Rehearsals

In 2004, BLW attended PILOT TV: Experimental Video for Feminist Trespass, an event that opened felicitously with artist/curator Dara Greenwald’s presentation of some archival activist videos that were not readily available at the time[1]. Troubled by our captivation with these documents, we tried re-enacting them with a small group of Pilot co-participants. We found this process of re-speaking produced a certain friction that was both intense and interesting. We were confronted by many questions: from how we learn about radical histories, to our own capacities for imagining radical, systemic change today. We have since expanded this procedure of re-speaking, to include other recordings from social movements of the late 60s and early 70s. Rather than producing re-enactment performance for a viewing audience (our work would be dreadfully boring as something to look at), we aim to create participatory situations that further nuance and specify these questions.
The archival recordings that inspire our re-speaking include press conferences, speeches and interviews recorded during the 5 month long strike at San Francisco State College in 1968; the final known interview with Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, videotaped in late 1969 by the Videofreex Collective; and the 1973 speech delivered by Queen Mother Moore at Green Haven Federal Prison, recorded by the People’s Communication Network (PCN). We chose these because the difficult material they present provokes us to think- about violence and militancy, about the role of media in relation to memory and forgetting, about our decreasing capacities for collective outspokenness and about the how people are organizing today in response to economic oppression. Re-speaking workshops involve researching the historical conditions of the source recordings and inviting participants to take on the roles of speakers and camera operators. Almost from the onset, we experience our distance from these political struggles and our own strangeness in the language and positions we are trying to embody. We have never produced a “proper” reenactment; we have instead sought out something politically potent from the failure of our performance to be convincing. Eschewing theatricality, we search for the basis of the speaker’s conviction, forcing ourselves to consider how we might build our own capacity for radicalism, for doing and speaking radically. What kinds of redirections and transformations might be necessary? For us, the perhaps counter intuitive approach of looking backward is about understanding what actions and risks it might take to remake ourselves. This means beginning with the persistent insertion of the memory of the past into the present, so that it does not just go away, and proceeds by bringing other people into that memory, rather than leaving them to stand outside of it, as spectators. These group experiences in re-speaking lead to productive new questions. We point here to three instances from our efforts, and to the inquiries these experiments have triggered.
The Videofreex interview with Fred Hampton was recorded in Chicago shortly before his assassination. Made to be televised, the intense conversation reviews the Panther’s legal woes, and then goes on to extol their work as community organizers, emphasizing the need for political education and community self-determination. What we do not see on the tape is that, at the time the interview was taken, the FBI had already infiltrated the organization and plans for Hampton’s assassination were underway. We struggle to summon the idealism of Fred and the Videofreex. We stumble as we quote him: “We’re going to keep going out there setting up some examples, some new revolutionary programs that people can basically relate to, because basically people are progressive and basically people are revolutionary. No, we’re not worried about them killing anybody because … anybody that tries to deal with wiping out the leadership of the Black Panther Party is dealing with a time-wasting… futile effort to seize some type of power that can never be seized because it’s a type of flowing power, it’s a type of unending flow of this power.” What of our relationship with others, with the inherent desire and capacity of people to liberate them/ourselves, with power as something embodied and shared? When Hampton says, “people learn basically by observation and participation,” we understand we are lacking the experience of living differently, of building examples for ourselves, structures we can participate in and which can change us.
Our reconstitution of moments from the 1968 San Francisco State strike begins with research on the years of organizing across different communities and subject positions that preceded the 5-month walk-out. We restage press conferences in which the Black Student Union, the Third World Liberation Front and a range of white student and faculty groups who speak their platforms for education in the service of liberation. “…you’ve got to start with the poor and you build from that base and you get up to the students and you get up to the faculty and… and that’s why this campus is closing down, because the people of San Francisco have begun to see that from way down in Los Angeles and way out in Sacramento, the forces of the Right are trying to crush us, and the people of this city, the important people, the minorities, the poor have risen up and said to Ronald Reagan, and make no doubt about it, that’s where it’s coming from, they’ve said to Ronald Reagan, ‘no you’re not going to do it here.’” We are forced to deal with the historical distance between the radical ideals of the strike and its ambivalent conclusion, in which Black Studies was institutionalized as an academic discipline, while the revolutionary popular education programs were eradicated. How can we survive such “victories,” how can we remobilize after the cooptation of radical dreams and practices within institutional and increasingly corporate structures? How can we re-imagine culture and education as part of struggle politics? We understand this is once again a time for struggle, but also a time for study—for meeting with others, for organizing in response to isolation.
