I gave a “talk” at the CUNY Grad Center: one of many attempts to document, process, and share this year-plus long project, a multi-temporal, many-sited, process-rich, collaborative investigation of learning, making and living in feminist social networks, no matter how messy.

website#ev-ent-anglement considers how or if affect flows within on/offline queer/feminist spaces because I am concerned that many of our current digital practices are not yet as grounded as we deserve. It believes that we can learn from doing, and that we can do better.

Feel free to read more (and cut/paste+bleed at will) on the ev-ent-anglement.

In this, my third blog post of the summer about what to make of and do with the radical evidentiary images by ordinary people that can sometimes go viral and thus contribute to activism against documented injustice (and also do other things), I will speak briefly about New Documents, a powerful and important show that I saw at the Bronx Documentary Center.

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While it continues to be my belief that “hoping footage goes viral” can only be one item in a much longer list of hopes, and their associated activities, when our goals are making changes to brutal, sanctioned, ongoing systemic conditions that produce and allow for atrocities and violence that might be documented by ordinary citizens and victims, what I will focus on here is how the show itself enacts some of these necessary next steps by rendering itself as a physical manifestation of what is also needed after documentation, after the sharing of said document (virally or otherwise), that is if change is the goal (and not virality in and of itself).

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New Documents is an impressive piece of activist curation that moves from 1904 to the present day, judiciously choosing about fifteen pieces of photo, video, and film, each an inspiring example of what we now call citizen journalism (citizen-made images from Aushwitz to Dealey Plaza, from Vietnam to Tompkins Square Park, Tunisia, Libya, the Pepper Spraying cop, and then finally, St. Paul, Minnesota.) The show is daring, brutal, and unsparing. It asks us to look carefully at images, like the most recent in the show, those shot by Diamond Reynolds of the Philando Castile murder, that in an earlier post in this series I said I was not yet ready to see (please do read a dialogue I am having with Kimberley Fain about our choice to look). First made in photographs and later in film and video, each document in this spare show is seen on a tiny screen, cut into a wall, and placed on one side of the gallery. This arrangement serves as a timeline, a set of windows, and as a procedure for close concentration and attention.

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Wall text below each document allows the activist orientation and analysis of the curators to be clear. If an atrocity is witnessed and documented, and if this documentation is seen, results will occur. Often very big ones.

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The role of documenting and in this way testifying to atrocity is a critical and certain one. Without this courageous artistic political act there is little evidence from which activists can establish the truth of their experience and move forward to fight for reckoning, justice and change. However, there is nothing like a one-to-one causality between documenting atrocity and making change in the conditions that cause and support state and other systemic violence and oppression against citizens. This shooting/result equation is not exact, immediate, or even really quantifiable for any number of reasons that tend to reflect the same systematic cruelty that supported the original violence including but not limited to who controls images, and their interpretation, circulation, availability, ownership, and the punishments associated to acts of witness and activism.

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My previous writing and thinking about witness video that is hosted and made viral on YouTube and other social networks, in particular about one of the first celebrated examples of viral witness video, the image of Neda Agha-Soltan being killed at a protest in Iran in 2009 (also shown in the New Documents show), cautioned that there are many systems that surround viral videos and function to complicate any easy or obvious or necessary move from virality to change. While video can and must testify to abuse and is integral to campaigns for justice, it is also necessary for activists to consider how any particular video is seen, used, supported and shared within complex contexts that can either undermine, challenge, or support the maintenance of the systematic cruelty that is documented. I’d like to name some of the systems and conditions that surround viral video again here:

  • the platform itself, i.e. YouTube or other corporate social media sites that hold, own and share (citizen-made) video
  • the ads and comments and other visible windows or screens that frame it on the site and/or on your screen
  • the interpretations of those who give words to the image, be they citizen or mainstream journalists, day to day social media users or the corporations that pose as users
  • the governments and other institutions that monitor, censor, support and/or punish image-makers
  • the regimes of viewing that organize how we watch short, fast, spreadable images; that is to say mostly as interchangeable, consumable, expendable, fast bits of entertainment or stimuli, what I have elsewhere called “video slogans
  • the fragile and/or inaccessible technologies that shoot, share, and save images
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A cracked and dislodged mobile phone in the New Documents show testifies to the fragility of the technologies that capture, hold and share viral video, and to the many ways that activists, denied full access to infrastructural support, must make do even so

And it is just here, looking at the cracked phone on display, where my praise of New Documents really begins. This room, in its place, the Bronx, NYC, with more surrounding wall text (on the other walls, see below), and the volunteer who believes in the Bronx, and photography, and the power of its people, is one such radical place for the watching, thinking about, and making use of witness images. This place is a context from which these images accrue deeper meaning and greater value, written as they are, not into a callous, corporate internet, or a ready-steady flow of social media, but rather, a well-thought-out history, analysis, community and purpose, a place where small screen evidence by ordinary people can meet more ordinary people who care enough to get there, learn more, and engage.

