August 18, 2014
Ted Kerr (formally of Visual AIDS) and I continue our conversation about recent AIDS media on the Indiewire blog, /Bent. In our discussion about The Normal Heart and other recent work, we bemoan the paucity of women as well as the feminist pro-sex politics that defined our early AIDS media activism.
I begin the article saying: “I too was reluctant to watch the Normal Heart, so our anticipated conversation about it also forced my hand. I was worried that the mainstreamification of my own history would be upsetting, and I was right. In 1986, I arrived in NYC, fresh-faced and political (I was a feminist and also active in the nascent gay/lesbian rights movements), to attend grad school in Cinema Studies at NYU. I volunteered at (Kramer’s) GMHC soon thereafter, and found myself in 1987 working in the fledgling Audio-Visual Department, which at that time was the incredible Jean Carlomusto who was single-handedly producing a cable access show called “The Living With AIDS Show.” With few real skills of my own, but a lot of chutzpah and real conviction, I suggested to Jean that I produce a segment for the show about women and AIDS. Feminist, anti-racist and anti-poverty activists in NY were just mobilizing around a shared raising awareness about the certain affliction that women (and children) would face in large numbers if the government, public health, non-profits, the media, and activists did not think logically (and politically) and realize, and act, on the imminent threat that HIV posed to communities outside the gay white men who had first organized GMHC (and hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts, the other known “risk groups” at that time).”
Hope you’ll read it through!
August 13, 2014
Last week, I used my own changing Facebook experiences during the gruesome Israel/Gaza conflict to think about the often unattended-to subtleties of Internet echo chambers in light of family, identity, friendship and war. There’s been a great deal of interesting writing about these themes since, so I’m glad I’m part of that conversation.
But many of us have been trying to make sense of Facebook and politics for awhile now, so I wanted to point towards this great collection from the Institute of Network Culture, Unlike Us (which you can download for free and which I have relied on a lot in my own thinking), and also to this essay that I wrote that has just come out, “Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary,” for another really useful anthology surrounding issues of activism and networked expression, New Documentary Ecologies, eds. Nash, Hight and Summerhayes (Palgrave MacMillan).
In that essay, I also theorize about coming and going, staying, representing and being silent in networked environments (of machines and humans), espeically in relation to activist possibilities for representational politics in a world dominated by Facebook and other corporate-owned, user-produced media. I conclude:
While it has never been clear how to judge the effectiveness of any documentary, let alone ‘activist’ documentaries, I am noting that my (our?) barometer has changed. As Jane Gaines work on more traditional documentary forms (1999, p. 88) cautions, it was never clear that activist documentaries catalyzed ‘activism’ as much as they modeled a ‘political mimesis’: a vision of what activism looks and feels like. By both seeding realist representations and then seceding from representation, by being silent online (and even elsewhere) while at the same time speaking with our bodies, we can make the Activist Digital Documentaries that we might most need now. And this, it turns out, is the special domain of activist art, and documentaries, within the digital—to ‘body back’ as Gaines puts it—to model in documentary a new way of being in the digital/real world (what Beth Coleman, 2012, calls ‘x-reality’) in a linked and larger project of communally produced, carefully theorized, artfully communicated world-changing:
This call for a shared right to silence is thus made because it is silence that is needed to enable human voices to be heard again … One example of this kind of engagement—and one that shows how silence may be suggestive and how it may operate to produce convivial relations—are the communication tactics of some within the Occupy movement. Particularly the gestural commentaries those listening provide in supplement—rather than interrupt—those speaking. (C. Bassett, in Unlike Us)
The art of activist digital documentaries will be in the staying and using and the leaving, through the voices we have wanted and gained, and then through shared silences where things are heard and felt and said without being recorded. (Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary)
As things stay quiet for now in the Middle East, I hope we can use this period for more reflection, and continued conversation, both on and off Facebook, of course.
