A Parallax View

On the history and legacy of political video
by Rebecca Cleman  posted July 1, 2010
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The phrase "contraband cinema" might suggest images of pirated Hollywood movies, displayed on blankets in the tiled warrens of the subway, but in the context of an ongoing series at BAMcinématek, it begs a different read. Bringing together a selection of films and videos, ranging from independent documentaries and cinéma vérité to Hollywood films (Rocky IV!), this series asks a provocative question: "What makes a political film?" The invocation of the word cinema suggests that one essential quality is the ability to reach and agitate an audience. Instead of the contraband of pirates stealing movies out of the cinema for private consumption, here it is the cinema that is being stolen from the entertainment industry, to become a dynamic space of community activism.

Activism, or action of any kind, in a space traditionally conceived of as a theater with fixed seats attendant to a screen, means a new audience dynamic. Political films do not placate viewers, lulling them into the stupor of the corpulent, soda-swilling über-consumers imagined in WALL-E, who are not in fact in a theater but in futuristic armchairs, isolated from each other by a cloud of personal gadgets (a vision not too far removed from what is happening on a JetBlue airplane right now). Though the very notion of cinema is anachronistic in the age of "i" technology, the need to inspire an audience reaction is only more urgent.

An important addendum to the subject of political film is political video, which I explore in a program (July 1) within the Contraband Cinema series. Infamously derided for being the medium of narcissism (see Rosalind Krauss's essay "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism"), video has a political value that is rooted in its exploitation as a social tool. The activism fomented by the introduction of consumer-market video in the mid-1960s was intrinsically linked to the cultural dominance of television. At its inception, political video embodied a participatory, interventionist attitude that offered agency to the passive TV watcher.  This didn't happen overnight, of course. First, TV watchers had to learn that the glowing cube in their living rooms was making them passive. They had to learn about the world that was edited clean by silver-tongued news anchors and spokespeople.

This was the impetus behind Guerrilla Television (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), a canonical text written by Michael Shamberg and the video collective Raindance. It was a call off the couch and to action, reframing media as a means of empowerment: "This Meta-Manual is here to lay out why the information environment is a good and verifiable reality model; why we must perceive media structures biologically (media-ecology); and why videotape, particularly portable video systems, can enhance survival and generate power in Media-America."

As art historian David Joselit describes in his book Feedback: Television Against Democracy (MIT Press, 2007), a compelling argument for the fusion of video's political and artistic potential, any political approach to video in the '60s and '70s was connected to the belief that television signified a hegemonic control over information and representation. While Joselit observes that many efforts to subvert this hegemony only resulted in the commercialization, or taming, of the oppositional voice (Abbie Hoffman's appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, for instance), he isolates two examples of successful intervention. One is the art and television of Andy Warhol, which effectively scrambled distinctions between high/low, figure/ground, and popular/elitist culture; the other is Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). The Van Peebles seems to be a surprising choice, since Sweetback was a theatrical-release film, but Joselit connects its strategies to the political ambitions of the countercultural movements that saw video and cable-access television as ways to co-opt popular media.

The Black Panthers were especially aware of this potential and had plans to start a cable access channel around this time. Black Panther leader Huey Newton encouraged every member of the Los Angeles chapter to see Sweetback for inspiration during its run at the Fox. What Newton appreciated was not just a film with a strong black hero but a film that starred—and was produced and directed by—a black man (Van Peebles in all roles), demonstrating the party's ideal of media made by, of, and for the black community. Joselit reads agency into Sweetback's need to "move." This word both describes Sweetback's ceaseless running and refers to the film's need to sell itself, which it did very successfully (grossing around $15,000,000 from a budget of $500,000). Van Peebles made himself an idol for a marginalized voice, a viral icon who galvanized a community that had been excluded from mainstream media.

Sweetback is often identified as the origin of blaxploitation cinema but Joselit links Van Peebles's accomplishment to what was happening on a smaller scale with video, describing how the metamorphosis of the individual into a public cipher was facilitated by video's unique features. Closed-Caption Television (CCTV), a loop between the viewer and his or her recorded image, played back on a monitor, literally put the individual on television. This had a profound impact in both the art and activist realms. For artists, the CCTV enabled them to immediately see their own recorded image, leading to important performance works by Joan Jonas, John Baldessari, Eleanor Antin, and Bruce Nauman, among many others. For activists, CCTV necessarily dovetailed with CATV (Community Antenna Television, or Cable TV) and the aspiration to break into television, even if only symbolically.

