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.

Last Thursday, I received a group email from two European professors of cinema—Dina Iordanova, Professor of Global Cinema and Creative Cultures, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and Eva Jørholt, Associate Professor of Film Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark—alerting me to the inauguration of their website PALESTINEDOCS: “a web resource on films chronicling the life of Palestinians in and outside the Middle East.”

After looking at their welcome page and the amazing set of documentaries and linked resources made available (as well as who was cc’ed on the email and the authors’ bios, as I did not know either of them personally), I began to think about their digital activity in light of my two recent posts on activism, media, and digital engagements in support of peace. While it was never my intention to say activism is not possible on the Internet, or Facebook more specifically, I was trying to better understand my own discomfort with the changing norms, practices and volume of digital actions, displayed by myself and my “friends,” who seem to be engaging in our “political” action (or action about politics) about the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict, primarily inside the hidden (and sometimes visible) boxes of corporate-owned digital spaces.

WOULD YOU HAVE SEX WITH AN ARAB? Yolande Zauberman (France 2011)

WOULD YOU HAVE SEX WITH AN ARAB? Yolande Zauberman (France 2011)

I think that Iordanova and Jørholt’s activity helps us to see where engagement on the Internet can be more productive than what I continue to see as proto-political activities we are mostly engaging in around this and other conflicts this volatile Summer: refining and sharing our own positions within complex Internet communities. (Tellingly, that’s how these two producers found me; I was a signatory on a public protest letter which they saw online and which led them to believe I would be interested in their project, as I proved to be). 

PALESTINEDOCS mobilizes the Internet’s not unique but heightened affordances of accessibility, transnationality, and instantaneousness (see their welcome remarks) in ways that seem very well suited for movements for peace. “We hope that it would be an advantage to make use of the ‘click through’ access that we provide to most films, as many are available for viewing directly on the Internet,” explained Iordanova to me in a later email. The project activates and is based in a winning set of media actions that begin with the building of this digital resource, and continue with further actions requested in their email (telling others about it, as I am doing here, online; and writing film commentary for the site to help others to better watch, understand, and teach these complicated and diverse films and the controversial and moving histories they document), all this potentially promoting even more actions (viewing documentaries on a laptop, screenings in groups, teaching, reading more, discussion online and off).

PALESTINEDOCS is a project by (and for) scholars (and students) of cinema, and documentary more specifically. “We wanted to DO something, and as film scholars – not doctors, diplomats or even filmmakers – we thought of the site as a means to make more people aware of what it means to be Palestinian,” explained Jørholt in a later email to me. Many documentary scholars, makers, and viewers (like myself) are interested in understanding (and mobilizing) documentary media’s function as activism (and often questioning whether it is activism…) Jorholt explains what moved her to make this site in light of such questions:

Media and social justice … that’s a vast and complex issue. A brief answer would be that films have the capacity to focus on human beings rather than abstract political disagreements and clear-cut warring camps. They may thus be able to sensitize public opinion – and help bring about social justice – in a much more powerful and nuanced way than news reports on mainstream mass media. Provided that the films are seen, of course …. which is where the site can make a difference. Hopefully …

 

"Welcome to Hebron," Terje Carlsson (Sweden 2007)

“Welcome to Hebron,” Terje Carlsson (Sweden 2007)

But I will end, where I often do, exhorting us to link our work in representation to (further) actions in the world (including the Internet and the world of media, to be sure). Yes, watch one of the films alone on your computer, but better yet, watch it in a group and talk about it after; share information about this site and other useful resources; write some analysis and share it with someone who may not agree; make your own documentary; go to a protest or teach-in and share your documentary or one of those here; build your own site holding the documentaries you think might add to a conversation supporting peace (for instance, I’d love to see a similar venture about Jewish voices in the diaspora committed to representing peace, for that’s something near and dear to my heart that I’ve seen too little of!)

 

 

Last week, I used my own changing Facebook experiences during the gruesome Israel/Gaza conflict to think about the often unattended-to subtleties of Internet echo chambers in light of family, identity, friendship and war. There’s been a great deal of interesting writing about these themes since, so I’m glad I’m part of that conversation.

But many of us have been trying to make sense of Facebook and politics for awhile now, so I wanted to point towards this great collection from the Institute of Network Culture, Unlike Us (which you can download for free and which I have relied on a lot in my own thinking), and also to this essay that I wrote that has just come out, “Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary,” for another really useful anthology surrounding issues of activism and networked expression, New Documentary Ecologies, eds. Nash, Hight and Summerhayes (Palgrave MacMillan).

