Occupying Video

The Underbelly of Globalization Caught on Camera

by Chris Robé

2 January 2012

Photo (partial) by
Louise Macabitas 

Needless to say, violent protest footage against Occupy Wall Streeters has become the most popular, going viral on the web and landing on the front page of newspapers. Most recently, we watched UC-Davis students being fumigated with neon-orange pepper spray by the police, treated as nothing more than vermin on their own campus. But before this event were the evictions from Zuccotti Park, the port seizure in Oakland, California, and the kettling of 700 protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Although activists often dismiss such footage as nothing more than riot porn, a virtual rebellion that allows viewers to vicariously participate while remaining safely ensconced in their seats without any overview of why such actions are occurring in the first place, such videos serve two primary purposes. The first is their importance in inspiring activists.

What differentiates video, and art in general, from history and speeches is that it can relate what Raymond Williams has called “a structure of feeling”:  “a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate and defined exchange” (Marxism and Literature 131). According to Williams, the true social content of art and literature, in a significant number of cases, lies within “this present and affective kind, which cannot without loss be reduced to belief-systems, institutions, or explicit general relationships” (133).

Similarly, numerous social justice organizers emphasize the affective solidarity produced by protests and direct action. Jeffrey Juris argues that “these affective dynamics are not incidental; they are central to processes of movement building and activist networking… they constitute platforms where alternative subjectivities are expressed through distinct body and spatial techniques, and emotions are generated through ritual conflict” (Networking Futures 21, 124).

Documentary video clearly cannot reproduce these affects, but it can approximate them and relate inklings of what it might feel like to be in the streets, to be resistant, non-compliant, a vector of bodies surging against repression, the State, and the sedimentations of global capitalism. As Jane Gaines observes, “The whole rationale behind documenting political battles on film, as opposed to producing written records, is to make struggle visceral, to go beyond the abstractly intellectual to produce a bodily swelling” (“Political Mimesis” 91). Ultimately, it is to make activists more active.

So in a video like Occupation Blues, which records the kettling of protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge, the camera is a part of the crowd. Its framing jostles against surrounding bodies as the police cuff protestors, immersing the viewer in the immediate movements and sounds. The filming represents an interventionist perspective that places the body of “the filmmaker on the same plane of historical contingency as its subjects rather than to preserve the distance, and relative safety, afforded by the gaze” (Bill Nichols, Representing Reality 85).

The video emphasizes such contingency during its finalé as a cop turns around reaching for the filmmaker. The image blurs and the following words appear on a black screen: “Sorry. No more footage. Couldn’t film in handcuffs.” It then encourages: “Go to www.occupywallstreet.org to find an occupation near you.”

The second important aspect to riot footage is that at times it starkly exposes the brutal power relations that often lurk beneath the polite veneer of civil society. This is abundantly clear in UC Davis Protestors Pepper Sprayed. In spite of all the talk on public university campuses about the centrality of students and a quality education, the pepper spray footage reveals the true neoliberal mindset at work on students. They are viewed as either compliant revenue-streams to offset the shortage of state funding for public education or disruptive bodies that must be eradicated from the destructive, megalomaniacal paths forged by the one percent who rule university Board of Trustees and state legislatures.

The casualness by which the officer sprays the students reflects an autocratic atmosphere fostered on campuses where the demands of the many are sacrificed for the benefits of the few. The student filming the action remains hidden behind a tree, knowing full well that the threat of recording the officers’ actions no longer acts as a deterrent. The arrogance of authority trumps video evidence, personal testimony, and reality itself. The police’s actions brutally condense and materialize the undemocratic and cruel decisions made by those in power who remain safely hidden within their offices lording over their domains.

Yet OWS and its fellow-travelers have created many other videos that have been largely ignored by the commercial news media. Although no video can represent the overall zeitgeist of OWS, they provide vague correlations of various constituencies’s feeling and attitudes that comprise the movement.

One predominant strain of videos possesses a New Age feel that borders on the tackiness of a charity-relief advertisement. Where Do We Go From Here, for example, open with synthetic ethereal music. The camera smoothly floats across the screen capturing attractive and diverse participants—young and old, black and white, male and female— speaking to one another, determinedly typing on laptops, and feeding others. Periodically, someone spouts a hollow aphorism: “It kind’a feels like something is finally being done. Like people are waking up”—or a worn-out Civil Rights cliché: “When Rosa Parks refused to give-up her seat on the bus… no one knew that four years later there would be a comprehensive Civil Rights Act.”

The video’s sanctimonious feel established through its semi-religious music, floating camera movements, and hollow-rhetoric can be off-putting. It presents those filmed within it as the anointed and leaves the rest of us less pious rabble watching from the outside in the cold. It possesses an oppressive inclusivity that smothers us by its ever present wind music and beautified participants who imploringly stare out at us during its conclusion. The video makes OWS seem more like a cult than a diverse movement, more therapy than politics.

The German and slightly more refreshing corollary to the US New Age videos can be found in Thank God the World Economic Crisis Has Come. The title alone suggests the anarchist-inspired outlook that often welcomes the economic crisis as an opportunity. Disaster and catastrophic imagery flow through much anarchist media such as the writings of Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan, and CrimethInc., the videos of Franklin López, and numerous articles.

It serves a dual purpose: it not only frightens us, but also incites us towards change, to provide a rupture with the past in order to encourage new beginnings. Slavoj Žižek emphasizes the duality of apocalyptic imagery: “We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny—and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past” (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce 151).

Along similar lines, Thank God the World Economic Crisis Has Come reveals a fast-paced, insane world. Shots of skyscrapers lumber across the sky. A man walks frantically through a mall in fast-motion. Images of day-traders hidden behind oversized computer screens shuffle before us, interspersed by stock tickers. The frantic editing reveals an unsustainable world constantly teetering upon its own destruction.

The narrator, who speaks in German-inflected English, announces: “Cash is king. But all that might be over now.” We watch a shot of a city skyline descend into night. A chalk outline of a dead body on asphalt follows as drum-laden techno music swells over the soundtrack. “Old World” appears within the outline. The narrator states: “Finally, the world economic crisis has come.”

Yet rather than developing what this means, the second half of the video blooms into a decidedly more saccharine outlook. A blonde-haired woman and child appear sitting on grass. The narrator appeals: “What should I tell my children when I work three different jobs and don’t have any time to spend with them? ‘Sweety, it’s more important to save the banks than humans.” The music becomes softer, more piano-based.

Interspersed between family footage is that of German protestors smiling and holding banners. The narrator intones: “I disagree with the system. I believe in human beings. I belive in a beautiful world. And I believe in love.” We see shots of wind turbines in fields and children in their parents’ arms. Sustainability through alternative energies become visually linked with new generations.

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