Committed media praxis is a doing as much as it is a knowing. Queerness is a manner of being as much as it is a politics, theory, or set of modish objects. Our labor in queer cinema studies might result in institutional anthologies, retrospectives, or canons, but for me it needs smaller, stranger sites, activities, and outcomes that honor how it’s done: its moods, weather, learning and loving.

Alex, Carolyn, Jazzy and Deborah at Union Square Park, as part of the event, “Dear J,” revisiting “Homosexuals: One Child’s Point of View,” featuring Jazzy and directed by her mother, Juanita Mohammed (1990)

In this talk, I introduce a multi-sited project (three websites: a graduate class, an in-process web app for vulnerable video, and a working group sponsored by the Center for the Humanities, at the CUNY Graduate Center) where I engage in inter-disciplinary, community-based, activist queer film scholarship: VHS Archives. In the talk, I will show some attempts to work with and use some of my own queer media archives, initially held on VHS tape. How I do and did this, often with others in and outside the academy, taking up many art forms and as well as adaptive platforms, and now making use of my own and other’s soon to be lost video fragments, is what I have longed called my committed media praxis. Theory adjacent and conversant, sexual and political proclivities in flux, responsive to communities and collaborators, primarily and definitively process-oriented and often production-based, my committed media praxis in queer media and its archives is about using media as one part of a beloved community’s efforts at doing our best at living queer feminist lives.

Please find here, my power point, script, and three screenshots of me reading (pretty poorly) from my computer: “My VHS Archives: confessions from the field of queer feminist media praxis,” for The Labour of Media (Studies): Activism, Education, and Industry Conference, held at Concordia University, November 17, 2018. Do take a look at the three sites linked above. There’s much to see and explore by colleagues, students, technologists, archivists, friends, and loved ones.

Snow kept me from physically attending.

 

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I went to a fine public high school in Boulder Colorado. 1000 students per grade, we were the class of 1982.

I was a good girl, a strong student, an over-achiever, a budding feminist. A girl who wanted a boyfriend, desperately. My friends were like me: college-bound AP-takers when these were few, fine athletes and empowered student leaders. I briefly had a boyfriend as driven as I. But mostly I was well-loved by my best girlfriends. I planned to fall in love and maybe have sex too, later, with a wonderful boy who I would meet in college where being smart (and Jewish) wouldn’t matter quite so much. Sex was not really a part of what I wanted, although affection and attention were. Luckily, I was cherished by a co-ed group of friends made up of our school’s best and brightest, all en route to Stanford, Brown, Swarthmore, and the like. I’d go to Amherst, the class of 1986. More on that soon.

We danced to DEVO, the B52s, the Clash, Elvis Costello, and Madness at parties we threw on our own. We wanted a way to be together that was different: more fun and more safe than what was the normal night of revelry in our small Western town. At our intimate parties, we saw and loved each other. Held at someone’s house, we drank beer pretty safely that we bought with fake IDs. Sometimes our parents bought it for us. We played quarters. One or two of the most devoted romantic couples, built from our tight friendship circle, chose together to have sex. But mostly, we drank, flirted, and danced. We were sweet and naive, experimenting with being older, carefully, oddly, together, in fits and starts. Or perhaps we were exactly what you’d expect: just young and hungry and full of want.

Every once and awhile we chose to go to the parties the “popular kids” threw (football players and cheerleaders, kids from wealthy homes). There kids drank way more beer, stood in sticky stinky hallways, acted dumb, got too drunk, and nobody knew what to say. I didn’t think any of this was attractive or even fun really, and I certainly was not attractive in this context given that I was smart. Once I did make out briefly with a boy from a rival school under the bleachers at a football game. I remember his name was Reggie and that he put his tongue in my mouth. I thought that was awful, but I did relish the adventure, the possibility, the fact of being chosen, and the taste of something new. Occasionally we decided to attend huge parties that were open to all the students, hundreds and hundreds of us. These were called “woodsies,” although they mostly took place in the plains outside of Boulder—just grass—we all had to drive there following some strange mimeographed map. At woodsies, in marauding clusters lit by car headlights, people drank unimaginable quantities of beer from kegs set up in the dark. At one, I ended up with an older boy, in a group where another one of my friends was similarly coupled. We all made out. It was dark and maybe we were around a fire. I was much more drunk than I’d ever been. I didn’t really like it; I didn’t even know the guy’s name. This was not what I wanted at all. I was a good girl and all of it felt scary: the drinking, the not knowing. I wormed my way out of that embrace. One of my friends drove us home; she was also pretty drunk, just less so (this was before the concept of designated drivers really took). I made it home and threw up on the front porch of my house before I rang the door bell. Then my dad let me in. I told him how drunk I was but not about the yucky kissing. He took me to my room and helped me into bed. The room spun. I rarely drank that much again (in my life). I cannot say the same for the kissing.