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In the Bronx Documentary Center I spent fifteen or more minutes (after viewing and photographing the show) speaking to the activist, artist, scholar, volunteer pictured below (I have lost the green pad where I wrote down your name, please email me at work if you see this and I will name you!)

IMG_2191We spoke about her radical education in Women’s Studies at UCLA, and her return to the Bronx to do her activist work within her community. We talked about the value of a radical art space within this burrough. How activists, artists, students, and passers-by use this space. We discussed some of my critiques of virality, and she told me about hard decisions the curators had made around this and other issues to mount this timely, necessary, and controversial show.

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Our time together, in this space, not any, with its analyses and histories and commitments loud and clear, not intruded upon by any corporation, or stream of shares or responses, made these New Documents newly visible to me and resulted in many things that I have attempted to quantify here. In my previous post, Tiny Screens/Power Scenes, I concluded:

I would suggest that a powerful way to view viral livefeed video of black death, and other images of violence, might be not on our small private screens but as if each viral video was art, as if it mattered that much, as if it deserved that level of privilege: to be viewed in groups, on large screens, from beginning, middle to end, and with context. That is to be seen within the rich world it records, and with the background, discussion, and analysis that artists and viewers can and do use media to initiate.

How lucky I am then, to see, learn from and engage with a more powerful way to view viral video of black death and other historical atrocities. And how lucky we all are that we have access to the internet, so that I can share this place, The Bronx Documentary Center (in such partial ways, I know), with others who can not get to NYC and can learn from and engage together even so.

 

 

I will be giving a brief presentation at the Visible Evidence documentary conference in Bozeman Montana on one of two workshops concerning the teaching of documentary.

Preparing for this, I realize: I don’t teach “Intro to Documentary” (Studies and/or Production), and never have in my twenty-five years of praxis-based collegiate instruction committed to making, historicizing and theorizing activist media practices with my students and related communities. Thus, I decided to use my invitation to contribute to the panel, and its field-centered conversation, to figure out where, in fact, I had and have located my teaching about feminist, queer, activist, AIDS and internet media. My title for the panel, written well in advance, had been “The Axis of Praxis.” This placed- and action-based metaphor still provides a reasonable framework in that the space I have been doing my work in, about, and for is indeed, not really documentary but rather, this place: a media place, a lived place, a practice place at the (always anticipated and endlessly unfulfilled) axis of community, commitment, making,  seeing and representation.

That is, the internet, and its wild collections, its multiple possibilities for media (what Helen De Michiel named as “a cutting loose from legacy 20th century production and distribution practices”), its linking and unlinking of networks of self and community, and its breezy possibilities for making and sharing. The internet: with its corporate ownership, neo-liberal paradigms of labor, self-production, promotion, and commodification. The internet: a place we don’t need to go to see.

In my presentation (my power point is here), I will discuss how my work has been situated not in documentary, per se, but rather: between film and media studies by way of documentary, and more particularly activist, community-based media; in DH by way of queer and feminist and anti-racist studies; and in critical internet studies by way of placed-based interrogations of the embodied experiences of communities of practitioners. This inter-disciplinarity helps me to better see this place. At Visible Evidence, thinking about documentary with theorists and practitioners in Montana (for now), I learned, face-to-face about the values of lived embodied space.

13920563_10154809601099316_8166273746383273395_oJanet Walker‘s opening keynote, “Mapping Documentary,” set the stage for my experience of a series of provocations about documentary, place, and digital technologies, including the internet, that she and her graduate students and fellow faculty members at UCSB have been developing and refining for many years (I have joined them here and elsewhere) and which I then heard across the conference from many others (just a few listed below). She understands documentary “as mapping in and of itself,” by way of geo-locative tools that combine with more traditional media and their linked practices (i.e. documentary) and material, daily, lived experience and knowledge of place. Her reading of how and why these representations move on and off media, including the internet, what she calls “a deep mapping,” is a practice at the axis of praxis.

I’ve also been attempting to do and theorize this kind of engaged, active, seeing, going and reading with my students and others, albeit often by first (creatively/politically) building or entering a digital place, that is always also a material place, that is to say that is one place—the world and its internet; this place—with all the particularities of the local and the global, the material and the digital making it impossible to pin down.

Helen De Michiel‘s presentation on a panel about contemporary participatory media practices, looked to her current documentary practice (on Lunch Love Community) that is “enmeshed in social lived encounters … folded into public settings” and that Patty Zimmerman went on to name as “small-scale media interventions that permeate in and through communities,” at once “digital, analogue, and embodied.” In this panel, Aggie Bazaz noted a set of documentary-linked practices where “films receded into the background of events,” that Reece Auguiste called “a way of being in the world,” that is collectively “for oneself and for others.” What matters most to me here is their descriptions of carefully navigated movements from lived embodied reality to digital/media representation as the most critical part of activist multimedia practices. This is done with care, attention, love, and self-awareness.

