joanne richardson on Thu, 16 Nov 2006 19:35:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Memoirs of a Video Activist


This is a text I wrote recently about video activism and the last projects
of the D Media group in Romania. Although it's specifically about video, I
think many of the issues apply to media activism more generally. For a
version with stills from the videos,

Memoirs of a Video Activist
Joanne Richardson

I left Bucharest when I was 9. My parents were political refugees. We
received political asylum in Austria and later moved to New York. I grew
up poor but privileged, in the sense that I had an education at some of
the best schools in America, social factories for the production of
Marxist intellectuals. And then I dropped out of my PhD, left the US, and
returned to Romania to become a video activist. For many years I was
weaned on the same canon and rules of etiquette as most Western media
activists. But they always seemed strange to me, as if I was seeing them
outside their frame and hearing them in a foreign language that I only
partly understood.

What does video activism mean today? From large demonstrations against the
World Trade Organization to small protests against Sky TV in Rome, you can
see almost as many people with video cameras as protestors. They go where
television cameras don't, providing live news about events that are
neglected or misrepresented, documenting police abuse, or challenging the
neutrality of the mass-media. Recent video activism has its roots in the
alternative media movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Although an
oppositional press with an alternative content has existed since the
nineteenth century, it privileged intellectuals as experts and maintained
structural hierarchies of knowledge. What was different about many of the
social movements of the 1960s and 1970s was the desire to provoke social
change not through alternative ideas but through the process of production
itself, by turning spectators into producers and eliminating the
difference between experts who create culture and its passive consumers.

During the 1960s the documentary film first became reflexive and uncertain
of itself, questioning its mediating gaze in its attempt to represent the
real. American direct cinema sought to achieve a truer representation, a
kind of pure transparency, by preserving the guiding hand of the filmmaker
but subtracting his subjective perspective and style as much as possible.
By contrast, French cinema verite inserted the camera and the filmmaker
directly into the screen, drawing attention to the inevitability of
mediation and the constructed nature of all representation. More radical
experiments sought to abolish representation altogether by giving ordinary
people the tools to produce their own images of themselves. The logical
result of rejecting mediation was the disappearance of the documentary
artist and of the artifice itself. Better capturing the real ultimately
meant democratizing the production of images by putting them within
everyone's reach -- and the portability of the video medium made this
easier. In 1968 Bonny Klein and Dorothy Henaut used the new Sony Porta-Pak
for the National Film Board of Canada's "Challenge for Change." They
collaborated with people from different regions of the country, including
the slums of Montreal, to help them produce their own community video.
Ever since then, the most ambitious goal of video activists has been to
include non-experts in the process of production. Changes of form or style
have been downplayed as less important and less radical. It is this idea
that still guides video activism today - what's different is the
proliferation of activist video made possible by cheap equipment and the

Video activism has sometimes been criticized for being repetitive,
stylistically conventional, and producing countless images of
demonstrations that look the same and blur into one another. The quest for
the instantaneous, unmediated "document" often means that questions about
form, style, montage techniques, critical analysis and audiences are
ignored. On the other extreme of the spectrum, which is more
characteristic of the video artist turned activist, there has been a
return to the heavy handed tradition of film auteur that straightjackets
its subjects into pre-formulated theories. When Ursula Biemann presented
some footage from a video in progress about the construction of an oil
pipeline in the Caspian region, she confessed she found it "annoying" that
the peasants living along the trajectory of the pipeline were happy to
receive money for their land and had no thoughts of resistance. The
reality didn't quite match the story she wanted to tell. This is not an
isolated example - many activist artists allow their own voice (or rather
ideas borrowed from fashionable theorists) to overwhelm the images. While
the first form of video activism, which tries to let the brute "facts"
speak for themselves, can be repetitive, stylistically weak and fall prey
to the naiveté of pure transparency that characterized direct cinema, the
second sometimes re-enacts the worst aspects of militancy that have been
handed down through history.