This was not my me-too moment. But I did learn something about alcohol, boys, parties, and sex.

At Amherst from 1982-1986, frat parties dominated the social scene: fueled by alcohol. These dangerous spaces were pretty much the only social game in town. I remember ending up in a dorm room with a man I only barely knew after some frat party, doing something I didn’t like. I’m not sure what. I was drunk. He was more drunk. I wormed out of it and got home somehow. I forget how. I forgot it right away. I still forget it. Because it was gross. Frats were banned at Amherst during my sophomore year for this very reason: known as they were as havens for drunken misogyny, bigoted admissions, and as hold-outs of the patriarchal boys-club soul of the place. In the 1980s, my school was beginning or pretending to change, given that women had been only recently admitted (against the good-ole boys’ best efforts; they fought, too, for their frats, which immediately popped up again, illegal bastions of just the kinds of male comaraderie that was built upon hatred of women [and themselves, most likely] that still fire these elite institutions and their all-male hold-outs).

During my junior year, I lost my virginity at something like a frat party in my own dorm where I was actually the RA. I had long had a crush from afar on this boy because he was one of the smartest people in my constitutional law class (as was I). He was a star of the baseball team: gorgeous, verbal, and very suave. We flirted on the dance floor. I thought we were going to have a relationship, based on our shared intellect and hunger for more, and fooling around in my dorm room would be the beginning. He had no idea I was a virgin. He was drunk. Thing moved fast. I had most likely had something to drink, too. But mostly I was operating via naivete, and want, and his lead. It turns out he had a girlfriend at another school. That was that. I took a morning after pill. He told all to his suite mates. I was heart-broken and very embarrassed.

This was not my me-too moment. But I did learn something more about alcohol, boys, parties, and sex.

Outside of the sweet boyfriend I did meet during my freshman year—the very one I had yearned for … we weren’t ready for intercourse yet, although we tried many other things including sharing a whole bottle of expensive champagne … wowza!—my youthful sexuality was pretty horrid. Nothing like what I wanted. Instead it was organized by a series of potentially dangerous encounters that I skirted with desire in my heart and body, and fear there as well. I was not date raped, or molested, or violated … ish. Who can say, really? I mostly forget the details of these many sordid misfires.

Yes, I thought I had mostly forgotten, until testimony about Brett Kavanaugh’s past behavior and that of his friends, frat mates, and teammates arrived, as familiar to me as the air I still breathe. With (and against) such men, I learned to be a young woman and now a grown one. I have done everything in my power (including teaching feminist and queer studies, being an activist, making art, and striving for healthy adult relationships with men and women) to grow into a version of womanhood that lets me (and others) live sex, love, and romance outside the frameworks that dudes like Kavanaugh, especially the “elite” ones, inherit and own. I have worked to forget what I learned of alcohol, boys, parties, and sex during high school and college, and to find love and sex in places organized outside of sexism, inebriation, and men’s uncontrolled and dangerous potent desire and (self)hatred and anger. I wish I could say that I always succeeded. Rather, I’d say I’m working at it. Forgetting has been part of that; and not talking about it; and doing better. The remembering doesn’t feel helpful, just sad: for the society, for those men I can barely name, for myself.

As a queer feminist, I understand that these violent encounters, these sorry missed opportunities for connection, these experiences where girls are hurt physically, emotionally, and sexually are actually bad for all humans, and are driven by sexist understandings of sex and gender which give boys (and the girls who love and want them) few chances or opportunities to be decent. As a grown woman, I seek experiences with men (and women) who want to engage differently with me, even though we all came from this place, the 1980s: woodsies, frat parties, throwing up, making out, taking and losing virginity, but not as anyone would really want.

The classes of 1982 and 1986 are all in our mid-50s. We hear these lurid tales of our peers—as common as are our hopes for change, as core as are our attempts to heal, as definitive as were our homes and towns of origin and colleges of choice—and each episode takes us right back to all that we (hope we) have buried. Not just the violent me-too moments where lines were fully crossed (some of us escaped these, just luck really; many or most did not) but the mundane, addled, disequalibriums of power and desire, love, lust, and hurt that turned us into the men and women we are today.

This week, it became apparent that some of us are more stuck in the 1980s then others. For my peers from the class of 1982 and 1986 (including the boys, now men), those who have tried to do better for ourselves and our towns, schools, society and kids—given this, our ugly shared past—I invoke my stories with strained fondness and some hope. But mostly I write because it feels necessary. It turns out, this is not so much to remember, but instead to draw out, in other terms and for other ends, our sexist, violent youth. We need better forms and fora where we might make sense of our woodsies and frat parties. And better yet, we need better conversations, held outside the patriarchal places where we started and where the old rules still hold. Given that bad sex is one of our generation’s worst shared secrets and current public legacies, I know that we must continue our work to make love and connection better.

