DIY Video 2010: Activist Media (Part Three)

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 is an interview with curator Sasha Constanza-Chock designed to more fully map the contexts from which these Activist videos emerged.

Some critics have argued that the corporatized sites of web 2.0 will not allow sufficient room for progressive and radical voices to be heard. Some of the videomakers here, such as Witness, have established their own platforms for sharing their work, while others have deployed YouTube, Vimeo, and some of the other commercial platforms. How have these filmmakers worked through their relationship with commercial portals given their often anti-corporate messages?

I think it really depends. Videomakers who work from within social movements tend to see the rise of commercial videosharing sites (and social network sites) primarily as a major opportunity, but one that presents important challenges. Everyone is glad that DIY movement videos are now able to reach vast audiences that were previously inaccessible. At the same time, commercial portals present problems of 1. censorship, 2. surveillance, 3. exploitation, and 4. closed technology design.

In terms of censorship and free speech, activist videomakers often share stories of having their videos censored (taken down) by YouTube and other commercial sites, most frequently because of copyright issues with music they’ve used in the videos, and sometimes (especially in human rights documentation) because of graphic depiction of violence or dead bodies. This is especially the case for antiwar videos that try to show the real costs of war and military occupation. There are also many cases where video activists have had their accounts suspended. One of the best resources that documents takedowns is YouTomb. Although YouTomb is focused primarily on the copyfight, the project also documents political takedowns, but it’s not emphasized. It would be wonderful to highlight political takedowns more systematically.

As for surveillance and privacy, the entire business model of commercial video portals is based on gathering as much information as possible about users in order to serve ads and sell data profiles, and many activist videomakers have problems with that. Many are also concerned about the relationship between commercial video platforms and state intelligence or police forces. We’re used to hearing about this as a problem for activists living ‘in repressive regimes’ but it’s an issue everywhere. Just last year, Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) famously said “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines – including Google – do retain this information for some time and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.” In activist networks, there have long been many anecdotes, and some documented examples, of corporate platforms sharing detailed information with police and other state agents, which then leads to repression, arrests, or worse. Just recently, we have learned even more based on EFF’s FOIA for documents about the Department of Homeland Security’s SNS surveillance practices.

A third issue, especially for anticorporate activists and critics of global labor and environmental abuses by multinational firms that are hidden behind the glossy surface of brand culture, is that by posting videos to commercial platforms you are providing free labor for the cultural economy (Terranova, and see this excellent presentation by Trebor Scholz).

The fourth problem I hear video activists talk about is the closed nature of commercial video platforms, both in terms of their governance structure (these companies are essentially like dictatorships, where the users don’t have voting rights on policies or features, although occasionally they might get polled, they can petition for change, and they can ‘flee into exile’ in the hinterlands of smaller noncommercial video sites) and in terms of technology design. Although commercial video sites generally run on top of free software, they hide it all in layers of proprietary code and nonfree flash interfaces, and usually don’t contribute back to free and open source video software and standards.

Most activist videomakers just live with these problems – it’s the tradeoff for reaching more people. But increasingly I think people (not just activists) are also setting up their own, community controlled, noncommercial, free and open source alternatives. For evidence of this just look at the growth of the Open Video Alliance, or the spread of projects like Miro Community or Plumi. Recently, I’ve been working with Transmission, a network of video makers, programmers and web producers developing online video distribution as a tool for social justice and media democracy, to launch a new free and open source platform to aggregate video from all the activist video organizations that participate in the network. There’s a preview up.

For a little bit more of my thoughts on this question check out this post.

You reference here the extended history of DIY activism through film and video production, which we might trace back to, for example, the ways black organizations responded to The Birth of a Nation, if not earlier. To what degree are the new DIY Videomakers conscious of that history? How does it inform the work they are doing?

Honestly, I think that DIY Video has become so much a part of activism and social movement practices that there’s no good answer to this question. Some activist videomakers have closely studied the history of radical filmmaking, and go to great lengths to cite and reference that history in their own work. Others have no idea that this history exists and are mostly applying the tools and techniques of present day remix culture to something they’re passionate about. Some activist videomakers learn how to shoot and edit by making skate videos, others shot their first video at a street protest and then got hooked, some grew up within communities of radical media makers who took part in key social movement struggles of the previous generation.