The Situationists and the postsituationist group OJTR (Organisation des
Jeunes Travailleurs Revolutionnaires) once criticized militants for
subordinating their subjective desires and creative energies to the
drudgery of work marked by routine and repetition -- printing and
distributing leaflets, putting up posters, preparing for demonstrations,
attending meetings, engaging in interminable discussions about protocols
of organization. But what remained unanalyzed in their account was the
militaristic origin of militancy and its consequences. The first militants
were the soldiers of God defending the Christian faith during the middle
ages. Driven by an uncompromising vision of totality, they were willing to
do whatever was necessary to win the war of righteousness. Revolutionary
militants bear an uncanny resemblance to their older relatives: the same
intransigence, the same desire to conquer and convert, as well as the
spirit of submissiveness. But militants don't repress their desires
because they are masochists, as OJTR claimed. They subordinate their
immediate needs to an overwhelming passion (a supreme cause) for the sake
of which all other things are renounced. They believe they are in the
middle of a war, a state of exception that requires extraordinary behavior
and momentary sacrifices. Militants don't militate on their own behalf;
they put their lives in the service of whatever social categories they
believe to be most oppressed (or, more accurately, in the service of their
own ideas about the needs of the oppressed). This indirect vanguardism
privileges intellectuals and the correct theory, especially when reality
seems to contradict it. For all their insights into the bad conscience of
militancy, the Situationists ended up recycling it: they claimed the
proletariat of May '68 had really wanted revolution but "proved incapable
of really speaking on their own behalf" because they lacked "a coherent
and organized theory" -- in other words, they needed the Situationist
International to explain to them what they had really wanted but were
unable to say.

There are many aspects of militancy that always made me feel uncomfortable
-- its vanguardism, its confrontational posture, its enactment of
revolution as a theater of political machismo. When I returned to Romania,
I viewed the general distrust of militant politics as an opportunity to
leave behind this flawed tradition and start from zero. I once wrote
enthusiastically about a new paradigm of group collaboration that emerged
in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe - a conscious alternative to the
manifesto issuing and intransigent proclamations that marked not only
leftist militancy but also the history of the avant-garde. But it turned
out that my optimism was exaggerated. After 17 years, skepticism about
militancy has turned into a flat denunciation of leftist politics and an
excuse for passive resignation. This is partly due to disinformation
campaigns before 1989 that assured the "left" would be understood simply
as the de facto power of the communist apparatus. But it has also been
influenced by a new mystification about "postcommunism" by those who came
to power. On the surface of things, postcommunism appeared to be a
neutral, geographical description that referred to countries that used to
be communist. But beneath the surface, postcommunism was heavily weighed
down by unexamined prejudices and value judgments. The assumption was that
communism was over and it had proven to be a dead end; the lesson learned
from this tragedy of history was that all forms of state control are
totalitarian and that the only way to achieve democracy is to liberate the
market from all restraints. This fatalism became the necessary premise
justifying neoliberal policies of price liberalization, state deregulation
and privatization. Aside from its political and economic dimensions,
postcommunism also harbored tacit assumptions about mental disease and
health, most obvious in the condescending metaphor of "shock therapy" that
intended to cure homo socialisticus of its disease. Internalizing this
discourse of pathology, intellectuals denounced their miserable history
and awaited the day when Romania would finally become "normal" like the
rest of the world. What was hidden behind the language of postcommunism
and normalization was the assumption that all the defects of the
transition were purely effects of hangovers from the communist past and of
the lack of a proper capitalist market, rather than its excesses.

The mass-media has amplified this confusion by dismissing any critique of
capitalism as nostalgia for communist dictatorship. A recent article by
Cristian Campeanu appearing in "Romania Libera" denounced the
antiglobalization, syndicalist and environmental movements as symptoms of
a pathological desire to return to communism and as a "refusal" of the
democratic principles of "open societies." Dorina Nastase of CRGS, one of
the main organizers of an event in Bucharest that called itself the
"Romanian Social Forum," responded to criticisms by members of Indymedia
Romania that her forum was a bureaucratic, elitist affair that lacked
openness and transparency by denouncing her critics as "Stalinists." The
problem with postcommunism is not that it rejects the communist past but
that it does so superficially and opportunistically, and that its ultimate
aim is not to pass judgment on the history of communist regimes but to
disparage any new ideas that invoke the common, the collective, the
public, and even activism itself. This interdiction against using certain
words, because of the disrepute of their communist past, is a refusal of
thought. Activism is avoided because before 1989 it used to refer to the
actions of party members who spread propaganda on the factory floor and in
public spaces. But this is a deformed understanding. In its most radical
sense (going back to the root of the word), activism is a recognition that
the world can only change in the direction of your hopes and aspirations
when you act to bring about its transformation, not by waiting for someone
else to do it for you. When activism is outlawed, when it cannot even be
thought, this is an implicit legitimation of its opposite. Passivity
becomes its corresponding everyday reality.

