At the outset of this project I suggested that territorial solidarity, aesthetic expression, self-organized communication and theoretical innovation are the four vectors through which social movements are able to produce a rupture of normalcy, or an event. The creation of events, and their subsequent expression, communication, interpretation and existential incorporation into what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling,” is one of the most important ways that grassroots movements are able to influence society. The occupations of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Plaza del Sol in Madrid and Zucchotti Park in New York – with their ongoing consequences and aftershocks – make that notion obvious enough. Yet these recent breakthroughs are only the latest in a long series. Does that series itself have cumulative effects? What’s revealed by the historical gaze is that the very existence of a movement capable of knitting together this fourfold capacity – and of practicing what I call “eventwork” – depends on the continuing resonance of previous ruptures of the norm.
Here I want to focus on a few key elements of the extended chain of transformations that led to the formulation of a new aesthetic and communicational style by the transnational social movements of the late Nineties. The analysis begins with a conceptual shift in media theory that took place in the United States in the early Seventies. Then it moves to a territorial experience that unfolded a some ten years later in the Netherlands. Those two backgrounds can help us understand the aesthetic and organizational styles of the global tactical media network that emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century, around a concept initially launched in Amsterdam: the concept of tactical television.
As dissent and resistance spread across the world in the late Sixties, a new territory of experience emerged on which radical experiments could be conducted. A proliferation of concepts soon followed. Writing in the journal Radical Software in the early Seventies, the alternative media theorist Paul Ryan used information theory to imagine how grassroots video production could disrupt and transform the broadcast system, which in his view was a major factor of social entropy. Ryan titled his text “Cybernetic Guerrilla Warfare,” in sympathy with the Vietcong and other Third-World rebels. The word "warfare” stresses the friend-enemy distinction, on which political struggle is founded. Yet Ryan was not in favor of the violent tactics of insurrectional groups like the Weatherman: “Nobody with any wisdom is looking for a straight out fight. We have come to understand that in fighting you too easily become what you behold.” Rather than a civil war bringing two opposing parties into a dialectical struggle for victory, he saw the need for a deeper ecological transformation affecting the social whole. The title of his text therefore demanded a multi-layered explanation:
"Warfare... because having total control over the processing of video puts you in direct conflict with that system of perceptual imperialism called broadcast television that puts a terminal in your home and thereby controls your access to information....
"Guerrilla warfare... because the portable video tool only enables you to fight on a small scale in an irregular way at this time....
"Cybernetic guerrilla warfare... because the tool of portable video is a cybernetic extension of man and because cybernetics is the only language of intelligence and power that is ecologically viable."
Ryan saw himself as an activist McLuhan, looking to transform the media system rather than just interpret it. He was part of a countercultural research and development foundation named Raindance Corporation, in ironic mockery of the Rand Corporation, a Navy think-tank. His text – which inspired Michael Shamberg’s famous book, Guerrilla Television – develops two main ideas, both of which have everything to do with the future developments of tactical media. On the one hand it was a matter of jamming, puncturing, subverting and disabling the dominant media through consciously conceived and carefully distributed alternative production. This required understanding the systemic equilibrium of broadcast information, and discovering where its weak points were. The subversion of broadcast TV was to be accomplished by a multiplicity of self-enabled and mutually supportive groups, “ad hoc heterarchies of power which have their logistics down.” Ryan’s description of the guerrilla media-makers is almost Maoist in its populism, but also extremely sensitive:
“The most elegant piece of earth technology remains the human biocomputer, the most important data banks are in our brain cells. Inherent in cybernetic guerrilla warfare is the absolute necessity of having the people participate as fully as possible. This can be done in an information environment by insisting on ways of feeding back information for human enhancement rather than feeding off people for the sake of concentration of power.”
In fact, the “warfare” described in this text was primarily a matter of education - or more precisely, self-education through consistent and reciprocal feedback among the autonomously constituted groups. In that sense it was about producing, not just a subversive or oppositional culture, but above all an ecological one, developing in fundamentally different directions than the industrial war machine. “We need to know what not to be,” he stresses.
The other idea of the text begins from that observation. Ryan, who was strongly influenced by Gregory Bateson and the cybernetic utopians, saw himself as working toward the creation of self-organizing social systems, able to cooperate outside the coercive and competitive rule-sets enforced by the pyramidal powers of the Establishment. While warfare requires the friend-enemy distinction, cooperation entails continuous internal differentiation and productive coupling on the friendly side of the spectrum. “Screw us and we multiply,” as the Occupy movement recently put it. For Ryan, cooperative coupling entailed going beyond the binary reduction of dialogue: “Dialogue degenerates and moves to conflict without an understanding of mutual intent and non-intent. While it does not seem that we can work out such a common language of intent with the people pursuing the established entropic way of increasingly dedifferentiated ways of eating bullshit, it is critical we develop such a language with each other.”
