AT THE CROSSROADS OF ART AND ACTIVISM
In its broadest sense, research suggests a detailed study for the purpose of reaching a new understanding. It comes from the French “recherche,” which means to search closely - or literally, to search again. But research is usually understood more narrowly as a scientific investigation or scholarly inquiry that follows systematic protocols and aims to find an answer to a specific question. Since it's obvious that this is not what art does, most reflections on artistic research have sought to define what differentiates it from scientific research – namely, its non-discursive or somatic character, its admission of subjectivity rather than objective neutrality, and its emphasis on the process of searching rather than finding a definitive answer.
However provocative these definitions might be, I've found them unsatisfactory for thinking about my own work. First, they're about art in general rather than artistic practices that try to intervene in reality instead of representing it. And secondly, as a philosopher who chose to leave academia and become an artist, something disturbs me about the characterization of art as research. Perhaps it's similar to what disturbs me about so many activist and artist friends who are now doing PhDs. This is not a personal irritation, but a pessimistic assessment of the expansion of the knowledge economy and its ability to internalize its own dissent. Or at least its margins. As Simon Sheikh has noted, the legitimation of art as research and its standardization into prescribed formats of academic learning reflects the dominant interests of an information-driven capitalism. And it constitutes an attempt to sweep away what has been most sovereign about art: its indiscipline and its potential to escape from the commodity-form.
What I've found more inspiring is an old, dusty statement made by Godard in 1970 that called for making films politically rather than making political films. His distinction shifts the emphasis from the content of a work to its mode of production and reception. Although this statement comes from the period when Godard worked with the Dziga Vertov group, which he later criticized for having produced “Marxist-Leninist garbage” films, the best examples of making film politically are his later collaborations with Anne-Marie Mieville. In 1970, Godard wrote that to make film politically was to be militant. What's striking about his later films with Mieville is their distance from militant filmmaking as well as from the newly emerging video activism. Here & Elsewhere is especially interesting because it deconstructs one of his earlier Dziga Vertov films. 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? 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 critique of how militancy is staged as a political theater, from its propagandistic gestures to its covering up of disjunctions in order to present a false image of the people united in struggle. The film also interrogates the complicity of activist filmmakers who organize sound and images in a particular way to present a “correct” political message and inhibit critical thinking.
It was in attempt to ask these other questions that I turned to the tradition of leftist experimental film of the 1960s and 70s. I felt particularly inspired by Godard and Mieville, Chris Marker, Harun Farocki and Peter Watkins, who all began from the activist premise that what must be changed is not merely the content of the work but its mode of production – but understood this transformation in a more complex way than democratizing technology. I've attempted to elaborate this complexity along 5 trajectories that highlight the relations between the image and its referent, between different subjects, between form and content, between the work and its audience, and between production and distribution.
1. Mimesis: As an extension of photography, the documentary has traditionally been understood as mimesis achieved, as a presentation of “the object itself” (Bazin) that is “indifferent to all intermediaries” (Barthes). It was during the 1960s that documentary film became self-reflexive, questioning its mediating gaze in its attempt to capture reality. American direct cinema sought to achieve a truer representation, a kind of pure transparency, by subtracting the subjectivity of the filmmaker as much as possible. By contrast, French cinema verite inserted the camera and the filmmaker directly into the screen, affirming the inevitability of mediation and the constructed nature of all representation. In this context, making films politically can be understood as using the conventions of the documentary-form in order to subvert them from the inside. Questioning the reality effects of mediated representations doesn't mean denouncing all images as inherently corrupt – on the contrary, the problem is a certain way of producing images that naturalizes them by hiding their construction or barrages us with such emotional force that it diminishes our capacity to reflect. A critique of mediation means admitting the subjectivity of perspective and asking how our own ideologies and inherited prejudices can influence the general frame that creates meaning.
I began experimenting with the documentary-form with In Transit (2008), a diary of a journey in Romania that reflects on post-communism, and how it functions through a series of erasures: of history, of identities and of thought itself. But while the narrative criticizes these erasures, it is not from the purity of an outside. Several citations invoke the private archive films of Peter Forgacs, which criticize official history in order to oppose it with authentic private histories. In Transit shows how private histories are themselves impure because memory functions like a dream-work that erases connections and creates new associations. The video makes use of childhood stories, family photographs and poetic texts, all of which have the possibility to provoke strong emotional responses. But it frustrates the possibility of a sentimental identification through estrangement devices that call attention to their construction. A sense of distance is created through sound-image discontinuities and the narrator's admission of the uncertain origins of authentic documents. By simultaneously creating and breaking the desire for identification, In Transit asks the audience to step back and reflect on their own relation to the images they've just seen. It is only from a critical distance that it becomes possible to dig through the pile of ruins that are left by the erasures of the past and to uncover the traces of things that have been lost. Without this distance, private memoirs can easily become as ideological and manipulative as official history.
2. Intersubjectivity: In the most literal sense, making film politically means interrogating its entire mode of organization – its hierarchies of knowledge, its divisions of labor, the relation between the artist and those who are represented, the relation between the one who “directs” and those who perform what is usually seen as the less important work. Transforming these hierarchies would entail making the process of production genuinely collaborative by involving other subjects in a dialogue rather than speaking for them or instrumentalizing them as a means to communicate a preconceived message.
