Chicago SCALE Roundtable

November 5, 2007

Two weeks ago, we held a summit on the organizing and distribution possibilities of my documentary, SCALE, generously sponsored by a Chicago feminist media and arts organization and attended by a stellar group of hand-picked women activists, scholars, and organizers. I haven’t been able to write about it until this late date because this was a difficult meeting for me. This is not to say that the participants were un-supportive; they were not. But it is clear that SCALE was, for this group at least, not the “activist film” I had imagined or they had desired. The women in the room expressed that they need from documentary just what my sister has wanted throughout this process (and what she has insisted “activists” would want as well): either an in-depth portrait of the activist, Antonia (how she got there, how she stays there, what she fights for, how she does it), or an illustrated version of her book: a film as easier-to-understand condensation of her critically important ideas, first articulated in words, now in images and with emotion. I will attest that this activist film, the one mine is not, is important, and needed, just not the one I set out to, or even am capable to make. This would be a film that would feed and sustain people who are already working against the war and the Bush Agenda and who need more information, already working and need a pep-talk, already activists and need to see more like themselves on the screen for self-sustaining purposes.

The women in the room were uncomfortable with, or uninterested in the film’s sister-tension (the personal nature of the drama) and self-reflection (its focus on the media rather than Antonia’s ideas as expressed through the media). My departures from Antonia’s ideas were understood to be overly “theoretical,” “abstract,” or “obscure.” Complicatedly, however, it is the documentary’s self-reflexive quality about the state of the left, in relation to media, activism, organizing, and the relations between the personal and the political, which most seems to impress those who are moved by the film. This satisfied viewership understands the film as “activist” in how it allows us to see and talk about the left, activism, and the media with a new formal and verbal vocabulary (that of SCALE).
Which is all to say, that the workshop, although of course personally painful for me, was incredibly illuminating both about the film (how and for who it functions), and about a deep, abiding and defining split within the left about the best form and function of information, action, images and ideas in our media age. If you hate the film, you probably believe that direct action and organizing are what matters if we are ever going to make a change in this society; and if you love the film you are probably less convinced that such actions continue to matter, as you are also self-consciously debating where power lies in a society where individual action seems to have been subsumed by corporate control and media, and what that leaves as a possibility for you to do… Is the left best served by simply doing more stuff, louder, more effectively or does the left need to re-group, re-consider, and talk amongst ourselves about what has and has not worked, and what will and will not work as the conditions of power continue to change?

Are pep-talks, feeling good, and getting smarter the only way to inspire activism, or could activism come from self-scrutiny and uncertainty? Does navel-gazing waste our precious time? What do we gain and lose when we don’t speak directly, supplying much-needed information, but rather talk about the state of information itself? What is the use for formal and intellectual complexity about our current state when the current state is itself so bad?

#1 SCALE screening

October 11, 2007

On Thursday, October 4, we had our first work-in-progress screening of SCALE fro a friendly audience at the Claremont Colleges, where I teach. Antonia made it, as did representatives of various local anti-war groups, who spoke about their efforts before the screening began.

The most interesting aspect of the Q and A at this screening mirrors a theme of the documentary: its interest in divisions within the left about the form and function of education or information in relation to social change. Many in the audience were there (understandably) to hear Antonia speak truth, facts, and analysis to power, something she does very well, and for which she has a following. While this does happen, in small parts, in the documentary, it is, in fact, not really a documentary about Antonia’s book and its ideas, as much as it is about the concept of scale, and how Antonia’s book, ideas, and experiences trying to sell and impart them demonstrate the contradictions of ramping up numbers, attention, and exposure. Thus, some in the audience were pleased to see a self-reflexive documentary raising questions of tactics, effectivity, organizing strategies, and the role of the media and celebrity in contemporary politics, just as Antonia’s fans thought this was a diversion from the real stuff.

Discussion centered around whether the left should be educating itself with facts, or whether we have already heard these facts; or should we be navel-gazing, and re-thinking strategies, as well as our flaws and strengths?

Finally, the highly personal nature of the questions asked to Antonia and I (rather than political) threw Antonia, and it is seems good she has some practice before the show really goes on the road. People asked her questions she has never heard before: abo0ut her spiritual beliefs or our family. And afterwards, we talked together about how my feminism, and a commitment to the personal, is fundamentally different from her more straightforward commitment to the “political.” This is really another vocabulary to think about the differences in knowledge production, and political strategy raised above, and I am certain that these tensions will define the life and reception of the film.