His first proposal of a language beyond dialogue was enigmatic, but visually suggestive. It consisted of what he called “Klein worms,” which were topological figures related to Klein bottles, showing reversible relations of container and contained: relations of multiplicity in unity. The artist Claude Ponsot sketched these figures in a series of illustrations accompanying the article. One sees a whole with distinct parts that split off and are then reintegrated, but never subsumed. The underlying notion seems to be that of cooperation without subordination. Ryan then translated his topological insight into a formulary for video practice that begins with self-reflexivity and expands outwards to an intersubjective relation:
Taping something new with yourself is a part uncontained
To replay the tape for yourself is to contain it in your perceptual system
Taping yourself playing with the replay is to contain both on a new tape
To replay for oneself tape of self with tape of self is to contain that process in a new dimension...
To watch another's edited tape is to share in the way he thinks about the relation between his various perceptions in a real time mode. This enters the realm of his intention.
If you are editing some of your tape along with tape somebody else shot and he is doing the same thing using some of your tape then it is possible to see how one's perceptions relate to another's intentions and vice versa.
The artistic side of what is now called tactical media has everything to do with the relations of multiplicity uncovered in the early Seventies, at the time when television – and therefore, the spectacle society – was perceived to be the essential obstacle to social change. Yet despite the proliferation of alternative media projects in that decade, video did not fulfill its promise of overcoming the norms of the spectacle society, not least because the crucial machinery of distribution remained under the control of the corporations and the state. Looking back on the New York scene in a 1988 text entitled “A Genealogy of Video,” Ryan observed that what experimental video ultimately turned into was not a tool for social change, but an art form. Much of the problem, as he saw it, was institutional, concerning the way that money was attributed to those experimenting with a technology of almost magical promise. But there were deeper reasons: “At the core of the difficulty is the fact that there has been no resolution of the problematics underlying the industrial culture promulgated by broadcast television.”
Some inight into the place of the artist within the industrial status quo can be gleaned by watching the work Exchange (1973), where Robert Morris made exactly the kind of video experiment that Ryan describes, in collaboration with fellow artist Lynda Bengelis. The piece begins with a blur of light and a highly distorted voice that seems to be describing the process of collaboration. After several minutes, an undistorted female voice intervenes: “This is a tape I made....” A droning male voice, which we soon understand to be that of an actor, overlays the woman without entirely drowning her out:
“This is a tape he made of a tape she made of a tape he made in the studio. This is a tape he made of a tape she made. On screen is her tape of his tape. His tape is the last image in the background, which she photographed with other faces. This tape is of that. His tape was raw material. The tape on the screen is raw material. Rephotographing his tape made it her work, or commenting on it made it her work, or both. She is heard but never seen. Nothing here has been rephotographed. Can it then be raw material?”
The text goes on and on like that, with the actor’s voice discussing the exchange and editing of the tapes. Meanwhile we see Morris from the back, looking into a monitor which shows his own image relayed in real time. A great variety of other images are montaged in, presumably from the tapes elaborated in the dialogue with Bengelis. The reversible relations of container and contained are explored through the narration and the editing, exactly as Ryan had envisioned. Yet the result of this “exchange” is a product, an artistic work signed by Robert Morris, a documentation of his exceptional talent and mental agility. It is as though the intersubjective relation had telescoped back into a self-reflexive one.
In the case of Morris and Bengelis, the experiment in overlapping subjectivities had to do with the collaboration between artists of different genders pursuing diverging aesthetic goals. Such questions could be treated between friends, in the calm of the studio, at the price of a certain narcissism. What we see is the narrowing of video practice that Ryan described in the Seventies, its reduction to the art context where the potential for social change remains alive, but suspended. In the case of tactical media makers in the Nineties, the experiment would involve a vast network of collaboration between individuals and groups of differing cultural and political orientations, caught up together in social movements where the antagonism between friend and enemy is violently played out in the streets. At that point the arrested potential of alternative media found a new future. The machinery of global distribution offered by the Internet obviously had a major role to play in this reopening, but it was not the only factor. To grasp the sources of the new images, practices and concepts, we have to plunge into existential territories.
What is a social movement? Where does it come from? How do its participants deal with a collective self-image – or indeed, with collective self-knowledge – in a society whose spectacular media will gladly take care of that for you? These questions were asked with humor and frank lucidity in an anonymously authored book about the Dutch squatters’ movement of the late Seventies and early Eighties, published in 1990 by the Society for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge, or Adilkno. The title is Cracking the Movement: Squatting Beyond the Media.
The extended recession of the late 1970s was good for at least one thing. Large numbers of buildings in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities lay vacant and ready for the taking. Under a “tolerant” social democracy with squatters’ rights firmly in place since the Sixties, the time was ripe for urban experiments that developed in many different directions, but always began with one simple act: breaking a locked door, entering a vacant space and installing a new locked door. Its key opened up to fresh definitions of property and inhabitation, to be decided by those directly concerned.