These placed based ideas of my colleagues, learned and shared as they were in a place, Montana, have led me to believe that I have not, indeed, been studying, teaching or making documentaries for these past many years as I have been trying rather, to use documentary, and a related series of linked tools, processes and methods, histories and theories, to build with others (often my students) a way of being, doing, and changing in the digital material world that is currently our home. From this, I realize that documentary, like the internet, is simply a set of technologies at hand; certainly one with rules, histories, best practices, theories, communities, and infinite possibilities (limited by many forces). But for me, it has always been the doing towards the living and being and changing that has mattered the most, and I thus am drawn to makers and theorists (in whatever fields) that try to understand this, as much as I am to the texts that inspire it.

Here are links to five such projects of my own, using documentary as practices and theories and histories, to be sure, but along with other tools and ways of being and knowing, that have pushed me to reconsider my place at the axis of praxis of documentary and other fields:

  • Learning from YouTube: my class and video-book on and about this site
  • Visual Research Methods: my class teaching grad students in the humanities about the legacies and affordances of critical digital making as a humanist and artistic mode of inquiry and writing
  • FemTechNet: a place for asynchronous, collective, distributed teaching about feminist views of technologies
  • Feminist Online Spaces: a project aimed at researching, teaching, talking about and otherwise building-towards online spaces that are defined by feminist and other progressive principles of community, visibility, discourse, and politics
  • Ev-ent-anglement an experiment in digital embodied collective feminist media praxis

 

 

Over its hundred-plus year history, cinema (and its offshoots television and video) has offered up uncountable contributions to civilization that are unimaginably beautiful, powerful, and profound and that are delivered in endless varieties.

And yet, adherents of medium specificity, like myself, suggest that these endlessly variable works of film, video and television have been built from only a small set of fundamental components. Moving image recording technologies package and deliver nothing more than light, sound, space and time. What artists do with these elements is the magic of these media. And sure, technology helps. Over the course of its short history, there have been abundant changes, improvements, and shifts within the tools that focus, record and deliver artists’ renderings of media’s core elements. Within the last ten or so years, developments within digital media technologies have allowed for substantial breaks from the possibilities previously available within media history, including but not limited to the expanded access to and ease of use of nearly professional grade tools for the recording, editing, saving and distribution of moving images. For little cost and effort, nearly everyone can now shoot, edit, save and share images that look and sound great. These new producers using newly available tools introduce, mix, and remediate new (and old) media content and forms, only the most recent of which is socially mediated livefeed video. This new format has caught and demands our attention given that its viral uses have been closely connected to current conversations about and witnessing of violence, justice, and race in America and around the world.

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In recent writing, I tried to understand some of the implications of seeing and sharing livefeed video of black death. This proved to be a rumination about the ethics and responsibilities—associated with media records of cruelty and punishment—as video and its viewers encounter refigured relations to recorded time. But the capacity to record, save, see and share (real) time must, by definition, be met with alterations in configurations and understandings of space. To continue to better see and understand how technological developments in temporal and spatial recording are met with social, artistic and political ones, I will briefly consider—alongside livefeed viral video—a related technological adaptation and the associated practices of looking encountered therein: how we now seem to be looking at both ever more-tiny and over-sized screens.

Looking more closely, I can’t help but notice what seems to be an uncanny correlative between the growing number of capable producers and the shrinking size of the screens that carry their videos. Moving viral images seen on tiny screens like phones, watches, or even windows within a larger screen, certainly suffer in regards to viewers’ focus, clarity, and attention—even as they enjoy access to larger audiences. Cinephiles (and others) then suffer the quickly compounding loss of norms and systems for viewing cinema as it is “supposed” to be done: in large formats projected into dark rooms with quality sound systems peopled by others and enjoyed from beginning to end without interruption. Today, most people watch moving images attending to none of these norms: on increasingly pint-sized screens, alone in any possible place, at their own speed, direction and duration, surrounded by other images and distractions and sounds. Of course, we can and do turn to the linked and increasing possibilities for nostalgic viewing—like Tarantino‘s commitment to 70mm or the growing subculture of pop-up, outdoor, or micro-cinemas—or to technologies, practices, and institutions that are dedicated to a kind of reverse-viewing, one that delivers larger and larger images in more specialized and costly formats and venues to smaller and more refined audiences.

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To better see the connections between increasingly small and large screens, I will look briefly at one iteration of such blending practices: namely the projection of artist-produced, museum-located, large, multi-screen videos made entirely from once tiny-screen offerings. At the International Center of Photography‘s inaugural Public, Private, Secret show, four artists’ videos (by Natalie Bookchin, Jon Rafman, Martine Syms, Doug Rickard), made entirely from everyday users’ YouTube videos, are the highlight of (or at least entry to) the museum’s first show in its new location. While all of these featured artists’ efforts participate in making (more) public everyday video that itself made public the private experiences of everyday people, what seems as noteworthy to me is the effects and implications of making and showing large images from videos that had been made to be seen small.

A movement from piddling to grand helps to bring into focus what any serious student of media history understands already, and what the four featured artists are often highlighting in their similar but diverse offerings: viewing practices are never merely technological; rather they are historically, institutionally and culturally determined. By making small videos big, we can see more clearly what goes undetected in the common sense viewing practices of viral video. Another way to put this is: what don’t or can’t we see in our current viewing practices of the ever-present videos and views of social media?

