Visual AIDS: What will be the benefits of Queer Archive Activism? (Specifically I am hoping you can comment on the benefits for those who made video and film art in early response to HIV/AIDS, and those who are recontexualizing it now. And of course, generally what are the benefits.)

The benefits to our nostalgic return are threefold:

1)  it fosters our own public and interactive remembering, “healing” (although this is not something I am seeking, personally: I don’t really want to heal, I’d rather stay angry or at least contemplative), and interaction.

Read the rest of the second part of this two-part interview on Visual AIDS.

“How can we understand this moment of ‘AIDS Crisis Revisitation’, exemplified by the success of films like United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague. Video artist, activist, and academic Alexandra Juhasz provides some insight.

Making and thinking about AIDS activist video since the mid 80’s, Juhasz coined the term “Queer Archive Activism”. In this first of two blog post Visual AIDS interviews her about her term and in the next post we flesh how Queer Archive Activism works in the world. Visit Alexandra Juhasz’s website.

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Visual AIDS: Can you tell me about your phrase Queer Archive Activism? What does it mean? Where did it come from?

see my answers on Visual AIDS’ website!

Please do pass the word, as reported on Palms Springs Life:

“Although the day is titled, A Day With(out) Art, the opposite will be true Saturday (Dec. 1) at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

The museum will present a series of art forms to coincide with the World Health Organization’s World AIDS Day, which began in 1989. Admission is free.

Robert Atkins, co-founder of Visual AIDS, which created A Day With(out) Art 24 years ago as a day to use art to raise awareness and honors those who have died of AIDS, will lecture on In Mourning and In Rage as part of the day’s theme: – In Memoriam: Loss, Identity and History in the Age of AIDS.

There will also be a screening of the film, Video Remains, a documentary by filmmaker Alexandra Juhasz to honor her best friend in his final days, and a panel discussion about memory and loss.”

The schedule of events is here.

The documentary film, Video Remains, will be shown followed by a Q&A with director Alexander Juhasz.

Alex and Michael, at Rudy’s Barbershop, Silverlake, still from Video Remains.

Let’s say, to be evasive (the first evasions of many; an approach that is definitive of the sensitive territory I trod), that I returned agitated from seeing Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat. As I tried to explain afterwards to my partner who had not seen the film, and who was a bit mystified about my spectatorial excesses, this was for four entirely entangled reasons:

  • my father, coincidentally, is currently in Budapest, where he’s been for over a month, trying to make sense of my family’s last apartment-full of European-things-that-remain (portraits, tens of thousands of books, chatchkas), engendering conversations between my own next-generation about what we want, what we remember, who we knew, what we’ve lost as Jews (and non-Jews and un-Jews) who survived and mostly left Europe, but in our case to the United States of America not to Israel (for reasons that bare their own secrets and lies, yes?)
  • the generational story Goldfinger tells (he labels it of three generations), exactly lines up to my own family’s: Gen 1. recently deceased grandparents who survived and went silent; Gen 2: their children (our parents), who also survived (as children) and were told and thereby asked nothing (but saw lots), who were told nothing because nobody knew nothing, who wanted and want to know nothing because there was nothing to know, and everyone knew that, and had no feelings about this not-knowing given that there was nothing to know and it was better to forget; Gen 3. (my generation, somewhere around 50, now parents ourselves) who want to know everything and with feeling.
  • the “mystery” he reveals at the sordid heart of his grandparents’ story points to the many secrets that all families scarred by this (and any) war carry (on both sides), secrets that get revealed even though no one knows or remembers or cares about them (except for my insatiable generation: ever seeking, asking, hunting, violating those before us) through symptoms, tics, photographs, lies, and erasures, that is until we come along behind: bumbling, pushing, and asking.
  • the bumbling, naive, self-reflexive documentary style Goldfinger takes up, to enact the role and work of gentle but needy and seeking third-generation (who already know much more then we pretend to not know; my Lord, at his point, troves of books and documentaries abound!) is at once offensive to much that I think about the ethics of documentary (in that it puts the second and third generation continually on trial; most painfully evident during the scenes between Goldfinger and his mother) while also being the role I take up in my own family.

How could I not? We are destined to play out our knowing and needing positions as we move farther in time, place and generation from the trauma of war and genocide, and as those protected by the secrets no longer are in need of protection. But even as much as our performance of self and family is painfully pre-constituted, questions remain for me: can we consider our method; and what are the ethics of our seeking, as well as our forgetting? What does it mean for us to use our own family to tell stories that others might need to hear?