Autonomy, as the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis stresses, is when the social self (autos) gives itself its own law (nomos). For him it requires the break-up and re-elaboration of existing institutions, on both the objective and psychic levels. In the wake of the Italian movement of ‘77, autonomous movements or “Autonomen” began springing up all over Western Europe, helping to create the radical youth culture that is so hard to find in the United States. In the Netherlands, the squatting movement came to a height in 1980 and remained there for several years, even as Ronald Reagan took power in the Empire and neoliberalism commenced in earnest. Internationally, the period was marked by the Pershing missile crisis, which saw a flowering of East-West collaboration as groups on both sides of the Wall struggled against the nuclear technologies of the Cold War. The notion of civil society – that is, of the autonomy of society as a sphere distinct from economics and government – was crucial in the political philosophy of that period. But what mattered on the ground, in the eyes of Adilkno, was something more elemental: the capacity to gather a crowd in defense of a place of inhabitation and a whole way of life. What the press calls a street riot can become, for those involved, a moment of existential metamorphosis. Here's how it's described in Cracking the Movement:
“During such an event, the meeting takes place between the strangers who populate the city. The crowd, which as a stream of traffic had become invisible to itself, recognizes itself anew and reacts as such: it rediscovers its reality in a concrete form. The individuals who, according to Canetti, overcome their fear of touch in the crowd, meet each other as bodies and embrace that experience at once. And this while in the day-to-day order the other was merely an image, a collection of advertising messages regarding lifestyle, status, sexuality, subculture. The accumulation of characteristics everyone makes of himself loses its disciplining impact on the spot.... However exceptional the damage caused in the stories that make the rounds later, the concrete incidents are shorter-lived than the ultimate surprise at how in the world this could have happened. The chain reaction has surpassed every initiating action. The amazement over this can be hardened into a nostalgic attitude, which demands that the events of the good old days, having become inconceivable, will not happen again. But it can also be transformed into the radiance of the promise that the adventure can be relived, that the same event can be staged more times, from beginning to end, but by us ourselves.”
The book is full of these kinds of descriptions, which convey the affective, trans-subjective experience whereby the alienation of the contemporary city is momentarily overcome, the anonymous other reveals him or herself to be a vital ally or even a friend, and the street, formerly reserved for the controlled circulation of traffic, becomes an inhabitable territory. This experience of encounter is illegal knowledge, the foundation of a possible autonomy. Just a few paragraphs later, in an unmarked borrowing from the philosopher and fiction writer Georges Bataille, the riot is termed sovereign – that is, independent of any causality or instrumentality, “because it is not performed for the eye of the media, it strives after no propagandist goals, is not aimed against bosses or the state, but shrieks over the street for its own sake and ultimately leaves its participants behind in the freedom of surprise and the shiver of panic.” The event is trans-personal, beyond any singular self-identity, outside any plan or stable narrative. Which, by the way, is more or less exactly what I experienced decades later in events that transformed my own existence, at very different protest-riots in other countries and on other continents.
Interestingly, the great antagonist of the squatters’ movement as recounted by Adilkno is neither the police nor the capitalist state, but the media. The sovereignty from which the movement emerges is betrayed by its unsolicited media reflection, which sensationalizes the violence of confrontation in its own quest to capture a passive audience, while at the same time reducing everything about the ecstatic experience of the crowd – and about the pragmatic reality of squatting – to legalistic and economic categories that serve the state in its defense of property rights. The movement born on the open territory of the street is destroyed in the managed frame of the screen. This is the archetypal drama of social movements in the age of spectacular control. Yet the paradoxical thing about Cracking the Movement is that it denies the very existence of the squatters’ movement, ascribing the desire for that name and that identity to to the imaginary stage that the presence of the cameras conjures up in the minds of those who once acted on their own account, and now seek only to maintain and prolong a narrative which has become estranged to them. Even the movement becomes a mythology, and not its own. The problem of representation in its inadequacy to lived experience and to the immediacy of the deed is posed here at its most intimate level. The implication, captured brilliantly in the title of the book, is that the squatters themselves (krakers in Dutch) must shatter the distorting mirror of “the movement” in order to regain their sovereign capacity to act, their mobility.
Viewed from the outside, through the prism of an exceptional piece of writing, the squatting scene appears as a territorial experience whose primary aesthetic component is a cry in the street. This “movement” established the distinction of friend and enemy which is irreducibly necesary for any kind of political confrontation; and it was also able to articulate itself internally into many concrete forms. Yet at least some of its participants were left with a sense of blockage, an inability to go further in the process of social transformation, due to the reifying effects of the spectacular media. The most significant cultural and political productions of the following decade could be seen as a dialectical response to that sense of blockage. How to create more diversified aesthetic forms? How to communicate with other territories? How to extend the political confrontation into the transnational arena that governmental and economic powers were increasingly occupying? And how to understand the development of the movement “itself” – without reverting to an imaginary stage whose scenery and showtimes were provided by the major media?
The Eighties left Amsterdam with a fresh memory of street protest, a diverse network of self- institutionalized spaces and a keen awareness of civil-society struggles elsewhere in the world, particularly under the authoritarian regimes of what would soon become the “former East.” Among the grassroots institutions were Autonoom Centrum (a political information and action center focusing on migration), Montevideo and Time Based Arts (both devoted to video), Hack-Tic magazine (a hacker ‘zine that would launch the first Dutch Internet service provider, XS4ALL, in 1993) and Paradiso, a former church in the city center, squatted in 1968, which operated as an independent music venue but additionally hosted international conferences like The Galactic Hacker Party (1989), The Seropositive Ball (1990) and Decolonization of Imagination (1991). Amsterdam also had an “open channel” program for public access to radio and cable TV broadcasting, thanks largely to the polemical efforts of media pirates who broke into the airwaves in the early Eighties. After 1989 when the Wall came down and the transnationalization of Europe began, the city was in a perfect position to become a network hub for radical political cultures on the Old Continent, with strong ties to the Americas as well. One of the things it would produce was a networked and therefore deterritorialized version of the squatters’ intense encounters in the streets: the Next 5 Minutes conferences, which began in 1993.
