- Open Access
Activist videos: montage as a creative tool for student reflections on their role as spectators
Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy volume 3, Article number: 11 (2018)
This article is a reflective text by an art curator interested in exploring the boundaries between video activism, spectatorship, and pedagogy. It proposes new ways of critically understanding the terms “activist,” “participation,” and “militancy” in the context of an expanded notion of the image and the role of the spectator. Emerging from field notes, the article narrates and shares the experiences of engaging students at workshops for “Between Broadcast – a project around activist videos,” held at at fine art academies and universities in Leipzig, Düsseldorf, and Bergamo. The practical aim of the workshops was to introduce and engage students with the subject of so-called activist video clips on YouTube. The students were asked to find, select, and discuss militant videos and, subsequently, to create a montage from them. The conceptual aim of the workshop was to reflect upon video spectatorship online and what that means, the agency of the spectator, and the possibilities of their active participation in the process of viewing. The outcomes of the workshops were the development of critical thinking of the students concerning the subjects of online video, digital empathy, their engagement with videos as individual viewers and as a collective, and the power of montage as a narrative and activist tool.
Like people, pictures may not know what they want; they have to be helped to recollect it through a dialogue with others.
—W. J. T. Mitchell (2005, p. 46)
To achieve a socially valuable result and bring about real, tangible change is at the very center of the aim of art and video activism. However, art and militant images constitute a much needed but precarious field of engagement. The article introduces current debates on art activism and engagement through the consumption and production of videos, with a specific focus on the issues of circulation and the sharing of video clips in the online sphere and on YouTube. In relation to these debates, the article suggests that the mobilizing potential of videos can be considered beyond the inner characteristic of the image, itself aesthetically constructed to consider other factors, such as the role of the spectator. Through its engagement by audiences, can a video not only raise awareness for the possibility of action but also allow for the deconstruction of pre-existing narratives that have informed the video?
Starting from the assumption that the act of seeing embeds the involvement of the viewer and his or her commitment as a storyteller within history, this article looks at montage as a part of the process of filtering, selecting, and assembling information and images, which all give rise to its activist potential.
Art activism: Acts of seeing and montage
Defined as “art that is grounded in the act of ‘doing’ and that addresses political or social issues” on the website of the Tate (Activist Art, 2018), “art activism”Footnote 1 has been identified in the last decades as a specific artistic category by critics and has since been a highly debated and controversial topic. While André Breton and Diego Rivera in the “Manifesto for an Independent and Revolutionary Art” stated that “true art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete reconstruction of society” (Breton, 1938 in Harrison and Wood, 2003, p. 529), art activism as a category is described as a series of collaborative and participatory activities by artists and curators particularly focused on “actively addressing cultural power structures rather than representing them or simply describing them. [...] Activist art is about empowering individuals and communities and is generally situated in the public arena with artists working closely with a community to generate the art.”Footnote 2 Addressing this, philosopher Boris Groys has said:
Art activists do not want to merely criticize the art system or the general political and social conditions under which this system functions. Rather, they want to change these conditions by means of art—not so much inside the art system but outside it, in reality itself. Art activists try to change living conditions in economically underdeveloped areas, raise ecological concerns, offer access to culture and education for the populations of poor countries and regions, attract attention to the plight of illegal immigrants, improve the conditions of people working in art institutions, and so forth (Groys, 2014, p. 1).
The point raised by Groys about the blurring borders between art activism and activism, especially in terms of its aimed effect, is crucial for the fluidity of how I’ll treat art videos and non-art videos in the text. Within the history of art, the aim and the development of video as a tool for social change, namely participatory video, radical video, alternative video, and guerrilla video, does not diverge from the general definitions mentioned above. The cultural context and the technological conditions that made the evolution of this medium possible have marked its grassroots nature. In fact, the release of the Sony Portapak in 1965 in the US allowed artists such as Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Allan Kaprow, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari and many others to test the new technical and creative possibilities of the medium of video, which was used, until that point, only by television. The launch within art of experimental video production gave rise later to so-called radical videos as a genre. Thanks to technological capabilities, emerging “alternative television” formats questioned the predominant narratives, hierarchies, and aesthetic structures of mass media as well as the effects of the homogenization of public opinion and television as a medium. “Video revolutionised the televised image, and camcorder technologies paved the way for unprecedented possibilities for ‘ordinary’ people to become media practitioners and artists” (Boyle, 1985, in Askanius, 2012, p. 69). Tina Askanius has further argued the point, saying:
The technological development fused with a cultural and political movement of the time premised on the belief that radical social change was possible through collective endeavour. […] The developments of the time within visual media should therefore not be understood as an isolated process, but rather as part of a larger alternative media tide affecting radio, print, press, magazines and publishing as a whole (Askanius, 2012, p. 69).
The technological and cultural fervor described by Askanius in which video grew is a very important reminder of the exploration, experimentation, and blurring of boundaries within video as a medium. From the 1970s to the 1990s, video became a medium that crossed the borders of art, shifting toward the media industry, and this evolution was interwoven into its advocacy as a tool for experimenting with time, space, interactivity and, even more importantly, the viewer’s body and its involvement in spectatorship.
At the core of art and video activism is the key notion of “participation” and the crucial role played by the practitioner. While this notion is often understood and restricted to actions that need to be accomplished by the spectator in order not to remain passive, the project “Between Broadcast” refers, instead, to the theory of the emancipated spectator by philosopher Jacques Rancière, who has contradicted the dualism between seeing and doing.