Together with some friends, I started D Media ( in
Cluj in 2003. We sought to create a context for media activism that didn't
exist and to make the practice of self-organization more contagious. At
first we organized conferences and workshops to introduce unfamiliar ideas
like do-it-yourself media, net radio, free/open source software and
copyleft, and, since 2004, we devoted our attention almost entirely to
video production. Being known as the video activist group in Romania is a
lonely distinction. And video activism really did mean starting from zero.
Unlike other communist countries, Romania had no alternative left, no
counter culture and no tradition of experimental film or video. Festivals
of experimental film like the ones in the 1960s in Yugoslavia, or a
movement like the Czech new wave, or a state studio like the Hungarian
Bela Balazs, which produced politically provocative, experimental films
during the 1970s and 1980s, were unthinkable in the Romanian context. The
only experimental, quasi-activist production was completely clandestine,
like Ion Grigorescu's film about a fictitious conversation with Ceausescu,
which he hid for fear of being discovered, or the films of the Kinema Ikon
group, which weren't screened publicly until after 1989. And after 1989,
there was no big flowering of experimental film or activist video. Due to
prohibitive costs and the lack of a tradition, film and video production
was confined to the school of theater and film or to a few art
departments, with dreadful professors and archaic technologies. Things are
not significantly different today: most people still have no access to
video production, aside from a few artists. And among artists, video
remains one of the least popular forms of expression.

D Media's first video project was Real Fictions (2004-2005), a series of 4
experimental documentaries made in collaboration with local volunteers
from Cluj between the ages of 15 and 20. The immediate background of Real
Fictions was the general apathy of young people toward political
participation and a lack of experience with self-organization, which often
leads them to accept that they have no power to change things and to cast
their eyes towards a powerful leader who promises to save them. PRM, the
party of the extreme right, has fared well in this context, with members
in parliament and a presidential candidate with very strong xenophobic
sympathies who got more than 30 percent of the vote in the 2000 elections.
A large number of his supporters were under the age of 25. The two videos
I collaborated on, Folklore and Paint Romanian, engaged directly with the
rise of nationalism and the extreme right in Romania, from political
parties like PRM to small neofascist groups like Noua Dreapta that
militate for a final solution to the gypsy problem and the
re-criminalization of homosexuality. Folklore, the longer and more
documentary of the works, begins from the everyday reality of Cluj,
exposing the fears and frustrations that led the majority of the local
population to elect Gheorghe Funar, an extreme nationalist and member of
PRM, as mayor of the city for three consecutive terms. It also goes beyond
present day Cluj, uncovering the history of nationalism from the Iron
Guard to Ceausescu's regime, and its continued presence in today's
mainstream culture. Paint Romanian is a rhythmic montage set to music,
composed of hundreds of still photographs of tricolor objects and
monuments reflecting Cluj's nationalist obsessions during Funar's terms in
office. Behind the Scene presents the views of young artists about their
struggle to make a living, the inadequacy of institutions promoting
contemporary art in Romania, and the importance of artist-run spaces. The
fourth video, Open, which was filmed during the Transhackmeeting in
Croatia in 2004, introduces the political and economic implications of the
Free/Open Source Software movement. (For downloads,

The Real Fictions project tried to eliminate the distinction between
experts and consumers of media by involving local teenagers in the process
of video making. But despite our intentions of working with the volunteers
as equal partners, they continued to look to us as the experts responsible
for making important decisions. Many of them wanted to travel and learn a
few skills, without becoming intimately involved in the entire process,
without attending too many meetings, and without spending a lot of time
doing research or putting in long hours for the montage. So why wasn't the
idea of self-organization more contagious? We tend to idealize
self-organization as a sign of freedom, as the ability to exercise our
rights and limitless possibilities. But in reality this freedom is not
only the joy of discovering our latent creativity, it's also the burden of
responsibility and hard work. We also tend to idealize open structures as
a cure-all, as if all social and economic problems would simply vanish if
everyone got a chance to participate and communicate without restraints --
a perfect liberal democratic utopia. But openness need not mean a systemic
change or even a culture in which everyone thinks for themselves; open
forums and open publishing sites have become breeding grounds for racists
to recycle all the prejudices and neuroses they've inherited from their
cultures. The affirmation of openness can become synonymous with tyranny,
unless it simultaneously addresses how ideology functions by imposing
standardized ideas and preventing critical thought - and whose interests
it serves. In a society that's predominantly patriarchical, homophobic and
racist, openness and "free expression" can simply mean imposing the voice
of the majority to the exclusion of the rights of minorities. And
"rhizomatic" modes of communication are not necessarily progressive. The
newest proliferation of self-organized, do-it-yourself media is by
neofascist groups, which have their Indymedia spin-off (the Altermedia
network), and their own zines, net.radios and blogs.

