Tactics Without Tears - cont.

A crucial component of the positioned work is it’s proximity to action, or proximity to potential action. Proximity to action can be illustrated, perhaps by an analogy to the placement of “impulse-buy” goods in the checkout line at a supermarket or store. The placement of these (generally low-cost and seductive) goods next to the cash register is intended to create as little time as possible between affect and action. A chain of affect, action, and effect characterize our blueprint for media activism and creative engagement. A strength of media is its ability to produce affects, and political usefulness can be gained from transmuting affect into action - a strategy used by grocery stores and political campaigns alike. In both cases, efforts are made to make the proximity between media and action as close as possible. Thus, for example, political advertisements increase dramatically in the days before an election as the temporal proximity to the action of voting occurs. Political campaign managers develop election strategies designed to produce a crescendo before an election, perhaps instilling fear, pride, or disgust in their audience in the months, weeks, and days before the election – a crucial component of their strategy is to channel the affects produced by their media spots into a vote for their candidate on Election Day.

In order to turn this theoretical discussion into something more concrete, let’s look at an example. In June of 1967, the Anti-Poverty Center and the Black Panther Party approached the City Council of Oakland, CA to request a stoplight for a busy intersection (55th & Market St.) near an elementary school.

Despite the fact that a child had been killed and others had been injured, the city claimed that a stoplight could not be budgeted for at least a year and took no further action. Rather than see another death in the interim, a small cadre of armed Black Panthers proceeded to stop motorists and escort children across the street on their way to school. Overwhelmed by the spectacle of armed crossing guards, concerned motorists contacted police who proceeded to block off the entire intersection. With no traffic flow to threaten the children, the Panthers departed the scene, leaving the miffed police behind to insure pedestrian safety. Approximately two months later, a stoplight was installed. *

The obvious vectors which converged around the stoplight issue were those associated with the built environment (the intersection and the associated public use: motorists & pedestrians) and those connected to city government (politicians, bureaucracy, resources, etc). Although city officials initially viewed the intersection as an isolated problem of little concern, the Panthers’ actions were able to overcome the bureaucratic inertia by extending the sphere of influence to include those outside of the immediate community (police and commuters). Rather than endure the complications arising from additional public concern, blocked traffic and police deployment, the City Government conceded to the community demands. By amplifying public involvement and by providing resistance to traffic flows, the intersection became a place of contention for a variety of interests.

Although the presence of guns helped to build the spectacle, they were employed for their symbolic value and not as weapons. However, it is important to note that in 1967, the prevailing conditions did not inscribe the cultural climate in the same manner as it would today. Not only was it legal to carry guns openly, but more to the point, the spectacle counter-apparatus that currently occupies public perceptions of terrorism, gang violence, and the criminality of race was not as fully established. Consequently, the Black Panthers, in this particular instance, were able to confront police and government with a spectacularized blend of militancy and community service. Moreover, they controlled the spectacular environment in a way that leftist organizations seldom do. Rather than relying on mainstream media to carry a particular message to a broad cross-section of the public, the target audience consisted primarily of community members, city officials, police and motorists – the vectors that could most substantially influence the situation. The intervention was a function of the sphere that it was designed to inhabit.

Throughout activist and artistic communities alike, we find a multitudinous flow of documentary films and video pieces intent on tackling social and political issues. While many exhibit great successes through the passionate and skillful treatment of their respective subjects, few examples exist that demonstrate a truly positional use of film and video media. Two examples of cultural-producers who have managed to harness video towards tactical ends are artist/director duo Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto, and the anti-police brutality group, Copwatch. Each has used video in ways that are highly designed to engage the specific material practices of a given situation.

Copwatch is a community based organization dedicated to policing the police in neighborhood streets. Often employing video cameras in their work, Copwatchers enact their legal right as citizens to observe police activity within public space. In so doing, they help to insure that police won’t abuse their authority or the rights of others. Although countless hours of video are recorded on a daily basis, few people will ever witness any of it. Targeting the police as their primary audience, Copwatch relies on the sheer act of bearing witness to achieve political affect – a more democratic formation of Foucault’s panopticon. Thus, video is treated as process, as opposed to a product, that achieves affect through the inherent technological associations with recorded surveillance. While surreptitious footage of police brutality may achieve affect as courtroom evidence or nightly news broadcasts (as in the case of the Rodney King footage), the overt use of video documentation at the scene may prevent a crime from happening in the first place.