Slogan Ten

October 1, 2007

“The boundaries between the subject, if not the body, and the ‘rest of the world’ are undergoing a radical refiguration, brought about in part through the mediation of technology. ”
Allucquere Rosanne Stone

On-line documentary presentation on YouTube disturbs the public/private binary, like that of the self/other, opening things up to produce combinations inconceivable without the technology. Yet YouTube forecloses the construction of coherent communities and returns production, consumption, and meaning-making to the individual, re-establishing the reign of the self.

Slogan Nine

September 28, 2007

“The more we assert our own identities as historically marginalized groups, the more we expose the tyranny of a so-called center.”
Pratibha Parmar

YouTube serves the de-centering mandate of post-identity politics by creating a logic of dispersal and network. Yet it fails to re-link these fragments in any rational or sustaining way. There is no possibility to make collectives through its architecture. Information can not become knowledge without a map, a structure, and an ethics.

Slogan Eight

September 24, 2007

“What is in question is not the expression of some lost origin or some uncontaminated essence in black film-language but the adoption of a critical voice that promotes consciousness of the collision of cultures and histories that constitute our very conditions of existence.”
Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer

On-line media presentation should promote critical reading practices as well as liberated voices explicating the conditions, including media practices, that are necessary to engender this freedom. YouTube is defined by empty and endless collisions unlinked from culture, history, context, author, or intention. Collision without consciousness.

Slogan Seven

September 20, 2007

“By empowering ordinary people to speak as experts, they question a basic assumption of dominant ideology, that only those already in power, those who have a stake in defending the status quo, are entitled to speak as if they know something.”
Barbara Halpern Martineau

YouTube allows everyone and anyone (with access to the technologies) to speak about everything and anything they please. Alone in a room, caught at a lectern, the much-maligned (confessional) talking-head proves to be the entitlement devise of choice. I speak, you listen, but without context, so who cares, and more critically, then what?

Editing SCALE 2

September 17, 2007

July 16, 2007. It has been a really great first week. I have been editing with concentration and fervor helped and abetted by the Wexner’s master editor, Paul Hill. We’ve made huge headway, primarily humanizing the piece by adding more of me. And letting me take some of the emotional slack. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put in more of Antonia’s amazing optimism and energy, as the story had become more and more about how she was captured by the intrigue of the limelight, and less and less about how she continued to do the hard work of being smart and on and present and committed even for that short while when she also though the book might become a bestseller.

While I am certain I will finish the film, and assured that it will be better then when I came, and close to all I want to say, my real fear at this stage is that I am not a powerful enough artist to kick it up to that final stage that this work deserves. And, of course, this is linked to SCALE because while I have always chosen for my work to remain small, primarily out of theoretical and political and artistic commitments to what happens when real people make small work about and within communities they belong, I have also not expanded my scale because I gave up on the endless exhaustion and humiliation of fund-raising, pitching, and altering my work and self to fill other’s agendas. And then, frankly, as much as I have resisted this waste of time, pulling me from the issue at hand and the pleasure of working, I’ve never been that good or capable at the pitch, the schmoozing. I get self-conscious and embarrassed. I’d rather be aloof, outside this humiliating economy. Finally, there’s always the strong possibility that I can’t get funding—slogging away at grant apps, floundering at meetings with commissioning officers—because I’m just not really good enough.

While my world view—that everyone can and should be able to express their ideas about themselves and their world—supports that everyone, including me, deserves the grace of self-expression, I do also believe in innate talent. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Self-trained in video; never a “real” artist; I hit against a wall that is my innate creativity (or lack thereof), often. Also, of course, I’m too intellectual to be a good artist. And probably too dogmatic, and out of touch with regular Americans, not to mention disdainful of the media traditions that make most people comfortable. I’ve sat here in the small mostly because it’s where I should be: reaching the audience to whom I can speak, a limited crowd interested in the ideas and values that concern me which include

-the relevance of small, personal work and activism and the real voices of real people not pundits

-the fact that getting bigger corrupts, exhausts, and punishes and that staying small allows for an attention to inter-personal ethics

-and the fact that these ideas seem hopelessly out-dated, some kind of nostalgic homage to a ’60s that was never this good anyways, and are downright ineffective against the new kinds of fast, huge, networks of corporate power that rule us.