Volume 38, Number 4: July/August 2004

Activist Video

What do activists and artists have to offer each other?

In late 2003, [Satan Macnuggit Popular Arts](www.satanmacnuggit. com) undertook a four-month, forty-show “Recycled Cinema” tour–showing activist-themed videos in various improvised venues across Canada. For our third tour, we decided to represent our themes through a mix of creative approaches–found footage collage, Super 8 narrative, and lo-fi video–rather than the protest documentaries which had previously dominated. While our audiences were certainly engaged, there was also a noticeable lull in the buzz, and hence turnout, among the committed activist community.

As the driver/projectionist for the road show, I gathered that the news hooks and “riot porn” of the documentaries had engaged our prior activist audiences. Without such frames of reference, our artistry was apparently less than enticing. Meanwhile, my own creative relationship to documentary had degenerated from inspiration and renewal to tedium if not torment. Our needs were diverging, and I began to wonder: What do activists and artists have to offer each other?

I am still asking this question, even though I can predict the preemptive responses. The activist will want to know how he or she can be expected to busy themselves with changing art, when they are so busy changing society. And, of course, the artist will see in the very question yet another set of shackles, another set of censorious ideological motivations, not even baited by any realistic prospects for payola.

Of course this dichotomy is total trash. Activists use and consume art, and artists live in a real world which they must find ways to engage and transform. In fact, the video activist movement really has tried to bring the two spheres together. Nonetheless, we have yet to take the most important step toward a truly “useful” art movement: we must correct our wrong-headed tendency to subservience.

What is an artist?

Artists should identify themselves–as artists. Not as journalists, not as “documentarians,” and–the bitterest pill–NOT as propagandists. We needn’t reject any of these functions to decide that what we spend our lives doing as artists is both separate from and equal to these roles.

Art, as much as activism, is about articulating visions: the discovery of our own voices through innovations that are inextricably linked with tradition. There is nothing inherently mystical or romantic about this process: we locate ourselves in sympathetic social scenes, articulate our ideas among ourselves, and then (hopefully) test and refine these ideas in the world of actual practice.

But tradition–Western tradition, anyway–also dictates that artists look inward, where activists look outward. However much she draws on existing art movements or real life events, the artist’s social contribution lies wholly in her individual creative voice–hers and none other. This, I believe, is the key dilemma that we must address: how can such wanton egocentrism be redefined, usefully, as activism?

Culture as a formative activity

If you believe the old saw that true activism is about binding our personal struggles together, not “helping the needy,” then you’re half-way to an answer. Mastering our own voice doesn’t have to mean living in a bubble. We can draw energy and inspiration from our social participation, and with the work we produce either speak truths to our own community or attempt to send them beyond.

But there is a precondition to fully achieving these goals, and this is the awareness that culture is a formative activity, not a by-product. By drawing individual visions out of a common artistic her- itage, we are engaging in the process of defining ourselves and our world. We are setting the terms by which we can understand, and thereby change, our lives.

In this way, an activist can see why some filmmakers might reject the role of propagandist: because it reduces us, as human beings, to media. I don’t consider it coincidental that this reduction runs rampant in a nation whose main cultural impulse is the valorization of documentary. Such Can-cult icons as the Canada Council’s Raymond Massey (“In the National Interest”) and the National Film Board’s John Grierson (“The Needs of the State Come First”) defined art as a vehicle for ideology, a tool for the construction of consensus and hence of community or, rather, “national feeling” — all mixed together with a passionate belief in the stupidity of the potential audience.

Activist documentary, the overwhelmingly dominant mode in socially-committed video today, has a troubling tendency to first overlook, and then reproduce, these unexamined values. The artist becomes a subordinate if not utterly neutral medium for an unspoken, but identifiable, agenda.

Certainly activist documentaries often succeed on their own, functional terms. Some are also successful in artistic terms; others actively address or sidestep these issues. But, aside from inertia, why should we define “activist” video so narrowly that it encompasses documentary and nothing else? Do we set out to write protest songs without a melody? Do we restrict historical novelists to verbatim transcripts? Why apply such arbitrary and punishing limits to our creative diversity?