First off, given that these four works were created by artists’ selection (in both senses of the word: all of the featured video artists chose their constituative materials entirely from the YouTube videos of unnamed others, and they, in turn, were selected for this show by its curators, Charlotte Cotton, Marina Chao, and Pauline Vermare), the museum’s and art world’s institutional privilege and sanction brings with it multiple and improved technologies different from those typically associated with viral video. We find that the largeness of the screen is linked to any number of related escalations: of stature (for the presenting artists), of viewing platform and spaces (from YouTube-at-home to the spare but sacious screening rooms of the museum), of machines necessary for display, projection and sound (from consumer to professional grade). But perhaps most critically, these augmentations carry with them social and sociological advancement as well.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/100324610″>Mainsqueeze, 2014</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/jonrafman”>jonrafman</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Artist-made video of YouTube video can’t help but show the everyday scenes, things, and preoccupations of regular people (as was also true of the amazing trove of Americana, the home movie). Given the demographics of our culture, the vast majority of what we see on YouTube (outside of the corporate video that makes up something like 50% of what we see there, give or take) is made by and shows the worlds of poor, working- and middle-class people. Americans’ class is registered on their YouTube videos in any number of ways, including but not limited to what is made visible of their living spaces, social spaces, and associated possessions, their use of spoken and written English, how they carry, use, and inhabit their bodies, and the cultural, political, and social issues that their videomaking considers. Given the demographics of America, the viewers of said videos are also most likely to come from the 99%’s poor, working-class and middle-classes and homes (albeit with all the variations of region, race, gender, sexuality, and ideology that is writ large across our class spectrum.)

However, at the big screens of America’s museums, art galleries, art fairs, and auction houses that increasingly show video in jumps that seem to match its broader social appeal, one finds oneself in the discomfiting position of watching people made video but not doing so with the peeps (who are undeniably watching loads of video on small screens at home, on the bus, at the library, in their bedrooms, in parking lots; actually, in all the places one sees in these videos). Letting my viewing of the ICP YouTube art videos serve as a barometer, the large videos of small videos were seen by attentive, serious, white-haired white-women (myself included), as well as one Jewish young man (who left quickly, I read his Yarmulke as a register of his religious affiliation), and one brown skinned and also middle-aged woman. This small and attentive audience (who each paid $14 for admission, $12 for seniors; you can not get in for free) all, surprisingly, sat through the four approximately ten-minute videos, interacted socially with each other throughout, and in general viewed these images through the norms associated with (high) art. Videos that would have otherwise be seen (or not, see my work on NicheTube) as expendable, forgettable, interchangeable, if also funny, excessive, spectacular or demonstrative—that is small—enjoyed big viewing privilege: that is to say they were afforded the advantage of duration, attention to form and content, and some significant possibility for context, although of course, this had been largely provided by the secondary (or primary?) artists through their skilled overlay of music, through their selection and then editing of videos, through their connection to the other artists’ works on display in the carefully curated space of an art show.

Now some would argue that with viral video many of these covet-worthy assets of the big are afforded not by their size of screens but by the number of viewers and viewings they spawn. There is certainly something to this argument, although I have been quick to note that with scale and spreadability comes a necessary simplification of argument and a loosening of context and value. But here I am working hard to keep attentive to how the size of images (i.e. one of the technology’s current preoccupation in regards to newly possible renderings of space) is related to viewing practices that are themselves always imbricated in culture, history, and therefore, power. For as I’ve been arguing throughout, big videos demand not just space but also time. Shockingly for me, sitting through the many clips from YouTube videos that made up the artists’ videos, itself seemed sort of nostalgic in this moment, defined as it is by Vine videos, tweets (with videos) and Snap chats: each of these current social media forms, and formats demanding an ever greater waning of video’s hold on time. And just look! Livefeed video seems to extend that out into duration and the spatial and temporal context associated with the entitlements of the long durée.

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Speedy internet criticism (including my own) is rife with writing that celebrates the slow and bemoans the loss of persistence. While this blog post certainly does that too, I am more interested in trying to see and name the uses and stakes for new technologies for looking, like livefeed video, as they are being introduced, and perhaps before their norms of use are calcified (and commodified). Given that goal, I would suggest that a powerful way to view viral livefeed video of black death, and other images of violence, might be not on our small private screens but as if each viral video was art, as if it mattered that much, as if it deserved that level of privilege: to be viewed in groups, on large screens, from beginning, middle to end, and with context. That is to be seen within the rich world it records, and with the background, discussion, and analysis that artists and viewers can and do use media to initiate.

 

 

I recently received an unexpected but timely invitation (from editor Catherine Halley) to write an article for JSTOR Daily.  Her email request arrived when indeed I had something pressing I wanted to say. I was not sure I could say it, or that the time was right, or what the ramifications of my writing it would be, but I did very much want to think critically (and in public) about why I wasn’t watching the viral live feed videos of black death that began circulating and multiplying last week.