 

I interview Carolee Schneeman on the MS. Blog Q&A. Here’s a taste.

Alex: So you are saying that even though your work was eventually, if perhaps belatedly canonized within art and film history, it was appreciated for only a small prism of your feminist activity, that which focuses upon the representation of your own sexuality and body.

Carolee: Yes, a very narrow prism: the ghetto of feminism. You can have this erotic, even prurient dynamic in your work that we are going to pay attention to, but the rest of it is too astonishing, complex, and beyond our need to control how we characterize women’s work.

This is such an important insight about your feminist work and legacy; and a very painful one. Is it possible to not diminish or simplify that part of the project, the body work, the representation of femal sexuality, which is so essential to your work and so essential to the needs of women?

It is as variable as women’s experience. There are aspects of sexuality that I’ve always had to fight for that are not available erotic experiences for lots of women. There’s just so much variation that I cannot represent more than the area that I know well.

But in the show, I saw for the first time your Sexuality Perameters Survey (1967-1971 + 1975) where you you “attempt to note main parameters of lovemaking. Only from a woman’s point of view” by interviewing scores of women and documenting their detailed, intimate answers about sex and sexuality on handmade typewritten grids. I love those charts! The PS1 show highlights work you made that catalogs your relationship to other people’s sexual and relational experience as well as your own sexual and domestic intimacy with male lovers and companions, and with your cats as well.

In film I was able to most clarify this area of contradiction. The films are constantly talking to each other. The ideality of Fuses (1965) gets impinged next with Viet-Flakes (1965; a compilation of Vietnam War-era horrors garnered from magazine and newspaper clippings) and the surround of that morbid suppression of life. I still get very upset when I look at it. Then, the destruction of Palestinian culture overwhelmed all my considerations of the mid 80s into the 90s and that has no resolution. No formal political clarification. Actually it’s more repressive than ever. Now, Palestinians have no right to represent themselves in any aspect of the U.S. government. That’s just been put through as a law.

Over tea and croissants at her Westbeth Studio, filmmaker and artist Barbara Hammer met feminist film scholar and filmmaker Dr. Alexandra Juhasz for a lively back and forth about Hammer’s New York city-wide retrospective. Hammer’s vast, fifty-plus year oeuvre of film, performance, and never-before-seen art and ephemera is currently on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (“Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies,” through January 28, 2018), and was recently on view at Company Gallery (“Truant: Photographs, 1970 – 1979,” October 22 through November 26). Performances, readings, and film programs are being staged at participating venues (including Queer|Art|Film at the IFC on December 4, and a screening of Sisters! [1974] at the Metrograph on December 17). Barbara and Alex had engaged in another lively interview twenty years earlier as part of Dr. Juhasz’s 1998 documentary and book Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video (viewable for free at snagfilms.com). Their decades-long intergenerational conversation focuses on the changing, growing powers of female, queer, and feminist artists. You can read it on The Brooklyn Rail. Our conclusion is below.

Women I Love, Barbara Hammer, 1976

Alex: Twenty years ago I asked you what is your place in feminist film history, and you were around fifty-five, and you said, “I hope that work will be seen as a progression of sophistication and development as it traces one lesbian’s life in the second half of the twentieth century. This is a space now filled, where before there was a lack, a void. Now I have sisters and brothers around me in queer cinema. I want to keep working with my eyes open, learning from others, going to see new work, trying to do the best I can to develop further my visual language.” What have you done since then to further your visual language?

Barbara: My retrospective brings in all the different branches of my work, from performance to photography to installations to journal keeping to writing, and of course to 16mm film, super 8 film, digital film and video. That’s the language: a diverse one that can move in any direction according to the idea or emotional motivation. I think many youth currently in art school are brought up with that language. They don’t define themselves as filmmakers as we were taught to do. So maybe we’ve arrived at the place where a young artist in art school begins from a place where everything is available.

“We have to be minimalist. A small event, if we can understand it, reconciles us a little bit with the world.” Agnès Varda

In my conversation with Agnès Varda about her current exhibition of video installation, photography, and sculpture showing at Blum & Poe (the full interview will run next month in The Brooklyn Rail), she emphasized that expanded vision occurs through close, returning attention to all that is caught in images of daily life: the complex and sustaining drama of living in time.

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Practicing strategic contemplation—what Rosylyn Rhee explains as having “to be comfortable being uncomfortable [because] so much of making documentary films is embracing the unknown”—is one of six “principles of feminist filmmaking” represented in Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition by Alexandra Hidalgo. The principles she elaborates point to one ethical media tradition that contemplates and thereby unmakes the frameworks that support fake news—truth/fiction, power and ownership within mediamaking and consumption—by engaging media logics outside of capital, including diversity, inter-dependence, mentorship, contemplation, and a primary commitment to social justice.

Contemplate Some More:

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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