Diversity and aesthetics

The word “diversity” is not chosen lightly, because I believe that by allowing a single aesthetic to dominate our cultural production, activist cultural workers exclude great swaths of humanity from participation. Poor people, kids, non-”Westerners,” and other quite normal human beings don’t usually go to the movies so that relatively affluent videographers can explain to them the problems of the world. The problem isn’t in our message, but in the patronizing assumptions of the didactic documentary tradition, assumptions which filmmakers must unpack if they are to avoid their reproduction.

Like any art form, film and video is consumed–and produced–with a jealous territoriality that both shapes and plays into our whole sense of identity. Think of the drive-in slasher movie, the imagistic avant-garde film, and the Bollywood musical. These are three wildly diverse modes of production, each with its own genre conventions, social context and natural audience. Now add documentary to that list. It is not a separate thing. It too is a limiting aesthetic category, a creative construct as surely as white is a race.

While documentary may be easier to exploit in terms of transmitting linear messages to an audience, we must remember that education is not a “funnel”–the rote transmission of facts from text to cranium–but involves giving people problem-solving tools with which to figure things out for themselves. In this respect, the vast majority of activist documentaries simply fail.

For instance, the growing reliance on talking-head exposition, usually from accredited “experts,” is a troubling and regressive development from an educational standpoint. This technique initially gained dominance due to broadcast media’s consuming need to control content and outcomes, and it isn’t hard to see how activists might come to share these motivations. The most notable outcome, however, is to make the commentators the actual subject of the piece–the viewer is often left evaluating secondary rather than primary evidence, which renders the films no more “real” than Bollywood, and no more “educational” than Stan Brakhage.

Activist artists almost always state their rejection of mainstream media’s values. The translation of this rejection into practice is still tentative; however, the resulting experiments should be applauded, learned from, and continued. Within the protest-video realm alone, methods have ranged from large-scale, heavily organized consensus (TVAC’s “Tear Gas Holiday”) to loose, artist-friendly anthology (the Blah Blah Blah collective) to an episodic hybrid of the two (Indymedia’s “Breaking the Bank”).

Futures for activist video

It is no slander to say that activist video’s rhetoric has yet to achieve its true form. To invent rational, non-hierarchical divisions of labour; to balance individual creative impulses with group vision; to square group aspirations with production and post-production technologies that are built for one; to spur concrete action via passive viewing habits; these are not small or simple projects. Lots of free, self-motivated laboratories will be required if we are going to create real choice, freedom and participation. Once again I insist that the next step down this road is to identify ourselves, first and foremost, as artists.

The failure of much activist video seems to be the lack of any basis of aesthetic unity among its makers. This may stem from a misapplication of the ideal of diversity; or it may be that consideration of the issue just hasn’t been integrated into the methods of production. While solutions may turn out to be surprisingly simple, actually figuring them out is pretty daunting. After all, if we reject film as it stands, how do we learn to use it? Who will be our teacher? This is the challenge that all activist experimentalists face.

The temptation to give folks what they want beckons: there are plenty of opportunities to tape cops beating people up, after all. But rather than engage in this kind of “selling to,” it would be wonderful if artists empowered themselves to negotiate with the activist community on equal terms. This may mean finding or creating new contexts where a given approach could find its natural audience, as Satan Macnuggit has tried to do; or it might mean challenging norms on old turf, like the tube or the multiplex.

What we discover when we announce that we are artists, is that social movements will not quite know what to do with us. We become difficult to organize. Frankly, there is no reason to expect the broad activist community to define our work for us.We, as self-identified artists, must define autonomous methods of organizing that neither isolate us nor subject us to any but the most rational and sympathetic pressures; having done this, we must try to persuade activist movements to consider and relate to the work that we do in its fullest sense, not just for its short-term utility. If you love and value art, then there should be a place for it in your movement too.

Jonathan Culp helped start the Toronto Video Activist Collective, curates Satan Macnuggit Popular Arts, and is currently completing a feature length comedy called “Grilled Cheese Sandwich,” all in collaboration with Siue Moffat, whom he loves.