October 13, 2016
I’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) …
… 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.
I’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.
Instead, 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!)
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.
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.
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?
And 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.
July 13, 2015
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.
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.
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).
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”).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
August 18, 2014
Ted Kerr (formally of Visual AIDS) and I continue our conversation about recent AIDS media on the Indiewire blog, /Bent. In our discussion about The Normal Heart and other recent work, we bemoan the paucity of women as well as the feminist pro-sex politics that defined our early AIDS media activism.
I begin the article saying: “I too was reluctant to watch the Normal Heart, so our anticipated conversation about it also forced my hand. I was worried that the mainstreamification of my own history would be upsetting, and I was right. In 1986, I arrived in NYC, fresh-faced and political (I was a feminist and also active in the nascent gay/lesbian rights movements), to attend grad school in Cinema Studies at NYU. I volunteered at (Kramer’s) GMHC soon thereafter, and found myself in 1987 working in the fledgling Audio-Visual Department, which at that time was the incredible Jean Carlomusto who was single-handedly producing a cable access show called “The Living With AIDS Show.” With few real skills of my own, but a lot of chutzpah and real conviction, I suggested to Jean that I produce a segment for the show about women and AIDS. Feminist, anti-racist and anti-poverty activists in NY were just mobilizing around a shared raising awareness about the certain affliction that women (and children) would face in large numbers if the government, public health, non-profits, the media, and activists did not think logically (and politically) and realize, and act, on the imminent threat that HIV posed to communities outside the gay white men who had first organized GMHC (and hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts, the other known “risk groups” at that time).”
Hope you’ll read it through!
July 10, 2014
In the conclusion of my conclusion to Ada’s Special Issue on Queer Feminist Media Praxis, “It’s Our Collective, Principled Making that Matter Most,” I write:
AIDS activist video and New Queer Cinema are celebrating, respectively, their twenty-five and twenty year anniversaries, and I am connected, as a media maker and theorist to both traditions. As someone who participated in these earlier instances of feminist/queer media praxis (if not revolution), I first affirm that they were each deeply technological; we were always abetted by media, even if this was not yet digital in nature. And, in the living and doing—just as defines our work today—these “movements” (which were, at the time, something closer to linked moments of making; a movement tends to be found retrospectively), felt (as did the Sixties in its living and doing?) enormously small, fleeting, difficult, complex, impossible to render and realize and utterly wonderful and productive.
In my experience, the making and living of alternative, counter or radical culture, through media praxis, does not feel fully revolutionary in its own time because each act of making is too small, unstable, marginal, and precarious; the dominant culture, and its media praxis, looms large, solid, and powerful. And yet, each of these risky acts makes not just media that lasts for future study (and sometimes consolidation as a movement) but small, beautiful, fleeting instants of potential—”revolutionary-instants”—that we recognize and celebrate mostly in their doing and living, and of course, mourn in their immediate passing (only then, sometimes, to also reify in their later study and consolidation).
And, when I make feminist queer media praxis with others today (like this issue here and this writing in this issue), just as was true in the recent past, my work continues to feel incredibly small, local, marginal, frustrating, incidental and sometimes or even often emancipatory in the instants that are the instances of its more radical, collective, visionary doing and making. Brown continues about times better for feminist revolution:
When poetry becomes political, when politics becomes erotic, when thinking is de-commodified and comes to feel as essential to life as food and shelter, not only do ordinary fields of activity become libidinally charged, but this desublimated condition itself betokens (however illusorily) an emancipated world to come.
I know that there have been moments, and actions, and movements in the past where that feeling of revolution feels closer to hand and body than it can today with both technology and capitalism standing between us and nearly everything that we might want or imagine. But instances of essential, libidinal emancipation can be lived, felt, and practiced in our (digital) world structured as it is ever more deeply by capital, in the sparks of political and intellectual attraction, action, and energy we can read (about) here, in instants of ethical interaction that first built what you read here, and in your potential to produce ethical interactions through your own digital engagement with this material. A revolution; not in the least! But queer feminist media praxis that marks that there are alternatives through our collective, principled making, without doubt.
