elsewhere is a film composed of questions. We went to Palestine a few years ago, Godard says. To make a film about the coming revolution. But who is this we, here? Why did we go there, elsewhere? And why don’t here and elsewhere ever really meet? The voiceover confesses, “Back in France you don’t know what to make of the film ... the contradictions explode, including you.” Here and Elsewhere is a reflection on how revolutionary militancy is staged as a political theater: its propagandistic gestures and speeches, its covering up of disjunctions in order to re-present a single voice of those unified in struggle. It also interrogates the complicity of activist filmmakers who organize the sound and images in a particular way to present the “correct” political line and to inhibit critical thinking. In an era dominated by a politics of the message (statements, communiqués, declarations of war), Here & Elsewhere searches for a politics of the question.
Godard once drew a distinction between making a political film (a film about politics) and making film politically. Making film politically means investigating how images find their meaning and disrupting the rules of the game, whether that game is Hollywood mystification or militant propaganda. It means provoking the viewers to become political animals, to reflect on their own position vis a vis power, to entertain doubts and to ask questions. By contrast, a lot of contemporary video activism is really propaganda in reverse. While the content differs from the mainstream press, its form and function is often preserved. Propaganda puts forward its position as natural and inevitable, without reflecting on its construction. Many activist videos show off their militancy through emotional slogans rather than argument, and are blind to their own internal contradictions. The Indymedia video Rebel Colors, which documents the demonstrations in 2000 in Prague against the IMF and the World Bank, presents the one-sided perspectives of activists who came from America, the UK, Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy, including members of actually existing communist parties. What you really don’t get is a reflection on the Czech context – many locals denounced what they saw as an attempt to playact a revolution by foreigners who invoked slogans from an ideology the Czechs themselves considered obsolete. Because the clash of these different perspectives is absent, the video comes across as dogmatic as the mass-media, even though the content is reversed.
Video activism was born from the recognition that mass-media is controlled by powerful elites and that although it claims to serve the democratic interest of the public to be informed, its real interests, sources of financial support, hierarchical leadership and decision making processes are all hidden behind closed doors. It’s important to oppose these practices by including the perspectives and quotidian desires of ordinary people and marginalized groups, and by making the process of production as democratic, non-hierarchical and transparent as possible. But it is not enough to eliminate the distinctions between production and consumption and between experts and spectators. It’s also necessary to question how images and sound are organized to produce meaning. Ultimately, video activism means making video politically - refusing to supply platitudes, ready-made answers, or the “correct” political line. It means making videos in the form of a question.
Cluj, 2006. An earlier version of this text appeared in ArtMargins (www.artmargins.com). Forthcoming in print in Art and Democracy, published by Peer (London, 2006) and, in Romanian, in Vector> Arta si Cultura in Context, nr 3 (Iasi, 2007). A shorter version, with translations into German, Spanish and Romanian, can be found online in Transversal (http://translate.eipcp.net/transversal/0307).
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