By focusing exclusively on the process of production, the Real Fictions
project paid too little attention to the finished works and their
dissemination. In retrospect it seems that the impact upon our volunteers'
everyday lives was very small compared to the impact the videos could have
had if we had planed them for large audiences. This conclusion is
influenced by the specificity of the Romanian situation. Some activist
friends from Italy once asked me about the social movements in Romania and
I had to confess they really don't exist, at least not in the way they
meant it. "Civil society" exists, and there are thousands of
non-governmental organizations that are getting foreign funding to do
so-called humanitarian work or to promote European integration. But as for
grassroots, self-organized groups that operate without a legal framework
or institutional structure, and especially those that are critical both of
Romania's nationalism and its "transition" to global capitalism, you can
really count them on a few hands. In Italy movements like Telestreet or
Indymedia Italy have a large supporting network of social centers and
hundreds of thousands of people participating. Trying to promote a
do-it-yourself ethos in Romania with a handful of volunteers at a time
lacks this already existing context. And the real problem seems to be
elsewhere: in a hegemonic discourse, suppressed issues never reach public
consciousness at all. Rather than making videos for a small art crowd or a
couple of underground clubs, it seems more meaningful to provoke
mainstream audiences to question the way they see their world.

Our second video project, Made in Italy (2005-2006), was a collaboration
with Candida TV (, an activist collective from
Rome. The videos focus on the delocalization of Italian companies to
Romania and the migration of Romanian labor to Italy. There are now 16,000
Italian companies in Romania and some cities like Arad and Timisoara have
literally been transformed into little Italies. The reality of foreign
investment was very different from the initial promise: labor rules were
not respected, working conditions were poor, the unions were absent, and
many companies delocalized further east when wages began to increase,
leaving the workers without a job from one day to the next. Many people
left to work abroad rather than compete for jobs paying 70 euro per month
at Italian firms in Romania. Italy has become the leading destination for
Romanian migrants, with an estimated 2 million workers, mostly
clandestine. We thought it important to highlight this connection because
public discourse in Romania has uncritically celebrated foreign investment
as a panacea that would save the nation. This is even more true now, in
the midst of a wave of EU euphoria and following the ascent of a
neoliberal government in 2005. The new power has done everything possible
to promote the delocalization of foreign companies to Romania by
introducing a flat tax of 16 percent, which has turned the country into a
fiscal paradise for corporations, and by proposing a labor code reform
that would abolish collective work contracts, make temporary contracts the
norm, prolong the work week and make it easier to fire workers.

The videos in the Made in Italy compilation introduce a counter-story to
the dominant one, but it's not a story told in a unified voice.
Documentaries usually aspire to create a sense of authenticity and
totality that lead the viewer to identify with their message. The montage
style is one of the main elements that can create a sense of totality (and
lead to identification) or disrupt it. A montage of association is
additive - it adds concordant images and voices to create a homogenous
picture. Dialectical montage, as Eisenstein defined it, goes beyond simple
addition by presenting a clash of contradictions. But dialectical montage
also has its limits, which are the limits of the dialectic itself: it
moves between idealized pairs of opposites (like the bourgeoisie and
proletariat in Strike), and the final outcome is predictable. The
arrangement of sound and images can also be disjunctive without being
dialectical -- by presenting a multiplicity rather than a world made up of
black and white contradictions. The videos in Made in Italy present the
discordant perspectives of the owners of Italian companies,
representatives of Italian cultural institutions, workers, taxi drivers,
artists, students, trade union leaders and Romanian migrants in Italy. And
the various "authors" from D Media and Candida TV who pieced the
narratives together also have different perspectives, styles of filming,
and ideas about montage - all of which made a single point of view
impossible. As a consequence, the story unfolds through disjunctions and
becomes more complicated as it moves along. Rather than a unified
universe, multiple worlds collide. The audience has to piece together the
fragments and draw their own conclusions.

Compared to the previous project, Made in Italy really did feel like a
collaboration between equal partners. This also meant, realistically, that
the process was often difficult since there were many disagreements about
ideas and styles and we had to reach a consensus. But ultimately the most
interesting part of any real process of collaboration is that those who
participate in it are transformed, we all give up a little of our
dogmatisms as we come to see things from the perspective of the others, we
learn something about own limitations and prejudices, we see our ideas
becoming more refined through the process of dialogue, and we are able to
make a better work than each of us could have made as a single individual.

