Memoirs of a Video Activist

I left Bucharest when I was 9. My parents were political refugees. They spoke out against the Ceausescu regime on Radio Free Europe, and three years later, after many protests and hunger strikes, they were permitted to leave Romania. We received political asylum in Austria and later moved to New York. We were stateless for 6 years before becoming US citizens. 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 had been 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 WTO to small protests against Sky TV in Rome, you can see almost as many people with video cameras as protestors. They attempt to go where television cameras don’t, to provide live news about events that are uncovered or misrepresented, to document abuse by governments, corporations and police, and to challenge the “neutral” reports of the mass-media. Contemporary video activism has its roots in the alternative media movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century there existed resistance or oppositional newspapers that sought to reeducate the masses. But while these attempted to present a different kind of content than the mainstream press, they still privileged intellectuals as experts and maintained structural hierarchies of knowledge. What was different about the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s was the change of perspective: the desire to provoke social change not through alternative ideas but through the process of production itself, by turning habitual spectators into active producers and eliminating the difference between experts who create culture and its passive consumers.

When Sony introduced the video Porta-Pak in 1968, filmmakers Bonny Klein and Dorothy Henaut used it for the National Film Board of Canada’s experimental project “Challenge for Change.” They trained people from different locations, including the slums of Montreal, how to produce community video. Similar ideas also inspired video activism in America. The Raindance Corporation contrasted the bird’s eye view of the mainstream press broadcasting from a platform above a crowd of demonstrators with the crowd’s eye view of grassroots video, which became one with the people, allowing them to “speak for themselves.” Ever since then video activism has considered its most ambitious goal to be a transformation in the mode of production that allowed ordinary people to participate in the process. Changes of form or style were downplayed as less important and less radical. It’s this idea that still guides video activism today; what’s different is the proliferation of activist video and the range of distribution made possible by cheap equipment and the internet.

Do-It-Yourself video activism has often been criticized for being stylistically conventional and repetitive, for producing countless images of demonstrations that start to look the same and blur into one another. Many video activists have not moved beyond a mere documentation of actions to aesthetic considerations of methods of analysis and storytelling, montage techniques, and what kind of reaction and engagement is desired from the audience. 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 seems to straightjacket its subjects into pre-formulated theories. I remember when Ursula Biemann was at the Bauhaus to present some raw footage from a video in progress about the construction of an oil pipeline in the Caspian region that she confessed she found it “annoying” that the peasants living along the trajectory of the pipeline were happy to receive money in exchange 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 today 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 often be repetitive, stylistically weak and fall prey to the naïveté of pure transparency that characterized direct cinema during the 1960s, the second type can re-enact some of the worst aspects of militancy handed down through history.

The Situationists and the post-situationist group OJTR (Organisation des Jeunes Travailleurs Revolutionnaires) oncecriticized 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 and rallies, attending meetings, engaging in interminable discussions about rules, procedures and 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. They refused to back down, convinced that they had truth and justice on their side. 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. 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 – precarious workers, migrants, landless peasants, the homeless, children suffering from famine. Or, more accurately, they put their lives in the service of their own ideas about the needs of others who are assumed to be incapable of speaking for themselves.

This indirect vanguardism privileges the role of intellectuals and the correct theory over reality, especially when reality seems to contradict it. For all their insight into the bad conscience of militancy, in the end the Situationists wound up recycling it. In their interpretation of May ’68, they claim that the proletariat, despite the fact that they let the unions control the strike and that only demanded higher wages, had really wanted a revolution but “they had been unable to say it” since they lacked “a coherent and organized theory.” The revolution failed because the proletariat “proved incapable of really speaking on their own behalf” – in other words, they needed leaders who possessed a “coherent critique” and could 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 intransigence, its domineering style, its enactment of revolution as a theater of political machismo. Militancy turns the desire for liberation into hatred of the enemy. The most ironic and sad display of this is the reappearance of the “Che cult” at demonstrations against global capitalism – despite becoming a poster boy for the new “movement of movements,” in fact Guevarra was a Stalinist who preached a “relentless hatred of the enemy” that would transform militants “into effective and selective cold killing machines.” By valorizing the confrontational posture of warfare and dividing the world into enemies and allies, militancy gets caught in a vicious circle that mimics rather than subverts that which it opposes.

