Be the Media: The Current State of Activist Media and the Work of Franklin Lopez
By Chris Robé
November 12, 2010
“Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance. Something that is constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there… It takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations, always taking on more density”
—The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurection
As November 2009 neared and the global recession continued to eviscerate the infrastructures of the nation-state and local government, as hundreds of thousands of recently fired workers battled for a decreasing number of low-paid, disposable service-industry jobs to simply keep food on their tables, as their homes depreciated in value while their mortgages bloomed into nightmares, as thousands of low-income students were increasingly squeezed out of colleges by inflated tuition-hikes that administrators disingenuously deemed as necessary austerity measures, various global justice activists assessed the inheritances left in the wake of the famed Battle of Seattle during its tenth anniversary.
One cannot understate the radicalizing impact that the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in 1999 had upon Generation Xers worldwide. Although Seattle had many political precedents and influences such as the anti-colonial struggles of the ‘60s in Vietnam, Algeria, Senegal, Chile, and Cuba, the feminist movements, the anti-nuclear crusades, queer activism, and, more recently, the 1994 armed insurrection of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the 1996 Landless Campesino Movement in Brazil, the 1998 Peoples’ Global Action Against Free Trade and the WTO in Geneva, and the June 1999 Global Carnival Against Capital in London, to name only a few, Seattle converged in an explosive way. Over 50,000 people descended upon the city, catching both police and activists off-guard. Traditional sectarian lines were drastically being dissolved, emblemized in the placards that read, “Teamsters and Turtles: Together at Last!” Traditional permitted marches intersected with black bloc property destruction of Starbucks and Nike Town, causing WTO delegates to finally cease their meetings and flee from a city smoldering under pepper spray and tear gas as Marshal Law locked into effect. As one protestor was to reflect later, “Seattle 1999 was our May 1968.”
Seattle politicized previously depoliticized locals and on-line viewers with its flood of police repression and brazen governmental arrogance that Westerners were perhaps used to and comfortable with descending upon the Third World, but not in their own backyard. Yet, more importantly, it galvanized the already politicized by revealing how the center could no longer hold, how the circuits of neoliberalism could be shorted at ground zero in a silicon city that pulsed with the free-trade platitudes and dot.com delusions of the Empire.
Only months before Seattle, Naomi Klein released No Logo, which boldly charted the international terrain of globalization and its discontents: the glut of anti-union temp. work in the First World; the imposition of Free Trade Zones within the Third World where multinationals are given free-reign to exploit Third World, predominantly female, labor; the intrusion of marketing into our education system, treating children as potential consumers rather than as students; and the charring of an entire way of life into easily identifiable corporate brands. The book distilled the diverse strands of the global Left into a powerful critique of neoliberalism that activists could incorporate into their protests. Yet the book’s final section on resistance that charts culture jamming, reclaim the streets campaigns, and the student anti-sweatshop movements remained unconvincing. How could these various, unrelated strains of civil disobedience possibly block the flows of global capital in a significant fashion? No Logo’s answers possessed the stale whiff of empty Leftist genuflection towards change after having documented the seemingly inexorable momentum of late capitalism towards planetary destruction. That is until Seattle happened.
Also within the crucible of the Seattle WTO protests Indymedia was founded— a consensus-based, non-hierarchical, digitally-networked, technologically-savvy collective of activist videographers, journalists, photographers, artists, producers, and web-designers. Similar to the protests themselves, Indymedia had a long lineage of influences from the Third Cinema movements of the ‘60s, the video activist groups of the ‘70s, the cable access movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, UNESCO’s McBride Commission, Downtown Community Television, Paper Tiger and Deep Dish TV, and the Zapatistas.
More immediately, a group called Counter Media established a website during the 1996 Democratic National Convention to broadcast the protests and teach-ins occurring outside the convention, though due to technical problems the site kept crashing. This was the first attempt at establishing a website to distribute radical, on-the-scene protest footage. Furthermore, the Grassroots Media Alliance Conference in Austin, Texas in 1999 provided a forum where established media groups like Whispered Media, Big Noise Film, Deep Dish, and Free Speech TV could discuss with independent activist media-makers plans about providing alternative media coverage during Seattle.