With Halley’s close help, and that of many friends and colleagues, that article was published today: How Do I (Not) Look: Live Feed Video and Viral Black Death. My writing, and thinking, occurred in conversation, actual and in my head, with a great many friends and scholars who I’d like to point to here, in no particular order and most likely forgetting some, less for reasons of intellectual property and more to name that my/our understanding of momentous social, technological, personal mayhem and change occurs in communities of care and practice and thought: Natalie Bookchin, Gabrielle Foreman, Robert Reid-Pharr, Cheryl Dunye, Kemi Ilenanmi, Alisa Lebow, Jenny Terry, Roopali Mukherjee, Marta Zarzycka, Jen Malkowski, Lisa Cartwright, Marita Sturken, Nick Mirzoeff, Patty Zimmermann, Sam Gregory,  Deirdre Boyle, Safiya Noble, LaCharles Ward, Ellen Scott, bell hooks, Paola Bacchetta, Tina Campt,  Inderpal Grewal,  Caren Kaplan, Minoo Moallem, Susan Sontag, Henry Jenkins, Sherri Williams, Jodi Dean, Michael Gillespie, Stephen Winter, Theodore Kerr and Diamond Reynolds.

I write in honor of Reynold’s work and in the name of our shared witnessing of the death of Philando Castile and so many others.

I am sure my friends and colleagues above will not agree with all of my thoughts on this volatile and horrible matter, nor would I want them to, but I do hope they will understand how critical their voices (and long term work on issues of violence, visibility, video and racial injustice) have been for me during this time.

I started blogging here on August 21, 2007. At first, it was exhilarating and challenging. Blogging helped introduce me to a robust and complex life online. On May 29, 2012, now an old-hat, I blogged exhuberantly about the many affordances of that practice: Why Do I Blog? On (almost) 5 Years.

Today, nearly 9 years later, I blog again on a related  theme—why I don’t blog anymore. My last blog was almost a year ago! on the film Jason and Shirley, a serious piece of writing with a purpose and audience in mind. It went on to be re-blogged on Indiewire and then shared (on Facebook and Twitter) by its intended readership (fans [and critics] of Jason Holliday, Stephen Winter, Shirley Clarke, and queer black cinema). Like so many others in this moment of the Internet, I used this minor platform (WordPress) to efficiently move off it and onto other ones.

In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obviously completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright, control, and conformism. It feels as vibrant as a newly multiplexed cinema in the nineties showing endless reruns of Star Wars Episode 1. Was the internet shot by a sniper in Syria, a drone in Pakistan, or a tear gas grenade in Turkey? Is it in a hospital in Port Said with a bullet in its head? Did it commit suicide by jumping out the window of an Information Dominance Center? But there are no windows in this kind of structure. And there are no walls. The internet is not dead. It is undead and it’s everywhere. Hito Steryl

Thus, with deserved hesitancy, some humor, and I hope a little humbleness, I will attempt to briefly outline why I have absolutely no reason to blog this here in the world of myself and you, the undead (except that I will capture my thoughts, I suppose, perhaps for my own use later), and about how strange and silly, really, it feels to today be in this form and format that is everywhere and nowhere. These conditions, or lack-of-affordances, tell me a great deal about my own current (critical) Internet-practices (hello to self!):