July 30, 2014
Last week, I was sitting with a dear old friend on a shady deck. We were enjoying our summer vacation at his family’s beach house. Conversation turned to Israel/Gaza, and we commenced a now-too-familiar dance: judiciously floating tidbits of sentiment to mark each others position. Once we understood that we were comrades (who knew?!) we began ardently discussing the politics of both the Middle East and Facebook: how we were performing this same dance of timid sentiment in the space Facebook (not wanting to offend family and friends, not wanting to cause stupid flame wars, and in my case, as an American academic, not wanting negative ramifications at work). I suggested to him that perhaps, things being as bad as they were becoming, we did not have the moral ground any longer to be silent, or hidden (on Facebook) even if there would be real discomfort caused by revealing our personal positions.
Let me mark my position now, clearly, before I explain my suggestion that we take these conversation to and from Facebook:
- Today’s Position: I am a leftist, progressive or radical artist and intellectual of Jewish lineage who condemns the violence occurring in the Middle East. I support BDS and am anti-Zionist for reasons of personal history, religious, moral, and political philosophy and belief. I am not anti-semitic and love and respect many people who are Israelis. I also love and respect many Palestinians. My father is a Holocaust survivor, and his family (all survivors, obviously) actively chose to come to the US after WWII for many of the reasons that contribute to my own understandings of this complex issue. Some of my dearest friends, family, and respected colleagues do not share my position. My position is that I respect their positions and hope they do mine.
After our discussion on the porch, I took my own advise and began to judiciously like posts on Facebook that marked the ideas and images that supported my position. I also carefully read the posts and links of Facebook friends who held different positions. I did not interact in conversation on Facebook with these friends and family whose contrary links I followed and read because I think comment culture is almost always degenerate and is usually not productive, and also because I didn’t want to become involved in a flame war with a friend of my friend in my friend’s comment stream. At this stage, I felt like Facebook fragments of my position and those of my friends were consolidating while maintaining carefully drawn lines of respect for difference of opinion.
However, as things worsened, I grew ever more bold. I felt it was my moral position to do so as an American Jew. After much internal deliberation (as much as I’ve put into authoring this blog post), I posted a photo of myself on Facebook taken at a protest (led by Jewish Voices for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine) where I marked my position by lying down, playing the role of one dead Palestinian child. I added a caption for further clarity.
I got a lot of likes and even some re-posts. This felt good: in a small way like the solidarity I felt at the protest the day before. But I still worried about hurting my friends and family who hold other positions, and even more so about being properly heard and understood.
While the commonly held understanding of the Internet, and particularly social media, as echo chamber helps to define the situation I describe (because in these spaces we exert real energy to understand, refine, share, and amplify our own position), my current experiences nuance this understanding because of the real shades of difference, and actually care, that are occurring within such echoes. On Facebook, Jews within one family or friendship or intellectual cohort (and our friends and allies) sit in unfathomably close quarters as we hold, and represent, different views on this catastrophe. If we are American Jews—on Facebook, online, and in our communities—our thoughtful conversation and thinking and action about the current war can play a critical part in its outcome. I think we are all aware of this responsibility and power, which has produced our care but which must now inspire other actions.
So, here’s where my charge to leave and return to Facebook comes in. My work on Internet culture consistently returns to a set of criticisms that I want to share here:
- YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the like, work in the vernacular of the slogan. Things move best, and are therefore seen and considered, when they are easy to digest, “spread,” and understand. While this may well mark a position, it is only that–a mark. For things as complex, important, and deadly as a war, or a friendship, or one’s workplace and professional safety, we need harder, deeper, lengthier conversation or analysis that provides context and interaction. This can happen via many technologies and in other places besides (and also including) the Internet: on the phone, in person, and in lengthier formats like essays, lectures, and art.
- Activism that happens only on the Internet–like posting, reading, liking, and linking on Facebook–is not without use or value (for movements or individuals) but is proto-political, and needs to be followed up (for things of real consequence, like a war) with engagements in the world (of media): like protests, conversations, and even media secession. In an essay on Feminist Online Activism I wrote:
“Activist digital activities need to create linked projects of secession. It is in the leaving that our feminist digital activism truly begins. Activist digital research/teaching/organizing/writing must dare to fall outside of representation. This is not to say that the Internet is not a site for our feminist digital activism, but only when linked, not to another kitty, but to a place, a person, a demand, and an ethical practice of being together.”
