I’ve worked with, written about, and been a fan of the work of Susan Mogul for quite awhile. A early practitioner of feminist video via her radical education at the LA Woman’s Building’s Feminist Art Program in the 1970s, Susan emailed me recently about the censorship (and related and ultimately successful on-line protest) of her seminal 1973 video, “Dressing Up,” by YouTube, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

And this is why YouTube bores me, even as I’m about (cross your fingers) to finally publish my YouTube book. YouTube hasn’t changed much in the three years I’ve been studying it seriously, other than getting larger in users, lengthier in videos, and more packed with corporate content. Don’t get me wrong: NicheTube rules, and there’s plenty to see if you ramble long and hard enough (garnering the site ad-revenue with every look), that is if the radical stuff you might like can last. For YouTube censors non-hegemonic (i.e. feminist) practices on the sheer philistinism of its beloved user/cops.

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I recently read on Thinking at the Interface about grad students at Iowa putting videos on YouTube about their working conditions. Then—no surprise—the English Department chair called the “director of the videos to a meeting with other senior faculty members and asked for the videos to be removed from YouTube.” Although I wrote recently (with some disdain) about when I was asked by the Washington Post to analyze the viral YouTube video of cuckolded socialite wife (Tricia Walsh-Smith) who used YouTube to air her dirty relational, sexual and financial laundry during a heated divorce, the graduate students’ use, also from the bottom side of a historic power dynamic, also revealing the unspoken (and unspeakable) economic abuse that allows large institutions to operate seems somehow less sordid. Or is it?

It does seem crucial to begin to name what can vs what should be revealed through this global open mic. Those with little access to power, media attention, and the protections afforded by capital have never been able to so easily and widely express their critique of power. Is it okay to use YouTube to expose the private financial details of a marriage or the private financial relations of a University? Why should these be private? What of the penis size of a spouse, or the class load of a T.A.? What if you’re drunk, lying or parodying when you do it?

The “English TA Experience” Page on Facebook runs a chain of emails between the chair and the students, and is introduced by an email “in defense of free speech,” by Neal Bowers, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Professor of English, Iowa State University who writes: “Mostly in private, and in collusion with his administrative staff–Dave Roberts, Connie Post, and Barb Blakely–Charlie has forced one of our graduate students to remove a posting from YouTube. He has accomplished this by meeting individually with various graduate students and, through an apparent process of intimidation, bullying them into surrendering one of their basic rights….He justifies his actions by claiming the YouTube video contained objectionable material and subjected the department and the university to legal action. He also appeals to the need for fewer rights (just like Homeland Security and George W. Bush, only instead of saying in our “post-9/11 world” Charlie alludes to the “post Virginia Tech World of campus violence”).”

Of course censorship haunts this discussion, as it does all of YouTube (and the AIDS art world I’ve been discussing here as well). It’s easy to censor on YouTube: users do it all the time. When a video troubles you, you flag it. Enough flags, down it goes. Censorship is always the first (and devastating) move of institutional power against its fears of the many it keeps in check. It also marks the place of transgressions. All the videos discussed in this blog have been taken down.

“For purposes of the First Amendment, and the values of intellectual freedom that it embodies, freedom of speech necessarily includes the right to read, view, hear, and think about the expression of others.” Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship and the Innocence of Youth

“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” Justice Robert H. Jackson

I’ve been completing my upcoming talk for the Fowler Museum’s Make Art/Stop AIDS Show. I’ll also present it in NY a few weeks later at the VIsual AIDS/CLAGS’ conference, The Art of AIDS Prevention. AIDS does seem to be periodically revisited, spurts of attention then quiet. I’ll speak in my talk about what it feels like to be trotted out as a living memory of AIDS art and activism, what AIDS was. This is one confusing aspect of the our current moment in AIDS art history, what I call the “Hearts Heavy in our Hands” period. I write: “I’ll be blunt: speaking and making video in this third period in AIDS video history is really complicated. We carry so many traces in our forms: nostalgia, sorrow, responsibility, our youth, our loss. It’s discombobulating. We are all three periods of AIDS; we are those we knew (and those we didn’t) who died; we are AIDS future. It’s too much. How do you remember the past, dream the future, refuse the censor, and respect the dead in one dance?”