When I returned to Romania and started to travel all over the former “eastern bloc,” I viewed the general distrust of militant politics that I witnessed 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 among artists and activists in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, which was a conscious alternative to the manifesto issuing and intransigent proclamations that had marked not only leftist militancy but also the history of the avant-gardes culminating with the Situationists. I interpreted the skepticism about militancy as a chance to reinventactivism, to understand it not as something reactive (rebelling against something, demonstrating, blockading, boycotting), but positively, as the recognition that things can change only if you act to bring about the change yourself. But my optimism was exaggerated. What became clearer during the 17 years after the “fall of the iron curtain” is that the skepticism about militancy has turned into a flat denunciation of all leftist politics and an excuse for passive resignation.

This situation is only partly due to the absence of a tradition of grassroots activism during the communist period and to disinformation campaigns that assured the “left” would be understood simply as the de facto power of the communist apparatus. It has also been influenced by a new mystification about the meaning of “postcommunism” enforced 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 in reality, postcommunism was heavily loaded with fatalistic value judgments (anything other than capitalism is doomed to fail). Postcommunism was invoked to justify the neoliberal view that claimed all forms of state regulation are totalitarian and that democracy can only be attained by “liberating” the market from all restrictions. It became a prop supporting economic policies of price liberalization, deregulation and privatization, as well as moralistic discourses about disease and health. Homo socialisticus was judged crazy, a mental patient needing “shock therapy” in order to be brought back to a state of normalcy. What was hidden behind the language of “postcommunism” and “normalization” was the assumption that all the defects of the transition were effects of the communist past and of the lack of a proper capitalist market rather than its excesses.

The imbalanced megaphone of the mass-media amplified the confusion between the left and the right by feeding people the idea that democracy was synonymous with global capitalism and by portraying all critiques of this best of all possible worlds as nostalgia for communist dictatorship. Any critique of global capitalism now sparks an immediate hysteria in the Romanian press and among prominent intellectuals. A recent article appearing in “Romania Libera” denounced the antiglobalization, syndicalist and environmental movements as “symptoms of a pathological desire to return to communism” and as a “rejection 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 this forum was a bureaucratic, elitist affair that lacked openness and transparency by denouncing her critics as “Stalinists.” Having memorized by heart all the clichés of American cold war discourse, Romanian intellectuals see only two possible alternatives: there is capitalism on the one hand and everything else is Stalinism.

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 simply to pass judgment on the history of communist dictatorships but to cast suspicion on ideas that invoke the common, the collective, the public, and even activism itself. All are dismissed as inextricably tainted by the disrepute of their communist past. Before 1989, activism referred to the top-down actions of members of the party who spread propaganda on the factory floor and in public spaces. The word “activism” is now commonly avoided in public discourse because of its previous connotations. A video entitled “Video Activism,” which was made by a colleague for the public television station of Moldova, was subsequently broadcast with the title “Video Actions” because this was judged to sound more acceptable for mainstream televisionaudiences.