Rancière claims that, “emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting; when we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection. It begins when we understand that viewing is also an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions” (Rancière, 2009, p. 13). Rancière’s perspective is crucial because it widens the articulation of what we can consider mobilizing images, giving prominence to the observer and legitimizing the gaze as an engaging and narrative tool for creating stories from what they see and understand. The narrative process involving the viewer thus does not differ much from Jean-Luc Godard’s idea of montage, which considers the primacy of editing as the “organising thought (la pensée organisatrice) of plans and their meanings” (Pallotta, 2008, p. 6, my translation). Gathering together things that are not meant to be juxtaposed, for Godard, the whole political value of montage and therefore of cinema stays within this aesthetic invention (Pallotta, 2008, p.4). “Montage, or the connective act of creating relations between people, objects, and ideas, is of itself a form of history. […] Cinema qua montage is for Godard a metaphor for the world” (Williams, 2016, p. 10–11). In this sense, both the director and the observer invent a fiction. Through editing, the former transforms images of reality into fiction, which play out according to the rule of the director. The viewer, on the other side, is able to create individual and unique montages out of the fragmented, diverse, and disconnected visual materials that he or she consumes, and it is precisely these stories that contribute to the existence of a plurality of bottom-up narratives, all equally plausible.
These thoughts are crucial for the development of the following considerations and, especially, constitute the theoretical structure on which the project “Between Broadcast” unfolded. The above-mentioned remarks seem to suggest, through the act of seeing, the activism of the viewer as a form embedded in the act. Furthermore, they allow us to look at the great evolution of video production and its viral dissemination within the digital sphere. In opposition to the notion of “slacktivism,” which was coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995 and then extensively used by activists, journalists, and writers such as Evgeny Morozov to discredit individual and collective actions taking place in the online sphere, forms of solidarity, affect, and empathy, as well as “feelings of community” (Dean, 2010, p. 22) do emerge from the Internet. Although “online activity [...] does not present a guaranteed avenue to impact [it] may bring about disruptions to the stability of powerful hierarchies that grant a movement momentum, which may accumulate over time” (Papacharissi, 2015, p. 4). If we look at the viewer in his online activity as a witness of a wide field of fragmented and contradictory evidence and images, the process of bearing witness always means that we are affected by the things we see, including through the mediation of the screen as we as user-observers experience and engage continually with the massive volume of pictures and moving images that surround us. “On YouTube, the mediated witness can desire a far more intimate relation to the event” (Richardson, 2017). Defining affective publics as “networked publics that are mobilized and connected, identified, and potentially disconnected through expressions of sentiment,” (Papacharissi, 2015, p.5) also looks at Twitter and identifies connective practices distinguished by collective action and forms of collaborative storytelling that emerge from tweets, observing that “technologies network us but it is our stories that connect us” (Papacharissi, 2015, p. 1).
Robert W. Gehl has stated that, “what social media site users are interacting with is an archive of affect, digital objects that have meaning within the context of social connections. They are processing this digital archive: sorting their contacts into lists, liking this status update, commenting on that photograph, or sharing a virtual gift” (Gehl, 2011, p. 1239). (Gehl later mentions that with the term “archive of affect,” what he means is an “archives of emotional objects.”Footnote 3) Affect is the capacity to act and be acted upon. The intensity that pertains to itFootnote 4 shows forms of engagement that emerge through the posting and sharing of messages and images online and to social networks. Within these distinctions, I am interested in looking especially at the empathic dynamics that occur between viewer-users and videos on and mediated by the platform of YouTube.
YouTube videos and activism
Driven by the manifestations of affect, empathy, and emotion, YouTube functions as one of the most polemical, controversial, and wide-ranging video archives of our times. It is a hybrid media space where commercial, amateur, governmental, nonprofit, educational, activist, and other players interact with each other in continually more complex ways (Jenkins, 2006). In an article on their support website, YouTube parent Google has written that “YouTube is an important global platform for news and information. It can document wars or revolutions, explore human sexuality through artistic expression, expose an injustice, or foster debate about important events” (YouTube, “The importance of context”).Footnote 5 Since its initiation in 2005, YouTube has been a prominent site for personal expression and for the communication of shared visions within common communities (Jenkins, 2006). It gave ordinary people the chance of “participating in an ancient form of representational power, the one to tell their own story” (Strangelove, 2010, p. 9), with the term “story” meaning moments belonging both to the private and common spheres lived by everyone. Obviously, videos have circulated online even before YouTube, but the uploading, managing, sharing, and watching of them were largely more difficult at that time due to a lack of an easy-to-use integrated platform (Cheng et al., 2007).
The use of YouTube as a tool of empathy and resistance also emerged throughout the wave of civil demonstrations that swept across the regions of North Africa between 2010 and 2011, and also social movements such as Indignados in Spain, others in Greece, and the Occupy movement in the US, that protested against austerity measures and the economic crisis. Here, social media, and under specific circumstances, YouTube, has turned into a special form of an archive of anonymous testimony, activated by those who were filming the events and sharing them via the platform. Furthermore, YouTube has been revealed to be a tool for remote participation, as in the case of diasporic citizens who are often located in more technologically advanced conditions, allowing them to more easily share video testimonies globally through the platform. Even more importantly, YouTube forms an archive of physical gestures that is defined, as such, by the presence of real bodies (“the people,” as referred to by Judith ButlerFootnote 6) that have gathered for a cause; by the act of filming portions of reality and history as it it unfolds as part of their being here and now; and by the consignment to the cloud of necessarily incomplete fragments of expressions of agency (in contrast to that of whole events) that are disseminated and kept visible by users who themselves were not present at those events. As a response to political and social urgency, these specific videos, and the new genre they have initiated, play a triple function: they are cathartic for those filming events and uploading footage; they mediate reality for those watching through the screen; and they elevate minor, bottom-up, often incomplete stories of political events from the very people who take part in them. As claimed by Peter Snowdon, for the first time in film and cinema history, citizens are able to tell their history at the same time as it is unfolding (Snowdon, 2014).
Looking at the gesture of citizens who filmed and shared online visual testimonies made during the civil uprising in Tunisia in 2011, Ulrike Riboni has analyzed the mobilization of representation and visual strategies used in order to convince and group people together:
From the gesture, trying spontaneously to give the feeling of the quantity through the composition of the image, to the montage or the mise en scène, the limits of the intention remain blurred. In those who define themselves as militant, the practices evolve and seem to professionalize. The aesthetic question becomes more important, the devices are less rudimentary, and the reflections that lay at the basis of the footage deepen. […] Filming also means self-filming and making oneself visible is a response to the confiscation of one’s own images, as an individual and collective. The mobilizing potential of the videos does not stay only on the images themselves but also on sharing online. […] It is not the message but the messenger. Sharing is a gesture that might be subversive in itself (Riboni, 2015, p.13, my translation).