I name the first two periods Head on Attack (the 1980s and early 1990s), and Head in the Sand (the later 90s), but I mostly think about how censorship has produced all of activist AIDS video. I call this dancing and dreaming with the censor, that changing force which tells us we can’t, and so then we do.

I recently spoke with my old friend and fellow AIDS video activist, Jean Carlomusto, about our significant shared pain brought about by the censoring of Brenton Maart’s piece from the show (Jean has an amazing piece in the show, too). How this act was so retro and so primal. I write: “My pain is not rational: it’s where we began. I am pulled back to the past, forcefully denied our history and our future. I am returned to the closet, unheard, our lives and loves once again unseen, disallowed. We are pulled back to the time when we were forced into action in the 1980s because our friends were sick, in pain, and dying, there was so much we couldn’t say and show, so then, of course, we did: how we put condoms on penises and dental dams on vaginas, how we kissed, who we fucked, how we rioted, what and who we wanted, how we mourned, how our lives were touched by racism, sexism, and homophobia before during and after AIDS, how once we were polite and then we couldn’t be.”

And now, I’ve committed to calling the censor on her attack to her face on her turf, and believe me, while it is necessary, it’s also really scary: to be rude, impolite, in your face. It seems critical to acknowledge that while activism and art are often organized around such transgressions of protocol and propriety this is not because we revel in dirty deeds (although they are sometimes fun) but because we are given no other option. I read today that CHAMP will be blogging this years AIDS conference, and this is the same dance, the “circuit of censorship” (Annette Kuhn) that it is both productive and painful (RIchard Meyer). We speak because they won’t; we write because they won’t let us. (Check out the International Carnivale of Pozitivities)

Here’s how David Wojnarowicz explained it, his words scrawled on his childhood portrait and currently hung at the Fowler Museum: “One day this kid will feel something in his heart and throat and mouth. One day this kid will do something that causes men who wear the uniforms of priests and rabbis, men who inhabit certain stone buildings, to call for his death. One day families will give false information to their children and each child will pass that information down generationally to their families and that information will be designed to make existence intolerable for this kid. One day this kid will begin to experience all this activity in his environment and that activity and information will compel him to commit suicide or submit to silence and invisibility. Or one day this kid will talk. When he begins to talk, men who develop a fear of this kid will attempt to silence him with strangling, fists, prison, rape, intimidation, drugging, ropes, guns, laws, menace, roving gangs, bottle, knives, religion, decapitation and immolation by fire. All of this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.”

On May 18, I will give an hour-long invited lecture on AIDS video history as part of the landmark Make Art/Stop AIDS show currently up at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Given an agregious act of censorship on the part of the museum, my plans for the talk have, understandably, changed. Here is my updated synopsis (more on AIDS to come):

Upon the 2008 censoring of yet another piece of AIDS art, this one by South-African artist, Brenton Maart, a gay man of mixed racial heritage, and commissioned (and then censored by) the Fowler Museum for their current Make Art/Stop AIDS show, I decided to tell the history of the AIDS video movement as dependent upon, needing, wanting censorship. Censorship demands an AIDS act; it propels AIDS art. It always has; it still does. I will tell this small segment of art history as one of censorship and its required response: AIDS video dances in retort, it smirks in disdain, it screams in refusal, it misbehaves accordingly. And so will I. While censorship is always harmful, the hurt of censorship in relation to AIDS video is formative, primal. It’s where we began: in the closet, unheard, our lives and loves unseen, disallowed. When we began in the 1980s, there was so much we couldn’t say and show, so then we did: how we put condoms on penises and dental dams on vaginas, how we kissed, who we fucked, how we rioted, what and who we wanted, how we mourned, how our lives were touched by racism, sexism, and homophobia before during and after AIDS. In my talk, I will argue that the history and aesthetics of AIDS video is one of calculated and strategic responses to the censor. I will argue that then and now the art of AIDS video is produced because of censorship’s demands.