The most original characteristic of the N5M meetings was their combination of art, activism and hacking culture, all on an equal footing, without essentializing separations. Two things stand out as particularly striking when one considers these conferences in retrospect. The first is the complex composition of the organizing team. While part of the thrust came from alternative culture figures like the artist David Garcia, the pirate media-maker Menno Grootveld and the critic and theorist Geert Lovink (who was part of Adilkno), another driving force came from Bas Raijmakers and the Cultural Studies Research Group at Amsterdam University, who brought in the crucial reference to Michel de Certeau’s notion of tactics. In his introduction to the N5M Zapbook, Raijmakers wrote:
“Because TV-tacticians haven't got a place inside the world of TV, their politics and/or aesthetics are shaped by different tactics used in different contexts. It is always the context in which tactical TV is made that influences the tactics deployed. Tactical TV is about ‘...clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things,‘the hunter's cunning,’ manoevres, polymorphic situations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.’ (De Certeau).”
The cultural studies influence can be glimpsed in the diagrams that illustrate the N5M1 Zapbook, which show the terms “marginal” and “mainstream” as opposite poles of a single field, and depict strategy and tactics as two sides of the same coin. The implication was that the tactical element could seamlessly extend its subversive twist into the mainstream. To which one might reply that the mainstream could also quite easily disarm and strategically repurpose the tactical. The potentially mollifying effects of this unified field discourse were countered by the other impressive characteristic of the conference, which was was its global scope, at a moment before the World Wide Web when the effortless communication we now take for granted did not yet exist. A tremendous organizational effort was deployed to identify and contact media makers around the planet, and to assemble a videotape library that could be consulted during and after the meeting. The wide-open call insured the internal differentiation of the project. As David Garcia recalled in 1996:
“A number of us who had been active in Amsterdam tactical media over the years started wondering how many groups from around the world believed, like us, in television as a participatory and emancipatory tool. We knew of random examples like Social Dialogue's samizdat media from Romania, or the Gay Men's Health Crisis whose weekly programs, Living With AIDS, provided a weekly diet of information on Manhattan cable. We knew there was more, but how much more? To answer this question a conference of ‘tactical media’ was organised. A conference designed to bring together as many of those who were involved in democratisation of television together, as possible.”
The impressive scope of these encounters – which were literally meant to blow your mind every five minutes or so – is attested by the archive of videos preserved at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and by the websites that cover the editions of 1996, 1999 and 2003. Rather than attempting any finely grained coverage of the people and projects involved, right now I just want to focus on one of the films presented at N5M1, Videograms of a Revolution (1992) by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica. This complex piece of montage uses an assemblage of “found footage” (private or unofficial cameras roaming through the streets and even through the halls of power) to track the simultaneous breakdown of of the dictatorial state and of official broadcast TV in Roumania in 1989. Through this approach, you can see spectacular power crumbling before your very eyes. Even as it portrays the dissolution of the old media regime, however, the film also shows the constitution of a new state authority and a new state TV on somewhat different grounds, closer to the liberal modes of pluralistic management and control that have long been known in the West. Both the newfound power and the marginal impotence of the independent activist camera are thereby revealed, opening up the space for a debate on the kinds of tactics to be adopted by grassroots counter-information groups in the face of changing forms of spectacular power.
In 1993, the audiovisual regime of the West had already been jolted by the arrival of satellite TV and the new 24-hour stations – but also by the capacity of grassroots groups to seize the same kind of technology, as demonstrated in the US, for example, by the Gulf Crisis TV Project carried out by long-term media activist groups Paper Tiger and Deep Dish, which used satellite transmission to broadcast alternative journalism and video art in opposition to the 1991 Gulf War. At the same time, the intensification of the neoliberal regime of private property and police violence pushed younger artists like Paul Garrin to an activist stance, around the same time as the networked distribution of an amateur video showing the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles set off a major riot in the streets. Shortly thereafter, the entire broadcast regime would be transformed by the introduction of a new, world-wide distribution system wide open to grassroots and dissenting uses: the Internet. Computer hacking then emerged as a crucial component of both activism and art, and in 1996, at N5M2, the theme of tactical television was replaced by the wider concept of tactical media. Because it used a real situation to dramatize the range of possibilities that open up briefly during a period of accelerated change, the film Videograms of a Revolution could serve as a spark for intense discussions of what independent media could or could not do at a particular historical juncture, marked always by its own unique urgencies. That was the burning issue at all the Next 5 Minutes conferences.
