The VHS Archives Working Group at the CUNY GC (2018-2019) is engaging in sustained conversations as we are tool-building a lightweight app that can sit on top of a small stack of digitized VHS tapes so as to attend thoughtfully and ethically to the buzzing interplay of feelings, intimate community, video, and tech in relation to tape. We think hard about the connections between the digital migration of tape—its saving or loss—and also, then, safety. Although we start with tape, we attend primarily to people and their things:

  • the needs for the privacy of public things.
  • the needs for publicity of things that have been forced into privacy.
  • the needs for the privacy of vulnerable people and communities as some of their things become public.
  • the needs for vulnerable people and communities to have access to representation, and its salvage, in ways that empower and do not endanger them.

Carol Leigh, “Safe Sex Slut” 1987.

We are committed to the safety and care of vulnerable people and their objects. For our group this has primarily meant queers and trans people/of color, women and feminists, people affected by HIV/AIDS, and those with non-hegemonic sexualities and its representation. Attending to our people, and their practices and things, raises concerns that we understand as ethical, conceptual, and technological. This is what our group calls “caring.sharing.” We insist you shouldn’t share (digital media) without care (of those whose it is and was and will be). Attending to the experiences and wants of people, in community, at every technological step, is an act of ethical obligation and its technological formatting.

We believe that frames for thinking about and taking action on caring.sharing should be written into all encounters (personal, technological, interfacial) when the already fragile materials of vulnerable others become available online, including:

  • the ethics of reuse: “Can we develop queer archival practices that engage subtle questions of power and access, the strangeness of the past, the tension between the individual and collective, and the changing historical contexts that have shaped viewership, authorship, and privacy? Can we somehow account for both the delights and the troubles that our digital technologies facilitate? In short: Can we enact community-engaged, ethically informed, queer approaches to the conundrums that lie at the center of our documentary and archival impulses? Maybe some stories shouldn’t be told in public. Maybe some archival materials should remain hard to find. Maybe it matters who tells which stories. And maybe just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” (Rachel Mattson, Queer Histories, Videotape, and the Ethics of Reuse)
  • nostalgia and intellectual feelings:  Things matter to those who own, save, made and share them. How do we make sure to honor “the feelings attached to desire and sexuality, whether in a peep show booth or a backyard in the shadows of East Los Angeles.” (Juan Fernández, Nostalgia and “Intellectual Feelings”)
  • working from unmade, lost, or hidden archives: Sometimes there isn’t a record to be found because people chose to remain unrecorded because documentation can bring in the state, the family, or other outside forces of potential discipline or punishment. “Is it possible to reintroduce the cultural work of our archival subjects when there aren’t many video materials available?” (Jaime Shearn Coan,” Crucial Circulations: VHS and Queer AIDS Archives“)
  • finding and working from material that is too personal, graphic or painful to be shared, or was never made for curious, potentially violent others.
  • finding and working from personal archives of loss: can we be technologically tender?
  • attending to accessibility: so that saved things can be used by all who need them.
  • context-building: how to understand, preserve, and honor where work came from while enriching our understanding of past times, places, and people. This is critical, because it insures that things (and their peoples) aren’t and can’t be ripped from their original home, place, people, use, and values.
  • staying small; resisting scale: at some point, the number of objects, tags, people, or connections can get too large for the community that salvaged things to insure and protect them.
  • rules of engagement: objects online should be engaged with using agreed upon rules written by the community that made/saved them: community-specific, community-produced, iterative, and adaptive.
  • preservation with purpose: communities should know why they are saving and for what and whom.
  • activation as safety: easy to lose things can gain a toe-hold in memory, history, and advocacy when they are saved and used. Once known, procedures for safety can be written onto them.
  • acknowledging communal knowledge and other types of ownership within and beyond the tech.

From Bebashi AIDS educational trigger tape, late 1980s. See more: “Stacked on Her Office Shelf: Stewardship and AIDS Archives,” Theodore Kerr and Alexandra Juhasz

At previous meetings, we have come up with some tactics we want to build into the use of our tool. Scale, time, presence, and collectivity are key.

1. We recommend using our tool in a group:

  • the tapes should be a project of a community.
  • playing with your stack should be embedded in the world somehow, and fun.
  • it should be used by people who understand, need, want the tapes, or a/the community, or the tech.
  • different types of users could bring and learn different skills to the stack: to set it up, to add videos, to comment/annotate videos, to curate, to show them, to learn and share skills from/with each other.

2. Our tool should ideally be used locally and in shared time (online or off):

  • there’s a materiality and embodiedness to working in-person, in real time

3. Caring.sharing happens best with and for and by a small group of people:

  • a known group, already known or getting known via tapey engagement.
  • with shared interests: already known or getting known via tapey engagement.
  • a groups with their own, known, self-developed, adaptable rules of engagement.
  • to be helped along, facilitated, by the tool, the tech, the instructions.

4. Ownership and access:

  • who holds the rights to the material?
  • do we respect the system that grants that? if not, what rights systems do we honor and why?