The user is told she is free, but this is not the case. Nowhere near it. She makes work in forms that best serve the master’s (oops) owner’s needs. Her ideas, spoken freely through newly accessible cameras, and on little screens encircled by ads, reflect those that the master taught her. They move freely across the internet, insulting some along the way, encrusted by flames of others the longer they sit still.

The user feels she is free, and so she speaks. But the owner uses other users to censor her as the owner sees fit. The user might be a person, she’s often a corporation, but more often yet, she’s an individual servicing a corporation for free! Even though all of this is done gratis, justifying YouTube’s highly celebrated “democratic” claims, little of this labor works outside the corporate economy (even for non-profits) that does very well by users’ work.

The owner, well, he has very little to do! The user (slave, oops) does all the work, and for no pay! Makes the content; rates it; censors it; watches it (and gets her eyeballs to the ads).

This is from my fifth tour. Yes, I know it’s too negative. Yes, I know people get to speak and be heard. But this is what my students learned, (perhaps because I am their teacher [master, OOPS!]):

“In computer networking, master/slave is a model for a communication protocol in which one device or process (known as the master) controls one or more other devices or processes (known as slaves). Once the master/slave relationship is established, the direction of control is always from the master to the slave(s). The County of Los Angeles, saying the term master/slave may be offensive to some of its residents, has asked equipment manufacturers not to use the term.”

TOUR #3: Popularity

February 22, 2008

I posted my third tour today–on popularity–so, yes another tour, but this is the first where I wore a paper-crown and prom dress…

I guess you can see, I’m working on my performance, which is itself an aspect of popularity on YouTube. While I insist that any system of popularity creates and supports mediocrity–like in High School, the unoriginal and uncritical rise to the top: the blond-babes of the pom-squad–talent is still part of the picture, it’s just talent in the name of the hegemonic (in High School, boys’ sports, girls’ sex) and on YouTube, the corporate (music videos, television shows). Like High School cheerleaders, the popular on YouTube do what we already like, in ways we already know: interchangeable, indistinguishable. Entertaining but not threatening, popular YouTube videos speak to a middle-of-the-road sensibility in and about the forms of mainstream culture and media, pushing underliers into the weird cliques and hidden rooms of high school–what I call NicheTube–where one falls off the radar of popularity, underserved and unobserved by YouTube’s system of ranking.

NicheTube can function by the rule of originality, critique, difference, and zaniness (although much that is off the radar really wishes it could be on), but the work there (including Learning from YouTube) already speaks to the standards, conventions, interests and winners on YouTube: the in-crowd. While it’s often fine to be off the radar, doing your own weird thing with your wacky friends, there is the rub that even if others are interested, it’s likely, given YouTube’s size and poor search systems, that they’ll never find you. Sure, things bubble up from Niche Tube all the time–here’s your tiara–but chances are that one golden video is a winner precisely because it’s like something already winning, only a little different. While we can all attest whether popularity (or its reverse) worked for us in High School, I’ll end by suggesting the obvious: it is not the best way to run a forum of knowledge/culture/art production and distribution. As we learned through my students’ project on race on YouTube, popular videos about black people reflect and reinforce the standard (racist) views of our society, while NicheTube videos support black self-love and politics. Like television, you get things you like, but rarely things that you don’t already know, things that shake you, change you, and trouble you.

I’ve also spoken about this (and other things YouTube) in an interview I did with Henry Jenkins for his (popular) blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, and I hope you’ll take the time to read more there.