From Virtual to Actual
Going further, one would have to discuss the emergence of Internet mailing lists in the mid-Nineties, typified by the text-filtering list Nettime, which was founded at the Venice Biennial in 1995 and was also closely associated with the networking hub of Amsterdam. Because the Web was slow and clumsy in the mid-Nineties, this was the golden age of text in unadorned ASCII characters – the perfect medium for theoretical debate and literary experimentation, in direct contact with a technology that could still be changed hands-on. The flavor of the list is captured by the book README! Filtered by Nettime, which was collaboratively edited by a group of list participants, some of whom gathered at the Hybrid Workspace organized by Geert Lovink at Documenta X in 1997. Similar lists prolifereated – Syndicate, Fiberculture, the Old Boys Network – as well as more curated experiments in organized chaos, like the <eyebeam><blast> forum moderated by Jordan Crandall. What seems like a routine part of ordinary life today – far outstripped in real-time intensity by Twitter – was a major shock to the nervous system and the imagination, of the kind brought by the introduction of any new communication medium.
The Nineties were a freewheeling decade, as hundreds of thousands of people who had never met in the flesh felt out the novel experience of addressing each other as individuals, and maybe even as equals, on media that had worldwide reach. Limits on the right to speak and participate in serious conversation temporarily seemed to crumble, along with forms of prestige and authority dictated by geographical location and the rank order of cities and countries in the global economic hierarchy. Of course that impression of openness now appears naïve, as it also did to many at the time. It’s striking to see that as early as 1996, much of the N5M2 conference was already devoted to the critical analysis of the new networked power structures, as dissected by CAE, Arthur Kroker, Ctheory and many others. Similarly, the Nettime list was decisively oriented by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s attack on the cyber-libertarian rhetoric of Silicon Valley, which they dubbed “the Californian Ideology.” As the Nineties wore on, the activist tone mounted and friend-enemy distinction at the heart of political confrontation began to be redefined for the era of corporate globalization.
At the same time, the intimacy, experimentalism and blue-sky theorizing of email exchanges helped open up a new kind of social reflexivity, which could be embodied in conferences or other meetings and then activated on the streets. Art was often mingled with abstract concepts and concrete political commitments, bringing elements of possibility, uncertainty and otherness into the mix. The ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, with their attention to aesthetic intensities and the social or machinic unconscious, picked up where the countercultural cybernetics of Gregory Bateson had left off in the Seventies. Paul Ryan’s ecological vision of a fully self-aware videography of cooperative relations without hierarchy and subordination was never, to my knowledge, fulfilled during the Nineties (though the Timescapes project orchestrated by Angela Melitopoulous in the early 2000s strives in exactly that direction). But one could argue that something more interesting was achieved. Hundreds of thousands of people from all four corners of the planet learned to collaborate, however approximately, on a vast set of undertakings which were variously called the global justice movement, the counter-globalization movement, the no-global movement, or the movement of movements. In the course of the Nineties, a complex emancipatory force was articulated at the grassroots of world society, capable of provoking new and astonishing events.
posted by Brian Holmes
Friday, January 31, 9:45 PM
A Video Address from Chiapas to the "Freeing the Media" Gathering
by Subcommandante Marcos
Letter from Luther:
Ya Basta with the TV!
The thing I always wondered was this: What must it have been like at that “Freeing the Media” conference in New York City, when they screened the Sub's unbelievable video letter? You know, what was it like to be in that room when he said, right in your face, directly to you, Joe video-maker from the Bronx:
“For the communication giants and the neoliberal powers, the others, the excluded, only exist when they are dead, or when they are in jail or court. This can't go on. Sooner or later this virtual world clashes with the real world. And that is actually happening: this clash produces results of rebellion and war throughout the entire world.”
And what must it have been like when he said it right there in the middle of the news-and-information capital of the Empire:
“The independent media has a life work, a political project and purpose... It is our only possibility to save the truth, to maintain it, and distribute it, little by little, just as the books were saved in Fahrenheit 451 – in which a group of people dedicated themselves to memorize books, to save them from being destroyed, so that the ideas would not be lost. This same way, independent media tries to save history: the present history – saving it and trying to share it, so it will not disappear.”
I'll tell you one thing for sure, it wasn't like now, with YouTube. You couldn't just replay it a hundred times to see if you really got it. The tape probably came by donkey from the jungle, and then by jeep from somewhere else, then by bus to Mexico City, then by some friend on the way to NYC. You saw it once and you remembered, it whispered to you, it came back to you in flashes, in conversations, at night when you were drunk or falling asleep at the editing table. Who knows how many people went through life with those words in their dreams? Not that man, I guess; but enough to make a difference.
I dug up the scraggly old HTML website of that “independent media teach-in and speak-out.” It was put on by an org called Access for All, yet another adhoc alliance of the kind that were popping up everywhere at that time: video veterans and hippy librarians and NGOs and anarchist hotheads who were living through the Clinton-fest and the dot-com boom and the net explosion and you know, they had eyes to see, they really seriously thought the world was coming to an end. Which it was for a lot of people in Mexico, not to mention the welfare mothers in the States and all the others getting gentrified out of their traditional neighborhoods. It was really David and Goliath in those days, every activist videomaker was their own Don Quixote. What makes me laugh on that webpage is the little comic of the horse and the corporate media rider falling off it, and then you see the little trip-fence on the bottom that says “grassroots democracy and resistance.”
