Tag Archives: video

A Protest in Brooklyn

I ran into a protest in Brooklyn in November. On my way somewhere else, I heard a commotion down a small neighborhood street. I could see police and a sectioned off area, people holding signs. Fortunately, I had my camera; unfortunately I had an almost empty battery and no back up (lesson learned).

The protest was on the issue of homeless housing in area. The protest demanded a stop to “warehousing” homeless people in hotels, which is not a long term solution, nor a cost-effective one. They argued that hotels were being built in their neighborhoods that had no tourism, but were going to look to take advantage of City money for housing the homeless, effectively becoming for-profit homeless shelters. But there was also a very conservative vein to this protest, when the protest demanded the abolition of the New York City law that mandates the City house any homeless person seeking assistance. The fear was that this encouraged the homeless to take advantage of local tax-payers, something explicitly mentioned in the video. A discourse that echoes what we often hear in discussions on immigration.

These seem to offer contradictory positions, with wanting to help the homeless with long term solutions, using available and vacant houses, and wanting to end the City’s commitment to help for fear of outsiders taking advantage of this. The question of gentrification is also present. On the one side people are fearful of getting priced out homes through particular forms of development. On the other side the (conflicted) attitude towards the homeless and the resources they require suggests that people also want to preserve their neighborhood’s appearance, protecting it from potential “degradation” by accommodating welfare cases and institutions. They appear to want to keep the neighborhood as it is, for the middle (or working) class.

The protest also offered a series of creative visuals both expounding on what people thought was the issue, and in some cases with a degree of humor. These signs also connected to wider social concerns in the US. The “stop the war on the middle-class”, for example, was widely used in recent elections by almost all candidates, and reflects the importance of the middle class in liberal capitalism, where it is seen as source of stability, while also undermining broader worker solidarity. As such, it is a conservative discourse, and suggests that some protesters saw this protest as being (also) about their standard of living. Another sign, however, suggested this was an attack on the working class.

Others expressed resentment by attacking the politicians themselves (“the dope of Parkslope” was sung repetitively and also on some signs). The diversity of opinions and at times contradictory messages was however secondary to the appearance of unity, with a clear, vocal presence focused on the single question of opposing the “warehousing” of the homeless.

“Lovren: My Life as a Refugee”

The documentary film about Liverpool FC’s defender Dejan Lovren was announced over twitter by the official Liverpool FC (LFC) account. The majority of comments people added were frankly awful, mostly centering on terrible jokes about sending him home in exchange with someone who could defend. But the film itself offers a welcome pro-refugee message. The type of comments found on the twitter announcement, while not exactly representative, still indicate that voices such as Lovren’s need to be amplified, and this is what the film does. In the documentary he describes his family’s experience of fleeing from the Yugoslav war in 1992. Born in Kraljeva Sutjeska (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) his family was compelled to leave behind a small business and, by his account, an idyllic life in the Bosnian Republic. They fled to Munich, Germany, where Lovren’s Grandfather had a just enough room for the family. He spent his early years in Germany, developing a sense of home, but like many Yugoslav refugee families, they were sent back once it was deemed safe enough to return people.

But Dejan returned to a place he had never known. Germany, as he recounts in the film, was the home he knew. His family settled in the Croatian town of Karlovac, where 10 year old Dejan struggled with being “different” from local kids in Croatia. He found himself in football, and it became his means of communicating and negotiating his identity with others, a common engagement of sport for displaced youth. Sport in such a context becomes a language without words, though it can also easily divide with the same logic.[1]

As such, the story is compelling. The film oscillates between pleasing studio shots of a hansom Dejan, drone shots of Munich, Karlovac, and his birth place, and historical footage of the war. Aesthetically, this emphasizes a very black and white remembering process, and also where the limitations of the film start to become clear. There is a sense from the images of the tragic versus the idyllic. Germany and Munich are represented as a place without problems, masking a restrictive asylum policy and the everyday hostility towards Yugoslavs that was common at the time. Perhaps this should not be surprising: today we see something similar happening. Germany and Merkle in particular, again appear to be the last bastion of liberalism, welcoming more refugees than other countries. Yet it is also sending many people back, restricting border access, and giving concessions to voices on the far right with respect to immigrants.