“Just as was true for the Arab Spring, social media connected us, spread the word, and gave us an instantaneous and satisfying feeling of support and community, but good old fashioned community built from deep relationships formed and cemented in real places and over long term efforts was what finally supplied the muscle, the meaning, and the deep, take away truth of this awesome effort: Tarek and John are free because we (like they) can make the change we need by working with each other every day, in the places we live, and work, and love. How we can sustain this work, how we can again make local connections move nations, how we can use dominant/corporate social media forms as well as our own networks and technologies to make the world we want, these will be the questions I will continue to ask.”
If you are reading this on my blog, Facebook, or Twitter, I ask you not (only) to comment, but rather to dare to take the time and make the space to engage in the world with others.
July 10, 2014
In the conclusion of my conclusion to Ada’s Special Issue on Queer Feminist Media Praxis, “It’s Our Collective, Principled Making that Matter Most,” I write:
AIDS activist video and New Queer Cinema are celebrating, respectively, their twenty-five and twenty year anniversaries, and I am connected, as a media maker and theorist to both traditions. As someone who participated in these earlier instances of feminist/queer media praxis (if not revolution), I first affirm that they were each deeply technological; we were always abetted by media, even if this was not yet digital in nature. And, in the living and doing—just as defines our work today—these “movements” (which were, at the time, something closer to linked moments of making; a movement tends to be found retrospectively), felt (as did the Sixties in its living and doing?) enormously small, fleeting, difficult, complex, impossible to render and realize and utterly wonderful and productive.
In my experience, the making and living of alternative, counter or radical culture, through media praxis, does not feel fully revolutionary in its own time because each act of making is too small, unstable, marginal, and precarious; the dominant culture, and its media praxis, looms large, solid, and powerful. And yet, each of these risky acts makes not just media that lasts for future study (and sometimes consolidation as a movement) but small, beautiful, fleeting instants of potential—”revolutionary-instants”—that we recognize and celebrate mostly in their doing and living, and of course, mourn in their immediate passing (only then, sometimes, to also reify in their later study and consolidation).
And, when I make feminist queer media praxis with others today (like this issue here and this writing in this issue), just as was true in the recent past, my work continues to feel incredibly small, local, marginal, frustrating, incidental and sometimes or even often emancipatory in the instants that are the instances of its more radical, collective, visionary doing and making. Brown continues about times better for feminist revolution:
When poetry becomes political, when politics becomes erotic, when thinking is de-commodified and comes to feel as essential to life as food and shelter, not only do ordinary fields of activity become libidinally charged, but this desublimated condition itself betokens (however illusorily) an emancipated world to come.
I know that there have been moments, and actions, and movements in the past where that feeling of revolution feels closer to hand and body than it can today with both technology and capitalism standing between us and nearly everything that we might want or imagine. But instances of essential, libidinal emancipation can be lived, felt, and practiced in our (digital) world structured as it is ever more deeply by capital, in the sparks of political and intellectual attraction, action, and energy we can read (about) here, in instants of ethical interaction that first built what you read here, and in your potential to produce ethical interactions through your own digital engagement with this material. A revolution; not in the least! But queer feminist media praxis that marks that there are alternatives through our collective, principled making, without doubt.
See what I’m talking about here: essays by Aristea Fotopoulou, Kate O’Riordan, Tully Barnett, Megan Bigelow, Dayna McLeod, Jasmine Rault, T.L. Cowan, Karin Hansson, Rachel Alpha, Johnston Hurst, Olu Jenzen, Irmi Karl, Susana Loza, Lusike Lynete Mukhongo, Darnell Moore, Monica J. Casper, Michelle Moravec, Lindsey O’Connor, Noopur Raval, Roxanne Samer, Jenny Sundén, and Joanna Zylinska.
May 28, 2014
This spring was my first attempt to helm the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry’s Speaker’s Series. This year’s theme was Technology. The Center also runs a seminar connected to the series, so each week, a small group of student-fellows also got the chance to engage intimately with the Center’s renowned visitors.