As a scholar and maker of feminist documentary, The Flat made me so upset because Goldfinger’s family documentary drama is my own, and yet I would like to believe that I have cast my family members in roles somewhat more protected. As was true in Shoah, S-21, and so many documentaries that follow, asking participants in any genocide (on both or all sides) to live out their culpability, or to learn of their weaknesses and blindspots, in front of a camera, and for a trusted documentarian, may serve well for the learning and healing that audiences need, but what of the subject(s) under view?

I have worked with many members of my family—as does a generation or more of autoethnographers—to help me reveal personal experiences that may help us to know larger social struggles and secrets. Here’s my Mom and sister on generational hope (an outtake from my documentary Scale):

And my Dad in conversation with me about “private conversations” for part of a larger show I co-curated about YouTube and community :

The Flat is so intense for me because I see less the painful strictures on my own skills, roles, and limits (as a third-generation Holocaust survivor, loving daughter or sister, or feminist documentarian), and more because I am faced to confront how the limits of (documentary) knowing itself prescribe us to invade in our will to love, learn, remember, and do better. For this reason, I end with Shu Lea Cheang’s amazing piece, Les Cles e (discussed by my father, above). In this documentary/(fiction)? we watch yet another inter-generational conversation, through the eyes of another seeking and trusted artist, but without the (structural) necessity of performing for others the truly painful learning of our own self- and inter-personal limits in the face of the profound and/or the profane.

I’m in Boulder Colorado, teaching a summer course on Feminist and Queer Documentary in their film program. My class on Tuesday—on Talking Heads Feminist Labor films—was nothing if not queer: but not in that gay way. Rather, it was stunning for me to re-teach films that are seminal in this history, films I’ve taught many times over the years, and to feel like the words, images, and very ideas being projected are suddenly so strange as to be utterly unfamiliar and therefore outside of comprehension.

In Barbara’ Kopple’s 1976 Academy Award winning, Harlan County USA, the working-class (poor) American laborers interviewed frequently call the corporations they work for “the capitalists,” but stranger yet “the enemy.”

In Julia Reichert (and James Klein and Miles Mogulescu’s) 1976 Academy Award nominated, Union Maids, the women laborers are not just eccentrically and unrecognizably in unions, they are union organizers, and weirder still, call themselves “socialists” and even “radicals.”

Now, as I’ve said, I’ve taught these films a million times, and in previous years the talk was all about documentary form: the pros and cons of talking heads. While these seventies staples still perform this role in film history and on my syllabus, I couldn’t but also queer the docs’ content: the wacky idea that laborers deserve decent working conditions and benefits, that all American citizens deserve education and health care, and that collective organizing is our only tactic to gain and insure these rights, given the structure of capitalism. The illuminating lesson of reteaching this class in 2012 (I first offered it as the very first class I taught in 1990) turns out to be that identity politics really have proven successful in our many visibility projects that have made the representation of women, and queers and people of color relatively innocuous to contemporary audienecs; yet, it seems, we left not just class, but an overt class critique, outside of these so-readily available pictures that I now teach as historical oddities in class.

Now, in Boulder (unlike at Pitzer), I am teaching in a State school to young people who are working—at movie theaters, bakeries, behind counters, and in stock rooms—while attending college. Certainly, all my students at Pitzer are not wealthy (many of them are the first in their families to attend college), but the culture of private liberal arts education insures that they don’t work while they are at school (they take loans, and sometimes, grants, and work in the summer).

So perhaps the film felt so queer because I was watching it with students who labor. But no: even these working students could not see themselves, could not identify, could not apply the strange terms and ideas of these not-so-distant sorta-even mainstream labor films to their own experience: organized, angry, articulate labor is really too queer for our times. And frankly, given the recent rush of this blog post, On Leaving Academia (for Google) by Associate Professor of Computer Science, Terran Lane amongst my hoity-toity professor friends (via Facebook), it seems that none of us can really see the corporation as the enemy anymore. While Professor Lane carefully, eloquently, and cogently spells out (in leftist terms) how the neoliberalization of academia has made the University of New Mexico an inhospitable place for him to work, he turns none of this critical gaze on the corporation to whither he flees.

Here, I find guidance from Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s brilliant writing in The Soul at Work. Berardi explains (among so many other things) how our work as intellectuals in this time of “Semiocapitalism” (where the mind, language and creativity become the primary tools for the production of value) has transformed away from an Enlightenment project that was necessarily ethical and political. Today, our work as members of the “cognitariat” “becomes a part of the autonomous process of capital” because it is now located on the Net and occurs every time we type.