I guess what the media loved about the Sub is the ski mask and the pipe and those twinkling eyes, plus the amazing texts, the speeches, the stories, the metaphors. Well, we loved it too, but for other reasons. January 1, 1994, when they rose up in San Cristóbal de as Casas, was also just coincidentally the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Anyone who had read their Marx knew that NAFTA was a major redeployment of capital on a continental scale, and it had to be on the backs of somebody. I was in California, watching it on TV, I couldn’t believe it. This was a revolution, for real, but on a tiny scale and they didn’t stand a chance against the Mexican army, they were about to get blown to smithereens – except all the solidarity networks that had grown up since the Nicaraguan revolution in the 1980 went suddenly into action and swarmed the international press. There were people with signs outside Mexican embassies all over the world. On the ground in Chiapas there were activists with connections to APC bulletin boards [Association for Progressive Communications], there were phone lines and faxes to the federal capital, and the Mexican middle classes who had suffered and lost when they were young in ‘68 were stung to the core-a-zon by the sight of all those starving Mayan indios with carabines and machetes, exactly at the moment when their hot-shot president Salinas de Gortari was telling them that Mexico was now a modern country. So they poured out onto the street with massive protests and demonstrations. It was netwar, a war of images and words rather than bullets and dead bodies. And civil society was winning.
In the summer of 1996, around three thousand people from maybe forty different countries went to south-eastern Mexico to hear the Zapatistas speak poetry and geopolitics and revolution and, let’s not forget, autonomous village government and feminism. They had announced the Women's Law, Comandante Ramona was a major figure. All their ideas about autonomy made sense to anarchists and to people working in communities, plus in the mid-Nineties when globalization and financialization were not yet understood, they could clearly name the system. They called it neoliberalism – an unknown word in those days.
This journey to the jungle had a galvanizing effect on the global left because what was at stake, obviously if not quite explicitly, was a reformulation of the old Tricontinental solidarity as the Cubans had formulated it. In the Sixties during the heyday of the Cuban Revolution it was the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America splitting off from the Soviet Union and going it alone against the capitalist powers of the devloped world – and if you lived in the North, your role was to help the peoples of the South, to support the Third World. The Zapatistas explained that the Cold War, or what they call the “Third World War,” was over and now the Fourth World War is basically capital against everyone, it is a war to eliminate any difference whatsoever, whether national or cultural or sexual or territorial, in order to reformat the entire planet for production and consumption by computer control. So if you’re different – which means indigenous, black, queer, punk, working class, ecologist, whatever – you can fight your own struggle with your own people and help everyone by doing it, because we all have a common enemy. And this was no joke, because it led to the formation of the People’s Global Action, which was the grassroots driving force of the counter-globalization movement, founded in 1997 after the Second Encuentro in Spain. All this was sparked by the Zapatistas, and it saved them from the Mexican army and helped them continue to this day.
A large group of Italians went to Mexico in 1996, mostly from the squatted social centers that had emerged out of the ruins of ‘77. When they returned they formed the association Ya Basta, which means “we’ve had it” or “that’s enough,” in Spanish of course. Ya Basta ultimately gave rise to the Tute Bianche, who became the cosmo-comic shock troops of the global summit protests. But the Zapatistas inspired people everywhere: anarchists in Spain and France, Autonomen in Germany, eco-anarchists in the UK. And in Latin America, I guess every leftist who still knew how to dance ended up becaming at least a temporary Zapatista.
There were major support groups in the US as I soon found out, including intellectuals like the autonomous Marxist Harry Cleaver in Texas, who maintained a web-archive of Zapatista material, or George Caffentzis and the Midnight Notes Collective, who published a book called Auroras of the Zapatistas. The artist Ricardo Dominguez and his friends in the Electronic Disturbance Theater studied infowar and launched their FloodNet performance against the websites of the Mexican government. And at some point, everyone who could halfway read English started to read these weird books like Netwar is Coming, by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt from none other than the Rand Corporation, which until September 11 you couldn’t entirely tell if they were against civil society or maybe secretly for it.
But for the Luther Blissetts, the Zapatistas were just one thing, and it was the essential. Nobody who was somebody. Fictions becoming reality. Masks that spoke the truth. A brand-new new Mayan mythology for the dropouts amd misfits and rebels of the information era.
OK, wasn't this supposed to be about tactical TV and the Next 5 Minutes? I went to the third one, in 1999. Wild scene. Throngs in the Paradiso, people from all over the planet, everyone a participant. It was the first time I met Shuddha from the Raqs Media Collective in India. Look at all the stuff they're done since then. Some of the panels were fascinating: I remember PGO, “Post-Governmental Organizations,” with an old guy [Kevin Dowling] getting the corporate dirt on the World Wildlife Fund –just check out something called the 1001 Club if you want to know what I mean. Plus there were some real questions on strategy. Do you network the movement and just let it go? Or so you organize it? There was an international left atmosphere where people took seriously the idea that we could really do something. But there was also an incredible party.
