Be the Media

The Current State of Activist Media and the Work of Franklin Lopez

by Chris Robé

11 November 2010

Still from The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) 

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.

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