Given this transformation, how do we insure that our work remains ethical and political? Is it really okay to “luv” or “friend” or labor for Google as all of my students so unselfconsciously, unapologetically, and even joyously seem to do? Aren’t corporations still the enemy? Is there a difference between knowledge work (“brain work”) and our “fragmented cognitive labor” (“chain work”)? Bifo and I insist: yes!

We can imagine and enact applications of our cognitive labor within environments and experiences that fall outside the corporate Internet (and here, on this web-page, I see that I must fail; but in the class, where I queer labor, ah, there, a moment where my soul is at work for and within the community of learners who puzzle over seeing labor together). Can Dr. Lane have similar experiences with his colleagues at Google? These answers do not seem easy, given the pull of the Internet and the pleasure we take in our work here. And, I don’t want to romanticize the University nor the “real” classroom. However, I will suggest that our most important work today, as the cognitatariat, is to find spaces outside of capital, as Occupy so daringly enacts, and to continue to name the enemy.

“Neoliberal policies are cutting back education and the public health system and is cancelling the right to a salary and a pension. The outcome will be impoverishment of large parts the population, a growing precarity of labor conditions (freelance, short-term contracts, periods of unemployment) and daily humiliation of workers….What is thrilling right now is the multiplicity of new connections and commitment. But what is even more exciting is finding ways that can set in motion the collective ‘exodus’ from the capitalist agony.” On #Occupy: Franco “Bifo” Berardi and Geert Lovink

Miss Representation (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2011) tells a critical and true story about the relations among mainstream media and women’s political and personal power. It follows in the footsteps of decades worth of disconcerting research about women in the media that takes any of four predictable tacks that most grimly have not seemed to have changed much in the many years that feminists have been doing such research:

  • positive images: there aren’t any, or at least there aren’t enough
  • media and violence: images contribute to a culture of (sexual) violence against women, and women’s violence against themselves (body image, mental health)
  • industry watch: a tiny and disproportionate fraction of the humans in the mainstream media and politics are women
  • media and sexuality: images contribute to a damaging, violent and early sexualization of women and girls

The documentary also takes up the tried and true form and method of such studies:

  • it is a victim story: first and foremost, that of the film’s director and narrator, who begins the film’s journey from her own personal need to heal from the abuses of the dominant media she felt as actress, woman, girl, and mother and the related abuses suffered upon her by violent men who learn how to engage with women through dominant media; and, a great deal of the testimony in the film is about the devastatingly true disempowerment suffered by females in our patriarchal society (most clearly marked by girls’ tears)
  • it is a pornotopia: montages of various abuses against women (body image, shaming, violence, objectification, sexualization) by the media are repeatedly and lengthily used as punctuation so that the viewer feels victimized by the film (hence doubling her victimhood), and ends up seeing more images of media violence in its 90 minutes than she might in days, weeks or months (depending upon how judicious she might be in her screen investments). This tactic has been most successfully used to scare and disgust women for decades through the industry of Killing Us Softly anti-pornography films by Jean Kilbourne.

The film’s demoralizing and abject findings, methods, and forms are not misrepresentations in the least; and they are an effective shock tactic in the face of post feminism, feminist complacency, and ongoing patriarchal misogyny and violence. However, as has long been the response to such feminist studies and documentaries, there is much that is missing here, which might already be self-evident given my ham-footed list above. Miss Representation misses:

  • the Internet: where women make and watch media of, for and about themselves in equal numbers to men
  • alternative media: where women make and watch images that are both critical of patriarchy and empowering to women
  • alternative reading practices: whereby women turn toxic representations into inspiring media
  • media activism: where women use the data and images presented in Miss Representation to advocate for and practice media empowerment through expanding access to production, distribution, funding, storytelling, and necessary infrastructures
  • pro-sex feminism: that considers how diverse and open sexual representations of women are empowering and includes lesbianism, queerness and other non-normative practices as part of the possible sexuality spectrum for women
  • the media in context: that attempts to understand the production and consumption of images as a powerful piece of meaning making that operates within a much more complex ideological, historical, social, cultural, and economic reality
  • women and feminism in context: that understands the oppression of women as part of larger ideological, cultural, historical, and economic dynamics
  • women and activism: that presents social justice organizing as an alternative to oppression

This post is late in the news cycle of this media event because I tried, unsuccessfully, to publish it as an Op Ed. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, an unfortunate scandal played out at Pitzer College, where I am a Professor of Media Studies. At a student senate meeting, a small group of students requested the establishment of the Caucasian Culture Club. After lengthy questioning from the senators, engendering insensitive justifications, the request was denied.

Overt racism within a liberal institution, however, is not the scandal I am considering here. Rather, it was this following revelation: the white clubbers were performing their offenses while playing a role at the behest of three students of color. They wanted footage about racial silences at the college for a mockumentary they were making for a documentary class offered by my department.