Those that have seen these video tactics amplify the fear and self-discipline of police will attest to the power of video when put to such a use. However, those that have witnessed black-clad storm troopers remove their badges before charging a protest march (unfortunately not an uncommon police practice), are right to suggest that the tactics cannot be blindly applied to any situation. Even with a small army of Independent Media Center videographers recording events at any number of recent anti-globalization protests, massive amounts of unjustified police aggression goes unchecked. With faces hidden behind gas masks and uniforms covered with black ponchos, police anonymity is virtually assured. In such cases, where the police are operating outside of the quotidian constraints of normal law enforcement, video-as-process does little to curb police brutality. As a product, however, the same video may achieve political resonance through use as courtroom evidence or as a recruitment tool for activist organizations. Thus, media tacticians need to fully consider their use of a particular medium and the context in which it is deployed.

With the channels of information dissemination often so well-controlled, individuals desiring to affect change through creative action should hardly be surprised by the tactical shortcomings of ‘spectacle creation’. However, applying a nuanced analysis to a given socio-political constellation can reveal opportunities for activist/aesthetic interventions that account for issues of audience, scale, and context-specificity. Artist/directors Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto’s work around sexuality and safer-sex practices in 80’s New York involved close collaborations with different queer communities to produce short porn videos demonstrating safer-sex techniques while contributing to the development of localized queer cultures. Working with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis as an umbrella organization, the videos were developed from a series of focus-groups around African-American, Latino, S/M, and lesbian themes.

Discussions and ideas generated by focus group participants guided the development of the scripts in tandem with the artistic ideas of Bordowitz and Carlomusto. Actors in this series of videos were often recognizable members of the communities that constituted the audience for the tapes. Inspired by Soviet Positivism and Situationism, the tapes were designed to be played in bars, bath houses, community events, and as trailers to porn films. Thus, the tapes were not only intended to demonstrate safer sex practices, but to do so in contexts where sexual activity was taking place. In locating the videos in the vicinity of sexual activity, a goal of the work was to intervene in the constellation of power vectors associated with localized sexual practices.

Although art audiences are often compelled to view creative endeavors with a critical distance that frequently subordinates content to form, such is not the measure of success within spheres of activity that demand concrete results. Looking to some of the more adept manipulators of forces, we see that marketers, martial artists and magicians achieve results through action cloaked in aesthetics. While marketers candy-coat products with eye-grabbing graphics, their strategy is to encourage an economic exchange; no sale, no good, regardless of how spectacular their use of media is. Similarly, a martial artist does not engage an attacker hoping to merely raise the issue of “self-defense.” The “art” of martial arts stems from centuries of R&D in the not-so-proverbial trenches, a testing ground that’s none too supportive of trial-and-error tactics. Nor does the stage magician smile with satisfaction when the audience is more impressed by the craftsmanship of stage props than by the illusions presented. In each case, the materials are activated in a manner uniquely crafted to the specific goals and circumstances. Whether selling crap or kicking ass, the strategy is to facilitate a material result through the tactical/positioned use of media.

Magicians, the military, marketers, and martial artists all take a crucial first step towards transforming reality by analyzing the forces that participate within a sphere of activity. The analysis that they all perform allows each to use the physical and psychological terrain to their advantage. Likewise, gun-toting crossing guards and camera-wielding activists develop effective tactics of creative-engagement when they account for a diversity of influencing forces. By inserting themselves into the context that they are attempting to transform, and by deploying specific contextual tactics, they are able to most effectively manifest an outcome in their favor.

With the acknowledgement that the creative act is a self-defining moment that shapes our collective reality, comes the understanding that transformation is derived from an active engagement of the forces that shape the worlds around us. Such engagement may shift forms like a doppelganger; yet, it’s potency is always derived from an amalgam of creative will and material action – an alchemical potion that quenches the transformative thirst of artists and activists alike.

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We are borrowing the terms “attitude” and “position” with regards to media from a distinction made by Walter Benjamin in his “Author as Producer” essay. Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. trans. Peter Demetz. New York: Schocken Books, 1978. pg. 222. It’s relevant to note that the debate around the political function of cultural production among the members of the Frankfurt school had its own historical antecedent in the debate between Marx and the Young Hegelians. Marx’s own position is outlined in his German Ideology. back to article<

“Only then does the commodity become crucial for the subjugation of men’s consciousness…as labor is progressively rationalized and mechanized, man’s lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative.” excerpted from Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, appearing in Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (NY: Zone Books, 1994 – orig. published in French in 1967) p. 25 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (NY: Zone Books, 1994 – orig. published in French in 1967) p. 17 back to article<

From David Hilliard, former Chief-of-Staff of the Black Panther Party, personal testimony during a Black Panther history tour of Oakland: www.blackpanthertours.com