Without question, this was one of the most profound learning experiences I have had as a professor, but not simply because of the challenging, diverse, exciting and even controversial (see above) talks given each week by our esteemed visitors. Rather, it was my unparalleled and inspiring opportunity, each and every week for a semester, to watch another venerated professor and professional engage with undergraduates in a seminar space and our broader Claremont community over meals, through a more formal presentation, and in the liberal arts classroom. Each speaker embodied his or her authority, expertise, and role as a teacher from an entirely different angle, just as each came to us thinking about and working with technology through entirely different disciplines, devices, and orientations.
When I taught a portion of the class at the nearby Men’s Prison, Norco, with four of the seminar fellows and several of our speakers taking on this extra commitment, we all learned in profound ways how it is teaching itself that may very well be the technology most necessary, staying, and empowering from the many we considered over the semester. The resulting final project, a zine authored by my students at Pitzer and those at Norco, considered the profound relevance of the theories and histories of technology that we so carefully studied in our cozy classroom and stately lecture halls to humans denied access to most modern technologies as a core technology of their punishment. We learned again and again that teaching and learning can occur without the digital, or even pencils.
In fact, wrapping up what I learned about technology and pedagogy, because of the high-level of preparation and engagement of my seminar students, I learned a great deal from them; they each engaged in inspiring and diverse research projects, from living without a laptop, to theorizing the essence of a video game, to the role of cameras in live experiences like concerts, as presented in the video here:
Next year’s theme will be Virus, and I look forward to another transformative set of experiences during the 2014-2015 school year.
Please see my conversation with Ted Kerr, Programs Manager at Visual AIDS, recently published at Cineaste. Initially asked to discuss Dallas Buyer’s Club we felt we needed to take a lengthier look at the much broader phenomenon of retrospective looking at AIDS fueled by home movie images of the crisis, often shot by AIDS video activists like myself. In the piece we suggest that “the past, signified by the home movies of AIDS, in particular, has many cultural functions, and just as many cultural formations. We begin with Matthew McConaughey’s butt (where else!), and use it as our entry into a lengthy discussion of Dallas Buyers Club, as well as nearly a score of past and present alternative AIDS videos that also broker in activist made home-movie-like images of a crisis past—Like a Prayer (DIVA TV, 1989), Keep Your Laws Off My Body (Catherine Saalfield, Zoe Leonard, 1990), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992), Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Silverlake Life (Peter Friedman, Tom Joslin, 1993), Video Remains (Alexandra Juhasz, 2005), Sex Positive (Daryl Wein, 2008), How to Survive a Plague (2012), Heart Breaks Open (William Maria Rain, 2011), Liberaceón (Chris Vargas, 2011), Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto, 2011), We Were Here (David Weissman, 2011), When Did you Figure Out You had AIDS (Vincent Chevalier, 2011), United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012), Untitled (Jim Hodges, Carlos Marques da Cruz, Encke King, 2012), Bumming Cigarettes (Tiona McClodden, 2012), he said (Irwin Swirnoff, 2013), and the poster campaign Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Vincent Chevalier with Ian Bradley-Perrin, 2013). With Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013), we return our conversation to more conventional fare before concluding our thoughts upon so many home video returns.”
“Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” (2013), a poster designed for posterVIRUS by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin
April 23, 2014
I highly recommend the new ADA, Publishing and Its Discontents. I haven’t read it all, but greatly enjoyed the piece on “Feminist Journal Editing,” by Lisa McLaughlin, longtime editor of Feminist Media Studies. She carefully and honestly talks through the joys, disturbances and contradictions of both working for Taylor & Francis and the field she loves.
Speaking of content, participation and peer review, I’m co-editing ADA 5, “Queer Feminist Media Praxis,” with Kate O’Riordan and Aristea Fotopoulou, and our open peer-review is now open. That means you can join the collective and review one of the amazing articles we’ve gathered for this effort, articles of great range from “Love in the Time of Racism,” to “Unghosting Apparitional Lesbian History.”
If you’re not a member of Fembot Collective, the first step is to join. Email me, and I can nominate you. Once you’re a member you can join the effort. Of course, part of our feminist praxis is community, connection, mentorship, engagement, and dialogue, so I hope that will entice you.