Together with some like-minded friends, I started D Media (http://www.dmedia.ro) in 2002. Our goal was to create a context for grassroots activism that didn’t exist in Romania and to make the practice of self-organization more contagious, starting with participatory media. At first we organized events to introduce unfamiliar practices like do it yourself media, open source software, the public domain, and since 2004, we focused all our attention on video production, becoming known as the video activist group in Romania. In many ways, doing video activism in Romania really was starting from zero. Unlike other communist countries (especially Yugoslavia), before 1989 Romania had no tradition of an alternative left or counter culture. And unlike other countries, there was also no tradition of experimental film or video during the 1960s and 1970s and few exchanges with the West. Experimental film festivals with foreign directors, like there were in Yugoslavia, or a movement like the Czech new wave, or even a state owned studio like the Hungarian Bela Balazs, which produced politically provocative, experimental films during the 1970s and 1980s, were impossible in the Romanian context, which was one of the most closed, dictatorial regimes of the eastern bloc. The only experimental and 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 in experimental or activist work. Due to prohibitive costs and the lack of a tradition, film and video production was confined to the school of film and television or to a few art departments that specialized in photo and video, 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 even 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 experimental videos made in collaboration with some local volunteers between the ages of 15 to 20. The immediate context for Real Fictions was the general apathy of youth toward political participation and a lack of experience with self-organization, which often leads people 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. His largest group of supporters were under the age of 25. On the most general level, the Real Fictions project encouraged the local volunteers to “do it themselves” – not only in terms of participating in making the videos, but also in terms of seeing this as a kind of experiment in shaping their lives according to their own interests and ideas. This approach in producing the videos was also a background theme in each of the 4 works.

The two videos I worked on engaged directly with the rise of nationalism and the extreme right in Romania, from political parties like PRM to small neofascist groups that militate for a final solution to the gypsy problem and the 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 continuedpresence in today’s mainstream culture. The second video, Paint Romanian, is a rhythmic montage set to music, composed of hundreds of still photographs of tricolor objects reflecting Cluj’s nationalist obsessions during Funar’s terms in office. The third video, Behind the Scene presents the views of young artists about their struggle to make a living, the subsumption of art into mass culture, the inadequacy of all the institutions promoting contemporary art in Romania, and the importance of artist-run spaces. The fourth video, Open, was filmed during the Transhackmeeting in Pula, Croatia in 2004, and it focuses on the Free/Open Source Software movement, not only as a mode of software production but as part of a general culture (one that is missing in Romania), which has important political and economic implications. (For more information about the videos and downloads, see http://www.dmedia.ro/04video-e.htm)

The Real Fictions project closely adhered to the idea of eliminating the distinction between experts and passive spectators, and tried to involve teenagers who usually don’t have a public voice in producing the videos and making their voices heard. But despite our intentions of working with the volunteers as equal partners, they continued to look to us as the experts responsible for making the 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, and to equate freedom with exercising our rights and limitless possibilities. In reality, freedom is not only the joy of discovering our creativity and latent capabilities, it’s also the terrible burden of responsibility and hard work, which is why many people prefer to cast it away.

We also realized, in retrospect, that by focusing all our attention on the process of production, we paid too little attention to the finished works and their dissemination. Some of the videos provoked heated debates and interesting reactions during public screenings, and it would have been important to focus more on the question of audiences from the start. At a recent workshop on art and social transformation in Italy, the Asiles group from France asked how this “transformation” can be measured – qualitatively or quantitatively? Is it a matter of changing the lives of a few people in a substantial way by involving them in the process of production or is it a matter of how many people get to see the finished works and are provoked to ask questions and change some of their ideas? How do you strike a balance between the two? My own sense is that the impact of participating in the project 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. But this conclusion also has something to do with the specificity of the Romanian context.

Working on the Real Fictions project led me to question the significance of a Do-It-Yourself ethos in a context where it is almost completely lacking. Some activists from Italy once asked me about the social movements in Romania. 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 values and integration. But as for grassroots, self-organized groups that operate without a legal or institutional structure, and especially those that are critical of the “transition” and Romania’s incorporation into global capitalism, you can really count them on a few hands. In ItalyDIY initiatives like the Telestreets or Indymedia Italy have a large supporting network of social centers and hundreds of thousands of people participating. But trying to create the context in Romania, one step at a time, with a few volunteers, can sometimes seem not only daunting but meaningless. The root of the problem seems to be elsewhere – there is no alternative discourse that ever reaches public consciousness. Rather than making videos for a small art crowd or a few underground clubs, it seems more meaningful to bringing to light issues that are usually suppressed in the mainstream discourse by provoking large audiences to ask questions about the way they usually see their world.