I think one aspect of DIY video activism that often gets overlooked is how institutions that were built by a previous generation helped set the stage, build infrastructure, and gain access to channels for broader distribution, and all of this helps encourage the new generation of DIY video activists. For example, check out Dee Dee Halleck’s work “Hand Held Visions,” on the fight for cable access TV in the US. Cable Access was the victim of a massive smear campaign backed by the corporate networks, but it was actually a space where literally thousands of people learned how to shoot and edit video, and took media democracy into their own hands. Many people active in that movement went on to help cofound local community film centers, activist film festivals, distribution networks like Women Make Movies and even satellite channels like Free Speech TV , and more recently took part in the formation of local Independent Media Centers.

It’s also interesting that, as the first generation of digital video activists starts to reach middle age, some are trying to figure out how to create sustainable institutions – be they nonprofits, businesses, worker run co-ops, whatever – so that they can continue to make media without ‘selling out’ to big media firms. And they are sometimes looking to the previous generation, who in some cases moved from ad hoc collectives to established media arts institutions, to help them think about how to do this.

“Collective Action” was a central theme in the entire DIY 2010 series. In your case, most of these videos come from collectives and political organizations, even as YouTube is often understood as “self branding” and promoted with the slogan, “Broadcast Yourself.” How have these collectives taken advantage of the networked nature of online communications in their production process?

More and more, social movement communicators are recognizing the need to shift from top-down, single channel strategies and to engage in what Lina Srivastava calls (echoing your formulation of transmedia storytelling) _transmedia activism_. One important aspect of this is shifting from the role of ‘spokesperson for the movement’ to ‘aggregator, curator, and amplifier’ of movement voices. Many of the videos I included were created in networked production processes that explicitly asked movement participants to create media (still images, short videos) and contribute them to a shared pool of resources that serves both as a mobilization archive and as raw material to be remixed into a collaborative work that was then recirculated, illustrating the broad base of support and participation that the movement or movement event enjoyed.

What I’m finding in my own research is that this is part of a broader shift towards _transmedia mobilization_, the critical emerging form for networked social movements to circulate their ideas across platforms:

“Transmedia mobilization involves consciousness building, beyond individual campaign messaging; it requires co-creation and collaboration by different actors across social movement formations; it provides roles and actions for movement participants to take on in their daily life; it is open to participation by the social base of the movement, and it is the key strategic media form for an era of networked social movements. While the goal of corporate actors in transmedia storytelling is to generate profits, the goal of movement actors in transmedia mobilization is to strengthen movement identity, win political and economic victories, and transform consciousness.”

More on that here or, in presentation form, here.

In many cases, these videos are simply one resource in much more elaborate campaigns which unfold across a range of different sites and platforms. Can you say a bit more about how online video fits within larger communication strategies for some of the groups you describe?

I already talked about transmedia activism / transmedia mobilization, but I think there’s another layer of communication strategy that’s important to DIY video activists that we haven’t touched on yet, and that’s the layer of media and communication policy. Some (but not enough!) movement media activists also end up engaging with these battles – net neutrality, data privacy, media ownership, spectrum access, race and gender inequality in media ownership and employment, etc. Once they’ve experienced the power of media making, in a very hands-on way, they look around the media landscape and say ‘it’s not enough to just have our own marginalized spaces or to be visible in the social media space, we need much broader reach!’ And unfortunately broader, cross platform reach for is very difficult to achieve for activists making media with values of social, environmental, economic, gender, and racial justice in an environment composed of multibillion dollar, transnational communications conglomerates that are throwing their full weight behind lobbying for media and communications policy that will keep the field tilted towards their own business models – even if those business models rely on advertising that perpetuates values, products, and practices that are literally destroying planet Earth. So that’s why more and more DIY media activists are also getting involved in the struggle for media justice, through networks like the Media and Democracy Coalition, organizations like Free Press, and spaces like the Center for Media Justice. Anyone who cares about the potential for DIY video as tool and practice of cultural expression, civic engagement, and social movement mobilization should get connected to these folks. The future of DIY Video – and the future of humanity – might really depend on it :)

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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