Queen Mother Moore comes to Green Haven prison in 1969 at the invitation of Think Tank, a self-directed prisoners study group that formed out of the catastrophe of Attica to develop strategies for community education and empowerment. Think Tank worked with other groups inside and outside prisons, including PCN, the radical media collective who recorded the event. In the recording, Queen Mother Moore tells the story of a community that arms itself to confront the powers that seek to silence Marcus Garvey. “…Everybody’s gun came out, and this is what they said, Speak, Garvey speak! Speak, Garvey! with the guns in their hands. Speak Garvey speak…” Power is collectively seized, passing between the collectivity and the individual as the mandate to speak. Queen Mother Moore tells this story both as a witness to this transferal and as a vehicle for its redirection towards those who are witnessing her. It is a demonstration of the power of speech itself: the witness to speech later becomes a speaker who speaks to someone else who is a witness who can (must) then speak. Speech is revealed as a connectivity that moves through us, rather than originating with us, and we ask ourselves who has seized space for our speaking? How do we form communities that enable and mandate speech? As our questions accumulate, so does their sense of relevance and immediacy.
We began writing this on October 1, 2008, as the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division returned from Iraq to become the first U.S. Army brigade in a century to be deployed in an “enduring mission” of domestic law enforcement. This follows George W. Bush’s October 17th, 2006, signing of the Defense Authorization Act of 2007 which allows for militarized police round-ups and detention of protesters, “illegal aliens,” “potential terrorists” and other “undesirables.” We are witnessing an expansion of the war on terror on the domestic front, in the form of increasing preemptive detentions based on expanded Patriot Act legislation, and the redefinition of dissident speech as “terrorist.” In this indefinite deployment for some unknown civil strife, we see two vectors converging: a build-up of pre-emptive force against expression and autonomous organizing, and the collapse of the speculative economic balloon.
We understand we are being targeted and attacked—physically and economically, as people with other kinds of desires for how to live. What does this mean for those of us committed to nonviolent struggle? It is less and less possible to be polite, to politely refuse. We struggle now to recognize the ways in which the repressive apparatus of 2008 operates within the structures of global power. If we think of the late ’60s and early ’70s as the beginning of the neoliberal enterprise and today at its culmination, what can we learn from those whose words we are re-speaking to enhance our own capacities of organizing and making community? First, we recognize that our own subjectivities are implicated in today’s economic formulation: a fact that presents danger and opportunity. The danger is we too might be swept into the calculus of decaying connection and identity, as people are pitted against each other in the economic sphere. We see too, there is opportunity, even an imperative to build new forms of connection, working with others to confront an economic system that continually produces catastrophes at all different scales.
Learning from those whose words we are re-speaking, from the ways they found each other, and from our own stumbling “rehearsals,” we understand that we will make mistakes, and that it is through the awkwardness of learning that one builds capacity. Seeking a practice that moves through speech and into action, our recent work has consisted of organizing public meetings and hearings under the general title A Meeting is a Question. The public meetings are in a sense the insertion of the workshop situation into specific public contexts; for us, the workshop format continues to be useful, because it presupposes small groups of people working through something together without the security of predetermined outcomes or solutions. In San Francisco, we conducted meetings at the Bechtel Plaza; in Philadelphia we instigated an ad hoc coalition with other artists (Think Tank that has yet to be named), local organizers, journalists and residents to develop languages for addressing the future; in Chicago we organized a weeklong series of public meetings to investigate Millennium Park as a site of preemptive coercion. Using discussions, physical exercises, interviews, presentations, public recitations we try to produce different effects and affects that interrupt and repurpose the spaces in which we are working. Our goal is to develop methods that would allow us to connect with each other, to imagine how we may move forward literally from the ground, from where we are. ◊

1. The Videofreex pieces are now more accessible: they are in the collection of the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and have been catalogued (see http://www.vdb.org).