Questioning the crucial point of how to measure whether a video will produce a real effect, whether it will mobilize people or not, Riboni recognizes in the act of sharing the militancy of intention and gesture. Expanding these thoughts, I add that sharing as a participatory and counter gesture concerns not only amateur videographers but also the millions of onlookers who witness events through the mediation of the screen and the Internet, and who circulate videos, adding to a growing number of views and likes by simply watching YouTube’s playlist of videos.
Although today recent news articlesFootnote 7 reveal evidence about the involvement of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm in manipulating the opinion of users, on the ground, users have also employed YouTube as a tool for expressing political and existential urgencies and for spreading this worldwide, as well as for the storage of their visual accounts, with YouTube functioning as a safe place for the short- or long-term public existence of their media.
Within such an articulated landscape of art, videos, and activism, this paragraph reflects the question of if we still think of an inner characteristic of the image itself as aesthetically constructed. Or should we consider other factors, such as the role of the spectator?
Kodwo Eshun and Ros Gray (2011, p.1) have rearticulated the term “militant” to mean “any form of image or sound—from essay film to fiction feature, from observational documentary to found-footage ciné-pamphlet, from newsreel to agitational reworkings of colonial film production—produced in and through filmmaking practices dedicated to the liberation struggles and revolutions of the late twentieth century.” However, the term “militant” might not help artists and activists much if used by critics or art and video activism to mean that such actions and movements are aggressive, violent, or dangerous. Hence, the redefining of what art and militant images can mean constitute a much needed but precarious field of engagement. Furthermore, prevailing definitions consider merely the perspective of the filmmaker and look at the specificities of his or her storytelling, often taking as given (or ignoring) the possibility of effects that the abovementioned typology of images can generate in onlookers. Could a video then produce new forms of audience engagement, if the term used is intended to mean not only the raising of awareness for possible action but also the deconstruction of pre-existing narratives and the creation of new ones through the montage of images from the present and the past?
The “Between Broadcast – a project around activist videos” project
“Between Broadcast – a project around activist videos” relates to these questions as a multi-layered project that I initiated in 2016 and that took place at the non-profit exhibition space Between Bridges in Berlin. The aim of “Between Broadcast” was to explore the meaning of activist videos and the empathic relationship that viewers establish with them, especially with those found on YouTube. “Between Broadcast” stems from an interest in the rethinking of clips from YouTube, ranging from visual accounts posted by anonymous citizens in the last years to excerpts from broadcasting channels, while also considering how the value of these videos can change over time.
The project was meant to explore the bond between the potential empathy of the viewer with images that he or she consumed online, as well as the notion of digital memories. Leading reflective questions were: What kind of engagement do we have with videos that we watched online and that have stayed with us over the years? If it is empathy, what type of effects might this long-lasting participation produce? If remembering an image is the result of an empathic relation with it, might the act of remembering function as an additional form of circulation for these images? If so, what sort of collective outcome can it generate?
Contextualizing “Between Broadcast”: From the art space to the academy
“Between Broadcast” started in response to “Meeting Place,”Footnote 8 an umbrella of weekly events launched by artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans at the art project space Between Bridges in April 2016. “Meeting Place” ran in parallel to Tillmans’ EU Referendum campaignFootnote 9 (a project conceived in response to the UK’s Brexit vote of June 23, 2016, which consisted of a counter campaign of anti-conservative propaganda posters plastered in the streets of several British towns). “Meeting Place” was launched by means of a statement signed by Tillmans, sent via email to his mailing list and published on the Between Bridges websiteFootnote 10. It stemmed from the urgent question “What can I do?” which emerged as a reaction to Brexit, the refugee crisis, and the increasing success of right-wing parties across Europe. During “Meeting Place,” activist groups, artists, and intellectuals found a platform for gathering together and for discussion.
Within this framework, “Between Broadcast - a project around activist videos” was conceived as a one-month long series of public events. It started with the creation of a playlist of video clips recently uploaded on YouTube and collaboratively initiated together with Between Bridges team members. This playlist consisted of video testimonies shot during Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York; violent struggles, chants, and the peaceful occupation of public areas during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey; protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the murder of Michael Brown; and images that virally circulated online and therefore were very much present in the minds of many Western viewers, connected 24/7 as he or she is to the Internet and social media. These scenes are all so well known that they prove to be almost predictable. The crucial point consists exactly in playing with this obviousness and exhaustion of images, characteristics that seem to exempt them from holding a problematic status through the fiction created by a montage-based chronology set according to the date of the video’s uploading.
“Between Broadcast” was intended as a survey of the individual’s memories: a recollection of historical episodes that one can remember thanks to the online clips consumed, able to shape the individual’s memories of those events, and in doing so, that have become travel companions over time. Over the course of the one-month screening of the forty-minute playlist, visitors were free to contribute to it with their own selection of videos from YouTube and were invited to deal with the same challenging investigation of their own individual memories of and through mediated images. A much more articulated composition of around ninety minutes, including video of art performances and utopic ads by NGO’s engaged in rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean sea, stemmed from this invitation and showed the variety of interpretations behind the understanding of video activism.
The programme of “Between Broadcast” also included the screening of two films. The first was “Passagen” (2009) by Stefan Constantinescu, which follows the uprooted lives of three Chileans who were forced to leave their country in the aftermath of the coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. It is a film about refugees, expectations, estrangement, prejudices, and loneliness, as well as the ways in which the past reflects the present. The second was “Prime Time in the Camps” (1993) by Chris Marker, set in Roska Camp in Slovenia, which depicts the attempt by Bosnian refugees deprived of everything they owned to put together a way to retrieve information with the technical help of an NGO. They created a television programme, equipped with all the elements to make it appear like actual professional television. Reflecting upon spectatorship and self-representation, the film considers the attempt by refugees to emerge from forced invisibility and anonymity and enter official channels.