Even with this preparation, Indymedia almost did not happen. By early November, the collective could only raise $1,500 of the $40,000 needed to run a website, upload satellite footage, power electricity, and maintain a media space. Luckily, during the final weeks leading up to the protests, Indymedia received a $10,000 anonymous check as well as a $10,000 donation from the Tides Foundation. Deep Dish TV had also been busily raising money on its own for satellite access. Additionally, Gabrielle Kuiper, an Australian Ph.D. student, had just developed an open-source software code on which Indymedia could establish its own web-platform to directly upload video footage, news reports, and photographs. Finally, Seattle, the hub of the tech. sector, provided more than ample amounts of free technical labor to upkeep the website during the protests.
Indymedia’s presence upon the scene proved inspirational. Not only was it broadcasting in-depth stories regarding the protests that the major networks arrogantly ignored, but it also revealed the raw power of a D.I.Y. ethic of upstart amateurs seizing back control of a medium that had once seemed to be beyond their grasps. Similar to punk’s seizure of arena rock, and hip hop’s sampling of black R&B songs that were copyrighted by white producers, Indymedia hijacked cheap video technology and the open-source knowledge of the tech. sector to challenge commercial media’s façade of “objectivity” with its own visions of global justice. Anyone could upload his/her video, photographs, or stories to the website. The Seattle Media Center produced 2000 copies daily of its own newspaper, The Blind Spot, as well as provided on-line pdfs so that activists in the other 82 cities also protesting the WTO could distribute it. Seattle illuminated how new media technologies could be re-inflected against the very vectors of global capital that made them possible. By March 2003, Indymedia had grown into a global phenomenon with over 110 international Media Centers—though most still primarily centered in North America and Europe. Its insistence that everyday folk “be the media” proved prophetic.
Yet with the arrival of the 22-26 June 2010 Second U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, Indymedia was noticeably absent. Out of the dozen activist media panels I attended, Indymedia was not mentioned once. Although one can understand the tactical need to focus on the present, this lack of historical hindsight is surprising when considering that just ten years ago Indymedia was considered the vanguard of the media movement.
In Cobo Hall, the fortress-like cement convention center that occupies downtown Detroit where the Forum was held, a People’s Media Center occupied the south wing of the second floor in a ballroom. Ostensibly based-off the Independent Media Center model, it provided space where autonomous groups of techies, videographers, print journalists, and artists could gather to make and distribute media. Except in this case all but the techies were missing. Aspiration, a Bay Area group that assist nonprofits in using software more effectively and sustainably, assembled a team of four or five members around two tables of donated computers to provide computer access. Predictably, most people were using the computers for email. The rudimentary video editing software proved irrelevant since the computers lacked both the memory and processing capacity to edit without periodically crashing.
In a far corner of the room stood a hard-drive with its cover removed and tangled wires exposed. Nat, a dreadlocked techie, hunched over it like a surgeon or coroner—depending upon his mood. This apparently was where videographers were supposed to archive and upload their material. Nat informed me that ATT had not delivered the DSL line until two days into the Forum. The router broke in the process, and he still needed to set-up two terabytes of server space. In short, the archive was non-existent.
Nat informed me that Alfredo was in charge of video archiving, but in spite of visiting the Media Center daily, I never caught sight of the elusive Alfredo. Just as I never saw any other videographers attempting to upload their footage. Free Speech TV contributed the only media activity in the center. At the far end of the room it had erected a temporary studio to conduct interviews for satellite transmission and to upload videos. What happened?
Granted, the Toronto G20/G8 protests coincided with the U.S. Social Forum during the latter half of the week, thereby drawing critical focus away from Detroit. But one would think that out of the 18,000 people in attendance there would be more media activity. The 9AM. press briefings proved embarrassingly representative. They were attended by Carlos, who was the Social Forum Press Secretary, a Communist correspondent from People’s World, and me—along with 72 other empty chairs. A few times I had to correct Carlos on material that he largely recited from the Social Forum brochures such as the time of the plenary speech. The Communist correspondent quipped, “Well, we outlasted General Motors.” Barely.