In all this, Yugoslavia remains an unexplainable mess. It is represented strictly in nostalgic terms or as a warzone. This is a familiar refrain. Lovren’s feelings about his past, the struggles of his family and of being a refugee, and the current refugee crisis are sympathetic. Moreover, as Alexander Holiga points out, the fact that Lovren doesn’t point any fingers or assign blame for the war, is commendable.[2] Despite this, the film nevertheless falls into a trap of reproducing historical images without any explanations, often reducing all the various experiences of flight to people walking with bags in terrible conditions, and images of intense violence without any distinctions.

Individual stories of hope and success will always mask the realities of being a refugee. As charming and inspiring as they can be, such stories also reproduce notions of entrepreneurship and “hard work” as being enough to overcome hardship, and a distinction between good (read successful) and problematic (read unsuccessful) refuges or foreigners. A theme that is common among sport documentaries. As Ian McDonald writes, “… sport documentaries have tended to capitalize on the market that has opened up for documentaries by emphasizing the human drama decontextualized from issues of power, and therefore complicit in reinforcing dominant ideologies: here, the ideology of sport as the route to success and the exemplar of character.”[3]

Clearly it is always challenging to tell a story about an individual when the backdrop is war. But precisely that is the problem: war is not a backdrop for individual success stories; at least it should not be. At one point we encounter the image of Četnik solders as Lovren talks about the arduous and fearful 17 hour drive up to Germany, while borders were not clear, the checkpoints frequent, and everyone a suspect. Are we meant to understand that his Croatian family made it through Serb lines? Does the film want us to think of the Serbs as the enemy, the bad guys of the war, preventing innocent families from getting out of harms way? Lovren didn’t feel the need to make such claims, yet are the filmmakers? Or is this just a random and poorly chosen image from the Yugoslav war that fits our West European/North American conception of the war?

Dejan Lovren talks about being “returned” after the war was over; something that should force the film to ask why, after almost 10 years in Germany, where Lovren was in school and growing up, was the family not able to stay? Also absent is any sense that we in Europe and North America also bear responsibility beyond creating a positive “Wilkomenskultur”. Is “giving them a chance” really enough? Or is it perhaps also about changing the way we see citizenship, the way borders work, and the way our expectation of a certain living standard creates instability in other parts of the world? By relegating the war and the refugee experience to a platform for this individual story, the film avoids the difficult and necessary questions. As is so often the case when we represent the Yugoslav wars, and the current refugee crisis, on film or in text, these types of questions simply go unanswered.

You can watch the film for free here http://www.liverpoolfc.com/video/catch-up-tv/cutv-features-documentaries#

[1] For examples, see Roy Hay’s article Croatia: Community, Conflict and Culture: the role of soccer clubs in Migrant identity (1998), and Ramon Spaaij’s Refugee youth, belonging, and community sport (2013)

[2] http://telesport.telegram.hr/kolumne/nogomet-narodu/ona-pamti-sve/

[3] McDonald, Situating the Sport Documentary (2007)

Digital Technologies and History

Has digital production changed how we will remember historical events? This was the question I received at the round table in AVPC2016 in Zagreb. It was not one I was expecting, so my answer was rather awkward at the time, and I would like to develop my point somewhat here. It seems to me to be an important question. The short answer is yes, but with many qualifications, and in the end, also some important critiques. The longer answer follows below, and the focus is on the more practical dimensions of digital media tools in activist and research contexts. The post covers what the explosion and easier access has brought to activism, giving an example of the media collective Komunal, in Ljubljana, and to research. It then covers some of the problems that come with the greater access and use of digital technologies.

The “Yes” part.

The greater access to technology has meant more is produced, faster: we have more people who can document something and share it. The cost and portability is a big factor here. Now a film like Blokada (2016) is possible; a rapidly evolving situation can be covered as it develops, just with a few hand-held cameras, a short (or possibly even no) planning period, and a lot of spontaneous developments and coordination. The cameras are able to move as quickly as the people and the situations.