In November 2016, “Between Broadcast– a project around activist videos” turned into “Between Broadcast- Workshop”, a laboratory for discussion and creation at universities and art academies in Germany and Italy. The ongoing project took place variously at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf as an extra workshop over the winter semester; the Academy of Fine Arts in Bergamo in the Sound Design class of professor Riccardo Benassi (February 2017); and the Academy of Fine Arts, Leipzig as hosted by the Expanded Cinema class of professor Clemens von Wedemeyer (November 2017). Going through the development of the project and its theoretical implications, the text aims to retrace the work process and the challenges of adapting the original project to the educational context, and to survey the major questions that emerged during the discussion with students about videos activism as written down in my field notes, as well as the unsolved issues and critical points observed over the course of this experiment.
The project workshop
Turning into a workshop at universities, “Between Broadcast- Workshop” kept its former original discursive structure and intention of collective creation but specifically focused on unfolding the following issues:
reflecting on the students’ understanding of activist videos (for example, do scholars consider clips as trustworthy objects or ink-jet prints of digital empathy as an empowering reference?)
stimulating the students in self-reflecting upon their role as spectators, as well an introduction to the critical understanding of images, its scholars, and its discourses.
Conceived as a flexible think- and training- tank, the workshop developed different variations in each interaction, often due to the circumstances in which it was presented. However, the project unfolded through a fixed structure, which included five phases of student engagement that consisted of the following:
The first was a screening of films and videos: Episodes of commercial TV series such as “Black Mirror” and a selection of visual materials by artists and directors such as Rabih Mroué, Ossama Mohammed, Peter Snowdon, Philip Scheffner, Heba Y. Amin, and Riccardo Benassi were shown. These works functioned as guidelines. Common points among them were, first, a deep aesthetic, conceptual, and theoretical reference to social media. In fact, the pieces were grounded on the investigation on and of the use of video from YouTube, and in one case, Twitter. The second was the articulation of a discursive and aesthetic reflection of the process of montage as a tool for providing value and meaning to images. The third was the aim of the preservation of footage, thanks to the embedding in an artwork of what are often volatile or fugitive fragments of digital material online.
Academic references: YouTube as a medium and a cultural phenomenon of our time was explored through media theories and a sociological approach.
Group discussions: Among the topics of exchange were potential interpretations of the term “activist videos”; empathy with images consumed online; and YouTube as a repository of memories, experience, engagement, and spectatorship. Here, students were invited to brainstorm and share their understanding and personal relationship as viewers with visual materials circulating on the Internet.
A screening of the original playlist co-composed with members of Between Bridges members that functioned as a sample and bridge between the event and the workshop.
Video selection: The students were required to operate an individual selection of videos on YouTube uploaded in the recent past. These videos had to be ones that they interpreted as activist, and iconic and constitutive of the memory of an event that they could experience only through mediated images rather than direct experience. No definitions were provided to them in advance; rather, they were free to think of and share their understanding and use of the term. Leading guidelines during the discussions were formed from the questions that emerged in the art piece screened.
Sharing: Out of the selection in the section above, students were invited to share with the class and discuss the reasons for their choice regarding what were the characteristics that made those videos activist and in what way they problematized or added a valid interpretation to the notion of activism.
Collective video montage creation: This phase was followed by the creation of a collective video montage. Unlike the visitors who integrated the playlist screened in the art space, which was based on a more objective although arbitrary order for footage, here the students decided together how their multifaceted perspectives on the notion of activism could present a coherent dialogue through the montage of found video material, and how to give meaning to very different materials through the process of montage.
The “post-truth” era taking over?
This paragraph specifically unpacks the trustworthiness and truthfulness of activist videos and broadcast media in general, the role of spectatorship (e.g., feeling digital empathy) and the collective video montage approach. As the declared Word of the Year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary, the term “post-truth” perfectly describes the troubles of our times as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”Footnote 11
As claimed by Megan Boler and Elizabeth Davies, “post-truth arose to describe the emotional aims of the Brexit campaign, which sidestepped reason and went for the emotional jugular, tapping into the feeling of truth, or what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls ‘deep stories’—for example, powerful emotions of fear and anger catalyzed by perceptions of economic loss” (Boler, Davies, 2017). “The ‘truth carrying capacity’ of new social media and its propensity to disseminate fake news through Facebook, Google and Twitter, and thereby to create a ‘bubble world’ where algorithmically selected news sources simply reinforce existing prejudices thus compromising the capacity for moral thinking. Does the new social media undermine our ability to recognise truth?” (Peters, 2017, p. 564). Or, have lies always shaped the fiction that politics and media have agreed to tell? Over the three workshops, some important common aspects emerged repeatedly concerning especially the issues of misleading information and manipulated truth that both formal and informal media are able to provide.
As a preliminary note, all remarks concerning the feedback and reaction of students during the workshop that I will mention here come from personal notes that I took during the discussions. Therefore, no quotes from the participants are provided.
Among the initial aspects that commonly arose over the workshops were a skepticism toward YouTube and its place as a source of bottom-up information about world events, and the issue of the reliability of digital images. In my workshops in Düsseldorf, most of the students expressed a wide suspicion toward the truthfulness of images and videos circulating online. Especially with photographs, their manipulation is obvious and the students showed more interest in what was not represented rather than the opposite. They also searched for information through multiple sources with the awareness that both words and images can be misleading. Therefore, conflicting comments emerged. Some students declared that what is distributed by formal media was considered more reliable. Some others were critical of mainstream means of distributing information and believed that artists are more trustworthy. However, this claim was contradicted by those who recognized an artwork as a product for the art field or the art market and, therefore, unable to mirror reality with the assumed neutrality that mainstream broadcast media does. Some students considered social media in Western countries less politicized than in non-Western societies and reflected upon the fact that consuming videos about certain topics implied a complicity of the viewer.