What indeed were the inheritances of Seattle? Many activists believed that they had mistakenly taken Seattle for a movement rather than a moment. In the latest issue of Turbulence Rodrigo Nunes claims, “‘The movement had never existed. It was a mirage, produced in a moment of hugely and rapidly increased capacity of communication and coordination, and wide-eyed astonishment at a just-discovered capacity to produce moments of convergence whose collective power was much greater than the sum of its parts” (“About Ten Years Ago” 39). David Solnit, a Seattle organizer, agrees: “There is no global justice movement. At best, ‘global justice’ is a common space of convergence” (5). Although such analysis underestimates the new movements that Seattle forged as well as the complex interplay between movements and moments that global protests facilitated (and forestalled), the austere tone reveals a new structure of feeling surrounding activist communities engulfed by two Middle Eastern wars, escalated global warming, a worldwide financial collapse, and one of the worst oil spills.
In a similar manner, following an article titled, “Why Seattle Still Matters”, in the November 2009 issue of The Indypendent, NYC’s Indymedia newspaper, a reader ironically questioned: “Does the Indymedia global network still matter?” Perhaps the question is wrongly stated. The point is not if Indymedia still matters, but what has it become?
For the New Generation, Media-Making Is Second Nature
Although some strong Inydmedia centers in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland remain, the Indymedia movement could not sustain itself at its 2003 levels due to various internal contradictions. Victor Pickard notes how there has always been a tension between Indymedia’s decentralized, consensus-based structure and its goals of media democracy, between the inefficiency of egalitarian decision-making and the need to get a story uploaded in a timely fashion, a film edited within a specific timeframe (“United Yet Autonomous,” 330).
I would further argue that a deeper contradiction plagued Indymedia: as much as it fought neoliberalism, it was also birthed by it and perpetuated some of its inequalities. Like neoliberalism, Indymedia also depended upon the free labor of the relatively privileged, the knowledge of the predominantly white, male tech. sector, and the technological infrastructures and industrial economies of the global North. Sociologist Richard Florida calls these people “the creative class”: those “people in science, engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content” (8).
For the Facebook generation, electronic media comprises their social identity; this entails a fluency in media production unlike ever seen before as well as a certain uncritical naturalization of it that will eventually have to be interrogated for their activism to develop. Yet this creativity can cut both ways: in jamming the circuits of neoliberalism and also re-channeling previously alternative currents into neoliberal pathways. Indymedia did both. Under the weight of its inheritances, Indymedia had to change as global summit hopping waned, while the wars on terror escalated, and the gutting of local communities intensified, and as local and federal governments absolved themselves of the welfare of its populace.
As a result, contemporary activist media has reconfigured itself largely in one of two ways: through community media activism or a more professionalized band of videographers, editors, bloggers, and producers contributing to various independent— and sometimes commercial— venues. The emphasis on reconnecting with local communities has been a recurrent self-critique that activists have been noting ever since the demise of global summit hopping around 2004. As Ashanti Alston, a former Black Panther notes, “Even with the anarchists, you’ve gotta do some local work. Even if it’s not your community, begin to interact, go into dialog. You’ve got some information, you’ve got some things to share? Well, so do they. And in the dialog, you see some points where you can begin to work together” (Uses of a Whirlwind, 339).
Community media activism has either been mediated by an outside group assisting in achieving media autonomy for local groups and peoples involved or it is initiated by the community itself. The classic example is the Zapatistas’ involvement with the Chiapas Media Project, a Chicago-based group that lent donated VCRs, video cameras, and computers to assist various Zapatista indigenous groups identify their community’s issues to themselves and others. Self-conscious of the potential post-colonial dynamic of yanquis coming to the “rescue” of indigenous folk, the members of the Chiapas Media Project intentionally let other media-savvy Mexicans and indigenous peoples train the Zapatistas themselves.