The debates were the best. There was a cyberfeminism panel with Old Boys Network. Steve Kurtz kicked up another stir with the idea that the “streets are dead meat for capital.” Marko Peljhan was there, at the time he was pushing the idea of insular technologies, which meant: build strictly uncrackable activist microwave networks, fly your own drones, that sort of thing. There was a TAZ [Temporary Autonomous Zone] with media projects and counterinfo. It was also pretty impressive to wake up dazed in the hotel room, zap the tube to the local public-access channel and there's Saskia Sassen talking some crazy interesting stuff, recorded just the day before. But for me, the most compelling thing BY FAR was a film put together by some kid living in the UK, Augustin Quijano. It was called Reclaim the Streets: the Movie. I'm not even sure they played all of it, or if it was any good as a film either. But what it showed went way beyond experiments. It showed a full-fledged anti-capitalist movement with an entirely new ideology and a unique way of moving through the streets. I saw that and thought, this is it. Eighteen-year old British kids are rioting against the G8 and word is getting out everywhere. Something very big is about to happen. You could feel it in the air. You could feel it in the networks
So yeah, I guess you can trip somebody up with your old TV set!
- Luther Blissett
Media Genealogies of the Most American City
The territory in which this project is being produced is Chicago, the place that Marco D’Eramo recently called “the most American of US cities” in his book The Pig And The Skyscraper - Chicago: A History of Our Future. He continues “If the United States is capitalism’s land of Canaan, then surely Chicago is its Jerusalem.” The metaphors continue endlessly, with poor city residents calling the former mayor “Pharaoh” and Carl Sandburg’s laundry list poem depicting the city as “Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.” All you really need to know is that this massive, racially segregated, centrally-located, politically corrupt place produces profound and unique social movements, culture and events (to name a few: 1886 Haymarket riot, 1904 founding of IWW, 1968 DNC protests, 1969 split of SDS and assassination of Fred Hampton, Harold Washington campaign, RainboPUSH, Active Resistance ‘96, and a string of school and workplace occupations in the years preceding the Wisconsin Rebellion and Occupy Wall Street in 2011).
As with any charged and complicated territory, the impulse to document, network and intervene using self-organized media has been consistent throughout Chicago’s history. Of course it began in the early days with print culture, but by the mid 1960s it was a hotbed of moving image production with an activist bent. The noteworthy early video pioneers were characterized by their experimentation with taking equipment to protests, often borrowed from their affiliations with commercial companies or universities because the early equipment was still quite inaccessible for individuals.
1968-1972 Seeing Ourselves Seeing Ourselves and Borrowing Gear
The Democratic National Convention protests in 1968 are widely recognized as the flashpoint in the United States in the global “events of 1968” because the election results led anti-counterculture Richard Nixon into office and the police fighting with the youth were considered to have gone too far with their brutality. Numerous artists ranging from Tom Palazzolo, the Chicago Surrealist Group, and the Chicago Artists Boycott found these sites of conflict to be worthy of experimental engagement for their work and ideas. But the most lasting documents of the time were produced by the media groups, shooting both film and video, who made the events one of the first political conflicts where protestors could see themselves being documented, not just by “the mass media” but also by their friends and allies.
The first such group was The Film Group (1964-73) who got their start as a commercial entity that gradually started documenting protests and political activities throughout the city. Starting with the famous Civil Rights march in Cicero IL in 1966, the Democratic National Convention protests in 1968 and finally, the work of the Chicago Black Panther Party up until the assassination of their leader Fred Hampton in 1969. Their work was re-released on DVD by local media arts promoters Facets (founded in 1975) and the original films have been preserved by the Chicago Film Archives.
Then came Kartemquin, founded in 1966 by Stanley Karter, Gordon Quinn, and Jerry Temaner and still producing to this very day. Judy Hoffman joined in 1965, and along with people like Sharon Karp, brought a strong video activism dimension to the filmmakers - frequently making work that was edited in-camera and intended for immediate re-playing for internal audiences or as a defensive tool when police would harass protesters or striking workers. This was accentuated by Jerry Temaner’s work at the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Sociology where he coordinated community access to the rare and expensive video equipment housed there for producing academic interviews - exercising the “public” mandate of this urban public school. The other local institution with significant electronic arts and video equipment was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Much of the early video and electronic arts history running in parallel to media activism has been documented through the video interviews of the group criticalartware. In particular, the art-oriented projects of Dan Sandin (UIC) and Phil Morton (SAIC) are related and worth further research.
Finally, the documentary video work of Kaye Miller and Roberta Kass led to a document at the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. The equipment for this work was also connected to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Miller taught and was able to receive funding. The team writes soon after that experience, that this equipment allowed them to “witness” in a manner that echoed the work of a reporter and her notebook, recording details as they unfold, but that was all-together new and unique - replaying moving images at an instant in a way that felt unbeleivable to most people they shared it with in the streets.
This period is also documented through the work of the Videofreex from New York who visited town in the fall of 1969 to produce Chicago Travelogue series with profiles of the Yippies, Weather Underground and Chicago Black Panther Party. This series has been preserved by the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
1972-1980 Getting On TV and Getting Organized
Starting in the early 1970s many video activists started to expand their groups into organizations in an attempt to expand their reach and capacity. Top Value Television (TVTV) was based in San Francisco but had members across the country, including key members in Chicago such as Anda Korsts and Tom Weinberg. TVTV is noted for being the first “independent” television producers to have their work broadcast on national news. The networked group, made up of nearly 30 producers, came together to produce large sprawling documentaries about national media events - most notably the DNC and RNC conventions in the presidential elections of 1972. The results were turned into two videos, The World's Largest TV Studio and Four More Years, which have been compiled in the Convention 72 broadcast below with some opening commentary about the uniqueness of this media event.