In the Leipzig workshop, it was mainly students originating from foreign countries who acknowledged consuming clips from YouTube in order to receive grassroots news about civil dissent in their respective countries, while one student declared herself to be mainly interested in the channels of vloggers. In particular, the use of YouTube brings forth a series of reflections about the digital archive as a social phenomenon which mirrors how a sense of identity, belonging, and distance interweave with the digital involvement of the viewer. For the foreign students in this class, videos on YouTube seem to play a similar emotional and informative role to what the telephone did in the past: as a tool used by families in diaspora for staying in contact with one another. One important distinction with YouTube, however, is the fact that even through videos by anonymous users, the bond with one’s origins is maintained, an aspect which doesn’t diminish the value, reliability, and, especially, the emotional currency of the material.
Reflecting on the affective bonds between the users and the videos they consume, in part due to the ability of anonymous footage to more easily cross or be viewed across borders, one can create a parallel with the figure of the vlogger. In an article that appeared on the Guardian, journalist Stuart Dredge has claimed:
[The vloggers] very ordinariness – their relatability – is what makes them so appealing. The “girl or boy next door” who is “just like us” is not an unusual trope in the entertainment world but on YouTube, it’s heightened. […] By necessity, vlogging started out as a format with a person talking into a webcam – and thus directly to the viewer – often close to the camera and filming in their bedroom. It created a sense of intimacy, and one that many YouTube stars have tried to maintain even as they got better cameras and editing kit. But it even extends to how many of them address their audiences (Dredge, 2016).
When it comes to reflecting upon the challenges of digital empathy, students in Leipzig especially showed concern about the legitimacy of appropriating someone else’s history. Are we allowed to take part in stories and occurrences to which we do not belong? Does such involvement or engagement hide forms of cultural exploitation? Are we able to look at someone else’s causes free from a colonial gaze? These questions are not new but sound particularly prescient in a time of the increased exposure and visibility of private and public life.
Student selections of footage: Categories of chosen videos
The selection of video material by students ranged from footage provoking feelings of rage to others providing positive energy. In both cases, the materials were considered empowering footage, but with substantial differences. The first case showed negative facts that suggest bad emotions, which were transformed by the viewer into an engagement, a desire for reaction. Clips exposing acts of shocking, tragic events belong to this first category. Further materials that showed suicides, tragic accidents (as in the video documenting the death of the racing driver Tom Pryce in 1977), or that provoked rejection were selected as ambiguous cases to be discussed. Video ads by the far-right movements of Austria, Germany, and France, or footage taken by amateur videographers during homophobic demonstrations, were examples of propaganda footage chosen in order to be questioned due to their subject matter. Relevant questions that emerged regarded the circulation of so-called repulsive material through viewership and sharing. Does visibility only enforce their influence on the audience and demonstrate a certain approval? Or, is it possible to criticize images while also disseminating them? How does one deal with this conflict?
In the second category, a variety of diverse footage entered the discussion: those showing the power of the human upon nature, such as the montage of a surfer dominating a huge wave. Solidarity came up in a video montage of Chinese soldiers rescuing people hit by an earthquake. Excerpts from the broadcast of panda bears in China spread amusement and tenderness, while nonviolence and peace prevailed in the silent protest started in Taksim Square, Istanbul, in June 2013 by a single man, Erdem Gündüz, who was followed later by many other citizens. There were other videos, for example, trailers of movies such as “Heretik System: We Have a Dream” (2010), by Damien Raclot-Dauliac, about the criminalization of raves; or “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised” (2016), by Rama Thiaw, about the activism of the hip-hop band Keur Gui, who are the initiators of the protest movement “J’en ai marre” (We are fed up) in Senegal; or performances by Afro-Peruvian choreographer, composer, and activist, Victoria Santa Cruz.
A third class of videos was chosen because they problematize the iconography of activism and the way it is employed and used by the capitalist entertainment industry. In a sense, because of their didactic aim, tutorials guiding one on how to be a “good activist” or explaining the functioning of accepted or unaccepted tags on YouTube were part of this category.
Student montage playlist: Decision-making and exchange
In Düsseldorf and Leipzig, students finalized their playlists, gathering together videos that problematized, clarified, or widened their understanding of the term “activist.” Only materials that were collectively recognized as fitting into these categories were used for the compilations, which were then uploaded to YouTube. In the first experiment, “Between Broadcast- Workshop @Academy of Fine Arts Düsseldorf,”Footnote 12 students decided to include the playlist screened at Between Bridges. They focused on the idea of the “accident” as a key topic, which emerged as a subject from their selection and as a red thread able to connect most of the footage. An accident is normally intended as a negative event, but it can be turned into a positive entity if a sense of community, solidarity, or hope can be derived from it.
According to this central idea, the playlist began with an amateur video shot ten minutes before an earthquake in Sichuan, China in 2008. Through clashes, similarities, and humor, the playlist juxtaposes, among other things, a Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) spot with simulations of earthquakes with model architecture; homophobic demonstrations in France next to the speech of French MP Christiane Taubira defending LGBT rights; German citizens welcoming refugees at the train station next to Obama’s iconic 2008 speech “Yes, we can”; footage from a panda TV broadcast channel next to police brutality against twenty-two year old Oscar Grant, shot in 2009; and, as closing footage, the Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi performing during the protests in 2011 next to a photo montage of a surfer perpetually surfing the biggest wave ever. The editing was technically very simple: videos were used in its entirety or cut using the post-production tools of YouTube, while titles of the original footage were kept as informative details to orient the viewer.
