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.

 

 

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Over its hundred-plus year history, cinema (and its offshoots television and video) has offered up uncountable contributions to civilization that are unimaginably beautiful, powerful, and profound and that are delivered in endless varieties.

And yet, adherents of medium specificity, like myself, suggest that these endlessly variable works of film, video and television have been built from only a small set of fundamental components. Moving image recording technologies package and deliver nothing more than light, sound, space and time. What artists do with these elements is the magic of these media. And sure, technology helps. Over the course of its short history, there have been abundant changes, improvements, and shifts within the tools that focus, record and deliver artists’ renderings of media’s core elements. Within the last ten or so years, developments within digital media technologies have allowed for substantial breaks from the possibilities previously available within media history, including but not limited to the expanded access to and ease of use of nearly professional grade tools for the recording, editing, saving and distribution of moving images. For little cost and effort, nearly everyone can now shoot, edit, save and share images that look and sound great. These new producers using newly available tools introduce, mix, and remediate new (and old) media content and forms, only the most recent of which is socially mediated livefeed video. This new format has caught and demands our attention given that its viral uses have been closely connected to current conversations about and witnessing of violence, justice, and race in America and around the world.

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In recent writing, I tried to understand some of the implications of seeing and sharing livefeed video of black death. This proved to be a rumination about the ethics and responsibilities—associated with media records of cruelty and punishment—as video and its viewers encounter refigured relations to recorded time. But the capacity to record, save, see and share (real) time must, by definition, be met with alterations in configurations and understandings of space. To continue to better see and understand how technological developments in temporal and spatial recording are met with social, artistic and political ones, I will briefly consider—alongside livefeed viral video—a related technological adaptation and the associated practices of looking encountered therein: how we now seem to be looking at both ever more-tiny and over-sized screens.

Looking more closely, I can’t help but notice what seems to be an uncanny correlative between the growing number of capable producers and the shrinking size of the screens that carry their videos. Moving viral images seen on tiny screens like phones, watches, or even windows within a larger screen, certainly suffer in regards to viewers’ focus, clarity, and attention—even as they enjoy access to larger audiences. Cinephiles (and others) then suffer the quickly compounding loss of norms and systems for viewing cinema as it is “supposed” to be done: in large formats projected into dark rooms with quality sound systems peopled by others and enjoyed from beginning to end without interruption. Today, most people watch moving images attending to none of these norms: on increasingly pint-sized screens, alone in any possible place, at their own speed, direction and duration, surrounded by other images and distractions and sounds. Of course, we can and do turn to the linked and increasing possibilities for nostalgic viewing—like Tarantino‘s commitment to 70mm or the growing subculture of pop-up, outdoor, or micro-cinemas—or to technologies, practices, and institutions that are dedicated to a kind of reverse-viewing, one that delivers larger and larger images in more specialized and costly formats and venues to smaller and more refined audiences.

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To better see the connections between increasingly small and large screens, I will look briefly at one iteration of such blending practices: namely the projection of artist-produced, museum-located, large, multi-screen videos made entirely from once tiny-screen offerings. At the International Center of Photography‘s inaugural Public, Private, Secret show, four artists’ videos (by Natalie Bookchin, Jon Rafman, Martine Syms, Doug Rickard), made entirely from everyday users’ YouTube videos, are the highlight of (or at least entry to) the museum’s first show in its new location. While all of these featured artists’ efforts participate in making (more) public everyday video that itself made public the private experiences of everyday people, what seems as noteworthy to me is the effects and implications of making and showing large images from videos that had been made to be seen small.

A movement from piddling to grand helps to bring into focus what any serious student of media history understands already, and what the four featured artists are often highlighting in their similar but diverse offerings: viewing practices are never merely technological; rather they are historically, institutionally and culturally determined. By making small videos big, we can see more clearly what goes undetected in the common sense viewing practices of viral video. Another way to put this is: what don’t or can’t we see in our current viewing practices of the ever-present videos and views of social media?