  • This format is too long: in length/time to read, in length/time to write. In the past few years, the time-span and page-space of Internet activity has radically constricted.
  • I don’t have an audience (if I ever did). When I was an active blogger, as is true for all social media, a significant amount of my labor was not actually spent on writing but on reading and linking: building and nurturing my audience and connections. I never had a large readership, or a particularly active one, nor did I seek one. I was thoroughly pleased and fed by the loyal interlocutors who grew with me.
  • I don’t read blogs. There is too much writing on the Internet and I am overwhelmed. Where I used to cherish going to my blog-reader, almost daily, to get access to smart thinking by people I respect who were writing about things I cared about, I would rather die than read my blogroll. That (now unlooked at) list fills me with dread and sadness and shame. This is a matter of volume. I can’t comprehend all that is there that I might need to know. And I do read! I even read in long-form; but I need someone, anyone, to manage it for me, and yet here I am, alone (with you?)
  • I read and read and read and then, I don’t write. Given the deluge of writing on today’s Internet, my time and labor is devoted to volume management of others’ writing. I use Facebook for this (hypocritical, I know: but oddly, even as my “friends” grow, this corporate holding-bin feels just small-enough to breath). Many of my colleagues and peers use Twitter for this, which is probably just-right, but is simply too fast and constricted for me. I have drawn that personal limit, simply as a matter of tempo of compression. I can’t engage in that space without my blood-pressure rising unnaturally and in ways that feel unhealthy.
  • I don’t write because I don’t have time, what with so much to read, but also because I am humbled and overwhelmed by the cascade of well-thought, beautifully-penned, biting, scathing, intelligent, sensitive, personal, political, erudite, simple, short and long prose that envelopes me. Where I once felt authorized to contribute (by way of my training, my commitments, my engagements in my sub-fields of choice: activist media on the Internet, video, and film, especially around AIDS, queer and feminist issues, black queer expression, YouTube, anti-war and anti-Zionist activism), like my voice might be needed, I am now awash in a sea of as-prepared and as-able and ever-more-ready voices. Whatever more needs to be said?
  • There’s too much here, so I want to get off the Internet. I didn’t then. I do now. I’d rather talk about it. With a friend. In a room. With my students. At dinner. Hey, that doesn’t mean I actually do get off the Internet, or that I don’t know the affordances of my time and labor spent here, but I will prioritize not doing things here whenever possible even as this gets harder and harder to do.
  • Because here I’m nothing more than a consumer and a commodity, even when I write, and always when I read, click and share. I do not want to self-brand and never did. I do not want to make more connections; I feel too connected. I do not want to hear more of myself. I have become too present too myself online.
  • Instead, lately I’ve found myself working to make more monumental, more collaborative, more impossible mixed-reality things and better yet experiences where I can reside, feel, and enjoy locally and communally, online and off, even as, and in response to, the exhaustion that so many link to our current “digital tailspin.” I hope to make breakable, temporary, incomprehensible, untweetable, nonsearchable, daily and local and shared initiatives. Good luck with that. And anyways, this is a very weird desire. “Welcome to digital realism. the 99% have all become survival artists in our austerity networks … the content potlatch is over. You share — but who cares?” (Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz)
  • Yes, in our world where everyone is making, I reiterate, we all lack audiences. With so much cultural production, abundance and exhaustion produce our current climate where any invitation to engage with another’s work, online or off, leads to a quick set of ready, friendly, loving responses … articulating regrets: I’d love to but am just too busy (or exhausted) to attend.
  • This isolating digital busy-work and exhaustion, leads us into the strangest and most cynical and sorry spirals yet, where we crave easier interactions, faster connections, effortless interfaces. Quick hot links, breezy hashtags, dashing fleeting likes, these feel right and yet also utterly wrong. Obviously, reading, sharing, tweeting, and chatting (within corporate Firewalls) are forms of activity. And sure, I do them all the time. I blogged earlier: “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.” (To and From Facebook: Being Together in our World of War).
  • I don’t blog, she blogs, because I’m exhausted by what I would have to say in the face of what I have already said. I could endlessly link to myself and my friends but I’d rather making something new with you.

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After seeing Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2015) this weekend at Outfest, I am moved to respond here to Milestone Film & Video‘s recent and scathing critique of the film Jason and Shirley,” The Cruelty and Irresponsibility of Satire (re-printed on Indiewire on June 23 by Sydney Levine). In their take-down, the authors (who are distributors of many of Shirley Clarke’s films, and more critically the producers of “Project Shirley” an “ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person”) pillory Winter’s film for two main reasons: the “film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.” Here, I would like to express another reading of Jason and Shirley, a remarkable, complex and important film, while also addressing what I see as Milestone’s misplaced (if perhaps also sometimes true) ire and criticism. I also invite Milestone, and others who are devoted to Clarke’s work and legacy, to reconsider the important contribution this new film makes towards this worthy end.

Jack Waters as Jason Holliday in

Jack Waters as Jason Holliday in “Jason and Shirley” (Stephen Winters, 2015)

Before I commence, let me express that I am not only one of these supporters of Shirley Clarke, but also a fan and a scholar of Milestone’s and Winter’s work (and also that of Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters, who co-wrote and star in Jason and Shirley). Perhaps most critically, I am a fan and scholar of Portrait of Jason, as well as the cinematic traditions in which it sits (documentary film, women’s and feminist cinema, queer film, and black queer cinema). For example, I joyously and with great appreciation went to the West Coast Restoration Premiere of Portrait of Jason where evidence of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros’ invaluable work on Project Shirley was applauded by an audience of cineastes, most of whom I’d warrant knew little of the work of Clarke or her masterpiece, Jason, given that this serious study of power, documentary, identity, and cruelty was made by a woman and featured a black gay man. I commend and support Milestone’s project of unearthing and sharing materials for scholars, teachers, and fans of Clarke, and also acknowledge and salute their under-sung role as distributors of avant-garde, experimental, and independent cinema, including the work of female film directors, like Clarke and others whose voices and vision would otherwise fall outside the scope of accessible media culture.

Shirley Clarke

Shirley Clarke

At the same time, I am also a supporter of Stephen Winter‘s work. I first became familiar with his brilliant and irreverent artistry when I saw his important and also under-sung contribution to independent queer cinema, Chocolate Babies (1997). As myself a scholar and maker of AIDS media, and the producer of The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye 1996), the first African-American lesbian feature film, I knew about the glaring and damaging under-representation of black queer Americans, about the obstacles to entry for films about and from this perspective, and perhaps as critically, the haunting burden for most artists in such a terrain to make and share “positive images” of their under-represented community. I learned from and supported Chocolate Babies (and The Watermelon Woman, for that matter), because these feature films, made with almost no institutional support and certainly less cultural sanction, dared to imagine that the lived experience of black queer Americans was complex, riddled with contradiction, full of delight, pain, community, love and loss, and was thus the perfect subject for serious, artful, complex cinema. Just as was true for Portrait of Jason (made by one of America’s great women filmmakers who also refused to bow to the “positive image paradigm”) and for her brave and creative documentary subject, Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne).