More recently, the Media Mobilizing Project, located in Philadelphia, is influenced by the Zapatistas’ media tactics as well as the class emphasis provided by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Project members assist various local groups engaged in social struggle to assist in producing and distributing their messages as well as in media training. They are currently in partnership with the Taxi Workers Alliance of PA, Unite Here Hotel Workers Rising Campaign, the Philadelphia Student Union, among others. A recent project involved making support videos for the Pennsylvania Head Start Association. These video were then distributed to members of the U.S. Congress, who eventually recertified the program.
Mobile Voices, on the other hand, was initiated by members of the Los Angeles Latino community for low-wage immigrants to create and distribute their own stories in contra-distinction from the largely anti-immigrant sentiments of commercial media. Since an early survey of theirs revealed that 78 percent of all Hispanic day laborers owned cell phones, Mobile Voices used them as production and distribution platforms. One of their initial projects entailed a 15-year-old girl calling in a report concerning police harassment of day laborers. She then sent in the pictures she had taken of the incident. One of the Mobile Voices team edited the images with her voice-over and posted it on the website. Currently they have collaborated with the School of Communication at University of Southern California in developing a web platform that allows its members to quickly compose videos with their cell phones that can then be distributed across the network. Their most recent video documents the protests against the racial profiling law in Arizona.
As newer generations of activists emerge, media making becomes second nature. While attending a student bill of rights assembly at the Social Forum, I watched various high-quality videos made by high school students from Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and Detroit—all shot on $150 flip cameras and edited on bottom-line software. Interestingly enough, unlike older activists, the students didn’t mention media-making at all, instead assuming it as a part of their activism. For the Facebook generation, electronic media comprises their social identity; this entails a fluency in media production unlike ever seen before as well as a certain uncritical naturalization of it that will eventually have to be interrogated for their activism to develop.
On the other hand, there is the gradual professionalization of media activists who emerged from Indymedia. Many of its former members have created new independent media organizations like Democracy Now, Free Speech TV, and Pepper Spray Productions. The generation of videographers, editors, photographers, and writers inspired by Indymedia have become freelancers who work with a wide array of independent media organizations, as well as occasionally with commercial media.
Brandon Jourdan, a videographer, notes how Indymedia’s legacy was more as a social network than an institution unto itself. It created the links between hundreds of activist media makers and groups that assisted in the formation of many community and national media projects. As The Invisible Committee notes, “Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance.” Indymedia fostered such resonance, which has converged in the hundreds of videographers and editors contributing to shows like Democracy Now and DVD magazines like The Leader, Dispatches, Molotov, and Indy Newsreal.
By far the most routinely praised contemporary media activist is Franklin López. His shows and films not only possess a distinctive look and feel, but they also contain a wicked sense of humor that is often sorely lacking among alter-globalization activists. Furthermore, López self-critically draws attention to the tensions that underlie his own activism and by implication that of the anarchist-inflected, direct-action groups that he associates with. As a result, he defuses the “holier-than-thou” stance that some activists project with self-deprecating humor and a carnivalesque tone.
López’s crowning achievement is It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine (ItEotW)—the name pilfered from the R.E.M. song of the self-same title. The show began in 2007 as a bi-weekly ten-minute webcast from his SubMedia homepage. López plays The Stimulator, our disembodied post-modern/sci-fi foul-mouthed host who floats over the screen in three red-bordered squares that encompass negatives of his eyes and mouth. Digitized fuel clouds burn post-apocalyptically behind him. As López noted in an interview with me, “Aesthetically I stole Ice-T’s character in Johnny Mnemonic where he would split his face into three squares when he wanted to broadcast his messages on pirate TV.”
The show is broken-down into thirds. The Stimulator spends the first third recounting recent ecological, political, and/or economic disasters along with resistance news of the alter-globalization movements. The middle-section presents music from a politically-engaged musician with accompanying video or mash-up composed by López himself. Its final section holds either an interview with an activist or a rant by The Stimulator provoked by recent events or viewer email. Currently, the show is broadcast over Miro, Free Speech TV, and various radio stations, and podcast.