Our next video project, Made in Italy (2005-2006), was a collaboration with Candida TV (http://candida.thing.net), a video activist group from Rome. The focus of the videos is 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 left to work abroad rather than compete for jobs paying 70 euro per month in Romania. After 2000, Italy became the leading destination for Romanian migrants, who are estimated at well over 2 million. We thought it important to bring this history to the surface because Romanian public discourse has uncritically celebrated foreign investment as a panacea that will save the nation. This is even more true now, with the euphoria about the EU accession, which will mean more foreign investment and privatization. The neoliberal government that came to power in 2004 has done everything it could 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 try to introduce a counter-story to the dominant one, but not a story told in a unified voice. The videos present a clash of different perspectives – owners of Italian companies, representatives of Italian cultural institutions, workers, taxi drivers, trade union leaders, Romanian migrants who are now working in Italy, etc. And the various “authors” from D Media and Candida TV who pieced the narratives together also have very different perspectives, different styles of filming, different ideas about montage, all of which made a single point of view impossible. As a consequence, the works present not a story that builds through the connective principle of addition (different voices that add up to a totality), but a story that unfolds through contradictions and disjunctions and becomes more complicated rather than simpler as it moves along. The viewers have to piece together the fragments, and draw their own conclusions.

Compared to the previous project, the production process of Made in Italy felt like a real collaboration among equal partners. This also meant, realistically, that the process was often a difficult one since we had disagreements about the different ideas and styles and had to reach some sort of 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 act of dialogue, and ultimately we are able to make a better work than each of us could have made as a single individual.

Working on these two projects in Romania has led me to rethink what video activism means to me. Taking the highest principle of video activism to mean eliminating the difference between expert and audience by including spectators in video production tends to focus entirely on the process and to neglect the qualities of the finished work. Although it’s important to reflect perspectives and voices that are not usually heard, what often gets lost in activist video is the aesthetic dimension. In activist circles no one talks about the work of art or aesthetics; these issues are immediately dismissed as elitist. The word “art” has become an embarrassment in all but its Situationist sense – as the liberation of creative energies that everyone possesses are suppressed by the routine and boredom of daily 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, 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 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: the red color dominates the film and 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 presupposition behind the Dziga Vertov films is that images are always false and need to be negated and critiqued. The “correct sound” must be superimposed onto the false image. 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 Godard says in the voiceover, 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 contradictions 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. Here & Elsewhere occupies no fixed ideological position and takes nothing for granted, not even its own voice. In an era dominated by a politics of the message (statements, communiqués, declarations of war, easy answers to “what is to be done”), it searches for a politics of the question.

I used to think Godard was not as radical as video activists during the same period who “went outto the people,” including them in the process of production. In hindsight, he seems more radical for having posed the questions that went to the root of the problem. Godard drew a distinction between making a political film and making film politically. Making film politically means investigating how images find their meaning and disrupting the rules of the game, whether the game is Hollywood mystification or activist 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, the 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 simplistic slogans rather than argument, and are blind to their own internal contradictions. The Indymedia video Rebel Colors, which covers the demonstrations in 2000 in Prague against the IMF and World Bank, presents the one-sided perspectives of many activists who came from America, the UK, Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy, including members of 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 is important to oppose these practices through positive alternatives, 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 sufficient to eliminate the distinctions between production and consumption, experts and spectators, those who give orders (directors) and those who follow them (executants). It’s also necessary to question how images and sound are organized to produce meaning, and what kind of messages get disseminated. Video activism ultimately 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.

For an updated version of this text, please see the following: http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors3/richardsontext3.html.

Joanne Richardson founded the D Media Association in Romania, a digital democracy NGO organizing workshops on hybrid radio, digital video, streaming media, and open source software as well as coordinating a local net.radio and video production group. She is also editor of Subsol webzine, and the author of publications on recent social movements, immaterial labor and informal markets, the crisis of tactical media, the myths animating net activism, and the history of experimental film & video in Eastern Europe.

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