From

From “Chocolate Babies” (Stephen Winter, 1997)

I mark the similarities between these film oeuvres and the careers of their makers and the needs of their audiences because this post speaks most centrally as an attempt for reconciliation across what has currently been created as “camps” by the Milestone team. In a cinematic landscape where a small number of us make, support, appreciate and need serious artistry that represents the “marginal” experiences of our society from a sophisticated, complex, and nuanced perspective, a landscape where such work is under-funded, under-seen, and under-valued, it serves none of us well to use our very limited cultural resources against, rather than in support of each other, even if, and perhaps because our work dares to imagine life on the outskirts of American society as itself complicated, multiple, and sometimes in internal debate about the very values of the oppressed, marginal, radical, political and creative people who co-populate it (see my earlier post “Against Gamification,” in that case about the pitting of the the black-lesbian artistic sub-culture against itself in the name of a funding “game”).

Stephen Winter

Stephen Winter

Shirley and Jason is a complicated, sometimes messy, meditation on what I just described: the circulation of power, honesty, cruelty, love, debate, and creativity that defines artistic community and radical culture. Shirley and Jason also marks, honors, and challenges the role that cinematic evidence (in this case documentary) plays in the psychic, political, and cultural lives of culturally marginalized people, which is to say that as women, people of color, and queers until quite recently we had little to no access to records of our past struggles, ideas, daily practices, or visions of artistry because much too little was made, and what was made was almost never saved. This is one of the prime subjects of The Watermelon Woman, where we had to fake an archive of images of what was once true (the lives of African American lesbians) so that the main character, Cheryl, could learn and grow from her hidden, absent, but true legacy.

Martha Page (me) and Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson) in a photo from the Fae Richars Archive, Zoe Leonard

Martha Page (me) and Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson) in a photo from the Fae Richards Archive (Zoe Leonard, 1995)

In his case, one might say that Winter was lucky, he had footage of Jason, an out black gay man, due to the perspicacity of Clarke and Holiday. Portrait of Jason is the first and continues to be one of the only films, in cinema’s history, to document as central the “struggles, ideas, daily practices and visions of artistry” of a black gay man. But anyone who loves this documentary as do I, as does Milestone film, and does Winter and his entire team, realizes that Portrait of Jason is nothing like a simple documentary record of anything. Using this film “footage” as a starting point for cultural recovery, community empowerment, or even the “truth” of African-American gay male experience or history pre-Stonewall is basically an impossibility given that, in my interpretation at least, a “truthful” rendering of any of these subjects was never the intent of this brilliant film or its equally brilliant filmmaker. Rather, Shirley Clarke intellectually and creatively wrangles with Jason for control over the power of cinema to save any of us: emotionally, historically, creatively. She asks us to consider whether documentary truth is possible, and she chooses Jason Holliday as her worthy interlocutor, subject, and collaborator, given how well he struggles at, and sometimes succeeds, at never giving her this “truth,” perhaps not his to give, and certainly not hers to take. In this way, not a salvage project, or even a portrait per se, I see Jason (and Jason) as the cinema’s finest study and criticism of the ethics, possibility, and veracity of documentary power as it is connected to its ongoing interest in “truth,” especially as embodied by disenfranchised subjects, doubly disempowered as they must be by the documentary project itself.

Jason Holliday in

Jason Holliday in “Portrait of Jason” (Shirley Clarke, 1967)

The film, radically for its time, and for documentary more generally, is made from the position that many of us share—we the usual documentary-subject: the weak, the woman, the other. As a rare, empowered, powerful woman behind her documentary camera and film (Clarke is one of a tiny handful of women who directed cinema before the movements for social justice of the late 60s and early 70s began a slow, but still unfulfilled sea-change), Clarke asks us to see (by hearing) the brutality, love, empathy, and control that organizes the documentary encounter. With clarity, bravery, calculation, and intelligence she plays the role of the one who needs to know and show and own another; with clarity, bravery, calculation and intelligence she leaves in her voice and other cinematic indications of her hand and her control. She is strong enough to show us the brutality of this desire to know, and save, through cinema (usually masked as it is as a project of sentimental salvation). Of course, she comes to this encounter both empowered by her brilliant mind, inestimable film chops, and also economic privilege, while also saddled by her gender and ethnicity in 1960s America. She controls the camera, the image, the editing, and the organizing vision of the encounter that follows. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she chooses as her collaborator an almost-equal (who is lower than a white, Jewish woman in the 1960s America? not many, but certainly a black gay man might be). But Jason Holliday is no dupe. No chump. No simple documentary subject. Like every subject of the documentary camera before him (we women, and queers, and people of color, we ethnics and natives; all we others) he has his wits, his self, and his performance to empower him and he is better at this then most in his position. He can and does dodge, dazzle, hide, reveal, provoke, wow, and fall apart, it seems, at will (although Clarke’s overt and thematic use of drugs and alcohol to phase him becomes part of the film’s dark current of abuse). For those of us who study and admire this work not solely as the rare depiction it is of black gay life, one artistic and powerful women’s drive and vision, avant-garde New York in the sixties, cross-racial and cross-gender interaction and community within bohemian counter-culture, but also as one of cinema’s outstanding studies of the power and cruelty of documentary cinema itself, I suggest Winter and his collaborative team weren’t so much “lucky” to have this as his sole piece of documentary evidence, as perhaps provoked, or perplexed, or maybe just aroused albeit in pain (Aaron Payne).