In that essay, I also theorize about coming and going, staying, representing and being silent in networked environments (of machines and humans), espeically in relation to activist possibilities for representational politics in a world dominated by Facebook and other corporate-owned, user-produced media. I conclude:

While it has never been clear how to judge the effectiveness of any documentary, let alone ‘activist’ documentaries, I am noting that my (our?) barometer has changed. As Jane Gaines work on more traditional documentary forms (1999, p. 88) cautions, it was never clear that activist documentaries catalyzed ‘activism’ as much as they modeled a ‘political mimesis’: a vision of what activism looks and feels like. By both seeding realist representations and then seceding from representation, by being silent online (and even elsewhere) while at the same time speaking with our bodies, we can make the Activist Digital Documentaries that we might most need now. And this, it turns out, is the special domain of activist art, and documentaries, within the digital—to ‘body back’ as Gaines puts it—to model in documentary a new way of being in the digital/real world (what Beth Coleman, 2012, calls ‘x-reality’) in a linked and larger project of communally produced, carefully theorized, artfully communicated world-changing:

This call for a shared right to silence is thus made because it is silence that is needed to enable human voices to be heard again … One example of this kind of engagement—and one that shows how silence may be suggestive and how it may operate to produce convivial relations—are the communication tactics of some within the Occupy movement. Particularly the gestural commentaries those listening provide in supplement—rather than interrupt—those speaking. (C. Bassett, in Unlike Us)

The art of activist digital documentaries will be in the staying and using and the leaving, through the voices we have wanted and gained, and then through shared silences where things are heard and felt and said without being recorded. (Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary)

As things stay quiet for now in the Middle East, I hope we can use this period for more reflection, and continued conversation, both on and off Facebook, of course.

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Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary

 

 

 

This is a one-day participation event, bringing together teams of activists, artists and academics from Los Angeles and New York. The goal is to set a collective agenda for militant research practice in the year ahead.

Militant research is research carried out with social movements to think about social change. So it questions the nature, practice, formats and outcomes of research. We hope to merge ongoing and new projects into a collaborative, rolling project of mutual aid.

The global financial “crisis” is already five years old, perhaps permanent. In its name, all other issues must disappear. How can we visualize the crisis of the 99%, from personal debt to the climate, and recovery from disasters like Fukushima and Sandy? What still remains out of sight, whether concealed or overlooked?

Three workshops will set these questions into specific contexts. One will be co-ordinated by the group from Los Angeles and another by their counterparts in New York. The final session centers on organizing from the local to national and international levels.

The real agenda will be set by you. At this event we will all be there to learn from each other and to share ideas and insights. There is no “audience.”
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9.30 AM   Coffee

10.00-12.00 AM
Militant Research: Los Angeles/Southern California
A workshop led by Natalie Bookchin, Jack Halberstam, Alex Juhasz, Kara Keeling and Lisa Parks

12.00-1.00 PM   Lunch

1.00-3.00 PM
Militant Research: New York
A workshop led by Amin Husain, Yates McKee, Andrew Ross, Joan Saab, and Marita Sturken

3.00-3.30 PM   Break

3.30-5.00 PM
National and International Networks:
Organizing and Research Workshop led by Nicholas Mirzoeff and Marina Sitrin

5.00 PM   Reception

Crisis

February 8, 2013, New York University
Hemerdinger Hall, Silver Center, 24 Waverly Place
9:30 am – 5:30 pm

http://www.visualculturenow.org/

Radical Links

October 12, 2011

Here are some links to radical media actions:

  • feminist academic blogging: “The Three Things I Learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women,” by Kate Clancy
  • dispatches from  Occupy Wall Street by the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest
  • my sister, Antonia, interviewed by Real News TV Network on Afghanistan’s Energy Wars
  •  my own early-work on my new blog, FeministOnlineSpaces
  • my graduate student, Timothy Mallone’s video coverage of Occupy LA

Enjoy!

The second pod of my interview with Toby Miller for his CulturalStudies podcast was just cast. This one ended up being pretty personal: about my family of lefty intellectuals, like my sister, Antonia, who is in London with her new book, Black Tide, and several Gulf Coast residents, all attempting to attend and testify at the BP Annual Shareholder Meeting (last year, she and several others were arrested when they attempted to speak at the Chevron Annual Shareholder’s meeting).

One day later: things are heating up in London! A protester got arrested, my sister and others are all over the international press. Go sister, go!