See what I’m talking about here: essays by Aristea Fotopoulou, Kate O’Riordan, Tully Barnett, Megan Bigelow, Dayna McLeod, Jasmine Rault, T.L. Cowan, Karin Hansson, Rachel Alpha, Johnston Hurst, Olu Jenzen, Irmi Karl, Susana Loza, Lusike Lynete Mukhongo, Darnell Moore, Monica J. Casper, Michelle Moravec, Lindsey O’Connor, Noopur Raval, Roxanne Samer, Jenny Sundén, and Joanna Zylinska.
Please see my conversation with Ted Kerr, Programs Manager at Visual AIDS, recently published at Cineaste. Initially asked to discuss Dallas Buyer’s Club we felt we needed to take a lengthier look at the much broader phenomenon of retrospective looking at AIDS fueled by home movie images of the crisis, often shot by AIDS video activists like myself. In the piece we suggest that “the past, signified by the home movies of AIDS, in particular, has many cultural functions, and just as many cultural formations. We begin with Matthew McConaughey’s butt (where else!), and use it as our entry into a lengthy discussion of Dallas Buyers Club, as well as nearly a score of past and present alternative AIDS videos that also broker in activist made home-movie-like images of a crisis past—Like a Prayer (DIVA TV, 1989), Keep Your Laws Off My Body (Catherine Saalfield, Zoe Leonard, 1990), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992), Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Silverlake Life (Peter Friedman, Tom Joslin, 1993), Video Remains (Alexandra Juhasz, 2005), Sex Positive (Daryl Wein, 2008), How to Survive a Plague (2012), Heart Breaks Open (William Maria Rain, 2011), Liberaceón (Chris Vargas, 2011), Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto, 2011), We Were Here (David Weissman, 2011), When Did you Figure Out You had AIDS (Vincent Chevalier, 2011), United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012), Untitled (Jim Hodges, Carlos Marques da Cruz, Encke King, 2012), Bumming Cigarettes (Tiona McClodden, 2012), he said (Irwin Swirnoff, 2013), and the poster campaign Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Vincent Chevalier with Ian Bradley-Perrin, 2013). With Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013), we return our conversation to more conventional fare before concluding our thoughts upon so many home video returns.”
“Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” (2013), a poster designed for posterVIRUS by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin
November 22, 2013
The new issue of Jump Cut (55, Fall 2013) is hot off the presses, and as always, it is bursting with great scholarly work on any number of issues near and dear to my heart: labor, third cinema, new queer cinema (by my compatriot, Roxanne Samer), feminist porn (by the delightful, Erica Rand), independent and experimental media (with an essay on Amateur Media by the always-on-the-money Patricia Zimmerman), and a statement on “The War on/in Higher Education” by the journal’s luminary editors (that thoughtfully addresses MOOCs, and other issues, a theme I will attend to in my upcoming post on my recent participation at the MWHEC meetings on this very topic.)
And that’s just my tip of the iceberg; there’s thirty or more essays to find and enjoy there!
Of course, while you’re checking it out, I do hope you’ll also spend some time with the special section I co-authored with Marty Fink, David Oscar Harvey and Bishnu Gosh on contemporary HIV/AIDS Activist Media. Our shared effort looks to links and disturbances across time, generation, place, region, and activist representational practices and media over the lengthy and always changing history of AIDS activist media. My piece, “Acts of Signification Survival,” focuses on both the spate of recent documentaries by my peers about AIDS activism’s past, and what their online life tells us more generally about activist media within digital culture. I write: “it is my belief that digital media brings in new concerns and different cycles. For one, in regards to the documentaries under consideration, the digital allows for what might seem an over-abundance of digital discourse and debate about what also can be perceived as a torrent of images and discourse that have as their subject our past fights for visibility. This produces a particularly clumsy incongruity: these many instances of visibility (the docs and their digital discussion) sit precariously near the constant specter of a diminishment of perceptibility.”
