Joanne Richardson

I remember 2004. It was the beginning of the end of media activism. 2003 marked the last gathering of Next 5 Minutes - a network of artists, activists and tactical media makers who advocated a subversive use of new technologies through subterfuge and rhizomatic mobility. In 2004, 'tactical media' left its ghetto and became a new buzzword on everyone's lips, from Ars Electronica organizers to university professors in New York and Hong Kong. And by 2005, YouTube had turned the silent majority into noisy producers. It was at this time that I began to feel a growing unease with the assumptions of the media activist networks I was involved with. The call for open participation and the transformation of consumers into producers struck me as the perfect liberal democratic utopia, which is why it was so easily appropriated by capitalism. All the hype surrounding Web 2.0 was based exactly on a celebration of open participation. The massive factory of YouTube users who had worked for free and directly contributed to its value didn’t receive any share of that value when Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. Such a distorted actualization of the promise of media activism showed that it wasn't enough to just 'do it yourself.' Simply putting the means of production into the hands of the passive consumer would not automatically shatter oppressive relations of power. There were still other questions to be asked.

It was in attempt to ask these other questions that I turned to leftist experimental film from the 1960s and 70s. I felt particularly inspired by Godard's imperative to make film politically, which he contrasted to making a political film. The distinction comes from the period he was making films as a member of the Dziga Vertov group - films he later criticized as 'Marxist-Leninist garbage.' I consider the best examples of making film politically to be Godard's collaborations with Anne-Marie Mieville. In 1970, Godard had written that to make film politically was to be militant. What's striking about his films with Mieville from the mid 1970s is their distance from militant filmmaking as well as from the newly emerging video activism.

Militant filmmaking was in continuity with older traditions of militant press and Soviet agit-prop. Although emphasizing an alternative message that criticized the status quo, militant films privileged intellectuals as experts and maintained structural hierarchies of knowledge. And they fell prey to the worst excesses of militancy: a belief in a supreme cause, a desire to convert, and an implicit vanguardism that exalted the correct theory over reality. In contrast to militant film, the video activism that emerged after 1968 sought to provoke revolutionary change not through an alternative message 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. Ever since the 1960s, the highest goal of video activists has been placing the technology in the hands of 'the people.' Changes of form or style have been downplayed as less important and less radical.

Beyond the ideological intransigence of militant film and the desire for pure immediacy of video activism, another tendency emerged on the margins of the avant-garde. Aside from Godard and Mieville, important examples included Chris Marker, Peter Watkins and Harun Farocki. This third tendency began from the video activist premise that what must be changed is not merely the content but the mode of production itself– but it understood the change of the mode of production in a more complex way. I've attempted to elaborate this complexity along 5 trajectories that highlight different relations: between the image and its referent, between different subjects, between form and content, between the work and its audience, and between its production and distribution.

1. Mimesis: During the 1960s, documentary film became self-reflexive, questioning its mediating gaze in its attempt to capture the real. Making film politically does not mean denouncing all images for being inadequate to reality, but thinking critically about our relation to images and admitting the subjectivity of perspective. It involves a moment of self-criticism that considers how our ideologies and inherited prejudices influences the general frame that creates meaning and the representation of the other through that frame.

2. Intersubjectivity: In the most literal sense, making film politically means interrogating its entire mode of organization - its hierarchies of knowledge, its division of labor, the relation between the filmmaker and those who are represented, the relation between the 'director' and those who perform what is usually seen as the less important work. Making film politically would entail making the process of production collaborative by involving other subjects in a dialogue rather than speaking for them.

3. Form: Film theorists often speak of diegesis: the spatio-temporal continuity of a film, which can immerse the audience in the story and generate a feeling of identification. The specific arrangement of images and sounds can create a sense of totality or disrupt it. A montage of association adds images and sounds that fit together to create a homogenous totality. If the montage is disjunctive, made up of elements that don't seem to fit, the message becomes ambiguous or even contradictory, requiring the audience to take an active part in constructing the meaning.

4. Reception: A disjunctive, open form tends to make the audience uncomfortable; it provokes doubts and questions. It asks the audience to intervene in the work rather than absorb its message passively. And, perhaps, to become transformed in the process. A work that uses estrangement devices and provokes the audience to step back and reflect is more genuinely activist than a work of agit-prop that gets the audience to agree and act in accordance with its message.

5. Ownership: Many filmmakers and artists whose work may be otherwise critical or activist have not reflected on the ownership of their work, the management of its distribution, or how certain institutions can alienate these relations by placing them outside their own control. As long as a film is copyrighted and can’t be disseminated or used freely, as long as it circulates primarily through dominant cultural institutions and is accessible only to an elite type of audience, it is doomed to remain trapped in a system that constrains it and renders its critique ineffective.

The imperative to 'make film politically' is a suggestive starting point, signaling a need to move beyond the content of political engagement and consider how modes of production, forms of organization, methods of articulating meaning and the ownership of culture all form part of an interconnected whole that must be disrupted in its entirety. This insight is not specific to film; it can be extended to other cultural forms and be brought up to date. New means of production and distribution as a result of cheap electronics and online platforms, an increasing awareness of the constraints of intellectual property, and a widespread concern with non-hierarchical organization – all of these have radicalized the insights of the 1960s. Recent examples include Indymedia, whose most interesting feature is not its open participation, but its organization by consensus and the shared ownership by its users. Unfortunately, its messages often look like counter-propaganda that preach to the converted. Perhaps Godard's most important legacy for our time is showing that beyond any radicalization of production and organization, it's also necessary to ask how meaning is created: who speaks for whom, how images and sounds are coded, and what type of social relations they make possible or deny.

Berlin, 2009. Revised for a special issue of Chto Delat on Making Film Politically (http://www.chtodelat.org).

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