Jason Holliday

Jason Holliday

And here’s where Milestone’s critique should indeed simply become a celebration or at least a more serious consideration. Winter et. al., continue Clarke’s radical, seminal documentary project by “re-imagining” the shooting of her radical, experimental film from the point of view Jason. Not a documentary, never needing to stand up to documentary’s ethical or truth imperatives, their “re-imagination” of one of documentary cinema’s great studies of power and privilege does so from the vantage of Clarke’s strong, beautiful, imaginative contender who by definition had less power in the constituent and complex dynamic that ever unrolls between documentary filmmaker and subject. Given that no documentary subject, even one as mighty as Jason, can ultimately usurp the documentary-maker, who cuts the final film, who organizes its every frame, one place for the empowerment of the structurally disenfranchised is in fiction filmmaking. And here, Winter’s vision both soars and digs very low (as did the original Jason). In musical numbers and other dream sequences we are offered Jason’s interiority (always invisible to the documentary-maker, to our chagrin). Here Winter, and the magnificent, talented, sensitive Waters, playing Jason, show us Jason’s version and vision of the unleashing of brutal, if always loving and self-aware power (so much like Shirley’s) as we see his encounters with one of the white women for whom he whored, one of the white boys whom he loved, with his Mother who loved him, and his dealer who takes painful control of him. We see his unadulterated talent and crushingly unrealized desires. We see how race, sexuality, drugs, and self-loathing hamper Jason. We see the world from the position of the empowered, suffering, loving, living outsider.

 Jack Waters and Sarah Schulman star in the docudrama “Jason and Shirley,” directed by Stephen Winter. Illustration by Victor Melamed

Jack Waters “Jason and Shirley.” Illustration by Victor Melamed

Milestone condemns Winter for a “lack of integrity” in his depiction of Shirley Clarke, as well as a lack of “understanding of humanity, and love for cinema.” They call him out for not researching properly, not interviewing living participants of the original film shoot, not being kind to Shirley or her daughter Wendy (herself a brilliant and under-sung Los Angeles artist whose work plays a central role in the history of feminist, activist video; her amazing “Love Tapes” are a must-see for all interested in video art). I imagine these criticisms might all be true, especially if you knew and loved Shirley; especially if you are invested in finding, making, and sharing documentary evidence of Clarke’s career and life. Shirley and Jason is not particularly kind to Clarke (but I never thought the original was either, as I’ve indicated above). And it’s not so nice to Jason either. Neither films are a kindness project: “truth,” pain, power, love … sure.

However, I hope I have established that such criticisms are incidental to the mightier and divergent aims of Shirley and Jason: to unflinchingly account for the pain, beauty and power of being forced to take the role of the (documentary) victim regardless of ones beauty, strength, creativity or intellect. The “genuine” “inner truth” represented in this complex and masterful fiction film does not revolve around the accuracy of the “facts” of Shirley and Jason’s lives and works (although I do hope Winter will correct some of the inter-titles which Milestone has established as incorrect, most critically to my mind, that Clarke’s lover and collaborator Carl Lee died of AIDS not a heroine overdose). Instead Winter and his teams’ film should be appreciated for its subtle, painful, knowing and loving incantation of a state we all can identify with at times, the state of Jason.

Jack Water and Peewee Nyob, with Stephen Winters. Cast and crew of

Jack Water and Peewee Nyob, with Stephen Winters. Cast and crew of “Shirley and Jason”

I use my contribution to the debate to invite Heller, Doros, and all fans, friends, and lovers of Clarke (and experimental documentary) to receive this contemporary theatrical fiction film, Jason and Shirley, as a new and necessary contribution to a conversation about women’s artistic possibility, documentary ethics and power, and their relations to cinematic form and style, from the point of black gay men who are our allies. In their “pretending to know what happened,” Winter et. al. do create “their own ‘Shirley Clarke,’ ‘Carl Lee,’ and ‘Jason Holliday'” (as did the “real” Shirley, Carl and Jason so many years before!) as Milestone censures. But rather than seeing this as a disrespectful and dishonest creation, I ask viewers to attempt to understand the profound integrity of these new portraits and how they assist us in a worthy project allowed by the best of cinema: less one of facts and more one of feelings, less one of honesty and more one of the uses and abuses of honesty, in the name of art, that have both hindered and set free the Jason in us all.