As one can surmise, López is deeply indebted to the copyLeft, culture jamming tactics of the avant-garde and hip-hop communities. The Stimulator routinely praises hip-hop’s influence. During episode 21 of season one, he states, “Chuck D and company gave me my first lesson in how fucked-up the world really is” while praising N.W.A.’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. He clarified during our interview: “My roommate in college introduced me to hip-hop, and I’ve been a head ever since. Public Enemy had the biggest influence on me. It was noisy, sample-driven shit that made you want to overthrow the government. So I translated what PE did to video: lots of anger projected through manipulations of pop culture.”
Yet at the same time, the show frequently pays homage to illegal-art groups Negativland and Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN). The former is best known for incorporating samples of a swear-ridden tirade by Casey Kasem, the saccharine host of the nauseatingly bland American Top 40, to the background music of U2’s, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” They distributed it as a single with a U2 spy plane on the cover along with the letters “U2” in large font and a smaller font “Negativland” underneath. Needless to say, they were sued. But news coverage provided the group with a forum to expose the hypocrisy of being sued by U2’s label, Island Records, for copyright infringement when U2 routinely illegally streamed satellite footage during their ZOO TV tour.
EBN sifted through the detritus of commercial television to sample and distill it into a techo-infused critique that was then distributed on bootleg VHS tapes and eventually led to multimedia tours. As Josh Pearson, one of EBN’s founders, observes, “People are getting more and more cynical while still watching television. And everyone kind of knows, ‘They’re just fucking with us. They’re just manipulating us. It’s all just propaganda.’ So when we take television and manipulate it, it provides us with a cathartic release.”
It is not only the masterful appropriation and fusion of different styles that makes ItEotW compelling to watch, but also the importance it affords to art’s role in activist politics. As López notes, “Art is the gateway drug to get people hooked on the truth.” The problem, however, is that many media activists aren’t “very aware of previous media movements, and that is partly because there is not continuity within counter-cinema-media movements. Because of this, many media activists start producing within a creation ‘box’ and don’t experiment with different styles until they encounter them.”
As a result, The Stimulator dedicates a significant portion of the shows not only speaking about art and music, but also demonstrating how a culture jamming, hip-hop infused aesthetic can create captivating material. During one show, The Stimulator asserts, “In fucked-up times, music, art, and film play an important part of the Resistance. When the chips are down, there ain’t nothing like Mos’ Def or Rage Against the Machine to lift my spirits up. What I’m trying to get at is that if we spot some hot political art, we need to support and nurture it with our dollars and our word of mouth. For it will give us strength during our times of weakness.” Along similar lines, every show ends with the request: “Support this show, motherfuckers, and buy some shit from our store.”
Yet this stance doesn’t result in a rather simplistic championing of underground culture against that of the mainstream. At its best and most poignant, the show hacks into popular culture to unmoor its fleeting flashes of anarchic rebellion and utopian dreams from the rather reactionary narratives that they are embedded within. One show ends with a sequence from Fight Club where Brad Pitt’s character and other fight club members are about to castrate a wealthy country club patron. Pitt declares, “We haul your trash. We cook your meals. Don’t fuck with us.”
Another episode begins with a magic trick infomercial. The footage shows a camera slowly zooming back on a pair of handcuffs resting on a table. The host announces: “We will show you how to escape from a set of profession handcuffs, just like the famous escape artist Houdini did.” Dubbed in quickly afterwards: “This is for entertainment only and should never be used to escape from the police.” Regardless of Fight Club’s conservative message that all resistance ultimately results in establishing new forms of oppression or the infomercial’s ultimate desire to promote magic tricks, ItEotW reveals the instances of genuine class rage that pervades the former and the ways in which magic tricks can be appropriated by direct-action groups to resist the police in the latter.
The 28 June 2008 show of the second season perhaps best exemplifies López’s skill as a political mash-up artist. The episode begins with a sequence from the 1979 film, The Warriors. Within it, the assorted gangs have congregated together. A leader from the podium preaches: “That’s 20,000 hardcore members, 40,000 accounted affiliates, and 20,000 more, not organized, but ready to fight. 60,000 soldiers. Now there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town. Can you dig it?” The camera dramtaically circles around him as he speaks, panning over the waves of warriors surrounding him. Finally, the crowd explodes into action.