In Leipzig, students began the playlist “Between Broadcast- Workshop @Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig”Footnote 13 with, variously, the muted footage of a Pepsi advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner, who attends a protest and hands a can of Pepsi to one of the policemen controlling the march; a tutorial explaining how to be a good activist; a video clip of Yung Hurn’s hip-hop song “Fick die Polizei” (fuck the police) (whose only purpose seemed to the students to be that of mocking the police); and a far-right propaganda video by Generation Identitaire. These clips were muted in order to focus attention on what was represented and to mark the controversial nature of the footage and the critical or uncertain position of the students toward them. This silence was then broken by videos of demonstrations in Russia, footage of the “Standing Man” protest in Turkey next to the trailer of the movie “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised” by Rama Thiaw; footage of clashes where the presence of cameras and mobile phones predominate next to an old clip of a Russian news TV broadcast. This was followed by videos of violence in the private or public space. For example, CCTV footage showing the beating of a woman in what was supposedly a police station in Turkey was shown next to the clip of a vlogger who informs her followers about her illness, which will prevent her from posting new videos. Amateur footage from the US showing the aggression by police toward an African-American teen laying on the grass and tutorials instructing one on how to create advertisable content on YouTube closed the playlist. Here, the editing was more sophisticated thanks to the skills of students. They could play more effectively with the length of each excerpt of video as well as with the sound, and in so doing, they were able to produce additional meanings.
In the workshop in Bergamo, conversely, students could not overcome divergent points of view on the very creation of the playlist, so the whole process of the selection of videos alongside the group discussion remained a work in progress and was documented in a blog by the class titled comescusanonhocapitodicevi.Footnote 14 The meta-question that remained unsolved by the Italian students concerned the selection of the criteria of montage itself. That is, what criteria is possible for a collective playlist that is able to account for every single subjective choice?
The students elaborated a series of options: one possibility was to have no criteria, which meant ordering the videos randomly; a second option was one of objectivity, as suggested by metadata such as a count of views or the length of the video. Nevertheless, there was a struggle if such data could show content or influence the understanding of the footage in any way. A third possibility was to organize videos through polar categories such as negative versus positive, but again subjective definitions of what images could be positive and what could be negative became a matter of discussion. Ultimately, the issue the students raised concerned that of self-representation through footage. If embodying the selected videos and their content, some students did not feel their views were represented by the footage of others. Therefore, they considered it quite difficult to end with a collective montage. The impossibility for the students to find a mutual agreement on the selection of videos for the compilation showed the complexity and incongruity of the materials being handled, while the work process showed, on one side, the level of identification toward the aesthetics and values carried by images, and on the other side, the difficulties in seeing a wider frame where dissonant images seen in dialogue with others can create further meanings.
Discussion and analysis of the data that emerged
Some of the central outcomes that emerged through the workshops were a skepticism toward the media and the truthfulness of the representations they provide. Furthermore, the preference of the students for certain genres of amateur video on YouTube (as found on the channels of vloggers, for example), makes evident their limited interest in using the platform as an archive of video testimonies of episodes happening far away and the particular circumstances under which such use occurs (the distance from the events observed). The abovementioned considerations reveal the unavoidable transformation of presumptions and the unpredictable results of the workshops from time to time.
Within this framework, on one side, what emerges is how diverse approaches to images and the mediums in which they circulate can change the meaning the students attribute to the notion of activism through videos. On the other side, how the use and consumption of the tools of video and social networks vary according to generations, external social-political conditions in which the prosumers live, and their cultural backgrounds. It is evident that the acts of taking or watching amateur clips or other genres on YouTube have a different militant value whether in Tunisia (where YouTube was censored until January 13, 2011) or in Germany, and this influences the understanding of the videos and their effectiveness in activism.
The variety of materials selected by the students partly mirrored predictable aesthetic paths and content (raw amateur footage showing violence, brutality, and citizens’ manifestations of dissent), while they also partly moved away from the obvious. Videos exhibiting explicitly negative values (nationalism, gender and ethnic discrimination, cultural poverty, disrespect for human life), and others exploiting the aesthetic of citizen’s activism for commercial purposes are used as a sample for problematizing the meaning that can be attributed to the contents of amateur and commercial clips circulating online. Therefore, these choices show that the understanding of the students of the activist videos was related in limited ways to their value as trustworthy objects. Rather, students look at videos as objects of digital empathy through the positive or the negative values that they carry, and in so doing, they aim to question the ability of the images to produce an empowering effect.
However, a critical point in the feedback of student is that the footage chosen does not always emerge from memories; rather, they were sometimes the result of arbitrary searches on YouTube made in order to find ambivalent or pertinent samples as contributions to the discussion. Therefore, one of the initial questions of long-lasting empathy with certain kind of images consumed online was not picked up by all the students, and the relationship between memory and circulation was hardly examined. This result reveals implicitly important signals, which would deserve more attention than what I can give in this text: I refer to the transient impact of the images on the viewer, the mode of consuming them, and the difficulties in making them re-emerge if they have not produced a subjective experience in the individual. Instead, the discussions that emerged mainly concerned questions about the agency of the spectator in the act of watching, and what sort of collective outcome it can generate.
While at the beginning of the workshop the students primarily questioned the content of the videos in relation to their mobilizing potential, later, the unexpected or untraced connections among them became the leading focus. During the phase of group debate and creation of the final playlist (or the attempt of producing it), it was realized that the videos selected do not merely speak in and of themselves. These videos cannot (or cannot merely) be interpreted as single, isolated, and disconnected objects from the others. Rather, they are inscribed in both the onlooker’s history of experiences and an endless archive of footage, in this case, from YouTube.
Cooperating with the images and contributing to the construction of their meaning through the set of links provided by the individual’s own history and experiences, the students as spectators do not play the role of catalyst. (In fact, this latter term catalyst is used in chemistry to define “a substance that makes a chemical reaction happen faster without being changed itself.”)Footnote 15 But the action of this component does not embed the change brought about in primis on the viewer by his or her way of seeing, thinking, remembering, and connecting with the present moment. On the contrary, observers are editors of their fiction, given each time by the montage as a personal apparatus used for navigating fragments of memory, thoughts, experiences, and moments. If montage works as a creative tool for the reflection by students on their role as spectators, what is the result when subjective fictional narratives are collectively shared?