October 6, 2013
No matter how you count it, a lot of people contributed to this daunting, humbling, and ultimately victorious effort (and are now sharing the above-depicted relief and joy): hundreds of thousands of people helped (149,702 signed the Change.org petition), multitudes marched, protested, made buttons and artwork, hundreds worked tirelessly behind the scenes to locate or create press …
I could go on and on. And there’s good reason to do so: change occurs when people make it, piece by piece, little and big, and it’s not just crucial to name this to thank them (although that is important, and I’m doing a bit of that here), but to understand how successful organizing works. Here’s my friend and comrade, Matias Viegener, on our local TV station. It took many of us many days to get this small, and almost silly end result. (At the time, we wondered if it was worth it; my sister, Antonia, contributed a lot towards what ended up being seen as only this one segment)
It truly was a family, and also a community affair. A core group of Canadians (the Canadian “A team,” led by friend and fellow professor, Justin Podur, sister Cecelia Greyson, other family members and close friends, like Elle Flanders) was joined by scores of Canadian and international friends, colleagues, activists, and comrades. Very few of us had ever worked on a political campaign of this sort—life and death, international intrigue (although one of the behind the scenes projects was to get in contact with people who had; many of us contacted friends, and friends of friends, who worked at the State Department, consulates around the world, Amnesty International; man, you wouldn’t imagine the kinds of conversations film critic, B. Ruby Rich was having off the record). However, most of us who lent a hand, big or small, knew of either John or Tarek through earlier shared projects of activism and cultural politics (John programmed my first AIDS activist video into his seminal collection, Video Against AIDS, made in 1989 for Video Data Bank). With hind sight (given that it worked), it was stunning, and deeply moving, and just plain awe-inspiring, really, each day to see the collective knowledge, skills, and power of this diverse, eclectic, and ragamuffin group go at it, wherever we were, however we could:
But to be honest, there was also something deeply painful, knowing each day, and after every act by which we used all of our highly dispersed and cunningly eccentric cultural capital (and its associated real-world political power) that there were so many others in that very prison, or elsewhere in another prison, who do not and will not ever have such powerful, connected, capable friends and allies; their crimes no more real, their imprisonment no less unjust …
Their less heard stories, and unknown humiliations, will always haunt my memories of these many days and actions.
After much celebration, and its associated sadness, fear, and introspection, I’ll also continue to think about how both my queer/ documentary/activist/scholarly film community and our use of social media played an impotant, complex, and contributing role to this highly successful effort, given that this is something I study, engage in, and often criticize. This is where my subtitle comes in. In the last days of the effort, I was working closely with Jonathan Kahana, Shannon Kelley (from the UCLA Film Archive), and many other film profs, curators, programmers (like Jenni Olson and KP Pepe), to organize a Day of International Screenings for John and Tarek. We decided to organize on Facebook (because it was there, and easy, and so many of us had met on it, even though I have quite recently written about the most progressive act being LEAVING Facebook and other corporate-owned platforms that we get for free but that limit our abilities in their very structures). Within a day of setting up a Group we had over 100 members, and Matt Soar, Communications Prof. at Concordia College (who I met in real-time during this effort online) had designed the poster below for our effort (Chris Durrant, Out Twin Cities Film Festival Director, made the first effort within just a few short hours of the group’s formation):
I felt both really humbled and really frustrated working on this effort via Facebook. Online, via Facebook, we moved this idea so quickly, so many people came on board, the poster got made in what felt like minutes, and yet, this self-same platform has written into its core structures, and accepted uses, that some significant majority of the people who joined did so to “like” the group. Hear me, these friends were doing nothing wrong by joining; they were following Facebook’s logic of seeing, spreading, liking, and knowing. But this made me prickle because I found it harder to use Facebook towards the deeper, harder, more intense and labor-intensive norms of the very social justice organizing that had brought me and others to John, Tarek, and each other, and that were what was most needed for the effort I was working on. To make global screenings occur within about 10 days, what we most needed was for people to DO THINGS IN THE WORLD (find a room, get a copy of a film by John, invite a speaker, get bodies to that room). Just as was true for the Arab Spring, social media connected us, spread the word, and gave us an instantaneous and satisfying feeling of support and community, but good old fashioned community built from deep relationships formed and cemented in real places and over long term efforts was what finally supplied the muscle, the meaning, and the deep, take away truth of this awesome effort: Tarek and John are free because we (like they) can make the change we need by working with each other every day, in the places we live, and work, and love. How we can sustain this work, how we can again make local connections move nations, how we can use dominant/corporate social media forms as well as our own networks and technologies to make the world we want, these will be the questions I will continue to ask after this much-deserved party ends.