FOR OUR NEXT MEETING: TACTICS TO ENGAGE/OR WRITE INTO THE TECH:

  • write instructions and/or questions that move people through a set of issues with associated writing before they can touch the tool, or before each in a series of steps that follow one after the other in the tool
  • do this in short steps
  • allow users of the tool to answer, and thus to be “ethical” in any way they choose, but choose they must, first
  • create fields, pages, areas on the tool for users to fill in their answers (including none) to the concerns above; step by step, information would be built by the users to surround their now-digital always-vulnerable objects
  • step by step builders/users indicate their own degrees of comfort and concern, including none
  • create activities, engagements with the tool that build out user interaction and connection with others, with the material, with the material’s initial owners or makers and/or new users (what we call “party games’)
  • being alone with a tape found in a box is only a beginning of its/our care!

From “Compulsive Practice,” (Jean Carlomusto, Hugh Ryan, and Alexandra Juhasz, 2016)

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Shortly after November’s tumultuous election, I wrote an article for JStor Daily, “Four Hard Truths About Fake News.” It began with a preamble that actually had three more truths embedded and then quickly followed with four more: “the real internet is a fake, the fake news is very real, and thus Trump is indeed our rightful internet president.”

  1. Today’s internet is built on, with, and through an unruly sea of lies, deceptions, and distortions, as well as a few certainties, cables, and algorithms.
  2. This week’s viral-wonder—the crisis of “fake news” in the wake of the 2016 presidential election—is a logical and necessary outgrowth of the web’s sordid infrastructure, prurient daily pleasures, and neoliberal political economy.
  3. Today’s saccharine hand-wringing and the too-late fixes erupting from the mouthpieces for the corporate, media, and political interests responsible for this mess are as bogus as Lonelygirl15.
  4. Today’s media consumer cannot trust the internet, its news, or networks—fake or otherwise. Given the wretched state of today’s internet, skeptical, self-aware interaction with digital data is the critical foundation upon which democracy may be maintained.

Only 93 more to go to meet my vow …

I hereby pledge:

  • To disrupt the new President’s First 100 days by posting #100hardtruths-#fakenews with linked actions, analyses and organizations committed to digital media literacy.
  • In so doing, I will produce a 100 point digital primer to counter the purposeful confusion, lack of trust, and disorientation of the current administration’s relation to media, offering instead a steady, reasoned set of resources seeking clarity and justice.

Let me begin by here offering #100truths-fakenews #8: FAKE! by DOVEMAN + TOM KALIN + CRAIG PAULL, January 22, 2017, one of several video projects these activist-artists are making to counter the administration’s wile media moves.

Yes, producing 100 points by Day 100, April 29, 2017, seems a little daunting, but I will be counting on my reasoned, practiced, committed, talented colleagues, across the media spectrum, to ease the burden (just see above!). While this administration may seek to addle us with media misinformation, disruption, and lunacy, I put full trust in our clear-headed community of conscience. Please do share possible contributions—in the form of writings, links, images, or actions—to the #100truths-fakenews primer via email, comments on this blog, or on my twitter feed, where I’ll be building a paired-down version of the project @mediapraxisme. The full-version will build here over the next 70 days.

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This is my third conversation with Ted Kerr. We begin to consider what might be needed so that many inheritances of AIDS could be salvaged, shepherded, and mothered into a legacy of plenty. Read it CUNY’s  Center for Humanities newsletter.

Still from Grandma's Legacy, Bebashi, mid-1980s.

Still from Grandma’s Legacy, Bebashi, mid-1980s.

 

img_2411-2I’ll begin with a shout-out, a dream-out—not a review but a reverie—of Taylor Mac’s “A Twenty-Four Hour History of Popular Music,” an unforgettable opus, atheistic tent revival, and hootenanny that I was privileged enough to attend, for 24 hours, last weekend. So powerful: I dreamed about it again last night (nights later). I could try to give words to the trippy commitment of staying awake together with a room of 650 strangers as jaw-dropping costumes changed in front of us (by the hands of their designer Machine Dazzle, himself always in yet another exuberant, preposterous, marvelous outfit) …

img_2370-3… onto the beautiful almost-naked masculine-feminine body of Taylor Mac who all the while espoused radical analyses of American culture, personal theories of performance, and raunchy and proud depictions of his own political and sexual predelictions and sang so beautifully while his wonderously weird brigade of dandy minions danced among and for us, leading us here and there like hooligan pied-pipers, and the band played, and we were asked to engage together in ever more weird ways and I kept moving, from chair to floor, from snack to sleeping bag. Sometimes I’d talk with people nearby, other times dance or take a little shut-eye.

img_2389I’ll dream of it because that seems the best way to process an over-full body and mind experience—much better than writing. Dream of the experience, yes, and in that form try to encapsulate it and own it for myself as my mind turns off. But also there re-engage bodily in how art really can make action, and community, and ideas, and love for a day and even perhaps after, in all that lingers; and how these experiences, coming in the form of a “radical faerie realness ritual,” manifest the best of what this country, and its art and artists, can be.