Taking the highest principle of video activism to mean including habitual
spectators in video-making tends to focus entirely on the process of
production rather than the work. The importance of presenting perspectives
and voices that are not usually heard should not be downplayed. But what
often gets lost in activist video is the aesthetic dimension. In activist
circles no one talks about the work of art or aesthetics, since these
kinds of discussions are disparaged as elitist. The word "art" has become
an embarrassment in all but its Situationist sense - as the liberation of
creative energies that everyone possesses, but which have been suppressed
by the routine and boredom of everyday life. Art is this, but it is also
something else. It is an act of communication, and unlike other forms of
communication (the political manifesto, the philosophical essay, or the
news broadcast), what it communicates are qualities and affects that
exceed conceptual schemes. Art has the power to provoke not by argument,
unambiguous information, or agitation propaganda but by something that we
still don't really know how to define. It incites people to think and feel
differently, to pose questions rather than accept ready-made answers.

While he was a member of the Dziga Vertov group, Godard made some
extremely arrogant films of Maoist propaganda. Pravda, a film about the
1968 uprising in Prague, is haunted by the trope of ideological
correctness: we are told that the students who flew the black flag "are
not thinking correctly" and that the filmmaker Vera Chytilova does not
"speak correctly." The idea behind the Dziga Vertov films is that images
are always false and need to be negated and critiqued by the "correct
sound." The last project of the Dziga Vertov group was the unfinished film
Until Victory, shot in 1970 as the Palestinian Liberation Organization was
preparing for a revolution. After the breakup of the Dziga-Vertov group,
Godard collaborated with Anne-Marie Mieville, using the footage shot for
Until Victory to make a new work, Here and Elsewhere. As the voiceover
says, the problem with Until Victory was that the sound was turned up too
loud, "so loud that it almost drowned the voice it wanted to draw out of
the image." The film interrogates not only Until Victory, but militant
filmmaking in general.

Here & Elsewhere is a film composed of questions. We went to Palestine a
few years ago, Godard says. To make a film about the coming revolution.
But who is this we, here? Why did we go there, elsewhere? And why don't
here and elsewhere ever really meet? The voiceover confesses, "Back in
France you don't know what to make of the film ... the contradictions
explode, including you." Here and Elsewhere is a reflection on how
revolutionary militancy is staged as a political theater: its
propagandistic gestures and speeches, its covering up of disjunctions in
order to re-present a single voice of those unified in struggle. It also
interrogates the complicity of activist filmmakers  who organize the sound
and images in a particular way to present the "correct" political line and
to inhibit critical thinking. In an era dominated by a politics of the
message (statements, communiqués, declarations of war), Here & Elsewhere
searches for a politics of the question.

Godard once drew a distinction between making a political film (a film
about politics) and making film politically. Making film politically means
investigating how images find their meaning and disrupting the rules of
the game, whether that game is Hollywood mystification or militant
propaganda. It means provoking the viewers to become political animals, to
reflect on their own position vis a vis power, to entertain doubts and to
ask questions. By contrast, a lot of contemporary video activism is really
propaganda in reverse. While the content differs from the mainstream
press, its form and function is often preserved. Propaganda puts forward
its position as natural and inevitable, without reflecting on its
construction. Many activist videos show off their militancy through
emotional slogans rather than argument, and are blind to their own
internal contradictions. The Indymedia video Rebel Colors, which documents
the demonstrations in 2000 in Prague against the IMF and the World Bank,
presents the one-sided perspectives of activists who came from America,
the UK, Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy, including members of
actually existing communist parties. What you really don't get is a
reflection on the Czech context -- many locals denounced what they saw as
an attempt to playact a revolution by foreigners who invoked slogans from
an ideology the Czechs themselves considered obsolete. Because the clash
of these different perspectives is absent, the video comes across as
dogmatic as the mass-media, even though the content is reversed.

Video activism was born from the recognition that mass-media is controlled
by powerful elites and that although it claims to serve the democratic
interest of the public to be informed, its real interests, sources of
financial support, hierarchical leadership and decision making processes
are all hidden behind closed doors. It's important to oppose these
practices by including the perspectives and quotidian desires of ordinary
people and marginalized groups, and by making the process of production as
democratic, non-hierarchical and transparent as possible. But it is not
enough to eliminate the distinctions between production and consumption
and between experts and spectators. It's also necessary to question how
images and sound are organized to produce meaning. Ultimately, video
activism means making video politically - refusing to supply platitudes,
ready-made answers, or the "correct" political line. It means making
videos in the form of a question.

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