A person unfamiliar with the technology can easily produce an intelligible image. The digital nature of the image also means no expensive film stock must be constantly bought, loaded, transferred, processed and stored. With just a few memory cards and batteries, and the camera and maybe an external microphone, you can run and shoot all day.

Editing is now also possible from your desktop. There is high end, but still user friendly editing software that can be easily acquired, some at a cost, others for free. So the material can be instantly transferred to the computer or an external disk and then uploaded in to the software, cut and exported onto some online platform, such as youtube or vimeo. For activists in particularly, this has made things much faster. In combination with social media distribution networks, getting things out into public discourse is possible more often and at a faster rate.

Thus activists, and activist film makers, for relatively little money, can establish a media presence and create counter-narratives that can be of high quality, can be quickly produced, and quickly distributed within the network and to their local media. They can produce whole films with DIY knowledge and budgets.

It is also worth pointing out that here the sharing follows a logic of abundance, where use and reproduction increase the quantity of the good or service. I can send one video file in an email to three hundred people, and thus instantly reproduce the film three hundred times for the cost of the few moments of electricity, and with little quality degradation. These reproductive possibilities that do not depend on any additional (or very few) material costs mean access and sharing of the film, or video, or power point, etc., actually increase its availability. Use thus increases the item, rather than reducing or damaging it.

An example from Komunal.org

I used the recent events in Ljubljana, specifically ROG, to highlight the above comments. In short, ROG, a squatted factory, is under threat of eviction from the municipality intent on demolishing some of the buildings. There is no pending investment for remodeling, despite the intention of turning ROG into a center for cultural production (which it already is, just autonomous and self-organized). Yet the municipality sought to impose the deconstruction of some buildings in order to secure open work permits for the next few years (ready, one assumes, for eventual investment). The start of this procedure came at 3am on the 14 of June. A private security firm entered the squat with a large construction digger. The community was ready and resisted, which provoked a violent reaction from the security guards.

Long story short, the struggle was caught on multiple camera phones and video cameras and released bit by bit through komunal. Komunal is a media collective in Ljubljana, Slovenia that produces and provides a platform for media production related to the radical left scene in Slovenia and abroad. The collective has developed a website and uses social media (twitter and Facebook) to share content. According to the website, the aim here is to

Our platform is an attempt to provide better access to issues, events and perspectives ignored by other media. We see our production as research into invisible and misunderstood social conditions. Media in this capacity plays a critical role in opening social conflicts by exposing social contradictions and isolation, oppressions, exploitations and social, political and economic injustice.[1]

In this situation it was the first site to have such media up and sent around. It was quickly picked up by larger media portals and the evening news. This effectively put a perspective into in the public discourse (first, before any other) from within the squat, with the users of ROG as the victims of violence. This was possible because of the ease of producing such material in the digital era. Any future memorializing of this event, of transformation of the city, gentrification, etc. will have this perspective easily accessible as a result.

For researchers, this has also opened new potential for producing material within the research frame. The digital camera (with video capabilities) can fit in your pocket or is integrated into your phone, making it at once more accessible and also less obvious and awkward. Sarah Pink’s work in documenting daily life, for example, takes place in homes (2012) or on the streets with the slow city movement (2008). The use large, heavy cameras would greatly restrict such practices, and make it much harder for researchers to become (at least partially) part of the scene. The documenting of an event as it unfolds, or returning to the site of an event and visually reconstructing it, examining the consequences, etc., and made much easier as a result of access to this cheap technology.

Greater use of these technologies in research can also lead to articulating results in different ways, and thus making, potentially, the results more accessible to a wider audience. This seems to be the theory behind launching the Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy[2]. The predominance of written text confines the image and the video to a bit part, accompanying the narrative in the way that sprinkles do ice cream. But increasingly it is becoming possible to produce picture essays, and now even video articles. Here the hierarchy of text over image is broken down. The picture essay or video article has its own attraction to researchers, but presumably also to audiences, particularly ones who may not read an academic article. I imagine that in a school setting, where a multitude of learning styles is present, such options are important. This also allows us to reimagine the function of the visual in everyday life and where our interaction with the visual produces (new)realities.