img_2401Instead, I’ll use this place, my blog, one of mostly rational words, to name and ponder one of Mac’s big stated concerns of the night, and how it presses up against my own recent questions about what it means and how it feels to move marginal, or counter-cultural, or radical culture into the ever more normative spaces that graciously invite us there. Over the hours, Mac talked frequently, and at great length about the “cross-cultural translation” work his performances enact: connecting tony theater crowds to the outrageous, lusty, ethical politics and practices of America’s marginal activists (anti-abolitionists, Native Americans, radical faeries and lesbians, suffragettes, civil rights activists, burlesque dancers, gay male bath-house enthusiasts, etc). Mac explained frequently that we were in “mixed-company,” and what this meant for the audience and the show. That is, being in a room where some of the people (in the cast and crew and audience) were members of the counter-cultural communities and causes that the show celebrates, borrows from, appropriates, and learns from, but that many or most were probably not (given the cost of the ticket: $400!)

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Costume for hour 22, 1986-1996, the decade of AIDS. The shawl and sleeves are adorned with audio cassette tapes.

As the day progressed into night and then later yet, morning, it became increasingly clear to my addled brain that the seemingly straight and white and aged members of the audience were quite able to stay, see and listen to the wildly out-there things that the performance and Mac encompass, including but not limited to the penultimate hour (that is hour 23), that attended with great care to the causes, songs, politics, and wisdom of radical lesbians. Although I had shed a tear a few times over the 22 hours thus far (particularly in the hour for the decade that preceded this, the hour devoted to the ravages of AIDS), I was not prepared for how moved I would be to see this powerful-almost-shattered man, and his amazing brigade of talented artists, attend lovingly to the often-derided, rarely-attented-to (by outsiders that is), people, ideas, culture, pastimes, and wisdom of people like me. I was deeply moved that we were being attended to—in this vast and rather dominant space—with dignity and curiosity: there is something to learn from these strange people … I can’t say the audience went wild, we were tired and lesbian culture remains foreign and unpalatable to many (as indeed it is designed to do), but the audience listened and learned with a heart and mind opened by all that had preceded. And now I think this has to be more than 21 hours of Taylor Mac breaking us down, although that was amazing and intense. There is a larger cultural phenomenon counter-cultural inclusion at this time of which he is one important player.

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Costume for hour 23, 1986-1996: the decade of radical lesbians who put their own needs aside to care for gay men and others during the height of the AIDS crisis. The wings are vulvas.

Because I realized that night that something similar had happened to me only a few days before. Just the previous Monday in fact, when the film I produced, The Watermelon Woman, played at the MoMA, as part of its 20th anniversary remaster re-release. There, too, a different crowd from its original home in marginal queer of color culture, enjoyed, thought about, and learned from the film and our attending cast and crew. And by doing so, in many ways they were only acknowledging what we already knew and had always tried to promote: that the first black lesbian feature film (directed by Cheryl Dunye in 1996) was serious (and funny and charming) cinema about ideas of great import to all Americans—race, sexuality, memory, history, archives—just as was Mac’s.

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Kenrick Cato (actor), Alex Juhasz (producer and actor), Bill Coleman (sountrack), Burke Moody (executive producer), Paul Shapiro (original score), Annie Taylor (editor), Jaguar Mary (actor), Shar Olivier (actor), Marc Smolowitz (producer of re-master), Cheryl Dunye (writer, director, producer, actor).

And when I was on the stage that night, a little nervously looking into the crowd, seeing some recognizably queer or black or feminist faces but mostly not, I felt that everyone there (again, note the price of the ticket) was actually quite ready to attend to our tiny little micro expression of that same 90s feminist, lesbian of color wisdom, humor, style, and outsider mojo that Taylor Mac had also celebrated, and I wondered: why … and how?

tpAnd I watch Transparent with a similar haunting refrain: whatever can it mean that our most cherished, carefully tooled criticisms, and the words we have refined to better understand the cruelty and sick reason of our world, can now be available to many more than have lived and defined these positions from the counter-cultural margins? I want to be clear that in all three cases I am not talking about “selling out,” because that is not what this moment feels like from the inside. Rather, inhabiting these new bright rooms and viewing platforms with many others who are clearly unlike myself, the lifestyles, values, ways of living and knowing and loving that have been refined by many marginal cultures look to be becoming palatable expressions of the American experience for many more than I would ever have imagiend. And because this post has gone on too long, and because I haven’t figured it out at all, I’ll end by proffering two initial explanations for a seeming acceptance of radical queer culture in increasingly mainstream spaces:

  • one: we’ve been producing representations of and for ourselves that are continuing, expanding, and refining for now so many past several decades that people are getting used to us. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!
  • and, better yet: perhaps others, outsiders, the different and the dominant, are actually opening to hear us by necessity. For in these vile, racist, misogynist, cruel times, it seems ever more likely that we’ve actually been right all along.

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 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.