It is in the attempt to explore this question that the “Between Broadcast” project finds its essence. What “Between Broadcast- Workshop” aimed to provoke and was able to produce in the students was to make them reflect upon their agency as viewers, not only as individuals but also as a group. Over the process of discussion, it became clear to the students that the viewer was an author even only through their viewership, and as such, he or she can bring changes through the editing of images and stories consumed. The whole project and the way it was constructed aimed to shift the attention from merely that of the content or aesthetic of the video to that of the viewers and their various modes of engagement through seeing and remembering minor accounts and images in parallel to official ones, and as well, through their editing, and by doing so, their ability to write new narratives.
If artist Trevor Paglen analyzes the manipulative power and the effects in society of “invisible images,” defined by him as “images made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop” (Paglen, 2016, p. 1), it seems that, on the contrary, the category of images of resistance are of those addressed to human eyes and that generate—intentionally or not—a form of participation. Therefore, if an image whether still or moving can be considered activist, the first condition to be satisfied is that it is made for and addresses the human gaze. If “an image, like every image, is an invitation to look” (Sontag, 2003, p. 45), aren’t we, while watching, also accepting the call to activate the image based on our experience of all the other millions of images that we have seen, shared, remembered, or temporarily forgotten over our lifetime? Could this combination of time, moments, and emotions—mixed and remixed every time we see an image—make it mobilizing? From its initial outcome at Between Bridges to its unfolding as a workshop, “Between Broadcast” demonstrated its meta-activist essence. As was evident, the project aimed to display a series of questions about stimulating the viewer’s self-understanding of his or her potential and power as an individual and member of a collective.
The method applied and its possible employment
Another relevant point in the project concerns the specific method of work that it drafts and the broad possibilities and fields of application. The procedure of seven steps (a screening of films and videos; academic references; group discussion; a screening of the original playlist co-composed with Between Bridges; video selection; sharing; collective video montage creation), which have been used so far in the experiment with students at art academies, can be extended to other domains and used, for instance, in media studies as well as in memory and/or affect studies. The seven steps, which take viewers through a process of reflecting upon empathy in relation to the militancy of images, remediated memories, and the digital archive of videos, are central issues of debate within the disciplines mentioned above.
Furthermore, as the procedure drafted by the “Between Broadcast” project is conceived to give special attention to the act and the mode of seeing of the observer as a form of storytelling, which is based on the montage of images as a process for creating additional meanings and narrative, education departments and art mediation programmes in museums and not-for-profit art institutions can also take advantage of the structure of the project, with some due refinements. By a definition on the website of the Manifesta 10, art mediation has the task of “facilitat [ing] dialogue and the exchange of knowledge by stimulating opinions through what the viewer sees and the associations they make with the work directly in front of them.”Footnote 16
The method applied for the development of the workshops stresses the awareness of the viewer of her creative and generative position, alongside that of the artist, the curator, and the art institution, within the framework of the exhibition.
Finally, with some adjustment, the method can be employed in other disciplines or programmes that intend to produce social and political change, such as social justice programmes. Empowering the subject as much as the onlooker means reinforcing his or her individual narrative potential and capacity to create and share alternative fictional stories in opposition to dominant wide-spread narrations, which can bring about a change of perspective on specific topics.
As a conclusion, the method proposed by “Between Broadcast- Workshop” does not address only students and the development of critical skills regarding their social and active responsibility as viewers; it also invites educators in art, media studies, mediation fields, and social programmes to question or raise an awareness in the viewer-participant-practitioner about their potential to make a difference in society. The method suggests shifting attention toward a different understanding of the observer’s status and power as well as to critically consider the diverse forms of participation available.
Watching as responsibility of operating in the same machine
This paragraph unfolds the relation between witnessing, remembering, and being an accomplice through watching, as well as the social responsibility of the filmmaker and the viewer by means of the film “Nicht löschbares Feuer” (“The Inextinguishable Fire,” 1969) by Harun Farocki and the lecture performance “Sand in the eyes” Mroué, 2017, that I linked to as a conceptual extension of Farocki’s perspective. In his renowned film, Harun Farocki aims to shake Western audiences in their understanding of the horrors of the Vietnam War. In one of the most significant scenes, Farocki interrogated the viewer with the following question: “How can we show the injuries caused by napalm? If we show pictures of napalm burns, you’ll close your eyes. First you’ll close your eyes to the picture, then you’ll close your eyes to the memory, then you’ll close your eyes to the facts, then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context.” Images that traumatize are also tools of human abuse (in terms of memory and feelings). And Farocki goes further: “If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we will hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as if we’d tried napalm out on you, at your expense. We can give only an idea of how napalm works. [Here, he burns a cigarette on his skin.] A cigarette burns at 400°C, napalm burns at 3,000°C. If the viewer wants nothing to do with the effects of napalm, then it’s important to determine what they already have to do with the reason for its use.” Thus, not to see means forgetting, and forgetting means losing contact with reality and history. If “by watching we are operating in the same machine,” the act of viewing make us the target of the image (Mroué, “Sand in the eyes” lecture-performance, 2017) and produces in the viewer awareness and participation. Therefore, looking at something and not doing anything against it makes us complicit.
The question of remembering as a tool of resistance
The act of seeing allows observers to play and be committed within a history through the process of the recollection of memory. Analyzing the relationship between photography as a tool for exposure and memory, Sontag argues that “the memory of war, like all memory, is mostly local” (Sontag, 2003, p. 35), “individual and unreproducible” (Sontag, 2003, p. 86). However, “people want to be able to visit—and refresh—their memories” (Sontag, 2003, p. 87). Sontag goes further, saying:
Even in the era of cybermodels, what the mind feels like is still, as the ancients imagined it, an inner space—like a theatre—in which we picture, and it is these pictures that allow us to remember. The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding and remembering. […] To remember, is more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture (Sontag, 2003, p. 88-89).
This point raised by Sontag is especially true in a landscape overwhelmed by images, with video activist images not being an exception.