One artist who combined art and activism is Anthony Ramos, whose video About Media (1977) looks at how the individual can be disenfranchised by corporate media in the matrix of slanted newsmaking. Ramos identifies himself as an outsider, both because of his race (he is of Cape Verdean descent) and because of his status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. When a news crew comes to film his reaction to President Carter's amnesty to draft evaders, Ramos greets them with his own cameraman. What makes Ramos's tape different from the home videos on, say, America's Funniest Home Videos, the true purveyor of narcissistic video, is that he saw his moment of celebrity exposure as an opportunity to dispel the mystique of television.

About Media begins with a listing of the main players in the media game: the newscaster, reporter, analyst, commentator, and the "man on the street" role Ramos plays and recognizes as the pawn position. These definitions are accompanied by a rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," the legendary soul song about a disillusioned Vietnam War veteran, here doubling as Ramos's anthem for showing what goes on behind the newscast. As a reporter interviews Ramos, the film crew members, unaware of the video camera's ability to record sound, comment sneeringly on how boring home video is, how the scene of Ramos's interview lacks the interest of an "action picture," and will undoubtedly be poorly lit and aesthetically bland. Throughout the interview the crew's loud yawns unwittingly confirm Ramos's point: the newscast's purportedly spontaneous man on the street interviews are pre-determined to the point that no real action could ever take place in their camera's gaze.

Ramos had been a teaching assistant to Allan Kaprow, an artist known for "the happening," a spontaneous art event with no predetermined conclusion, which encouraged audience participation—the polar opposite of the newscasts' tightly scripted event. If the newscast robbed Ramos of his agency, in his own tape he put himself back in the picture, in ways that playfully undermine the canned solemnity of television news and transform it into a kind of happening. The camera zooms out from a smiling self-portrait, revealing it to be a mug shot from the 18 months he served for draft dodging. When the interviewer asks whether or not he regrets his prison term, Ramos edits in an exaggerated gasping breath, and an excerpt from a performance-art piece, wherein he blows up a balloon with one nostril until it bursts in his face.

The urgency of Ramos's encounter with the news crew may be lost on contemporary viewers, who can't imagine a world without YouTube and TiVo and any number of ways to "personalize" TV. It was at the point of video's novelty that it seemed most capable of causing disruption, an excitement bound up in the parallel novelty of television. In the early 1970s, Cable TV, yet to be commercialized, had seemed an open field for all manner of artistic and activist interventions.  It was in this environment that the gallerist Howard Wise founded Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), where I work as the Director of Distribution. In his manifesto for EAI, a non-profit distributor, post-production facility, and archive for media art, Wise emphasized the potential for cable as a cultural platform, even though he was coming from an art world background. At one point, EAI's editing facility was a bustling 24-hour, 7-day-a-week operation, serving cable access producers alongside artists and activist groups. This encapsulated Wise's vision of the ability of video to reach a wide audience and to be experienced as a community, rather than in the confines of a gallery or living room. Wise had been supportive of Ramos (About Media was edited at EAI), and letters exchanged between them show a shared enthusiasm for video's capacity to agitate change.

The dispersal of the concentrated video activism of the '70s, a consequence of cable TV's increased commercialism and a decrease in public funding in the 1980s, was an inevitable comedown after a period of heightened excitement. The legacy of these initiatives continues, not only in such activist groups as Paper Tiger Television, Free Speech TV, Democracy Now!, and MoveOn.org, but as borne out by the technology itself. What Shamberg seemed to be prescribing in Guerrilla Television was really a prognostication: video enabled a more casual and participatory attitude toward television, in which the consumer could readily become a producer.

There is a poignant moment in Ramos's tape in which the news reporter notices that he has a video recorder hooked up to his TV. At the time, VCRs were not yet commonplace, so the sight of one would have been unusual and probably suggestive of contraband television. What the reporter and his film crew don't know, but what we see watching the tape now, is that they are facing the future. While the widespread use of video by individuals did not necessarily disrupt the dominion of commercial entertainment, the facility of recording and sharing media has forever altered consumers' relationship to it, in ways that can continue to be politically efficacious. 

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June 30–July 8, 2010 Contraband Cinema

THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Cleman is the Director of Distribution of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI). She has organized screenings and/or situations for the New York Underground Film Festival, Light Industry, Public Opinion Laboratory, Anthology Film Archives, and ISSUE Project Room, among others, and most recently was on the jury of the 2010 Migrating Forms festival.

More articles by Rebecca Cleman