Korsts and Weinberg went on to be influencial figures in Chicago’s independent TV scene. Videopolis (1972) was a physical center initiated by Anda Korsts with gear that provided training and community building for makers with the focus of “experimentation with five uses of tape: education, community organization, arts documentation, historical documentation, and archiving.” Annette Barbier, now of Columbia College, was an early instructor there. Videopolis also produced media, notably the series Its a Living (1975), based on the book Working by fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel. This collaboration had national videomakers coordinating their shoots, with members of Videofreex, Optic Nerve, and others. Weinberg went on to went on to run shows like Image Union and The 90s broadcast on public television stations around the country. Weinberg is now at the helm of the remarkable Media Burn archive which shows overlap between this history of Chicago-based media and groups ranging from Appalshop in rural Kentucky to the art collective Ant Farm.
Communications for Change, was founded by Tedwilliam Theodore in 1970 (Uptown) where the technique of “video intervention” was developed. He explains this work as:
Whenever video recording or playback is introduced to a situation, the interpersonal and group dynamics of the situation are altered. This video intervention, quite apart from the uses of the information recorded and exchanged, can have a major effect on that situation. A community group that knows how to apply the techniques of video tape [to] social and political intervention has a powerful tool at its disposal. Tedwilliam Theodore in “Social and Political Intervention: Video Field Experience”
A precursour to Youth Media movement of the 1990s, the Community Television Network (CTVN) was founded by Denise Zaccardi in 1974 and exists to this day. They notably organized a youth video makers festival, Electronic Kid (1976), and Zaccardi collaborated with Judy Hoffman and Lily Ollinger to organize the first meeting of what was to become the Chicago Area Videomakers Coalition (1977). CAVC was and a parallel to initiatives like Chicago Filmmakers (1975-Present) for the local film scene. The group would compile and broadcast their work and eventually upon determining the need for collective editing equipment they founded the Chicago Editing Center (1977). CEC was renamed The Center For New Television (1980) which Studs Terkel called a place where people are “using TV to solve human problems” and published the popular newsletter SCAN which had a nationwide audience. Terkel went on to say that the center made it “possible for community groups, artists, museums, performers, and activists of all stripes to use TV, a tool that is not generally available outside of the corporate and bureaucratic world...To anyone who wants to use the most powerful tools and technology in active and creative ways” in this video:
Many of the figures from the early days of video in Chicago continue to play a role in the local media arts scene. Kartemquin continues to evolve while cultivating a new generation of documentarians. Tom Weinberg went on to secure consistent presence on public television after Image Union (1978) began regular broadcasts on WTTW, laying the ground work for efforts like Labor Beat and Chicago Independent Television who broadcast on the local cable access CAN-TV and online to this day.
As hand-held video cameras became more accessible in the 1990s, it was easier to get into the streets and move with the crowd at a rally or event. This was demonstrated when Countermedia was organized during the 1996 Democratic National Convention, in association with the anarchist Active Resistance conference that brought people from all over the US and Canada to protest the DNC. Countermedia, widely considered a predecessor to today’s international Indymedia Network, was initiated to: “focus on the protests, actions and issues ignored by conventional media sources, during this summer's Democratic National Convention and beyond. We'll document community struggles and protests as they occur, help reporters find out about demonstrations and local organizing campaigns, and make video images, photographs and reports available to mainstream media outlets and the alternative press, both locally and nationally”.
Following the emergence of the Zapatistas in southern Mexico in 1994, the Chicago filmmaker Alex Halkin initiated Promedios (aka Chiapas/Americas Media Project). Another project concerned with facilitating international exchanges through video was Women’s International Information Project (WIIP), comprised of women videomakers from a range of local media organizations including Video Machete, Insight Arts, and Beyondmedia Education. This period also saw the growth of youth media projects, which also include long-running efforts such as Street Level Youth Media, Coop Image, and Free Spirit Media.
While equipment to produce media has become increasingly the domain of the individual user, the need to gather collectively to view and discuss work in intimate community has not gone away. Microcinemas like Icecapades, The Carousel, and Discount Cinema had long runs in informal and community spaces, and projects like South Side Projections, Nightingale, and Whitelight all continue to keep the digital projector torch lit.
The landscape has changed dramatically in every imaginable way from technology to theories of media representation as this independent “tactical TV” history has evolved. The territory of Chicago has undergone changes as well. The tactical media producers of the present have a rich history and legacy to build on as they consider what images need to be produced, critically considered, and disseminated using all available means that the present can offer.
[This post draws heavily upon the research published in Alternative Television: A Short History of Early Video Activism in Chicago by Sara Chapman in 2005, Unearthing Chicago's Underground Video Scene by Dan Logan in 1973, and other articles hosted by SMECC (Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation), anecdotes and history shared with me by Dara Greenwald, numerous articles from the Chicago Reader archives linked above, and the detailed narratives available on the websites of Media Burn, Chicago Film Archives, and Kartemquin.]
Posted by Daniel Tucker