In the film “The Memory of the 25th Hour,” (2016) director Sungeun Kim traces memories of a ten-year-long resistance by villagers against the construction of a naval base in Gangjeong village in Jeju Island, South Korea. A young activist boy who is interviewed reveals that his own memories of civil struggle are shaped by videos shot by the police as evidence. He says, “It doesn’t feel like my own memory; but ‘memorization’ through the third person’s perspective. […] You don’t remember your childhood, until you see photos of the childhood. It’s the memory through photography. It’s like someone else’s optical memory invading mine. When you think of the situation, you see yourself through the police’s camera.”
These examples all point to the paramount importance for viewers and students to understand the tricky, seductive, complex, empowering, and disempowering meaning of images, photography, videos, and films. They shape the human subconscious and support the creation and recreation of memory and, therefore, history. Is the view of reality through film’s aperture of twenty-four frames per second a restricted perspective? In focusing on the case of footage and pictures shot in Egypt during the protests in 2011 and their existence today, Lara Baladi directs our attention toward the potential of memory for resistance in a context that tries to cancel any account related to these recent events of Egyptian history. And especially, she looks at how archives of images in a wider sense (pictures, texts, videos) work as tools for the preservation of the plurality of stories: “Whether we remember stories from Tahrir through the lens of images, films, or other types of data, whether they arise in our consciousness during a conversation or in a dream, and even if each time we remember them differently, we continue to resist by remembering and by interpreting the archives again and again, nevertheless keeping our history alive” (Baladi, 2016, p. 15).
Possible educational and pedagogical uses of videos
Mobilization is intended to be understood as a wider process that doesn’t concern only the topic of video or the circumstances represented by it; rather, it engages viewers who actively establish a dialog with the footage, and who contribute to circulating it, thereby guaranteeing its existence over time and space, online and offline. In doing so, it should be understood that viewers also create a dialogue among videos in a here-now and there-elsewhere. As claimed by Rancière:
Spectators see, feel and understand something in as much as they compose their own poem, as, in their way, do actors or playwrights, directors, dancers or performers (Rancière, 2009, p. 13).
And he continues:
She [the spectator] observes, selects, compares, interprets. She links what she sees to a host of other things that she has seen on other stages in other kinds of place. She composes her own poem with the element of the poem before her. She participates in the performance by refashioning it in her own way—by drawing back for example, from the vital energy that it is supposed to transmit in order to make it a pure image and associate this image with a story which she has read or dreamt, experienced or invented. They are thus both distant spectators and active interpreters of the spectacle offered to them (Rancière, 2009, p. 13).
Within this framework, the amplification of storytelling as a result of filtering, selecting, and assembling information and images reflect montage as a way of seeing. As described earlier in this text, this is defined as the juxtaposition of images for the production of fictional narratives able to express additional or alternative positions and perspectives, in parallel or in contrast to the dominant ones. Therefore, both the filmmaker (through editing) and the viewer (through watching) create fictions which are “political in its form” (Pallotta, 2008 p. 4).
Alongside editing as a tool of resistance, the process of remembering also demonstrates an oppositional value by standing against Watch Time, YouTube’s commercially-driven algorithm-based video recommendation system. While under certain social and political circumstances digital memory might bring particular images or stories to the fore, the act of remembering by the viewer also plays a part.
In a time dominated by flows of video and other images disseminated at high speed that exceed the human possibility for consuming them, it is primarily for younger and older generations, and educators and scholars, to understand the responsibility that prosumers have toward the pictures through which we perceive and give an account of the world. Especially in the case of the students (here art students, but as mentioned earlier, it is relevant to those of media studies and other disciplines, too), this awareness needs to be stimulated even further as the understanding of the social commitment toward communities, history, and the complexities of “the truth.”
Through the achievements of the project “Between Broadcast” as well as its criticalities or limits, the text tries to propose one main point of reflection: that of the shift of the attention of the viewer and his or her function of storyteller as a point of departure for rethinking the engagement with videos consumed on social media and the internet, through connecting and remixing remembered images that are empathically relevant for the individual, and as activist gestures per se. Does this focus on the viewer imply that any image can be considered activist? Of course not, but the given perspective invites us to look at ourselves as the only engine able to edit representations of reality in unexpected and new ways in order to make change possible. In fact, the crucial point of this workshop as an art and pedagogic process remains in suggesting the need to reconsider the role of the spectator as the subject carrying the potential for videos to have effects in society. The spectator needs to be acknowledged as a reflective creator via her engagement in the activities of montage: activities that he or she might naturally develop, but also through a process activated by the workshop.
What can the interpretation of video activism in relation to montage as a form of engagement add to art pedagogy and, in general, to higher-education pedagogy? First, the method stresses the possibility for the spectator to deconstruct the meanings or dominant perspectives that each video as a story carries. This implies not only the need for increasing critical observation, but also the need to empower viewers as narrators of minor, untold, or counter perspectives that can have an effect in society and foster change.
The experiment of the collective video montage within the educational environment is the basis of a democratic process of the negotiation of meaning. Therefore, the approach proposed by the workshops and this text is an attempt to redefine roles. If montage, as used by the viewer, becomes the tool for looking and the way to create possible significations and realities, does this mean that the single image is losing its discursive autonomy? Or are we simply accounting for the fact that in a time of the increasing production of visual objects, the viewer should learn how to individually and collectively deconstruct and co-construct narratives and different versions of truth in order to resist the post-truth contemporary landscape enacted by media and politics?
Creating a parallel with researchers and artists, Rancière looks at “the stages [constructed by them] where the manifestation and effect of their skill are exhibited, rendered uncertain in the terms of the new idiom that conveys a new intellectual adventure” (Rancière, 2009, p. 22). And he continues: “The effect of the idiom cannot be anticipated. It requires spectators who play the role of active interpreters, who develop their own translation in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own story. An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators” (Rancière, 2009, p. 22).
Where can young citizens learn how to be emancipated subjects and act as an engaged group, if not within spaces for potential experimentation and unlearning; that is, in education and art environments? The method proposed by “Between Broadcast- Workshop” aims to empower the students as viewers and actors who should be aware of their process and participation in the appropriation and consumption of images and for imagining and giving back new possible worlds.
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