DIY Video 2010: Activist Media (Part One)

This is the first of an ongoing series of curated selections of DIY Video prepared in relation to the screening of DIY Video 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and organized by Mimi Ito, Steve Anderson, and the good folks at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy. The following curator’s statement was developed by Sasha Constanza-Chock.

Activist Media: curated by Sasha Costanza-Chock

I was invited by Steve Anderson and Mimi Ito to curate a program of ‘Activist Video’ for DIY Video 2010. I was happy to get involved since this is an area that I both study (as a postdoc at the ASC&J and a Fellow at the Berkman Center [http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/scostanzachock]) and have been an active participant in for about 10 years now.

I first got connected to DIY activist video through Indymedia, a worldwide network of grassroots journalists working from within the global justice movement that was inspired by the Zapatistas in southern México. Indymedia videographers used cheap video cameras to document the spectacular wave of popular mobilizations that rocked global financial meetings from 1999 forward, edited those videos on personal computers, and used Free/Libre Open Source Software platforms to circulate them transnationally via the net (this was back before the rise of blogs, social network sites, and especially YouTube as the hegemonic web video space).

In 1999, some friends of mine from Big Noise Films were cutting together footage shot by over 100 street videographers at the protests that shut down the WTO in Seattle, and asked me to help work on the soundtrack for a collaborative, DIY documentary called This Is What Democracy Looks Like The film captured the energy of the moment and was seen very widely, subtitled and distributed around the world for thousands of screenings in homes, community centers, and activist spaces. I was inspired and hooked, and over the next few years spent a lot of time helping to organize new Independent Media Centers, getting video cameras and computers into the hands of grassroots activists in the global justice movement, and shooting, editing, and coordinating collaborative DIY video documentaries (for example, check out The Miami Model [http://www.archive.org/details/miamimodel].) I was also part of the editorial collective for video.indymedia.org].

The Indymedia network is really an interesting phenomenon, and one that’s often overlooked by academics studying political media, despite the large number of people involved, the technological innovations it produced, and the huge amount of traffic it (still!) actually gets. It has also been a generative space for many people who went on to become innovators in social movement technology spaces as well as web 2.0 firms more broadly. But the still-quite-recent history of innovative DIY video activism on the web, let alone the much longer history of DIY video (and film!) in general, is too often ignored these days when we talk about activist media. For those interested in a little more history and theory of media activism, check out this short article on “New Media Activism: Looking beyond the last 5 minutes”, or for a book-length text see John Downing’s excellent “Radical Media: Rebellious communication and social movements.”

Besides the disappearance of history from narratives about media and social movements, it seems to me that conversations about ‘activist media’ in general, but especially ‘online activism,’ all too often begin by asking the wrong question, usually some version of ‘does x media technology produce social change?’ Just to take a recent example, see Malcom Gladwell’s article “Why the revolution will not be tweeted“. My response:

> “We can avoid both cyberutopianism and don’t-tweet-on-me reactions with a quite simple strategy: look at how ‘real’ social movements communicate, rather than start with communication tools and then argue about whether they are revolutionary. Start from the social movement, then ask ‘how is this movement using ICTs, from old to new, to achieve its goals?’ The revolution will be tweeted – but tweets do not the revolution make.” (You can read the rest here

This is similar in a lot of ways to the position put forward by Kevin Driscoll, who argues that we should focus on how networked social movements actually use new tools I agree: start from the movements, then look at the media practices. This is the strategy that I used for my work on transmedia mobilization in the immigrant rights movement in Los Angeles, and it’s the curatorial strategy I employed when I assembled the ‘Activist Media’ program for DIY Video 2010.

To put it simply, I started by thinking about mobilizations that took place since the last DIY festival in 2008, and about social movement organizations and networks that had significant impact during that time, then went looking for DIY videos made by participants in these movements. Deciding which movements to include (and exclude) was of course difficult, but also energizing, since despite the persistent pessimism of pundits about the ‘decline of civic engagement,’ once you actually go looking, there is just an overwhelming amount of diverse movement activity going on everywhere :)

I ended up narrowing it down to 10 categories, most of which felt to me like they just *had* to be included: the 2008 US presidential election cycle; the Green uprising in Iran; the movement against the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the protests against Prop 8 and for GLBTQ rights; the immigrant rights movement; the murder of Oscar Grant and the movement against police brutality; the environmental movement and the Copenhagen climate conference, and struggles against gentrification. I also decided to include a video from Haiti, since DIY and local perspectives on the crisis there were so sorely lacking in both mass media and online coverage, and to look for a ‘meta’ video about the last few years of video activism.

I then let networks of community organizers and video makers, like the Transmission Network, know that I was pulling together this program, and received lots of video links via email and Internet Relay Chat. Most of the videos that made it into the program came from culling through all this material, although there were a few videos that I knew I wanted to include from the beginning. Some of the videomakers I know personally, and it was simple to let them know that their work would be included in the program. Others I contacted to ask for permission, and everyone who got back to me responded positively. Two, I was not able to reach, but in all cases the context of the videos and their wide circulation across the web made it fairly clear that the makers would want them to be seen as widely as possible.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a researcher and mediamaker who works on the critical political economy of communication and on the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he is currently a postdoctoral research associate. He’s also a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and a member of the community board of VozMob.net.

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