The critique bit

So when we consider this in the context of the impact it can have on history, it is of course immense. More records are simply going to be available, from many different perspectives (assuming of course that we retain our access to such technologies in the future). The historical records that this allows us to leave behind is simply staggering, and at such little cost. However, here we must also take account of some of the problems and limitations of this situation. First, leading off of the last point, more perspectives and more videos, etc., does not mean a more accurate, quality historical record. In the worst case it also can just mean more noise and factual, ideological distortions to weed through. It is also easier to hide behind an avatar, making the future sourcing of materials all the more difficult.

The abundance and relative cheap cost masks the reality of most people still not having access to such equipment and knowledge. Outside of a relatively small part of the world, and in the poorer classes, these cheap cameras are still economically unreachable. Along with this comes a large environmental cost to the production of this technology, which at its origin starts with mineral extraction in (often) slave like conditions for the workers. From mainstream leftists like Paul Mason to more radical, academic voices like Michael Hart and Antonio Negri (2004), the notion too often is that the abundance logic of affective labor and non-material labor is achieved through the democratized access to technology and its simplicity. Their argument is that a form of commoning is occurring thanks to the centrality of our immaterial labor and the technologies supporting that labor. However, Silvia Federici (2006) has argued that this ignorance of the production chain profoundly undermines social movements’ claims on justice, and renders invisible forms of labor and exploitation.

The concentration of this technology in wealthier parts of the country also means that the dominant narratives and experiences will again find their voice the easiest and exclude the subaltern ones. As Federici’s critique suggests, the same is true of critical feminist voices. The content produced is thus still highly gendered and subject to global class relations, where the critical voices heard are still just the usual suspects. So even where these narratives are critical it is still problematic as they represent European and North American masculine realities and experiences that should not speak for the world.

An old, yet still valid concern with visual materials is of course the perspective of truth. Is it true because we see it happening on video or in a picture? In short, no. Video is always a representation and not a whole context. The person filming is already making editorial choices before they even turn on the camera: which situations to cover, where to stand, what kind of images to look for, what to ask (if doing interviews), etc. Gillian Rose (2001, 2) reminds us that images “interpret the world; they display it in very particular ways; they represent it.” This is always true, regardless of whether you have five of five hundred images of a situation.

A final point is that abundance of production does not translate into quality productions, important content, or ethical content. It can be used by racist movements just as easily, and the lack of any standards or control means it can be used in harmful, exploitative ways, as it always has. Only now it is perhaps easier to give a response, and create a counter narrative. In short, we need to be careful of claims that the increasing availability and ease of use of documentation technology radically changes the power relations in a society or gives greater power to social justice movements, even while it clearly can and does influence how events will be remembered.

In conclusion, this piece has attempted to reflect briefly on the impact that digital media has had on activism and research in the context of how something is remembered down the line. While I argue that it absolutely can influence public knowledge of something, and diversify the means of representation (and thus the accessible views), this is not without a few problems. There are important ecological questions here, as well as older questions of what and how, and by whom, something is represented. Greater access can, but does not necessarily answer these questions.

Refrences

Federici, Silvia (2006). “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint”. On https://inthemiddleofthewhirlwind.wordpress.com/precarious-labor-a-feminist-viewpoint/ (last accessed 13.6.2016)

Hardt, M and Negri, A (2000). Empire. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, USA

Pink, Sarah (2012). Situating Everyday Life. London: Sage.

_________ (2008). “Mobilizing Visual Ethnography: Making Routes, Making Place and Making Images” in Forum: Qualitative Social Research Volume 9, No. 3.

Rose, Gillian (2001). Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. London: Sage.

Endnotes

[1] http://www.komunal.org/komunal-org – last accessed 5.7.2016

[2] http://videoeducationjournal.springeropen.com/