Two weeks of difficult intellectual and ethical conversations ensued on the student list serve, in town hall meetings, and in our campus media: does the greater good of revealing what might otherwise be unspoken justify the pain of those who are misled along the way? Do various traditions like documentary, ethnography or even the news, have different standards regarding the treatment of human subjects? Do the time-honored institutions of artistic license and academic freedom protect students from other shared responsibilities?

Within our small campus community, we learned a great deal from talking together about these hard questions, ones not isolated to this incident. For our culture is littered with forms that mix truth and fiction, reality and entertainment, documentary and storytelling. Fake or entertainment news like “The Colbert Show” or “E Entertainment News,” fake documentaries and fact-based fictions like The Devil Inside or Cloverfield, and all of bogus “reality TV” are ubiquitous within and perhaps even definitive of our media moment. I believe that the larger culture could learn from the kinds of conversations we had about these issues on our campus.

In F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, I suggest that for talented artists, mocking forms known for their sobriety allows for harder conversations about truth, identity, or history. Meanwhile, in my more recent book Learning from YouTube, I express the less optimistic opinion that the faking of facts, authenticity, and expertise have become an accepted and even normative mode across our culture: for both every day YouTubers and much of the dominant media they emulate.

However, while most of these forms remain entertaining and pleasurable—instilling the satisfaction of insider-knowledge and the comedic reach of parody—we are also beginning to encounter instances where an ever-more uncertain or shifting blend between fact and fiction is causing pain.

For instance, the intense scrutiny by an international Internet audience on the factual ups and downs of the “Kony 2012” video may have contributed to the emotional breakdown of its director, Jason Russell, even as so many African vbloggers righteously attest to their own anguish caused by seeing the over-simplification of their continent’s political turmoil in the name of activating media-weary youth. In this case as well, its authors believed that a greater social good—produced by powerful story-telling forms and their associated feelings—gives them license to play somewhat loose with facts.

But in such confounding situations about the role and ethics of fact-based media, are we best served by only attending to the suffering of those who are misled, or by also asking larger questions about a culture of misleading and its new forms and old institutions? In the case of a retraction that ran on Friday, March 18 on “This American Life,” the players are as sacrosanct as National Public Radio, the New York Times, and Apple. Here, the discomfiting admixture of art and journalism occurred in “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an excerpt of the acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey that ran on This American Life.

In “Retraction,” Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, thoughtfully and with some felt embarrassment and even seeming grief revealed that “the most powerful and memorable moments of the story all seem to be fabricated.” And so this story, too, inevitably played out in relation to the private pain of Ira Glass, and his listeners: “we are going to talk to Mike Daisey about why he lied to all of you, and to me, off the air, during the fact-checking process.” However, by playing the pain card, this story of real wrongdoing is only understood at the personal, and not formal, institutional or political, levels.

Certainly, deceiving a national radio audience, and its producers, about worker abuse in China is itself a violation worthy of attention. But the nature of this violation becomes less clear when that national audience is listening to “This American Life,” itself one of the range of contemporary media practices that structure reality like fiction so as to move, entertain, and inform audiences. Daisey explains, “Everything I have done is bent towards that end, to make people care.” He admits that he lied in pursuit of telling what he thought to be a greater artistic truth, but he continually insists, to an ever more aggrieved Glass, that he did so as a theater artist and not a journalist, and his mistake was putting his work into a new context.

In response, however, Glass doesn’t take the more transparent road: acknowledging that this context-confusion is partly of his own making. For certainly, genre-bending shows like This American Life influence the shifting norms of storytelling. Their programs may be fact-checked like real journalists, but other norms of the profession are adapted to allow audiences to feel. But Glass avoids larger and more self-critical conversations about the pervasive use of fabrication, entertainment, and fiction within contemporary media, or his own show. Instead he chooses to at once verify the journalistic chops of This American Life and vilify the behavior of Daisey. He brings in reporters from “Planet Money” and The New York Times to humiliate Daisey into his own retraction, making Daisey the scapegoat for a cultural and institutional shift, or perhaps spread. Glass says to Daisey, “I have the normal world view. If you say something happened to me, then it did.”

Given these changing norms, however, in our contemporary media environment we need more than a normal view from our best journalists. We need critical frameworks to understand how Daisey, Glass, and mainstream institutions, like NPR, are honestly thinking about, using, and changing the uses of subjectivity, fiction, storytelling—and the real emotions they bring to bear—to allow audiences to know, and to care, in an ever more noisy, unfeeling, and uncertain world.


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