The Simultor Presents An Amazing Moment of Political Pastiche
This sequence thematically ties to the worldwide rebellions against high fuel prices that The Stimulator will report on occurring in Spain, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Portugal, France, and the UK. And the clip will resurface when The Stimulator later ponders midway into the show: “What is the threshold when Americans will say enough is enough?” Here we witness López’s talent as an editor and writer.
The Stimulator continues: “I’ll tell you when: around late August when a gallon of gas will be five bucks, when the electric grid crashes on the hottest day of the year.” We watch images of Walmart workers clapping, the skeleton of a television framing a boarded-up street, an Enron logo, and shots of abandoned homes. We not only get an abbreviated contrast of the class gulf, but also an implicit critique of television that suggest only by kicking-out its screen can we begin to see the socio-economic issues that it masks. Furthermore, the Enron logo not only symbolizes corporate greed and its disdain for its workers, but by having it flash on the screen when mentioning electricity, it also recalls the 2001 California blackouts and price-fixings the company malignantly delivered upon the State’s residents. The logo condenses images of corporate greed, arrogance, and a general disregard for overall human welfare.
The danger of aestheticizing violence and poverty is not unique to López but plagues all talented political filmmakers.
The Stimulator proceeds: “When all you can afford to eat is Mac and Cheese”—shot of a Kraft commercial—“When you finally fucking realize that the wool has been pulled over your eyes”—images of Ron and Nancy Reagan waving, representing the hollow promises of “morning in America”, a dream that broke the backs of millions of working-class folk—“and that everything you have been told is a motherfucking lie”—shots of Donald Rumsfeld press briefings and the terror alert chart, suggesting the fear-inducing lies that pervade our daily existence—“Your time, your life, your dreams, belong to you, and not your boss, your church, or your so-called government. When you do the math and if millions of us gather,”—shots of various protestors from the ‘60s to the present followed by an insert of The Warriors’s clip of “Can you dig it?” and then a shot of the Tiananmen square protestor halting a tank before him—“we can take this motherfucker head on, slay the beast that enslaves us and get on with building a world that we can be proud of”— the final section of The Warriors’clip asserts “Can you dig it?” with the crowd then roaring.
This entire sequence represents a complex socio-aesthetic attitude that both interrogates popular culture and critically appropriates it, that seizes upon its imagery to create momentum to think and act beyond its limits. It’s an amazing moment of political pastiche.
Yet the show also periodically catapults so far into the realms of the far Left that it begins uncomfortably orbiting the realm of far Right paranoia. López, to his credit, often self-consciously addresses this. In episode 18 of season three, The Stimulator distinguishes himself from conspiracy theorist, talk-show radio host Alex Jones, who believes that the government is drugging the water supply, that FEMA is preparing concentration camps, and the New World Order is secretly assembling its rule behind closed doors. As The Stimulator states, “The world is not that simple. Trying to explain our dire state of affairs by blaming a few white men who meet in dark rooms is retarded.” Some of his thoughts at times suggest otherwise, though— like his belief that Bush and Cheney might have been involved in September 11th—even though he realizes that this might cause some of his viewers to be “worried about The Stimulator being one of those conspiracy nuts.” True enough.
The show has also been increasingly obsessed with catastrophic economic and environmental collapse—most typically associated with anarcho-primitivists like John Zerzan, Kevin Tucker, and Derrick Jensen. Not surprisingly, López’s film, END: CIV, which he is currently completing, is based on the End Game books of Jensen.
Jensen is something of a hangover from the ‘60s—a cult figure for an anarchist age. His speaking style is bombastic as if he imagines himself standing before audiences of a 1,000 rather than a 100. His analogies are often slipshod and cliché. For example, in one sequence from END: CIV he compares the corporate destruction of the environment and people with that of Nazi fascism. The sequence ends with him asking: “If this was happening today, would you fight it?” Echoes of the ‘30s Popular Front haunt his rhetoric—when Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was compared with anti-black sentiment of the US South and anti-ethnic attitudes of the Midwest. The conflation is simplistic and knee-jerk—and not all that much different than when Tea Baggers and Glen Beck claim Obama as a modern-day Hitler.