First off, given that these four works were created by artists’ selection (in both senses of the word: all of the featured video artists chose their constituative materials entirely from the YouTube videos of unnamed others, and they, in turn, were selected for this show by its curators, Charlotte Cotton, Marina Chao, and Pauline Vermare), the museum’s and art world’s institutional privilege and sanction brings with it multiple and improved technologies different from those typically associated with viral video. We find that the largeness of the screen is linked to any number of related escalations: of stature (for the presenting artists), of viewing platform and spaces (from YouTube-at-home to the spare but sacious screening rooms of the museum), of machines necessary for display, projection and sound (from consumer to professional grade). But perhaps most critically, these augmentations carry with them social and sociological advancement as well.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/100324610″>Mainsqueeze, 2014</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/jonrafman”>jonrafman</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Artist-made video of YouTube video can’t help but show the everyday scenes, things, and preoccupations of regular people (as was also true of the amazing trove of Americana, the home movie). Given the demographics of our culture, the vast majority of what we see on YouTube (outside of the corporate video that makes up something like 50% of what we see there, give or take) is made by and shows the worlds of poor, working- and middle-class people. Americans’ class is registered on their YouTube videos in any number of ways, including but not limited to what is made visible of their living spaces, social spaces, and associated possessions, their use of spoken and written English, how they carry, use, and inhabit their bodies, and the cultural, political, and social issues that their videomaking considers. Given the demographics of America, the viewers of said videos are also most likely to come from the 99%’s poor, working-class and middle-classes and homes (albeit with all the variations of region, race, gender, sexuality, and ideology that is writ large across our class spectrum.)

However, at the big screens of America’s museums, art galleries, art fairs, and auction houses that increasingly show video in jumps that seem to match its broader social appeal, one finds oneself in the discomfiting position of watching people made video but not doing so with the peeps (who are undeniably watching loads of video on small screens at home, on the bus, at the library, in their bedrooms, in parking lots; actually, in all the places one sees in these videos). Letting my viewing of the ICP YouTube art videos serve as a barometer, the large videos of small videos were seen by attentive, serious, white-haired white-women (myself included), as well as one Jewish young man (who left quickly, I read his Yarmulke as a register of his religious affiliation), and one brown skinned and also middle-aged woman. This small and attentive audience (who each paid $14 for admission, $12 for seniors; you can not get in for free) all, surprisingly, sat through the four approximately ten-minute videos, interacted socially with each other throughout, and in general viewed these images through the norms associated with (high) art. Videos that would have otherwise be seen (or not, see my work on NicheTube) as expendable, forgettable, interchangeable, if also funny, excessive, spectacular or demonstrative—that is small—enjoyed big viewing privilege: that is to say they were afforded the advantage of duration, attention to form and content, and some significant possibility for context, although of course, this had been largely provided by the secondary (or primary?) artists through their skilled overlay of music, through their selection and then editing of videos, through their connection to the other artists’ works on display in the carefully curated space of an art show.

Now some would argue that with viral video many of these covet-worthy assets of the big are afforded not by their size of screens but by the number of viewers and viewings they spawn. There is certainly something to this argument, although I have been quick to note that with scale and spreadability comes a necessary simplification of argument and a loosening of context and value. But here I am working hard to keep attentive to how the size of images (i.e. one of the technology’s current preoccupation in regards to newly possible renderings of space) is related to viewing practices that are themselves always imbricated in culture, history, and therefore, power. For as I’ve been arguing throughout, big videos demand not just space but also time. Shockingly for me, sitting through the many clips from YouTube videos that made up the artists’ videos, itself seemed sort of nostalgic in this moment, defined as it is by Vine videos, tweets (with videos) and Snap chats: each of these current social media forms, and formats demanding an ever greater waning of video’s hold on time. And just look! Livefeed video seems to extend that out into duration and the spatial and temporal context associated with the entitlements of the long durée.

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Speedy internet criticism (including my own) is rife with writing that celebrates the slow and bemoans the loss of persistence. While this blog post certainly does that too, I am more interested in trying to see and name the uses and stakes for new technologies for looking, like livefeed video, as they are being introduced, and perhaps before their norms of use are calcified (and commodified). Given that goal, 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.

 

 

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.