In 2004, I made 2 videos about nationalism with teenagers as part of Real Fictions, a video activist project that sought to transform apathetic spectators into noisy producers. In retrospect, it seemed that by focusing predominantly on involving non-experts in the process of production other important elements were neglected. Formally the videos were typical documentaries, and although they were collaboratively produced, there was a clear boundary between those who made the works and others who were represented in them. This boundary was deliberately subverted in Reconstruction, a work about the repression of the anti-NATO events in Bucharest in 2008. The video was a collaboration with anti-NATO activists and the artist group h.arta. In contrast to the earlier project, the subjects who were represented were also the ones who made the work. Reconstruction was filmed over a four-day workshop, during which 10 protagonists were simultaneously actors, audience and directors. They took turns speaking before the camera, giving each other instructions and commenting on their performance. They discussed their memories in a group and wrote the script together. In one memorable discussion, several people admitted that what happened wasn't just the fault of the Romanian authorities and began to analyze their own organizational mistakes. The video functioned like a Brechtian learning play, in which the actors were transformed through the process of collaboration and gained new insights about themselves.
3. Form: The specific arrangement of images and sounds in a film can create a feeling of immersion and identification or disrupt it. A montage of association adds concordant images and voices to create a homogenous totality. If the form 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 its meaning.
My first use of disjunctive montage was in Made in Italy (2006), a work about the delocalization of capital and the migration of labour made in collaboration with the Italian video collective Candida TV. We wanted to avoid making an activist video that would portray the struggle of the working class in a unified voice. Made in Italy presents a clash of different perspectives - owners of Italian companies in Romania, trade union leaders, workers and migrants – it's up to the audience to navigate through the contradictory messages and draw their own conclusions. Two or Three Things about Activism (2008) went a step further – it was not only composed of disjunctive voices but had visible breaks in its structure and deconstructed its own motivations. The video begins with a richness of sound and images, immersing the audience in the stories of Romanian activists. After 20 minutes, the picture starts to break down – all background images are eliminated and the cuts between the words of the protagonists become visible. “I wanted to show the actions behind the words, you wanted a bare archive of reflections, with no images masking the words. You said an excess of images leads to a poverty of thought. And so we must learn to hear again.” The form contributes to the overall goal: by showing the unphotogenic aspects of Romanian activism, the video seeks to become a tool for discussion and self-reflection. It doesn’t try to represent its subject, but to intervene in it from the inside.
4. Reception: In a sense, the relations between the image and its referent, between subjects, and between form and content also create a specific type of relationship to an audience. Questioning the reality effects of images, or using an open form and various estrangement devices - like sound-image discontinuity, interruption of natural time sequences or direct address - tend to break the feeling of identification and provoke the audience to have doubts and questions.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now remembered as one of the key protagonists of May '68, once suggested making a detourned leftist western. Godard replied that if the western preserved a traditional Hollywood form and created a typical relationship of passive spectatorship, it wouldn't matter whether the content was leftist or not. If the audience was just sitting back and absorbing a fairy tale, even one with a leftist message, they would learn nothing about their specific situation. Yet it seems that many militant films and activist videos today still look like fairy tales with a leftist message. And in this sense, rather than creating the possibility for critical thought, they inhibit it. A work of art that makes the audience uncomfortable and demands that they step back and reflect (or even criticize or disagree) is more genuinely activist than a work of agit-prop that plays on the emotions of the audience and provokes it to act in accordance with its message.
5. Ownership: Many artists whose work may be engaged or activist in the above sense have still not posed the question of the ownership and distribution of their work, or how certain institutions can alienate these relations by placing them outside their control. Today there's a widespread consensus that copyright has been perverted to benefit corporations rather than the artists for whom it was originally intended. But no such golden age of copyright ever existed. Ever since its inception during the period of Romanticism, the system of copyright has been a legal tool to transform art works into commodities and turn a profit for the owners of capital. And yet artists continue to be flattered by their association with the myth of the creative genius, turning a blind eye to how it is used to justify their exploitation. Copyright pits artists against each other in a war of competition for originality – its effects are not only economic, it also naturalizes a certain process of knowledge production, delegitimates the idea of a common culture, and cripples social relations. Artists are not encouraged to share their thoughts and expressions or to contribute to a common pool of creativity. Instead, they jealously guard their “property” from others, who they view as potential spies and thieves lying in wait to snatch and defile their original ideas. This is a vision of the art world created in capitalism’s own image. As long as a work of art 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 its power and renders its critique ineffective.
The call for “making film politically” is a suggestive signpost for the 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 interrogated in its entirety. This process of questioning brings to mind the humble origins of the word “research.” It is literally a second search. Once the first search produces a certain type of knowledge, the second asks how that knowledge was produced, what its conditions of possibility have been. And what those conditions leave out. This second search is not something that is specific to art - it is an indiscipline that resides at the core of every discipline, an immanent critique that seeks to expose and transcend its own limits.