Additionally, Jensen’s polemical certainty seems less a ploy to engage in debate than to browbeat. In one interview, Jensen asserts, “Civilization will never rise again… It is a one-time blow-out” because all of the natural resources needed to sustain it will be unavailable. He continues: “I think that Mad Max is probably what we’re going to see.” The reference to Mad Max is telling since much of the catastrophe theory that Jensen and others like him propound often sounds like the script to a bad movie. This is not to discount that there are the occasional historical moments that one feels like an extra in a Jerry Bruckheimer film—such the day of 9/11. Yet living your daily life as if catastrophe looms behind every breeze seems psychically damaging.
This is not to deny that the planet will eventually run out of oil or that global warming will devastatingly transform its surface or that humans will no longer exist. However,it strikes me that the world will more likely end with a whimper rather than a bang. The global catastrophe theory strikes me as too pat, too easy—a form of magical thinking that conveniently ignores how we need to transition from our current state of affairs to a more sustainable way of life, how our lifestyles need to alter and our priorities need to be reassessed. The catastrophe theory solves all this by assuming imminent and immediate collapse with a guaranteed reversion to a hunter-gathering lifestyle.
Furthermore, it can lead to political defeatism. If the world is on the brink of collapse, why not simply exploit our natural resources even more voraciously by keeping our lights on 24-hours a day, doubling deep-sea drilling for oil, accelerating strip mining since such actions will ultimately bring us to collapse sooner rather than later? The theory can be used to justify and accentuate the very worst practices of neoliberalism. It’s the flipside of a certain form of conservatism that asserts: the world is going to Hell, so why not take full advantage of what we have now before the Rapture descends?
This theory and Jensen’s tone don’t sit all that well with alter-globalization direct-action politics nor with López’s humorous, inquisitive, and self-reflective style. So it will be interesting to see the final results when END: CIV is completed. Based upon the clips currently displayed on SubMedia TV, the film will be much less freewheeling and more polemical.Yet it’s also strangely and disturbingly beautiful.
In one sequence where López establishes Jensen’s Tenth Premise: that culture is driven by a death urge, we see slow moving aerial shots of highways and rotating parking lots with an underlying dissonant cello soundtrack. This sequence could be straight out of Godfrey Reggio’s experimental film, Koyannisqatsi (1982). Similarly, later on when various voice-overs explain the destructiveness of extracting oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, we once again see beautiful aerial, slow motion shots that aestheticize the violence, abstracting it within cello music and graceful camera movements.
This danger of aestheticizing violence and poverty is not unique to López but plagues all talented political filmmakers. Joris Ivens, a documentary filmmaker of The Spanish Earth (1937) and Power and the Land (1940), self-consciously rejected his older avant-garde aesthetic techniques to stress “the harshness of the situation without being sentimental or pitying” (The Camera and Lens 87). López must also learn to better negotiate this difficult terrain of presenting compelling footage while at the same time not derailing the film’s message. Overall, witnessing the tensions between the aesthetics and politics of López’s works provides a refreshing change of pace from activist media projects that all-too-often sacrifice aesthetics for a jagged, amateur self-satisfied harangue to insiders who already know better.
Ultimately, López’s work reveals the promises and pitfalls of contemporary global activist media making. It exposes the compelling results when the aesthetic traditions of political hip-hop and the avant-garde are successfully intertwined; it exemplifies how activists must trawl through popular culture in order to identify and reconfigure its hidden utopian impulses in more radical directions; it discloses the dangers of the reactionary nature of some strains of anarchist thought; and, finally, it negotiates the uncertain and always shifting terrain where aesthetics and politics meet.
As artists John MacPhee and Erik Reutland observe: “Because art is understood as a realm of the qualitative, where our assumptions about how the ‘real’ world works can be temporarily put on hold, it is the place where exciting experiments in social reorganization can take place. It is in this space that we can catch glimpses of liberation” (Realizing the Impossible 5). At its best, López’s work engages in constructing a new vision where popular culture serves the interests of the poor and dispossessed, where humor is reignited within activism, and the D.I.Y. ethics of punk and hip-hop allow those with talent and gumption to be the media, once again.
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